Many moons ago I bought Donald Miller’s City of the Century: The Epic of Chicago and the Making of America as background material for a book proposal I was working on. I stopped the proposal halfway through, when I got the commission to write Mankind: the History of All of Us for the History Channel and my writing career took an unexpected leap forward.* City of the Century languished unread on the To-Be-Read shelves for almost a decade.
I recently pulled it off the shelf, thinking I would read it in conjunction with Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City as background material for my current book. I quickly abandoned Devil in the White City—I’m just too squeamish for the serial killer part of the story. But I continued reading City of the Century, even after I realized that the questions I was hoping to answer weren’t actually relevant for the book I’m writing.*** All 500+ pages of it.
Miller begins with Marquette and Joliet’s voyage of exploration and ends with the years immediately after the Columbian Exposition of 1893.**** He tells a lot of stories that I already knew, thanks in part to several decades of living in Chicago as a history nerd: , the Great Chicago Fire and its aftermath, the rise of the skyscraper, the foundation of Jane Addam’s Hull House, the Haymarket Square riot, and the Pullman strike. But he links those stories in ways that were new to me, sets them in expanded contexts, and occasionally he changed my mind about a story I thought I knew. He looks at the impact of both wealth and poverty, the growth of the city as a transportation and industrial hub, the importance of immigrant ethnic groups in Chicago politics, and the efforts of wealthy and middle-class “native-born” Protestants to de-fang such groups politically and to control and assimilate them. The result is a fascinating and rich account of Chicago’s history.
I am now eyeing another book of Miller’s that has been aging on my shelves for a while now: a history of New York in the jazz age.
*Truth be told, I probably would have abandoned the proposal anyway.**
**Pro tip: Proposals are maddening to write, but you should be excited by the material. If writing the proposal bores you, imagine how bored you’ll be writing the book.
***The start of the research process—or at least the start of my research process—is as much about finding the shape of the story and the things I don’t know as it is about finding answers. I read deeply in my central subject, but I also read widely in the period surrounding my subject. It is messy. It is not very efficient. But it works for me.
****I was disappointed to realize that he left out Jean-Baptiste Pointe DuSable.