Chicago Dreaming: Midwesterners and the City, 1871-1919

Chicago Dreaming: Midwesterners and the City, 1871-1919

by Timothy B. Spears




During the late nineteenth century, Chicago's population grew at an astonishing rate, with an estimated growth of 900,000 people between 1860 and 1890. Drawn to the opportunities generated by an expansive economy, hinterland migrants from the rural Midwest flocked to the city, their visions of prosperity creating a thriving modern urban culture. The hopes of these newcomers are the subject of Timothy B. Spears's book Chicago Dreaming—the story of Chicago's growth and the transplanted Midwesterners who so decisively shaped the young city's identity.

Through innovative readings of Theodore Dreiser, Willa Cather, and Richard Wright, Spears argues that the migratory perspective was crucial to the rise of Chicago's emerging literary culture. In following the paths of several well-known migrants, including Jane Addams, cartoonist John T. McCutcheon, and businessman John Glessner, Spears also shows how the view from the hinterland permeated urban culture and informed the development of key Chicago institutions. Further exploring the notion of dreaming, he brings to light the internal desires that lured Midwestern migrants to the city as well as the nostalgia that led them to dream of the homes they left behind.

With this fascinating new take on the rise of Chicago, Chicago Dreaming blurs the line between country and city to reveal the provincial character of modern urban culture.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226768731
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 06/15/2005
Edition description: 1
Pages: 296
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Timothy B. Spears is professor in the Department of American Civilization and Literature at Middlebury College. He is the author of 100 Years on the Road: The Traveling Salesman in American Culture.

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Copyright © 2005 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-76874-8

Chapter One

In a nation distinguished by its apparently unprecedented mobility-both physical and social-turn-of-the-century Chicago loomed as a city for restless dreamers and doers. It was, as the protagonist of Floyd Dell's 1920 autobiographical novel Moon-Calf remembers in a lyrical gloss on the city's capacity to move people and capital, a "dark blotch" on a railroad map that seemed to spread outward toward the rest of continent. Throughout the nineteenth and into the twentieth century, Chicago was populated chiefly by people who came from somewhere else. What exactly fueled this migratory city is a question that has preoccupied novelists, commentators, and scholars since the city's founding in the 1830s. While their answers vary along economic, political, ethnic, and social lines, they tend to agree on at least one thing: Chicago was a city where anything seemed possible.

As Chicago's population surpassed 1 million people during the 1890s, this tenet became a leading feature in the city's identity and a subject of discussion among visitors and citizens alike. German sociologist Max Weber noted during a 1904 visit to Chicago that the freedom to act appeared literally part of the landscape. Although Weber was a seasoned traveler, he was unprepared for what he saw when he paused for a tourist's view of Halsted Street.

As far as one can see from the clock tower of the firm of Armour and Son-nothing but cattle lowing, bleating endless filth-in all directions-for the town goes on for miles and miles until it loses itself in the vastness of the suburbs-churches and chapels, storage elevators, smoking chimneys (every large hotel has its own elevator run on a steam engine) and houses of every kind. This is why the town is so extraordinarily far-flung; the areas of the city are distinguished from each other in degrees of cleanliness in accordance with the nationality of the residents. The devil has broken loose in the stockyards: a lost strike with great numbers of Italians and Negroes brought in as strike-breakers; shootings daily with dozens dead at both sides; a trolley car was pitched over and a dozen women were crushed because a "non-union man" was sitting in it. There were threats of the use of dynamite against the "elevated-railway" on which a car was derailed and fell into the river. Close to our hotel, a cigar dealer was killed in broad daylight, a few streets away at dusk, three Negroes robbed a trolley car-all in all, a unique flowering of culture! There is a swarming interaction of all the peoples of the human race on every street. Greeks are polishing the shoes of Yankees for 5 cents, the Germans are their waiters, the Italians do the dirtiest heavy labor. The whole powerful city, more extensive than London-resembles, except for the better residential areas, a human being with his skin removed, and in which all the physiological process can be seen going on.

In this chaotic mix of buildings, labor, crime, violence, racial /ethnic tensions, and mundane human habits, Weber saw the traditional veneer of civility break apart in a dramatization of individual desire and social transgression that in other cities takes place more covertly-under the skin. Illustrative of French sociologist Henri Lefebvre's proposition that space "unleashes desire" and "encourages it to surge forth," this vision underscores the city's expansive physical development, industrial economy, and brutish character as well as its utter lack of pretense and self-consciousness. Chicago with its skin peeled away is a dreamscape where the relationship between intention and behavior is transparent and the mechanisms of human agency have yielded wholly to human spontaneity and desire. According to Weber's anatomical cross section, desire is the lifeblood of the city that circulates throughout the urban body, animating its component parts even without its inhabitants' knowledge.

