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Won't You Please Come to Chicago?: A Conversation With Thomas Dyja on The Third Coast

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Thomas Dyja's The Third Coast: When Chicago Built the America Dream (Penguin) is the most important Chicago-focused historical work in recent years. This is not least of all the case because of the argument Dyja effectively makes for the centrality of Chicago's cultural innovations and exports to the entire postwar landscape that came to be modern America, but because Dyja approaches his historical study with a novelist's sense of character and place.

The Third Coast is more than the story of Ray Kroc's French-fry efficiency or space-jazzman Sun Ra's intergalactic horn sections. The Third Coast is more than the story of Bauhaus refugees Mies van Der Rohe's and László Moholy-Nagy's differing design philosophies, and the book is more than the story Nelson Algren's failures (including that of his torrid affair with Simone de Beauvoir).

Yes, beyond Robert Maynard Hutchins' idea of the Great Books and Hugh Hefner's ideas about great boobs, The Third Coast--with its astounding cast of characters alternately coalescing and repelling to form a violent surge of mid-century energy--is a book that tracks so many planetary bodies that one is bound, upon finishing, to understand not so much why the heavens move in their particular rhythms, but to feel the cosmic wonder embedded in the fact that the heavens simply move.

We are back to Sun Ra for a moment, but make no mistake. The Third Coast moves, and so too does Dyja.

In advance of his April 8 lecture at Lake Forest College as the capstone of our annual Student Symposium, timed to the paperback release of the book, I was able to discuss with Dyja not only the contents of his book but also the methods of the historian.

Davis: You are a Chicago native. Is The Third Coast a homecoming of sorts? How did it start, and how did it come to assume a shape that interleaves these character-based narratives?

Thomas: The Third Coast was a book I guess I was aiming towards my whole life. Even though I left Chicago for college in New York, I always carried my Chicago identity with me. The city may not export the same amount of steel that it once did, but it's exported a lot of people who have changed America with attitudes and approaches that come out of there.

Davis: So the people were the draw?

Thomas: After writing three novels and a biography, I wanted to move to narrative non-fiction and I'd started researching something about Aretha Franklin. But as I was reading all these books about Detroit, I realized that I knew nothing about Detroit. I had no sense of the place; I didn't know the associations and connotations that make up a true knowledge of a place. So the obvious struck me in the face--Chicago.

I was a sickening Chicago chauvinist as a kid. Digging around in some old boxes recently I found an essay I wrote in high school after I saw Studs Terkel on The Dick Cavett Show, back in I'd say 1978 or so. It was five pages of frothing anti-New York propaganda. I used to cut school to walk around downtown and visit the Art Institute, read Carl Sandburg by the lake and all that. So it was ironic that I ended up living in New York, but my family is still in Chicago, and the house my father was born in, so I never lost my connection to it. After thirty years in New York it was time to go home again.

Davis: So, you have the place but how do you find the form to tell the story?

Thomas: As to the book being character-based, there are a few elements to that. I never forgot a book called A Nervous Splendor by Frederic Morton, about fin de siècle Vienna, where all these fascinating, essential people like Klimt and Jung and Freud and Brahms and Hugo Wolf, all the creators of modern consciousness, are living and working and rubbing shoulders. It brought the period alive, really put you in the place and the moment, and that's what I wanted to do--recreate to some small degree the experience and consciousness of the Third Coast era, not just describe it. And to do that, you need eyes to see it through.

Happily, I had a remarkable and wildly diverse cast of people, from Mahalia Jackson to Mies van der Rohe and back, who let me show Chicago from all sorts of angles. Having written fiction, I also was accustomed to writing characters and writing the world from their points of view, so I did enough research on all these people so that I felt I could maybe crawl into their skin, or at least into their heads enough to show their vision of Chicago.

Davis: This sounds like a project requiring significant organization?

