“Chicago was a swamp hole and a blowhole...”

In The Emigrants, the aspiring settlers have hired "Long" Landberg as interpreter and guide. He will take them as far as Chicago, for which he is not quite a booster.

Landberg said that he intended to leave Chicago as soon as he had performed his duties there. This town was the only place in North America he detested. But it was the gateway to the West, which all travelers must pass through, although most thanked the Lord they could journey farther. Chicago was a swamp hole and a blowhole, built on the low shores of a lake and a river. One the one side was the lake and on the other side the prairie, with no protection against the winds, which blew so intensely that eyebrows and hair were pulled off people's heads. The town had only three decent streets: Chicago Avenue, Kinzie and Clark Streets. Yard-high stumps still stood in the other streets, and almost all the surrounding country was desolate wasteland where cows grazed. The houses were newly built, yet gray, dirty, and unpainted, for the hurricanes blew the paint off the walls. And the whole town stank from the mud and ooze of the swampy shores. Pools of water abounded, filled with crawling snakes and lizards and other horrible creatures. Thirty thousand people lived in Chicago, and of these, several thousand earned their living as runners, robbing immigrants passing through. Grazing was fine in Chicago, and cattle lived well in that town. But honest people, non-runners, could ill endure an extended visit in the place. Landberg thought Chicago would within twenty years become entirely depopulated and obliterated from the face of the earth.

Wow. That's quite the rant. I was hoping for more, but was disappointed when Moberg fast-forwarded past their stopover in Chicago, going straight from their Great Lakes steamboat to the inland waterways. Though Moberg wrote this a hundred years after its mid-1800s time frame, I still would have liked to read his detailed descriptions of the fledgling city.

July 12, 2019 in Books, Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (0)

”...the dark covering of antiquity...”

In what I intend to become an annual tradition, I'm reading Thomas Paine's Common Sense around the 4th of July holiday. Paine abhorred monarchy, but might have abhorred hereditary succession even more:

To the evil of monarchy we have added that of hereditary succession; and as the first is a degradation and lessening of ourselves, so the second, claimed as a matter of right, is an insult and an imposition on posterity.


This (the purported legitimacy of succession) is supposing the present race of kings in the world to have had an honorable origin; whereas it is more than probable, that could we take off the dark covering of antiquity, and trace them to their first rise, that we should find the first of them nothing better than the principal ruffian of some restless gang, whose savage manners or pre-eminence in subtility obtained him the title of chief among plunderers; and who by increasing in power, and extending his depredations, over-awed the quiet and defenceless to purchase their safety by frequent contributions. Yet his electors could have no idea of giving hereditary right to his descendants, because such a perpetual exclusion of themselves was incompatible with the free and unrestrained principles they professed to live by. Wherefore, hereditary succession in the early ages of monarchy could not take place as a matter of claim, but as something casual or complimental; but as few or no records were extant in those days, and traditional history stuffed with fables, it was very easy, after the lapse of a few generations, to trump up some superstitious tale, conveniently timed, Mahomet like, to cram hereditary right down the throats of the vulgar.

Basically, he's saying that even if the present generation of commoners approves (or just grudgingly tolerates) the current king or queen, it's unfair to force the royal heirs on future generations. Although that king or queen may be decent, their child or grandchild might turn out to be an relentless tyrant once they take the throne.

I like Paine's "dark covering of antiquity", which hides or smoothes out the dishonorable or even criminal behaviors of one's forebears. Years ago I toyed with the concept of a story - long ago abandoned - about a grade school student writing a paper about one of her ancestors (depicted as a wholesome founding father/pillar of the community type) who, in reality and unbeknownst to the student, first got rich as a horse thief. We usually look back on our ancestors with reverence, but who knows what sort of scoundrels they might have actually been?

July 5, 2019 in Books, History | Permalink | Comments (0)


“Time makes more converts than reason.” - Thomas Paine

July 4, 2019 in Books, Current Affairs | Permalink | Comments (0)

“...the most extended churchyard in the world...”

In The Emigrants, Captain Christian Lorentz soberly reflects on burials at sea:

These peasants often feared death at sea, because of the final resting place - they wanted to be put in consecrated ground, and the ocean was not consecrated. But they were caught in deep superstition: the water where so many good seamen had found their graves ought to be a good enough resting place for the wretched land-rats.

