Adam Morgan is the editor in chief of the Chicago Review of Books. His writing about books, arts and culture, and Chicago has appeared in the Guardian, Literary Hub, Electric Literature, Chicago magazine, and elsewhere.
“In many ways Chicago is like a snake that sheds its skin every thirty years or so,” says Dominic A. Pacyga in Chicago: A Biography (University of Chicago Press, 2009). First it was the railroad hub of America, connecting the vast resources of the West to the commerce of the East. Then it was the White City of the World’s Columbian Exposition, the famous world’s fair held in 1893 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the discovery of the Americas by Christopher Columbus. For a few decades after, Chicago was the largest publishing center in the United States, and then the country’s industrial powerhouse—what Carl Sandburg dubbed the “Hog Butcher for the World, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat.”
Today, Chicago is none of those things, and its role in American culture can’t be boiled down to a single phrase. Perhaps we are between skins, so to speak. Whatever Chicago is or becomes, one thing is clear: No other American city has done more in the past twenty years to establish itself as a productive, supportive place for poets, writers, and readers. New bookstores, new book-focused events, and new literary institutions have produced a new Chicago Renaissance, where hundreds of groundbreaking novelists, journalists, essayists, poets, and rappers support and inspire each other.
But just as Chicago has never been “one thing” to America, its place in the literary world has always run the gamut, and continues to do so today. In the past, Chicago was home to turn-of-the-century novelists like Theodore Dreiser and Henry Blake Fuller, Gwendolyn Brooks’s and Richard Wright’s Chicago Black Renaissance of the 1930s and 1940s, the social realists of the 1950s and 1960s like Saul Bellow, Nelson Algren, and Studs Terkel.
Today, Chicago is home to many first- and second-generation immigrant writers such as Aleksandar Hemon, Stuart Dybek, and Osama Alomar; mystery writers Sara Paretsky, Michael Harvey, and Lori Rader-Day; poets Kevin Coval, Li-Young Lee, Nate Marshall, Eve Ewing, Roger Reeves, Ruben Quesada, and Jamila Woods; novelists Kathleen Rooney, Kim Brooks, Rebecca Makkai; science fiction and fantasy writers Wesley Chu, Mary Robinette Kowal, Nnedi Okorafor, Michael Moreci, and Ada Palmer; essayists Jenny Boully, Megan Stielstra, and Samantha Irby; comic book innovators Tim Seeley, Gene Ha, and Jenny Frison; long-form journalists Natalie Y. Moore and Alex Kotlowitz; and hundreds of others. Local weekly Newcity does a great job highlighting Chicago’s most influential literary voices via their annual Lit 50 series.
High school kids are starting a poetry revolution on the West Side, while an Afro-futurist movement is growing on the South Side. Across the city, new independent bookstores are changing the traditional relationships between books, booksellers, and readers. Downtown, a new museum dedicated to American writers just opened in 2017. Who knows what the future holds?
Chicago is home to at least twenty-two independent bookstores, and they’re all as unique as the neighborhoods they anchor. On the South Side, the twin beacons of 57th Street Books (1301 East 57th Street) and the Seminary Co-op (5751 South Woodlawn Avenue) mark Hyde Park as one of the city’s cultural epicenters. They often get lumped together, but Chicago author Rebecca Makkai (Music for Wartime) contrasts them better than I can: “Seminary is great for spotting people with elbow patches. Some of them have Nobel Prizes, and if you follow them around and buy what they do, you’ll wind up smarter. 57th Street is by far the most splendidly labyrinthine store in the city, and I suspect it’s great for making out with a date, NOT that I’m advocating this—but if you do and then you get married, ‘Fifty-Seven’ would be a great name for a baby.”
On the West Side, Volumes Bookcafe (1474 North Milwaukee Avenue) reflects the artsy, eclectic vibe of Wicker Park. A block away from the High Fidelity record shop (which is now vacant), Volumes is huge, new, and always busy thanks to a full-service café, alcohol, and an aggressive events calendar. Every night of the week, you can find visiting New York Times bestselling authors like John Scalzi and Jeff VanderMeer, small press book launches, trivia nights, and book club meetups. Meanwhile, a few miles northwest along Milwaukee Avenue, City Lit Books (2523 North Kedzie Boulevard) is one of the reasons everyone’s moving to Logan Square these days. Daily Candy once compared it to the Little Shop Around the Corner in You’ve Got Mail, which makes sense given the store’s charm and strong community ties.
