Disorderly Conduct as Fine Art

The Rise & Fall of the DIL PICKLE: Jazz-Age Chicago’s Wildest & Most Outrageously Creative Hobohemian Nightspot, edited & introduced by Franklin Rosemont. Chicago, Charles H. Kerr publishing Co., 2004.

A few months back, in the beginning of a blizzard, I took a walk around Chicago’s Near North Side. I tramped near the elegant Newberry Library and around dignified Washington Square unaware that I was two blocks way from the center of an older universe. In the years before World War I, anarchists, artists and Wobblies converted an old horse barn at the end of a twisted court into a teahouse called the Dil Pickle. Although it didn’t have a proper door, just a hole low in a wall and a sign advising the visitor to “step up, stoop low, and leave your dignity outside,” the Pickle became from its founding in 1914 ( or 1915 or 1916 — no one is quite sure) the most important place in Chicago, and maybe the United States, to hear artistic and political argument.

Franklin Rosemont has introduced and assembled descriptions of this delirious scene from the writings of scores of Pickle regulars and Pickle passers-through. You’ll recognize Kenneth Rexroth, Sherwood Anderson, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Ben Hecht, and Carl Sandburg, but many others less well-known have contributed their memories, and the wild partyings of famous poets and politicos are described with energy and a tasty disregard for good taste.

As Rosemont puts it, the Dil Pickle raised disorderly conduct to a fine art. The club was founded when the soapbox lecturers of Bughouse Square, a less polite name for Washington Square and a national hotspot in pre-World War I free speech campaigns, needed a place out of the winter weather. But besides offering shelter and sandwiches, the Dil Pickle quickly became a place to dance, paint, sculpt and put on plays by Shaw, Ibsen and Hecht. It drew a self-cultivating and shabby crowd. As one Pickler recalls, “if you were creatively inclined, and had no money, you eventually wound up somewhere in the neighborhood…It was a place to do a lot of plain and fancy thinking.” Its fame grew when anarchist-publicist Ben Reitman made it his home away from home. Until it closed in 1934 anybody who was anybody in the world of ideas and politics held forth at the Pickle.

And, no matter how august, the speaker was always heckled. It was a Pickle tradition. “They were murderous bunch, and could humiliate, crush and discredit anyone. No matter how accurate and scientific a speaker was the hecklers proved he was a liar and an ignoramus,” one woman remembers. The plays were performed behind a scrim to protect the actors from flying garbage.

High school girls heard older women (and men) hold forth on the importance of employment and birth-control for female emancipation. Marxism and anarchism and cigarette smoking and marriage were subjected to analysis and vulgar sarcasm. About 700 people could crowd into the lecture hall to ponder wage slavery or listen to a University of Chicago professor and a swindler debate juvenile delinquency. 1000 people, the biggest audience anyone remembers, came to hear Magnus Hirschfeld, “Europe’s Greatest Sex Authority” discuss “What is Homosexuality?” a nearly undiscussable topic at the time. After the entertainment, the Picklers moved into the side rooms to eat, drink and argue into the early morning. It was a real university: crowded, smoky and overheated, holding worlds of ideas and trash and liberation in its shaky hands.

To read about the creativity and irreverence of the Dil Picklers in their successful and failed projects is to realize how much we’ve lost in our intellectual culture. At the time there were cousins of the Dil Pickle, if not everywhere, at least scattered here and there across the landscape. In a spirit of continuity, the editor dedicates the book to the Free Radio Movement “and other Dil Picklers of the 21st-century.” Good enough, but overall our political gatherings when we have them are tame and pallid affairs. Almost no one wants to mock or give offense, not even in the face of genocide or global war. These days you’d be shot if you tried to toss anything — even a sun-dried tomato — at a presidential candidate. Which is why I respect as soulful the person who will throw a dead cat.

SUSAN DAVIS teaches at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. (Charles H. Kerr Publishing Co. can be reached at 1740 West Greenleaf Ave., Chicago, Illinois, 60626. And yes, there is only one “l” in “Dil.”)