Institute Description | Newberry

Institute Description

By 1920, Chicago had become “the literary capital of the United States,” according to one of the nation’s influential cultural arbiters, H. L. Mencken. Indeed, American literature of the period was shaped by a palpable confrontation with the city’s railroads, skyscrapers, and stockyards. Chicago helped produce many of the most important writers of the early twentieth century, from Theodore Dreiser and Carl Sandburg to Sherwood Anderson and Ernest Hemingway. By mid-century, the neighborhood of Bronzeville on the city’s south side inspired writers such as Frank Marshall Davis, Richard Wright, Margaret Walker, and Gwendolyn Brooks. Many Chicago writers started as journalists for the city’s newspapers, which were famous for breeding sharp, recognizable voices. The tremendous growth of the city during the first half of the twentieth century—including new capital and potential patronage, world-renowned art and architecture, jazz and blues, and the cultural vitality that came from an influx of immigrants—drew artists and writers to Chicago. “It is, indeed, amazing how steadily a Chicago influence shows itself when the literary ancestry and training of present-day American writers are investigated,” Mencken claimed, “The brand of the sugar-cured ham seems to be upon all of them.” 

The Newberry will host a four-week summer 2017 institute for college and university faculty that will explore Chicago’s profound contribution to the modernist movement, with particular attention given to literature and the visual arts. The institute will explore what the Chicago “brand” looks like. Is there a dominant style, or guiding aesthetic, that characterizes the literature of Chicago from the turn of the century through the Second World War? And how is Chicago’s cultural output during these decades connected more broadly to transatlantic modernism? The institute will begin by considering the persistent cultural resonances of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago—better known as the World’s Fair—which gave rise to many of the city’s key cultural institutions, clubs, and smaller arts organizations. We will then explore what scholars have called the “Chicago literary renaissance” of the 1910s and 1920s, particularly the work of writers who challenged the subjects and styles of a genteel literary tradition. We will look at the interracial collaborations supported by the Works Progress Administration in Chicago during the Great Depression. This is the beginning of what is now known as the “Chicago Black Renaissance,” a period from the 1930s through the early 1950s and which has inspired a rapidly growing body of scholarship. Importantly, the institute aims for an inclusive and expansive history of modernist literature and art in Chicago across racial lines.

Institute faculty will encourage 25 participants to engage actively and critically with the archival collections held at the Newberry in order to understand the behind-the-scenes networks that contributed to the explosion of cultural styles associated with the modernist period. The institute aims to attract participants who would utilize the library’s archives for the development of new course syllabi and for independent research. From the records of Chicago’s newspapers and journalists, clubs and arts organizations, famous and not-so-famous writers, editors, artists, book designers, and publishers, the Newberry’s collections on this topic are unsurpassed. Particularly relevant collections include the papers of Sherwood Anderson, the Arts Club of Chicago, Fanny Butcher, Jack Conroy, Floyd Dell, the Dill Pickle Club, Henry Blake Fuller, Harry Hansen, Ben Hecht, Ernest Hemingway, Eunice Tietjens, and Mark Turbyfill. For an overview of these collections please visit this page.

Making Modernism will be led by Liesl Olson, a literary scholar with extensive knowledge of the collections at the Newberry, where she is currently Director of Chicago Studies. Her comprehensive knowledge of twentieth-century literature is reflected in her books, Modernism and the Ordinary (Oxford University Press, 2008) and Chicago Renaissance: the Midwest and Modernism (Yale University Press, forthcoming, 2017). The institute will feature four invited faculty members, and two in-house faculty members in the fields of literature, history, art history, print culture, and African American studies. The goal of the institute is to understand the literature of Chicago in connection with the unique urban, economic, and cultural history of the city. The institute will deepen participants’ knowledge of the international impact of Chicago’s cultural innovations (usually considered in terms of architecture) by illuminating how the literature of Chicago was connected to developments across the arts. 

The institute will underscore four thematic lines of inquiry: (1) the geographic uniqueness of Chicago as both a Midwestern and international hub; (2) the historically overlooked women in Chicago who built the city’s literary and cultural infrastructure; (3) the connections between the “literary renaissance” of the 1910s and early 1920s and the Chicago Black Renaissance; and (4) modernism’s distinctive production and reception history in Chicago. The institute’s readings will be organized chronologically—with a few exceptions—in order to understand how these intertwined themes, explained below, emerge in different ways over time.

First, the “New Modernist Studies” has shown that the artistic innovations in the first half of the twentieth century were transnational phenomena, informed by geographic mobility and cross-cultural exchanges of writers and artists. This is especially true of literature, which is a genre that is able to circulate in a way that architecture, music, and even the visual arts cannot. Chicago merits fuller consideration as part of this broad tapestry of transnational modernism. A strikingly apt image for Chicago modernism is a map with the city as a “dark blotch” of radiating train tracks, to quote Chicago writer Floyd Dell. During the first half of the twentieth century, there was significant traffic in writers, artists, and intellectuals who came into Chicago and helped to shape its cosmopolitan culture. Connections between Chicago and other cities in the United States, Europe, and beyond were also built upon a circulation of books and periodicals. Writers in Chicago often felt the distinctiveness of the Midwest, but they hardly worked in regional isolation.

