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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 (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 comedy troupe 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 II. 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 up 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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Quotes & Awards

  • “Engrossing…This gallery of vivid portraits makes for an intensely engaging book, notable for its intellectual breadth, arms-wide research, and high-octane prose that keeps it riding high over the mass of details…Like all good histories, the book is crammed with tasty morsels…More important, Mr. Dyja repeatedly presents a nuanced understanding that counterbalances many of today’s convenient preconceptions.”

    Scott Turow, New York Times bestselling author

  • “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, New York Times bestselling author

  • “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, New York Times bestselling author

  • “Thomas Dyja has written a wonderful book about the cultural cauldron that seethed in twentieth-century Chicago. The Third Coast reminds us that New York and Los Angeles hold no monopoly on American artistic genius. From Louis Sullivan to Richard Wright, from Mahalia Jackson to Nelson Algren, Chicago attracted and inspired talent. Dyja’s well-crafted exploration of Chicago creativity helps us understand why cities are the wellsprings of culture. American society was molded by its cities, and Chicago has played an outsized role in molding music and literature and architecture. Dyja’s engaging writing not only provides an insightful investigation of Chicago’s cultural heroes but also delivers a broader view of how cities shape the sea of civilization.”

    Edward Glaeser, New York Times bestselling author

  • “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 bicoastal 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 in a bigger-than-life city.”

    Michael Kimmelman, New York Times bestselling author

  • “A rollicking cultural history…What’s a given now was often given by Chicago: high-rises, gospel and the blues, TV talk shows, Playboy, McDonalds, sketch comedy…Was it all dazzling coincidence or, as Dyja suggests, something in the water?”

    Vanity Fair

  • "[A] robust cultural history…Dyja zooms in on the qualities Chicagoans value and does it better than anyone else I’ve read.”

    New York Times Book Review

  • "The Third Coast has an elegant, unflinching, non-nostalgic clarity…a new touchstone in Chicago literature…an ambitious history lesson no one had written.”

    Chicago Tribune

  • “My God, how I enjoyed this book…[Dyja] offers up Chicago in full…The book is an extraordinarily good read, with writing that sparkles.”

    Seattle Times

  • “A magisterial narrative…A luminous, empathetic, and engrossing portrait of a city.”

    Publishers Weekly (starred review)

  • “Robust, outspoken, zestfully knowledgeable, and seductively told…Writing with velocity, wry wit, and tough lyricism in sync with Chicago’s ‘ballsy’ spirit, Dyja focuses on the years between the Great Depression and 1960…As vibrant and clarifying as his overarching vision is, what makes this such a thrilling read are Dyja’s fresh and dynamic portraits not only of the first Mayor Daley and his machine but also of key artists and innovators who embodied or amplified Chicago’s earthiness, grit, audacity, and beauty…Here is the frenetic simultaneity of an evolving city torn between its tragic crimes and failings and tensile strength and creativity.”

    Booklist (starred review)

  • “A readable, richly detailed history of America’s second city…A valuable contribution to the history of Chicago, worthy of a place alongside William Cronon’s Nature’s Metropolis.”

    Kirkus Reviews

  • “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.”


  • “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 postwar comedy, cuisine, urban politics, and premarital 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

  • “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 

  • A Publishers Weekly Pick of the Week, April 2013
  • A New York Times Editor’s Choice
  • One of the New York Times Book Review 100 Notable Books for 2013
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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.