A lost magazine from an elegant era
In the early part of the twentieth century H. G. Wells pronounced the city of Chicago “a great industrial desolation” and a “nineteenth century nightmare.” Often noted by outsiders only for its slums, squalor, and stockyards, during the twenties and thirties Chicago fought hard to transform its image into one of a sophisticated urban center, struggling for cultural superiority with it’s arch rival to the east, and the burgeoning megalopolis in the west. One of the city’s weapons in this struggle was a new publication which, in its own words, claimed to represent “a cultural, civilized, and vibrant” city “which needs make no obeisance to Park Avenue, Mayfair, or the Champs Elysees.” Urbane in aspiration and first published just sixteen months after the 1925 appearance of the New Yorker, the Chicagoan sought passionately to redeem the Windy City’s unhappy reputation by demonstrating the presence of style and sophistication in the Midwest. Nevertheless, for all it’s elegance and flair the magazine had a life span of less than a decade, forgotten as the boom years of the Jazz age lapsed into the Great Depression.
Now, as Julia Keller notes in a recent review for the Chicago Tribune, “thanks to the archival detective work of Neil Harris, emeritus professor at the University of Chicago, we can glide our way back to an era when elegance mattered—not only in dress and deportment, but also in sentence and image. In the The Chicagoan: A Lost Magazine of the Jazz Age… a hefty, gorgeous hunk of a book that reproduces one entire issue as well as 149 covers and many articles, a vanished era returns. It comes back in all of its fussy glory, its daffy humor, its gentle insistence that even a city best known for gangsters and stockyards could yearn for beauty and glamor.”
Harris dug out the issues, tracked down the identities of the artists, writers and editors who created them and put the whole enterprise into historical context in the spirited essays that precede each section. With its vivid covers, its book and theater and concert reviews, its whimsical cartoons, and its cheeky profiles, The Chicagoan sought to convey “the personality of its namesake city,” Harris writes, billing itself as “the only oracle of smart Chicago.…” It tried to suggest that a city’s cultural life was key, that the Midwest wasn’t just a holding pen for cows and crooked politicians. The place had style. The place had charm. The place was here to stay—even if The Chicagoan, sadly, wasn’t.