Augie March’s Chicago

From L to R: The cast of  The Adventures of Augie March . Photo by Michael Brosilow.

From L to R: The cast of The Adventures of Augie March. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

The Adaptations of Augie March: a novel by Saul Bellow, a play by David Auburn, a production directed by Charles Newell, and an exhibition by Special Collections and Court Theatre. Court’s production runs through June 23; the Library’s Special Collection exhibit is open through August 30. Learn more here.


by Brandon Sward, third year student in Sociology
Illustrations by Clare Austen-Smith

“I am an American, Chicago born—Chicago, that somber city—and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent.” - The Adventures of Augie March

So begins what many consider author Saul Bellow’s (EX’39) magnum opus, The Adventures of Augie March, which won the 1954 US National Book Award for Fiction and has been named one of the best hundred novels in the English language by both Timeand the Modern Library Board. A sprawling work of almost 600 pages, the bildungsromanthat follows the eponymous hero of the novel has recently been adapted for the stage—for the first time—by playwright David Auburn (AB ’91). Auburn, author of the Tony Award- and Pulitzer Prize-winning Proof, which is set in Hyde Park, discovered his desire to be a playwright while writing for UChicago’s comedy revue troupe Off-Off Campus during his time as an undergraduate. Court Theatre mounted a production of Proof in 2013, and debuted Auburn’s The Adaptations of Augie March in April.

From L to R: Aurora Real de Asua, Patrick Mulvey, Luigi Sottile, Abby Pierce, and Sebastian Arboleda in a scene from  The Adventures of Augie March  set in a Hyde Park bookstore. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

From L to R: Aurora Real de Asua, Patrick Mulvey, Luigi Sottile, Abby Pierce, and Sebastian Arboleda in a scene from The Adventures of Augie March set in a Hyde Park bookstore. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

It’s a unique time in our collective history for the adaptation to premiere. For one, though Bellow taught at and chaired UChicago’s famed Committee on Social Thought for over thirty years, his work has recently fallen out of academic fashion. Auburn’s adaptation actively works against these tendencies, giving more voice to the novel’s disabled and immigrant—like March himself—characters. 

Like many of his novels, Bellow’s Augie Marchplays out across the city, from Hyde Park to the Loop to Augusta Boulevard. Below are five significant Chicago locations for both Bellow and March, as real as can be for those who want to make their own literary pilgrimages.

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2629 West Augusta Boulevard

In The Adventures of Augie March,Chicago itself rises to the role of an independent character. For example, although it doesn’t actually appear in the book, the street name of Bellow’s childhood home was the inspiration behind the novel’s main character.

Born in 1915 in Quebec to Russian immigrants of Lithuanian-Jewish descent, Bellow moved at age nine with his family to Chicago’s Humboldt Park. The 2600-block of West Augusta Boulevard where the family settled was given the honorary status of “Saul Bellow Way” in 2012.


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Reynolds Club

“He couldn’t consider himself a student; he was a sort of a fee-paying visitor; he played poker in the law-school basement and pool at the Reynold’s Club and went to a handbook on Fifty-third Street to bet on horses.” 

It doesn’t get more “UChicago” than this. Located at 5706 South University Avenue, Reynolds is the University’s primary student center, partially built with funds donated by Mrs. Joseph Reynolds in 1895 in memory of her late husband. The building’s bell tower is modeled after the Magdalen College Tower in Oxford, which now houses WHPK, the University’s long-running radio station. In 1902, the building contained a billiard room, bowling alley, library, and theater. Today, the building is home to, among other things, the gold Reynolds Club seal that undergrads are warned against stepping on, lest they not graduate within four years.


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Marshall Field’s

“However, in a department store, without glancing back, I’d drift into another section—men’s shoes at Carson Pirie’s, candy or rugs at Marshall Field’s. It never entered my mind to branch out and steal other stuff as well.”

Growing up during the Great Depression, as did Bellow himself, Augie is constantly seduced by the seedier side of Chicago and begins to shoplift in an attempt to get ahead in life. One of his victims is the department store Marshall Field’s on State Street, which was acquired by Macy’s in 2005 and now serves as one of its four flagship stores.

As with Sears Tower, many of Chicago’s long-term residents still refer to the store as Marshall Field’s, and visitors to the store can find a plaque bearing the original name.


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John Marshall Law School

“I could finish my pre-legal course and go to John Marshall law school at night while I worked for him.”

Bellow had intimate if fraught friendships with at least two people who sought upward mobility through John Marshall Law School: his high school pal, Sam “Fish” Freifeld, after whom Bellow modeled characters in numerous works, and the high-rolling Julius Lucius “Lucky” Echeles, described in his Chicago Tribune obituary as “a flamboyant criminal defense lawyer.” Established in 1899, the school’s long history will come to enter a new chapter this autumn, when it will merge with the University of Illinois at Chicago to become the city’s first public law school.


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Palmer House

“In passing through the lobbies of swank places, the Palmer House and portiered dining rooms, tassels, tapers, string ensembles, making the staid bouncety tram-tram of Vienna waltzes, Simon had absorbed this It made his nostrils open. He was cynical of it but it got him.”

In his forward to Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, Bellow writes, “My mother wanted me to be a fiddler or, failing that, a rabbi. I had my choice between playing dinner music at the Palmer House or presiding over a synagogue.” The original hotel opened on September 26, 1871, only to burn down less than two weeks later in the Great Chicago Fire. Rebuilt in 1875, the Palmer House has been dubbed the longest continuously operating hotel in North America.


The Adaptations of Augie March: a novel by Saul Bellow, a play by David Auburn, a production directed by Charles Newell, and an exhibition by Special Collections and Court Theatre. Court’s production runs through June 23; the Library’s Special Collection exhibit is open through August 30. Learn more here.