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Robert Bray
Historical Research and Narrative

The Great Fire of 1871

One of the most interesting aspects of the Chicago novel, 1890-1915, is its narrative use of events from the city's immediate past. Rebuilt pretty much "from scratch" following the Great Fire of 1871, its fabulous growth was powered by industries like meatpacking, railroads, and heavy manufacturing (along with thousands upon thousands of immigrants who "powered the power"). In its transformation, Chicago became a kind of vast social laboratory, and writers were among the "social scientists" striving to use the city as a case study in modern urbanization. The science that the novelists often used was called realism: the fictional attempt to picture things as they actually appeared, for good or bad, rich or poor, comic or tragic. But of course these literary scientists could not be wholly objective. For they lived and worked and were moved by the burgeoning city, and their passions regarding Chicago inevitably influenced their artistic visions. In other words, the scientists affected the experiments. In some cases, the very events they were attempting to catch in their fictions they themselves had recently lived through: the 1886 bombing (by persons unknown) at a labor rally now known to history as "Haymarket" from its location on West Randolph Street; the building of the first "skyscrapers" in the 1890s (represented today by the Monadnock Building, the Auditorium Building, the Rookery, and others); bitter labor strife at McCormick, Pullman, and elsewhere; and, most symbolically charged of all, the famed "World's Columbian Exposition" of 1893.

All these events and many more found their way into the Chicago novel of the era. What we would like to explore with you critically—and hope you will continue to explore during your own reading—is this special and close relationship between actual and literary Chicago. There is a wealth of material to read and analyze, far more than we can discuss here. But to get us started, we have organized the books and authors into three categories, which we hope best reflect the concerns that the Chicago novelists addressed: labor, women, and city-building. In what follows, we have tried to indicate not only what each book is about, but also its tone, its themes, and some of the Chicago people, places, and events it uses. Most of the titles are long out of print and require a library search to obtain. But those books with an asterisk (*) are readily available in quality paperback editions in the Prairie State Books series from the University of Illinois Press. Prairie State volumes contain full text and scholarly introductions, and some of them also have annotations. And now, with our novels in hand, let us get on to the topics.

The Haymarket bombing and its unjust trial may be the most notorious of Chicago's labor troubles before World War I, but others are of equal importance to the city's-and the nation's-history and literature. By the time Frank Harris published The Bomb in 1909, William Dean Howells, the most important literary realist in the United States, had called the country's attention to the miscarriage of justice that had condemned and hanged the "anarchists" despite the prosecution's inability to show that any one of them had actually thrown the bomb. Chicago novelist Robert Herrick had made the Haymarket trial an important part of his Memoirs of an American Citizen (1905), the fictionalized autobiography of a Chicago self-made tycoon, Van Harrington, who rises from the humblest beginnings (he is in jail!) to power and prestige in "Packingtown," and whose big break occurs when he is selected as a "safe" juror-that is, one who can be counted on to vote guilty no matter what the evidence, or lack thereof-for the anarchists' trial. Helping the state to a conviction, and thus making the city safe for business, is the first of his many venal and mortal sins on the way to a huge fortune that buys him a seat in the United States Senate.

Herrick, though no political radical, was sickened by business and government's unfair treatment of organizing labor. In The Web of Life (1900) he stressed the irony of economic depression and the Pullman Strike following so


Sister Carrie
Chicago stockyards.

closely upon the giddy escapism of the Columbian Exposition:

The poor had come lean and hungry out of the terrible winter that followed the World's Fair. In that beautiful enterprise the prodigal city had put forth her utmost strength, and, having shown the world the supreme flower of her energy, had collapsed.

With members of Eugene Debs's American Railway Union striking Pullman in far south Chicago, with U. S. soldiers guarding the trains and ready to fire on strikers, and with the poor and hungry and homeless kindling winter fires in the Fair's abandoned buildings, The Web of Life can read like a nightmarish story of American betrayal-of the country's descent into an ever-darkening plutocracy.

