By Donald G. Evans

algrenIt was 1975, and Nelson Algren’s possessions were up for sale, his move from Chicago imminent. “For the first time in my life, now that I’m leaving,” he told the Chicago Tribune’s Rick Soll, “Chicago is finally saying some nice things about me.”

This was a quarter century after Algren had won the first National Book Award, and his reputation, at that point, was relatively far and wide. You got the feeling he loved and needed Chicago more than Chicago loved and needed him, and at the very least it should have been a reciprocal relationship.

It’s not the only such example, nor the most recent, and we’re not the only city guilty of such sins. But it doesn’t excuse our behavior. Saying nice things about Chicago’s literary heroes should be a civic responsibility warmly and naturally embraced, big sloppy kisses rather than gratuitous cheek pecks on the way out the door. Like with any loved one, you want to show your appreciation, express love and gratitude, and in ways small and big cherish what you have.

An Abundance of Candidates

There are enough other local luminaries to fill a Chicago Literary Hall of Fame. Among the better known are Gwendolyn Brooks, Saul Bellow, Lorraine Hansberry, Studs Terkel, Carl Sandburg, Richard Wright, James T. Farrell, Jane Addams, Ida B. Wells, Theodore Dreiser and Mike Royko. But what about Cyrus Colter, Leon Forrest, Fenton Johnson, Edgar Lee Masters, Edna Ferber, Franklin Rosemont or Ben Hecht? Ernest Hemingway, Sherwood Anderson, Norman Maclean, and Shel Silverstein? How about L. Frank Baum of Wizard of Oz fame or Edgar Rice Burroughs, creator of Tarzan?  Does Harriet Monroe qualify for creating Poetry magazine? How about Oscar Brown Jr. and John Calloway?

Now the Chicago Writers Association has decided to start one. Starting next year, the doors of that Chicago Literary Hall of Fame will open and we will find out who the first inductees will be. Twenty-seven writers from the past have been nominated. Initially, their work will be celebrated in the virtual world of Internet honorifics. Over time, the Chicago Writers hope to find a permanent home for the Hall of Fame and begin inducting living writers as well.

A Vibrant Literary Community

There are, of course, many programs, organizations and people who help keep Chicago’s literary scene thriving. The Big Read program has promoted contemporary Chicago classics The Coast of Chicago and The House on Mango Street. Gaper’s Block Book Club reads a different Chicago book every month, and over the past four years has covered everything from Richard Powers to Herman Kogan to Ana Castillo to Barack Obama.

Radio personalities Rick Kogan, Victoria Lautman and Donna Seaman regularly conduct thoughtful on-air interviews with authors, exploring their life, process and the work itself. Blogs, among them Pete’s Lit and The Examiner, as well as magazines like New City and TimeOut Chicago, take notice of literary happenings. We also have thriving theatre companies that not only showcase exceptional plays, but also occasionally stage dramatic renderings of classic prose works.

Creative writing programs across the university spectrum provide vibrant communities for accomplished and aspiring readers alike. There are regular reading series all around the city, and fantastic literary journals, and even some publishers, like the University of Chicago Press, committed to local writing, with editors like Richard Guzman and Libby Hellmann collecting stories into wonderful anthologies.

A Gaping Void

But there’s the other side of the story, the sad reality of a culture or economy or industry or I don’t know what that does not recognize or remember the greats.

Not too long ago, I was trying to track down an Algren book. I had struck out at several used bookstores so, when I found myself at Diversey and Clark, an intersection with both Barnes & Noble and Borders, I figured I’d give it a shot.

“How do you spell that?” the Barnes & Noble  clerk asked.

“Never heard of him,” said the Border’s employee.

“Really?” I asked.

It’s shameful to think that in our own city, in our own bookstores, we could so quickly forget our rich literary heritage. This would not have happened at 57th Street Books or The Book Cellar or Centuries & Sleuths or any of the other great local outlets where books are a passion. But that’s part of the problem: independent bookstores, along with small presses, literary journals, funding for the arts, and so forth, are getting crushed underfoot, and we know bigger is not necessarily better.

This is a world in which there are, seemingly, about four books that command our attention at any given moment, maybe a dozen if you include Sarah Palin’s new memoir, Peter Yarrow’s new children’s book, the latest diet book, whatever it was Oprah just recommended, the latest ghost-written sports biography, and anything by Dan Brown, Nora Roberts, John Grisham or James Patterson. They’re just trying to make money, okay, but what good does that do us?

We Need a Rock Jam

As a writer, I’ve always envied the rock jam—Bono and Springsteen and Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne up there with Chuck Berry, bringing life and merriment and inspiration to Johnny B. Goode. Or Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson, Lyle Lovett, Trisha Yearwood and so forth joining Johnny Cash for an extended version of I Walk The Line. Van Morrison fronting for The Band.

But there is no literary equivalent to the rock jam, no single space in time when the past, present and future all join hands, combine talents, celebrate a story or poem or novel or memoire that has made deep and loving imprints.

Mostly, this is just the nature of the form: writing is an art practiced and consumed in private. No other art form is quite like that. Musicians have an audience, paintings hang in galleries, clothing designers have the catwalk. Books are read alone.

The Chicago Literary Hall of Fame is our chance to jam. It starts with a Facebook page and will hopefully grow into an expanded website, traveling exhibit, and an awards ceremony for the first induction in 2010. Sign in and let us know who is your favorite Chicago writer, and why. And don’t forget that little button in corner where you can contribute cash to the effort.

Here’s a chance to grab your pens and raise your voices. Sing the praises of the writers who inspired you. And jam, jam, jam on into that dark night.

Donald G. Evans is the author of the novel Good Money After Bad and editor of the anthology Cubbie Blues: 100 Years of Waiting Till Next Year. He is also spearheading the movement to create a Chicago Literary Hall of Fame.

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