Other visitors to Chicago characterized this desire more specifically. Writing in the mid-1890s, Frenchman Paul Bourget, for example, noted a "business fever which here throbs at will, with an unbridled violence like that of an uncontrollable element. It rushes along these streets, as once before the devouring flame of a fire; it quivers; it makes itself visible with an intensity which lends something tragical to this city, and makes it seems like a poem to me." In his tract If Christ Came To Chicago (1894), the British journalist and reformer William T. Stead likewise remarks on the "intense feverish restlessness" that pervaded the city and claims that Chicagoans know only "one common bond": to make money. Around this primary, all consuming desire, the city's various illicit markets-in liquor, political favors, and sex-were arrayed.

As the "shock city" of the Western world, Chicago epitomized the fantastic growth and violent contrasts that increasingly came to characterize nineteenth-century cities. In fact, these contrasts were precisely what drew visitors like Stead to Chicago in the first place: to examine, at the epicenter, the unfolding, and as yet unknown, meaning of modernity. As historians have noted, the sights that most compelled the attention of tourists-for instance, the "killing beds" of the slaughterhouses, the trading pits at the Board of Trade, and the imperial designs of the 1893 Columbian Exposition-dramatized the technological, economic, and cultural developments that reshaped urban landscapes across the United States and Europe.

Although Stead, Bourget, and Weber were struck, as so many others were, by the material changes taking place in turn-of-the-century Chicago, their comments reveal a fascination with the intangible forces-one might call them emotional or psychic energies-at work beneath the surface of things. Bourget and Stead maintained that an intensely felt desire to make money and do business was the operating force in Chicago. Weber, too, acknowledged the motivating force of the city's internal economy, but suggested that a wide range of desires besides the specific drive to make money accounted for the city's distinctive character. All three implied that the human interactions, cultural exchanges, and daily goings-on that constituted the city should be understood as a palpable manifestation of Chicagoans' individual and collective aspirations.

On this score, Weber was the most pointed. Vitally connected to the collective dream life of the city, the urban landscape (he seems to say) can be read inside out as a direct reflection of the desires and ambitions that Chicagoans bring to the city. Restlessness and motion-whether as pulsing feeling, the movement of people, or economic mobility (metaphorically speaking)-emerge from his description as being the city's signature features, underscoring the extent to which late-nineteenth Chicago was literally a culture in transition-a city, as Weber indicates, of migrants.

Behind these efforts to encapsulate Chicago's distinctive character lies what may well be the central drama in the city's rise during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries: the ongoing movement of human capital into the city and the attendant effort, on economic, cultural, and aesthetic grounds, to establish Chicago as a homegrown, cosmopolitan center. Understanding Chicago in these terms is to think about the city's centrality, and its modernity, from outside the city limits, in light of the cultural and historical factors that have made diaspora and imperialism key terms at the turn of our own century. More specifically, it means considering the ways in which Chicago figured as both the object and site of desire for hinterland migrants, an investigation that focuses most of all on the imaginative lives of incoming Chicagoans and the writers who represented the migration experience in print.

A line from Carl Sandburg's famous poem "Chicago" (1914) helps to define the terms of this discussion. "They tell me you are wicked," Sandburg writes about the city, "and I believe them, for I have seen your painted women under the gas lamps luring the farm boys." Acknowledging and dismissing the traditional notion that cities are "evil," Sandburg suggests that the "lure" of Chicago is an erotic energy that spreads out into the prairie, where restless farm boys internalize it and bring it to town. In contrast with Stead's and Bourget's depictions of restlessness, this image places Chicago's desire-filled streets in close proximity to the hinterland that supplies the emotion. It positions Chicago as a city of migrants who have been drawn to pursue their dreams in the metropolis.

This idea-that Chicago's status as a modern urban center has something to do with its provincial roots-dominates the literature written about Chicago between 1890 and 1940. Indeed, when one considers the fiction that designates the Chicago "school" of literature-Hamlin Garland's Rose of Dutcher's Coolly (1895), Theodore Dreiser's Sister Carrie (1900), the work of Henry Blake Fuller, and later, novels by Floyd Dell, Sherwood Anderson, Willa Cather, and Richard Wright-it seems clear that the migration narrative proved the definitive text for representing the personalities and emotions that went into the creation of modern Chicago. At first glance, the stories told by these writers mirror the plot conventions developed in Horatio Alger novels as well as the nineteenth-century formula for masculine character building implicit in those tales. Frequently, though, they depart from this familiar trajectory to provide a local and critical view of self-making. Most important, they present desire as a catalyst for both female and male protagonists, raising questions about the gender of Chicago's identity and whether-to return to Sandburg's infamous image-the women under the gas lamps might also be migrants, drawn to the city by their own desires.

