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Chicago's encyclopedia tells the urban story

By Greg Varner | HUMANITIES, September/October 1998 | Volume 19, Number 5

The city of Chicago resonates across American history. From Mrs. O’Leary’s cow to basketball’s Michael Jordan, the quirks and characters of Chicago fire our national imagination. Did Eliot Ness and his Untouchables really bring down Al Capone? What gives the Chicago Blues their distinctive Midwestern sound? And why is the city synonymous with stockyards?

The answers to these and many other questions can be found in a forthcoming reference work, The Encyclopedia of Chicago History, scheduled for publication in 2001. It is a joint effort involving the Newberry Library, the Chicago Historical Society, and the University of Chicago Press. Funding has come from many sources, including the National Endowment for the Humanities and the MacArthur Foundation. In addition to the printer version, the editors are also designing the new encyclopedia as a multimedia resource with its own Web site and for electronic distribution.

Readers who dip into this massive work will learn that the distinctive signatures of Chicago Bluesmen like Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, and Howlin Wolf relied on guitar and harmonica leads, Mississippi Delta styles of singing and playing, a rhythm section, and electronic amplification. They may also be surprised to discover that, although Ness's Federal Prohibition Agents tapped Capone's phone lines and raided his breweries, the city was far from dry as a result of that great but failed experiment, Prohibition. Ness and his men were an annoyance to Capone but not his undoing. As for the roots of Chicago's success in the stockyard and meatpacking business, it was thanks largely to the city's position at the hub of America’s railroads. Several Union Army contracts for processed pork during the Civil War didn't hurt, either.

When people think of the sweep of Chicago history, they usually conjure up images of the great fire of 1871, the St. Valentine's Day Massacre and the Haymarket Riot, Studs Terkel, the Bears, Michael Jordan and the Bulls, Marshall Field's, Jane Addams, and the Loop. They are all gathered between the covers and among the bytes of this ambitious work, along with many of the unsung history-makers of Chicago: the immigrant communities, the Pullman porters, and the Civil Rights workers.

"There was a certain fascination with the rapid rise of the city, and then with its rapid rebuilding after the fire in 1871," says James Grossman, one of the project's co-editors, and director of the Newberry Library's Dr. William M. Scholl Center for Family and Community History. "It was the most important city between the two coasts as the nation expanded. It's not the geographic middle, but it was where the railroads met. It was seen as a metaphor for the nation's heartland."

Grossman is proud of the way the encyclopedia highlights the relationships between Chicago's history and broader currents in American history. The city epitomized the process of industrialization. It has made distinguished contributions to American music, literature, and arts. And its ethnic diversity captures in microcosm the broad diversity of the national population as a whole.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago History is intended for a broad audience, both academic and general, Grossman says. He and his co-editors, Ann Keating of North Central College and Jan Feiff of UCLA, hope to broaden people's initial questions through the many links that connect one topic to another. "The greatest importance of most things is in regard to how they relate to something else," he says. "Most readers won't necessarily ask those questions on their own. We'll very quickly link them with the larger questions, and push them to ask new questions. That linking, I believe, is the single most valuable feature of this book."

To that end, the work will be extensively cross-referenced. For example, an entry on Martin Luther King, Jr.'s activities in Chicago will direct readers to entries on civil rights, public schools, and real estate. All of these links, Grossman believes, will make the electronic version of the encyclopedia especially exciting to use. "Because we are creating both a traditional print version and an electronic reference tool at the same time, the book will be influenced to a considerable extent by the ways you think in an electronic publication, which emphasizes relationships much more than narrative," he says.

Grossman is also proud of the contribution the encyclopedia will make to the field of urban studies -- itself an endeavor with distinct associations with Chicago, since many of its most famous practitioners were on the faculty at the University of Chicago. "Looking at Chicago as a way of understanding urban development is extremely important to us," Grossman says. "We want readers to understand how cities grow, what urban life is like, and most especially, the ways in which urban life is an integrated process."

One of the most important contributions Chicago has made to culture, Grossman says, is in the study of cities. He hopes the encyclopedia will provide a new foundation for urban research, continuing in the distinguished tradition of the famed Chicago School. "Readers will get a sense of the extent to which Chicago has played a leading role in the production of knowledge about cities," he promises.

Today, Grossman says, "The image of Chicago is a classic of deindustrialization. It's seen as a rust belt city with racial problems, with a certain type of political culture, and it's seen as a city that's cold. Each of those images has some truth and some untruth to it. It's not as cold as a lot of people think. The racial conflicts and antagonisms, while extremely important to an understanding of the city, are not necessarily all that different from what you would find in many other cities. So in each of those cases, there's a certain amount of mythology."

Several myths will be debunked within the pages of the encyclopedia, Grossman says. Readers will find out that Mrs. O'Leary's cow did not start the Great Fire of 1871. They will learn that agriculture was already well established in the Chicago area before Europeans happened upon the scene. They will discover softball's beginnings as an indoor sport. And anyone who cherishes a belief that Fort Dearborn was situated on a bluff will be disappointed. It was located on a marsh—the area has been flat since the last ice age. Other entries are still being written, so readers will surely find many other surprises.

Although living personalities don’t rate their own biographical entries, Grossman agrees it’s not possible to leave some of them out. "Important living people will be plastered throughout,” he explains. “You can't have an encyclopedia of Chicago history without Michael Jordan in it. For example, one of the interpretive essays is on ‘Defining Chicago.’ It talks about the changing image of Chicago in the world. Obviously that essay is going to talk about Michael Jordan. There's an entry on the Bulls, and on sports in Chicago. So there will be lots of places in which people will encounter Michael Jordan."

The encyclopedia begins with an introductory essay giving a history of Chicago. This is followed by more than 1,500 alphabetized entries, ranging from brief overviews to in-depth articles. As many as twenty-five longer, interpretive essays, on topics such as Chicago's economic geography, follow the main entries. A number of maps, many created especially for this volume, are included. Historical statistics and a chronology fill the appendices to round out the volume.

All the articles have been commissioned especially for this work from a mix of academic and popular writers. Some of the well-known contributors include Nicholas Lemann, writing on the Great Society; Garry Wills on Abraham Lincoln in Chicago; and Leon Botstein on Robert Maynard Hutchins. The number of authors and committee members, Grossman says, "should reach four figures."

“We are very consciously building on the experience of other urban encyclopedias and comparable projects,” Grossman acknowledges. “The Encyclopedia of New York was extremely influential for us. It proved that a city even larger than Chicago can accomplish this kind of project and helped us to think about how certain topics might be treated, how certain topics could be combined or split apart. Its editor, Kenneth Jackson, has provided advice and encouragement.

"The Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, which is conceptually innovative, was also very important to us. Its editors thought thematically about the types of questions that had to be asked to understand the South as a region. They did not approach the project in terms of deciding which pieces of information to include in the encyclopedia. Their thinking was integrative, rather than in fragments. Because there already was an Encyclopedia of Southern History, they could liberate themselves from some of the standard historical information and chronologies.

"In many ways our ability to do this really does owe to the fact that others have gone before."

About the Author

Greg Varner is a writer in Washington, D.C.

Funding Information

The Newberry Library received $1,700,000 in grants and matching funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities to produce the print and digital versions of the The Encyclopedia of Chicago History.