Liesl Olson’s research interests includeTwentieth-Century Literature, Modern and Contemporary Poetry, Irish Studies, Feminism, Literary and Critical Theory, and Post-War Anglophone Writing.

Current book project: CHICAGO MAKES MODERNISM

Chicago Makes Modernism tells the story of how Chicago commerce met modernist art, of how the city’s newly built institutions accommodated the transformations of the age, and of how Chicago’s civic-minded women, in particular, created spaces for astonishing cultural developments. The noble ideals and bold convictions of modernism emerge in the book from more tangible day-to-day activities, brought to light through new and extensive archival research. Chicago Makes Modernism takes account of important yet overlooked figures, especially women whose vision and intelligence was still checked in business and politics but flourished in creating outlets for modernist art. These women include Harriet Monroe, who founded Poetry magazine in 1913 backed by money from Chicago “porkpackers”; Margaret Anderson, who in 1914 founded another important “little” magazine of the era, the Little Review; 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 its radical and challenging exhibits; Elizabeth “Bobsy” Goodspeed, a glamorous cultural arbiter; and Fanny Butcher, the longtime literary editor of the Chicago Tribune. Personal diaries, daily correspondences, telegrams, photographs, shipping receipts, guest books, and even the society pages are included in this account of Chicago’s cultural and literary explosion in the first half of the twentieth century. The book shows how modernism was built—like a Chicago skyscraper—from the ground up.

Why Chicago? The city’s distinctive qualities are numerous—especially during the first half of the twentieth century when fresh capital, new immigrants, world-renowned architecture, jazz, and a rising cultural class vitalized the city. But perhaps the most obvious fact about Chicago is that it is a very big city in the middle of the country. Most travelers between the coasts would pass through Chicago on the Century Limited or the Commodore Vanderbilt trains and often stay in the city for several nights. More lines of track came into Chicago than in any other American city. Simply put, people had to pass through Chicago. The centrality of Chicago and the mobility of its inhabitants generated an aesthetic of openness and experiment that was particularly hospitable to the major writers and artists of the era. After having been away from her home country for more than thirty years, for instance, Gertrude Stein visited Chicago four times on her 1934-35 American lecture tour—it was the city she preferred above all the others. In lectures inspired by Chicago (which were different from the lectures she gave everywhere else), Stein praised the mobility of American people and how they forced the American language to have “a different feeling of moving.” Stein connects her own purposefully nonstandard English with the innovative spirit of Chicago. Her aesthetic essentially embodies the very qualities that she witnessed in the city: constant movement, shifts in direction, a sense of all things as present, open, and possible.

Still visible today through the Art Institute’s tall new windows, heavy lines of train track link the 1893 building—built for the World’s Fair—to the recently opened Modern wing. The image is fitting: because so many trains full of people and goods traveled in and out of Chicago, the city is defined by change and open to it. Often fleeing more provincial environments, arrivals found both inspiration and audience. Theodore Dreiser, Henry Blake Fuller, Frank Norris, Carl Sandburg, Sherwood Anderson, Floyd Dell, Ben Hecht, Willa Cather, Edgar Lee Masters, and Vachel Lindsay are a number of the most well known early twentieth-century writers affiliated with the city. But Chicago also stretched its influence to the coasts and across the Atlantic by welcoming visitors who took the train into the city, stayed for a while, and then moved on. “I had never in my life before,” wrote W. C. Williams about his 1919 stay in Chicago, “had an opportunity to be just a poet, the one thing I want to be.” Williams, W.B. Yeats, Marcel Duchamp, Fernand Leger, Gertrude Stein: Chicago Makes Modernism explores how these figures interacted with the Chicago public and how the city gave immense support to their varied works of art.

You, as reader, have something of the feeling of a rock against which the sea of her words beats constantly, in rhythm, in flow and ebb,” wrote Fanny Butcher in the Tribune about Gertrude Stein’s prose. Butcher advocated modernist writing in the pages of this famously conservative newspaper. Like Monroe, Butcher sold modernist experimentalism to a diversity of readers, including those who frequented the popular bookshop she ran from 1919 to 1927. How to build an audience to support—and fund—contemporary developments in the arts was a pressing question for Butcher and for Chicago as it established itself as a cultural center. But the question is also urgent now, as public funding for the arts is subject to political will, and at risk in times of economic crisis. Support for the arts in America—much more so than in Europe—depends upon corporations, foundations, and the wealthy. In 2002 Ruth Lilly (heir to the Eli Lilly pharmaceutical company) extended a long tradition of corporate sponsorship of the arts by giving, astonishingly, $100 million dollars to Poetry magazine, still publishing in Chicago. This book examines how Chicago has always maximized connections between art and industry, becoming a city where lines of track merged to meet and make modernism.

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