By Greg Borzo
Photo by Lloyd DeGrane

“We felt a big responsibility because we were giving a second life to some very talented writers and artists,” Harris says. “As we worked, we became more and more determined to get it right.””
—Neil Harris

Neil Harris first ran across the Chicagoan at the Joseph Regenstein Library more than 12 years ago. Although the eminent historian had never before heard of the colorful Jazz Age magazine, he figured that plenty must have been written about it.

The Chicagoan, which openly celebrated its city, was published at least 149 times between 1926 and 1935. The lavishly illustrated magazine featured the work of hundreds of artists and writers, many of them quite successful. And it was clearly an imitation of the well known The New Yorker.

Over the ensuing years, however, Harris found few records of the Chicagoan in any scholarly, historical, or popular archives or collections. So the Preston & Sterling Morton Professor Emeritus of History and Art History set out to write a modest book about the Chicagoan.

The more Harris dug into the magazine’s past, however, the more he became determined to give it a fitting re-introduction to the world. The book grew in page size and page count, and grants were secured to assure high-quality color reproduction. His wife, Teri Edelstein, aided him in selecting the pages to anthologize.

“We felt a big responsibility because we were giving a second life to some very talented writers and artists,” Harris says. “As we worked, we became more and more determined to get it right.”

Striking literary gold

The Chicagoan: A Lost Magazine of the Jazz Age, published by the University of Chicago Press in November 2008, is a stunning 385-page tribute to the magazine and the city it shamelessly promoted. The reviews have been gushing, with The New York Times Book Review calling it “a coffee table book nicer and better than most coffee tables.”

Reviving this lost treasure was an accomplishment, but it also promises to lead to more research on the magazine and the time and place it so vividly portrayed. As many authors have discovered, publishing a book can be a beginning as well as an end.

“We fervently hope that someone will find the wherewithal to digitize every word and image so that this new material can be mined,” Harris says. “We will not discover a lost mayor of Chicago, but the pages of this magazine are full of fascinating stories and information … hundreds of interesting nuggets. And it’s all fresh.”

Harris has written many books and articles, but was surprised by the reactions to The Chicagoan.

“Academic books usually do not provoke enthusiastic and emotional responses,” Harris says, “but people both inside and outside Chicago really relate to this book. So many of them know The New Yorker, and they find the rediscovery of the Chicagoan to be intriguing.”

Harris has given several public talks about the book and found them rewarding. “It’s been fun connecting with people and seeing them get excited about the wit, the freshness of the images, the inventiveness of the design, and the playfulness of the ornamentation—just as I did when I first saw the magazine.”

University bound to magazine

One telling discovery, for example, was the relatively large number of times the University appeared in the Chicagoan. That reflects the University’s prominence in the city’s cultural, political, and social lives during the 1920s and ’30s, Harris explains.

“Back then, the University of Chicago was a bigger player, relatively speaking, than it is today because there was no University of Illinois-Chicago, and the Catholic universities were not as prominent. Plus, [former Chicago President Robert Maynard] Hutchins was the golden boy, and we had a football team.”

As illuminating as the Chicagoan is about socialites and politicians, its deepest value is a record of its creators. “The significance and importance of this glorious publication lies in it contributors,” Harris says.

There were a lot of contributors—468 people during one seven-month period, according to a magazine promotion. Harris tracked down the identity of scores of these contributors, and the book includes a chapter with short biographies of more than 80 of them. Most were quite young (and inexpensive) when they worked for the Chicagoan.

A surprising number attended the University, including Richard “Riq” Atwater, co-author of the award-winning Mr. Popper’s Penguins; Meyer Levin, the best-selling novelist of the 1956 mystery Compulsion; Robert Pollak, drama and music critic; and Susan Wilbur, author and translator of literary works.

Other contributors who went on to fame included Wallace Rice, a renowned writer who designed Chicago’s flag; Clayton Rawson, an award-winning mystery writer who also performed magic under the name “The Great Merlini”; and prolific artists Nat Karson and A. Raymond Katz.

“The Chicagoan carried within it the imprint of many aspiring talents,” Harris wrote in his book. “It is hoped that this anthology will offer them not just a brief reprieve from oblivion but quite possibly a vestibule to new celebrity.”

Originally published on January 5, 2009.