Midwest Interludes: Three Vignettes of the Chicago Renaissance




THE THREE EXCERPTS below appear in my book, Chicago Renaissance: Literature and Art in the Midwest Metropolis (2017), which traces a history of the modernist avant-garde in Chicago from the 1893 World’s Fair to the Chicago Black Renaissance of the mid-20th century. Much of my research for Chicago Renaissance took place in literary and historical archives, where I felt a kind of fever triggered by the inhalation of dust. From personal diaries, correspondence, telegrams, photographs, guest books, shipping receipts, and boxes of ephemera — some of it riveting, most of it dull — a picture emerged of how modernism was made in Chicago and where the “big ideas” came from. Between chapters of the book are interludes — like the three excerpts presented here. They are vignettes of highly situated historical moments: a crux, a personal revelation, an episode not fully treated elsewhere. And yet, the archive is fascinating for what you realize has been left out. These interludes, I hope, leave a hint of the unfinished.

The subject of the first interlude is Sherwood Anderson, whose spectacular breakdown catalyzed his dreams of becoming a painter and writer. Like many Midwesterners, he felt a compulsion to come to Chicago. Living in a north side boarding house on Cass Street with fellow artists and writers — just up the street from the offices of Poetry magazine — Anderson wrote the stories of his exquisite collection Winesburg, Ohio (1919).

Other interludes illuminate the lives of women: one revelation of Chicago Renaissance is the significance of women who built the literary and artistic infrastructure of Chicago — like Harriet Monroe, who founded Poetry in 1912; Margaret Anderson, who launched the Little Review in 1914; and the women of the Arts Club of Chicago, who brought modern art from Europe to the United States. I have wished for biographies of these and other women, including librarian Vivian G. Harsh, who wrote very little herself but amassed a tremendous collection of material by and about African Americans while she oversaw an important forum for writers and intellectuals at the George Cleveland Hall Branch library in Bronzeville.

In the second interlude below, I consider the smart, hardworking literary editor Fanny Butcher, who worked at the Chicago Tribune for almost 50 years, and who exerted a powerful influence over what books were bought and read in Chicago and the larger Midwest. For seven years she also ran a popular bookstore. Her vast correspondence with writers — housed at the Newberry library — reveals her to have been an intimate of many important authors, including Sinclair Lewis, Willa Cather, Edna Ferber, H. L. Mencken, and Carl Sandburg. Her relationship with Ernest Hemingway is a bit of a puzzle, since she disliked his first novel, The Sun Also Rises (1926) — the dissolute characters made her “almost plain angry” — but then somehow developed a bond with him after their first encounter in Paris. He wrote to her in 1952, “I always think of you as the most loyal friend that I have.”

One figure who still eludes me is the glamorous cultural patron and amateur filmmaker Elizabeth “Bobsy” Goodspeed, the subject of the last interlude. Her playful silent films — on three reels at the Beinecke library — transform her intimate friendships with famous figures into gestural works of modernist art. Handsome, clever, and rich, Bobsy Goodspeed delighted in her cozy friendship with Gertrude Stein, who stayed at the Goodspeed penthouse on several occasions. Was it ever more than friendship? Doubtful. But only Bobsy, Gertrude, and the parrot know for sure.

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Sherwood Anderson, ca. 1920. Sherwood Anderson Papers, Courtesy Newberry Library.

Ohio and Chicago, 1912

It was late November, and the country prepared for Thanksgiving. Most businesses were shuttered. Sherwood Anderson, feeling dulled, sat at his desk at the Anderson Manufacturing Company in Elyria, Ohio. Age 36, he was the company’s president.

He rubbed his temples and thought about the past. As a boy, Anderson and his brothers helped his father brush coats of paint on cracked Ohio barns and stencil pictures for advertisements and road signs. His childhood nickname had been “Jobby.” Even now, Anderson felt the weight of always trying to make money. His wife came from a well-to-do family — she was better educated, and she had traveled to Europe — and they had three young children he must support. He rarely joked any more. The language of the company’s catalog, which he had written, did not pun on Shakespeare’s magical island. The Anderson Manufacturing Company was the manufacturer of mail-order roof paint, a “roof-fix cure for roof troubles.”

