Where They Went To See The Future

PrintPrintEmailEmailDonald Miller has never lived in Chicago, and he never thought of writing about it until he started noticing the curious ways its formative years reminded him of the flowering of Renaissance Florence. But once he got immersed in it he produced City of the Century, a sweeping history of the city from its earliest beginnings until after the 1893 world’s fair. The book was a prize-winning bestseller. Now WGBH’s American Experience series has produced a three-part, four-and-a-half-hour documentary based on it, which just debuted nationally on PBS.

Chicago: City of the Century tells the story of a place that grew from almost nothing into a world metropolis in mere decades and that during those years displayed all the virtues and hazards of being a uniquely American free-for-all. The film was produced, written, and directed by Austin Hoyt, whose previous credits include MacArthur , Reagan , and Carnegie . Miller was the creative consultant and is the most prominent of its many onscreen commentators.

He is the John Henry MacCracken Professor of History at Lafayette College, in Easton, Pennsylvania, where he has taught since 1977. His other books include Lewis Mumford: A Life and The Story of World War II , a revised and expanded version of Henry Steele Commager’s classic volume. He has worked on or hosted many other television documentaries, including the 26-part A Biography of America and Abraham and Mary Lincoln: A House Divided. We spoke at his home in Easton about Chicago, his book, the new film, and why he is a historian.

“You can almost physically see capitalism growing there . . . land and empty air turning into wealth.”

Why Chicago?

I knew when I started the book that it would be a history of not just one city but America, because nineteenth-century Chicago was a raw, new, industrial metropolis cut out of the frontier. It was a product of so many of the forces that created America—westward expansion, commercial and transportation revolutions, the Industrial Revolution, the democratic revolution. They’re all right there. That it was a city of world importance came home to me when I was invited to Holland to lecture at Leiden University. The school was presenting a series of lectures on the dozen or so cities that had had the most significance in shaping history. The organizers picked just one American city, Chicago in the nineteenth century; the rest were classics like Rome and Athens. The historians agreed with the nineteenth-century Europeans who looked upon Chicago as the place to go to see the future, where the emerging forces of America were gathering.

And what did the future look like?

People saw the Industrial Revolution in full flush in Chicago. It was a colossus of production and the greatest railroad city in the world. It had mail-order houses that were the incarnation of speed and efficiency. It had sprawling plants like the Pullman works and the stockyards. And its giant corporations spawned giant labor organizations and strikes.

If there’s an Adam Smith city, it’s Chicago. Smith had two great ideas, economic individualism and the division of labor, and they’re both worked out there. We tried to put that into the movie very strongly. Austin Hoyt, the director, said that this was going to be a very fast-paced film. He wanted it to have a restless energy, like the city itself.

The story has a wonderful beginning.

One of the things that first excited me about the city was how it has a real creation myth. Jolliet and Marquette’s voyage—their exploration of the Mississippi and their arrival at the future site of Chicago—is an American Aeneid, a thrilling tale of origin and adventure. We don’t think of American cities that way. We think of Pilgrims plopping off boats, clearing out the wilderness, and throwing up picture-pretty churches. But Chicago was born in the age of discovery. Louis XIV was the king of France. North America was being settled from north to south, from Canada to the mouth of the Mississippi, not just from east to west. You get a sense that history could have happened in a very different way if the French had gone at colonization the way they went at exploration.

Did it happen where it did because of geography, because the spot was alongside a Great Lake and you could portage from there to a river to the Mississippi?

Yes and no. The location was sensational, but I buy Jane Jacobs’s idea that geography is not destiny. Cities are creations of the human will. Look at Cairo, Illinois, at the confluence of the Ohio and the Mississippi. Cairo never made it. You can say that’s because it’s a swamp, but Chicago was a swamp. Enterprising hustlers drained it and built a great city on it. I agree with Aristotle that the city is the people.