Jason Pettus's Reviews > Prairie Avenue

Prairie Avenue by Arthur Meeker
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Apr 04, 12

bookshelves: late-modernism, victorian, chicago, personal-favorite, classic
Read in April, 2012

(As of spring 2012, I have a first-edition copy of this book for sale at my arts center's rare-book service [cclapcenter.com/rarebooks], so I thought I would repost here the description I came up with for it, part review and part historical overview.)

Although sadly now nearly forgotten, at one point Arthur Meeker Jr. (1902-1971) was one of the most successful authors Chicago ever produced, a co-founder of the local chapter of PEN who had two national bestsellers in his nine-book career. The son of an Armour executive who was raised among the high society of the Edwardian Age, even after becoming a journalist he remained a fixture among the elite, traveling Europe widely and becoming known for his witty, Ward-McAllisteresque reports. It's no surprise that this second-most popular book of his career would come just a few years after the death of his parents, because in many ways it seems to be an autobiographical roman-a-clef about the years as a child he spent with them: set in stages between the 1880s and World War One, it looks at the comings and goings in Chicago's infamous Prairie Avenue neighborhood where Meeker himself was raised, featuring a main protagonist who also travels Europe widely and eventually becomes a journalist as well. (In fact, the book itself is set at the very specific street address of 1817 S. Prairie Avenue, just across the street from the now historical Clarke and Glessner Houses, although I don't know if this matches up with Meeker's real-life address from those years; if anyone on the internet is coming across this in the future and knows, please drop me a line and let me know too!)

Just like the Indianapolis neighborhood featured in Booth Tarkington's The Magnificent Ambersons, the Prairie Avenue district of Chicago went through a fascinating transition between the Civil War and World War One, the progression of which is the main point of Meeker's own novel. The city's very first neighborhood for old-money blue bloods, and located just two miles south of the downtown Loop, the entire reason it was so important to be that close to downtown in the Victorian Age was precisely because it was so difficult to travel long distances then, making the sprawling estates immediately surrounding central cities extremely valuable, and turning this entire southside neighborhood into a wonderland of moody Gothic mansions, adjoining servant quarters, horse stables and fruit orchards; but as bridges and improved infrastructure started making the city's northside more and more popular in the following decades, and suburban trains drove more and more of the rich out into the wilderness altogether, neighborhoods like Prairie Avenue quickly became discarded slums, with no one left who wanted to buy the crumbling mansions and with more and more of them knocked down to make way for industrial factories and warehouses. Meeker follows both the highs and lows of this progression in his own book, delightfully dropping in literally hundreds of references along the way to long-closed Chicago institutions, famous real families, restaurants, pubs, gentlemen's clubs, local landmarks and a lot, lot more; and he really brings alive the sense of what it must've been like to stroll the sidewalks of this neighborhood in its turn-of-the-century height, a foggy gaslamp-lit amusement park of Victoriana as can only be seen through the wide eyes of an overly eager child, a virtual paen to a way of life that had already disappeared by the time this originally came out in the 1940s, and now of course the stuff only of fanciful dreams and a handful of federally protected landmarks. (For those who don't know, the fight in the 1950s to save the smattering of mansions left in this neighborhood virtually kickstarted the entire national architectural-preservation movement; so in that sense, you can see this popular novel and Book Of The Month Club selection as partly to thank for the US having historically preserved urban landmarks in the first place.)

Called a "light and colorful entertainment" by the New York Times upon its original release, this perhaps does not take into consideration the numerous dark corners contained in Prairie Avenue, including frank depictions of suicidal depression, drug addiction and infidelity among our very proper characters, the efforts to hide and corral these problems fueling much of the melodramatic plot; and indeed, it's widely believed that Meeker himself was gay (but see his Wikipedia page for more on that), so it's certainly possible to argue that this novel's various plot machinations were actually a clever pre-Stonewall way for Meeker to explore the entire issue of being The Other, in a society that doesn't tolerate Otherness. An author who deserves to be rediscovered, at least by a grateful local literary community here in Chicago, it's CCLaP's intention to attempt to put together an entire set of first-editions of all of Meeker's books over the years (including his apparently Max Beerbohm-like 1955 memoir Chicago, With Love: A Polite and Personal History), with Prairie Avenue serving as the perfect gift for anyone interested in Chicago history, the Victorian Age in general, or the various developments in urban living that took place here in the early 20th century.
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