The Burning of the World: The Great Chicago Fire and the War for a City's Soul (Hardcover)
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The enthralling story of the Great Chicago Fire and the power struggle over the city’s reconstruction in the wake of the tragedy
In October of 1871, Chicagoans knew they were due for the “big one”—a massive, uncontrollable fire that would decimate the city. There hadn’t been a meaningful rain since July, and several big blazes had nearly outstripped the fire department’s scant resources. On October 8, when Kate Leary’s barn caught fire, so began a catastrophe that would forever change the soul of the city.
Leary was a diligent, hardworking Irish woman, no more responsible for the fire than anyone else in the city at that time. But the conflagration that spread from her property quickly overtook the neighborhood, and before too long the floating embers had spread to the far reaches of the city. Families took to the streets with everything they could carry. Grain towers threatened to blow. The Chicago River boiled. Over the course of the next forty-eight hours, Chicago saw the biggest and most destructive disaster the United States had ever endured, and Leary would be its scapegoat.
Out of the ashes rose not just new skyscrapers, tenements, and homes, but also a new political order. The city’s elite saw an opportunity to rebuild on their terms, cracking down on crime and licentiousness and fortifying a business-friendly environment. But the city’s working class recognized a naked power grab that would challenge their traditions, hurt their chances of rebuilding, and move power out of elected officials’ hands and into private interests. As quickly as the firefight ended, another battle for the future of the city began between the town’s business elites and the poor and immigrant working class.
An enrapturing account of the fire’s devastating path and an eye-opening look at its aftermath, The Burning of the World tells the story of one of the most infamous calamities in history and the powerful transformation that followed.
About the Author
Born and raised in the Twin Cities, SCOTT W. BERG holds a BA in architecture from the University of Minnesota, an MA from Miami University of Ohio, and an MFA in creative writing from George Mason University, where he now teaches writing and literature. He is the author of Grand Avenues: The Story of Pierre Charles L’Enfant, the French Visionary Who Designed Washington, D.C. and 38 Nooses: Lincoln, Little Crow, and the Beginning of the Frontier's End.
“[A] fascinating account of the disastrous fire . . . detailed and often thrilling. . . . Through brilliant miniature biographies . . . he gives us a feel for the history and culture being consumed by the flames and the seeds of conflict that will flower after the flames are extinguished. . . . The Burning of the World is an absorbing story, and Berg, clearly a lover of rowdy Chicago, tells it well.”
—Bookpage (starred review)
“Do we need another one of these? Yes—when it’s this cleanly told, alternating familiar anecdotes with a smart focus on the uneasy class and moral questions that later defined a smoldering city.”
“A brilliantly detailed account of the fire, filled with literary color.”
“Few urban calamities are as deeply embedded in our national consciousness as Chicago’s great inferno of 1871, yet our understanding of the disaster has largely been bound up in legend and lore. The Burning of the World tells us what really happened. Scott W. Berg brilliantly captures the stark devastation and heartbreak Chicagoans suffered that dreadful autumn, but also shows us how a vigorous new metropolis improbably rose from the heaps of ashes by the lake.”
—Hampton Sides, New York Times best-selling author of On Desperate Ground
“Intricately researched and written with passion,this inspiring book is not just the story of a majordisaster but is also a celebration of the America spirit—innovative, resourceful, and resilient, capable of risingphoenix-like from the ashes of calamity.”
—Joan Druett, author of Island of the Lost: An Extraordinary Story of Survival at the End of the World
“In this splendid history, Scott Berg captures in all its chaotic intensity the fiery apocalypse that nearly destroyed post-Civil War America’s most turbulent city. In vivid, cinematic prose, he brings to life the human fabric of Chicago’s multitudes, high and low, from swaggering commercial potentates, to the toiling immigrant poor, to jockeying politicians. In the process, he also delivers a masterful anatomy of the interplay between Gilded Age wealth and political power that relentlessly shaped the city as it strove to reinvent itself from its ruins.”
—Fergus M. Bordewich, author of Klan War: Ulysses S. Grant and the Battle to Save Reconstruction
“First of all, it was Mrs. Leary’s cow, not Mrs. O’Leary’s, and the unfortunate animal was probably innocent in any case. But that’s just one of the misconceptions about the Great Chicago Fire dispelled in this carefully researched but supremely readable book. Berg gives us a vivid, incisive, and politically astute account of what he calls ‘a disaster for the ages,’ elucidating the many extraordinary twists and surprising outcomes that qualified the fire as, yes, a tragic catastrophe, ‘but also a wonder.’ ”
—Gary Krist, author of The Mirage Factory: Illusion, Imagination, and the Invention of Los Angeles
“In this vivid and immersive history, Berg (38 Nooses) describes the Great Fire that devastated Chicago in October 1871. As Berg traces the battles between public and private interests that played out in the years after the fire, he astutely observes how the city was transformed into "a hothouse of populist democracy," with the ever-growing working-class immigrant population, enraged by elite overreach, joining together as a unified voting bloc. This impressively researched account fascinates.”
“A complex, capably narrated history of the 1871 fire that remade Chicago. . . . In the end, [the city’s elites’] remaking of Chicago helped shape the form of the modern city—architecturally stunning but also sharply segregated by class and race. . . . A strong contribution to the history of not just the fire, but urban America generally.”
“Berg does an excellent job narrating the events of those terrible days. . . . Berg’s history is a comprehensive, empathetic look at a great catastrophe and the uniquely American response to tragedy.”