Sunday, June 23, 2019

Chicago's Writers

Novelist Saul Bellow (1915-2005) Won Nobel Prize for Literature in 1976. Novels include The Adventures of Augie March, Herzog, and Humboldt's Gift. An undergraduate student of the University of Chicago, he later taught there.

“Boredom is the conviction that you can't change ... the shriek of unused capacities.”
― Saul Bellow, The Adventures of Augie March

“Some people, if they didn't make it hard for themselves, might fall asleep.”
― Saul Bellow, The Adventures of Augie March

“I am an American, Chicago born – Chicago, that somber city – and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent. But a man's character is his fate, says Heraclitus, and in the end there isn't any way to disguise the nature of the knocks by acoustical work on the door or gloving the knuckles.”
― Saul Bellow, The Adventures of Augie March

“Nobody asks you to love the whole world, only to be honest, ehrlich. Don't have a loud mouth. The more you love people the more they'll mix you up. A child loves, a person respects. Respect is better than love.”
― Saul Bellow, The Adventures of Augie March
“And this is what mere humanity always does. It's made up of these inventors or artists, millions and millions of them, each in his own way trying to recruit other people to play a supporting role and sustain him in his make-believe. The great chiefs and leaders recruit the greatest number, and that's what their power is. There's one image that gets out in front to lead the rest and can impose its claim to being genuine with more force than others, or one voice enlarged to thunder is heard above the others. Then a huge invention, which is the invention maybe of the world itself, and of nature, becomes the actual world - with cities, factories, public buildings, railroads, armies, dams, prisons, and movies - becomes the actuality. That’s the struggle of humanity, to recruit others to your version of what’s real. Then even the flowers and the moss on the stones become the moss and the flowers of a version.”
― Saul Bellow, The Adventures of Augie March

“Everyone tries to create a world he can live in, and what he can't use he often can't see. But the real world is already created, and if your fabrication doesn't correspond, then even if you feel noble and insist on there being something better than what people call reality, that better something needn't try to exceed what, in its actuality, since we know it so little, may be very surprising. If a happy state of things, surprising; if miserable or tragic, no worse than what we invent.”
― Saul Bellow, The Adventures of Augie March

“In the end you can't save your soul and life by thought. But if you think, the least of the consolation prizes is the world.”
― Saul Bellow, The Adventures of Augie March

“Anyhow, I had found something out about an unknown privation, and I realized how a general love or craving, before it is explicit or before it sees its object, manifests itself as boredom or some other kind of suffering. And what did I think of myself in relation to the great occasions, the more sizable being of these books? Why, I saw them, first of all. So suppose I wasn't created to read a great declaration, or to boss a palatinate, or send off a message to Avignon, and so on, I could see, so there nevertheless was a share for me in all that had happened. How much of a share? Why, I knew there were things that would never, because they could never, come of my reading. But this knowledge was not so different from the remote but ever-present death that sits in the corner of the loving bedroom; though it doesn't budge from the corner, you wouldn't stop your loving. Then neither would I stop my reading. I sat and read. I had no eye, ear, or interest for anything else--that is, for usual, second-order, oatmeal, mere-phenomenal, snarled-shoelace-carfare-laundry-ticket plainness, unspecified dismalness, unknown captivities; the life of despair-harness or the life of organization-habits which is meant to supplant accidents with calm abiding. Well, now, who can really expect the daily facts to go, toil or prisons to go, oatmeal and laundry tickets and the rest, and insist that all moments be raised to the greatest importance, demand that everyone breathe the pointy, star-furnished air at its highest difficulty, abolish all brick, vaultlike rooms, all dreariness, and live like prophets or gods? Why, everybody knows this triumphant life can only be periodic. So there's a schism about it, some saying only this triumphant life is real and others that only the daily facts are. For me there was no debate, and I made speed into the former.”
― Saul Bellow, The Adventures of Augie March

“Well, don't build me up so, and you won't have to tear me down.”
― Saul Bellow, The Adventures of Augie March

“Not that life should end is so terrible in itself, but that it should end with so many disappointments in the essential.”
― Saul Bellow, The Adventures of Augie March

