Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Tragic Chicago

The city of Chicago itself is the tragic hero of Chicago: City on the Make that Nelson Algren personifies as the living definition of tragedy: on the one hand there are inherent flaws to the city, but on the other, Algren is completely in love with Chicago. Why else would he devote such a profound portrait?

The language of Algren's prose is married to Chicago (and to that specific era in Chicago as we have learned). Unlike that of Sandburg or Sinclair or, certainly, Larson, Algren's language is inseparable from Chicago and is therefore Chicago painting Chicago. It's the city in a mirror put down on paper. It sees its flaws but looks past them and is still able to love what it sees. Algren certainly makes no effort to skirt the city's flaws--rather, he thrives on them.
"For always our villains have hearts of gold and all our heroes are slightly tainted. It always takes somebody like The Hink, in whom avarice and generosity mingled like the hot rum and the cold water in his own Tom-and-Jerries, to run a city wherein warmth of heart and a freezing greed beat, like the blood and the breath, as one."
Even Sandburg wasn't this woefully honest (and maybe this is why Algren wasn't well-like by the Chicagoans of his time) but it's easy to pick up on Algren's love for this unique quality of Chicago--its tainted Hustlers and heroes. "Once you've become a part of this particular patch, you'll never love another. Like loving a woman with a broken nose, you may well find lovelier lovelies, but never a lovely so real."

Indeed, like Shakespeare's Macbeth, Chicago is a lovable character with tremendous aspirations (1893 Columbian Exposition, 2016 Olympic bid, etc.) but insurmountable flaws come along with that tragic narrative. In true tragic form these flaws lead to the downfall of the character--or in this case the city. In Algren's eyes such a transformation is already taking place. "Giants lived here once. It was the kind of town, thirty years gone, that made big men out little ones. It was geared for great deeds then, as it is geared for small deeds now." Algren isn't hopeful for Chicago's future as he sends it down the path of the tragic hero. It--like Macbeth and Othello--has to fail due to its unwieldy flaws.

Algren was the perfect author for this portrait because of his attachment to the city. He was able to look on it realistically and love it for what it really was and his prose captured the tragic personality of the second city.

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