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The question grew out of an everyday bull session: What are the great Chicago novels? We asked a range of knowledgeable academics and literati, and when we put together the results, the list told its own tale: This city is no place for romance or happy endings. "The story of Chicago lit is a grim death march," says longtime Northwestern University lecturer and writer Bill Savage. An industrial metropolis sprung from the prairie in a single lifetime, the city came of age rife with growing pains. As Savage says, "Chicago chewed people up and spat them out." But it's not as bleak as it sounds. These books, many of them sociological and investigative treatises masquerading as novels, changed the world for the better—with enough greed, lust, and blood to keep the pages turning. It's a collection of powerful writing that stands up against the best in American literature. Here, the books in order of publication.
THE HIGH LIFE
The Cliff-Dwellers (1893), by Henry Blake Fuller
"You've got to have snap, go. You've got to have a big new country behind you. How much do you suppose people in Iowa and Kansas and Minnesota think about Down East? Not a great deal. It's Chicago they're looking to."
The story: A displaced New Englander and his skyscraper-mates scheme, court, and kvetch from their dizzying lookout on the crowded, competitive city below.
Why the book resonates: "[The Cliff-Dwellers] is one of the first books to try to come to terms with both the achievements and the cost of the modern industrial city," says Carl Smith, professor of English at Northwestern and author of Chicago and the American Literary Imagination. It's a balance that takes some getting used to: The protagonist, George Ogden, finds the city thrilling, but can't help being disappointed by its grime and business-centric mindset. It's a Chicago of ambition and economic productivity, but also of shady deals and crass materialism. Nonetheless, Smith says, Ogden "can't deny the power of Chicago"—even when it leads him past moral ambiguity to outright violence.
The author (1857-1929): Born in what is now the South Loop to a wealthy banking and railroad family. Dabbled in clerking, banking, and unemployment; traveled in Europe, then returned to Chicago, where he finally found success with writing. Most likely was gay; considered a pioneer for Bertram Cope's Year (1919), the first mainstream novel depicting a homosexual relationship.