Chicago: City on the Make by Nelson Algren

This is Nelson Algren’s impressionistic essay about his hometown. It was published in 1951 and wasn’t warmly-received by Chicago’s upper crust. Algren looks back fondly on Chicago’s history with an emphasis on the rougher parts of town. An alternate subtitle would have been “I Love This Dirty Town” (a line Burt Lancaster delivered in Sweet Smell of Success about a big city further east).

I read the 60th Anniversary Edition, which includes an afterword Algren wrote in 1961 about Chicago and his book:

In the decade since Chicago: City on the Make appeared, it has gained pertinence. At that time it was a prose poem about my hometown; nothing more.

It was received unfavorably, locally, and I was disappointed when the editor who had solicited it took fright… The book went under the counters…

Under the counters, yet not lost. A translation by Jean-Paul Sartre gained the essay readers abroad…

The essay made the assumption that, in times when the levers of power are held by those who have lost the will to act honestly, it is those who have been excluded from the privileges of our society, and left only its horrors, who forge new levers by which to return honesty to us. The present resolution of a new generation of Negro men and women, now forcing the return of the American promise of dignity for all, sustains the assumption… [105].

The book is filled with references to Chicago characters and events that most outsiders won’t recognize, so the editors kindly added explanatory notes. The notes sometimes explain what doesn’t need explaining and don’t explain what does. That’s one reason I can’t wholeheartedly recommend the book, but if you like prose like this, you might give it a try:

Giants lived here once. It was the kind of town, thirty years gone, that made big men out of little ones. It was geared for great deeds then, as it is geared for small deeds now.

In Vachel Lindsay’s day, in Carl Sandburg’s day, in the silver-colored yesterday, in Darrow’s and Masters’ and Edna Millay’s day, writers and working stiffs alike told policemen where to go, the White Sox won the pennant with a team batting average of .228 and the town was full of light.

Now it’s the place where we do as we’re told, praise poison, bless the F.B.I., yearn wistfully for just one small chance… No giants live on Rush Street any more [52-53]. 

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair That Changed America by Erik Larson

The fair in question was the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, more formally known as the World’s Columbian Exposition in honor of the 400th anniversary of Columbus visiting the New World. The book provides a lot of information about the fair that I found very interesting, especially the new technology that was introduced. I found the parallel stories of the fair’s chief architect and a serial killer who preyed on visitors to the fair much less interesting. So I skipped some of it, but not the story of George Washington Gale Ferris Jr., an engineer from Pittsburgh.

He conceived and then built the world’s largest, most amazing Ferris Wheel. People were worried that it would blow over in strong wind, but it remained standing and was the most popular attraction at the fair. It was 264 feet tall and was meant to rival the Eiffel Tower, which had been constructed for an earlier world’s fair in Paris. The Ferris Wheel had 36 enclosed cars that could each hold 60 people. That allowed 2,160 people to ride at the same time. That was some Ferris Wheel.