Interview: Willa, Ernest, William, and Scott—A Talk with Dr. Michelle Moore about Chicago and American Modernism

Dr. Michelle Moore is a professor of English at the College of DuPage whose most recent book is Chicago and the Making of American Modernism: Cather, Hemingway, Faulkner and Fitzgerald in Conflict (Bloomsbury Academic) In it she addresses the titular authors and their relationships to the Windy City, even if that relationship doesn’t seem readily apparent. In her research she turned up Chicago-based influences, individuals, and ideas that affected the authors' work and, by extension, American modernism. I spoke with her about Chicago, Hemingway’s devotion to a book on being a better businessman, Faulkner’s flirtation with puppetry, and more.   Regarding your book Chicago and the Making of American Modernism: Cather, Hemingway, Faulkner and Fitzgerald in Conflict. Can you explain the title and what the book sets out to accomplish? Well, I have to start with a bit of a story that when I got my job, I moved from the East Coast to Chicago. Within a year, I was utterly amazed at how much culture, literary modernism, and art there was I had never heard about, despite all my time at school and all my time reading. I also became aware that novels like the Song of the Lark, by Willa Cather, contained entire sections about Chicago that had been completely overlooked by writers and readers and critics who were not familiar with the history of Chicago. So I was very interested in why Chicago was so overlooked... But then I began to notice that writers like Hemingway, Cather, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, and others, Sherwood Anderson…didn't stick around for long in Chicago if they even stayed there at all. And I wanted to know why, on the one hand, I was hearing all this information about the Chicago Renaissance, and how vital the literary scene was in Chicago. And yet these writers—which marked the height of American literary modernism—didn't stick around and weren't interested in staying in Chicago. So that question really formed the basis of my book. I then started doing archival research, looking through letters, looking through manuscripts to try to figure out why Cather, Hemingway, Faulkner, and Fitzgerald left or didn't even come to Chicago. What I found was that they were conflicted about the relationship to Chicago that they had to, on the one hand, accept that Chicago was a literary center of what was called realist and naturalist writing, which dominated both literary and popular writing scenes. And yet, they also wanted to write against what they were seeing coming out of Chicago, and embrace this new European literary modernism that had not been fully welcomed into Chicago yet. And so these writers I write about were conflicted. And that's probably the nicest way you could say it, and each writer has their own conflict to deal with and their own ways of thinking about Chicago. Hemingway, of course, was from Oak Park and lived in the city briefly. But how do such region-specific figures like Cather, Faulkner, and Fitzgerald tie in? Well, it's interesting that you say region-specific because that regionalism is really this old guard realism that I'm talking about… Cather's writing about the prairie, Faulkner’s writing about the South, while Fitzgerald's writing about everything in the US, right? Hemingway, well, he writes a little bit about Chicago, but then he takes off and he goes to Paris. So, I think after Hemingway, Cather is actually the writer that most people would associate with the Midwest and Chicago. Now her good friend, Irene Miner Weisz from Red Cloud, where she grew up, did live in Chicago. And so Cather visited the city regularly to see her and then later, her good friend, the literary critic, Fanny Butcher. And Cather also had the opportunity when she was very young after she graduated from the University of Nebraska, to move to Chicago at the invitation of her new friend Elia Peattie, who was the first girl reporter for The Chicago Tribune. There's a couple letters…where it really looks like she's going to move to Chicago. But then she does an abrupt about face, skips right over Chicago, goes to Pittsburgh, and then to New York after that. And so Cather, you can see, is always around Chicago, coming through Chicago, and actually writing about Chicago in her novel, The Song of the Lark, but she purposefully turns her back on it. She wants to be part of what she finds in Pittsburgh and in New York, and she actually thinks Chicago tires her out. Faulkner, when he was a young man in Oxford, was very loosely mentored/tutored by Phil Stone. Phil Stone was giving him all the great literary magazines of the time. This is in the early 1920s. And he's giving him Poetry Magazine, which is Harriet Monroe's creation in 1913. Faulkner was reading all the great modernist poetry being published out of that magazine. Stone gives Faulkner other magazines like T.S. Eliot’s The Egoist, but also the Little Review, which is created by Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap out of Chicago. Faulkner was also very interested in puppetry. In fact, he was part of a puppet club briefly, briefly at university, and he wrote a long play called The Marionettes. That's actually his first big literary piece, The Marionettes, and he read a book about modern puppetry in which the last chapter contains information about Maurice Browne and Ellen Van Volkenburg’s theater in Chicago, their modern puppet theater... So, it's like Faulkner comes to Chicago secondhand, through the literary magazines. But also because while at Ole Miss, Faulkner would review all the poetry and novels coming out of Chicago. And he had issue with quite a few of the ones that are considered the center of the Chicago literary scene. So, on the one hand, he doesn't like the Chicago realism very much from the time he is young. On the other hand, he likes what was created in Chicago, and he's very interested in what comes after, as writers and thinkers like Sherwood Anderson and Margaret Anderson leave. Finally, Fitzgerald, when you really look at him, couldn't stop writing about Chicago. And it's funny to me that it had never been noticed before. Fitzgerald writes about Chicago in almost every short story and in every novel. And we know