He pulled a pen from his breast pocket and wrote a short note to his wife. “There is a bridge over a river with cross-ties before it. When I come to that I’ll be all right. I’ll write all day in the sun and the wind will blow through my hair.” He got up and walked out to see his secretary. Through a window behind her, small factory machines glistened with rain in the fields along the Black River. He mumbled something, which she would remember much later as very strange. “My feet are cold and wet,” he said. “I have been walking too long on the bed of a river.” Then, without stopping to put on his overcoat, he walked out.

As if in a fugue, Anderson walked for four days. He tramped through riverbeds and woods, splattering his business suit with mud. He heard a voice in his head: “You must leave all that life and everything that has been a part of that life behind you.” He filled his pockets with corncobs from the fields and gnawed on them like an animal. He tried to build a campfire, but his head ached. He rested on a bridge and then followed the train tracks. He made it all the way to Cleveland. In a pharmacy, he finally sat down, asked where he was, and handed the druggist his address book for help.

They took him to a hospital, where he dictated notes about wanting to gather apples and corn. His son Robert needed the corn. As if he were some kind of modern-day Hamlet, he repeated a phrase about wanting to go to Elsinore, wanting to go to Elsinore. Later, when they took him back to Elyria, he tried in vain to explain himself — to the men at the Elks’ Lodge, to his panicky wife. He told them that he could no longer sustain the sham. He talked about middle-class American respectability, about needing to live for his art.

After a couple of hopeless months at his desk, telling himself that maybe his family could follow, Anderson took the train by himself to Chicago, where he had worked before getting married. He packed four manuscripts of novels that he had written during moments at his office and late through the night. His older brother Karl, already in Chicago, took Windy McPherson’s Son down to the Fifty-Seventh Street studios of writers Margery Currey and Floyd Dell. They called themselves bohemians and lived separately in the dilapidated storefronts on the old 1893 fairgrounds.

Currey hosted the parties: Carl Sandburg, Ben Hecht, Susan Glaspell, Eunice Tietjens, Maurice Browne, and Vachel Lindsay. She introduced Anderson — older, aloof — to the sculptress and “new woman” Tennessee Mitchell, who had ended her affair just over a year ago with lawyer and poet Edgar Lee Masters. Named after a 19th-century suffragist, Tennessee made money by tuning pianos and teaching dance. She electrified Anderson. Theodore Dreiser sometimes came down to the studios when he was in Chicago, having discovered “varietism,” the pleasure of more than one woman. And enthralled with Anderson’s novel, Dell helped to get it published by John Lane in England.

Dell was himself a transplant from Davenport, Iowa, always in search of the next new thing. He would move on to New York and praise Anderson’s writing in the radical socialist journal the Masses: “The thing which captures me and will not let me go,” Dell wrote, “is the profound sincerity, the note of serious, baffled, tragic questioning which I hear above its laughter and tears. It is, all through, an asking of the question which American literature has hardly as yet begun to ask: ‘What for?’”

Anderson could only ask the big questions: What does this life mean? What is success? Can people ever truly understand one another? He moved into a boardinghouse on Cass Street, just north of the Poetry office. The women dressed in trousers and everyone was an artist. “Little children of the arts,” he called them, who gave him his greatest happiness. They inspired the people of Winesburg, Ohio, the collection of stories set in a fictional small town. Anderson also painted: he saw abstract forms in his mind and felt sensations that only color could express. Later, he wrote to Alfred Stieglitz and to Georgia O’Keeffe, saying that he tried to paint like her. “But the materials of the painter’s craft seemed to me to lie far outside my way of life,” he would finally admit.

Anderson was breaking things down and trying to build them back up — crafting his art, crafting himself. He cultivated a slow, slightly southern drawl, like a folk poet searching in the heart of the city. He grew his hair long and began wearing scarves. Margaret Anderson and Harriet Monroe both took to him. Monroe would soon publish Anderson’s “Mid-American Songs,” a series of poems that opens with the rebirth of a wanderer: “I am of the West, out of the land, out of the velvety creeping and straining. I have re-solved. I have been born like a wind. I come sweating and steaming out of the cornrows.” From cornfields to Chicago — the triumph of industrial America — he listened to the roar of machines and felt unbound.

