Rating: 3.75/5Writing a biography of the nation’s third largest city is a monumental task. Every block of every neighborhood is full of thousands upon thousands of stories. There is no way to write a history that is truly definitive or comprehensive. Dominic A. Pacyga, Professor of Humanities at Columbia College, is fully aware of these challenges, for he mentions them in the book’s introduction. He admits his bias towards the South Side, since he has lived well south of the Loop for most of his life.
Reading Chicago: A Biography feels a bit like taking a survey course with a knowledgeable and communicative professor. You wish you had more time to go in depth with the topics that interest you most, but you realize so much material has to be covered. We get all the familiar stories here, the ones that involve Al Capone, the Columbian Exposition, the Stock Yards, Jane Addams, The Great Fire, the Daley Empire, Haymarket, St. Valentine’s Day Massacre and more. Pacyga’s story begins with the explorations of Joliet and Marquette and ends with the ascendency of Barack Obama.
He does make time for a few lesser known tales. We hear about a 1916 reception in which 300 important Chicago civic leaders gathered to welcome the new archbishop, the German-American George William Mundelein. The soup for the evening’s festivities was laced with arsenic, sending the church leaders and bank owners running from the University Club and causing the already present WWI anarchist paranoia to run rampant. Pacyga also injects familiar episodes with new life. As a South Side resident, he uses his local political and cultural knowledge as he analyses the true, somewhat unscrupulous, motivation behind the University of Chicago’s Hyde Park-Kenwood Urban Renewal Plan.
As interesting as the stories within Chicago: A Biography often are, at times I longed for a bit more panache in Pacyga’s writing style. He writes with a very objective, journalistic tone, which is appropriate to a work of history. Sometimes, though, I would like to feel the immediacy of the events a bit more. For instance, Pacyga’s account of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 comes off as just a little stale and lifeless. Given the enormity and danger of the events described, and the fact that they are pretty familiar to most people who have studied even the basics of Chicago history, I would have enjoyed a bit more pathos and vivid imagery.
It goes without saying that I walked away wishing that certain aspects of the Windy City’s history would be emphasized more. As one who is fascinated by Chicago’s cultural heritage, I would have liked more detail about the city’s musical and literary scene. Chicago’s important contributions to jazz music were covered rather superficially, and practically no mention was made of key writers like Carl Sandburg or revolutionary works of literature with a Chicago connection like Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. Every resident and/or “fan” of Chicago loves the city for different reasons, and it’s not fair for me to expect the author’s interests to align perfectly with my own. Ultimately, Pacyga succeeds insofar as he has written a biography that not only explores the key events and issues that have shaped the City of Broad Shoulders, but reflects his own personality and experiences as well.