Invisible Censor


8. Chicago¹

A good deal of nonsense is talked about the personality of towns. What most people enjoy about a town is familiarity, not personality, and they can give no penetrating account of their affection. "What is the finest town in the world?" the New York reporters recently asked a young recruit, eager for him to eulogize New York. "Why," he answered, "San Malo, France. I was born there." That is the usual reason, perhaps the best reason, why a person likes any place on earth. The clew is autobiographical.

But towns do have personality. Contrast London and New York, or Portland and Norfolk, or Madison and St. Augustine. Chicago certainly has a personality, and it would be obscurantism of the most modern kind to pretend that there was no "soul" in Chicago either to like or to dislike. People who have never lived in Chicago are usually content with disliking it, and those who have seen it superficially, or smelled it in passing when the stockyard factories were making glue, can seldom understand why Chicagoans love it. Official visitors, of course, profess to admire it, with the eagerness of anxious missionaries seeking to make good with cannibals. But except for men who knew Bursley or Belfast, and slipped into Chicago as into old slippers-men like Arnold Bennett and George Bermingham-there are few outsiders who really feel at home. Stevenson passed through it on his immigrant journey across the plains, pondering that one who had so promptly subscribed a sixpence to restore the city after the fire should be compelled to pay for his own ham and eggs. He thought Chicago great but gloomy. Kipling shrank from it like a sensitive plant. It horrified him. H. G. Wells thought it amazing, but chiefly amazing as a lapse from civilization. All of these leave little doubt how Chicago first hits the eye. It is, in fact, dirty, unruly and mean. It has size without spaciousness, opportunity without imaginativeness, action without climax, wealth without distinction. A sympathetic artist finds picturesqueness in it, though far from gracious where most characteristic; but for the most part it is shoddy, dingy and vulgar, making more noise downtown than a boiler works, and raining smuts all day as a symbolic reproach from heaven. It is not for its beaux yeux that the outsider begins to love the town.

But a great town is like the elephant of the fable; one must see it altogether before one can define it; one can believe almost anything monstrous from a partial view. Time, in the case of Chicago, is supremely necessary-about three years as a minimum. Then its goodness passeth all pre-matrimonial understanding; its essence is disclosed.

Mr. H. C. Chatfield-Taylor has qualified, so far as time is concerned, to speak of Chicago, and I think it would be churlish not to agree that from the standpoint of the old settler he has done his city proud. All old Chicagoans will recognize at once why Mr. Taylor should go back to the beginning, and they will be delighted at the clarity with which the early history is expounded, as well as the era before the Civil War. They will also understand and rejoice over the repetition of grand old names-Gordon S. Hubbard, John Kinzie, Mark Beaubien, Uranus H. Crosby, Sherman of the Sherman hotel, General Hart L. Stewart and Long John Wentworth. In every town in the world there is, of course, a Long John or a Big Bill, but Chicagoans will savor this reference to their own familiar, and will delight in the snug feeling that they too "knew Chicago when." Mr. Taylor is also dear to his townsmen when he harks back to days before the Fire. In those days the West-siders were a little superior because they had the Episcopal Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul, and the church-going folk could hear the "fast young men" speeding trotting horses past the church doors. Such performances seemed fairly worldly, but later did not Mr. Taylor himself drive his high-steppers to the races at Washington Park, and did he not woo the heart of the city where gilded youth cherished a "nod of recognition from Potter Palmer, John B. Drake, or John A. Rice." The dinners of antelope steak and roast buffalo at the Grand Pacific recall a Chicago antedating the World's Fair that left strong traces into the twentieth century, a Chicago that is commemorated with grace and kindliness in the fair pages of this book.

