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In Print: Ben Hecht's beginnings in journalism

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"The most beautiful-looking book I have ever seen was my own 1001 Afternoons in Chicago, designed and illustrated by [Herman] Rosse," wrote Ben Hecht in the characteristic hyperbole of his autobiography.

"True," he continued, "it contained some hundred and five typographical errors, including the printing of whole paragraphs upside down, but it was nonetheless a book of wonders to behold."

It still is: 1001 Afternoons in Chicago, recently reissued in paperback by the University of Chicago Press, is that very rare book of journalism that holds up over time. That the press has been nimble enough to reprint it (corrections made) among its massive, multiyear scholarly projects is a good sign of its commitment to preserving the lost works of local authors. (This is actually the U. of C.'s second Hecht reprint: in 1963 it reissued his first novel, Erik Dorn, with a sharp, voluble foreword by Nelson Algren entitled "A Thousand and One Afternoons in Nada.")

Hecht was among the first generation of quintessential Chicago writers: a group of hardened, caustic, flamboyant, and very literary novelists, poets, essayists, and--yes--even newspapermen, for in his day the line between newspapering and literature was crossed much more easily and often than it is today. Hecht arrived in Chicago from Racine, Wisconsin, in 1910 and began his newspaper career as a picture chaser, somehow procuring--often stealing from relatives--photographs of people involved in the biggest stories of the day, usually murders. In his Daily News column he introduced a level of introspection and verbal brio to newspaper writing that was startling and effective; it became one of the clear signals that the Daily News was a writer's newspaper. His "Big Idea," according to his mentor and editor Henry Justin Smith, was "that just under the edge of the news as commonly understood, the news often flatly and unimaginatively told, lay life; that in this urban life there dwelt the stuff of literature, not hidden in remote places, either, but walking the downtown streets, peering from the windows of sky scrapers, sunning itself in parks and boulevards." Hecht wandered the city's main boulevards and side streets; he found shipping clerks at the Art Institute casually criticizing the pieces arriving for a new exhibition; he observed the peculiarities of nine elderly Jewish men looking for a tenth to make a minyan so they could begin an afternoon prayer service.

"Journalism invading the realm of literature" was how Smith described the columns, but in retrospect they look more like the literary autodidact using his 1,200-word space to try on the various styles he encountered in his wide and eclectic reading. They are remarkably vivid, even today, and they show Hecht working out his own voice in the guise of his heroes. Here, for example, is Hecht as H.L. Mencken, one of his earliest literary polestars and publisher of several of his best short stories:

"An auctioneer must have a compelling manner. He must be gabby and stentorian, witheringly sarcastic and plaintively cajoling. He must be able to detect the faintest symptoms of avarice and desire in the blink of an eyelid, in the tilt of a head... Passion for him must be no more than a mask: anger, sorrow, despair, ecstasy no more than the devices of salesmanship."

Here he is as Carl Sandburg:

"The fog tiptoes into the streets. It walks like a great cat through the air and slowly devours the city. The office buildings vanish, leaving behind thin pencil lines and smoke blurs. The pavements become isolated, low-roofed corridors. Overhead electric signs whisper enigmatically and the window lights dissolve."

While writing the columns that were eventually collected in 1001 Afternoons, Hecht was also turning out three novels--Erik Dorn (1921), Gargoyles (1922), and Fantazius Mallare (1922). The last was a privately circulated novel (reprinted in 1978) that was confiscated by the federal government under an obscenity ruling. Hecht was dismissed from the Daily News shortly thereafter, and went on to become a robust New York playwright, one of Hollywood's most inventive screenwriters, and--when in later years he suddenly became quite proud of being Jewish--a vociferous critic of the Nazi holocaust and British Middle East policies, then in equal effort a supporter of the creation of the state of Israel.

"Ben Hecht had done it," Budd Schulberg wrote in Moving Pictures: Memories of a Hollywood Prince, "he had taken the giant step forward that almost every newspaperman dreams of and only one in a thousand manages to accomplish." In the mind of Schulberg, son of a Hollywood mogul, that dream was to become a great screenwriter, but Hecht would probably have preferred plain "writer." He was prouder of his novels, memoirs, and short-story and letters collections than of the movies and plays. He went to Hollywood to become rich, as he told all his friends, not to practice film as art. The better of Hecht's biographers, William MacAdams, believes he would only have been a literary footnote if not for his spectacular success on the stage and screen. Yet his passion was always first in books, and this book shows the foundation on which that success was built.

The paperback reissue of 1001 Afternoons in Chicago, complete with the original illustrations by Herman Rosse, which deftly capture the mood of the individual columns and the energy of an aspiring metropolis, is available at the so-called "better bookstores" and through the University of Chicago Press, 568-1550.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustrations/Herman Rosse courtesy University of Chicago Press.

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