The Chicago Renaissance Essay - Critical Essays

The Chicago Renaissance


The Chicago Renaissance

Following the migration of many African Americans to the Midwest in the early-1900s to the 1960s, Chicago became the center of a flourishing black arts, literature, and music movement that is now referred to as the Chicago Renaissance.

The term Chicago Renaissance was coined by sociologist Richard Bone and others at the University of Chicago School of Sociology during the 1980s. It refers to a massive cultural and artistic movement in African-American life in Chicago during the early 1920s until sometime in the 1950s. According to Bone and his followers, the Chicago Renaissance paralleled the Harlem Renaissance that took place a few years earlier in New York, both in significance and proportion. However, later critics have remarked on several differences between the two movements. For example, Lisa Woolley has noted that while the Harlem Renaissance was marked by a sense of optimism, in which writers and artists drew upon a shared past for inspiration, the Chicago Renaissance was comprised of authors from a different generation. Their experiences with racism and social inequality, as well as the economic hardships many suffered during the Great Depression, imbued the writing of this time with a great sense of personal deprivation and disappointment. The conditions for the creation of an environment that fostered such a confluence of black arts and literature in Chicago during this time was due to the migration beginning at the end of the nineteenth century of large numbers of African Americans to the Midwest. Often referred to as the Great Migration, this transference of people was partly the result of advancing technology, which eliminated many of the jobs traditionally held by blacks in the South, and partly a result of the racism that blacks continued to encounter in the South. Because of this, during the latter half of the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth, more than six million black Americans left the South for the northern states, many of them settling in Chicago and surrounding areas. Although the journey was one that promised freedom and financial independence, the reality of urban life, with its accompanying social and economic hardships, proved to be a bitter disappointment to many of the migrants—this sense of despondence and failure is reflected in many literary works of this time.

Many writers of the Chicago Renaissance viewed the Great Migration as a mirror of the original migration from Africa, with the city becoming a place of unpleasant reality. One of the most prominent and influential writers of the Chicago Renaissance was Richard Wright, who moved to Chicago in the 1930s and embarked upon a writing career, hoping for success in the city. His works, such as Native Son (1940), reflected a new vocabulary of realism and sociological detail that had not been seen in black writing in the past. As with many of his contemporaries, including poet Frank Marshall Davis, Wright's work is permeated with the very real struggles of black Americans living in urban cities, including images of violence. In this regard, the writing of the Chicago Renaissance was highly political, and very consciously reflected the concerns of a stark urban experience. Interestingly, the Chicago School or urban sociologists, led by Robert Park, viewed the black experience in the northern cities of America not as a failure, but as an unfortunate, but rational result of the mix created by the environment.

In addition to Wright, other major writers of the Chicago Renaissance included Gwendolyn Brooks, Lorraine Hansberry, Frank Marshall Davis, Margaret Walker, and Theodore Ward, among others. While many of these writers shared similar concerns about the migration experience in general, and the position of black Americans in particular, they expressed these themes in highly individual ways in their works. The confluence of writing in Chicago at this time also resulted in the development of an important cultural tradition, and it is now acknowledged that the stress placed by these authors on the significance of their culture and race were very influential forces in the development of American vernacular language and music. The launching of periodicals such as Poetry by Harriet Monroe, the various literary clubs that many of these authors belonged to, and the interaction they had with their white counterparts, created the opportunity for many forums of cultural and interracial interaction. Additional opportunities to intermingle were provided by foundations such as the Julius Rosenwald Fund, which sponsored both white and black artists, providing yet another stage for interaction between artists from both races. This, contends Robert Bone, contributed to a general development of African-American culture because it allowed many black writers to overcome their cultural isolation, while also providing them with a means of financial support. Regardless of this unique interaction, literature produced by black writers during the Chicago Renaissance continued to be highly political, reflecting their social concerns.

Representative Works

Margaret Anderson
My Thirty Years’ War (autobiography) 1930
The Fiery Fountains (autobiography) 1951
The Strange Necessity (autobiography) 1970

Gwendolyn Brooks
A Street in Bronzeville (poetry) 1945
Annie Allen (poetry) 1949
Maud Martha (poetry) 1953
In the Mecca (poetry) 1968

Frank Marshall Davis
Black Man's Verse (poetry) 1935
I Am the American Negro (poetry) 1937
47th Street (poetry) 1948

Lorraine Hansberry
The Drinking Gourd (play) 1959
A Raisin in the Sun (play) 1959
The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window (play) 1964

Harriet Monroe
Valeria and Other Poems (poetry) 1892
Poetry: A Magazine of Verse (periodical) [founder and editor] 1912-36
Poets and Their Art (essays) 1933
A Poet's Life (autobiography) 1938

Margaret Walker
For My People (poetry) 1942
The Ballad of the Free (poetry) 1966
Jubilee (novel) 1966
Prophets for a New Day (poetry) 1970
October Journey (poetry) 1973
This Is My Century: New and Collected Poems (poetry) 1989

Richard Wright
Uncle Tom's Children: Five Long Stories (short stories) 1938
Uncle Tom's Children: Four Novellas (short stories) 1938
Native Son (novel) 1940
Native Son (The Biography of a Young American): A Play in Ten Scenes (play) 1941
Black Boy (nonfiction) 1945
The Outsider (novel) 1953

Frank Yerby
Health Card (short story) 1944
The Golden Hawk (novel) 1948
The Old Gods Laugh (novel) 1964
The Dahomean (novel) 1971

Criticism: Overviews And General Studies

Robert Bone (essay date summer 1986)

SOURCE: Bone, Robert. “Richard Wright and the Chicago Renaissance.” Callaloo 9, no. 3 (summer 1986): 446-68.

