Donald L. Miller

City of the Century: The Epic of Chicago and the Making of America


IT'S THE PROBLEM of the writer, not to mention the teacher, to convey passion and ambiguity simultaneously. And in telling the story of the building of America, that tension is trickier still--booby-trapped, if only because the stakes are so high. Greatness and greed, depravity and dream, must always bicker if the tale's told right.

Chicago, as the most American city (yes), bears witness not just to the clashes of right and wrong, but all the nagging kindnesses and cop-outs in between. For all its violence and corruption and ordinary madness, there are days in Chicago when all our American dreams come true: Certain rainy mornings at the Art Institute when it seems like every school child and old lady in the world is tracking mud onto all that marble; or rarer still, sunny moments on the shores of Lake Michigan when every caste of citizen walks and plays and looks each other in the eye, smiling at the miracle of a clear blue sky.

As a wide-eyed immigrant to this grid of grit and opulence, there were times while reading Donald L. Miller's City of the Century: The Epic of Chicago and the Making of America when my already obnoxious pride in the place swelled beyond the ridiculous. But not two paragraphs later the author can remind even the most deluded Cubbie fan that sometimes the town's no better than the filthy swamp it's built on. As the great historian Frank Sinatra didn't say, my kinda tome.

At the heart of Miller's book lies the heart of this country, namely the grand tradition of thinking Big. And, as the Great Fire of 1871 demanded a new city to rise from the ashes, Chicago takes that tradition and translates it into exaggerated terms: "'Big'--or rather, 'biggest'--was the word on every Chicagoan's lips," Miller quotes from architect Louis Sullivan. "Chicago was the 'biggest' livestock, lumber and grain market in the world and the 'biggest' railroad center... There were powerful builders and visionaries in this city of superlatives, and 17-year-old Sullivan 'thought it all magnificent and wild: A crude extravaganza: An intoxicating rawness.'"

Lurching between the free market and the Haymarket, anarchism and capitalism, immigrants and easterners, skyscraper and slum, the strength of Miller's narrative is its complexity. It's easy to make a hero out of Ida B. Wells, the brave and brilliant daughter of slaves who spoke out against racism at the city's beloved World's Columbian Exposition. But Miller doesn't run away from the contributions of the city's capitalists either. Here too are men like Charles Hutchison--both a shrewd banker and the Art Institute's most passionate benefactor--who shook off the condescension of the New York newspapers when he brought back a boatload of European art to the hog-butchering capital of the world. "'We have made our money in pigs,' Hutchison quipped, 'but is that any reason why we should not spend it on paintings?'"

Miller, an academic by trade, is a brilliant curator of quotations, often finding just the moment to bring Carl Sandburg or Theodore Dreiser or a pithy saloon keeper into his argument. The book's bawdy edge is born in these voices of 19th-century Chicago; for this is a city of characters, of drunken heathens and puritanical nincompoops both. Miller can take names every modern-day Chicagoan has seen a thousand times and put real faces to them: be it that stern old department-store magnate Marshall Field, or trickster John Wellborn Root, the architect of my favorite Loop building, the Monadnock, who Miller describes playing the minstrel song "Shoo, Fly" on the organ at a pompous Presbyterian service.

Starting with the instant the explorer Joliet had an inkling of greatness for the marshy site where prairie meets lake, all of Miller's subjects saw the possibilities of making something new under the sun. Maybe that sounds fanciful. But Chicago--in this century as well as the last--has paid for such fancy with enough blood and sweat to make it true. As Miller writes of one of the city's greatest novelists, "Recalling his life in Chicago in these years, Theodore Dreiser remarked that 'it is given to some cities, as to some lands, to suggest romance, and to me Chicago did that daily and hourly. It sang, or seemed to, and... I was singing with it.'" Miller's history is a passionate, ambiguous notation, the sheet music to that song.

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