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Souvenir pocket mirror with photograph of Fanny Butcher on board ship for second trip to France, 1931. Fanny Butcher Papers, Courtesy Newberry Library.

Paris, May–June 1929

Spring in Paris on the crest of a wave, just before the crash. Fanny Butcher knew enough French to eat and sleep alone. Her bookshop had sold, and she finally had money. She had sailed with Alice Roullier, the daughter of a Frenchman who ran one of the few galleries in Chicago. On stepping off the gangplank, Alice had become as inherently Parisian as the old pink lights in the Tuileries Garden. But Fanny was not the slightest bit homesick, imagining the figures of Flaubert and Zola haunting the old cobbled streets, wandering in the bosky Bois de Boulogne, tilting her head up to see the statue of Napoleon atop the column in the place Vendôme. She was in love. She wore her best blue suit, with pearls, a peacock feather pinned to the netting on her hat. She drank the dark, bitter coffee. When she caught her reflection in the window of an antique shop on the rue des Saints-Pères, she thought, I am still a young newspaper girl from Chicago.

She wrote dispatches for her thousands of Tribune readers back in the Midwest, imagining that they were with her: the shopgirls, clerks, businessmen, and mothers. She noted the pink and white chestnuts, the gray stone set against the blue sky, the inspiring vaults of Notre Dame. “All of the modern lift and rise in architecture is inherent in those columns. They mount higher and higher and give you that same sense of soaring power that skyscrapers do.”

Everything circled back to Chicago. She and Alice visited artists and sculptors with an eye to exhibits at the Arts Club. Alice liked Fernand Léger, a darling of the Little Review, who had seen action on the front and nearly died from mustard gas at Verdun. He imagined industrial man-birds and modern machines, godless geometries of surface and color. Alice and Fanny told him that he should really see the Merchandise Mart, a colossal rhomboid on the banks of the Chicago River, the largest building in the world.

Alice provided introductions to French writers, whose work Americans knew in translation: André Maurois, Colette, Georges Duhamel. Fanny wrote down addresses in a tiny three-inch diary that fit inside her pocketbook. She found her old friend Ferb in a deluxe suite atop the George V Hotel. They dined on the rooftop balcony as the sun sank beyond the mansard roofs. Nobody could make Fanny laugh harder than Ferb, who became more effusive as the lights of the city sparkled below. The French had given a new name to their production of Show Boat, adapted from Ferb’s novel: Mississippi. Ferb mocked the local pronunciation: “Mee-eese-see-pee.”

Ferb was surprised to hear that Fanny had given up her little Chicago bookshop, tucked perfectly into a corner of the Pullman Building across from the Art Institute. She had been so good at selling books! Remember the dapper customer who came in looking for Keats? He had walked out holding T. S. Eliot, Claude McKay, and Carl Sandburg — wrapped in distinctive lemon yellow paper and tied with orange tape. Ferb had supplied a testimonial, which for many years Fanny used in her advertising: “Fanny Butcher knows what you’re talking about, even if you don’t.” But the workload was immense, and the executives at Doubleday had asked her if she would sell.

It had been the only way to get her across the Atlantic. When she found Sylvia Beach working behind the stacks of books and signed portraits at Shakespeare and Company, Fanny felt no nostalgia for her own shop. Miss Beach had heard of it, and they talked for more than an hour. She had one of the most intelligent faces that Fanny had ever seen. She said nothing when Fanny asked about seeing James Joyce, but two days later, Fanny received a note: “Would you like to interview Mr. Joyce, at three o’clock today?” He lived at a respectable address, even dull, just off the rue de Grenelle.