Max Weber offers an apt starting point for considering these hinterland relations if only because his name conjures the emotional dynamic that lies at the heart of Chicago's economic rise: the translation of passion and desire into the process of becoming middle class. Presumably, Weber would have agreed that the spirit of Chicago, like the spirit of capitalism, was an engrained disposition-common to bourgeois society but not peculiar to any one place. It also seems likely that Weber would have found in Chicago evidence of rigid modern bureaucracies. Yet, as the passage quoted above suggests, Weber waxed poetic over Chicago. In fact, he admired the city. Compared to the social constraints of German society, American culture-and Chicago especially-appeared to present great opportunities for economic advancement and community building. Weber and his wife were as impressed by the outpouring of religious spirit in Chicago and the work of Jane Addams there as they were by the atomized pursuits of desiring individuals on Halsted Street. Propelling all these movements was an energy that Weber associated with the migratory spirit of the frontier. Once back in Germany, as John Patrick Diggins has noted, Weber celebrated the "magic of freedom" that he witnessed in America and, reversing the conditions established by historian Frederick Jackson Turner, located the impetus for upward mobility and democratic culture in the passionate movement away from the soil and toward a new frontier.

Though Weber's own reading suggests that the urban frontier was hardly a Turnerian democracy, there was no question in the 1890s but that Chicago represented an important shift in the reformation of American culture. Even so skeptical an observer as Henry Adams paused at the 1893 Columbian Exposition to wonder whether the White City was a "rupture in historical sequence" in which case a "new American world could take [a] sharp and conscious twist toward ideals." Ultimately, Adams doubted this idealistic turn was real, but the desire to believe that it might be so was a desire that Chicago, more than other American cities, could inspire.

"Go To Chicago Now"

Adams's observation, no matter how ambivalent, deviated from the mainly negative judgments made by eastern elites and intellectuals, who believed Chicago to be uncivilized and corrupt. What Adams sensed, and Weber clearly understood, was that Chicago's future would be determined largely by people who were not from the city itself. Between 1860 and 1890, Chicago grew at an explosive rate-from 100,000 residents to 1 million, with much of this increase coming from foreign immigration. By 1890, more than three-quarters of the residents claimed foreign-born parents. However, in political and cultural terms, native-born Americans-of the middle and upper classes-maintained a strong upper hand. Within the ranks of the native born, the proportion of Chicago residents born in the Old Northwestern states, including Illinois, gradually increased over the course of the nineteenth century. This shift is consistent with the developments that William Cronon has so powerfully demonstrated: Chicago's rise as a commercial-transportation hub was predicated on its economic relationship with the hinterland. With so much hinterland close at hand and an extensive railroad network to bring it even closer, it is not surprising that provincial migrants-like the capital that Cronon examines-flowed into the city. Nor is it surprising that these migrants were in an ideal position to occupy the increasing number of white-collar, middle-class jobs that Chicago's business expansion afforded.

These geographic terms were arguably as important to Chicago's emerging cultural and literary identity as the economic transformations that marked the city's rise. Self-making Chicago style was a story of migration, told from the provincial point of view. This perspective came naturally to Chicago's first-generation writers, most of whom were migrants themselves, trying to build literary careers in the city. The migration narrative was a good fit structurally, since its trajectory of movement paralleled the writers' own striving, describing a trail from home to city that could be blazed with any number of emotional landmarks. Although writers took pains to describe the dramatic, even unsettling, physical environment of the city, they were just as concerned to represent the interior lives of their protagonists: small-town and rural dreamers determined to find in Chicago a suitable match for their ambitions and desires. Of course, the lure of Chicago has been a defining component of the city's identity since the town was settled-and boomed-in the 1830s by eastern businessmen. This boosting ethos came to the fore after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, when William Bross, one of the city's chief propagandists, traveled to New York City and encouraged young men to "Go To Chicago now.... You will never again have such a chance to make money."

This is a curious thing, for a city's character to depend so much on what it might be, as opposed to what it actually is. While boosterism is a time-honored American tradition, perhaps no city-with the exception of Los Angeles (New York being another case altogether)-has been so much the object of prospective fantasy. Journalists Lloyd Lewis and Henry Justin Smith alluded to this fact in the title of their chronicle of the city's first one hundred years: Chicago: The History of Its Reputation (1929). The city's best-known nicknames also illustrate the point. In the 1880s, people began to call Chicago the Windy City not because of the city's weather conditions but because boosters never tired of bragging about the place. Similarly, Chicago came to be known as America's Second City-second, that it is, to New York-because it appeared so intent on becoming number one. Subsequent characterizations of the city carried this future-oriented identity well into the twentieth century. Theodore Dreiser's ruminations on Chicago as a "giant magnet," Richard Wright's "fantasies" that the city would free his literary aspirations from Southern racism, Bessie Smith's "Chicago Bound Blues" and other blues numbers that imagine a promised land at the northern terminus of the Illinois Central Railroad-these and other expressive forms join the desire of would-be Chicagoans to create the city's always developing identity, what Frank Sinatra sings of as "that toddling town."


Excerpted from CHICAGO DREAMING by TIMOTHY B. SPEARS Copyright © 2005 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
1. Shock City
2. John and Frances Glessner
3. Stories of the Rising City
4. George Ade and John T. McCutcheon
5 The Place of Nostalgia
6. Jane Addams
7. Among Immigrants
8. Floyd Dell, Sherwood Anderson, and Tennessee Mitchell
9. Chicago Dreaming

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