Sunday, October 11, 2020

Carl Smith's "Chicago’s Great Fire"

Carl Smith is Franklyn Bliss Snyder Professor of English and American Studies and Professor of History, Emeritus, at Northwestern University. His books include Chicago and the American Literary Imagination, 1880-1920; Urban Disorder and the Shape of Belief: The Great Chicago Fire, the Haymarket Bomb, and the Model Town of Pullman; The Plan of Chicago: Daniel Burnham and the Remaking of the American City; and City Water, City Life: Water and the Infrastructure of Ideas in Urbanizing Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago.

Smith applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, Chicago’s Great Fire: The Destruction and Resurrection of an Iconic American City, and reported the following:
The Page 99 Test would give the reader a good if not entirely complete sense of Chicago’s Great Fire. As it happens, there is less of my writing on page 99 than on most of the other pages, since more than half of page 99 is occupied by a haunting photograph of a lonely figure amidst the ruins of downtown Chicago [image left; click to enlarge]. The photographer was George N. Barnard, who only a few years earlier had documented the war-ravaged ruins of Atlanta and Charleston. He had moved to Chicago a few months before the fire. But Page 99 is still a good test because this photograph is one of some seventy powerful contemporary images, most from the collections of the Chicago History Museum, that are essential to the book.

My contribution to page 99 discusses the ways in which eyewitnesses to devastated Chicago marveled at how imaginatively suggestive the ruins were. While the city of Chicago was less than forty years old, the fire seemed to invest it almost magically with a history it didn’t have. The blocks and blocks of fallen buildings, “full of the charm of mystery and darkness,” recalled not a raw American, but the faded glories of distant and legendary places of the past. Post-fire Chicago evoked the ruins of ancient Cairo, the Parthenon, and the Colosseum.

While most other pages in the book present a compelling narrative of the titanic fire and the city’s rapid and robust recovery, they resemble this page in that the story is always told through the eyes of the people who experienced the events recounted. The book frames the disaster and rebuilding above all as a human drama. Of the thousands of sources that drive the narrative, the key ones are always the words of those who were there.
Learn more about Chicago’s Great Fire at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue