There are many very good and even great books about Chicago, and, based on my half century of writing about Chicago, here are the ten that, at the moment, I think are the best — and, after this list, there’s one that’s a real clunker:
1 — Nature’s Metropolis by William Cronon: In Nature’s Metropolis, William Cronon writes that the Queen City of the nation, the engine behind the transformation of the American landscape and economy, didn’t have to be Chicago. Had Chicago not been so successful in extending its reach toward the Rockies, some other city or cities would surely have done so, for the task of binding together the city and country was the preoccupation of the age. So, why was it Chicago? In its nearly 400 pages, Nature’s Metropolis provides literally dozens of reasons, but there are two key factors: (1) Chicago’s location at the meeting place of the Chicago River and Lake Michigan, and, more important, (2) the decision of capitalists in New York City and elsewhere in the East to invest in Chicago, before and after the Great Fire.
2 — Chicago: Growth of a Metropolis by Harold M. Mayer and Richard C. Wade: Chicago: Growth of a Metropolis is one of the foundational books in the study of Chicago history. Harold Mayer was a geographer, and Richard Wade an historian. They joined together to tell the story of Chicago in a uniquely integrated way: “This volume…tries to do more than show physical development — it attempts to suggest how the city expanded and why it looks the way it does. This broad purpose explains the dual authorship, for the task seemed to require the tools of both the historian and the geographer — the former with his emphasis on the texture of life and the latter with his concern for spatial relationships.”
3 — Plan of Chicago by Daniel H. Burnham and Edward H. Bennett: When Daniel Burnham agreed to take up one final great task in a life that had been filled with large challenges, he began a process that would be a turning point in urban history in the United States and across the globe. After three years of work with his right-hand man Edward Bennett and a team of artists and draftsmen, Burnham produced the Plan of Chicago, published on July 4, 1909. The Plan became a blueprint for the transformation of metropolitan Chicago. It resulted in a city that was healthier, more efficient, more beautiful less congested and less claustrophobic. But the Plan’s impact was also international, as the single most important step in the development of urban planning as a respected profession and in the recognition that an essential role of municipal governments is to anticipate, plan for and shape the future.
4 — Chicago: City on the Make by Nelson Algren
Nelson Algren’s 1951 book Chicago: City on the Make is an epic poem about the city. His is a city of hustlers and rested elevated structures on which trains ride through the night screeching at every turn and at every stop.
5 — The Jungle by Upton Sinclair
The Jungle by Upton Sinclair is a hybrid — journalism in the guise of fiction. It’s rooted in facts that are conveyed within a story that is overblown. Jurgis Rudkus and his family are the essence of powerlessness. Everything that can go wrong happens to Jurgis 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.
6 — Boss by Mike Royko
Like The Jungle, Mike Royko’s book about Richard J. Daley, the fabled Chicago may and the father of another, was the result of an intense, extensive amount of reporting. Over the course of years, Royko interviewed hundreds of people. He examined thousands of pages of documents in obscure corners of the city’s archives. He watched and his studied his subject. But Boss shouldn’t be thought of as a biography of Daley. It’s a book-long essay by Royko on power and its exercise. In Boss, Daley is akin to a god from Olympus. He looms over the city like a colossus. He is power, pure and simple. The essence of power. Royko, like Upton Sinclair, is writing with an Old Testament prophet’s sense of moral outrage, railing against the over-concentration of power in a few hands — and the damage that such over-concentration wreaks in the lives of everyday people.
7 — Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City by St. Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton Jr.
Published in 1945, at a time when African-American neighborhoods in the United States were ignored by the white mainstream, Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City by St. Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton Jr. looked at virtually every aspect of Chicago’s Black Belt on the South Side, one of the greatest concentrations of blacks in the nation. Drake and Cayton were sociologists at the University of Chicago, and their book has been called a “foundational text in African American history, cultural studies and urban sociology.”
8 — The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros
There is a universal quality to Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street and also something very specific. This is the story of Esperanza Cordero, and, at its heart, it is the story of every child who has gone through the very difficult transformation into being a teenager with all its excitement, fear and challenge. No wonder it’s read by so many high school students. Even more, though, the book’s strength as literature is that it tells the story of a unique girl in a unique place — the Mexican-American neighborhoods of Chicago. .
9 — Chicago: The Second City by A.J. Liebling
A.J. Liebling skewered Chicago in three caustic pieces in the New Yorker, soon after collected into a short book of 30,000 words or so, Chicago: The Second City. Ever since then, anti-Liebling rhetoric has routinely found its way into print in Chicago. Yet, Liebling was no hack, and that, in part, is why his ghost has hung for so long over the city’s psyche. And why he’s well worth reading today. His writing is lively, fresh and clear-eyed. And very entertaining, as long as it’s not your ox that he’s eviscerating.
10 — Forever Open, Clear, and Free: The Struggle for Chicago’s Lakefront by Lois Wille.
Chicago’s lakefront is unparalleled in the world. Twenty-six of its 30 miles are in public hands and available every day for public use, and a push is on to convert those four last miles privately owned into parkland for all. Thank Lois Wille’s invaluable history of the fight to protect Chicago’s shoreline — Forever Open, Clear, and Free: The Struggle for Chicago’s Lakefront — for the many successes that have come since it was originally published in 1972 at the beginning of the environmental movement. What’s amazing is that any city would have had enough vision to create and protect the lakefront as Chicago has over the past two centuries. Yet, Wille’s book is a bedrock account of how much blood, sweat and tears were expended in bringing that vision to life and in maintaining and improving the shoreline.
The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson: There are many people who think of this book as a wonderful look at Chicago, but I have argued for more than a decade — in a lecture at the Chicago History Museum and in the pages of the Chicago Tribune — that it’s an insidious work that masquerades fiction as fact, and fancy as truth.
In this book, Larson is telling the dual stories of Daniel Burnham, director of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, and H. H. Holmes, the serial killer who preyed on young women near the fair site during the same period. Critics have praised Larson’s story-telling skills, his ability to evoke the sights, sounds and feel of a long-gone age. And, no question, Devil is a page-turner. It’s filled with piquant details and a you-are-there momentum. It’s the antithesis of the stereotypical dry, clunky accounts that academic historians are routinely accused of producing. In a note in the front of his book, Larson insists that Devil is no novel. He writes: “However strange or macabre some of the following incidents may seem, this is not a work of fiction. Anything between quotation marks comes from a letter, memoir, or other written document.”
Except that’s not true, as Larson himself acknowledges this in the small type of the end notes in the back of his book. In those notes, he made up stuff. He writes that he “constructed” and “built” the murder scenes. He writes that he “re-created” the killings. He writes that his goal was to “weave a plausible account.”
All this matters because truth matters. This is make-believe being sold as truth. It puts every serious historian at a huge disadvantage, in danger of being dismissed because they aren’t churning out page-turners, because they’re sticking to the facts, because they aren’t pumping emotion onto their pages, because they aren’t pretending to know what a historic personage was thinking at a particular moment unless there is some document to indicate this.
Truth is more important today in our national emergency. And truth has been important for many recent years as our politicians have stretched and twisted it — and, in some cases, have routinely lied. Devil would be fine if Larson offered it as an historical novel. But it’s not history.
Patrick T. Reardon
This piece originally appeared at Third Coast Review on 4.2.20