Thomas: Weaving the threads together meant creating very large timelines and flow charts, bundling people, events, and information together in ways that advanced the "story." I do think it's possible to write history in a dramatic fashion without compromising the facts. Though I don't agree with Shelby Foote's politics or viewpoint in his massive history of the Civil War, he was a great teacher in how one can push forth the inherent drama, build people and themes and come to resounding climaxes while staying within the lines of honesty. Anything I put in someone's mind is something that I have them on record saying or thinking at some point; I tried to be careful and aware about not imposing myself on them, even as I took my own stylistic liberties.

Davis: The "salon" character of cites such as Vienna, even when the salon is the city itself, seems an idiosyncratic byproduct of rapid industrialization in large cities. Put another way, the massing of people in a rapidly growing place such as Chicago is bound to produce a massing or interesting people at any particular moment. When you tease out the perspectives of a subset of these people--and I applaud your choices in The Third Coast--and deploy novelistic techniques in the narrative that encircles them, are you just compromising the facts in a different way than a more traditional, omniscient historical narrative might? Is your dramatic history as much a creation of Thomas Dyja-the-novelist as the ancient world would have been for Josephus? And if this is high drama of the best kind, has Chicago reached its climax?

Thomas: I don't know if it's "bound" to happen. Was there a Golden Age in Toronto history? Maybe there was, but I've never heard of it. Has there been a massing of interesting people to this degree in Phoenix? Houston? Jacksonville? If so, I look forward to reading about it. When times like these happen in cities, we should document them and discuss them. I do agree that the whole point of cities is density and the exchange that creates, so I don't think it's a byproduct; I think it's the reason they exist. But I don't think all cities are alike in how they've developed and what their impact has been on the nation and the world.

I believe that Chicago during the years I cover in The Third Coast had a remarkable and generally overlooked impact on the American century. Have there been other moments in time like this in other cities? Of course: Berlin, New York, Paris, Los Angeles, London, San Francisco; they've all had periods of rich, multilayered growth and discovery and creation, often more than one. The Third Coast just tries to add Chicago to that list.

Davis: This is history as the narrative of people who compose the character of the city.

Thomas: We're moving here toward an old argument as to whether history is an art or a science. There are empirical facts--things happen--and teasing out the causalities is part of the effort of history. But who's to say the "traditional, omniscient historical narrative" is by definition somehow objective or best suited for that? Historic causality involves movements large and small; individual genius and collective will, events unforeseen; all these happen in and around whatever you're documenting, and they're happening in time. Using "novelistic" methods, I would argue, can shed more light on history by contextualizing all these elements.

I could have done 25 separate chapters about 25 different people, out of time. I could have made the reader go back to the beginning of the time frame in every chapter and try to create the timeline on their own and try to fit the pieces together on their own--yet by pulling the figures through in time, I was able to let events happen in such a way that they illuminated events and choices, and help fill in some of the dark matter of history, which to me has always been the question--What was it really like to live then? Maybe that's a reader's question and not a historian's.

Davis: Well put, and in this case, who is the reader?

Thomas: I'm not an academic and I didn't write this for an academic audience; I wanted general readers. But I do think answering that question can tell us a lot more about why things happened sometimes than just facts in a vacuum. You can write about America's actions after 9/11 in a purely "factual" manner, creating a chain of logic that explains everything in terms of action and reaction. But if you were there in New York that day, if you experienced it and saw how it affected people, you understand why we did what we did on a whole other level than if you're just concerned with policy decisions and news reports.

As to climaxes, it's impossible to fix one on something that hasn't ended yet and Chicago is still kicking. In The Third Coast, the climax is very much 1955, when there's a whole rash of new beginnings and sad endings which change things there forever, from the election of Richard J. Daley to Chuck Berry recording "Maybelline" to the Compass Theater opening in Hyde Park.

Davis: Sun Ra seems worlds (galaxies?) away from Studs, or Nelson Aglren, or Kukla, Fran, and Ollie, and while The Third Coast doesn't minimize difference, does it argue in its subject choices for a certain Chicago school of innovation? If so, is there a shorthand to describe how Chicago made America?

