June 12, 2013

My Kind of Town: "Memoirs of an American Citizen" by Robert Herrick

My Kind of Town: A CCLaP essay series

(Once a month throughout 2013 and '14, CCLaP critic Travis Fortney is reading a series of classic and contemporary books set in Chicago, not only to understand his new adopted hometown better, but to learn more about the origins and nature of the so-called "Chicago Way." For a longer introduction to this series, please click here, or visit here for the complete list.)

Memoirs of an American Citizen
By Robert Herrick
Macmillan, 394 pages, illustrated

Memoirs of an American Citizen by Robert Herrick is story of a young man named E.V. "Van" Harrington, who arrives in Chicago in September of 1876, five years after the Great Fire of 1871. The book covers Van's rise over the next quarter century, a period of hectic growth in the city of Chicago. Today, it's much harder to imagine the son or daughter of a poor farmer from, say, rural Indiana or Iowa, arriving in the city without any money or education and rising to the pinnacle of the business community, but Memoirs is the kind of breezy late Victorian novel where fate plays a heavy role in our young narrator's life, plot twists happen every ten or twenty pages, and the characters are larger than life. Despite the book's flaws--it can't really be read seriously today because of the way women are portrayed--it makes for wonderful entertainment and can perhaps even provide some insight into the city Chicago has become more than a century later.

Van Harrington's rise in the novel goes like this: He arrives in Chicago "a tramp from Indiana...with only a few cents in my pockets." On his first night as a "homeless wanderer" he is stirred up from the eaves of the wooden building where he has made his bed and meets a "tramp companion" named Ed who's looking for an aunt who runs a boarding house. Van and Ed make camp together in the rail yards by the lake and the next morning wander the city looking for work. When they haven't had any luck that afternoon, they make their way into a saloon intent on pilfering enough "crackers and saltfish" from the counter to fill their bellies. There they meet a hustler who looks them up and down, buys them two rounds of beers, and tells them he knows where to find work. The hustler leads them to a large department store, where he proceeds to steal an unsuspecting woman's purse. Van is left to take the blame. He's arrested and jailed, and the next morning at the hearing tells the judge the story of his fall from grace in Indiana. "I think you have told me an honest story," the judge says. He orders him released and tosses him a dollar from his pocket. And from there, Van's meteoric rise has begun.

After his release from jail, Ed finds him. He's located his aunt "Ma" Pierson, who runs a boarding house on State Street. Now Van has a roof over his head, and Ed's cousin helps them find work at a general store called The Enterprise Market. The Enterprise, which is being run poorly, buys groceries from a supplier called Dround's. When the grocery's bankruptcy is imminent, Van jumps ship and goes to work for Dround's.

Dround's is essentially meatpacking operation, and meatpacking is how Van makes his fortune, but we never see the operation from the inside. The Chicago meatpacking industry that was exposed in Upton Sinclair's The Jungle in 1906, only a year after this book was published, is here just another example of glorious American progress. One gets a sense that Mr. Herrick's view of the world is almost Randian. The spirit of the book is that America's best days are ahead, and a new breed of businessman is needed to push the country to greater and greater heights. Shortly after Van begins work at Dround's he has the following epiphany: "Suddenly, a meaning to it all came to me like a great light. The strong must rule: The world was for the strong. It was the act of an idiot to deny that truth. Yes, life was for the strong, all there was in it! I saw it so then, and I have lived it so all my life." As you might have guessed, in the world of the book, "the strong" play by the rules when the rules suit them.

Memoirs takes its most interesting turn when Van is working his way up through the ranks at his new employer. Henry Iverson Dround, the proprietor of the meatpacking plant, is a "tall, dignified gentleman" whose employees think him "haughty", but who nonetheless posesses "a high reputation in the city at large for honorable dealing and public spirit." Dround is juxtaposed against big John Carmichael, his chief lieutenant, an Irish immigrant with a brash demeanor who isn't above cutting a few corners and twisting a few arms in order to make a profit. Mr. Herrick's treatment of the characters is clearly meant to suggest that Mr. Dround's way of doing business belongs to a bygone era, while Carmichael's tactics are the way of the future. The narrator tells us that he prefers Carmichael's way of doing things--bribes, illegal agreements with other packers, illegal rebates, kickbacks from the city, etc.-- to "Mr. Dound's college talk." Dround remains willfully ignorant of the goings on within his business, while Carmichael attends to "everything of importance"--that is, everything illegal. Things come to a head between them when Dround is interrupted during a speech he is giving at a charity luncheon and accused of entering into an illegal agreement with the city to lay a new switchtrack--Dround knows nothing about it, and he confronts Carmichael, who admits that he "paid the right people" to get the switchtrack laid and leaves in a huff, telling Dround that he won't stand by while the older man goes broke on "college talk and prin-ci-ples." Carmichael then goes to work for Dround's chief rival, Strauss. When Dround approaches Van and offers him Carmichael's old job, Van gives his boss an ultimatum. He will stay, but only if he can do business his way--that is, Carmichael's way, what we all think of now as the Chicago way.

Readng Memoirs today, it seems almost quaint that this way of doing business would make anyone so uneasy. But Van must keep his dealings secret from his even wife. Mr. Dround is so bothered by the means they must use to make a profit that he goes permanently abroad, leaving Van in charge of the business. When Van's brother and his brother's wife arrive from Indiana, they are so appalled by the mere suggestion that Van might have bribed a judge that they would rather live in poverty and near starvation than take a penny of Van's charity.

It's interesting that while Sinclair's The Jungle is a greater classic than Herrick's novel, it's undeniable that Herrick's vision more closely matches the truth about what Chicago actually became. We might not like it, but today we take it for granted that private business interests are represented by public officials. In Chicago especially, we assume that wheels are being greased, favors handed out, contracts traded like currency--so much so that it's hard to imagine a time when a choice as to whether to play by those rules or not could be dramatized. It's seems almost fanciful to think that the business world was once dominated by gentlemen like poor Henry Iverson Dround, who believed in the virtues of a level playing field. In Memoirs of an American Citizen Mr. Herrick seems to suggest that this new, immoral way of doing business was born in Chicago. I doubt that's true-- humans have been cheating one another ever since it became within one person's power to possess more property than the other--but I will leave the question of whether Chicago is prone to some special form of corruption open to exploration in future reviews in this series.

As for our hero Van Harrington, I will leave his fate unanswered here, so that if readers want to seek out this forgotten novel and discover its many pleasures for themselves, there will be surprises to be had. I will say though that Herrick's thesis is that the strong are the ones who are to inherit the Earth, and one of the virtues of "the strong" is a deviousness that Van Harrington possesses in spades.

Read even more about Memoirs of an American Citizen: Official site | GoodReads | Wikipedia

Filed by Travis Fortney at 6:12 PM, June 12, 2013. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews | Travis Fortney |