|Gary Krist, photo by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders|
Gary Krist is the author of five works of fiction and two of non-fiction. His most recent book is City of Scoundrels: The 12 Days of Disaster That Gave Birth to Modern Chicago. He lives in Bethesda, Maryland.
Q: How did you come to focus on the particular time period you examine in City of Scoundrels, and what was the most important impact on Chicago to come out of those 12 crucial days?
A: I wanted to write about a great American city at a critical moment of transition. The evolution of any city, particularly a city of immigrants like Chicago, invariably involves lots of conflict, with various ethnic, racial, and class-based groups competing against each other for power and prominence.
When things are going well, this kind of competition can work to the city’s advantage, channeling energies in constructive new directions. But 1919 was one of those times when the energies of competition turned destructive, and instead of working to build the city, started tearing it apart. That notion—of a city suddenly threatened by the same restless dynamism that had built it in the first place—is what attracted me to this period.
Probably the most important impact left by those 12 days of conflict was the changed racial landscape of the city. The riot—really the first one in which African Americans aggressively fought back when attacked by whites—marked a moment of arrival for black citizens in Chicago as a political and social force to be reckoned with.
The violence on the streets actually galvanized the African-American community to finally stand up to discrimination and assert their rights as American citizens. On the other hand, the bitterness left by the riot also ended up hardening the color line that had been developing in the city during the Great Migration, and left a legacy of residential segregation in Chicago that persists to this day.
Q: Chicago's then-mayor, William Hale Thompson, was a controversial character, whom you describe as "the blustering, flamboyant, unscrupulous, but always entertaining political phenomenon known to all as 'Big Bill.'" What is Thompson's place in Chicago history?
A: Corruption existed in Chicago long before Big Bill and continues long after him, but few American politicians have matched his record of dishonesty and malfeasance. Thompson’s various buffooneries—from his campaign debate against two caged rats to his well-publicized threats to punch the King of England in the snoot—all made him an object of some well-deserved scorn. In fact, historians generally regard him as one of the worst urban mayors in American history.
But while he definitely was no Fiorello LaGuardia, I argue in the book that he did have some virtues. For one thing, he was one of the first American mayors to bring African Americans into the political process in significant numbers. Granted, this was partly self-serving—he and his campaign managers realized, before virtually anyone else, that blacks could be a powerful voting bloc.
But Thompson actually did fulfill many of his campaign promises to the community—doubling the number of African Americans on the police force and naming black leaders to some important posts in his administration. And this was at a time when many self-styled good-government types were ignoring the black community.
Also, as someone who called himself “Big Bill the Builder,” he really did get a lot of infrastructure-building done in his three terms. Many of the monuments that make Chicago such an architectural showplace today—the Michigan Avenue Bridge and the Magnificent Mile it made possible, Navy Pier, Soldier Field, the numerous broad avenues and parks—are to a large extent legacies of the Thompson administration, as corrupt as it was.
As one of Big Bill’s critics once admitted: “Thompsonism does build roads and bridges, even if they cost more than they should.”
Q: Your previous book, The White Cascade, examines a deadly avalanche and railway disaster in 1910. How did you conduct your research for this book?
A: Since I’m a narrative historian—with an obligation to keep general readers interested and turning pages—my goal is to tell the stories of history in as concrete a way as possible, with plenty of scenes of conflict and interpersonal drama.
But since I try to hold myself to very strict standards of scholarship, I of course can’t make anything up. That means I have to find those scenes in the written historical record, which is why I’m always on the lookout for memoirs, letters, court transcripts, newspaper interviews—any kind of source in which a participant in the drama tells exactly what happened when and how.
For the avalanche story, there was fortunately a court case that included hundreds of pages of depositions and testimony from victims and witnesses. I also found a day-by-day diary that had been kept by one of the passengers, and a long letter written by another passenger to his mother (both documents were found in the wreckage of the railway train after the avalanche).
Of course, I had to read extensively in the secondary literature as well—about everything from avalanche science to railroad history—but it was mostly in the primary sources that I found the specific details necessary to bring the whole story to life.
Q: You also have written three novels and two collections of short stories. Do you prefer writing either non-fiction or fiction, and if so, why?
A: As you point out, my work so far has been all over the map. I started my writing career with two collections of literary short stories, moved on to two thrillers, published a comic historical novel, and then turned to historical nonfiction narrative with my last two books. From a branding perspective, then, I’ve mismanaged my career terribly!
But the various forms and genres I’ve worked in are not really as different as you might think. I’ve always considered myself in the narrative business, whether the narrative is fiction or nonfiction, short-form or long-form. And although I’ll probably return to fiction at some point, for the foreseeable future I’m sticking with my current obsession with history.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m working on a book about New Orleans in the 1890-1920 era. I’ll be focusing on a thirty-year conflict pitting the city’s social and commercial elite against the members of its various demimondes—prostitutes, jazz musicians, ethnic criminals, etc.
Basically, it’s the story of how the white establishment in New Orleans tried to “normalize” the city, to bring it more into line with Southern Protestant ideals of morality, racial hierarchy, and civic order. Obviously, things didn’t work out quite as the reformers had hoped, which is why New Orleans today remains pretty much sui generis.
But for a while, at least, they successfully suppressed much of what made the city unique and hard to control. So the new book will be another story about a great American city in transition, which seems to be my favorite subject these days.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb