“A full hour before the party reached the city…” — a presentation at the Chicago Historical Society, Saturday, February 18, 2006

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“A full hour before the party reached the city…” — a presentation at the Chicago Historical Society, Saturday, February 18, 2006

Consider this scene:

A full hour before the party reached the city they had begun to note the perplexing changes in the atmosphere.

It grew darker all the time, and upon the earth the grass seemed to grow less green. Every minute, as the train sped on, the colors of things became dingier; the fields were grown parched and yellow, the landscape hideous and bare. And along with the thickening smoke they began to notice another circumstance, a strange, pungent odor.

They were not sure that it was unpleasant, this odor; some might have called it sickening, but their taste in odors was not developed, and they were only sure that it was curious.

Welcome to Chicago, 1900…And to Chicago, 1950…And, in a real way, to Chicago, 2006.

sinclair --- jungle.combo.smaller

Recently, a colleague of mine at the Chicago Tribune asked me to recommend a book or two for a new reporter who had never lived in Chicago before.

Well, I said, there’s The Local Community Fact Book. Published every 10 years going back to 1930, it gives detailed data on population, race, housing and poverty by neighborhood, and it’s an unparalleled resource book.

But it doesn’t say anything about the way things smelled. Or how dingy the houses were. Or how parched the grass was.

That’s why I also recommended The Jungle.

There will come a time when a new reporter is out on an assignment and is walking down a sidewalk in, say, the Back of the Yards neighborhood, or in Bridgeport, or even Gage Park. And, even though the air is clear and the sun bright, I wanted that reporter to know that, not long ago, this area was blanketed in all seasons, but especially in summer, with a thick oppressive, all-intrusive aroma of decay.

Or he’ll be writing a story about a community of Nigerian immigrants in the Edgewater neighborhood, or Mexican immigrants in the northwest suburb of Addison, or Chinese immigrants in Skokie.

And, because he’s read the story of Yoorghis (Jurgis) and his family, he’ll have a sense of how the experience of today’s immigrants are so different from those of 100 years ago — and so very similar.

Or he’ll be writing a story about the booming real estate market along the Chicago River and its tributaries. And when he goes out to the South Fork of the South Branch of the river to see the new condominium developments popping up along its eastern bank, he’ll have an inkling into why, in most months, that flat, current-less stream is constantly bubbling with gases rising from the muck and crud on the river bottom.

When he sees that, I expect he’ll remember this short section of The Jungle — I love reading from this book —

Even the packers were in awe of [the political boss Scully], so the men said. It gave them pleasure to believe this, for Scully stood as the people’s man, and boasted of it boldly when election day came. The packers had wanted a bridge at Ashland Avenue, but they had not been able to get it till they had seen Scully; and it was the same with “Bubbly Creek,” which the city had threatened to make the packers cover over, till Scully had come to their aid.

“Bubbly Creek” is an arm of the Chicago River, and forms the southern boundary of the yards: all the drainage of the square mile of packing houses empties into it, so that it is really a great open sewer a hundred or two feet wide.

One long arm of it is blind, and the filth stays there forever and a day. The grease and chemicals that are poured into it undergo all sorts of strange transformations, which are the cause of its name; it is constantly in motion, as if huge fish were feeding in it, or great leviathans disporting themselves in its depths. Bubbles of carbonic acid gas will rise to the surface and burst, and make rings two or three feet wide.

Here and there the grease and filth have caked solid, and the creek looks like a bed of lava; chickens walk about on it, feeding, and many times an unwary stranger has started to stroll across, and vanished temporarily. The packers used to leave the creek that way, till every now and then the surface would catch on fire and burn furiously, and the fire department would have to come and put it out.

Once, however, an ingenious stranger came and started to gather this filth in scows, to make lard out of; then the packers took the cue, and got out an injunction to stop him, and afterward gathered it themselves. The banks of “Bubbly Creek” are plastered thick with hairs, and this also the packers gather and clean.

I’m not sure — I don’t think anyone is — how much of the bubbling today at Bubbly Creek is from “historic” slime that’s layered on the creek bottom, and how much is “modern” muck that settles there about 12 times a year when a sewage treatment plant has to discharge untreated sewer and storm water into the Creek.

What is certain is that, most months, Bubbly Creek still bubbles….and smells.

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There has been many great books about Chicago, books in which the city is as much a part of the story as the actions of the characters —

  • Native Son by Richard Wright
  • The Adventures of Augie March and all the other Chicago books by Saul Bellow
  • Chicago: City on the Make and all the Chicago novels by Nelson Algren

Just a year ago, there were six new novels and one non-fiction book by the likes of Ward Just and Stuart Dybek and Harry Mark Petrakis. Following in a tradition of more than 100 years, these books looked at the way Chicago is interwoven into the lives of its citizens —

  • how its streets are escape routes and borders
  •  how its weather batters and caresses
  •  how its churches, gangways, alleys, parks and schools give a unique Chicago quality to life here.
  • how life here is different
  • how Chicago looks….how it feels….how it smells

Yet, amid the literary wealth of more than a century, two works stand out as iconic Chicago books.

The Jungle and Boss by Mike Royko

I’m not saying that these are the greatest books ever written about or set in Chicago. They aren’t. But, more than any other books, they capture and communicate the city and its essence.

Both are hybrids. They are journalism, and they’re art. They are rooted in facts — and they’re also mythic.

Royko’s descriptions of Richard J. Daley, the fabled Chicago mayor and the father of today’s chief executive, were the result of an intense, extensive amount of reporting. Over the course of years, he interviewed hundreds of people. He examined thousands of pages of documents in obscure corners of the city’s archives. He watched and studied his subject.

