So many great American writers have come from Chicago, lived here, or set their work in the city that it's impossible to recommend a single book that says all there is to say about the city. But here are a few to get you started.
Upton Sinclair's enormously influential The Jungle tells the tale of a young immigrant encountering the brutal, filthy city. James T. Farrell's trilogy Studs Lonigan, published in the 1930s, explores the power of ethnic and neighborhood identity in Chicago. Other novels set in Chicago include Saul Bellow's The Adventures of Augie March and Humboldt's Gift, and Richard Wright's Native Son. The Time Traveler's Wife, by local author Audrey Niffenegger, unfolds amid recognizable Chicago backdrops such as the Newberry Library. (The movie version, alas, filmed only a few scenes here.)
For an entertaining overview of the city's history, read City of the Century, by Donald Miller (an excellent PBS special based on the book is also available on DVD). Erik Larson's Devil in the White City, a history book that reads like a thriller, tells the engrossing story of the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition and the serial killer who preyed on young women who visited from out of town. For another look at the seamy underside of Chicago's history, try Sin in the Second City, by Karen Abbott, which focuses on the city's most notorious -- and expensive -- brothel.
Two books give a human face to the city's shameful public housing history: Daniel Coyle's Hardball: A Season in the Projects, the true story of youngsters on a Little League baseball team; and Alex Kotlowitz's There Are No Children Here, a portrait of children growing up in one of the city's most dangerous projects. Kotlowitz also wrote Never a City So Real: A Walk in Chicago, which tells the stories of everyday Chicagoans, from a retired steelworker to a public defender, to the owner of a soul-food restaurant.
But no one has given a voice to the people of Chicago like Studs Terkel, whose books Division Street: America, Working, and Chicago are based on interviews with Chicagoans from every neighborhood and income level; and the late newspaper columnist Mike Royko, author of perhaps the definitive account of Chicago machine politics, Boss. His columns have been collected in One More Time: The Best of Mike Royko and For the Love of Mike: More of the Best of Mike Royko.
Jungle Fever -- It's hard to get a man to understand something if his salary depends on him not understanding it. -- Upton Sinclair
The most influential work of Chicago-based literature may also be the most disturbing. Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, an exposé of the city's meatpacking industry, caused a sensation when it was published in 1906. Although the book is a novel, following the tragic life of a poorly paid Lithuanian immigrant, it was based on Sinclair's firsthand observations at the Union Stockyards; many of its most gruesome scenes, such as when a man falls into a processing tank and is ground up along with the rest of the meat, were based on fact. After The Jungle became an international bestseller, U.S. meat exports plummeted and panicked meat-packing companies practically begged for government inspections to prove their products were safe. A Food and Drug Act was passed soon after, which made it a crime to sell food that had been adulterated or produced using "decomposed or putrid" substances; eventually, that led to the founding of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Chicago became a popular setting for feature films in the 1980s and '90s. For a look at Chicago on the silver screen, check out Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1985), the ultimate teenage wish-fulfillment fantasy, which includes scenes filmed at Wrigley Field and the city's annual St. Patrick's Day Parade; The Fugitive (1993), which used the city's El trains as an effective backdrop; and My Best Friend's Wedding (1996). For many Chicagoans, the quintessential hometown movie scene is the finale of The Blues Brothers (1979), which features a multicar pileup in the center of downtown Daley Plaza.
Sometimes locally born actors choose to shoot movies in their hometown. A film that fueled a thousand paparazzi photographs was The Break-Up (2006), starring local-boy-made-good Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Aniston, and filmed on location throughout the city. Another hometown actor, John Cusack, starred in High Fidelity (2000), where hip Wicker Park makes an appropriate backdrop for the tale of a music-obsessed record store owner. Director Michael Mann, a Chicago native, filmed part of the gangster movie Public Enemies (2009) in town -- appropriately enough, since this was the place where bank robber John Dillinger (played by Johnny Depp in the movie) was caught and killed by federal agents.
Though it technically takes place in Gotham City, the setting of the Batman blockbuster The Dark Knight is clearly recognizable as Chicago -- although, rest assured, the real city isn't nearly as dark as the movie version! Swaths of downtown were also overrun by rampaging robots in Transformers 3 (2011).
If Chicagoans were asked to pick one musical style to represent their city, most of us would start singing the blues. Thanks in part to the presence of the influential Chess Records, Chicago became a hub of blues activity after World War II, with musicians such as Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, and Buddy Guy recording and performing here. (For a glimpse of what the music studio was like in its glory days, rent the 2008 movie Cadillac Records, starring Jeffrey Wright as Muddy Waters and Beyoncé Knowles as Etta James.) Buddy Guy is still active on the local scene, making regular appearances at his eponymous downtown blues club, one of the best live music venues in the city.
In the '60s and '70s, Chicago helped usher in the era of "electric blues" -- low-tech, soulful singing melded with the rock sensibility of electric guitars. Blues-influenced rock musicians, including the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, and Eric Clapton, made Chicago a regular pilgrimage spot.
Today the blues has become yet another tourist attraction, especially for international visitors, but the quality and variety of blues acts is still impressive. Hard-core blues fans shouldn't miss the annual (free) Blues Fest, held along the lakefront in Grant Park in early June.
A Chicago Playlist -- The classic swingin' anthem of the city is Frank Sinatra's rendition of "Chicago" ("That toddlin' town . . . free and easy town, brassy, breezy town"), overblown versions of which show up regularly at local karaoke bars. Sinatra also sang his praises to the city in "My Kind of Town (Chicago Is)," which mentions the Wrigley Building and the Union Stockyards. But an even better pick for official city theme song is Robert Johnson's "Sweet Home Chicago," with its appropriately bluesy riff ("Come on, baby don't you want to go, to the same old place, Sweet Home Chicago").
The 1970s pop-lite group Chicago didn't sing specifically about the city (probably because they moved to L.A. as soon as they hit it big), but their cheery "Saturday in the Park" captures the spirit of Grant Park and Lincoln Park in the summertime. Fast-forwarding a few decades, the blistering "Cherub Rock" by Smashing Pumpkins is a harsh take on the city's 1990s-era music scene (opening with the line: "Freak out, give in, doesn't matter what you believe in . . ."); more mellow is the elegiac "Via Chicago" by indie darlings Wilco. And no survey of Chicago music would be complete without mentioning the maestros of hip-hop, Common and Kanye West, who name-check their hometown in the songs "Southside" and "Homecoming," respectively.
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