In The Burning of the World, author Scott W. Berg details the enthralling story of the Great Chicago Fire and the power struggle over the city’s reconstruction in the wake of the tragedy. We had the chance to ask him some questions about his inspiration for writing the book, and we also got the insider scoop on his favorite thing about Chicago!
Reading Group Center: What inspired your interest in researching and writing about the Great Chicago Fire?
Scott W. Berg: I’ve been in love with and fascinated by Chicago for more than fifty years now–since I was very young. This book represents a coming-together of that love and two other interests of mine. I’m drawn to the Reconstruction Era as it played out in regions of America outside of the South. My first two books, Grand Avenues, and 38 Nooses, feature that period. I’m also drawn to the stories of disasters, particularly their aftermaths. At George Mason University, I’ve taught two different courses on the literature of Hurricane Katrina, and as part of all that reading and teaching (novels, histories, documentary films, poetry, journalism, etc.) I noticed remarkable similarities between the story of New Orleans in 2005 and 2006 and the story of Chicago in the years 1871 to 1874, after the Great Fire. The more I dug, the more I discovered familiar patterns, personalities, and politics. That connection provided the first spark of my investigation.
RGC: What’s the biggest impact that the fire had on Chicago?
SWB: The response to the Great Fire—more specifically, the Yankee business establishment’s determination to use the excuse of the fire to clamp down on the poor and foreign laborers in the city—created a new political consciousness and coordination that created and eventually cemented Chicago’s reputation as a place built on the big shoulders of its brawling, boisterous, and uncompromising working class. There’s a line in the Chicago Tribune from 1872 that refers to the post-fire rise of the city’s poor and foreign as “a concentrated eruption of what was sought to be repressed” (I quote it twice it the book) and that’s exactly right.
RGC: Is there anything you learned in your research for The Burning of the World that surprised you?
SWB: Just about everything surprised me. But perhaps what surprised me most is just how politically fluid and dynamic Chicago was in this moment just before the Great Fire, before its many shifting factions solidified into two, capital and labor. In many ways, the city of Chicago operated outside of national politics and played by rules of its own that were sometimes very difficult to sort out and sometime downright mysterious. Reading through four years’ worth of the city’s Common Council proceedings was a fascinating and byzantine experience, often like reading another language altogether.
RGC: As the frequency of large-scale disasters like wildfires increases every year, are there any takeaways you hope readers gain from The Burning of the World about responding to and rebuilding from disasters?
SWB: One thing readers might take away from the book is an understanding that the response to disaster too often uses disaster as a pretext for the enactment of other pre-existing agendas. “Never let a good crisis go to waste” is a cogent summary of the general attitude of too many of the city’s leaders in the wake of the Great Fire—a kind of “now’s our chance” reaction that largely ignored the real issues facing the city. As well, as 21st-century disasters become more frequent and more difficult to ascribe to immediate, local causes, I worry that we’ll lose our ability to respond to—and more importantly, to learn from—our escalating calamities.
RGC: Do you have any personal connections to Chicago? If so, what’s your favorite thing about the city?
SWB: My very favorite thing about Chicago is the Chicago dog, specifically as served by Chicago’s Dog House on West Fullerton. But to take a wider view: growing up in the Twin Cities, a seven hours’ drive away, Chicago was always our Manhattan: big, sprawling, intense, gritty, magical. Then, as an architecture student at the University of Minnesota, I was part of a week-long tour of Chicago’s architectural landmarks, with an emphasis on the works of Frank Lloyd Wright. We stayed in the Palmer House; we took private tours of about two dozen buildings, including several Wright designs, Louis Sullivan’s Auditorium Building, the Sears Tower (as it was known then), and many others; and in the process I fell even more in love with the city, which I’ve often visited since. It is one of the world’s great urban places—something it knows without my saying so, but I’m saying it anyways.