Throughout The Chicagoan
runs an irritatingly insistent
undertone, a defensive
proclamation of the city’s
First issue of magazine offers a mix
of features, profiles and creative writing
The history of Chicago publishing, as told by local writer J. C. Gabel, is one of innovation and exodus. Magazines as influential and varied as Playboy, Esquire and Stop Smiling all originated in the Windy City, but soon relocated to the coasts in order to establish a lasting presence in the tumultuous world of journalism.
“There is little well-paid creative work for the hungry freelancers – the writers, artists, photographers, editors and designers – who call Chicago home,” writes Gabel in his introduction to the newly relaunched The Chicagoan. “Locally, what work there is pays a pittance … this might help explain the mass exodus from Chicago of creative minds of our generation throughout the last few years. Opportunities on either coast – or overseas – eventually come calling, and although they retain pride in their erstwhile Midwestern hearts, they cease to be Chicagoans by physical address.”
Gabel believes that the city’s literary dearth has warped the way Chicago and the Midwest are perceived by the wider world. Despite the fact that the city has birthed so many prominent publications, he believes that there is no widely-read venue in which one can publish a lengthy piece about the Midwest.
This spurred him to create a magazine that would run the sorts of articles that Gabel wanted to read about Chicago: “original and timeless long-form stories, capturing not just our hometown of Chicago, but also the greater Midwest – the way the Oxford American covers the American South or how Texas Monthly covers the enormousness of Texas – from a national point of view.” Taking its name from a Jazz Age magazine, Gabel’s The Chicagoan debuted last March, featuring writing that he believed “couldn’t have appeared anywhere else.”
Capturing all of Chicago, let alone the entire Midwest, in less than 200 pages is a tall order, but Gabel and his editorial team diligently approach the task. Issue 01 is divided into three sections. The first, “Tales from the City,” offers an eclectic mix of interviews and features, covering subjects as diverse as architectural superstar Jeanne Gang, skyscraper-scaling daredevils and a ruminative beat cop. The second, “Literary Supplement,” features creative pieces written by local authors, including an essay about David Foster Wallace by SAIC MFAW graduate Kyle Beachy. The last section, “Into the Great Wide Open,” consists of profiles of various Midwestern citizens.
The wide range of perspectives that The Chicagoan attempts to encompass is ambitious. An interview with Alex Kotlowitz and Steve James about their anti-violence documentary “The Interrupters” is followed by a profile of the locavore chef Tana Lane, which is in turn followed by a series of snapshots taken by skyscraper-climbers.
But throughout the articles compiled in “Tales from the City” runs an irritatingly insistent undertone, a defensive proclamation of the city’s importance. It brings to mind comments made by New Yorker critic Nancy Franklin in her review of the short-lived crime drama “The Chicago Code:” “[Producer Shawn Ryan] seems to get Chicago, but … he pushes the city’s myths a little too hard. The characters wear their Chicago-ness like a brocaded cape, flourishing it and calling our attention to it, as if it didn’t speak for itself. Perhaps this insistence is Ryan’s way of illustrating a Second City mentality, but what hits our ears … is a barrage of very familiar metaphors.”
The same could easily be said of the first dozen articles of The Chicagoan. The interviews with Mike Reed, Jimmy Boyce and Jeanne Gang are all well-written, but they lack the incisiveness characteristic of the average New Yorker profile. The New Yorker does not content itself with demonstrating the various ways in which a given figure is noteworthy; rather, it analyzes the cultural forces that have led to this particular person being deemed important, and investigates the positive and negative consequences of their role in society.
The reader gleans a similar ambition in The Chicagoan, but “Tales of the City” feels stymied by an editorial need to prove that Chicago is an indisputably important city, home to indisputably important people. More successful are “Into the Great Wide Open” and the literary supplement.
The supplement accomplishes the magazine’s goal of featuring an eclectic mix of well-written pieces without slipping into a defensive tone, and the “Into the Great Wide Open” pieces avoid mythologizing simply by virtue of profiling places that are typically considered too unimportant for mythologies, such as Omaha and Dighton, Kansas.
Though The Chicagoan has a righteous mission, its first issue doesn’t entirely live up to its promise. But considering the fervor with which Gabel writes of his cause, this might not always be the case – and anyone with an interest in the future of a uniquely Midwestern style of writing should keep The Chicagoan on their mind.
The Chicagoan $20 at independent booksellers thechicagoanmedia.org