Crooked Finger (crookedfingers) wrote,
Crooked Finger

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the Chicago School

In the book "America Day By Day" a diary by Simone de Beauvoir that tells of her trip across a America in 1947 there is an entry where she describes meeting the writer Nelson Algren.

"February 22

. . . This Chicago is a city of wealth and festivities. But the American shakes his head. "It's all a facade!" he says. In fact, as we drive toward the Polish section, where I meet N.A. (Nelson Algren), the scenery changes: warehouses, factories, vacant lots, hovels. Trains circulate through the avenues and bars the way; the streets are much dirtier than those of New York; everywhere there is chaos and poverty. The beautiful dark automobile seems highly out of place on Wabansia Avenue, a long, indistinct area bordered by wooden shacks.

When we find ourselves in the Polish section, where N.A. lives, we stay there. It's too cold for a long walk, and moreover, this section is a city in itself. There are more Irish in Chicago than in Dublin, and more Poles than there ever were in Warsaw. We spend the afternoon walking in these streets and entering bars, where we drink vodka. Some of these places are also groceries that smell of dried fish; others are restaurants where they sell pink and yellow cakes coated with sour cream. The waitress doesn't even speak English. The place we choose has the bare, impersonal, and neutral quality of truly American places. For a long time, evidently, it was the meeting place of a famous gang. . .

I enjoy myself in these bars, in these little streets where the biting wind blows; I don't feel like such a tourist. It seems to me that I'm living a real Chicago afternoon in the company of an authentic native. N. A. spent his childhood and most of his adult life here. It's a classic American writer's life, similar to many I've read about. The surprise is to discover in an individual case that these stereotypical stories are true. He spent his early years roaming around Chicago: Here the children, like their elders, formed gangs and readily banded together to rob some grocery store. The raid was so quick that the shopkeepers could barely defend themselves. By the time they called the police, the looters were already far away and difficult to identify with any certainty. Baseball games played in the vacant lots also occupied an important part of their leisure time. N.A. was an adolescent during the Great Depression. He looked for work throughout America, stowing away in freight trucks, eating and sleeping at the expense of the Salvation Army. In New Orleans he was a peddler; the job paid little, and for weeks he lived exclusively on bananas. To facilitate sales, he promised all the women who bought five dollars' worth of merchandise a permanent wave at a certain hairdresser's salon-the clients soon inundated the hairdresser's shop. forcefully claiming their due. When the ruse was discovered, N.A. left for Mexico and eventually reentered the United States, doing odd jobs: hot dog and hamburger vendor, masseur, pinboy in a bowling alley. He says that this job, which consists of endlessly setting up the pins that players constantly knock down, is on of the most tiring. Working steadily at a gas station with a friend, he began to write, at first for pleasure, then with the hope of earning some money. His first novel met with some success, and he obtained contracts with a publisher, which allowed him to undertake new books. He became friends with Richard Wright and James T. Farrell, and the people often refer to them collectively as "the Chicago School," although there are no great literary affinities between them. During the war, he was in Germany and Marseilles; he stopped in New York on his way there and back, but it's not a city he knows. He never leaves Chicago. He almost never visits any other writer. His friends are the people of the Bowery or his neighbors in the Polish section. He seems to me one of the most striking examples of that great intellectual solitude in which American writers live. . ." pp.101-103 Simone De Beauvoir "America Day By Day" [Translated by Carol Cosman]

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