Perhaps the wife Inga-Lena Andersdotter had died, too, in fear of the unconsecrated burial place of the ocean. Her forty years she had lived on solid ground, bending over the earth in her potato furrows and barley fields, poking in pens and manure piles, tramping between byre and barn. Yet she would find rest in the sea, in the most extended churchyard in the world, where nothing marked the graves. She would not be registered anywhere - she was an emigrant who failed to reach her destination, a wanderer in the world.

I've finished The Emigrants, and just started the second volume, Unto a Good Land. After a rough ten-week sea voyage, the emigrants have arrived in New York, as a way station to the Midwest. (That "wretched land-rats" term is pretty harsh, and maybe an error of translation - the opening pages of the second volume show that the Captain actually cares for his passengers, and really goes out of his way to help them.)

July 2, 2019 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)


“A good novel tells us the truth about its hero; but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author.” - G.K. Chesterton

June 28, 2019 in Books | Permalink | Comments (0)

“I intend to keep bossing others around."

I enjoyed this 2008 profile of Wanda Kurek, proprietor of Stanley’s, the last remnant of Whiskey Row, in Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood.

”If I quit I'll be like all those old ladies sitting there with their mouths open," she says. "That ain't gonna happen to me. No way. I don't intend to quit. I intend to keep bossing others around."  

Kurek recently passed away, at age 95. But the bar will continue on, which I’m sure is what she wanted.

June 26, 2019 in Chicago Observations | Permalink | Comments (0)

“...dead, earth-bound things...”

In The Emigrants, Karl Oskar Nilsson is leaving his family farm in Sweden with his wife Kristina and their young children, headed for America. His parents Nils and Marta will remain behind, clinging to tradition, unwilling and unable to brave the unknown dangers of the New World.

Karl Oskar could not see either of his parents make the slightest movement. As they stood there on the stoop, looking after the wagon, they seemed to him as still and immobile as dead, earth-bound things, as a pair of high stones in the field or a couple of tree trunks in the forest, deeply rooted in the ground. It was as if they had assumed that position once and for all, and intended to hold it forever. And as he saw them in the half-mist, this early morning, so they were forever to return to his mind: Mother and Father, standing quietly together on the stoop, looking after a cart driving through the gate and onto the road and after a minute disappearing among the junipers at the bend. In that place and at that position his parents would always remain in his mind. After many years he would still see them standing there, close together, looking out on the road, immobile objects, two human sculptures in stone.

Kristina did not mention to Karl Oskar that she had happened to hear a remark by Nils as the wagon was ready to depart: "I must go outside and behold my sons' funeral procession."

June 21, 2019 | Permalink | Comments (2)

Fading Ad: Laundry


This ad was revealed after a recent demolition in Champaign, IL. I can’t read the name of the company at the top, but I like the command: “SEND YOUR LAUNDRY / SEND YOUR CLEANING.” (There’s also another “SEND...” just below, but it was obscured by electrical equipment.) 712 S. Sixth Street, Champaign. 

June 14, 2019 in Photography | Permalink | Comments (3)

“...we would do poetry a favor..."

During a long-ago panel discussion involving Robert Duncan, Philip Levine and an unnamed third poet, the latter bemoaned those who didn't embrace poetry, believing they lacked any sense of beauty or even a reason for being. Duncan disagreed, saying:

"Some people do not twig to poetry, they may be inspired by things others don't care for - the operas of Wagner, the novels of Proust, the ballets of Merce Cunningham, the stories of Katherine Mansfield, the philosophical writing of Schopenhauer, the paintings of Francis Bacon. Perhaps they love the beauty of design, of Tiffany vases or of machinery, V-8 engines or drop forges. I think we would do poetry a favor if we stopped trying to shove it down the throats of those for whom it has no connection or resonance. But don't forget, if absolutely nothing turns you on, stirs you body and soul, you are in trouble."

I appreciate Duncan's sentiment, and especially his inclusion of "V-8 engines or drop forges" as objects worthy of aesthetic admiration. And I respect the warning he delivered in that final sentence.

(Quoted from Levine's My Lost Poets: A Life in Poetry.)

June 10, 2019 in Art, Books | Permalink | Comments (3)



I made this really cool find yesterday: the 1964 Avon edition of Brendan Behan’s Borstal Boy. Check out those rounded corners! I’ve never seen those before. The book was already on my list, it was priced at a ridiculously cheap $2, and it came from Open Books so the money’s going to a good cause. Buying it was an easy decision.

June 8, 2019 in Books | Permalink | Comments (1)