September 3, 1982

If Christ Came to Chicago!

Part 5: What Would Christ Do in Chicago?

“Unless civilization is a mistake and Christianity a delusion, monogamy is the ideal toward which our race is tending. In the future, adultery and fornication will be regarded as almost as inconceivable as incest.”

—from If Christ Came to Chicago!, published by William T. Stead in 1894 and republished in the Reader in 1981-82. [sept 3]


The Reader was a purring journalistic organism by 1982. The ads paid the freight, the listings commanded the readership, and the editorial staff was free to act on any whimsy that struck someone as a good idea. Should the Reader republish William T. Stead’s If Christ Came to Chicago!? Why not? Stead’s book was a local classic few Chicagoans had heard of, much less read. We could fix that.

A muckraking British journalist, Stead came to Chicago in 1893 in search of evil and found it. He was a fierce but wise social critic; if time has not fulfilled his lofty hopes for monogamy, perhaps it’s simply that the human race can no more risk tending toward its ideals than the earth can approaching the sun it circles and cannot exist without.

Another Stead quote:

The overcrowding of the cars is little less than a public scandal. The city railway companies have plenty of cars, and plenty of power, for the cables run just the same whether there are few cars on the line or many, but in order to save conductors’ salaries they cynically compel one-half of the traveling public of Chicago to travel without seats. A Chicago rail car at the rush time . . . is a sight not easily forgotten. Every seat is filled and all the space between the seats is choked with a crowded mass of humanity. The unlucky individuals are holding on by a strap from the roof. At the platform at each end of the car a crowd is hanging on by its eyelids as thick as bees when they are swarming. The first time I saw it, it reminded me of one of Dore’s pictures of a scene in Dante’s hell. [Feb 26]

Stead would perish when the Titanic sank in 1912; he was last seen clinging to a raft with John Jacob Astor IV. If Christ Came to Chicago! was the Reader‘s first foray into long-form serialization. It seemed like such an excellent idea that when the serial concluded, in November 1982, we immediately launched another. “The Catchall Chronicles,” a fictional yarn unspooled by “Samuel Willis” [assistant editor Patrick Clinton], began:

There may be towns that time forgot, but Prosperity, Illinois, isn’t one of them. There may be places where the past lurks the courthouse square unchallenged, where the lives that someone has already lived crop up again as little noticed as the dandelions in the spring or the reruns on television. There may be such places, but, as I said, Prosperity isn’t one of them. Time remembers Prosperity: it keeps in touch in one of those one-sided correspondences that make you sad to see the mailman. “Found work yet!” “Seen a doctor about that pain!” and of course “Lord, you’re looking old.” The whole town — from the “Welcome to Prosperity” sign at the city limits to the statue of the unknown soldier down by town hall — wears the hangdog look of a new bank teller who’s come up a fifty shy at closing time his first day. [Nov 5]