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Feature Tue Nov 23 2010
(left to right: Jackie Taylor, Mamie Hansberry, Haki Madhubuti, Nora Brooks Blakely, Gary Houston, Gregory Bellow)
You probably have a list of go-to crowd-pleasers when entertaining out of town guests: the Art Institute, Millennium Park, the Museum of Science and Industry. How about if your guests have literary inclinations? Sure, there are great independent bookstores, there are plenty of lively readings to check out, but can you put your finger on one thing that definitively encapsulates Chicago's literary history and cultural relevance? No? Well, local author Don Evans aims to change that.
Evans calls Chicago "the only place, of all the places I've experienced, that I know and love like a brother." He lived in London from 2002-2005 and made a decent dent in his passport visiting other European cities in that time, always making a point to seek out literary sites. "The Dublin Writers Museum interested me the most," he said in an e-mail interview. "Walking through that museum, there was no mistaking the value Ireland placed upon its literary contributors. The parts added up to a greater whole. When we settled back in Chicago, I saw, more clearly, a scattered and incomplete recognition of our own heritage. The culture entails countless tiny enclaves, only some of which overlap, and there would be no easy way, were you to try, to discover the heart of our heritage."
Attempting to fill in this gap, Evans conceived of the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame. He brought the idea to Randy Richardson, president of the Chicago Writers Association, where Evans is a board member. Richardson called the idea "something that is long overdue. For too long, Chicago has been known as the Second City. Putting a spotlight on our rich and proud literary tradition will let the rest of the world know what we here in Chicago's writing community already know -- that Chicago's literary heritage is second to none."
So the two amassed a dedicated team of volunteers, including Gapers Block's own Alice Maggio on the nominating committee. This past Saturday, November 20, they held their inaugural induction ceremony at the Northeastern Illinois University Auditorium. It was an elegant, dressy affair, complete with author-themed cocktails. You could feel the love in this labor of love.
The evening's host was Chicago journalist and radio host Rick Kogan (whose girlfriend, upon hearing the list of honorees, said "Wow, who did they induct last year?"). Kogan, the son of a journalist, was a natural choice to host with his dry humor and deep connection to Chicago. "Four of the inductees bounced me on their knee when I was young, and I'm pretty sure I drank with three and got drunk with two."
The evening started out with a performance from the Neo-Futurists, a combination of rehearsed pieces and improv including "Studs reports," short, man-on-the-street style interviews with audience members. There were also performances from the Young Chicago Authors, an opening slide show from Rich Sims, musical performances from Green Mill house band Cam's Tie, and sing-a-longs with Lori Lippitz and the Maxwell Street Klezmer band.
Gwendolyn Brooks' award was introduced by Sara Paretsky and Fred Sasaki of Poetry magazine, who shared audio recordings of Brooks' poetry in her own voice. Accepting the award was Brooks' daughter, playwright Nora Brooks Blakely, who gave a warm and loving tribute. "My mother was a clip-aholic," she said, sending Nora countless newspaper clippings, and a "madwoman for soaps...I bet you didn't know that if you called her at the wrong time, she'd simply answer 'All My Children' and hang up." Gwendolyn Brooks, Guggenheim fellow and Pulitzer prize winner, was so giving of her time and energy to emerging writers that her husband jokingly called her "our lady of the open mouth."
Saul Bellow's award was introduced by Jan Schwarz, senior lecturer of Yiddish Studies at the University of Chicago. Accepting the award was Bellow's son, Greg, who recalls his father as a trailblazer among children of immigrants and told the story of a young Saul Bellow passing around Joyce's then-banned Ulysses amongst his high school classmates. Bellow knew Chicago so well that he slightly unnerved his son's girlfriend by knowing precisely where in Rogers Park she was from by her voice. "You see, I've done a study of the Chicago neighborhood accents," he said.
