At the turn of the twentieth century, Chicago, Illinois, was one of the fastest growing cities in the United States; the city’s determination to succeed was characterized by what many referred to simply as “Chicago Hustle.” Known variously as “The Gem of the Prairies,” “The Windy City,” and “Porkopolis,” Chicago was the financial, political, social, and cultural center of America’s “hinterlands.” The city’s booming economy drew international immigrants, but its increasingly visible interest in the arts, evidenced by new theaters, opera houses, schools, artists’ studios, and gallery spaces, attracted ambitious and artistic men and women from across the American Midwest. Though it remained marginal or even invisible to many on the East Coast of the United States, during the early decades of the twentieth century Chicago was home to a literary and artistic revolution that has come to be known as the Chicago Renaissance. In a brief tribute to the city, Topeka, Kansas, native Jane Heap acknowledged the vast possibilities Chicago offered its most talented citizens, as well as the inevitable challenge of its distance from the Atlantic Coast, and the acknowledged artistic centers of the United States:
Chicago: the gateway to the arts for all young things of the west, the middle-west, and the middle-east who discover that they are spiritual brothers of Picasso, Joyce, Stravinsky, Brancusi, etc. City of lake and wind, of Michigan Avenue, of violent emotions, especially disappointment.
A rejection of the nineteenth century’s conservative social mores and artistic values defined the literature and art of the Chicago Renaissance. Sherwood Anderson, Floyd Dell, Edgar Lee Masters, and Vachel Lindsay worked against Victorian ideas about literature by employing the plain speech of average Americans in their writing. Architects working in the city, including Frank Lloyd Wright, Louis Sullivan, and others of the Chicago School, employed new forms and methods, attempting to define a uniquely American design. Artists involved in the city’s lively and busy art scene gathered to support new work in groups including the Chicago Society of Arts and Crafts at Hull House and the Arts Club of Chicago, a group that promoted Postimpressionist art.
Recognizing the importance of the city’s artistic renewal, literary women such as Harriet Monroe and Margaret Anderson endeavored to create magazines that might promote the finest of the new work being produced in Chicago and bring it into conversation with that of national and international writers and artists. Poet Harriet Monroe, assisted by gifted women including Alice Corbin Henderson and Eunice Tietjens—both poets and editors in their own right—edited Poetry, A Magazine of Verse, the first American magazine devoted exclusively to poetry. Writer and editor Margaret Anderson founded the Little Review with the intention of publishing the best work available, regardless of literary taste or fashion. After just a few issues, Anderson was joined by artist Jane Heap, who shared Anderson’s commitment to supporting new, provocative art and literature and to challenging literary audiences to expand their vision of the arts. Both magazines published the work of the finest writers of the period, including Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, T.S. Eliot, Marianne Moore, and H.D. The Little Review also included artwork by Constantin Brancusi, Man Ray, Max Ernst, Francis Picabia, and Fernand Léger. The success of Poetry and the Little Review changed the face of literary publishing in the United States.
Poet Ruth Stephan followed in the footsteps of these influential editors, founding, with her husband John Stephan, The Tiger’s Eye, a journal dedicated to publishing the work of thought-provoking new writers and artists, and to generating and encouraging aesthetic discussion among artists, critics, and audiences. Curator Katharine Kuh promoted conversation about modern art among museum goers and art students by showing the work of modern artists in her galleries and by providing strategies for viewing and interpreting non-representational art in her books about modern art and artists. Art critic Blanche Matthias explored the work of modern artists, including that of Georgia O’Keeffe, in Chicago regional and national magazines.
Though the early twentieth-century little theater movement arguably began in Provincetown, Massachusetts, and Greenwich Village, New York, Chicago dramatists participated in every area of the movement’s transformation of American drama. Playwright and novelist Susan Glaspell wrote novels in Chicago before moving to the East Coast where she was a founding member of the Provincetown Players. She returned to Chicago late in her career, as the director of the Midwest Play Bureau of the Federal Theater Project during the late 1930s. Playwright, director, and actress Mary Aldis founded the Lake Forest Players and led the company through several seasons of successful productions in their small theater outside of Chicago as well as limited engagements in New York and other cities.
A “second generation” renaissance took place in Chicago during the 1930s and 1940s, especially among the city’s African-American population. Like Harlem in the 1920s, Chicago in the 1930s was the site of a vital African-American artistic community. Based in the South Side neighborhood known as “Bronzeville,” a thriving group of writers, entertainers, and artists created a new renaissance. Fiction writer and playwright Marita Bonner, poets Margaret Walker and Gwendolyn Brooks, and novelist Richard Wright lived and worked in the city, exploring the lives and voices of Chicago’s African-American community. Composer and pianist Margaret Bonds and dancer and anthropologist Katherine Dunham rejuvenated traditional art forms in music and dance.