By far the most famous of Chicago's labor novels, a best-seller then and a classic now, is Upton Sinclair's The Jungle* (1906). Based on Sinclair's undercover research in the Chicago Stock Yards (Packingtown), it is the relentlessly downhill story of a Lithuanian immigrant, Jurgis Rudkus, and his family, all of whom come to Chicago to find work in the vast meatpacking industry on the near-southwest side of the city. Low pay, job insecurity, dangerous and disgusting working conditions, and dishonest bosses and landlords-all seem to conspire to destroy the dignity of the Rudkus family. Theirs is an "Americanization" in the worst possible sense: the old ways forcibly stripped from them forever, the new city culture an industrial hell that deprives them of even a material subsistence.

What Sinclair reported about the stockyards' working environment was in the main true. Americans who read the novel, first in serialization and then in book form, were revolted enough by its scenes of unhealthy meat production to demand that their government do something about it. While the result was the reform legislation of the Pure Food and Drug Act, this was not quite what Sinclair had had in mind. His aim, he said, had been to hit Americans in the heart, but he got them in the stomach instead. He wanted the Packingtown workers to organize, organize! And he wanted the good middle-class citizens of Chicago and the United States to go along with a general unionization that would enable millions of new citizens to obtain economic respectability-and with it middle-class membership.

Socialism-the civil religion of workers rights-was what he and The Jungle had been preaching. But the sermon did not take. The workers in this part of the world did not exactly unite. And middle-class America either was not moved or stayed away from the revival. Even in the narrative itself, the painful human cost is horrendous, greater in fact than the author's supreme optimism can neutralize. While Jurgis is reborn into the socialist dream at the end of the book, and the reader is happy for him, the price has been devastating (several members of his family dead, the rest scattered) and, politically, nothing much has changed. The owners own, the bosses boss, and the workers... .

Depiction of a strike between Pullman workers and federal troops
An artist's rendering depicts the clash between striking
Pullman workers and federal troops.

In Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie (1900), the title character rolls into Chicago in 1889 on a train from "Columbia City, Wisconsin." She has no work skills, no prospects, and nowhere to go except to her sister's ugly "flat" on West Van Buren Street. Dreiser calls Caroline Meeber a "waif amid forces," and the eighteen-year-old girl cannot begin to comprehend what these superhuman urban forces are doing to her. She hates living with her sister, hates the drudgery of factory work. But she has a strong instinct for self-preservation, and Carrie's entry into the Chicago middle-class is through the back door: she becomes a "kept woman." When her first keeper shows signs of social and economic slippage, she moves up to another; when he falls, she leaves him too and becomes a "professional," an actress-and in cosmopolitan New York rather than "second-city" Chicago. Though well-off, Carrie is still unfulfilled. We last see her alone rocking in her rocking chair, wondering what had happened to the promise of "life."

The theater was a career available to women, but it was not quite respectable. Besides marriage, motherhood, and teaching, the relatively new profession of social work was about the only socially acceptable vocation open to young women—and at first even it was on the margins of respectability. Both as a real-life career and a Chicago fictional subject, social work gained immense credibility from the professionalism of Jane Addams and her partner, Ellen Gates Starr, founders of the Hull House settlement in 1889. Though not a novel, Addams's Twenty Years at Hull House* (1909) was a wonderful and moving story about two women's heroic efforts to build a socially supportive institution for recent immigrants to Chicago-and to locate it right in the neighborhood where the new arrivals would have to live: the tenement districts around Halstead Street, just west of the Chicago "Loop."


Addams created Hull House to help "Americanize" immigrants-that is, to acquire language and social skills to compete economically in their new environment, without (at least in theory) losing the best of the European cultures that they had carried to American with them: Italian, Polish, Russian, Bohemian, and others. (The Chicago Irish and German populations were already well in place before the great European emigration of 1890-1920). Hull House was privately funded, but there were also a number of new civic, tax-sponsored social service agencies, such as the Child Welfare Bureau and the juvenile court system. It was for this latter agency that Beth Tully, the protagonist of Clara Laughlin's 1910 novel, Just Folks, worked.

