The Third Coast: Book summary and reviews of The Third Coast by Thomas Dyja

The Third Coast

When Chicago Built the American Dream

By Thomas Dyja

The Third Coast
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  • Published in USA  Apr 2013,
    544 pages.

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Book Summary

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 we 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 (then carrying on a passionate affair with Simone de Beauvoir), 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 the intimacy of Kukla, Fran and Ollie, the Chicago School of Television, and the improvisational Second City whose famous alumni are now everywhere in American entertainment.

Despite this diversity, racial divisions informed virtually every aspect of life in Chicago. The chaos - both constructive and destructive - of this period was set into motion by the second migration north of African Americans during World War Two. As whites either fled to the suburbs or violently opposed integration, urban planners tried to design away "blight" with projects that marred a generation of American cities. The election of Mayor Richard J. Daley in 1955 launched a frenzy of new building that came at a terrible cost - monolithic housing projects for the black community and a new kind of self-satisfied provincialism that sped the end of Chicago's role as 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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Reviews

Media Reviews

"Starred Review. a luminous, empathetic, and engrossing portrait of a city." - Publishers Weekly

"A valuable contribution to the history of Chicago, worthy of a place alongside William Cronon's Nature's Metropolis (1991)." - Kirkus

"I am an American, not Chicago-born, but at age nine Chicago was the first big city I visited, and it was love at first sight. I've come to know it deeply, however, only through its writers: Saul Bellow, Richard Wright, Studs Terkel, Mike Royko - and now Thomas Dyja. The Third Coast is a vivid, fascinating, surprising, altogether masterful chronicle of this quintessentially American city's mid-century cultural heyday." - Kurt Andersen, author of True Believers

"This is a book as startling as the place it celebrates: Chicago, the town where a gay puppeteer transformed children's television and thereby, their imagination; the burg where post-war comedy, cuisine, urban politics, and pre-marital sex were all changed, changed utterly. Dyja gives unforgettable voice to dozens of out-sized personalities, from Sun Ra to Studs Terkel, from Gwendolyn Brooks to Nelson Algren, from Mahalia Jackson to Muddy Waters, from Richard Daley to Adlai Stevenson, a cast worthy of a Tolstoy or Dickens. In his wonderful book, Chicago stands revealed as both America's most corrupt city and its one, true homeland of the soul." - Anthony Heilbut, author of Exiled in Paradise and The Fan Who Knew Too Much

"Thomas Dyja's The Third Coast is a wonderful, beautifully-written, eye-opener and genuine page-turner about Chicago, as sweeping and astonishing as the city itself. It does nothing less than help rewrite postwar American history and culture and cure our bi-coastal myopia. It links half-a-century's worth of economic and social changes with cultural revolution, racial strife with sexual upheaval, architecture with politics, literature with gospel music, Hugh Hefner with Tina Fey, Mies van der Rohe with Mayor Daley, Ray Kroc with Katherine Kuh - it's the whole grand, messy American story, lived through bigger-than-life characters in a bigger-than-life city." - Michael Kimmelman, author of The Accidental Masterpiece

"In The Third Coast, Thomas Dyja chronicles Chicago's estimable contributions to American culture with the colorful prose of Nelson Algren and the humanistic wisdom of Studs Terkel. He puts you at street level with the men and women whose talent and entrepreneurial chutzpah combined to give Chicago, and the nation, its postwar swagger." - Bob Marovich, Host of "Gospel Memories," WLUW Chicago

"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!" - Douglas Brinkley, author of Cronkite

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Thomas Dyja is the author of several novels, including the Casey Award-winning Play for a Kingdom, as well as works of nonfiction. 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.

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