This city—with all its liveliness and contradictions—has had its share of literary immortalization. Carl Sandburg did it perhaps most famously with his poem “Chicago.” Most of us know it, or at least by the nicknames it engendered (Hog Butcher for the World, Stacker of Wheat, City of the Big Shoulders and Freight Handler to the Nation).
While poring over a late-stage draft of David Bagnall’s book, An American Palace: Chicago’s Samuel M. Nickerson House (the final product of which, by the way, is gorgeous, and is now officially available for purchase here at the Museum), I came across a particularly colorful description of Chicago in Mr. Bagnall’s first chapter. It’s from Theodore Dreiser’s 1914 novel The Titan, in which the main character—an ex-con with the rather unwieldy name Frank Algernon Cowperwood—travels west from Pittsburgh to Chicago, “a seething city in the making,” looking for opportunity.
“By its shimmering lake it lay, a king of shreds and patches, a maundering yokel with an epic in its mouth, a tramp, a hobo among cities, with the grip of Caesar in its mind, the dramatic force of Euripides in its soul. A very bard of a city this, singing of high deeds and high hopes, its heavy brogans buried deep in the mire of circumstance. Take Athens, oh, Greece! Italy, do you keep Rome! This was the Babylon, the Troy, the Nineveh of a younger day. Here came the gaping West and the hopeful East to see. Here hungry men, raw from the shops and fields, idylls and romances in their minds, builded them an empire crying glory in the mud.”
Those last few words—“an empire crying glory in the mud”—give me the goosebumps. It’s bold like Sandburg’s challenging lines—“And having answered, so I turn once more to those who sneer at this my city, and I give them back the sneer and say to them: Come show me another city with lifted head singing so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.”
Both capture that gritty-yet-haughty, blue collar-yet-world class atmosphere of late 19th- and early 20th-century Chicago. Even in this more polished 21st-century version, we like to think we haven’t lost it.