Making Modernism


Welcome to Making Modernism, an exhibit featuring previously unpublished archival documents from the Newberry Library. Making Modernism originated in a summer institute for college and university faculty sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities and held at the Newberry for four weeks in 2013. The short essays were written by institute participants, who collaborated in choosing items from the archives that make up this exhibit. 

The focus of Making Modernism is the literature of Chicago in connection with the unique urban, economic, and cultural history of the city. Chicago’s contributions to international modernism have predominantly focused on architecture, which we acknowledge with a design derived from the windows of Frank Lloyd Wright. This exhibit, however, gives emphasis to the literature of Chicago and its connections to developments across the arts.

The archival items chosen for this exhibit illuminate artists, writers, and the networks that contributed to the explosion of cultural styles associated with the modernist period. The exhibit is neither all encompassing nor a series of greatest hits: what you will find here are materials that you have never seen before, outside the Special Collections reading room at the Newberry. 

Making Modernism emphasizes four thematic lines of inquiry relating to twentieth-century Chicago’s literary and cultural life: (1) the geographic centrality of Chicago both locally and internationally; (2) modernism’s distinctive reception history in Chicago; (3) the historically overlooked women in Chicago who served as important cultural arbiters; and (4) the connections between the “Chicago Renaissance” in the arts, which occurred between 1910 and the mid-1920s, and the “Chicago Black Renaissance,” which began in the 1930s and continued through mid-century.

We begin with Harriet Monroe’s handwritten inscription to a friend on the inside cover of Valeria (1891), one of her early volumes of verse. Monroe is a figure best known for launching, in 1912, Poetry—perhaps the most important “little magazine” of modernism. Monroe’s early poems—including the “Columbian Ode” that she wrote for the opening of the 1893 World’s Fair—are often mentioned but rarely read. Her Valeria inscription (a series of couplets) illuminates Monroe’s mastery of genteel, Gilded Age verse and helps to explain her openness to an eclectic range of poems, from formally experimental to metrically regular work.

Making Modernism also includes unpublished letters by longtime Chicago Tribune literary editor Fanny Butcher—whose voluminous papers are held at the Newberry. The correspondence between Butcher and H.L. Mencken offer their opinions about the difference between Midwestern and East Coast literary sensibilities. (They are also hilarious.)  Butcher’s correspondence with Ernest Hemingway, moreover, testifies to Hemingway’s attention to readers whom he feltshared her “middlebrow” taste.

The exhibit ends with materials related to the Black Chicago Renaissance, including items from the Jack Conroy Papers, also held at the Newberry. Chicago was home to a second-wave of African-American writers and artists who have received less attention than those of the Harlem Renaissance. Interracial associations were also more common in Chicago, often based in leftist political groups and supported by the Works Progress Administration Federal Art Project. Conroy collaborated with Arna Bontemps on books that document African-American migration from the South to the North. Conroy also helped to launch the career of Richard Wright. The alliances and friendships between artists and writers—and the tangible, day-to-day contingencies brought to life through the archives—help illuminate connections between the white city and the black metropolis. 

We encourage you to explore the library’s finding aids—by clicking on an item—to locate further materials related to this exhibit. From the records of Chicago’s newspapers and journalists, clubs and arts organizations, famous and not-so-famous writers, editors, artists, book designers, and publishers, the Newberry’s archival materials related to Chicago’s literary and cultural life are unsurpassed.


Liesl Olson, Newberry Library