Chicago after the fire of 1871
By RODNEY O. DAVIS
Ross Miller. American Apocalypse: The Great Fire and the Myth of Chicago. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990. Pp. 287 with photographs, notes and index. $24.95 (cloth).
According to Chicago's 19th century mythmakers, and to Ross Miller 100 years later, the Great fire of 1871 was an apocalyptic event, signifying both an end and a beginning. It purged the city of its past corruption and social inequalities and unified its inhabitants behind common purposes. The nation too shared in the cleansing experience, for the fire's impact was widely photographed; indeed, Miller considers the fire "one of America's first national media events." Twenty-two years later the fire was commemorated in Daniel Burnham's version of the New Jerusalem at the World's Columbian Exposition. The White City was the official fantastical vision of what the city had become. That the image did not match the needs and feelings of the immigrant and blue-collar people who made up the majority of the city's inhabitants or the actual appearance and significance of the real city that had risen from the ashes in the Loop seemed irrelevant.
Countering the pervasive White City myth, though sometimes in this book as only faintly discernible background noise, were the disharmonious and even subversive demands of Chicago's increasingly radical counterculture, first touched off by the panic of 1873 and made manifest in the labor unrest of 1877, the Haymarket affair and the Pullman strike. Miller ironically concludes his book with a description of the comparably dissonant destruction of the fair's abandoned New Jerusalem itself by unapocalyptic fire on July 4, 1894. Left thereafter in Chicago was only the real city — the black city of the Loop and the working-class neighborhoods, the city that fair visitors had been discouraged from seeing the year before.
Miller's task in detailing both fact and myth in the city's history between 1871 and 1894 is an ambitious one. During those years Chicago was not only a wonder of the world for its extraordinary growth and development and its utter newness, but for its simultaneous rebuilding after the fire. The spectacular new city — with neither traditions nor high culture of its own — became a laboratory for experimentation, most notably in literary realism and in urban commercial architecture.
Miller has surveyed 19th century Chicago literature, beginning with the negligible post-fire novels that capitalized on the spectacle of the conflagration and perhaps contributed most to the myth, through the writings of such 1890s lookers-on in the genteel tradition as Henry Blake Fuller and Robert Herrick, to those authors such as Upton Sinclair and Theodore Dreiser who at the end of the period not only wrote about Chicago but lived its life.
American Apocalypse bristles with insights and interesting facts. Something of the conditions of life in 1890s Chicago is suggested by the horrifying number of grade-crossing fatalities in the city, for instance. William T. Stead counted 431 in the fair year of 1893 alone. But stimulating and informative as it is, Miller's book does not quite succeed. There are mechanical problems: Photo placement effaces page numbers too frequently, for example, and many of the photographs that are so important to the book are inadequately identified or described, whereas the text discusses other photographs that are not included. Furthermore, the decidedly countermythical existence of most Chicagoans needs more attention than it gets in the book's text. The book's major shortcoming, however, is its brevity. The subject is simply too vast to be adequately covered in so slight a volume. But, as Paul Gapp has already noted in the Chicago Tribune, the publication of any new Chicago history of such broad focus is an important event. Miller's volume should therefore be seriously regarded.
Rodney O. Davis is professor of history at Knox College in Galesburg, where he has taught and written on the history of Illinois and Chicago for 25 years.
November 1990/Illinois Issues/33