[In the following essay, Bone provides an introduction to the Chicago School of writers, focusing on the connections between the literary doctrines followed by authors such as Richard Wright and Arna Bontemps on the one hand, and the theories developed by the University of Chicago School of Sociology on the other.]

One of the last visits I had with [Robert] Park was a few years ago when he had dinner in my apartment in Chicago. After dinner Richard Wright was to come by, as Park had expressed an interest in meeting him. … [Park] was old...

(The entire section is 12143 words.)

Lawrence R. Rodgers (essay date spring-fall 1996)

SOURCE: Rodgers, Lawrence R. “Richard Wright, Frank Marshall Davis and the Chicago Renaissance.” Langston Hughes Review 14, no. 1-2 (spring-fall 1996): 4-12.

[In the following essay, Rodgers presents a brief overview of the Chicago Renaissance, especially comparing the differences and similarities between its two best-known authors, Richard Wright and Frank Marshall Davis.]

Of the many similarities between Frank Marshall Davis and his more celebrated contemporary Richard Wright, one in particular stands out. Both men were products of the Great Migration, the epic rearrangement of African American culture that saw over six million black southerners leave their homes...

(The entire section is 4676 words.)

Criticism: Definitions And Growth

Marilyn J. Atlas (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: Atlas, Marilyn J. “Harriet Monroe, Margaret Anderson, and the Spirit of the Chicago Renaissance.” Midwestern Miscellany 9 (1981): 43-53.

[In the following essay, Atlas studies the differing views of the Chicago Renaissance as expressed via the works and periodicals launched by Margaret Anderson and Harriet Monroe, pointing out that although the women had extremely different points of view, their diversity reflects the complex nature of the renaissance itself and is key to understanding that phenomenon.]

Since the 1887 Haymarket riots which strongly influenced such radical women as Voltairine de Cleyre and Emma Goldman, Chicago has proven to be a place where...

(The entire section is 3824 words.)

Sidney H. Bremer (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: Bremer, Sidney H. “Willa Cather's Lost Chicago Sisters.” In Women Writers and the Essays in Feminist Literary Criticism, edited by Susan Merrill Squier, pp. 210-29. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1984.

[In the following essay, Bremer draws contrasts between women and male writers of the Chicago literary renaissance, noting that the novels written by women have been overlooked by critics but are no less worthy of attention.]

Most American literary critics can tick off some half-dozen novels from the first phase of the “Chicago literary renaissance”: Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie (1900) at the top of the lists, then The Jungle...

(The entire section is 7462 words.)

Theodore O. Mason Jr. (essay date spring-fall 1996)

SOURCE: Mason, Theodore O., Jr. “‘Mapping’ Richard Wright: A Response to Deborah Barnes' ‘I'd Rather be a Lampost in Chicago’: Richard Wright and the Chicago Renaissance of African American Literature.” Langston Hughes Review 14, no. 1-2 (spring-fall 1996): 62-4.

[In the following essay, Mason offers an assessment of Wright's literary reputation, remarking on the confluence of contemporary influences on his work.]

In her essay on Richard Wright, Deborah Barnes' essay moves us happily, in the main, toward a reconsideration of African American literary and cultural history from the mid-twentieth century. One of the curiosities of that history is the fashion...

(The entire section is 1542 words.)

Margaret B. Wilkerson (essay date 2001)

SOURCE: Wilkerson, Margaret B. “Political Radicalism and Artistic Innovation in the Works of Lorraine Hansberry.” In African American Performance and Theater History: A Critical Reader, edited by Harry J. Elam Jr. and David Krasner, pp. 40-55. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

[In the following essay, Wilkerson contends that the radical, political message of Hansberry's work was ignored by critics until the 1990s, when a re-assessment of her plays led scholars to recognize the compelling political message of Hansberry's work.]

Lorraine Hansberry was a visionary playwright whose belief in humankind's potential to overcome its own excesses of avarice,...

(The entire section is 6702 words.)

Criticism: The Language Debate

Craig Werner (essay date 1990)

SOURCE: Werner, Craig. “Leon Forrest and the AACM: The Jazz Impulse and the Legacy of the Chicago Renaissance.” In Leon Forrest: Introductions and Interpretations, edited by John G. Cawelti, pp. 127-51. Bowling Green, Ohio.: Bowling Green State University Press, 1990.

