Junior Seminar Spring 2013 English 552

Junior Seminar, Spring 2013
English 552: Chicago and The Transformation of American Life, Literature, and Thought
Tuesday and Thursday 1:30pm
Professor David Miller

In 1914 Carl Sandburg famously called Chicago “Hog Butcher of the World …. Stormy, husky, brawling,/City of Big Shoulders.”  Rising like a Phoenix from the ashes of the Great Fire of 1871 the former ‘garden’ city had become a place of skyscrapers, huge, showy department stores like Marshall Field, streets clogged with traffic, and a wilderness of railroad tracks, grain elevators, stockyards and slaughterhouses.

From this nexus of irresistible industrial forces emerged a vortex of creative energies.  The genie of unfettered capitalism was out of the bottle, wreaking all kinds of havoc but also accomplishing wonders.

 No metropolis so epitomized 20th century America, pullulating with corruption, vice and crime, yet effervescent with democratic possibility.  No place so utterly exemplified the vertiginous trajectory of money. At Chicago’s Board of Trade, the futures market – portrayed by Frank Norris’s The Pit – turned financial risk into obsession, hurling the new anarchic credit economy into the heart of cultural discourse. All the while, the relentless commodification of nature – of grain, meat and lumber – established Chicago as a ‘gateway’ to the Great West, propelling an insatiable culture of consumerist desire, brilliantly examined in Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, reconfiguring identities, motives and values as it blurred the boundaries of class, gender and race.

 This maelstrom of social conflict and cultural improvisation provides the context for examining Chicago writing from the 1890s on. Chicago’s leading authors tended to be journalists, attentive to the domineering issues of the day, probing beneath the surface of events to grasp the underlying dynamics of change.  Many came from the Midwest, from small towns and rural environments, to shape a distinctive cultural dialectic of city and country as the U.S. jolted toward a new corporate order.  We will consider the impact of such signal events in American history as the Haymarket Riot, the Pullman Strike, the “White City” of the World’s Columbian Exposition, the founding of the University of Chicago, and the Great Migration of blacks to the city.  We will explore the interaction of fiction by the likes of Dreiser, Upton Sinclair, Sherwood Anderson and Richard Wright and poems by Sandburg and Gwendolyn Brooks with the work of such academics and reformers as John Dewey, Jane Addams, Thorstein Veblen, the architect Louis Sullivan and members of the Chicago School of Sociology.  We will examine the emergence of popular culture in the city, much of it coming out of Bronzeville, the black ghetto, and its pervasive effects on American life.

 The subject of Chicago offers a powerful basis for comprehending the relation of literature to history and for developing interdisciplinary as well as critical methodology in English.  It offers the opportunity to survey an extraordinary body of scholarship (no city, perhaps, has been so extensively written about), and to come to a reckoning with what it means to be an American living in the modern world.  Readings from a number of key historical studies of Chicago life will discuss the environmental as well as economic, social and political aspects of the metropolis. Some of this reading will be orally presented by students in class, adding up to an introduction to urban studies. Students will develop term paper topics from an ample list of texts and find their own way to make the most sense of it through close reading and historical contextualization.