On the North Side, Andersonville’s Women & Children First (5233 North Clark Street) bookstore might sound familiar if you’ve ever watched Portlandia (though its “Women & Women First” bookstore was filmed in a feminist bookstore in Portland, Oregon). It’s a progressive, activist-minded shop that hosts events like the Conversation, a literary series featuring a panel of writers, poets, and activists who discuss political issues. Meanwhile, Unabridged Bookstore (3251 North Broadway) in Lake View has the best fiction selection in the city—plus, bookseller Tim is an absolute dreamboat.
If you embark on a literary pilgrimage of Chicago, it might help to begin in the nineteenth century and move forward through time. In 1889, Ernest Hemingway was born in a Victorian mansion just west of city limits in the suburb of Oak Park. Decades later, he would dismiss it as “a neighborhood of wide lawns and narrow minds.” When he was four years old, the World’s Columbian Exposition opened in Jackson Park, the same world’s fair made famous by Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City. Also in 1893, the Newberry Library (60 West Walton Street) debuted its permanent home downtown. Today, it’s one of the most important research libraries in the world, with a huge collection of rare books, maps, and manuscripts, as well as a charming bookstore.
Moving into the twentieth century, the Hall Branch (4801 South Michigan Avenue) of the Chicago Public Library was an integral part of the Chicago Black Renaissance from the 1930s through the 1950s. Located in the historic Grand Boulevard district on the South Side, it was a meeting place for Gwendolyn Brooks, Lorraine Hansberry, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, and others. The homes of Brooks and Hansberry are still standing on the South Side, too (along with Carl Sandburg’s in Ravenswood), but they aren’t open to the public.
Fortunately you can still visit Nelson Algren’s favorite pub in Bucktown, Lottie’s Pub (1925 Cortland), which he frequented throughout the 1950s while living in nearby Wicker Park. Most of his other haunts were demolished or renovated when the neighborhood went through wave after wave of gentrification, but as of this writing you can still get a taste of grit at the Nelson Algren Memorial Fountain, in a pigeon-filled public square above the Division Blue Line station.
Downtown, the subterranean cave known as Billy Goat Tavern (430 North Michigan Avenue) lies beneath Michigan Avenue, between the Chicago Tribune and the Chicago Sun-Times. You might recognize it from the classic “Cheeseborger” sketch on Saturday Night Live, or for its role in the now broken curse of the Chicago Cubs, but since the mid-1960s it’s been a watering hole for the city’s journalists, most notably Mike Royko in the 1970s and 1980s.
In River North, the Poetry Foundation Library (61 West Superior Street) is the most beautiful reading space in the city. It’s also the headquarters of Poetry magazine, which was founded in Chicago by the legendary firebrand Harriet Monroe in 1912. In the Loop, the Harold Washington Library (400 South State Street)—the crown jewel of the city’s public library system—is a massive, fantastical structure that appears imported from an alternate reality. Don’t miss the Winter Garden up on the ninth floor. And right on Michigan Avenue, a stone’s throw from Millennium Park, the American Writers Museum (180 North Michigan Avenue) opened its doors in 2017. Finally, the Barack Obama Presidential Library is set to open a few blocks south of the University of Chicago in 2021.
As I mentioned above, Poetry magazine was born in Chicago thanks to Harriet Monroe, an arts critic for the Chicago Tribune. It’s still here today, and still publishes hundreds of poets each year through its monthly magazine and its dynamic website. Every major university in the Chicago area also boasts a respected literary journal. The oldest is Chicago Review, published four times a year by the University of Chicago. Northwestern University’s TriQuarterly is always full of beautiful art and interviews, Roosevelt University’s Oyez Review keeps finding great fiction, and Columbia College rocks both the Columbia Poetry Journal and a nonfiction magazine, Punctuate.
But don’t forget about all the independents. Midwestern Gothic has the best name, while Chicago Quarterly Review, RHINO, and MAKE publish a lot of local writers and MFA students. The Chicago Review of Books publishes reviews, interviews, essays, and features, and—through its sister publication Arcturus—original fiction, nonfiction, and poetry.