“With small nose, gross thighs, and those back-bent smoke-dyed fingers, he obliged me with this explanation, and he thought to have more effect on me than he really ever could have. When I didn't argue he was satisfied that he had persuaded me, and was not the first to make that mistake.”
― Saul Bellow, The Adventures of Augie March

“Yes, these business people have great energy. There’s a question as to what’s burned to produce it and what things we can and can’t burn.”
― Saul Bellow, The Adventures of Augie March

“The more south we were, the more deep a sky it seemed, till, in the Valley of Mexico, I thought it held back an element too strong for life, and that the flamy brilliance of blue stood off this menace and sometimes, like a sheath or silk membrane, shoed the weight it held in sags. So when later he would fly high over the old craters on the plain, coaly bubbles of the underworld, dangerous red everywhere from the sun, and then coats of snow on the peak of the cones—gliding like a Satan—well, it was here the old priests, before the Spaniards, waited for Aldebaran to come into the middle of heaven to tell them whether or not life would go on for another cycle, and when they received their astronomical sign built their new fire inside the split and emptied chest of a human sacrifice. And also, hereabouts, worshipers disguised as gods and as gods in the disguise of birds, jumped from platforms fixed on long poles, and glided as they spun by the ropes—feathered serpents, and eagles too, the voladores, or fliers. There still are such plummeters, in market places, as there seem to be remnants or conversions or equivalents of all the old things. Instead of racks or pyramids of skulls still in their hair and raining down scraps of flesh there are corpses of dogs, rats, horses, asses, by the roads; the bones dug out of the rented graves are thrown on a pile when the lease is up; and there are the coffins looking like such a rough joke on the female form, sold in the open shops, black, white, gray, and in all sizes, with their heavy death fringes daubed in Sapolio silver on the black. Beggars in dog voices on the church steps enact the last feebleness for you with ancient Church Spanish, and show their old flails of stump and their sores. The burden carriers with the long lines, hemp lines they wind over their foreheads to hold the loads on their backs, lie in the garbage at siesta and give themselves the same exhibited neglect the dead are shown. Which is all to emphasize how openly death is received everywhere, in the beauty of the place, and how it is acknowledged that anyone may be roughly handled—the proudest—pinched, slapped, and set down, thrown down; for death throws even worse in men’s faces and makes it horrible and absurd that one never touched should be roughly dumped under, dumped upon.”
― Saul Bellow, The Adventures of Augie March

“To rip off a piece of lover's temper was a pleasure in her deepest vein of enjoyment.”
― Saul Bellow, The Adventures of Augie March

“It wasn't that he was specially ungenerous but that he put things off to give his generosity a longer and more significant route.”
― Saul Bellow, The Adventures of Augie March
tags: generosity

“You never know what forms self-respect will take, especially with people whose rules of life are few.”
― Saul Bellow, The Adventures of Augie March

“We never learn anything, never in the world, and in spite of all the history books written. They’re just the way we plead or ague with ourselves about it, but it’s only light from the outside that we’re supposed to take inside. If we can. There’s a regular warehouse of fine suggestions and if we’re not better it isn’t because there aren’t plenty of marvelous and true ideas to draw on, but because our vanity weighs more than all of them put together.”
― Saul Bellow, The Adventures of Augie March

“Some big insect flew in and began walking on the table. I don’t know what insect it was, but it was brown, shining, and rich in structures. In the city the big universal chain of insects gets thin, but where there’s a leaf or two it’ll be represented.”
― Saul Bellow, The Adventures of Augie March

“It was probably no accident that it was the cripple Hephaestus who made ingenious machines; a normal man didn't have to hoist or jack himself over hindrances by means of cranks, chains and metal parts. Then it was in the line of human advance that Einhorn could do so much.”
― Saul Bellow, The Adventures of Augie March
“my feelings were big, sad, comfortless, of a thinking animal, my heart acting like an orb filled too big for my chest, not from revulsion, which I have to say I didn’t feel, but over-all general misery.”
― Saul Bellow, The Adventures Of Augie March

“Many common lies and hypocrisies are like that, just out of the harmony of the moment.”
― Saul Bellow, The Adventures of Augie March

One of the most controversial yet admired of Chicago's novelists was Nelson Algren (1909-81) He wrote about the seedy side of the city; drunks, prostitutes, and drug addicts of the mainly Polish neighborhoods on the Northwest side. He won the National Book Award for his book A Walk on the Wild Side. He also wrote Never Come Morning; Chicago: City on the Make, and The Man with the Golden Arm, which was made into a movie with Frank Sinatra. For many years Nelson carried on a romance, sometimes long-distance, with Simone de Beauvoir, the famous French novelist and feminist.

