Friday, July 13, 2018

It's Not Even Past #24 - Orson Welles and the Grandiose Part 3 - Beginning

Hog Butcher for the World,
   Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
   Player with Railroads and the Nation's Freight Handler;
   Stormy, husky, brawling,
   City of the Big Shoulders:

They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I have seen your painted women under the gas lamps luring the farm boys.
And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: Yes, it is true I have seen the gunman kill and go free to kill again.
And they tell me you are brutal and my reply is: On the faces of women and children I have seen the marks of wanton hunger.
And having answered so I turn once more to those who sneer at this my city, and I give them back the sneer and say to them:
Come and show me another city with lifted head singing so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.
Flinging magnetic curses amid the toil of piling job on job, here is a tall bold slugger set vivid against the little soft cities;
Fierce as a dog with tongue lapping for action, cunning as a savage pitted against the wilderness,
   Building, breaking, rebuilding,
Under the smoke, dust all over his mouth, laughing with white teeth,
Under the terrible burden of destiny laughing as a young man laughs,
Laughing even as an ignorant fighter laughs who has never lost a battle,
Bragging and laughing that under his wrist is the pulse, and under his ribs the heart of the people,
Laughing the stormy, husky, brawling laughter of Youth, half-naked, sweating, proud to be Hog Butcher, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with Railroads and Freight Handler to the Nation.

At no point does Carl Sandburg's poem contain the word which it describes; Chicago is merely its title. The poem is so iconic that when it's recited, we recite the title in the poem, but if you recited the poem to someone who never heard it, would you be able to infer what city it's about any more than than you could infer that William Blake's Jerusalem is about Jerusalem? (and it isn't) It could just as easily have been about New York or Detroit, or about the London or Birmingham or Manchester of a few generations earlier, or about the Mexico City or Seoul or Sao Paolo or Jakarta or Karachi or Shanghai or Mumbai of today? It is a poem about any city on the make, with thousands of glamorous success stories piled atop millions of failures who tried just as hard. 

The Chicago of Welles's youth considered itself the greatest city in the world, with at least some reason, in a country that newly considered itself, with at least some reason, the greatest country in the world. As the famous poem of Carl Sandburg said, Chicago, whose unpoetic nickname was Porkopolis, but the legends of that Chicago bare little repeating. It's all there in the Sandburg poem. The lure of its glamor, the horror of its poverty, the pull of its women and the danger of its crime, the beauty of its skyline and the ugliness of its factories,. The easy living of its upper class and the harsh, blighted life of its underclass. The railroads, the pork, the agricultural distribution, the sheer vivid will to life that every resident of Chicago seemed to exemplify to everyone, everywhere, who knew anything about the city at all. 

After World War I, European inflation meant that most of the greatest American writers could live in Europe thanks to the strength of the dollar, but if America had a literary center in the post-Great War era, it was Chicago. From his proud provincial backward of Baltimore, H.L. Mencken said of it: 
Out in Chicago, the only genuinely civilised city in the New World, they take the fine arts seriously and get into such frets and excitements about them as are raised nowhere else save by baseball, murder, political treachery, foreign wars and romantic loves. 
Carl Sandberg lived there, of course, but also Sherwood Anderson, Theodore Dreiser, Vachel Lindsay, L. Frank Baum - better known as author of The Wizard of Oz, Ben Hecht - the screenwriter considered the greatest of his day who helped to write Scarface, Angels with Dirty Faces, Wuthering Heights, Gone with the Wind, Stagecoach, His Girl Friday, The Shop Around the Corner, and Strangers on a Train. Not to mention a little known cartoonist was getting his career started there named Walt Disney. And let's not forget, both John Dos Passos and Ernest Hemingway were from Chicago, though Hemingway was technically from Oak Park, the suburb to the West and claimed to hate everything about it. Many of the greatest New Orleans jazz musicians had moved up to Chicago as well, including King Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton, Earl Hines, and, until then, a little known trumpeter named Louis Armstrong. The Arts Institute was amazing, there were six or seven theater openings every week and the greatest theaters in the world would tour their productions to Chicago, every major opera and every major opera singer would present in Chicago with regularity. Salome, with its Dance of the Seven Veils - generally danced with nothing under the seventh, caused such a sensation that the Police Chief was called to maintain public decency, so opera then became more popular than ever. 

Dick Welles was rich, so whether threw Dick, or Beatrice, or Dr. Bernstein, Orson saw all of it. By the time he was fifteen and ready to take on the world, this Chicago had vanished. As one wit said: 'First came the manic phase. Then came the depression.'

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