Greg Holden is the kind of guy who spends vacation time hunting down the homes of his favorite authors--Hemingway's house in Key West, Faulkner's estate in Mississippi.
"I go to their houses to soak up the feeling of them as real people," says Holden. "When you see their homes, you get an inkling you could possibly aspire to what they did."
Holden, who makes his living "cranking out computer books" like last year's Starting an Online Business for Dummies, decided to write Literary Chicago: A Book Lover's Tour of the Windy City (Lake Claremont Press) after realizing he didn't have to leave home to indulge his hobby.
Along with the usual suspects--Nelson Algren, Gwendolyn Brooks, Hemingway, Bellow, Sandburg--Holden covers the haunts of writers such as Edna Ferber, Poetry magazine's Harriet Monroe, Charles MacArthur, Ring Lardner, Sherwood Anderson, and playwright Lorraine Hansberry. He includes Hansberry's home at 5330 S. Calumet, where she lived from 1930 to '38, as part of a driving tour of the Washington Park neighborhood where James T. Farrell's Studs Lonigan trilogy takes place. He also covers more contemporary scribes, such as mystery writer Sara Paretsky, poet Sterling Plumpp, and novelist Michael Anania.
Holden asked some of the latter to take what he calls "the Algren challenge" and respond to a passage from Chicago: City on the Make, in which the author writes, "You can't belong to Chicago any more than you can belong to the flying saucer called Los Angeles. For it isn't so much a city as it is a drafty hustler's junction in which to hustle a while and come on out of the draft."
"He really provokes a strong reaction," Holden says. "No one is indifferent about Algren." Novelist Cris Mazza remarked that Algren comes from a different era--not only in Chicago history but also in American literature--an era "dominated by boastful, posturing men."
Holden spent a lot of time driving around and digging through dusty stacks in local libraries to research his book, which also covers bookstores, literary events, and trivia (such as the fact that Scott Spencer's 1979 novel Endless Love, the basis for the 1981 movie, is set in Hyde Park). "There are some really cool collections in libraries that you wouldn't even think about," he says. "Sulzer has a terrific Chicago area behind the research desk--it's full of books about Chicago or by Chicago authors. It looks like some secret area you can't get to, but you can." A snapshot of Wizard of Oz author L. Frank Baum reading to his children at his home in Humboldt Park came from a library in South Dakota.
He also dug up some wonderfully unflattering descriptions. Richard Wright, who moved here from Memphis in 1927, wrote, "My first glimpse of the flat black stretches of Chicago depressed and dismayed me, mocked all my fantasies. Chicago seemed an unreal city whose mythical houses were built of slabs of black coal wreathed in palls of grey smoke, houses whose foundations were sinking slowly into the dank prairie." Wright stayed ten years before moving on to New York and then Paris.
Holden notes that many of the authors in his book left Chicago--"but they tend to come back."
Holden will give free slide presentations Saturday at 2 PM at Barnes & Noble, 1130 N. State (312-280-8155), and at 7:30 PM on Thursday, July 19, at Borders Books & Music, 1144 Lake in Oak Park (708-386-6927).