The case can be made that, in the fifteen short years between World War II and 1960, Chicago sowed the rest of the American Century; even constituted the center of culture (both highbrow and “slightbrow”) in the United States. Thomas Dyja’s THE THIRD COAST makes that case and entertains us in the bargain.
(Full disclosure: the author and I worked at the same company a while back, and we remain personal friends. But I wouldn’t lie either to him or for him. Everything below is exactly how I would put it if this were just Joe Schmo from Kokomo.)
That Mr. Dyja is an accomplished literary craftsman comes as no surprise to anyone who’s read his lovely historical novel PLAY FOR A KINGDOM or the more spooky than lovely, only partly historical MEET JOHN TROW. (He’s also written two other books, but I haven’t yet had the pleasure. As I said, no lying.) But this one’s different. This is a sprawling, muscular concept, requiring a casually polymathic range which would deter almost anybody else. It’s a love letter to a great city (let’s not say “once-great,” though we’re frequently tempted) by a hometown boy. And it’s packed with enough personality, ambition, beauty, invention, triumph and pain that you don’t want to say goodbye. This is, quite literally, the book Mr. Dyja was born to write.
THE THIRD COAST examines Chicago’s lasting contributions, mostly collapsed into an explosive decade and a half, to fine art, music (blues, jazz and gospel), dance, photography, publishing, theatre, television, comedy and much more. Mr. Dyja explicates each aspect of a remarkably broad expanse of culture with the confidence and keen regard of an aficionado. But the thread that really binds this volume is architecture, beginning with the arrival in 1938 of what turns out to be its star: Mies van der Rohe, the brilliant German whose Illinois Institute of Technology was the incubator for a school of designers who not only built Chicago’s Big Shoulders but also shouted their ideas to the rest of postwar America.
They cast shadows as well. New edifices to the burgeoning power of the corporation inexorably shoved aside Southern refugees of the Great Migration, already crammed together in woefully underbuilt neighborhoods as the war wound down, and helped to create one of the most racially polarized cities in America. Muddy Waters, up from Mississippi, found fame and a degree of fortune in Chicago, but, as if in trade, the town sent down Emmett “Bo” Till, whose grisly murder and open-casket funeral became a flashpoint of the nascent civil rights movement and inspired a weary Rosa Parks to remain seated on a bus just over two months later.
Mr. Dyja’s voice varies with his topics: here formal (especially when calling forth the snootiness of the Midwestern gentry), there winsome, even playful (on Election Night 1946, “Every Democrat in America was getting his ass handed to him tonight”). His obvious passion for Chicago-style jazz and blues allows some hipster color to wander in, and we marvel that the same guy also wrote the glistening, perceptive sections on design. The level of detail is exceptional, and there are nuggets of delight and recognition all over this book: for example, the author reveals that the origin of Chicago’s famous nickname, “the Windy City,” has nothing to do with meteorology.
Postwar Chicago bustled so with energy that new construction would top a billion dollars by 1956, for the biggest burst of activity since the city struggled back after the fire that consumed it in 1871. And not just any construction: the city was “blessed with the greatest concentration of architectural talent in American history,” as Mr. Dyja writes. Plus, it was under the rule of the imperial Mayor Richard J. Daley, to whom bigger was always, always better.
But this was also a town of metaphorical building, of creative experimentation: “there’s something incomplete about this city and its people that fascinates me,” writes a newcomer. It’s no coincidence that the way-out free-form jazz of “Sun Ra” and the verbal tightrope act of improvisational theater both flourished here: as Mr. Dyja points out, jazz and improv are close cousins. Just as the “Chicago School” of theater yielded the Second City troupe – which continues to spew out comic talent to the rest of the country – so the close, serene “Chicago School” of television, epitomized by Dave Garroway and the puppets of “Kukla, Fran, and Ollie,” stated a new intimacy for the medium that eventually, inevitably, headed East to New York. “Chicago liked watching things being built,” said a leading improv actor. “New York audiences like to watch things that are already completed and polished.”
It’s all here, in satisfying, sometimes quirky detail. Nelson Algren and Richard Wright wrote their rage, and Mahalia Jackson sang in praise, with Studs Terkel as her chief writer. Mike Nichols and Elaine May forged a new path for sophisticated humor and spawned a generation of comics. Ray Kroc created an empire out of thin, consistently-prepared patties of beef. (Mr. Dyja notes that Kroc “resolved to do ethical business, to sell each franchise one at a time, to accept no kickbacks from suppliers, and to charge almost ridiculously small royalties to franchisees” as he was building out the McDonalds chain.) Hugh Hefner melded the female form with enough high-minded literary art to fashion not only a publishing institution, but also a new persona for himself: the Playboy. Even higher-mindedly, Robert Maynard Hutchins and Mortimer J. Adler resolved to distill the world’s knowledge into one giant, cross-referenced set of Great Books. Chicago hosted the first televised political convention and first televised presidential debate. It also hosted the first televised race riot.
And the brothers Chess amplified Mississippi Delta, or “country” blues, and turned it into something else. Muddy basically started it, but soon Little Walter, Howlin’ Wolf, and even Chuck Berry were jumpin’, Chicago-style, in smoky, sweaty jukes. It was Berry who began to hit the white pop charts, and along with Elvis down in Memphis, ushered in the age of rock & roll. It finally took star-struck British lads to restore Muddy and colleagues to greatness, first by mobbing their European dates, then by regurgitating those same licks as the Animals, the Yardbirds, and the Rolling Stones.
Whew! Again, the breadth of this work is magnificent, but so is its impeccably unearthed depth. (You can tell Mr. Dyja is a man who enjoys his research.) The reader emerges with an acute sense of Chicago’s eminence, and also the ways in which each art form, each cultural imperative, served to inform all the others. This book isn’t perfect, thank god – which simply proves it was written by a human being. Mr. Dyja is so meticulous about recounting the backstories of his artists and musicians that it’s surprising to find no mention of the name McKinley Morganfield. He misspells Eric Burdon and gets wrong that university in Bloomington, Indiana. That’s all I got, man! I had the faint sense that Mr. Dyja was disagreeably picking up the pace as we approached the Sixties, but maybe I’m just fishing for something to criticize. Or maybe I was just disappointed that I was getting too close to the end. This is the last word on its subject, a book that will retain its historical value until the last ding-dong of doom; no future author needs to elaborate (although some will undoubtedly try).
Frank Lloyd Wright, a guest of honor at the 1957 “Chicago Dynamic” festival (presented by US Steel!), looked around and said, “In another fifteen years, this city will be on the way out.” The handwriting on the wall achieved legibility on January 25, 1959, when a Boeing 707 took off from Los Angeles and landed at Idlewild in New York four hours later – without stopping in Chicago. Commercial transcontinental aviation, Mr. Dyja writes, soon gave us the terms “jet set,” “bicoastal,” and “flyover states.” Not long after, there were only two coasts again. I’ve read that Mr. Dyja has taken a little heat for his title, as if he’s insulting Chicago by suggesting that it aspires to something beyond itself. Hogwash. (I’m actually thinking of another word, containing one more letter.) When Chicago ruled, the real action was on the coast of Lake Michigan.
11/29/13: Today I learned that THE THIRD COAST has been selected as one of the New York Times Book Review’s 100 Notable Books of the Year. Just getting reviewed in the TBR is a triumph. Being recognized as one of the year’s very best? Priceless.