Loving Chicago is like loving a woman with a broken nose.
Never play cards with a man called Doc. Never eat at a place called Mom's. Never sleep with a woman whose troubles are worse than your own.
Chicago is an October sort of city even in spring.
Literature is made upon any occasion that a challenge is put to the legal apparatus by conscience in touch with humanity.
The hard necessity of bringing the judge on the bench down into the dock has been the peculiar responsibility of the writer in all ages of man.
I went out there for a thousand a week, and I worked Monday, and I got fired Wednesday. The guy that hired me 
was out of town Tuesday.

Excerpt from City on the Make

Louis 'Studs' Terkel (1912-2008), an award winning author, is one of the best known literary figures in Chicago, having had a long running radio and television series. His books, many based on interviews, include Division Street, Hard Times, Working, Race, and The Good War, for which he won the Nobel Prize in 1984. Working has also been the basis for a play.

Sharon Atkins, excerpt from Working by Studs Terkel, Receptionist

I never answer the phone at home. It carries over. The way I talk to people on the phone has changed. Even when my mother calls, I don’t talk to her very long. I want to see people when I talk to them. But now, when I see them, I talk to them like I was talking on the telephone. It isn’t a conscious process. I don’t know what’s happened. When I’m talking to someone at work, the telephone rings, and the conversation is interrupted. So I never bother finishing sentences or finishing thoughts. I always have this feeling of interruption.
Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) is perhaps the author best internationally known. A native of Oak Park, he spent much of his life overseas. He wrote numerous novels and short stories, many about people living dangerous yet courageous lives. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1952 and the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1954. He became known as the spokesman for the Lost Generation. He participated in WWI, WWII and the Spanish Civil War. His books include The Sun Also Rises, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Farewell to Arms, and The Old Man and the Sea

There is nothing noble in being superior to your fellow man; true nobility is being superior to your former self.
There are only three sports: mountain climbing, bull fighting, and motor racing. All the rest are merely games.
The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.
The world breaks everyone, and afterward, some are strong at the broken places.
There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.
If we win here we will win everywhere. The world is a fine place and worth the fighting for and I hate very much to leave it.
“Oh, Jake,” Brett said, “we could have had such a damned good time together.”…“Yes,” I said. “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”
Always do sober what you said you'd do drunk. That will teach you to keep your mouth shut.
But man is not made for defeat. A man can be destroyed but not defeated.
Courage is grace under pressure.