For a few decades in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Chicago was the center of American book publishing. Today, the only remnant of that golden age is Printers Row—a historic district of handsome, century-old printing press buildings converted to lofts and student housing—and the Big Five publishers are all headquartered in New York City.
However, Chicago is still home to the largest university press in the country, the University of Chicago Press. They release dozens of academic and trade titles every year, including the indispensable Chicago Manual of Style, last year’s groundbreaking book on climate change The Great Derangement, and the 2016 Pulitzer Prize winner for poetry, Peter Balakian’s Ozone Journal. A little north of the city in Evanston, Northwestern University Press is smaller, but regularly publishes fantastic poetry and supports many local writers like Angela Jackson and Bill Savage.
The city’s independent presses could not be more different from one another. Haymarket Books is a radical press known for its progressive stable of authors (e.g. Rebecca Solnit, Noam Chomsky, Arundhati Roy, Howard Zinn) and contemporary poetry from the Breakbeat Poets, including Nate Marshall, Jamila Woods, Quraysh Ali Lansana, Eve Ewing, and Kevin Coval. Featherproof Books has some of the most beautiful cover art I’ve ever seen, and publishes experimental fiction from writers like Blake Butler, Amelia Gray, and Chicago author Christian TeBordo. Kathleen Rooney’s Rose Metal Press exclusively publishes “hybrid genres” like prose poetry and flash fiction; Curbside Splendor never publishes the same thing twice; Agate Publishing made a name for itself with African American literature but has since expanded to include business, cooking, and other genres; and Chicago Review Press specializes in nonfiction, particularly history and biography.
Printers Row Lit Fest is the largest outdoor literary festival in the Midwest, drawing more than 125,000 people to Chicago’s historic printing district over the course of a summer weekend. The other huge event is the Chicago Comics & Entertainment Expo (C2E2), which features science fiction, fantasy, horror, and mystery books in addition to comics every spring. If you like comics, don’t miss the city’s smaller expo for independent comics, CAKE. And if you like poetry slams, Young Chicago Authors’ Louder Than a Bomb is the largest youth poetry festival in the world.
Throughout the year, the Chicago Humanities Festival hosts literary readings and panels all over the city, while the relatively new Evanston Literary Festival brings writers from Chicago and beyond together every spring. In the fall, the Chicago Book Expo serves a similar purpose, but focuses more on publishers and literary organizations. Plus, if you live in Chicago long enough, you’re bound to get a visit from the AWP Conference (three times in the past twelve years), the ALA Conference (five times since 2000), and BookExpo America (BEA).
I haven’t even mentioned Chicago’s live lit scene, which is the country’s largest and most active outside of New York City (the Chicago Tribune recently counted more than forty live storytelling series across the city). On the North Side, check out Tuesday Funk in Andersonville and Story Lab Chicago in North Center. On the West Side, don’t miss Young Chicago Authors’ WordPlay in Wicker Park, the Stoop in Logan Square, or Miss Spoken in Bucktown. On the South Side, try the Moth in Hyde Park.
Writing Classes and Programs
Chicago is home to no less than eight graduate writing programs. For the MFA/MA crowd, there’s Northwestern, Columbia College, Roosevelt, the School of the Art Institute, the University of Illinois, Chicago, and Chicago State. For something a little different, try DePaul’s MA in Writing and Publishing or the University of Chicago’s Masters of Arts Program in the Humanities (MAPH) Writing Option.
However, you don’t have to pay for a degree to learn how to write in Chicago. Teens can hone their poetry, journalism, and rap skills at Young Chicago Authors, which continues the tradition of Gwendolyn Brooks by encouraging young people to document their everyday experiences through the written and spoken word. Budding reporters can learn the craft in City Bureau’s civic journalism lab. Aspiring fiction, nonfiction, and poetry writers can take a class with a bestselling author at StoryStudio Chicago. And if you want to break into TV, film, sketch comedy, late night, or humor writing, the Second City Training Center has classes in all of the above.
I hope Chicago never crystallizes, never sacrifices its fluidity for stability. Whatever the future holds, I know one thing for sure: You can count on Chicago’s writers to keep pushing, daring, and shedding that old, outgrown skin. Does that sound like the kind of writer you want to be? A gadfly? A revolutionary? A spear? Join us. Chicago’s got plenty of room.