Book Excerpt



Chicago: The Caxton Club, 2003. small 4to. stiff paper wrappers, smythsewn: drawn-on, hinge-scored cover; trimmed flush. 40 pages. Full color catalogue written for the Caxton Club exhibition Inland Printers: The Fine-Press Movement in Chicago, 1920-45, held at Columbia College in Chicago, January 15, 2003. Features writings of 12 Caxtonians including: John P. Chalmers, Robert A. Cotner, Kim Coventry, Celia Hilliard, Thomas J. Joyce, Arthur H. Miller, Frank J. Piehl, Susan F. Rossen, Michael Thompson, and..... READ MORE

Price: $15.00  other currencies  Order nr. 72548

This book and exhibition provide a glimpse of Chicago in the 1920s and 1930s through the products of its small and fine presses. The city has been portrayed many times in terms of its contributions to mass culture, especially the graphics of advertising. To our knowledge, no one has given equal attention to these small- press works, often created by the same women and men who designed billboards, trade-book jackets, and magazines. These rarities, collector's items now just as they were when produced, portray a different City of Big Shoulders than the one we are used to seeing. The Chicago presented here aspired to be more than hog butcher to the world. It aimed to be a printing capital as well, but it could not claim this distinction on the basis of its huge commercial printing sector alone. If Chicago was to be a great printing center; it had to participate in the international fine-press movement, which represented printers' claims to be purveyors both of age-old craftsmanship and of novel ideas. By 1920 small presses operated all over Europe and North America and had appeared in Latin America, Australia, and Asia as well. The international character of the movement is important for the Chicago story, since Chicago fine-press people did not look to a single model. Indeed, openness to central European and Latin American themes was typical of Chicago artists in the period.

At the end of World War I, Chicago was still enjoying its literary Renaissance, a movement of emotional richness and brassy charm that started around 1900. Sherwood Anderson, Carl Sandburg, Ben Hecht and Floyd Dell were at the height of their creative powers, crafting portraits of Middle America that endure today. Some of them, it is true, would soon move on to New York, but they were identifiably "Chicago writers" in the early I 920s. Ready to take their places were Vincent Starrett, Nelson Algren, Lloyd Lewis, and many others. Because of its roots in journalism and advertising, the Chicago Renaissance produced artists and writers who did not scruple to portray a city of hard edges, garish light and flamboyant colors. A self-consciously bohemian arts community emphasized working-class themes and was encouraged to do so by a public whose members were rarely more than a generation removed from immigrant status. Direct links to Europe through immigration and commerce facilitated Chicago's participation in international modernism. Powerful folk-art revivals on several continents were quickly felt here too. Muckraking journalists, settlement-house workers, ethnographers and linguists, and the University of Chicago's pioneering sociologists all contributed to an ethic of social self-examination. The city's writers became famous for a confrontational stance that has never quite left Chicago literature. Even the staid patrons of high culture embraced this ethic. It was, after all, the age of high-class low life.

Chicago printing and graphic arts of the period faced the same high/low, mass/elite tensions and resolved them in much the same way, at once embracing the contrasts and ignoring the contradictions. You get the picture if you can imagine a Tower Town swell in last night's disheveled evening clothes crossing Bughouse Square, leaning for support on the shoulder of an unemployed machinist or messenger boy. The fancy young man, with only half the ideas, is doing all the talking. His real audience is someone grander; somewhere else, and somewhat ill defined. Repeatedly in this period, we hear this voice. It was urbane, spirited, and above all youthful. It often spoke of rural or working-class ideals but addressed them to a public well beyond the boundaries of provincial Chicago, beyond even America, because Chicagoans claimed to speak for America to the world.