Ernest Hemingway wrote his epic second novel, The Sun Also Rises, in 1926. It's a tragic love story that follows a group of American and English expats around the Left Bank of Paris to the macho bullfighting scene in Pamplona, Spain. As we're thinking about the state of bullfighting today on Fathom, we thought we'd take a minute to recall it's heady and glamorous novelization.
"My God, isn't he beautiful?" Brett said. We were looking right down on him.
"Look how he knows how to use his horns," I said. "He's got a left and a right just like a boxer."
"Not really?"
"You watch."
"It goes too fast."
"Wait. There'll be another one in a minute."
They had backed up another cage into the entrance. In the far corner a man, from behind one of the plank shelters, attracted the bull, and while the bull was facing away the gate was pulled up and a second bull came out into the corral.
He charged straight for the steers and two men ran out from behind the planks and shouted, to turn him. He did not change his direction and the men shouted: "Hah! Hah! Toro!" and waved their arms; the two steers turned sideways to take the shock, and the bull drove into one of the steers.
"Don't look," I said to Brett. She was watching, fascinated.
"Fine," I said. "If it doesn't buck you."
"I saw it," she said. "I saw him shift from his left to his right horn."
"Damn good!"
The steer was down now, his neck stretched out, his head twisted, he lay the way he had fallen. Suddenly the bull left off and made for the other steer which had been standing at the far end, his head swinging, watching it all. The steer ran awkwardly and the bull caught him, hooked him lightly in the flank, and then turned away and looked up at the crowd on the walls, his crest of muscle rising. The steer came up to him and made as though to nose at him and the bull hooked perfunctorily. The next time he nosed at the steer and then the two of them trotted over to the other bull.
Writers whose works were influenced by sojourns to Chicago include George Ade, Willa Cather, Theodore Dreiser, Philip Roth Willard Motley, Frank Norris, and Upton Sinclair who wrote The Jungle, about the horrendous condition of the meat packing plants of Chicago.
Published in 1906, The Jungle brought awareness to the harsh working conditions in the American meat packing industry and the plight of immigrants. Upton Sinclair’s descriptions shocked the public and led to new safety regulations and support for the Progressive movement. 
Excerpt 1 (Chapter 8) Jurgis (/yer*giss/), an immigrant from Lithuania, works in a large meat packing plant, or “packer.” Marija (/mah*ree*ya/), a member of Jurgis’s extended family, works in a canning factory. However, during a slump in the economy (a time of reduced buying and selling), the canning factory closes. The big meat packing plants do not close, but there is less work. 
   The men upon the killing beds [meatpacking plants where animals were butchered] felt also the effects of the slump which had turned Marija out; but they felt it in a different way. . . . The big packers did not turn their hands [workers] off and close down, like the canning factories; but they began to run for shorter and shorter hours. They had always required the men to be on the killing beds and ready for work at seven o’clock, although there was almost never any work to be done till the buyers out in the yards had gotten to work, and some cattle had come over the chutes. That would often be ten or eleven o’clock . . . [but now] they would perhaps not have a thing for their men to do till late in the afternoon. And so they would have to loaf around, in a place where the thermometer might be twenty degrees below zero! . . . Before the day was over they would become quite chilled through and exhausted, and, when the cattle finally came, so near frozen that to move was an agony. 

   There were weeks at a time when Jurgis went home after such a day as this with not more than two hours’ work to his credit—which meant about thirty-five cents. There were many days when the total was less than half an hour, and others when there was none at all. 

   All this was bad; and yet it was not the worst. For after all the hard work a man did, he was paid for only part of it. Jurgis had once been among those who scoffed at the idea of these huge concerns [businesses] cheating; and so now he could appreciate the bitter irony of the fact that it was precisely their size which enabled them to do it with impunity [without any consequences]. One of the rules on the killing beds was that a man who was one minute late was docked an hour. . . . And on the other hand if he came ahead of time he got no pay for that—though often 2 the bosses would start up the gang ten or fifteen minutes before the whistle. And this same custom they carried over to the end of the day; they did not pay for any fraction of an hour—for “broken time.” A man might work full fifty minutes, but if there was no work to fill out the hour, there was no pay for him. 

   One of the consequences of all these things was that Jurgis was no longer perplexed [surprised] when he heard men talk of fighting for their rights. He felt like fighting now himself. 

   [He began to attend union meetings.] He had picked up a few words of English by this time, and friends would help him to understand. They were often very turbulent [wild] meetings, with half a dozen men declaiming [shouting] at once, in as many dialects of English; but the speakers were all desperately in earnest, and Jurgis was in earnest too, for he understood that a fight was on, and that it was his fight. . . . He discovered that he had brothers in affliction [with similar problems], and allies [friends]. Their one chance for life was in union, and so the struggle became a kind of crusade [fight for a just cause].

Excerpt 2 (Chapter 14) Sinclair’s graphic descriptions of the unsanitary conditions in meat packing plants shocked the public. 

