↑ Reading ↑


The following are mini-reviews of books I read in 2023.
Also see the full index of books I've read.

  [Book cover]

The Web of Life

by Robert Herrick (1868-1938) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1900)

If you search the web — no pun intended! — for "Robert Herrick", you'll have to sift through the numerous results for the 17th-century poet Robert Herrick (Wikipedia) to find the few or fewer references to the novelist Robert Herrick. You have been warned!

Set in mid-1890s Chicago during the Pullman Strike and immediately after the Chicago World's Fair, The Web of Life, within its story and through the eyes of Dr. Sommers, examines the contrast between the rich and powerful and the not-rich and not-powerful. The national Panic of 1893 had greatly depressed the economy of Chicago as well as the rest of the country. As orders for Pullman railway passenger cars dropped, Pullman "laid off workers and lowered wages", but did not lower the rents and other expenses charged to the workers in the company town, Pullman, Chicago; workers who attempted to move out of the company town for cheaper lodgings were fired. In the spring of 1894, the Pullman workers went on strike and this Pullman Strike quickly expanded into a nationwide strike by the American Railway Union. The strike ended in late July 1894, but the workers did not fare well.

Chicago hosted the World's Columbian Exposition (or World's Fair) of 1892-1893. The Fair was a great success. As Wikipedia says, "The exposition was an influential social and cultural event and had a profound effect on American architecture, the arts, American industrial optimism, and Chicago's image."

Because many of its buildings were spray painted white (a relatively new technique for painting), the Court of Honor at the Chicago's World Fair became known as "The White City" (Wikipedia) and inspired the line, "Thine alabaster cities gleam ...", in the fourth verse of "America the Beautiful" (Wikipedia) by Katharine Lee Bates, originally published as a poem, "Pikes Peak", in 1895. A literature professor, Bates attended the fair on her way out to a temporary teaching position in Colorado, hence the title, "Pikes Peak" (the "purple mountain majesties" in the poem). The poem was revised in 1904 and again, to its final form, in 1911. The original "halcyon skies" became "spacious skies" and, oddly to me, the chorus (?) in the third verse:

America, America!
God shed His grace on thee
Till selfish gain no longer stain,
The banner of the free!


America! America!
May God thy gold refine,
Till all success be nobleness,
And every gain divine!

The poem/song had no influence on Herrick's 1900 novel and vice versa, but I was struck by how the evolution of this verse ran counter to Herrick's attempt to castigate the power and greed exhibited by Chicago's powerful and greedy. Again, this tenuous connection between the poem and book was formed solely in my mind because the two publications had the Chicago World's Fair in common. I should add that Katharine Lee Bates herself was an outspoken advocate for social reform throughout her life (Wikipedia).

Anyway, back to The Web of Life. In Chapter 19, Dr. Sommers and Mrs. Preston watch the alabaster city gleam again — this time with fire — on July 4, 1894. This was the third of three major fires in 1894 that burned almost all of the World's Fair site to the ground; the first and second fires were in January and February of that year, respectively. The imposing edifices were only temporary by design and effectively built of wood and plaster (see "Word of the book" staff below), so this end was perhaps not unforeseen.

With the detail in Chapter 19, I was able to follow some of Dr. Sommers' and Mrs. Preston's movements on a Bird's Eye View of Chicago World's Fair. For example, here's a clip from the picture showing the Court of Honor surrounding the green-lined Grand Basin. At the bottom end of the basin are the Peristyle columns and arch and, in the water, the Statue of the Republic. Dr. Sommers and Mrs. Preston observed the columns burning from the opposite end of the basin (upper left).

I enjoyed the story and the writing and exploring the history that played such a big part in the book. Dr. Sommers recognizes the absurdity of the differences between the social classes and between the economic classes and tries to follow the path of doing what's right. The Wikipedia entry for the author characterizes the tone of Herrick's writing as "melancholic fatalism", which seems an apt description of the fictional Dr. Sommers' thinking as well.

Words of the book:

Also see this 1993 article by Garry Wills, "Chicago Underground", a review of some more recent histories of turn-of-the-century Chicago and which, in the process, references The Web of Life and other contemporary books.

Project Gutenberg eBook: The Web of Life

  [Book cover]

El Niño in History: Storming Through the Ages

by César N. Caviedes (pub. 2001)


  [Book cover]

The William Hope Hodgson Megapack

by William Hope Hodgson (1877-1918) (Wikipedia) (pub. 2014, introduction by Darrell Schweitzer)


  [Book cover]

Humble Pi: A Comedy of Maths Errors

by Matt Parker (Wikipedia) (pub. 2019)

(Also published as Humble Pi: When Math Goes Wrong in the Real World. Perhaps that is the later U.S. edition since "maths" kind of grates on American language sensibilities!)

  [Book cover]

A Child of the Jago

by Arthur Morrison (1863-1945) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1896)

Also see "A Child of the Jago, by Arthur Morrison" at Bobby Seal's Psychogeographic Review.

Project Gutenberg eBook: A Child of the Jago

Alex Measday  /  E-mail