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Chicago: reading the midwestern metropolis of American literature

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From the socially tough novels of naturalism, to intellectually demanding modernism, this city provides a thrilling challenge to the reader. What would you add? Let us know in the comment section and we'll include it in next week's reader-picked list

In 1920 the literary critic and satirist HL Mencken wrote in the Nation that Chicago is the "Literary Capital of the United States". Given the city's relative provinciality, marooned way out in the Midwest, it is perhaps a surprising claim. And yet this is a city that can lay claim to being the birthplace of Ernest Hemingway and Philip K Dick; the alma mater of Philip Roth and Kurt Vonnegut, who both studied at its university after the second world war; and during the 1920s, the unexpected cultural centre of European modernism. So how to narrow down a reading list from an ever expanding range of possibilities?

Chicago didn't really hit the big time until the late 19th century, when it became the bustling metropolis of an increasingly industrialised Midwest, and its economy based on pork, beef, and bicycles quickly aligned itself with a gritty literary consciousness; dubbed "Midland Realism". Authors such as Henry Blake Fuller practised a form of grubby urbanism whose inspiration was clearly the fin de siècle naturalism of Émile Zola. But where Zola's interest lies in the city as consumerist illusion and commercial spectacle, Midland Realism is comprehensively industrial, taking as its core narrative the futility of working class (typically immigrant) ambition eternally thwarted by a corrupt, white capitalist system.

"I am an American, Chicago bornChicago, that somber cityand go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent. But a man's character is his fate, says Heraclitus, and in the end there isn't any way to disguise the nature of the knocks by acoustical work on the door or gloving the knuckles."

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