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Chicago's literary heritage is comparable to the best in the world," said Donald Evans, executive director of the relatively new Chicago Literary Hall of Fame. Evans is among several Oak Parkers instrumental in making sure Chicago is no "Second City" when it comes to being recognized as the home of great writers.
A Chicago writer himself, Evans' most recent book is Cubbie Blues: 100 Years of Waiting Till Next Year. The release of his book led to his meeting Randy Richardson, president of the Chicago Writers Association. Richardson had penned his own homage to a century of futility, titled Lost in the Ivy. The two authors decided that a hall of fame was long overdue for Chicago's literary giants.
Another valuable connection for Evans was meeting Brian Bernardoni, president of The Cliff Dwellers Club. The club, which recently moved from the top floor of 200 S. Michigan, was founded over 100 years ago by Chicago author Hamlin Garland, who envisioned a club made up of Chicago's gifted artists.
Bernardoni agreed to turn one of the Cliff Dwellers' rooms into a home for the hall. In 2010, the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame inducted its first class of honorees: Nelson Algren, Richard Wright, Saul Bellow, Studs Terkel, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Lorraine Hansberry.
"When I was in Europe," Evans recalled, "I saw reminders of great literary heritage everywhere. It's difficult to find the equivalent in the United States. Not much is being done to honor our literary legacy."
The stated mission of the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame is to "Honor the authors whose words have best captured the essence of our city." The hall plans to select six authors annually. The "sophomore" class of Theodore Dreiser, Harriet Monroe, Mike Royko, Carl Sandburg, Ida B. Wells and Cyrus Colter was inducted on Nov. 15, 2011.
"Writing reflects the identity of the city," Evans said. "We want to include Chicago's many distinct voices." Evans hopes the hall will promote greater public interest in these gifted writers.
So far, it's a grassroots organization with a shoestring budget that relies on fundraisers like the annual banquet with silent auction and cocktail party that raised $10,000 last year. They'll need it since, with the Cliff Dwellers departure, they're now looking for a new home.
"We're hoping to have a permanent space someday and also have a traveling exhibit to reach a wider audience," Evans said.
A priceless part of this exhibit will be Oak Park sculptor Margot McMahon's busts of the inductees. Her first work is a striking clay sculpture of Richard Wright, author of such groundbreaking works as Native Son and Black Boy.
"I'm a big fan of Richard Wright," McMahon said. "When I read Native Son, I was struck by how he wanted to do something with his life and kept hitting barriers. Writers like him have brought this city alive."
McMahon not only had photographs of Wright to work from, she stumbled on a videotaped production of Native Son with the author in the starring role. This gave her a 360-degree view of her subject. The result is Richard Wright in a reflective pose, pausing with pen. The carved quill pen is one with the author's hand.
"Putting words on the page is timeless," said McMahon. "It doesn't matter what instrument you're using. Going back to the hand holding a feather, filled with octopus ink, gives it this ageless quality of sharing an idea, the essence of writing."
The other key element is the look in the author's eyes.
"Richard has a gaze of intensity as he pauses from his writing because his life was so extreme," notes McMahon, who put in countless hours to achieve these effects. She plans to ultimately cast the bust in bronze but the hall is still seeking the thousand dollars needed.
McMahon, whose works are on display at the Smithsonian and the Museum of Contemporary Art, also has major sculptures in fresh-air galleries like Grant Park and on the grounds of Beye School. She was a logical choice to sculpt the inductees, thanks to her love of literature and experience in uniting a series of sculptures with a common theme.
In addition to McMahon's three-dimensional works of art, the hall exhibits prints and photographs of the authors. Paul Hamer, proprietor of the Frame Warehouse in Oak Park's Arts District on Harrison Street, is donating his services to mat and frame the portraits.
"We have photographs of the authors at their typewriters," Hamer said. "I've also got some shots of Mike Royko at a bar following a softball victory."
Hamer, who is a member of the Cliff Dwellers Club and has intimate knowledge of its history, said the founder, Hamlin Garland, envisioned a club comprising painters, architects, and musicians. Its earliest members included Frank Lloyd Wright, Daniel Burnham and sculptor Lorado Taft. The club still has Louis Sullivan's desk.
The Cliff Dwellers occupied the top floor of Orchestra Hall in 1907 on a handshake agreement.
"It had events all the time," Hamer said, "Music, poetry and dance."
In 1912, the club hosted a troupe of real-life cliff dwellers from Arizona. They invited this Native American tribe to dine with them during their journey to Washington D.C. The traveling troupe rewarded their hosts by performing a dance. After learning their guests had no accommodations, members took them into their homes for a night.
"The Cliff Dwellers have always been open-minded about minorities," Hamer said. "They used to hire retired Pullman Porters to provide for them in their old age." Hamer has a great interest in literature and comes by it naturally. "My grandmother and aunt were friends with Hemingway."
Ernest Hemingway would appear to be a glaring omission from the first dozen inductees. Oak Park author Alex Kotlowitz, who is on the hall of fame selection committee, noted that Hemingway was "a Chicago writer who didn't make Chicago his permanent home. He needed a change of scenery."
(It could be said that Hemingway didn't "capture the essence" of his native city in his writing. However, his induction is only a matter of time.)
"It's about time we had a hall of fame," Kotlowitz said. "This city is so rich in the tradition of the written word." So far, inductees have included "writers I admire, who have influenced me and others I wasn't familiar with. I love Richard Wright. Black Boy and Native Son I devoured as a teenager."
Like his Oak Park cohorts, Kotlowitz doesn't just envision a permanent home for the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame. He thinks it only appropriate that a proposed multimillion-dollar American Writers Museum be located in what Algren once described as "The city on the make."