Several minutes early, Fanny stood outside the heavy door to his apartment, and finally knocked. Joyce pulled the door open, slowly, and the room inside seemed a vast shadow, the drapes closed across the windows. She could not discern the stacked paintings hanging on the walls. Nearly blind, he moved with angular jolts, as if nervous. First he made her promise that she would not write anything about him for an American newspaper or magazine. When she asked him if he might ever come to America, where his books were praised, where he had eager admirers, where Ulysses had first been published, he replied with a perfunctory “no.”

It was like depositing your last dime in a payphone and getting a dial tone. He said yes or he said no. Every time she clutched her handbag to signal departure, he would utter a whole sentence. Finally, after an hour and a half, he accompanied her back to the door with his first smile: “I have really enjoyed this afternoon greatly. Do be sure, please, the next time you are in Paris to let me know and let me see you.” Mystified by his formality, she suspected it must be a protective shroud, his suffering underneath it.

Hemingway would surely be easier. She had kept up with his whereabouts from Sherwood Anderson, who had sent him off to Paris five years ago with letters of introduction to Miss Beach and Gertrude Stein. Fanny’s readers would want to know about their boy from Oak Park. She would try to see him, despite how she had panned The Sun Also Rises in the Tribune. His self-seeking characters still irritated her.

Butcher met him in a cafe perched on the Left Bank. The linden trees glittered above the small tables set along the street, bustling with young men and women. A decade younger, Hemingway was not even 30, still dimpled and handsome. But he exuded the coolness of a killer. He ordered a bottle of Sancerre, très froid. She did not really like to drink, but she took small sips. He did most of the talking.

In high school, he chuckled, he had used the penname Ring Lardner. “I worked like hell on those yarns.” He mentioned all of the other writers whom he knew at the Tribune. He spilled names. He told her that Dreiser had turned up in Paris two years ago on his way to Russia, in love with Marxism but inspired by American capital. The French translator of An American Tragedy, he cracked, certainly improved Dreiser’s prose. Hemingway told her that even Fitzgerald thought his own masterpiece sounded more wonderful: Gatsby le Magnifique. “Best thing he’ll ever write,” Hemingway whispered as in confidence. “Zelda wrecked him.” He ordered another bottle, and a dozen oysters shining on a bed of shaved ice. He showed her how to eat them with a tiny two-pronged fork. A young Englishwoman said sitting next to them, “I say, we ought to toast something.”

She supposed he was nice. He looked a little drunk, a slight sheen to his brow. She told him that she looked forward to his next novel, that he was becoming a writer of power and individuality. She hoped that he would take good care of himself. Her readers would see the golden glow within him, corn and wheat fields, the heartland. From across the street, the pealing bells of the old Église Saint-Germain-des-Prés suspended talk for a moment. She would like to go inside the cold, medieval dark. She felt, in a flash, like a very wise matron.

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Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, November 1934. Fanny Butcher Papers, Courtesy Newberry Library.

Chicago, November 7, 1934

The parrot squawked; the phone rang. Bobsy Goodspeed tossed the sheets and picked up the receiver. Barney had already left for a board meeting. She was perched seventeen stories high in a modern penthouse apartment of brick and Indiana limestone, at the edge of Lincoln Park. As the sun rose above the lake, light flooded in from the plush carpet to the vaulted ceiling. The busiest person in town, according to the Tribune, Bobsy kept two telephones in her bedroom, which rang all morning from 8:30 to 11:00.

It was Carl Van Vechten calling from New York. They were still very nervous about the flight to Chicago. He loved to fly — really, he was not frightened — but Miss Stein and Miss Toklas had never been on an airplane and he was anxious for them. Bobsy assured him it was worth it, a few hours in the air and they would arrive for the premiere!

Bobsy’s throaty voice was like a balm. She reminded him that Virgil Thomson was conducting the opera himself, and she appealed to Carl’s love of spectacle. The Auditorium Theatre had been redesigned by Rue Carpenter: Pompeian red upholstery and the entire ceiling lacquered in gold. The performers — gospel singers from Harlem — would be framed by a sparkling stage of pink cellophane. With proceeds going to the Vocational Society for Shut-Ins, a philanthropic favorite, the evening would bring out Chicago’s very best gowns. Afterward, there would be a supper party at her home, and everyone must spend the night. Bobsy promised that she and Fanny would be waiting at the airport, likely with an entourage of reporters. Fanny had let the word out.

