Where They Went to See the Future: The Story of Chicago in the Nineteenth Century Is the Story of Making of America, Donald L. Miller Says. A New PBS Documentary Based on a Book He Wrote Shows Why

By Allen, Frederick E. | American Heritage, February-March 2003 | Go to article overview

Where They Went to See the Future: The Story of Chicago in the Nineteenth Century Is the Story of Making of America, Donald L. Miller Says. A New PBS Documentary Based on a Book He Wrote Shows Why


Allen, Frederick E., American Heritage


DONALD MILLER HAS NEVER LIVED IN Chicago, and he never thought of writing about it until he started noticing the curious ways its formative years reminded him of the flowering of Renaissance Florence. But once he got immersed in it he produced City of the Century, a sweeping history of the city from its earliest beginnings until after the 1893 world's fair. The book was a prizewinning bestseller. Now WGBH's American Experience series has produced a three-part, four-and-a-half-hour documentary based on it, which just debuted nationally on PBS.

Chicago: City of the Century tells the story of a place that grew from almost nothing into a world metropolis in mere decades and that during those years displayed all the virtues and hazards of being a uniquely American free-for-all. The film was produced, written, and directed by Austin Hoyt, whose previous credits include MacArthur, Reagan, and Carnegie. Miller was the creative consultant and is the most prominent of its many onscreen commentators.

He is the John Henry MacCracken Professor of History at Lafayette College, in Easton, Pennsylvania, where he has taught since 1977. His other books include Lewis Mumford: A Life and The Story of World War II, a revised and expanded version of Henry Steele Commager's classic volume. He has worked on or hosted many other television documentaries, including the 26-part A Biography of America and Abraham and Mary Lincoln: A House Divided. We spoke at his home in Easton about Chicago, his book, the new film, and why he is a historian.

Why Chicago?

I knew when I started the book that it would be a history of not just one city but America, because nineteenth-century Chicago was a raw, new, industrial metropolis cut out of the frontier. It was a product of so many of the forces that created America--westward expansion, commercial and transportation revolutions, the Industrial Revolution, the democratic revolution. They're all right there. That it was a city of world importance came home to me when I was invited to Holland to lecture at Leiden University. The school was presenting a series of lectures on the dozen or so cities that had had the most significance in shaping history. The organizers picked just one American city, Chicago in the nineteenth century; the rest were classics like Rome and Athens. The historians agreed with the nineteenth-century Europeans who looked upon Chicago as the place to go to see the future, where the emerging forces of America were gathering.

And what did the future look like?

People saw the Industrial Revolution in full flush in Chicago. It was a colossus of production and the greatest railroad city in the world. It had mail-order houses that were the incarnation of speed and efficiency. It had sprawling plants like the Pullman works and the stockyards. And its giant corporations spawned giant labor organizations and strikes.

If there's an Adam Smith city, it's Chicago. Smith had two great ideas, economic individualism and the division of labor, and they're both worked out there. We tried to put that into the movie very strongly. Austin Hoyt, the director, said that this was going to be a very fast-paced film. He wanted it to have a restless energy, like the city itself.

The story has a wonderful beginning.

One of the things that first excited me about the city was how it has a real creation myth. Jolliet and Marquette's voyage--their exploration of the Mississippi and their arrival at the future site of Chicago--is an American Aeneid, a thrilling tale of origin and adventure. We don't think of American cities that way. We think of Pilgrims plopping off boats, clearing out the wilderness, and throwing up picture-pretty churches. But Chicago was born in the age of discovery. Louis XIV was the king of France. North America was being settled from north to south, from Canada to the mouth of the Mississippi, not just from east to west.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

Where They Went to See the Future: The Story of Chicago in the Nineteenth Century Is the Story of Making of America, Donald L. Miller Says. A New PBS Documentary Based on a Book He Wrote Shows Why
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.