The Burning of the World: The Great Chicago Fire and the War for a City's Soul (Hardcover)

The Burning of the World: The Great Chicago Fire and the War for a City's Soul By Scott W. Berg Cover Image

The Burning of the World: The Great Chicago Fire and the War for a City's Soul (Hardcover)


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WINNER OF THE MIDLAND AUTHORS AWARD FOR HISTORY • LONGLISTED FOR THE ANDREW CARNEGIE MEDAL FOR EXCELLENCE • A NEW YORKER BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR • The "illuminating" (New Yorker) story of the Great Chicago Fire: a raging inferno, a harrowing fight for survival, and the struggle for the soul of a city—told with the "the clarity—and tension—of a well-wrought military narrative" (Wall Street Journal)

In the fall of 1871, Chicagoans knew they were due for the “big one”—a massive, uncontrollable fire that would decimate the city. It had been bone-dry for months, and a recent string of blazes had nearly outstripped the fire department’s already scant resources. Then, on October 8, a minor fire broke out in the barn of Irishwoman Kate Leary. A series of unfortunate mishaps and misunderstandings along with insufficient preparation and a high south-westerly wind combined to set the stage for an unmitigated catastrophe.
     The conflagration that spread from the Learys' property quickly overtook the neighborhood, and before long the floating embers had been cast to the far reaches of the city. Nothing to the northeast was safe. Families took to the streets with every possession they could carry. Powerful gusts whipped the flames into a terrifying firestorm. The Chicago River boiled. Over the next forty-eight hours, Chicago fell victim to the largest and most destructive natural disaster the United States had yet endured.
     The effects of the Great Fire were devastating. But they were also transforming. Out of the ashes, faster than seemed possible, rose new homes, tenements, hotels, and civic buildings, as well as a new political order. The elite seized the reconstruction to crack down on vice, control the disbursement of vast charitable funds, and rebuild the city in their image. But the city’s working class recognized only a naked power grab that would challenge their traditions, hurt their chances to keep their hard-earned property, and move power out of the hands of elected officials and into private interests. As soon as the battle against the fire ended, another battle for the future of the city erupted between its entrenched business establishment and its poor and immigrant laborers and shopkeepers.
     An enrapturing account of the fire’s inexorable march 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 new Chicago it precipitated—a disaster that still shapes American cities to this day.
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.
Product Details ISBN: 9780804197847
ISBN-10: 0804197849
Publisher: Pantheon
Publication Date: September 26th, 2023
Pages: 464
Language: English
Winner of the Midland Authors Award for History
Longlisted for the Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction

“A fine book. . . . This was all long ago, and a fire’s track tends to be amorphous. So it is particularly impressive how closely Mr. Berg is able to plot this one’s early progress, which he does with the clarity—and tension—of a well-wrought military narrative. . . . As vivid as Mr. Berg’s depiction of the fire is, his description of its aftermath is fascinating as well.” 
The Wall Street Journal
“All that imagery of destruction, retribution, and rebirth could obscure circumstances that were often deeply, grubbily—and fascinatingly—political, as Scott W. Berg shows in his illuminating new book. . . . The Chicago fire turns out to be a rich case study not only in urban history and the sociology of catastrophe but in how people choose to remember their collective past. . . . [Berg offers] some vivid set pieces. I won’t soon forget his description of the doomed effort to put out an edition of the Chicago Tribune when the city was in flames. . . . Like the stickiness of Mrs. Leary’s bad rap, the political ramifications of the fire were both unpredictable and long-lasting. Berg is particularly sharp on this theme.” 
The New Yorker

“Propulsive. . . . An engrossing account of one of the greatest catastrophes in American history. . . . Berg’s storytelling is vivid and visceral. . . . Along the way, Berg also explodes long-lived myths. . . . Berg’s eye for detail and character, combined with his skill at creating scenes, make these chapters, too, riveting and absorbing. This topnotch, eye-opening history proves that the Great Fire shaped and reinvented Chicago in myriad ways, and long after the last embers had been extinguished.” 
Washington Independent Review of Books

“Berg follows the blaze in cinematic detail, weaving first-person accounts of the fire, with a history of the city and its notable personalities based on the fire’s path. . . . The question of how history is made and whose history survives underlies the book. The Burning of the World is a vivid, character driven history that illuminates the political machinations of the time, along with the spirit and culture of the city and how it viewed itself in this era.” 
Chicago Review of Books

“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.” 
Chicago Tribune

“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

“[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)

“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.” 
Publishers Weekly

“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.”
—Kirkus Reviews

“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.”