Jane Addams
Jane Addams

Hull House
Hull House

Girl with Flowers

Beth Tully's story remains quite readable today. And Beth herself was, and is, a remarkable heroine: independent, plucky, smart and, of course, sympathetic. Most of all, she is unafraid to stand up for her young charges against the abusive dads and greedy bosses who want to work immigrant kids to death. As she makes her rounds between the court and the "19th Ward" neighborhoods where her cases live, Beth sees working men and women faced with the tough social issues of the day: labor unions and strikes, vice and alcoholism, slum landlords, and, perhaps most importantly, women's suffrage. She also confronts her own personal problems: a mother who does not understand why she would live and work in such an area of the city and a suitor who wants her to quit being a probation officer, marry him, and raise a family. At the end of the novel, she agrees-but with the proviso that she need not give up her individuality in marriage and may in fact later return to social work. Her husband-to-be's greatest concession is in agreeing that they will make their home in Chicago's 19th Ward, where Beth's friends are, where the "people" are.

Another fine "woman's novel" is The Precipice* (1914) by Elia W. Peattie, who had a career in journalism that included being book editor for many years at the Chicago Tribune. The Precipice is the story of Kate Barrington, who, as the novel opens, has just graduated from the University of Chicago and is returning home to "Silvertree, Iowa," to live with her parents once more while she decides what to do with her life. That decision is made plain by the overbearing egotism of her father, a physician and domestic tyrant. Before many days at home have passed, Kate knows she will not live in Silvertree. When his wife, Kate's mother, dies, Dr. Barrington automatically assumes Kate will devote herself to him. When she demurs, he cruelly accuses her of ingratitude, and they break apart-she back to Chicago, he into his private, small-town misogyny.

Kate takes up residence in a spare room in a college friend's apartment and finds employment as a social worker for the "Children's Protective League," based at Hull House. She comes under Jane Addams's mentorship and soon becomes a well-known force for child-welfare in Chicago. As she rises in fame and authority, Kate also must face the old question of career or family. She turns down several suitors-she either does not love them or they are not sufficiently progressive in their attitudes towards women's independence-before genuinely falling in love with a westerner with the apt name of Karl Wander, who ultimately proves her soul mate in matters both romantic and social.

The Precipice is not only about Kate Barrington. The plot nicely handles the stories of two of Kate's University of Chicago friends, both of whom end up tragically: one betrayed by the man she loves, the other betrayed by herself, in an self-destructive obsession to succeed like a man in a man's world. And both plot and sub-plots are dramatized against a palpably real and modern Chicago: were we to be "beamed down" into the novel's "space," we would quickly recognize where we were-whether in a near-west-side slum with Kate making her rounds, or in the Loop listening to a recital at the glittering, acoustically perfect Auditorium Theatre.

Less preoccupied with Chicago's social problems, but still "contemporary" in their use of the city, are two other women's novels of the time: Sweet Clover (1894) by Clara Burnham, and True Love*(1903) by Edith Wyatt. Both of these books are romantic comedies, but marked by quite different styles and sensibilities. Burnham's book is full of idealism and sentimentality, notable mainly for setting its love affairs at the Chicago World's Columbian Exposition (1893), which was held on Chicago's (then) far-south-side (Hyde Park) to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Columbus's discovery of America. Indeed, Sweet Clover, had it appeared only a few months earlier, could almost have been used as a guidebook to the "Fair" or "The White City," as the Exposition was known to Chicagoans. For Chicago was very proud of its Fair: the largest, whitest, and most fantastic, spectacular, and expensive such event the world had ever known. No wonder it was the perfect place to fall in love!