Mobility was never quite as available to women, however, which is a significant caveat, and one that signals the institute’s second important thematic concern. Participants will consider various women of the period who helped to build the cultural infrastructure of Chicago—and who influenced what was published, exhibited, and performed. Recent scholarship across a range of disciplines has focused on lesser-known literary and artistic figures, and upon networks of production and circulation created by modernist periodicals. This scholarly trend includes projects funded by the NEH, like the Modernist Journals Project that has produced digital editions of culturally significant English-language magazines from the early twentieth century ( Participants will look closely at two of the most important “little” magazines of modernism, both launched in Chicago: Harriet Monroe’s Poetry, founded in 1912 (and still publishing), and Margaret Anderson’s Little Review, founded in 1914, well-known for first publishing James Joyce’s Ulysses and for the obscenity trial that followed. The institute will take account of other important yet overlooked women whose vision and intelligence was still checked in business and politics but flourished in creating outlets for modernist art. These women include Rue Carpenter, a painter, interior designer, and president of the Arts Club (also the wife of the famous composer John Alden Carpenter); Alice Roullier, a curator who coolly negotiated the Arts Club’s radical and challenging exhibits; Elizabeth “Bobsy” Goodspeed, a glamorous arts patron who brought artists from abroad to Chicago; Inez Stark, who taught an influential poetry class at the South Side Community Arts Center that included Gwendolyn Brooks; Vivian G. Harsh, the first African American librarian in the Chicago Public Library system and the founder of a salon to cultivate young writers; Era Bell Thompson, a longtime editor at Ebony magazine (who once held a fellowship at the Newberry); and Fanny Butcher, who developed close friendships with many important writers of the twentieth century, including Willa Cather, Gertrude Stein, Sinclair Lewis, and Ernest Hemingway. The Newberry’s collections contain substantial manuscripts, letters, art, photographs, and recordings related to these individuals.

Third, the institute will emphasize the historical and conceptual lines of connection between the “literary renaissance” of the 1910s and 1920s and the Chicago Black Renaissance. The influx of African Americans after the First World War—culminating in the 1930s and 1940s—aggravated both racial collisions and collaborations that were distinct to Chicago. Writers and visual artists of Bronzeville found support through the South Side Community Art Center, founded in 1940 under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration. Chicago was also where early poems of Langston Hughes were published in Poetry magazine in 1926; and for twenty years, Hughes wrote a weekly column for the Chicago Defender, the largest African American newspaper in the country. Lines of connection can be pursued not only through a publication like Poetry magazine—which also published work by Margaret Walker and Gwendolyn Brooks—but also through writer and editor Jack Conroy, who helped launch the career of Richard Wright. Conroy’s papers at the Newberry illuminate his assignment with the black history portion of the Illinois Writers Project, and his collaboration with Arna Bontemps on books that document African American migration from the South to the North. There are also fascinating, minor figures like dancer Mark Turbyfill who daringly challenged boundaries of race and gender. As a young man during the teens and early twenties, Turbyfill—who was white, and gay—published poems in Poetry and the Little Review; a few years later he was the first teacher of African American dancer Katharine Dunham, and he worked to create the Ballet Nègre in Chicago, a difficult endeavor documented in his unpublished papers at the Newberry. These resources will allow the institute to pose larger questions, such as: How does our understanding of each of these movements—the literary renaissance of the early twentieth century and the Chicago Black Renaissance—change when we explore the relationships between them? What new insights do we gain into the work of Chicago’s artists, writers, and organizers in white and black communities when we study them together?

The institute’s last, related point of focus will be production and reception history, which reveals a surprising phenomenon regarding the experiments of high modernism: ordinary men and women in the middle of America numbered among the most avid supporters. “Middlebrow” readers were often open to new developments in the arts, especially as the city’s five major daily newspapers featured and discussed even the most experimental work. Longtime literary editor Fanny Butcher advocated modernist writing in the pages of the famously conservative Chicago Tribune, and sold modernist experimentalism to a diverse set of readers who frequented the popular bookshop she ran from 1919 to 1927. Chicago was at the center of African American periodical publication, which aimed at mainstream readers, including Negro Digest, Ebony, and the short-lived but important Negro Story, which mixed lighter fare with stories by big-name authors and claimed on its masthead, “Short Stories By or About Negroes for All Americans,” ostensibly aiming for a wide and cross-racial readership. In accounts of the contemporary responses to modernism, much more attention has been given to the sensational negativism of its opponents than to the pleasure of middlebrow readers. One aim of this institute is to explore counter-narratives that readjust this imbalance. Research in the area of reception history will be supported by the Newberry’s voluminous holdings in journalism, clubs and arts organizations, and family papers.

Independent Teaching and Research Projects

Summer programs at the Newberry offer visiting scholars and teachers superb opportunities to renew and develop scholarly interests and teaching skills at a premier research library. Each institute participant’s pursuit of individual projects utilizing the Newberry’s extensive collections in the humanities is an essential part of this experience. These projects may be designed to develop new teaching material, promote the participant’s scholarship, or both. Suitable projects include research contributing to new scholarly publications; new course syllabi or classroom assignments; teaching resources such as online exhibits, web resources, or reading materials; new lectures or sets of lectures; and annotated bibliographies. Participants will be able to present their research to staff and the public during a weekly Wednesday colloquium at the Newberry. Early in the institute, Olson will hold individual conferences with participants to refine project topics and to discuss Newberry materials appropriate to them. She will be available for regular office hours each afternoon.