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Sensing Chicago Review


Chicago was a quintessentially modern, industrial city in the late 19th century, growing at breakneck speed from nearly nothing to a vast industrial metropolis that dominated the Great Plains, based on meat packing and modern railroad connections. This led to dramatically different sensory feelings in the city than those which had existed before, with an accumulation of pollution, stink, and dirt peculiarly developed and interpreted by industrial civilization. Adam Mack's book Sensing Chicago: Noisemakers, Strikebreakers, and Muckrakers takes a look at this city to examine how different perspectives on Chicago's felt environment, be it in regards to industrial work, the great fire of the city, the river, pollution, entertainment and industrial labor action, were interpreted by the population and utilized in constructing modern Chicago.

The introduction to the book notes that in the late 19th century Chicago was an unseemly city, one in particular where there was an increasing sensory hierarchy which placed seeing as the most important sense, and focusing on cleanliness and order visually and viewing uncleanliness, smell, excessive noise, and filth as threats to the social order and a sign of moral problems.

A principal example of sensory change shown by the author is his investigation into the rerouting of the Chicago River, explored in "Chapter 1: Smelling Civic Peril: The Chicago Styx," showing how the unseemly, unsightly, and above all else smelly city river was a threat to public order which required rerouting, particularly to avoid the unpleasant sensation from impinging on the wealthy and powerful city elites. Previous efforts to deal with the crisis through the development of the sewer network had failed to fix the city, while the discharge into Lake Michigan threatened to lead to unclean drinking water for the entire city. The solution was the reversal of the river, a massive public works project which enabled cleansing waters from the lake to clean out the pollution and filth of Chicago.

The great burning of Chicago in 1871

The great burning of Chicago in 1871

Soon thereafter - that very year in fact - there would be much less reason to celebrate in Chicago, with the massive fire of 1871, recounted in chapter 2, "Sensory Overload." This massive conflagration burned most of the city to the ground, leaving, as the book notes, substantial trauma behind - a feeling of great numbness, like that experienced by those hiding in bomb shelters in WW2 - massive destruction, and killed hundreds of people. It also impacted people in distinct ways based on their class, as the poor were assumed to be used to deprivation and sensory overload, while their infliction of the rich was much bemoaned. The great equalizer of the fire was thus nothing of the such, with the rich being assumed to suffer more greatly. Destruction meant that it was very difficult to locate one's bearings in the destroyed aftermath, as the familiar city scape was annihilated.

A variety of illustrated and described photos are found in the middle of the book, typically city plans, advertisements, and photos.

"Quieting the Roar of the Mob", chapter 3, moves onto the issue of labor revolts, concentrating on the period's notion of dangerous unwashed radical barbarians who threatened to overthrow society. They were castigated as irrational and only capable of being dealt with through force, and to reform workers they would have to be culturally uplifted, such as through the Pullman company's model town for workers. Bloody suppression of the 1877 Great Rail Strike was thus met with enthusiasm from newspapers, who also praised the efforts of Pullman to civilize his workers with his model company town. Clean, modern, healthy, industrious, the company town would supposedly both elevate workers and instill industrial relations harmony, and was inspired by Pullman's paternalistic, moralizing, spirit. Despite newspaper praise, in fact the town was not nearly as beneficial to workers - being expensive, instable, lacking a feeling of community spirit, under constant surveillance, and its various failings and wage cuts led to major worker strikes as well.

The stockyards of Chicago

The stockyards of Chicago

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Chapter 4, "A Revolutionary and a Puritan" travels back to the heart of Chicago's prosperity, analyzing how Sinclair's work The Jungle represents the dehumanizing and destructive practices of work in the meat packing houses of Chicago, how it stripped away human dignity and humanity from the poor immigrant workers there, turning them more into beasts than men. At the same time, Sinclair, who grew up sheltered and was deeply uncomfortable with filth and sex, himself infantilized workers and wrote from a distinctly middle class perspective, focusing on middle class leadership to rescue workers. Sinclair's work would ultimately be more influential in bringing about reform to food purity than to worker rights.

The final chapter, chapter 5, "Sensory Refreshment" concerns Chicago's amusement park of the White City, inspired by the 1893 World Fair's centerpiece, the White City. Intended to raise cultural and social standards and to stand as a classical contrast to grubby Chicago, to reinvigorate and uplift the professional and working classes respectively with excitement and a carnival. Despite its goals, the White City quickly itself became the target of moral crusaders over its perceived vice and moral questionability.

There are both high and low points to Mack's book. For its high point, chapter 4 is definitely the best part - as the book does an excellent job in examining Sinclair's own personality and upbringing and how that affected him in his writing of The Jungle, and it excellently conveys the sensory features which marked the era. It shows the contradictions in Sinclair's writing, and gives an incredible feel for the life the workers lived, and for nosing out the tensions of class and race present.

There is also a consistently good degree of integration of class into the book, as it shows how pollution was interpreted differently by differently by different groups on the social ladder, or at least portrayed as impacting them differently, and showing how dirt, grime, and disorder were associated with the poor and working classes. The project of industrial development and capitalistic growth was not value free or consensual: it was based on force and violence.

The shortness of the book precludes it from examining the city in greater depth, and makes it something of a snapshot or slideshow of the city - jumping from changing the course of the river, to the fire, to workers' housing, to the infamous slaughterhouses. Most sections are done reasonably well - but it feels hectic, rushed, and missing much of the regular life in the city. What about traffic, regular urban life, bastions of silence such as government buildings or disorderly markets? These never appear, as the book skips on to future sections.

Personally I have my doubts about the suitability of text - particularly academic text - as a way to cover sensory history. The entire focus of Mack's book is on the non-visual perspectives of Chicago - smell most particularly, but also the sound of fire, the feel of smoke and soot - and these are naturally quite difficult to convey via the text medium. I think that a book like this would be best paired with a movie or documentary, which at least could add sound and visual to it, even if the senses of smell, touch, and taste are still left untouched.

I think that Mack's book would have been best if it was integrated into a broader look into Chicago and the life that people lived in the city, rather than focusing on the more spectacular moments of the Pullman Strike, the Chicago Fire, and the reversing of the Chicago River. A book about daily life and the experiences that people had in the city, which used greater direct literary quotes particularly, would have done more to bring Chicago to light, and given greater ability for the reader to see the trends which Mack underlines play themselves out on a larger scale in society.

What is perhaps the biggest problem is that it is inherently questionable just how much of the book is really sensory. Consider the suppression of labor demonstrations in the 1877 strikes: most of this is dedicated to fears, mentalities, ideas, not the the senses per se. Much of the book feels as if the author is trying to shoe horn various key moments of Chicago's development into a book about senses, regardless of whether they really unilaterally belong there. The senses would have been better explored with a more novelistic format, rather than his book which passes off anything it can for sensory history.

Nevertheless Sensing Chicago does provide a good tool to understand the evolution of new technology, social norms, and ideas in a rapidly developing American industrial city in the 19th century. It showcases some of the premier examples of modernity and how class, science, and cultural lines combined together to impact Chicago's development. Its short length and the scattered nature of its examples undermine some of its punch, but as a foray into the topic, it is a fascinating read.

© 2021 Ryan C Thomas

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