A fascinating history of Chicago’s innovative and invaluable contributions to American literature and art, from the late nineteenth to the mid‑twentieth century


“Vibrant, inclusive, deftly interpretative, and defining chronicle of the rise of modernism. …With knowledge, insight, and conviction, Olson explicates the unifying power of modernism that brought black and white writers and artists together while feeding the city’s hunger for the revelations of story, poetry, and image.”

—Donna Seaman, Booklist

“Olson says in her preface that she wrote the book because she was surprised it had not already been written. … She’s right — her book fills an enormous hole in Chicago and American literary history by showing the influence of this city on art and letters. She successfully argues that Chicago in the early 20th century was in no way a “second city,” but was instead in the forefront of modernism. She shows how much of the early Chicago renaissance was led by determined women, like Monroe and Anderson. She also spotlights how much the later one, in the 1930s and 1940s in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood, was led by African-Americans like Richard Wright and Gwendolyn Brooks.”

—Mary Wisniewski, Chicago Tribune

“Olson approaches the subject with academic rigor, she writes with force, as well as originality, crafting fictionalized vignettes of her subjects’ experience of the city. A valuable, perspective-shifting work of both cultural and Midwestern history.”

Kirkus Reviews, starred review

“The truth is you don’t come to Chicago Renaissance for the thesis as much as for the rendering, in exploratory and roving and aptly selected detail, of the history of Chicago arts across a remarkable slice of time: this is the period of its astonishing transformation, when a largish windswept American prairie town metamorphosed, with a shocking rapidity, into a global metropolis and, for some, “the exemplary modern metropolis.” (“Between 1870 and 1900,” Olson reminds us, “Chicago’s population quintupled from about 300,000 to more than 1.5 million.”) That story is what Olson is after here, and it is a story she tells with verve and fluency and a historian’s archival acuity.”

—Peter Coviello, Public Books


Chicago Renaissance: Literature and Art in the Midwest Metropolis is a cultural history, which celebrates the Midwestern city of Chicago for its centrality to the modernist movement. Olson traces Chicago’s cultural development from the 1893 World’s Fair through mid‑century, illuminating how Chicago writers revolutionized literary forms during the first half of the twentieth century, a period of sweeping aesthetic transformations all over the world.

From Harriet Monroe (the founder of Poetry magazine), Carl Sandburg, and Ernest Hemingway to Richard Wright and Gwendolyn Brooks, Olson’s study bridges the gap between two distinct and equally vital Chicago‑based artistic “renaissance” moments: the primarily white renaissance of the early teens, and the creative ferment of Bronzeville.

Stories of the famous and iconoclastic are interwoven with accounts of lesser‑known yet influential figures in Chicago, many of whom were women. Olson argues for the importance of Chicago’s editors, bookstore owners, tastemakers, and ordinary citizens who helped nurture Chicago’s unique culture of artistic experimentation.

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Reviews of Chicago Renaissance:

In Modernism/Modernity 

In American Literary History

In the Chicago Tribune

In Public Books

Conversations about Chicago Renaissance:

At the Arts Club Chicago

The Morning Shift WBEZ Chicago.


PRAISE for Chicago Renaissance

“Wonderfully knowledgeable and just as wonderfully readable, Chicago Renaissance will be essential not just for anyone interested in the history of the city but for anyone interested in a brilliantly variegated history of its contribution to modernism.”

—Walter Benn Michaels, University of Illinois at Chicago


“Liesl Olson has written the book Chicago has been waiting for—a rich, rigorous and definitive cultural history of its turn‑of‑the‑century heyday that’s as lively as the time.”

— Thomas Dyja, author of The Third Coast: When Chicago Built the American Dream


“This is modernism in all its technicolor glory, Chicago style: the literary ladies and the porkpackers, the Bronzeville poets and the scribbling ad‑men. Dazzlingly learned, revelatory and a cracking great read.”

—Deborah Cohen, Northwestern University

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