Richard Wright's award presentation included a fantastic poetry performance by two members of Young Chicago Authors, the original "Eulogy for Richard Wright." Presenting the award was DePaul professor and Third World Press founder Haki Madhubuti. He told of his mother urging him at age 14 to go to the library and read Wright's Black Boy. Madhubuti recalls being reluctant to do so "because I was raised in apartheid America and I hated myself." Following his mother's advice changed his life, however. "It was the first book about the African-American experience I had read that wasn't an insult to my personhood. It made me not a different person, but a different questioner." Accepting the award was Wright's great niece Dana Smith, who marveled at how much society has changed since Wright's time: "...and now we have the audacity of hope," she said, to hearty applause.
Nelson Algren's award was introduced by Northwestern professor Bill Savage. There was a lively dramatic reading of two short Algren pieces by journalist and actor Gary Houston. Photographer Art Shay accepted Algren's award. Shay had plenty of bawdy tales of his friend who "didn't take his own advice not to sleep with women with more troubles than your own." Shay swears Johnny Depp and Vanessa Paradis are slated to play Nelson Algren and Simone de Beauvoir in a film adaptation. After the ceremony I had a chance to briefly chat with Nina Gaspich of the Nelson Algren Committee. She happily explained the Algren artifacts set up in the hallway for the event and said "this award tonight is the highest honor he's received since his 1950 National Book Award."
Lorraine Hansberry had strong family representation at the event, many of whom flew in from L.A. Her award presentation included a dramatic reading by Jackie Taylor, performing as Mama from A Raisin in the Sun. Audrey Niffeneger introduced the award. Her speech told of the Hansberry family's fight for fair housing in Chicago, which influenced her play. "Literally howling mobs surrounded our house," Hansberry said in To Be Young, Gifted and Black. "I was spat at, cursed at and pummeled in the daily trek to and from school." Her mother fiercely defended the family while her father "fought the respectable part of the battle in the Washington court." The US Supreme Court, on November 13, 1940, ruled in Hansberry v. Lee that whites cannot bar African Americans from white neighborhoods. Accepting Hansberry's award was her sister Mamie, owner of the real estate business, Hansberry Enterprises. "All Americans were immigrants at some point, and African-Americans didn't want to come here," she said. She praised her sister's achievements, saying "express yourself in a decent and kind way and you get results."
Studs Terkel's award presentation included a performance by the Teen Writers and Artists Project and an introduction by Stuart Dybek. Dybek said that, with his likable, down-to-earth persona, "Studs' importance as a writer often gets overlooked. He integrated experience and history in a unique way." Accepting his award was his son Dan, who had no awkwardness juggling the Literary Hall of Fame award and the microphone. "Let's give this little fella an optimal view, here," he said, placing the statue a foot or two ahead of him. He called his father's refusal to sign a loyalty oath during the McCarthy era and subsequent blacklisting "the watershed event of his life," shaping his political views and personal philosophy. He said that his father put people at ease because he wasn't afraid to be vulnerable with them, noting his mechanical ineptness as an example (he kept having to be reminded to "just push play" on his interview tape recorder). He recalled an interview his father did with a single mother who, upon hearing their talk played back, said "I never knew I felt that way."
Representatives from Young Chicago Authors performing "Eulogy For Richard Wright."
Gary Houston performing one of two Nelson Algren shorts
It was a lot of history to pack into one night. The performances and acceptance speeches were slated to last from 7 to 9pm but stretched to 10:15, easy.
So what's next for the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame? Fundraising. When asked how financing for the venture has been going, Evans said "it's a little like how I financed my twenties: We spend more than we have and then make heroic efforts to get back to even, repeat. The induction ceremony will hint at the possibilities of what the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame can become, and then we have to go about the business of finding money to realize those possibilities."
The Literary Hall of Fame has a permanent home at the Cliff Dwellers Club, 200 S Michigan Ave #22. This is a private club, however, so visiting the Hall of Fame will be through special events for now. "Brian Bernardoni, the new Cliff Dwellers president, has assured us we'll be able to allow liberal access to visitors," Evans said. "In addition to this, we're planning to put together a traveling exhibit to make the rounds of libraries and other more accessible places. And of course we'll continue to have conversations with some of our existing cultural institutions to see whether a partnership might make sense, so that there will be a permanent exhibit that everybody can enjoy."
(Photography courtesy of Karen Janas; more photos of the event available at her website).