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Fall 2012 Seminar

Wild Cities: The Nature of the Modern Metropolis

The Fall 2012 Seminar will examine the history, literature, and geography of the new mega-cities that emerged in the Americas between 1850 and 1950, taking Chicago and Buenos Aires as its point of departure and exploring two distinct but interrelated understandings of what made the modern metropolis “wild.”

  • The first is environmental.  Although seemingly divorced from nature, modern cities developed their own ecology, extracted considerable resources from their natural surroundings, and remained perennially subject to natural disasters.
  • The second is cultural.  Thanks to its colossal size, unstable politics and populations, and artistic dynamism, the modern metropolis came to be seen as a new kind of wilderness, complete with its own distinctive flora — skyscrapers, monuments, factories, parks — and fauna, with workers, bosses, flâneurs, bohemians, street vendors, prostitutes, and neighborhood toughs.

While some at the time feared this new “wild” side of the city, others embraced its creative potential or sought to channel its energy.

During the first half of the semester, the seminar will meet regularly to explore the Newberry’s collections and to discuss common historical and theoretical texts, urban literature, city maps and plans, and popular music — especially tango and jazz.  In the second half of the semester, students will conduct original, extensive research using the Newberry’s multi-disciplinary and cross-cultural resources.  Throughout, faculty and students will examine the role of conversation and debate in shaping scholarly inquiry (framing questions), research (investigation into the sources), and writing (developing conclusions).

The Newberry’s resources

A Map of Chicago’s Gangland from Authentic Sources ([Chicago?]: Bruce-Roberts, Inc., 1931). Map G 10896.548. Courtesy The Newberry Library.  Click here for larger size.

Participants in the Fall 2012 Seminar will find the Newberry Library’s collections endlessly stimulating.  There are vast holdings relating to various aspects of Chicago, including environmental and ecological themes, booster literature and guidebooks, diverse materials on westward expansion, and the personal papers of artists, writers, city planners, and activists.

  • Like Theodore Dreiser, in writing The Titan (1914), students may want to research Charles T. Yerkes, Chicago’s streetcar Czar and the model for Dreiser’s protagonist Frank Cowperwood, offering insight into Chicago’s amazing economic development. 
  • Those of a literary bent can consult the Newberry’s extensive holdings in regional literature, exploring the cultural relationship between hub and frontier tied to this development.  The city’s giddy expansion in the late 19th and early 20th centuries is further illuminated by the Chicago Region Map Collection, along with photographic resources.
  • Popular culture enthusiasts will find a motherload of material in the Driscoll Collection of American Sheet Music.
  • Students interested in the settlement house movement can examine the extensive papers of Graham Taylor, a leading figure in this effort to “tame” the city’s wildness.
  • Those who instead wish to focus their research on Buenos Aires will find plenty of materials relating to their interests in the Edward E. Ayer and William B. Greenlee collections as well as elsewhere.


Brian Bockelman

Ripon College



David Miller

Allegheny College