July 9, 2011

CHICAGO VOICES: Hemingway, Anderson, Fuller, Foreman

As I have written before, I was honored to serve on the 2011 Nominating Committee for the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame. Nelson Algren, Lorraine Hansberry, Gwendolyn Brooks, Studs Terkel, Richard Wright and Saul Bellow were inducted in 2010 as the inaugural Hall of Fame class. Several others -- Theodore Dreiser, Harriet Monroe, Carl Sandburg, Mike Royko and James T. Farrell -- are automatic nominees for 2011 based upon the level of support they received last year. I nominated Ernest Hemingway, Sherwood Anderson, Henry Blake Fuller (pictured here), and Kent Foreman; my reasons are described below. Other members of the nominating committee included Gina Frangello, George Rawlinson, Quraysh Ali Lansana, Carlo Rotella, George Saunders, Don Share, Tim Spears, and Nell Taylor -- and, may I say, that's damn fine company. Take a look at all of our nominations here.

Ernest Hemingway
All great writing is authentic. The voice is unmistakable, revealing an organic connection between the writer and what is being written. All great writing is innovative, discovering clever approaches to language, structure, form and story that transform our understanding of literary art. All great writing is influential, changing fundamentally how others write. (As Tobias Wolff has pointed out, if you are writing today you are either trying to write like Ernest Hemingway or trying not to write like Ernest Hemingway. That’s influence.) Strip away the larger-than-life life and what you are left with are the man’s stories – authentic, innovative, influential tales. “At the lake shore there was another rowboat drawn up,” one story begins. “The two Indians stood waiting.” Generations of writers have now come and gone writing in the shadows of this pioneer, for better, for worse, forever.

Sherwood Anderson
Why are great writers great? Because they stand on the shoulders of giants. In an Atlantic Monthly essay published 12 years after Sherwood Anderson’s death, William Faulkner describes his days with Anderson in New Orleans, the debt he and Ernest Hemingway owe Anderson, and the pain they inflicted upon their old friend – Hemingway in "The Torrents of Spring" and Faulkner himself in a parody booklet designed to ridicule Anderson’s style. After Sherwood Anderson helped to get Faulkner’s first book published, the great Southern writer recalls, “I saw Anderson only once more, because the unhappy caricature affair had happened in the meantime and he declined to see me, for several years, until one afternoon at a cocktail party in New York: and again there was that moment when he appeared taller, bigger than anything he ever wrote. Then I remembered 'Winesburg, Ohio' and 'The Triumph of the Egg' and some of the pieces in 'Horses and Men,' and I knew that I had seen, was looking at, a giant in an earth populated to a great – too great – extent by pygmies.”

Henry Blake Fuller
Let us now praise the carpenter-writers, those too-often unsung wordsmiths who hammer out sentences and paragraphs, and are equally responsible for building a great city as the highly praised architects and well-paid financiers. Let us now praise Henry Blake Fuller. “Ogden smiled,” he writes in his most popular work, The Cliff-Dwellers. “He saw that he was face to face with a true daughter of the West; she had never seen him before, and she might never see him again, yet she was talking to him with perfect friendliness and confidence. Equally, he was sure, was she a true daughter of Chicago; she had the one infallible local trait: she would rather talk to a stranger about her own town than about any other subject.” Fuller was born in 1857, in a house that stood where LaSalle Street Station stands today. One of Chicago’s most important early writers, he penned short stories, novels and plays with an eye cast on the social and economic forces at play in the bruising city he loved. Today, Henry Blake Fuller is largely unknown – perhaps because his 1896 play, “At Saint Judas’s,” was very possibly the first play with a homosexual theme published in the United States while a novel published 10 years before his death in 1929, “Bertram Cope’s Year,” centered on gay characters. A man ahead of his time? A writer not to be forgotten.

Kent Foreman
Go to a poetry slam – and you will hear Kent Foreman’s voice still among us. Listen closely and you will catch the husky, rhapsodic echoes of how Kent Foreman bridged generations from the Beats to today’s performance masters. Dubbed “the elder statesman of spoken word” by the Chicago Tribune, Kent was born in February 1935 and died in November 2010. Along the way, he wrote and performed across the United States, received the Chicago Historical Society’s Carl Sandburg Award, delivered a classic performance of a haiku, “Epiphany,” on Def Poetry Jam, and inspired countless writers searching for their own voices. “Kent was such a strong presence in our lives as young poets,” Tara Betts recalls in an online obituary. “The last time I saw Kent we drove on 47th Street together; even as we were taking in the familiar street, Kent was reciting poems.”


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