Some novels are true city novels, in that they exude the essence of the city in which they’re set so well that you know its city better than the real thing. After I’ve re-read (again) Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City series, I always want to visit San Francisco, but specifically his San Francisco of the 1970s and 1980s. I spent a week in the city in May 2002 but, as magical as it is, it’s not Maupin’s city, a place that probably only fully exists (or existed at all) in his prose. Yearly walking tours are devoted to retracing Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus’s steps in Dublin, all because of Ulysses. For all his wild experimentation, John Barth is best when he’s lovingly evoking the Baltimore and Chesapeake Bay area in which he lives and works.
I’ve had an ongoing love affair with Chicago for years, despite not having spent much time there. Several of my favorite musicians, writers, and artists either grew up there or matured artistically and intellectually there; my favorite baseball team and basketball team is there; Second City is there; jazz may not have been born in Chicago, but it grew up there; two of my favorite journals are Chicago institutions; and on and on.
But I’ve never been enamored with one of the city’s most famous depicters: Saul Bellow. Ravelstein and Henderson the Rain King both underwhelmed me, and I gave up on The Adventures of Augie March about 30 pages in. But the Law of Simultaneity—in which two or more seemingly unrelated events both allude to the same subject—has struck, so I’ll be giving the latter another whirl this month.
One: I saw my good pal Ernesto over Christmas in Dallas for Christmas Eve dinner—homemade tacos, tamales, guacamole, queso, margaritas, and sangria; yes, your Christmas dinner sucks in comparison—and he mentioned a pact we had made a few years back. We both had agreed to read Augie March together, so that we could discuss it. Like a tiny book club. Neither of us made it; I think he got farther than I did. In any case, he decided to try again a few months ago, and loved the book. He urged me to try again. I dipped my chips in queso, decided to give it some thought. It’s been on my mind since then.
Augie March’s Chicago has vanished, surely. Augie’s generation is dead (like his creator Mr. Bellow) or dying, their children moved to the suburbs, and the city neighborhoods where Augie played and worked have undergone many transformations.
Re-reading The Adventures Of Augie March, I heard references to places I knew, streets that still cut their way across Chicago. Sensing an opportunity for a little literary archealogy, fellow Gapers Block staffer Alice Maggio and I set out to explore the differences between the places Bellow describes and what you see today. The following photographs attempt to marry Bellow’s text with Chicago today.
The essay pairs Bellow’s words with contemporary Chicago. The only thing that could possibly make it cooler would be the addition of archival photos from the 1930s, so that we could compare and contrast neighborhoods visually. Still, it’s terrific. Start here, and enjoy. I’m digging out my copy of Augie March.