The same is true of Upton Sinclair. While his goal was to expose the System which crushed new immigrants, he was, above all, a reporter. His book is filled with facts — with unsparing descriptions of life as it was actually lived in Chicago.

Consider this description of a Chicago winter:

Four or five miles to the eastward lay the lake, and over this the bitter winds came raging. Sometimes the thermometer would fall to ten or twenty degrees below zero at night, and in the morning the streets would be piled with snowdrifts up to the first-floor windows.

The streets through which our friends had to go to their work were all unpaved and full of deep holes and gullies; in summer, when it rained hard, a man might have to wade to his waist to get to his house; and now in winter it was no joke getting through these places, before light in the morning and after dark at night. They would wrap up in all they owned, but they could not wrap up against exhaustion; and many a man gave out in these battles with the snowdrifts, and lay down and fell asleep.

And if it was bad for the men, one may imagine how the women and children fared. Some would ride in the cars, if the cars were running; but when you are making only five cents an hour, as was little Stanislovas, you do not like to spend that much to ride two miles.

The children would come to the yards with great shawls about their ears, and so tied up that you could hardly find them – and still there would be accidents.

One bitter morning in February the little boy who worked at the lard machine with Stanislovas came about an hour late, and screaming with pain. They unwrapped him, and a man began vigorously rubbing his ears; and as they were frozen stiff, it took only two or three rubs to break them short off. As a result of this, little Stanislovas conceived a terror of the cold that was almost a mania.

I still recall reading that passage as a Chicago teenager four decades ago, and how it stayed with me in all its horror. I was, after all, about the same age as Stanislovas.

In fact, I realized when I re-read The Jungle many years later, that my memory of that scene had intensified the tragedy. As I remembered the moment, it wasn’t a little boy whom Stanislovas knew who’d lost his ears to frostbite — but Stanislovas himself.

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But Boss and The Jungle aren’t simply collections of facts. There’s a larger-than-life quality to both.

In Boss, Richard J. Daley is like god from Olympus. He looms over the city like a colossus. He is power, pure and simple. The essence of power.

Jurgis and his family are at the other end of the spectrum. They are the essence of powerlessness. (That is, until the end when Jurgis unites with other workers to oppose the bosses — the least satisfying portion of the novel because it’s rooted least in facts.)

Everything that can go wrong happens to Yoorghis and his family — death, seduction, betrayal, injury, disfigurement, deception, abandonment.

This wasn’t the experience of the typical Chicago immigrant a century ago. But pieces of what Jurgis went through were an element of everyone’s story.

So, just as Dick Daley in Boss is the exemplar of all powerful people — not only in Royko’s day but throughout the city’s history, down to today — Jurgis and what he goes through in The Jungle is a metaphor for all the powerless people of the city. Which is most of us.

We all know what it’s like to go up against the System and come up short. What makes The Jungle so horrifying is that we know how systems work, and how they grind up individuals. We know that was true in Upton Sinclair’s day….and in our own.

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What unifies the journalistic and mythic aspects of Boss and The Jungle is a moral outrage.

Like prophets of the Old Testament, Royko and Sinclair are denouncing the over-concentration of power in a few hands. And the damage that such over-concentration wreaks in the lives of everyday people.

But these denunciations aren’t one-sided. In both cases, the writers aren’t just castigating the powerful. They’re also calling the powerless to task for permitting themselves to become victims. Inherent in both books is the understanding that this isn’t the way things should be — and this isn’t the way things have to be. At least not this bad.

That said, though. Both Royko and Sinclair come down on the side of the victims. As complicit as the victims are in their abuse, they are still victims.

Near the end of the book, a rich drunk gives Jurgis a $100 bill. That’s the equivalent of about $2,200 in today’s money. But, as a poor, smelly tramp, Jurgis can’t cash it, and eventually is gypped out of the money by a politically connected bartender.

“Will you change it?” Jurgis demanded, gripping it tightly in his pocket.

“How the hell can I know if it’s good or not?” retorted the bartender. “Whatcher take me for, hey?”

Then Jurgis slowly and warily approached him; he took out the bill, and fumbled it for a moment, while the man stared at him with hostile eyes across the counter. Then finally he handed it over.

The other took it, and began to examine it; he smoothed it between his fingers, and held it up to the light; he turned it over, and upside down, and edgeways. It was new and rather stiff, and that made him dubious. Jurgis was watching him like a cat all the time.

“Humph,” he said, finally, and gazed at the stranger, sizing him up – a ragged, ill-smelling tramp, with no overcoat and one arm in a sling – and a hundred-dollar bill! “Want to buy anything?” he demanded.

“Yes,” said Jurgis, “I’ll take a glass of beer.”

“All right,” said the other, “I’ll change it.” And he put the bill in his pocket, and poured Jurgis out a glass of beer, and set it on the counter. Then he turned to the cash register, and punched up five cents, and began to pull money out of the drawer. Finally, he faced Jurgis, counting it out – two dimes, a quarter, and fifty cents. “There,” he said.

For a second Jurgis waited, expecting to see him turn again. “My ninety-nine dollars,” he said.

“What ninety-nine dollars?” demanded the bartender.

“My change!” he cried – “the rest of my hundred!”

“Go on,” said the bartender, “you’re nutty!”

There is no one who can read that passage and not empathize with Jurgis.

That $100 bill stands for all the loopholes and bureaucratic wrinkles and Catch-22s that trap, stunt and sour life for modern Americans, modern Chicagoans, just as life was stunted and soured for their ancestors a century ago.

And that’s why The Jungle is still read today. And will be read for many decades and perhaps even centuries into the future.

Patrick T. Reardon
2.18.06

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