Title Reviewed:
American Apocalypse: The Great Fire and the Myth of Chicago

Author Reviewed:
Ross Miller

David J. Nordloh


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 88, Issue 3, pp 248-249

Article Type:
Book Review

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American Apocalypse: The Great Fire and the Myth of Chicago. By Ross Miller. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990. Pp. ix, 287. Illustrations, notes, index. $24.95.)

Like Henry Nash Smith's Virgin Land (1956), the seminal effort in American Studies at identifying and tracing the myths generated out of the negotiation of American values and dreams with American place and experience, Ross Miller's American Apocalypse is an ambitious book. Though the topic is framed by narrower space and a briefer period of time—a single, if unique and unprecedented, city between the comprehensive conflagration of October, 1871, and the lesser one that destroyed the White City of the Columbian Exposition of 1894—articulating it requires the same sensitivity to what is in the "texts" and what lies between them. The destruction, rebuilding, and celebration of Chicago certainly offered a compelling basis of fact to which emotion, trope, and industry could attach themselves. The fire left 90,000 people homeless and 18,000 buildings destroyed where less than forty years before had been a frontier outpost. Rebuilding on those ashes produced in little more than two decades the modern skyscraper metropolis of Louis H. Sullivan, Daniel Burnham, and John W. Root. The White City marked this unprecedented newness not by acknowledging that authentic architectural uniqueness but by assembling an artificial and reactionary classicism, not by acknowledging the tensions of wealth and labor unrest then portending a new apocalypse but by invoking conventional tableaux of peace and abundance. Miller's survey of relevant materials is commensurate with the scope of the Chicago story. He draws on journalistic accounts of the fall and rise of the city, boosterism, minor novels and novelists as well as major ones (notably Robert Herrick and Henry B. Fuller), planning documents, the words and structures of the lesser and greater architects. Abundant illustration ties the story to the site.

But finally Chicago rather than Miller's argument is the source of coherence. Miller finds too many myths in the flames, and the binary terms in which he conceives them (primitive/modern, destruction/creation, business/art) threaten to reduce them to intellectual abstractions rather than enliven them into a cultural dynamic of image and fact. Too often his explication is without a text or an agent: "The city managed to insinuate itself into a larger narrative, consciously exploiting its own tragedy as an archetype of the modern struggle against adversity" (p. 2). Though the chapters fashion a useful account of the history of Chicago literature and architecture, they also become disconnected set pieces of critical invention rather than convincing statements of discovery. In American Apocalypse Miller commits the mistake—too common in myth study—of participating in the creative process rather than convincingly describing it.

DAVID J. NORDLOH is professor of English and director of American Studies, Indiana University, Bloomington. He is also general editor of "A Selected Edition of W. D. Howells" and coeditor of the review annual American Literary Scholarship.

Published by the Indiana University Department of History.