Thomas: Studs Terkel used to say "It's all connected." And my favorite line of literature comes from E.M. Forster's Howard's End--"Only connect." You might see a theme there. As far away as Sun Ra was from Burr Tillstrom, as much entropy as there might be in the world, I wanted to show the gravity, the binding forces in the city. I won't say that documenting things blasting apart is easy, but it's more obvious. What holds us together can be harder to find. Chicago needs a narrative that explains how all the pieces fit together even when--especially when--it's become easier to ignore what's happening outside our own neighborhoods.

What I found was that there were some common elements to Chicago culture--a high value has been given to improvisation there since before World War One; the Compass Theater and Second City didn't invent it, they tapped into it. Experimentation, intimacy, social purpose--these all flourish in Chicago at mid-century even when they're hopelessly out of style on the other coasts. Over it all was a sense of mediation and connection. Chicago was the crossroads of America, the place where America came to meet itself. And through this constant exposure to people from all over the country, Chicago and Chicagoans learned how to distill those qualities into something essential that they expressed in the arts on one hand, but also sold back to America as advertising and other forms of mass marketing. There's a reason why so many call Chicago the American city.

Davis: The search for connection, or the diagnosis of a lack of connection, is what motivates, for me, Ben Hecht's 1001 Afternoons in Chicago, and we so often think of Chicago's most important artists as being keyed in to an explicitly Modernist worldview. Of course, there is all sorts of contemporary energy in the arts at work today in the city, yet you write "Chicago was the crossroads of America, the place where America came to meet..." What will the preface to The Third Coast look like when we get a new edition, in 100 years, 2114?

Thomas: I'm always thrilled to see the energy surrounding so many aspects of Chicago today, and particularly in the arts. But the reality at mid-century was that the city had a different role in the nation's economy and its imagination. All roads, rails and flight plans led to Chicago, until the late Fifties, when the two coasts really got to work on creating a sort of national consciousness dictated by them. Until then, Chicago really was a central meeting place in the way that Las Vegas is now. The city certainly attracts millions of visitors and conventions today, but it doesn't have the pivotal role it once had and I think our nation is less for that.

The 2014 preface will discuss the remarkable citywide conference the mayor held that forced everyone to focus on the massive credit crisis about to swamp Chicago. During that amazing month, the citizens, city workers and business community all came together to agree on a series of collective, short term sacrifices that made the revolutionary overhaul of the public school system possible and attracted millions of good paying jobs.

Davis: In Rachel Shteir's controversial New York Times round up of new Chicago books, The Third Coast comes off the most favorably. Even so, she accuses you of the same boosterism she reads more pejoratively in the other Chicago-focused works. Does Chicago get unfairly slammed for "boosterism"? Is this a branded term that works to Chicago's disadvantage?

Thomas: Chicago has been a city of boosters since it was founded. Selling snake oil has been part of it from the start--remember, The Wizard of Oz was written there! But after the Fire in 1871, it really did expand in a way that no city ever had before; it represented what "City" meant, for better and for worse. When the city's growth stopped, we were left with that superlative identity.

I think it's wonderful that people love the city they live in. They should. And there are aspects of Chicago that exist nowhere else--I mean, I wrote a book about that. But I agree with Rachel in as much as that I don't believe that we should romanticize elements of local culture that hold the city back. Winking at political corruption, for example, isn't good for anyone. And beware when office holders and CEOs start blowing the horn, because they're usually trying to distract you from seeing what's really going on somewhere. Boosterism is only a disadvantage when people spend more time talking than they do on making, changing, building, helping--all those things that Chicago is rightly famous for. Do those things with creativity and drive and the world will come to you.

Davis Schneiderman is Associate Dean of the Faculty and Director of the Center for Chicago Programs at Lake Forest College. His most recent work is the appropriation novel [SIC].