Quick Review: The Third Coast: When Chicago Built the American Dream

Thomas Dyja has a provocative argument in The Third Coast: while New York and LA are widely viewed as America’s cultural centers, Chicago of the mid-1900s contributed more than people think to American culture. My quick review of the book:

  1. The fact that the book is built on impressionistic vignettes is book its greatest strength and weakness. Dyja tells a number of interesting stories about cultural figures in Chicago from author Nelson Algren to Bauhaus member László Moholy-Nagy to University of Chicago president Robert Hutchins to puppeteer and TV show creator Burr Tillstrom to magazine creator Hugh Hefner. The characters he profiles have highs and lows but they are all marked by a sort of middle America creativity based on hard work, connecting with audiences, and not being flashy.
  2. Yet, stringing together a set of characters doesn’t help him make his larger argument that Chicago was influential. We get pieces of evidence – an important contribution to television here, the importance of Chess records, a clear contribution to architecture there – but no comparative element. By his lack of attention, Dyja suggests Chicago didn’t contribute much – art is one such area with a lack of a vibrant modern art scene (though what TripAdvisor ratings say is the world’s #1 museum does not get much space). Just how much did these actions in Chicago change the broader American culture? What was going on in New York and LA at those times? The data is anecdotal and difficult to judge.
  3. A few of the more interesting pieces of the book: he suggests Chicago contributed more to the Civil Rights Movement than many people remember (particularly due to the Emmett Till case); Chicago music, particularly through Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, was particularly influential elsewhere; Mayor Richard J. Daley was on one hand supportive of the arts but only in a functional sense and the arts scene slowly died away into the early 1960s as creative type went elsewhere.

Ultimately, it is hard to know whether these contributions from Chicago really mattered or not. The one that gets the most attention – architecture through former members of the Bauhaus and then the International Style – probably really was a major contribution for both American and global cities. But even there, the focus of this book is on the people and not necessarily on their buildings or how normal Chicagoans experienced those structures or how the changes fit within the large social-political-economic scene in Chicago.

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