Annotating the Chicago Canon

On Wednesday night, Professor Bill Savage of Northwestern University lectured to an eager crowd at the Blackstone Public Library in Kenwood. His topic was the new edition of “Chicago: City on the Make,” of which he is co-annotator. Savage teaches the 1951 Nelson Algren essay to his students as part of a class on Chicago writers. As he gave his talk on the author’s life and literary work, he made it clear that this essay is the perfect tool to teach Chicagoans that areas of the city which might not look pretty are still worth exploring.

Savage decided to annotate this classic piece after his frustrating experience teaching it. Algren skillfully mixes together a litany of topical references, including the names of crooked politicians, minor league baseball players, and TV personalities. Savage found that he spent more time explaining these obscure references than talking about anything else in the dense work. When a student of his found an early online annotation, he contacted Schmittgens and suggested he produce an annotated edition for the book’s fiftieth anniversary. It was subsequently published by the University of Chicago Press. At the library on Wednesday, Savage’s talk was promoting the sixtieth anniversary edition, which features new pictures in addition to the annotations.

The current reprint of the annotated edition is the last in a series of radical transformations of Algren’s work. Originally published in a tourist’s guide edition of the travel magazine Holiday, and subsequently reprinted as a Christmas gift book, the book fell out of popularity during the 50’s. Because of Algren’s overtly political message, his work began to be published by smaller presses and publicized as a sensationalist urban exposé, complete with scantily clad women on its paperback cover.

Savage, however, insists that Algren was not a sensationalist. While he certainly wasn’t afraid to explore Chicago’s seedier side, Savage feels that he expresses a healthy love for all parts of the city. This is a love Savage wants readers of the text, particularly his students, to share. He himself doesn’t own a car, and instead rides his bike through different neighborhoods in order to fill in his mental map of the city. Students in his class are required to do the same.  At Blackstone, he reminds the audience that Chicagoans must “love the boulevards and the alleys” of the city, because both are part of the colorful and diverse city they call home.