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Originally published Friday, April 26, 2013 at 5:00 AM

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‘The Third Coast’: Chicago’s chapters in the book of American culture

Thomas Dyja’s new book, “The Third Coast: When Chicago Built the American Dream,” is a sparkling account of Chicago’s contributions to the culture of the nation, from Mies van der Rohe to Muddy Waters. Dyja discusses his book Tuesday at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Thomas Dyja

The author of “The Third Coast” will discuss his book at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave., Seattle; free (206-624-6600 or elliottbaybook.com).

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Here’s a book that looks at Chicago’s place in the world — or, really, its effect on the world — between 1946 and 1960, and in 500-plus pages there’s but passing mention of George Halas (professional football) and Tony Accardo (organized crime), and when Accardo is mentioned, there’s no recitation of his nickname “Joe Batters” and the story behind it.

My God, how I enjoyed this book.

Mobsters and Monsters of the Midway — along with deep-dish pizza and aldermen on the take — may be the images of Chicago summoned in the popular imagination, but Thomas Dyja’s cultural history of Chicago, “The Third Coast: When Chicago Built the American Dream” (Penguin Press, 508 pp., $29.95) offers a deeper perspective, detailing Chicago’s midcentury contributions to literature, music, theater, photography, television and architecture.

“Understanding America requires understanding Chicago,” Dyja writes, and he offers up Chicago in full: The same city that gave us modern architecture and urban blues gave us McDonald’s and Playboy.

Dyja grew up in Chicago and now lives in New York. His book is more lover’s quarrel than love letter, and is the better for it. He celebrates Gwendolyn Brooks, the poet, while condemning the Great Books, an educational movement co-founded by University of Chicago President Robert Maynard Hutchins, an intellectual poseur and (in this writer’s opinion) a genuine ass.

The book bounces around from gospel singer Mahalia Jackson to architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe to puppeteer Burr Tillstrom (creator of “Kukla, Fran and Ollie”) to Mayor Richard J. Daley to Hugh Hefner to Muddy Waters.

The lives of historical figures intersect in so many ways that “The Third Coast” rolls along like a nonfiction version of E.L. Doctorow’s “Ragtime,” moved from New York to Chicago, with half a century gone by. Nelson Algren, tortured writer, bowls with Studs Terkel, drinks with Albert Camus and shares a bed with Simone de Beauvoir.

The book is an extraordinarily good read, with writing that sparkles. Delving into the city’s unforgivable housing policies, Dyja describes how postwar Chicagoans became so obsessed with racial boundaries that they “now read the city map the way they’d recently read the European Theater.”

Dyja also threads the narrative with compare-contrast numbers that pop: “If Mayor Daley was the city’s father figure, Hugh Hefner was the black sheep brother who bought you beer.”

The book’s arc is clear: Under Daley’s hand, Chicago goes from being “America’s meeting place” to turning in on itself, becoming increasingly isolated and provincial amid an exodus of influential artists.

At times, Dyja spoils for a fight. “No better novel has ever come out of Chicago,” he says of Algren’s “The Man with the Golden Arm.” To which someone somewhere will snort: “Native Son?” “Sister Carrie?” “Humboldt’s Gift?” But this is a good fight to have, akin to claiming Butkus or Singletary as the greatest Bears linebacker.

Some individuals and institutions take a beating — Dyja calls the postwar University of Chicago “a never-never land for maladjusted teenage geniuses” — but Dyja’s love for the city that was and could have been is unmistakable.

For every Hutchins there is a Terkel, who, when commanded to sign a loyalty oath during the McCarthy Era, said two words to the man holding the paper. The second was off. The first you can guess.

The man holding the paper was from New York — giving the scene a special place in the heart of anyone who has ever called Chicago home.

Ken Armstrong: karmstrong@seattletimes.com.

A Seattle Times reporter, he is the co-author of “Scoreboard, Baby: A Story of College Football, Crime, and Complicity,” winner of the Edgar Award for best fact crime book.

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