Urban Disorder and the Shape of Belief


"Urban Disorder and the Shape of Belief is 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 and provides insightful analyses of the process of shaping historical memory and structuring social meaning."—Robin F. Bachin, Journal of Interdisciplinary History

"The state of the art in cultural history."—John J. Pauly, Journal of American History

An excerpt from
Urban Disorder and the Shape of Belief
The Great Chicago Fire, the Haymarket Bomb, and the Model Town of Pullman
Carl Smith

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 irreversible qualities.

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. The Chicago Times likewise spoke of the "terrible reality of the scene," while the New York Sun remarked that the eyewitness reports it published "seemed like an overwrought tale of fiction rather than the grim and terrible reality that all knew it to be."

In this period of so many transitions and conflicts, including the contention between the romantic and the realistic imagination as the most valid interpreter of experience, reality was here linked to "overwrought" fiction, and to terror, and beyond that to the central image of a proud young city on fire, which became in turn the representation of a new and unsettling actuality. The dominant imaginative interpretive view of the fire was based on the ideas of resurrection, purification, revival, and renewal, but not without the very real possibility of catastrophic destruction of a world which contained within itself the elements that could undo it. As powerful and even as justified as was the booster dream, it could not dispel this fear, which the fire literature imagined as the fair city in distress at the hands of incendiaries and demons who would defame, defile, and destroy her unless good citizens were vigilant and forceful. All too soon the ritualized hanging of the enemy of the people would move from dark fantasy to real event and occupy center stage in the public imagination. The most terrible reality of the fire was that the unspeakable and the indescribable had happened, furnishing a vocabulary and a conceptual framework for a troubled future.


Copyright notice: Excerpt from pages 88-91 and 96-98 of Urban Disorder and the Shape of Belief: The Great Chicago Fire, the Haymarket Bomb, and the Model Town of Pullman by Carl Smith, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©1994 by the University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press.

Carl Smith
Urban Disorder and the Shape of Belief: The Great Chicago Fire, the Haymarket Bomb, and the Model Town of Pullman
©1994, 408 pages, 40 halftones
Cloth $45.00 ISBN: 978-0-226-76416-0
Paper $24.00 ISBN: 978-0-226-76417-7

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