But this is not enough. If Mr. Taylor's heart lingers among the "marble-fronts" of his youth, this is not peculiarly Chicagoan. Such fond reminiscence is the common nature of man. And a better basis for loving Chicago must be offered than the evidence that one teethed on it, battered darling that it is. Mr. Taylor's better explanation, as I read it, is extremely significant. He identifies himself fully and eagerly with the New Englanders who made the town. Bounty-jumpers and squatters and speculators, war widows and politicians and anarchists and aliens-all these go into his perspective, as do the emergencies of the Fire and the splendors of the Fair. But the marrow of his pride in Chicago is his community with its origins in "men, like myself, of New England blood, whose fathers felled our forests and tilled our prairie land." Since the time he was born, he tells us, more than two million people have been added to the population of Chicago. Only a fifth of the Great West Side are now American-born, and the Lake Shore Drive was still a cemetery when Mr. Taylor was a boy on that dignified West Side. This links Mr. Taylor closely to the beginning of things. Hence he likes to insist in his kindly spirit that Chicago's puritan "aristocracy" is the source of Chicago altruism, that "the society of Chicago [is] more puritanical than that of any great city in the world," and that "back of Chicago's strenuousness and vim stands the spirit of her founders holding her in leash, the tenets of the Pilgrim Fathers being still a potent factor in her life.... She possesses a New England conscience to leaven her diverse character and make her truly-the pulse of America."

Every bird takes what he finds to build his own spiritual nest. Personally, I love Chicago, ugly and wild and rude, but I prefer to see it as an impuritan. Its sprawling hideousness, indeed, has always seemed a direct result of the private-minded policy that distinguished Chicago's big little men. The triumvirate that Mr. Taylor mentions had no statesmanship in them. One was an admirable huckster, another an inflexible paternalist, the third a fine old philistine who carved a destiny in ham. But these men gave themselves and their city to business enterprise in its ugliest manifestation. The city of course has its remissions, its loveliness, but the incidental brutality of that enterprise is a main characteristic of the city, a characteristic barely suggested by Mr. Taylor, not clearly imagined by Mr. Hornby in his graceful drawings, so beautifully reproduced.

One would like, as a corrective to Mr. Taylor's pleasant picture, some leaves from Upton Sinclair's Jungle, Jack London's Iron Heel, Frank Norris's Pit, H. K. Webster's Great Adventure, the fiction of Edith Wyatt and Henry Fuller and Robert Herrick and Will Paine and Weber Linn and Sherwood Anderson, the poetry of Edgar Lee Masters and Carl Sandburg, the prose of Jane Addams. No one who looked at the City Council ten years ago, for example, can forget the brutality of that institution of collective life.

They called the old-time aldermen the "gray wolves." They looked like wolves, cold-eyed, grizzled, evil. They preyed on the city South side, West side, North side, making the shaky tenements and black brothels and sprawling immigrant-filled industries pay tribute in twenty ways. One night, curious to see Chicago at its worst, four of us went to a place that was glibly described as "the wickedest place in the world." It was a saloon under the West side elevated, and a room back of the saloon. At first it seemed merely dirty and meager, with its runty negro at the raucous piano. But at last the regular customers collected; the sots, the dead-beats, the human wreckage of both sexes, the woman of a fat pallor, the woman without a nose.... They surrounded us, piled against us, clawed us. And that, in its way, is Chicago, Stead's Satanic vision of it revealed.

But the other side of that hideousness in Chicago is the thing one loves it for, the large freedom from caste and cant which is so much an essential of democracy, the cordiality which comes with fraternity, the access to men and life of all kinds. Chicago is a scrimmage but also an adventure, a frank and passionate creator struggling with hucksters and hogsters, a blundering friend to genius among the assassins of genius, a frontier against the Europe that meant an established order, an order of succession and a weary bread-line. In Chicago, for all its philistinism, there is the condition of hope that is half the spiritual battle, whatever stockades the puritans try to build. It is that that makes one lament the silence in Mr. Taylor's pleasant book. But the puritanical tradition requires silence. Polite and refined, self-centered and private-minded, attached to property and content within limitations, it made visible Chicago what it is.

¹ Chicago, by H. C. Chatfield-Taylor. Illustrations by Lester G. Hornby. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co.