   There was never the least attention paid to what was cut up for sausage; there would come all the way back from Europe old sausage that had been rejected, and that was moldy and white—it would be dosed with borax [a white powder made from boric acid, used in detergents, flame retardants, and disinfectants] and glycerine [a chemical compound used in foods and medicines], and dumped into the hoppers [containers for mixing], and made over again for home consumption. There would be meat that had tumbled out on the floor, in the dirt and sawdust, where the workers had tramped and spit. . . . There would be meat stored in great piles in rooms; and the water from leaky roofs would drip over it, and thousands of rats would race about on it. It was too dark in these storage places to see well, but a man could run his hand over these piles of meat and sweep off handfuls of the dried dung of rats. These rats were nuisances, and the packers would put poisoned bread out for them; they would die, and then rats, bread, and meat would go into the hoppers [containers] together. This is no fairy story and no joke; the meat would be shoveled into carts, and the man who did the shoveling would not trouble to lift out a rat even when he saw one—there were things that went into the sausage in comparison with which a poisoned rat was a tidbit. 3 There was no place for the men to wash their hands before they ate their dinner, and so they made a practice of washing them in the water that was to be ladled into the sausage. . . . Some of it they would make into “smoked” sausage—but as the smoking took time, and was therefore expensive, they would call upon their chemistry department, and preserve it with borax and color it with gelatine to make it brown. 

The Chicago area has about 200 live theater companies scattered throughout the city and suburbs. Probably the most famous Playwright is David Mamet who has written numerous plays and screenplays.

Another notable is the cartoonist Herblock.

Keep writing.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Stand Comedy 101

Who invented stand-up? The origins of a peculiarly American form of comedy.

Photo by Kevin Renes/Thinkstock Images, photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo.
Photo by Kevin Renes/Thinkstock Images. Photo illustration by Natalie Matthews-Ramo.

Charles Dickens thought Americans weren’t very funny. “They certainly are not a humorous people,” he wrote in 1868, “and their temperament always impressed me as being of a dull and gloomy character.”
That’s not to say there weren’t early-American humorists. Augustus Baldwin Longstreet, Artemus Ward, and Mark Twain helped craft an American strain of comedy. But their humor was marked by lengthy tales and frequent references to small-town life; this wasn’t the scathing satire of French caricaturist HonorΓ© Daumier or the urban sophistication of England’s Punch magazine, which developed the modern concept of the cartoon. But everything changed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. That’s when America gave birth to stand-up comedy, a new art form that would eventually change comedy worldwide. But how, exactly, did stand-up come to be?
It’s an odd sort of entertainment. There’s no narrative structure, no plot, backstory, sets, editors, or producers. It’s comedy boiled down to basics: a comedian and an audience, where you either score a laugh or you don’t. As British comedian Jimmy Carr and writer Lucy Greeves put it in their book, Only Joking: What’s So Funny About Making People Laugh?, “Stand-up comedy is a peculiar performance art form. In a room filled with people, the comedian is the only one facing the wrong way. He’s also the only one who isn’t laughing. For normal people that’s a nightmare, not a career aspiration.”
Historians trace the origins of stand-up comedy to a very specific time and place: the variety, or burlesque shows, that flourished in New York City’s turn-of-the-century vaudeville theaters. Although widely known for its racy stripteases and dancing-girl performances, burlesque also featured energetic, fast-paced comedy routines. The comedians designed their material to appease a new sort of audience: a ragtag crew of native-born Americans and immigrant workers. These audiences were intimately familiar with the physical and chaotic nature of modern city life, and they weren’t interested in the homey campfire tales of the past. “Burlesque provided both an escape from and confrontation with modern urban circumstances,” writes historian Joseph Boskin in his book The Humor Prism in 20th-Century America. “Is it any wonder that many of the routines in burlesque were physically explosive, shorn of time constraint, bordering on the vituperative and relying heavily on slapstick?”
According to Boskin, standard vaudeville gags included “the pie-in-the-face, the female chase, problems of money, gold-digging wives and harping mothers-in-law, the salacious, unobtainable woman, and the defiance of authority.” Then, as now, poking fun at the powers-that-be was especially popular. Boskin notes vaudeville shows often climaxed “in a courtroom, with prisoners and lawyers squirting water at each other from seltzer bottles, and the judge demanding order with a wooden potato masher.”
The urban setting didn’t just shape the subject matter; the structure of the jokes changed, too. “The tempo of the comedy, like the movement of city streets, was swift and jolting and possessed highly recognizable parameters,” writes Boskin. Up to that point, written and oral jokes were mostly witty rhymes or droll anecdotes. Here’s one of the shorter “jokes,” for example, from The Odd Fellow’s Jest Book, published in 1805:
A woman in France having gone to confession, the priest, by way of penance, was proceeding to give her a flagellation. As he was leading her behind the altar for this purpose, her husband, from a motive of jealousy, had followed her, and concealed himself in the church, made his appearance and saying that she was too delicate to bear the discipline, offered to receive it in her stead. The proposal the wife greatly applauded, and the man no sooner placed himself on his knees, than she exclaimed, “Now, father, do not spare him, but lay on lustily, for truly I am a great sinner.”