at this point that he wrote from real life. He wrote from crushes he had on girls, particularly one, Ginevra King, who lived up in Lake Forest and was the belle of Lake Forest. And he based Daisy from Gatsby in part on her as well as versions of many of the other women that he writes about across the short stories and novels. But I argue in my book, that there are other, older Chicago figures like Cissy Patterson, that Ginevra King was imitating. This scandalous woman from an older generation who was absolutely fabulous. I think when you see Fitzgerald in relationship to the Chicago stories, you begin to see that he too, is trying to work between this realistic mode of just telling these old...stories against a new modern way of constructing history, much like Hemingway does... We've covered Henry Blake Fuller at Third Coast Review before, and you open the book by discussing him and his novel, The Cliff-Dwellers, and his influence as well as his influences. Could you talk about him a bit? Fuller never left Chicago, like his good friend, Harriet Monroe, who I also write about. And I began with Fuller because during the fair, Fuller became really upset with the way he perceived the artists of the fair were being treated by the industrialists of Chicago. And so Fuller began to write articles that critique the relationship of industrialists to the art scene in Chicago… He critiques this interrelationship in his longer novel, The Cliff-Dwellers. And that novel inaugurates a series of events that allowed artists to band together and fight against this co-opting of art in Chicago. And that's actually the final prong of my argument, where the artists in Chicago have to push back against this marriage between art and business, where art cannot exist unless it serves business and the boosters for business in some way. The section on Hemingway and his uncle's book—How to Make Good, or Winning Your Largest Success, which covered how to be a good businessman—and which he clearly read and reread, was fascinating. Please tell us more. Well, first, a story. If you're doing any large archival research on Hemingway, you have to go to the JFK Presidential Library in Boston. That's where you have the largest store of Hemingway material. And there's so much there, that you can't possibly go through all of it... The thing I always do is, I start looking through the lists of stuff. In large archives and large collections of a single author, there will be storehouses of their things... I became really interested in...Hemingway's final collection of books—and it was his entire library... I started looking through what there was, and I saw that there was this book written by another Hemingway. And I thought, “Wow, that's interesting. I knew about his mother being an artist, but another Hemingway's an author, What is this?” So, I requested it. And because it was from deep in the bowels of the library, it took about four days for the request to go through. And each day I asked, is it available? Am I going to be granted access to it? “No, we haven't heard yet.” So, finally, the fourth day I'm told, “yes, you can have it after lunch.” Well, of course, that was the quickest lunch I've ever had in my life. When I came back, the assistant said to me, “what is it?” And I said, “let me look, and I'll tell you what it is, if my hunch is right.” I opened it, and on the front page was an inscription from his uncle. And the data on it, 1917, indicates my hunch was correct. It was Hemingway's high school graduation present. And so I began to rearrange the work I was already doing in that chapter, because I think that was an extraordinary find. He kept it his entire life. The cover was so worn, and not just from age, he had read and reread it, and so this book was important to him. It's filled with all kinds of advice for the good, moral businessman; how to do good business, which is something that is is very much a Chicago idea and a Chicago term... And so when Hemingway begins to write, you can see that he's trying very hard to be a good businessman, a good writer, creating writing that will sell, as well as writing that, perhaps, is moral...which is not something normally associated with Hemingway. For the rest of the chapter I trace through his career, how this notion of the good businessman will change for Hemingway. And he begins to think that the writing business is a bad business, a dirty business. He will become increasingly cynical about that. He's unsure... He can't be the writer he wants to be and be a good businessman at the same time. And so I show him in conflict, negotiating these terms from his childhood from the graduation present, as he tries to create this new literary modernism that's going to fuse the best-selling realism of his youth that Americans still love with this new European modernism that he adored... Is there anything I didn't ask that you wish I had asked? The question I would ask is, what is the audience for the book? Many academic books are written simply to be for an academic audience. And I didn't want that because the material I found is so potentially interesting to so many different kinds of readers, that I purposely wrote it thinking about the audiences as being not just academics, but outside of academia. I think that readers who have a great interest in one of the writers I cover would find what I have to say about that individual writer interesting. But I think those who have a general interest in Chicago, or Chicago art, or Chicago history, would be surprised at what I uncovered. There are stories about Harriet Monroe and the founding of Poetry Magazine that, frankly, are wrong. And so I spent a lot of time trying to correct a lot of the old passed-down stories and histories of the art scene in Chicago. While thinking about what it means within a larger context, both in the US as well as connections to Europe. Chicago and the Making of American Modernism: Cather Hemingway, Faulkner and Fitzgerald in Conflict is available at bookstores and through the publisher’s website.
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Dan Kelly

Dan Kelly has been a writer and editor for 30 years, contributing work to Chicago Magazine, the Chicago Reader, Chicago Journal, The Baffler, Harvard Magazine, The University of Chicago Magazine, and others.