Urban Disorder and the Shape of Belief: The Great Chicago Fire, the Haymarket Bomb, and the Model Town of Pullman, Second Edition / Edition 2

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The Great Chicago Fire of 1871, the Haymarket bombing of 1886, and the making and unmaking of the model town of Pullman—these remarkable events in what many considered the quintessential American city forced people across the country to confront the disorder that seemed inevitably to accompany urban growth and social change.

In Urban Disorder and the Shape of Belief, Carl Smith explores the imaginative dimensions of these events as he traces the evolution of interconnected beliefs and actions that increasingly linked city, disorder, and social reality in the minds of Americans. Examining a remarkable range of writings and illustrations, as well as protests, public gatherings, trials, hearings, and urban reform and construction efforts, Smith argues that these three events—and the public awareness of them—not only informed one another, but collectively shaped how Americans understood, and continue to understand, Chicago and modern urban life.

This classic of urban cultural history is updated with a foreword by the author that expands our understanding of urban disorder to encompass such recent examples as Hurricane Katrina, the Oklahoma City Bombing, and 9/11.

 “Cultural history at its finest.  By utilizing questions and methodologies of urban studies, social history, and literary history, Smith creates a sophisticated account of changing visions of urban America.”—Robin F. Bachin, Journal of Interdisciplinary History

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Editorial Reviews

Journal of Interdisciplinary History - Robin F. Bachin
“Cultural history at its finest. By utilizing questions and methodologies of urban studies, social history, and literary history, Smith creates a sophisticated account of changing visions of urban America.”
Chicago Tribune - Douglas Greenberg
“This deeply researched, subtle and complex book seeks to comprehend the significance of three events of signal importance in the development of the American urban landscape.”
Journal of American History - John J. Pauly
“What ultimately distinguishes this book is the coherence, grace, and clarity of Smith’s interpretations and the beauty of his writing.”
Investigates how people in Chicago and across the US thought about the growing cities and emerging urban culture in light of the disastrous 1871 fire, the fatal bombing attributed to anarchists in 1886, and the history of Pullman, Illinois, between its founding and the famous strike in 1890. Finds an acceptance that disorder is a necessary element in urban growth, which survives today. The CiP data shows a different ISBN. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226764245
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 11/15/2007
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 2
  • Pages: 407
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Carl Smith is the Franklyn Bliss Snyder Professor of English and American Studies and professor of history at Northwestern University. He is the author of The Plan of Chicago: Daniel Burnham and the Remaking of the American City, also published by the University of Chicago Press.

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Read an Excerpt

Urban Disorder and the Shape of Belief

By Carl Smith

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2003

University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-226-76416-8

Chapter One

The Fire and Cultural Memory

No matter what anyone thought the fire meant, for good or ill, everybody agreed
that it marked a moment of major transition in Chicago history. James W. Milner
told a friend less than a week after the event, "an age has closed, and a new
epoch ... is about to begin." This "new epoch," Milner added ominously, is
"obscured in doubt and uncertainty." The following day Cassius Milton Wicker
wrote to his family, "Everything will date from the great fire now." Four
decades later, Frederick Francis Cook confirmed their predictions in his memoir,
Bygone Days in Chicago: "As in our national life the old regime is divided from
the new by the Civil War of 1861," he explained, "so in the minds of Chicagoans
the city's past is demarcated from the present by the great fire of 1871. In
respect to both it is a case of 'before' or 'after.'" The local population
seized upon the disaster as an historical marker that would help them frame and
understand urban experience and this period of rapid change in terms of the
fire's own unpredictable and dramatic, violent and destructive, decisive and

Of Time and the Fire

As time passed, there were those who looked back on the fire wistfully. For some
individuals, including a few of the old settlers, it became the focus of their
nostalgic yearnings for a better day that could never be reclaimed. Writing near
the turn of the century, the aged Mary Ann Hubbard complained, "Chicago was a
much pleasanter place to live in then [during the antebellum period] than it is
now, or has been since 'The Fire.' The people with whom we associated were all
friendly and kind, sharing each other's joys and sorrows, and enjoying simple
pleasures. The Sabbath was kept holy, and the people were mostly such as we
wished to associate with." To Mrs. Hubbard, as to so many older people in all
times and places, the best was what had been, not what would be, and what others
called progress was a regrettable decline. Life was better in the old days
because Chicago was a simple and moral human community that did not have the
kind of people "we" didn't like, or at least "they" were not so obtrusive. The
implication was that these people somehow came with the fire or the fire forced
"us" to live with "them," with unhappy and unpleasant results.

Some of this nostalgia, expressed with more subtlety, was in the earliest
accounts of the fire. A description of the destruction of the North Division
residence of the Isaac N. Arnold family, which appeared in the Evening Post and
was reprinted in several other newspapers and fire histories, expressed a
longing for a finer world now beyond recapture. The gracious Arnold home took up
the entire block bordered by Erie, Huron, Rush, and Pine (now Michigan Avenue)
Streets, and it contained a library of eight thousand history, literature, and
law books, as well as a Lincoln and Civil War collection that was one of the
much-mourned cultural casualties of the fire. The house was also well known for
its lush and varied landscaping. The different versions of the account lavish
attention on the lilacs, elms, barn, and greenhouse that were trappings of a
settled village life, already under siege before the fire, that would no longer
be possible in the rebuilt modern city.