[In the following essay, Werner argues that the art and experience of Leon Forrest and other contemporary musicians and artists who have attempted to merge African-American tradition with European trends are part and parcel of the Chicago Renaissance. Werner also states that these connections are a significant contribution to the development of African-American culture in the United States, and deserving of more...

(The entire section is 9180 words.)

Lisa Woolley (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Woolley, Lisa. “Dialect is a Virus: Chicago's Literary Vernacular Amid Linguistic Purity Movements.” In American Voices of the Chicago Renaissance, pp. 16-38. Dekalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, Woolley discusses the issues surrounding the use of dialect and immigrant speech in the writings of the authors of the Chicago Renaissance, noting that although these practices seem somewhat racist due to the stereotypes they represent, the use of linguistic dialect in the writing of the time was in fact a response to prejudice in language and expression.]

[T]h' best way to masther th' language iv anny...

(The entire section is 10350 words.)

Lisa Woolley (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: Woolley, Lisa. “‘The Best Conversation the World Has to Offer’: Chicago’s Women Poets and Editors.” In American Voices of the Chicago Renaissance, pp. 91-119. Dekalb.: Northern Illinois University Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, Woolley surveys the work of such women poets as Eunice Tietjens, Alice Corbin, Mary Aldis, and Marjorie Allen Seiffert in the context of the Chicago Renaissance, noting that these writers challenged and confirmed various stereotypes regarding women's language and writing choices.]

If anyone has a delicate and quick way of living it is always not so important to people as if he had a strong and heavy...

(The entire section is 11677 words.)

Criticism: Major Authors

Robert E. Fleming (essay date fall 1973)

SOURCE: Fleming, Robert E. “Overshadowed by Richard Wright: Three Black Chicago Novelists.” Negro American Literature Forum 7, no. 3 (fall 1973): 75-9.

[In the following essay, Fleming writes about the work of Waters E. Turpin, Alden Bland, and Frank London Brown, three black novelists who, according to Fleming have written significant works about Chicago.]

Inevitably, when one thinks of the black writer's depiction of American city life, he is likely to think first of Richard Wright's Chicago—the cold, snowy city through which Bigger Thomas flees in Native Son, the city from which Cross Damon escapes in The Outsider, the frustrating home of Jake...

(The entire section is 3823 words.)

Patricia A. D'Itri (essay date 1976)

SOURCE: D'Itri, Patricia A. “Richard Wright in Chicago: Three Novels that Represent a Black Spokesman's Quest for Self Identity.” Midwestern Miscellany 4 (1976): 26-33.

[In the following essay, D'Itri cites Wright's first three novels as examples of works that address the progression of self-awareness in the life of black Americans.]

Richard Wright is most widely recognized as a literary spokesman for the alienated Afro-American. His first three novels treat a progression of self awareness in the Black American's stultified existence. Transplanted from the south to Chicago, the culturally deprived male protagonists stand outside the social mainstream and view the...

(The entire section is 4224 words.)

Richard K. Barksdale (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: Barksdale, Richard K. “Margaret Walker: Folk Orature and Historical Prophecy.” In Black American Poets Between Worlds, 1940-1960, edited by R. Baxter Miller, pp. 104-17. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1986.

[In the following essay, Barksdale writes that Walker's poetry is characterized by a sensitivity to ordinary, urban, American life, in contrast to the writing of many contemporaries, such as Robert Hayden or Melvin Tolson, whose work appears much more influenced by academia.]

Like Robert Hayden and Melvin Tolson, Margaret Walker has written her poetry in the shadow of the academy. Both of her advanced degrees from the University of Iowa—the...

(The entire section is 5008 words.)

Lisa Woolley (essay date 1996)

SOURCE: Woolley, Lisa. “From Chicago Renaissance to Chicago Renaissance: The Poetry of Fenton Johnson.” Langston Hughes Review 14, no. 1-2 (1996): 36-48.

[In the following essay, Woolley uses the writing of Fenton Johnson as an example of the way in which authors and writing concerns illustrated an interdependency across cities and races, particularly in relation to the Harlem Renaissance and the Chicago School of writing.]

The use of the word “renaissance” in the literary history of early twentieth-century America nearly reverses the connotation of that term as it pertains to Europe. The New York Little Renaissance, Southern Renaissance, Chicago Renaissance,...

(The entire section is 5903 words.)

Further Reading


Butler, Robert. “Farrell's Ethnic Neighborhood and Wright's Urban Ghetto: Two Visions of Chicago's South Side.” MELUS 18, no. 1 (spring 1993): 103-11.

Comparative analysis of how Farrell and Wright represent the urban environment in their novels.

Cappetti, Carla. Writing Chicago: Modernism, Ethnography, and the Novel. New York, N.Y.: Columbia University Press, 1993, 274 p.

Collection of essays focusing on the literature and social theories that originated in Chicago, including an analysis of Nelson Algren's Never Come Morning.

Cook, William W. “The Black Arts Poets.” In The...

(The entire section is 403 words.)