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The Third Coast
Cover of The Third Coast
The Third Coast
When Chicago Built the American Dream
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A cultural history of Chicago at midcentury, with its incredible mix of architects, politicians, musicians, writers, entrepreneurs, and actors who helped shape modern America

Though today it can seem as if all American culture comes out of New York and Los Angeles, much of what defined the nation as it grew into a superpower was produced in Chicago. Before air travel overtook trains, nearly every coast-to-coast journey included a stop there, and this flow of people and commodities made it America's central clearinghouse, laboratory, and factory. Between the end of World War II and 1960, Mies van der Rohe's glass and steel architecture became the face of corporate America, Ray Kroc's McDonald's changed how people eat, Hugh Hefner unveiled Playboy, and the Chess brothers supercharged rock and roll with Chuck Berry. At the University of Chicago, the atom was split and Western civilization was packaged into the Great Books.

Yet even as Chicago led the way in creating mass-market culture, its artists pushed back in their own distinct voices. In literature, it was the outlaw novels of Nelson Algren, the poems of Gwendolyn Brooks, and Studs Terkel's oral histories. In music, it was the gospel of Mahalia Jackson, the urban blues of Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, and the trippy avant-garde jazz of Sun Ra. In performance, it was Kukla, Fran and Ollie, the "Chicago School" of television, and the improvisational comedy troupe Second City whose famous alumni are now everywhere in American entertainment.

Despite this diversity, racial divisions informed nearly every aspect of life in Chicago, and before long Chicago ceased to be America's meeting place.

In luminous prose, Chicago native Thomas Dyja re-creates the story of the city in its postwar prime and explains its profound impact on modern America.

A cultural history of Chicago at midcentury, with its incredible mix of architects, politicians, musicians, writers, entrepreneurs, and actors who helped shape modern America

Though today it can seem as if all American culture comes out of New York and Los Angeles, much of what defined the nation as it grew into a superpower was produced in Chicago. Before air travel overtook trains, nearly every coast-to-coast journey included a stop there, and this flow of people and commodities made it America's central clearinghouse, laboratory, and factory. Between the end of World War II and 1960, Mies van der Rohe's glass and steel architecture became the face of corporate America, Ray Kroc's McDonald's changed how people eat, Hugh Hefner unveiled Playboy, and the Chess brothers supercharged rock and roll with Chuck Berry. At the University of Chicago, the atom was split and Western civilization was packaged into the Great Books.

Yet even as Chicago led the way in creating mass-market culture, its artists pushed back in their own distinct voices. In literature, it was the outlaw novels of Nelson Algren, the poems of Gwendolyn Brooks, and Studs Terkel's oral histories. In music, it was the gospel of Mahalia Jackson, the urban blues of Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, and the trippy avant-garde jazz of Sun Ra. In performance, it was Kukla, Fran and Ollie, the "Chicago School" of television, and the improvisational comedy troupe Second City whose famous alumni are now everywhere in American entertainment.

Despite this diversity, racial divisions informed nearly every aspect of life in Chicago, and before long Chicago ceased to be America's meeting place.

In luminous prose, Chicago native Thomas Dyja re-creates the story of the city in its postwar prime and explains its profound impact on modern America.

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About the Author-
  • Thomas Dyja is the author of several novels and nonfiction. His Play for a Kingdom Play won the 1998 Casey Award, was named one of the best first novels of 1998 by Library Journal, and was nominated for the Barnes and Noble Discover Fiction Award. A native of Chicago's Northwest Side, he was once called "a real Chicago boy" by Studs Terkel. He now lives in New York City.

Reviews-
  • AudioFile Magazine While most of the American cultural experience focuses on what comes out of New York and Hollywood, it's important to remember the Midwestern colossus that hoisted the nation on its shoulders: Chicago. This book recounts the history of the Windy City after WWII and how it gave birth to a unique artistic style and the Daley political machine. Narrator David Drummond has exactly the right voice to carry this book: deep, bold, and elastic. He doesn't attempt any characters but he gives the words a life and heft that reflect the author's point about Chicago being an important player in America's modern story. There are times when Drummond's voice becomes stuck in a limited range, but he's able to break out of it to avoid tedium. R.I.G. (c) AudioFile 2013, Portland, Maine
  • Publisher's Weekly

    Starred review from December 24, 2012
    Novelist and Chicago native Dyja (Play for a Kingdom) delivers a magisterial narrative of mid-20th century Chicago, once America’s “primary meeting place, market, workshop and lab.” Dyja covers the period from the 1930s through the 1950s, when Chicago produced much of what became postwar America’s way of life: Mies van der Rohe’s glass and steel skyscrapers; TV’s soap operas; Ray Kroc’s McDonald’s franchise; Hugh Hefner’s Playboy empire; and the Chess Brothers’ recording studio that unleashed Muddy Waters, Chuck Berry, urban blues, and rock ’n’ roll. Though the book focuses on Chicago’s pivotal role in producing America’s mass-market culture, Dyja highlights how Chicago was also wrestling with the counterculture—the improvisational theater of Second City, the urban poor in Gwendolyn Brooks’s poetry and Nelson Algren’s novels, Moholy’s experimental Institute of Design, and new styles in television and music aimed at people, not markets. As Dyja notes, racial strife pervaded all aspects of life in the city, which was home to the National Baptist Convention; the Harlem Globetrotters; major black press outlets (Ebony and Jet, among others); and Emmett Till, whose murder sparked the Civil Rights movement. Dyja explores Chicago’s politics, and how the city’s leadership attempted to address the “racial wound,” caused, in part, by placing all public housing in black neighborhoods. What emerges is a luminous, empathetic, and engrossing portrait of a city. Agent: Lisa Bankoff, ICM.

  • Douglas Brinkley, New York Times bestselling author of Cronkite "Thomas Dyja's The Third Coast unravels the wondrous history of Chicago with cunning and aplomb. Every aspect of the Windy City is revealed anew from Mies van der Rohe's skyscrapers to Chuck Berry's rock 'n' roll. A truly gripping narrative. Highly recommended!"
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