Chicago’s literary history lives largely in its stories and structures, two things that are often intertwined in urban literature. Much of what exists on the pages of the past still stands today, and a stroll around town can often echo the footsteps of the area’s famous authors. From birthplace homes to neighborhood haunts, local literary landmarks abound. Here’s a selection of notable sites of literary history in and around Chicago.
Nelson Algren’s Ghost (Wicker Park)
Nelson Algren lived and wrote extensively about both the real and imaginary Wicker Park neighborhood. In addition to maintaining a few residences throughout his years in Chicago (at times with noted French author Simone de Beauvoir), he famously hung out at several neighborhood bars. While the character of the neighborhood and its residents is a bit less rough than in Algren’s day, it is possible still to envision Algren perched on a stool at one of his old haunts. Rainbo Club, at 1150 N. Damen Ave., was resurrected by the neighborhood’s artist influx in the late 1980s, and still has its original bar and booths. The Matchbox, at 770 N. Milwaukee, lives up to its name in terms of space, but looms large for fans of classic cocktails. The Gold Star Bar, at 1755 W. Division, was undoubtedly a rich source for character sketches. Apparently Algren’s favorite bar was Lottie’s Pub, at 1925 W. Cortland, which had a dubious history well before Algren arrived. The author’s longest residence was a third floor apartment at 1958 W. Evergreen, where he lived from 1959-1975. The current residents might not be amenable to an impromptu visit, but fans can pay homage at the Nelson Algren Fountain at the Polish Triangle at the intersection of Ashland, Milwaukee and Division.
Saul Bellow (Humbolt Park)
Born in Canada, Saul Bellow (1915-2005) immigrated to Chicago at the age of nine and grew up in a two flat at 2629 W. Augusta. The neighborhood serves as the backdrop for The Adventures of Augie March, the current novel of the “One Book, One Chicago” citywide book club. Bellow also later lived in Hyde Park while teaching at the University of Chicago. In addition to the author’s home on Augusta, many of the sites mentioned in his work are still intact, including the atrium of the (former) Marshall Field’s on State St., the Palmer House lobby, the Humbolt Park Lagoon, and the Reynolds Club at the U of C.
The Billy Goat Tavern
430 N. Michigan Ave.
The Billy Goat has been riding the publicity wave since the antics of original owner William “Billy Goat” Sianis in the 1930s. The most enduring source of its notoriety, depending on whom you ask, is either the perpetual “Cubs Curse” or the famous 1978 Saturday Night Live sketch. For literary types, however, the original Billy Goat is most notable as the second home of columnist Mike Royko and other local media figures. The Goat’s literary lineage is well-established, and it remains a gathering place for columnists and reporters, despite its tourist magnet status.
Hall Library (Bronzeville)
4801 S. Michigan Ave.
The George Cleveland Hall branch of the Chicago Public Library was a central meeting place for the Black Renaissance movement from the 1930s to the 1950s. Writers such as Gwendolyn Brooks, Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Lorraine Hansberry and others visited the Hall Library, in no small part due to the community-based stewardship of Branch Head Vivian Gordon Harsh. Children’s programming that was initiated in 1932 continues today, and the library currently welcomes around 10,000 visitors each month.
Lorraine Hansberry House
6140 S. Rhodes Ave.
While 6140 S. Rhodes Ave. is notable as the former home of “A Raisin in the Sun” author Lorraine Hansberry, it is also a significant site in civil rights history. In the 1930s the Hansberry family moved into the Woodlawn neighborhood, prompting resistance from neighbors that included a brick thrown through the front window. Hansberry’s father fought and won a subsequent three-year legal battle against the discriminatory housing covenant that would otherwise have prevented the family from living in their new home. The house was granted landmark status by the Chicago City Council last year.
Ernest Hemingway Museum and Birthplace Home
339 N. Oak Park Ave.
Oak Park, IL
Oak Park’s Hemingway connection perhaps takes a back seat to that of Frank Lloyd Wright, but it will forever be revered as the birthplace of the iconic 20th century American author and journalist. The main attractions for the literary pilgrims are the Ernest Hemingway Museum and Birthplace Home. The home, located at 339 N. Oak Park Ave., was recently restored by the Hemingway Foundation. Tours are offered on a regular basis, and visitors can check out more artifacts and exhibits at the Hemingway Museum across the street at 200 N. Oak Park Ave.
Carl Sandburg House
4646 N. Hermitage
4646 N. Hermitage may be a relatively modest frame two-flat on a residential side street in Ravenswood, but it also happens to be the place where “City of Big Shoulders” poet Carl Sandburg wrote the famous poem “Chicago.” Born in Galesburg, Sandburg lived in the Hermitage apartment for just a few years while writing for the Chicago Daily News.