To keep their routines quick, lively, and appealing to a raucous audience, vaudeville performers refined their material using basic setups and punch lines. These were quick-hit laugh generators that could be linked together to keep the crowd cackling. Jokes, in other words, were becoming what we now know as jokes. Take a classic one-liner from Groucho Marx, who got his start in vaudeville: “Behind every successful man is a woman. Behind her is his wife.”  
The developing cinema industry eventually overshadowed the vaudeville theaters, but the comedic style developed in these venues survived. In the following decades, the wild, rapid-fire shtick was embraced and refined by Sid Caesar, Henny Youngman, and other one-liner kings who worked the “Borscht Belt” of Jewish resorts in the Catskills. Then, in the 1950s and 1960s, it developed a more confrontational edge thanks to the routines of Lenny Bruce, Dick Gregory, and Mort Sahl at folk clubs like the “hungry i” in San Francisco and New York City’s Bitter End.
Some scholars believe that the United States was destined to reinvent global comedy, in one form or another. To these thinkers, the idea of America is inherently funny: There’s such a laughable disparity between the lofty ideals of American democracy and the harsh realities of self-governance that it was bound to generate a lot of jokes. As literary scholar Louis D. Rubin put it in his essay, “The Great American Joke”:
Out of the incongruity between mundane circumstance and heroic ideal, material fact and spiritual hunger, democratic, middle-class society and desire for cultural definition, theory of equality and fact of social and economic inequality, the Declaration of Independence and the Prohibition Act, the Gettysburg Address and the Gross National Product, the Battle Hymn of the Republic and Dollar Diplomacy, the Horatio Alger ideal and the New York Social Register—between what men would be and must be, as acted out in American experience, have come a great deal of pathos, no small bit of tragedy, and also a great deal of humor.
There’s a lingering question about stand-up’s development, however: Who was the first person to actually do it? Some scholars point to Charley Case, an African-American vaudeville performer. According to Eddie Tafoya in his book The Legacy of the Wisecrack, in the 1880s or 1890s Case got on stage in New York’s vaudeville theaters and did something no one had ever done: He performed comic monologues without props or costuming.
Little is known about Case today. He’s most widely known for the absurd ballads he penned, including “There Was Once a Poor Young Man Who Left His Country Home,” which was later performed by W.C. Fields in The Fatal Glass of Beer, a 1933 film based on the song. Various articles list a few of his jokes, like one in which Case and his brother Hank are sleeping in a bedroom with their father and they hear a noise downstairs. “I think there’s a burglar loose in the house,” the father tells Hank. “You should go down and find him.” “I haven’t lost any burglars,” replied Hank. “Make Charley go down.”
The little we know about Case’s personal life tends to resemble the stereotype of a modern, neurotic comedian. A 1906 newspaper article noted, “He is of a quiet and retiring disposition when off the stage,” and other observers noted he would only perform if he had a handkerchief or bit of string to twiddle in his fingers.
Then there are the circumstances of his untimely end. In 1916, he died at the Palace Hotel on 45th Street in New York “while cleaning his revolver,” as reports later put it.
Charley Case, in other words, might not have just given birth to stand-up. He also gave birth to the idea of the depressed, tortured comedian.
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  Notable Comics:  
  Lenny Bruce  

  Mort Sahl  

  Rodney Dangerfield  

  Bill Hicks  

  George Carlin  

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