To find True Love, though, was a different matter, requiring more than Disney World-like white towers and lights and fountains and gondolas and strolling musicians. What it required, ironically, was common sense and a feeling of genuinely democratic brotherhood. Or at any rate that is what Edith Wyatt argued for in her "Comedy of the Affections," as the novel was sub-titled. For Wyatt, a deft but rather kind satirist of social behavior, true love was grounded in everyday American (midwestern, Chicago) life, not in wispy idealism. Sure,


Henry Blake Fuller
Henry Blake Fuller
Chicago Historical Society
Photograph: ICH:-10342

there could be-and should be-romance, even passion in love, but never at the cost of good sense. Her heroine, Emily Marsh, is sophisticated and urbane, a lifelong Chicagoan and at twenty-three already a world traveler. She finds happiness with a regular guy from downstate. Emily's cousin Inez, on the other hand, cannot wait to get out of "Centreville" and be dazzled by the glorious view from Chicago's Water Tower to Lake Michigan, while carried away by the fine speeches and poetic recitations of some foppish beau who will romance her around the nicest parts of the city. Idealize the city or realize the country: which one works better for life and love? Wyatt, without wishing to punish Inez for her foolishness, says she needs to clear her head about Chicago rather than lose her heart to an illusion. The vote is for Emily.

And one more work of fiction (it cannot really be called a novel and it is "suburban" rather than Chicago), perhaps the strongest of all: A Prairie Winter (1903), "by an Illinois girl." "The Illinois Girl" was actually Belle Owen, an amateur author of newspaper verse who published only A Prairie Winter. The grace of Belle Owen's narrative is its lyrical simplicity. Observing the onset of winter from a kitchen window, a back doorstep, a country lane next to the railroad tracks, she sets down the natural equivalents of her moods-trees changing, birds and squirrels at work, harvesting being finished up, snow, wan sunlight, and winter darkness. Her standpoint is a farm in Mokena, Will County. She watches the trains of the Rock Island Line by day, listens to their whistles and chuffing and clanging by night. Belle Owen, through her little book, was a witness to what was passing fast: the circumference of rurality progressively eaten away by the insatiable urban beast. Chicago was coming her way. She had only to look northeastward to know this. Of an autumn evening, when the weather was lowering, and Belle raised her eyes from reading by oil-lamp, she could glance out her cottage window, see "off to the northeast a fitful glow. .. the beacon of civilization. .. Chicago!" It would bring with it electricity, the better to read by; but it would take just about everything in nature as a price.

Though up close and necks back we usually think of those distantly lighted buildings whose ghostly glow fascinated Belle Owen as "skyscrapers," Henry Blake Fuller contributed a more original analogy for the Chicago tall office buildings of the 1890s when he dubbed them the homes of the "Cliff-Dwellers" (as he titled his 1893 novel of business life in the Loop). Fuller's comparison of his busy Chicagoans to the ancient cliff-dwellers of the southwestern United States was fanciful but hardly ridiculous. (Fuller may have seen the impressive recreation of Anasazi Indian cliff-dwellings at the Fair).

What we might call the male Chicago novel, in a modern move away from domesticity and toward the business world, dramatized work over home, predatory competition over the nurture of established neighborhoods. The tall office building, a technological marvel of steel frame and lots of window glass, as designed and built by the city's ambitious young generation of "Chicago-School" architects-men like Louis Sullivan and Daniel Burnham-became the primary place where men's lives (and women's, but not so many or so much) were really lived: Fuller's characters went to their offices or clerkships or service jobs in the cliff-dwellings, bought their newspapers and cigars at the lobby stands, ate lunch (and often breakfast and dinner) in the first-floor coffee shops or penthouse restaurants, smoked and gossiped in the halls, won and lost fortunes over the telephone (while gazing out of large picture windows at Lake Michigan), and fell in and out of love with coworkers down the hall.

By 1900, work and love were already evolving into the new social arrangement we so readily recognize today: our work is (too often?) our love. Along LaSalle Street one fictional evening in the 1890s after the opera lets out and the carriages of the quality are making their way home, Laura Dearborn looks out of her carriage window and encounters this power of work in a work of power.

