Accidental Critic: 1001 Afternoons in Chicago
“Not that he had anything particular in his mind to write about. But the city was such a razzle-dazzle of dreams, tragedies, fantasies; such a crazy monotone of streets and windows that it filled the newspaper man’s thought from day to day with an irritating blur. And for eight years or so the newspaper man had been fumbling around trying to get it down on paper.”
— Ben Hecht, 1001 Afternoons in Chicago
1001 Afternoons in Chicago
by Ben Hecht
Reviewed by Kim Kishbaugh
One day in the spring of 1921, newsman Ben Hecht walked into the offices of his former employer, the Chicago Daily News, and proposed a new kind of journalism: he wanted to tell the stories of the day as literary tales, rather than as facts (or so-called facts, given the journalistic style of the times). Hecht had literary aspirations, and he thought he could convey a truth through stylistic writing that would captivate and resonate with readers. He believed, in the words of his editor Henry Justin Smith, that “just under the edge of the news as commonly understood, the news often flatly and unimaginatively told, lay life; that in this urban life there dwelt the stuff of literature.”
Smith hired him back on the spot, and soon the paper launched a daily feature known as “1001 Afternoons in Chicago.” For more than a year, Hecht churned out a column a day, while at the same time launching his career as a fiction writer and playwright. The newspaper columns were a diverse collection, some miniature character profiles, some reviews, some sheer rumination, some excavations of the strata underlying the news of the day. “Comedies, dialogues, homilies, one-act tragedies, storiettes, sepia panels, word-etchings, satires, tone-poems, fuges, bourrees—-something different each day,” wrote Smith in his preface to the book that collected 65 of the pieces together in 1922.
That book is available still—or again—thanks to a 2009 reissue by University of Chicago Press. It has weathered the years beautifully. The writing still feels fresh, the subjects timeless and universal. The book paints a vibrant city portrait made up of individual snapshots, characters and stories, a sort of pointillist landscape of 1920s Chicago that could just as easily speak of any city and any time.
Where to begin? How about “Ten-Cent Wedding Rings,” where Madge, the clerk at the five-and-dime, describes the clientele who buy ten-cent wedding bands at a rate of 20-30 per day? “Say, take it from me, these rings don’t ever hear no wedding marches.”
Or maybe “The Watch Fixer,” the tale of Gustave, who tells his redemption story while repairing the newspaper man’s watch? “Und der are so many busted vatches. So nice outside und zo busted inside. … Some time maybe somebody pick me up like I vas a busted vatch and hold me under a micgrozcope und figx me up until I go tick tick again.”
Or perhaps “Pandora’s Box,” which need do nothing more than describe the people who go in and out of a downtown bookstore during a rain storm. “On a rainy day the city gives them up and they come puttering excitedly into the loop on a quest.”
Then again, perhaps “Where the ‘Blues’ Sound,” in which we visit a cabaret: “A spotlight shoots its long hypotenuse upon the floor. In its drifting oval, the entertainer, her shoulders back, her elbows out, her fists clenched and her body twisting into slow patterns…”
I could go on. There are so many things I love about this book, I can’t possibly enumerate them all. But chief among them is how these individual sketches tell a larger, universal story. They paint a portrait of urban life that transcends their time and place. Oh, yes, Hecht captured Chicago magnificently. But the sketches aren’t tales only of Chicago; they capture the fabric of city life and human experience. Indeed, Smith tells us in the preface that newspaper syndicates and New York editors tried to lure Hecht away from the Daily News after the column launched. It’s easy to see why. Anyone could find truth and enjoyment in these columns, not just a Chicagoan.
Yet for a Chicagoan, I think, they are even more special. They describe our lake, our Loop. Here‘s 35th Street, here State Street, and over here the Auditorium Theatre. And here is Michigan Avenue, “this Circe of streets,” says Hecht: “This street, I begin to understand, is consecrated to the unrealities so precious to us. We come here and for a little while allow our dreams to peer timorously at life.”
Which brings me to another facet of these pieces that I absolutely relished: Reading them, I was transported to a place and time that valued and was versed in the liberal arts. Can you even imagine a newspaper column today referencing Circe without feeling a need to explain? I don’t think so. Yet there are similar allusions throughout this book: flipping pages randomly I see Pierrot, Zenobia, the Carlovingian courts, Laocoön, Paphos, Chateaubriand (the person, not the food), Odin, Schopenhauer, and more. I don’t mind telling you I had to look some of them up. Musical references, too, are tossed in without a second thought: pizzicato, pianissimo, andante. It’s a pleasure to be transported to a time when these were all understood well enough to include with the daily news.
Another source of joy: I’d be remiss not to mention Herman Rosse’s gorgeous illustrations, which decorate pages all through the book. The one you see on the cover here is just an appetizer; inside they fill out page after page and are absolutely the whipped-cream dessert that completes this Thanksgiving feast of a book.
After leaving the Daily News and Chicago, Hecht went on to a career writing for stage and screen. He’s better known now as a playwright and script writer than for his earlier work in newspapers. But the seeds of his success are here in 1001 Afternoons in Chicago, where he told the tales of the city one by one.
You could find worse ways to spend 1001 afternoons where you are (or three afternoons, if you devour these pieces the way I did) than to pass them reading this book.
Kim Kishbaugh is no kind of artist at all, but a lover of art in many different forms. She travels through life with an open mind and open eyes in search of magic, and sometimes finds it. She is Escape Into Life‘s social media editor and a long-time journalist with an unsettling history of seeing the companies she works for go out of business. She blogs occasionally at kkish.net.