Melville in Chicago

Chicago has long been a town associated with writers. Look on Wikipedia under “Writers from Chicago,” and there are more than a thousand entries. Some are a bit surprising, like John Cusack. I think most of us think first of Wright, Brooks, Terkel, Algren, Mamet, Sandburg, Dos Passos, Dreiser, Bellow, or Hemingway, and of publications such as Margaret Anderson’s Little Review and Harriet Monroe’s Poetry.

H.L. Mencken, who was full of biles when it came to other cities’ literary output (St. Louis, he said, is “simply an overgrown village,” and “Philadelphia is too stupid to be interested”), famously said Chicago was “the literary capital of the United States”:


In Chicago there is the mysterious something that makes for individuality, personality, charm; in Chicago a spirit broods upon the face of the waters. Find a writer who is indubitably an American in every pulse-beat, an American who has something new and peculiarly American to say and who says it in an unmistakably American way, and nine times out of ten you will find that he has some sort of connection with the gargantuan abattoir by Lake Michigan—that he was bred there, or got his start there, or passed through there in the days when he was young and tender.


In the same piece he called Chicago overgrown, oafish, and naïve. Within a few years he changed his mind about its literary centrality. But his commitment to a statement that bold, about writing and place, still impresses. (His anti-Semitism does not.) We do not make as many Grand Public Gestures for writers as people used to.

One was made in Chicago last weekend, though, for Herman Melville, on his 200th birthday.

The Newberry Library, in Chicago, opened an exhibit last weekend called “Melville: Finding America at Sea,” which runs through April 6. The Newberry has one of the largest Melville collections in the world, gathered as the Newberry and Northwestern University edited the 15-volume Writings of Herman Melville. The project took more than 35 years. The exhibit is meant to show how he has been “perceived and repurposed” over time.

I finally got to see the first British edition there, which accidentally left out the epilogue that explains Ishmael survives to tell us his tale; it left readers at sea—confused and upset.

The Library also sponsored a 25-hour Moby-Dick Readathon. Nathaniel Philbrick, author of In the Heart of the Sea, and Why Read Moby-Dick?, gave a lecture and read the first chapter to kick things off, just before lunch on Saturday. I read my bit just after 4 a.m. Sunday.

The first time Melville came to Illinois, in 1840, Chicago’s population was under 4,500, and there was probably little to recommend the town to an already-worldly young man seeking his fortune. John Marr, the title character of one of Melville’s brief tales, gets lonely in Illinois and tries to talk about vibrant East Coast cities, adventures at sea, and free-and-easy times with mates.

“Upon one such occasion an elderly man—a blacksmith, and at Sunday gatherings an earnest exhorter—honestly said to him, ‘Friend, we know nothing of that here.’”

Still, Melville could have become a Chicagoan. His masterwork is about a gargantuan abattoir with sails, and he made, as Mencken said of later Chicagoans, “the sort of art that is recognizably national in its themes and its idioms, and combines a Yankee sharpness of observation with a homely simplicity … the only sort that stands free of imitation and is absolutely American.”

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.