After much coaxing, Bobsy hung up the phone. Of course, Carl had seen Four Saints in Three Acts in Hartford and New York already — indeed, he had written the program notes. The opera was “like a dream in which you lie back indolently and let things happen to you.” Thomson’s music gave Stein’s words a rolling grandeur, an ecclesiastical power. You didn’t need to know what it meant. Stein had said as much herself, and now she was telling crowds of Americans how to read her work. “If you enjoy a thing you understand it,” Stein claimed. After 30 years in France, she discovered on arriving in America that she had become a celebrity. She was startled to see her name repeated in electric light bulbs on a New York City marquee: Gertrude Stein has arrived in New York Gertrude Stein has arrived in New York Gertrude Stein has arrived in New York. It was precisely as she would have put it.

If Stein made it to Chicago, the Arts Club — where Bobsy was president — must have her first. Intimacy and exclusivity were the club’s calling cards, and its members adored all things from France. This past summer, Bobsy had filmed the antics of her friends and artists in Paris, mostly atop the balcony of her hotel. Henri Matisse had looked a little lost, taking his hat on and off in the sun. The composer Nicolas Nabokov had talked straight at the camera. Léonide Massine had danced with campy elegance in a full suit. Gertrude and Alice had been in the countryside, and Bobsy had traveled out to Bilignin to see them. With the camera rolling, the women shook the little paw of the poodle named Basket. Then Gertrude performed in the garden, taking a hoe to the turnips, laughing.

At her dinner parties in Chicago, Bobsy showed these films. Lately, she had taken to wearing dramatic silk capes, arranging the seating and lighting like an artist herself. She stood tall and dark-haired, a thick brow defining the square face that her friends described as handsome.

At two o’clock, after a shampoo and wave, Bobsy set off with her chauffeur to meet Fanny and drive out to the Municipal Airport: one flat, white building in a field of runways, the most active airport in the world. Fanny had not yet finished her busy day at the Tribune. She would have to return to the office after they met the plane, finish three pieces, then dress and hurry to the opening of the opera. She was also still negotiating Stein’s schedule with the rigid administrators at the University of Chicago. But to sit next to Bobsy in her swift limousine — her head resting back on the head cushion — made Fanny feel that all things were possible.

The flight was delayed. Reporters and photographers wandered in and out of the terminal, checking their equipment and scanning the sky. After an hour, nearly everyone waited in the windy chill, in heavy coats and fur hats. Dark blue clouds hung heavy; the air felt thick and damp. Finally, they heard a faraway hum and could see a dark line getting larger. The plane looked a little wobbly, the wings tipping back and forth. It seemed as if the plane might fly over the terminal and keep heading west. The air traffic controller vigorously waved a red flag at the end of the runway. The plane suddenly descended with a whirring roar of propellers. Cameras flashed. The plane taxied and stopped with a screech.

Several long minutes passed before the door cranked open and the steps were lowered. Gertrude bowed through the low door and stepped out, beaming. She was dressed like a European peasant, in a long woolen skirt and heavy shoes. Alice stood behind her, a wool cap pulled low over her brow. They were clutching little voodoo dolls and held them in the air. Later, Stein explained that Carl had given them the amulets to calm their fears. “Miss Stein, were you scared?” a reporter asked. She smiled at him. “No. The air seems so solid,” she replied. Stein described how the view from the airplane gave her great pleasure: straight lines and quarter sections, regular divisions that make everything clearer, from one state to another. “I have always been with cubism,” she said. “Going over America makes anyone know why the post-cubist painting was what it was.”

The crowd made space for the women to walk to Bobsy’s waiting chauffeur, who opened the door of the car with a composed bow. Behind them staggered a pale and shaken Carl, trailing after the women. Bobsy stepped back, linked her arm into his, and pulled him in.

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Liesl Olson is the author of Modernism and the Ordinary (Oxford University Press, 2009) and the literary history of Chicago, Chicago Renaissance: The Midwest and Modernism (Yale University Press, 2017).


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