It is nearly 1 A.M., yet the office buildings on both sides of the street were lighted from basement to roof. Through the windows she could get glimpses of clerks and book-keepers in shirt-sleeves bending over desks. Every office was open, and every one of them full of a feverish activity. The sidewalks were almost as crowded as though at noontime. Messenger boys ran to and fro, and groups of men stood on the corners in earnest conversation.

What was transforming midnight to day? Ceremonies of business danced in the deep and tall kivas of the LaSalle Street, and the business/shamen were not humming tunes


Lady Sitting

from the Verdi opera their women had seen at the Auditorium. No, they were chanting the magic of money: for in a few hours the gong would sound, trading would explode, and there would be big fortunes making at the Chicago Board of Trade. Someone, rumor had it, was going to try to "corner" the wheat market. And one of the biggest players would be Curtis Jadwin, Laura's love-interest and the protagonist of Frank Morris's The Pit (1903). For Jadwin and his ilk, the opera—when they went at all—was just another place to meet the right people and talk business. In their eyes, all civic space in Chicago was business space and LaSalle Street was the inner temple.

Culture and art were lesser gods, whose worshippers were mainly women. Yet these too had their holy places amidst the cliff- dwellings and the canyons of the Loop. Concerts at Louis Sullivan's Auditorium Theatre, which was the heart of a very tall office building, were almost obligatory scenes in the Chicago city-building novel of the day: Rose Dutcher, the heroine of Hamlin Garland's Rose of Catcher's Coolly (1895), hears the music of Wagner there and feels her life transformed; Helen Hart in Herrick's The Common Lot (1904) is much less pleased by some "bangy Tchaikovsky thing" endured at a matinee; and Thea Kronberg, the aspiring opera singer in Willa Gather's The Song of the Lark (1915), is ecstatic over the Chicago Symphony Orchestra's playing of Dvorak's "New World Symphony"-her first concert ever. Thea also gains inspiration from a visit to the new Art Institute of Chicago, just up Michigan Avenue from the Auditorium. There she sees the painting that confirms her vocation (and that gave Gather her title), Jules Breton's peasant-pastoral, The Song of the Lark.

Not that homes in the traditional sense were not important too. Out on the southern plains of Chicago, along Prairie Avenue, the newly rich were trying to out-do the city's old money in conspicuous consumption. Architect- designed modern mansions sprang up as if overnight on this new "amenable frontier." It is such a misguided attempt on the part of the Marshall family—to leave their quiet, well-treed but rather stale old neighborhood for a vast and vastly expensive house, designer-built and a la mode-that casts a gloomy shadow over the otherwise witty and funny With the Procession (1895, also by Henry Blake Fuller). These Prairie Avenue castles were talked up by the architects as places of succor for exhausted knight-errant financiers and industrialists. But in the case of the Marshalls, the new house was going to be a showcase rather than a home. Old Man Marshall, who had made the money his son and daughters were now so prodigally spending, did not want it, preferring the sanctuary of his fusty back room at the warehouse. He was a wholesale grocer.

So when the money went in the business panic of 1894 (white-collar money panicked and ran away, blue collar wages grew depressed and just disappeared), and father Marshall died at the same time, his family, now much diminished in wealth and social ambition, left the Prairie Avenue house unfinished and unpaid for. They stayed put in their old neighborhood while the "Procession" swirled around and by them. They were being left behind, gradually worn down like rocks in the stream, but at least they were not being swept away-toward the vertical future of the Prudential, the Hancock, the Sears, and the horizontal future of the suburbs, already beginning to sprawl every which way but east. In the coming decades of the over-stretched city, Chicago and its later generations of writers would have at least this consolation: fortunately, even the biggest of the big city planners and doers could not fill in the Lake. As did Carl Sandburg in "The Harbor" (Chicago Poems,* 1916), anyone in Chicago could,

from behind "huddled and ugly walls," come
... sudden, at the city's edge,
On a blue burst of lake,
Long lake waves breaking under the sun
On a spray-flung curve of shore....

And we still can.

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