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Loss of Lives

August 31, 2006 By:
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When David Brooks was at The Weekly Standard, I enjoyed almost everything he wrote. He seemed to revel in the freedom he'd been given at the magazine, and when his editors cut him loose, especially on longer features, he took full advantage of it. But when he moved on several years ago to the opinion pages at The New York Times -- quite a feather in his professional cap -- I found that it took him time to find his voice, which was understandable, but once he did, he became a different, spottier sort of writer. When he was on, he was really on; but when he was off, which happened frequently, he wasn't even momentarily entertaining. He seemed constricted by the scale he'd been given and the unofficial role he was asked to play -- a conservative that liberals can love.

But now, when he turns to literary or journalistic topics, or when nostalgia comes into play and he's not being asked -- or asking himself -- to weigh in on some pressing political problem, he's often at his best.

Such was the case with his piece in the July 6 issue called "Page One's Missing Characters." The dateline was Chicago, and Brooks was writing about the early period of his career in that city 25 years ago. Back then, he used to frequent the Billy Goat Tavern "to drink like a reporter."

"The Billy Goat -- half relic, half tourist trap -- was under Michigan Avenue between The Tribune and The Sun-Times. It had laminated articles, half-forgotten bylines, and pictures of dead reporters tacked all over the walls. I could sit and imagine I was breathing the same air that had been inhaled by George Ade, Nelson Algren, Ben Hecht, Theodore Dreiser, Eugene Field and Mike Royko."

But 25 years ago, the golden age of Chicago journalism was on the wane. That was a period when "urban realists" began a long tradition of treating "Chicago the way Dickens had treated London. Ade, Algren and the rest didn't make their names writing about the city's leading figures. They filled their columns with stories about the small-time grafters, hustlers, bar-stool philosophers and other eccentric specimens they found in the working-class neighborhoods where many of them grew up."

One of Brooks' points was that, 20 years ago, the working class was far more "vividly" portrayed in the pages of Chicago newspapers than the upscale consumer class ever was, "and workers weren't depicted as members of the noble but oppressed proletariat -- objects fit for genteel compassion. The old neighborhoods were portrayed uncondescendingly, as scrambling menageries, where aspirations of lace-curtain respectability competed with the hoodlum's ethic: where's mine?"

According to Brooks, Chicago came to define itself through "the deranged but lovable characters it read about in the morning press." That city is gone, as is that kind of journalism. Now, the city is shaped by the suburbs. Brooks' column rightly mourned these considerable losses in American life. 

 

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