Making Modernism

Conroy's Fragments on Chicago

In these two undated and unpublished fragments, Jack Conroy looks back on his time in Chicago. The first piece was likely part of Conroy’s larger plan for a book-length autobiography, a project that was never completed. The second piece, entitled “American Landscape with a Chicago Setting,” appears to be part of a short memoir on Chicago.

Author of the critically acclaimed novel The Disinherited (1933) and editor of the successful proletarian “little magazine” The Anvil (1933-1935), Conroy was well known as a leading voice of the radical leftist movements of the 1930s. After the critical failure of his second novel A World to Win (1935) and the merger of The Anvil with The Partisan Review, Conroy was convinced by his friend Nelson Algren to move from Missouri to Chicago in early 1938.

Conroy moved in with Algren and his wife, Amanda, at 3569 Cottage Grove Avenue in the South Side neighborhood of Oakland. He joined Algren on the Illinois Writers’ Project (IWP), then housed at 433 East Erie Street in the Loop, and together they collected stories by listening to workers in the bars on North Clark Street. Conroy and Algren also followed through on their intent to revive The Anvil, holding a series of fundraising parties and lectures in Chicago, including readings by Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, and Maxwell Bodenheim. The New Anvil launched in March 1939, its office located in the former Burnham Building at 160 North LaSalle Street, and though it lasted only seven issues, The New Anvil featured a number of important black writers, including the first nationally circulated stories by Frank Yerby and Margaret Walker.

In 1940, Conroy was assigned to a project initiated by Chicago sociologist Horace Cayton to assemble what was to become the Chicago Afro-American Union Analytic Catalog. Conroy was named a supervisor along with Arna Bontemps, who he had met through mutual friend Langston Hughes. Occupying adjacent offices in the Project’s headquarters, a mansion formerly owned by Julius Rosenwald, Conroy and Bontemps contributed to a project called “The Negro in Illinois” and discovered in each other a rare harmonious and congenial collaborative writing partnership. The two continued to collaborate after the IWP disbanded in 1941, producing a children’s book, The Fast Sooner Hound (1942) as well as a foundational study of the Great Migration based on their IWP research, They Seek a City (1945).

In the first fragment, Conroy notes that his “immediate object” in coming to Chicago was “to revive, with Nelson Algren’s help, my magazine The Anvil.” Chicago’s “round of parties, lectures, and other fund-raising events” may have also revived Conroy’s creative spirits, and the IWP job helped to improve his financial situation. Conroy also notes his work with anthropologist and dancer Katherine Dunham, whose research for the IWP focused on black cults and storefront churches in Chicago.
The impressionistic “American Landscape with a Chicago Setting” constitutes an attempt by Conroy to encapsulate the spirit and attitude of Chicago as he experienced it in his daily life from 1938 to 1966. Conroy focuses on “the faces of the children,” which “spell Ireland, Italy, Poland and Africa,” and reveal a deep diversity in modern urban spaces. He finds beauty in the city’s impoverishment, the “weatherbeaten streets” and “[c]lean wash out on Monday mornings.” Pointing not to the skyscrapers or the big events of a bustling city, Conroy notes instead Chicago’s everyday: “the little things” like mustard on a hot dog (not ketchup) and “the smell of wet grass.” Indeed, despite his radical politics, Conroy here affirms something like the American Dream.

- Jace Gatzemeyer, Pennsylvania State University

Link to the finding aid for this collection

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