Title Reviewed:
American Voices of the Chicago Renaissance

Author Reviewed:
Lisa Woolley

Thomas P. Riggio


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 97, Issue 2, pp 157-158

Article Type:
Book Review

Download Source:

American Voices of the Chicago Renaissance. By Lisa Woolley. (Dekalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2000. Pp. xii, 178. Illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. $38.00.)

Lisa Woolley envisions the Chicago Renaissance as a literary stream divided by gender and race. The better-known branch features names that appear in the standard histories—Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, Edgar Lee Masters, and Floyd Dell. Although they make only cameo appearances in these pages, these white and male mid-westerners are acknowledged for their creation of an urban vernacular in writing that from the outset was praised for its "virility." The other half of the stream, which is the subject of this study, contains the marginalized women and black novelists, poets, editors, and social reformers. It includes, among others, Jane Addams, Ida B. Wells, Marita Banner, Elia Pettie, Edith Wyatt, Marjorie Allen Seiffert, Alice Corbin, Mary Aldis, Fenton Johnson, Eunice Tietjens, and Florence Kiper Frank.

Woolley argues that women and minority authors found themselves in a cultural bind. They both emulated and resisted the models established by the major realists and naturalists. The book is most original when exploring this dual influence as a by-product of the imperative to write poetry and fiction in what was then called the "American Language." For example when "Chicago's voice … came to be perceived as male" (p. 75), women, who were held to genteel standards of language, had to find indirect narrative strategies to represent the rough lower-class "masculine vernacular" dialect that had become the touchstone of serious writing. Black writers of both sexes struggled with the racist stereotypes implicit in the dialect writing and primitivism that was popularly used to characterize ethnic groups.

Implicit in Woolley's presentation of these dilemmas is a broader issue in literary history, the struggle to achieve artistic authenticity in the face of marginalizing cultural ideals. She does a splendid job of identifying the voices that challenged these ideals: the oratory of women reformers and the labor movement, the "conversational" manner cultivated by editors like Margaret Anderson (Little Review) and Harriet Monroe(Poetry), the musical and religious rhetoric in black tradition, the liberation of language by the new journalism, and the idiosyncratic oral poetry of Carl Sandburg and Vachel Lindsay. Woolley's approach is to explore these topics in chapters that mix biography, literary history, and close readings of individual texts.

Because this is a well-researched book, small omissions are glaring. Can one write about the American Language in the years between 1900 and 1930 without mentioning H. L. Mencken's influential masterwork of the same name or Richard Bridgeman's seminal study of the colloquial style in America? Also, in a study of literary voices in Chicago (which Woolley intelligently treats as a synecdoche for the Midwest), it is a distraction to have to puzzle out what an extended analysis of E. D. Hirsch's ideas about cultural literacy have to do with, say, the issue of a "Chicago aesthetic" (p. 133). In the end, however, these are minor blemishes in a work that should be praised for discovering new strands in the familiar fabric of the Chicago Renaissance.

THOMAS P. RIGGIO, professor of English, University of Connecticut, and general editor of the Theodore Dreiser Edition, University of Pennsylvania, is presently working on a two-volume edition of the letters of Theodore Dreiser to be published by the University of Illinois Press.

Published by the Indiana University Department of History.