Title Reviewed:
A History of Chicago

Author Reviewed:
Bessie Louise Pierce

Frederick D. Kershner, Jr.


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 45, Issue 2, pp 191-192

Article Type:
Book Review

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A History of Chicago. Volume III, The Rise of a Modern City, 1871–1893. By Bessie Louise Pierce. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1957. Pp. xii, 575. Illustrations, maps, appendix, bibliography, and index. $8.50.)

The monumental History of Chicago on which Professor Bessie Pierce has been engaged for many years is too well known to require special introduction. The present volume, and third to appear, closely parallels Volume X of the original History of American Life series, Arthur M. Schlesinger's twenty-five-year-old Rise of the City, 1878–1898, in time span, organization, and even title. It begins with the Chicago fire, and closes with the Columbian Exposition, events of much importance for both city and nation.

The great theme of those years was economic growth, and appropriately enough Professor Pierce devotes more than half her pages to describing the rise of the Windy City's basic industrial and commercial enterprises, together with the labor reaction to this phenomenon. It is interesting to contrast her account of labor with Professor Charles Sanford's statement in a recent issue of the Journal of Economic History that "the worst horrors of the industrial revolution in England were avoided here." If Sanford is right, then someone should have informed the Chicago workmen of it. Another two chapters treat municipal politics, almost a collateral activity of business during this period. The remaining quarter of the book surveys social and cultural factors like education, the arts, leisure-use, religion and humanitarianism.

Chicago is fortunate as beneficiary of so vast an historical project, and New York may well be envious. Nevertheless the value of this history is reduced by certain procedures which to this reviewer seem unfortunate. For example, Professor Pierce has made a conscious and successful effort "to focus attention upon group life rather than upon individuals" (p. ix). However sound in theory, unhappily this emphasis has caused her tale to lose most of its color and larger meaning. Her account of the Great Fire gives the impression of a minor inconvenience easily overcome, not a threat to the city's very life. One searches in vain for the drama in the Chicago Exposition, so readily available in the pages of Condit and Giedion. Professor Pierce's work seems a digest of contemporary description from the press of the day; interpretation, the lifeblood of history, is missing.

One can see national trends reflected in Chicago, but not the ways in which Chicago was reflected in national thought and action—the outside impact of the Fire, the Exposition, Haymarket, the skyscraper. Opportunities are missed. For example, those interested in urban Progressivism will find only a few references to the Citizens' Association and the Commercial Club, despite their crucial role in civic uplift and changed attitudes toward the role of government. And in view of the paucity of achievement in cultural life which Miss Pierce describes, one must doubt her statement that 1893 saw a mature city, second in leadership only to New York. In population and market hinterland alone had Chicago surpassed Boston and Philadelphia by that date.

It is probably unfair to criticize Professor Pierce for what she does not do. Her volumes may well mark the close of an era of modern urban case studies, well discussed by Bayrd Still and Blake McKelvey in recent articles. But now we badly need to direct our attention to the wider meaning of all this. An urban interpretation of later American history still lies ahead of us.

Teachers College Columbia University Frederick D. Kershner, Jr.

Published by the Indiana University Department of History.