Event—Adult Education

Literary Capital of the West: Chicago Writing before 1890


Read "The Gem of the Prairie," "Wau Bun," and other works written in Chicago between the 1840s and 1880s.

Engraving showing Fort Dearborn, Chicago, Illinois, as it appeared in 1831. From Juliette Augusta Magill Kinzie's 1856 book "Wau-bun." Source: Napoleon Sarony (engraver), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Class Description

This course explores the evolving relationship between Western and urban identities in Chicago writing from the 1840s through the 1880s. Histories of Chicago literature often start around 1890, with the urban sketches of writers like Finley Peter Dunne. 

Chicago’s antebellum literature, however, was very different, aimed at rural readers in the city’s railroad empire. After the Civil War, this agrarian focus persisted even as interest in writing about the city itself started to grow. 

As we survey these changes we will view many publications in the Newberry’s collections, including the city’s earliest literary paper, the Gem of the Prairie; the poetry in the Haymarket anarchists’ Alarm; Juliette Kinzie’s early settler memoir Wau Bun; and Barriers Burned Away, E.P. Roe’s overnight bestseller about the Great Chicago Fire.

Jesse Raber holds a PhD in English from Harvard University and teaches in the Harvard Extension School. He is working on a literary history of Chicago, and has taught at UIC, SAIC, and Loyola. He is the co-creator of the Chicago Writing Gallery at the American Writers Museum.

Materials List

  • Instructor-Distributed Materials

First Reading

  • A PDF reading packet will be provided before the first meeting.

Cost and Registration

Six Sessions, $247 ($220.50 for Newberry members, seniors, and students). Learn about becoming a member.

To register multiple people for this class, please go through the course calendar in Learning Stream, our registration platform. When you select the course and register, you’ll be prompted to add another registrant.


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