The fire signaled the passing of this old order through its destruction of two
emblems of that world in the Arnold garden. The first was the "simple but quaint
fountain ... beneath a perfect bower of overhanging vines." The fountain was
fashioned from a large boulder that featured a rudely carved face of an Indian
chief from an earlier era in Chicago history. The second was a nearby sundial
with the Latin inscription, Horas non numero nisi serenas ("I reckon only fair
hours"), which "was broken by the heat or in the melee which accompanied the
fire," so that "the dark hours which have followed pass by without its
reckoning." Gone from Chicago was its former harmonious relationship with
domesticated nature represented by the fountain, the "perfect bower," and the
happy inscription. The accounts of the loss of this little Eden seemed to sense
that post-fire Chicago would have other uses for precious real estate than
rambling grounds and bowers, and that it would follow the frenetic man-made pace
of the time clock, not the sundial.

The predominant view of the fire, however, was decidedly forward-looking and
optimistic. As if it were theirs by right, Chicago's boosters claimed possession
of the official public memory of the fire, which they dedicated entirely to the
golden future, downplaying much of the earlier talk of piety, character,
efficiency, and culture. They continued to declare to all that the destruction
of Chicago was the best thing that ever happened to the city. Chicago Board of
Trade secretary Charles Randolph quickly picked up the booster flag from John S.
Wright in proclaiming that God, geography, and history were on Chicago's side.
"Nature has seemed to especially designate the banks of the little bayou on
which man has built Chicago as a proper and necessary place for the exchange of
commodities," Randolph declared. While "some may find their burden greater than
they can ever stagger under," he contended, others, "with the aid of the
outstretched helping hands from the four quarters of the globe," would "repair
the waste places, rebuild the levelled landmarks, and raise from the ashes of
Chicago past, a city more grand, more substantial, and in every way more adapted
to the needs of what the world has come to recognize as the necessities of
Chicago future." In this statement, grandeur and substance unseated simplicity
and quaintness as desirable urban values, all under the iron rule of
"necessity," whose more appealing synonym was "progress."

Another commentator, who clearly saw the city's future through the eyes of the
Yankee elite, proclaimed that Chicago's recovery was not only "the proudest
manifestation of the concentration of all Anglo-Saxon energy and enterprise, but
also ... the shining type of the progress of the Nineteenth century." He went on
to assert that the fire surpassed the Franco-Prussian War as an event of
significance, creating as it did "a new starting point for the memories of the
rising generation." The fire was certainly the starting point in the cultural
memory of modern Chicago, which adapted history to its own needs and purposes.
The greatest imaginative feat of remembering was to claim that the epic disaster
at once gave the young city what it most lacked-a history and a tradition-and
devalued the past. This involved a paradox that required a good deal of evasion
and repression. The paradox was based in the much-repeated notion that the scale
of the disaster demonstrated the greatness of Chicago, which earned recognition
as a world-class city by burning to the ground. W. W. Everts, the most prominent
Baptist minister in Chicago, took as his text for his sermon, "The Lord thy God
turned the curse into a blessing unto thee, because the Lord thy God loved
thee," and then told the story of a Chicago businessman traveling in Switzerland
before the fire who came upon a map of the United States that marked the
location of Milwaukee but not Chicago. Everts then asked his congregation if
they thought this could ever happen now. "Do you think another map will be
published on this globe without Chicago? Do you think that there will be any
intelligent man who will not know about Chicago?" The answer was obvious. "Oh
no!" As was the lesson: "Then if material progress be a blessing at all, you see
what a distinction has been brought about by the fire." The disaster literally
put Chicago on the map by wiping it out.

The fire had thus bestowed on the city a portentous moment of origin that
involved the obliteration of its actual past and the directing of all energy and
attention toward Chicago's prospects in a modern social and economic order. The
catastrophe, instead of shutting down its future, encouraged the destruction of
its memory of its pre-fire history as surely as it burned the records in the
Courthouse, the artifacts in the Historical Society, and the precious books in
Isaac N. Arnold's library. While several of the fire histories included a
chronicle of Chicago from the Indian settlements through the Civil War, they
also emphasized how completely this earlier era was burned away, and was now
dead, distant, and irrelevant. For many, Chicago's past was all condensed into
this fiery moment out of which its glorious future was born. This idea was
reinforced by boosters, above all the "rising generation" of business leaders,
and accepted without reflection by the continuing flow of immigrants from the
rest of the country and the world who had no imaginative association with the
Chicago that was. They would all start anew in a fresh context full of great
expectations. The final paradox was that the first task of cultural memory would
be to forget.

* * *

A completely successful escape into boosterism and spectacle was not possible,
however. There could be no instant reprieve from the anxieties about Chicago
society and culture expressed in the fire literature, even by some imagined
moral economy in which a second chance was somehow "paid for" through the
suffering caused by the appalling calamity. There was in the boosterism a
desperate kind of wishful thinking, a desire to escape the conflicts of
historical experience and avoid the difficulties of the present by embracing the
future, where nothing has yet happened and so the possibilities are without
limit. Some of the less reassuring messages of the fire about the nature of that
future were inescapable, however. In a country as varied, complex, and
interdependent as that which contained places like Chicago, it sometimes seemed
as if a whole city or nation could be put seriously at risk by the actions of
almost anyone. The larger moral of Mrs. O'Leary was not so much that it was
dangerous to admit these Irish immigrants into "our" midst. Indeed, they were
among the most important groups in the building and the rebuilding of Chicago,
whether the native-born elite liked it or not. These people would have to be
dealt with, since they were part of the system.

The most important lesson of the unhappy accident in the barn was that urban
order was so vulnerable that, in the words of a popular song, a cow could kick
over Chicago, setting off a night of horrors locally and threatening to bring
down the whole system of modernity in which the city had assumed so important a
position. The public mood could be skittish and brittle, and any bad news,
feeding on fear and anxiety, could have large consequences near and far. Inside
Chicago, the rumors of thieves and incendiaries led the city to the assumption
of special powers by the Relief and Aid Society and the United States Army.
Beyond, the burning of Chicago caused financial havoc. Remarking on the collapse
of stock prices following the fire, the Nation attributed this to "the keen
scent of Wall Street," which "discovered the gravity of the evil at an early
hour," with the result that "the owners of railroad securities so long upheld by
the manipulations of gigantic rings and combinations, eagerly rushed into the
market as sellers, producing a panic and excitement almost equal in intensity to
that of the famous Black Friday of 1869."

New York's instant access to information about Chicago, which enabled it to ship
relief supplies while the city was still ablaze, thus set off a secondary
calamity of sorts. The would-be safety net of national commerce in which Chicago
was a vital element was also a precarious economic web made up of an
overextended banking system, great corporations "under the control of reckless
Wall street gamblers," inflated real estate, national finances "in a nebulous
state of transition," and confused political institutions. "[W]ith all these
unfavorable circumstances pressing on the community," the Nation explained, "the
destruction of so large an amount of property at Chicago has a most disastrous
effect, and tends to destroy credit in every direction, and to precipitate a
panic." The fire seemed to have revealed rather than caused the chaotic
financial condition of the country, and the commotion on the trading floor
reproduced the situation in the streets.

The overall effect of the burning of Chicago on business, the article continued,
"is perhaps as striking a proof as we have ever had of the closeness of the
relations which have been established between the uttermost ends of the earth.
Calamities, and especially great calamities, are fast ceasing to be what is
called local-they are now all general." Referring to the aroused feeling which
was the central subject of the sentimental tributes to the relief effort, the
Nation insisted on practical truth: "No serious disaster can overtake Chicago or
St. Louis without making London feel something more than sympathy." That
something was the uneasy recognition that in the modern age of cities there was
no such thing as an isolated catastrophe. "It appears almost probable," the
article went on, "that there will, before long, be no privileged places any more
than privileged persons, and no place, in short, any more peaceful or secure
against alarms and anxieties than any other place." The sobering conclusion:
"The Happy Valley is a thing of the past."

There were a number of important realizations wrapped up in these thoughts. The
fire had perhaps put Chicago on the map as a major city, but it also served
notice that the dangers of modern life went a good deal beyond those posed by
bad building techniques. Tomorrow promised more trouble, not liberation or
redemption from the restrictions and sins of the past, but additional
entanglements, complications, and conflicts. In its scope, suddenness, and
destructive power, the fire spoke of the scale, mystery, instability, and
uncertainty of urban life. In its indescribability it offered an unsettling way
of perceiving the world it consumed. The fire had, among other things,
rearranged and intensified the old categories for understanding the nature of
experience. It offered actual events "more romantic than the veriest fiction,"
Frank Luzerne warned his readers, events whose "realities" could "only be
written as it was, with a pen of fire." Chicago's calamity seemed to force a
shift in thinking about the new reality the fire appeared to create and reveal.
Luzerne repeatedly employed the term "reality," as well as several closely
related words. He maintained that his account dealt "with realities alone," but
that "it was almost impossible for the compiler to divest his mind of the
impression that he is recording a horrid phantasmagorical vision, rather than
the facts of real life," and that if Luzerne failed in being true to the
realities of his subject, it would be in not being "phantasmagorical" enough.


Excerpted from Urban Disorder and the Shape of Belief
by Carl Smith
Copyright © 2003
by University of Chicago.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Part One
     The Great Conflagration
     Trial by Fire
     Social Restraint  
     The Fire and Cultural Memory
Part Two
     From Resurrection to Insurrection
     Plots and Counterplots
     Words on Trial
Part Three
     Taming the Urban Beast 
     Putting Pullman in Its Place: The Search for a New Urban Order 
     Making Sense of the Age 


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