When Carl Smith takes his students on walking tours of Evanston, nothing escapes his attention. Nothing.
He points out the lovely Victorian homes on Judson Street, a fountain on Oak Street that was originally in Fountain Square before city leaders moved it, even a downtown McDonald's restaurant. And he challenges his students to put them all into a context that helps explain how Evanston got to be the way it is.
"One of the things I try to do is to make the familiar strange," says Smith, a professor of American studies and English. "People take things unquestioningly for granted, but I want the students to try to think back. I want to try to make it look strange to them. And I want them to ask, what is striking, what is distinctive about all this?"
Since 1972 Smith has gently prodded a generation of Northwestern students to go beyond superficial interpretations of American history, literature and art and, more importantly, to search for ways to weave the often bewildering strands of the past into whole cloth. Nonetheless, although he is fascinated by an age gone by, Smith is hardly enmeshed in it. Particularly in the last decade he has wholeheartedly embraced the latest technology for the many advantages it offers today's audience.
His most recent Web project, "The Dramas of Haymarket" (www.chicagohistory.org/dramas) debuted on May 4 (see sidebar). It was the 114th anniversary of that tragedy, in which eight police officers dispersing a labor protest rally, as well as numerous civilians, died from wounds suffered from a bomb and a subsequent hail of bullets. Eight in the anarchist movement were railroaded in a sham of a trial, and four were hanged a year and a half later.
Smith curated both this and his first Web project, "The Great Chicago Fire and the Web of Memory" (www.chicagohistory.org/fire) in close collaboration with Information Technology's academic technologies unit and the Chicago Historical Society. The fire site was born in cyberspace on Oct. 8, 1996, the 125th anniversary of the famous conflagration.
"Ever since I began teaching, I've used all sorts of materials," Smith says. "Artifacts, prints, paintings, statues, architecture plans. I became very excited once I saw the possibilities of electronic methods and materials."
That is typical Smith understatement about himself. "He's a national pioneer in this expertise," says Henry Binford, an associate professor of history who has team-taught courses on and off with Smith for more than two decades. "For his courses, Bill Parod, Rich Barone and Joe Germuska of academic technologies created software, called ClassACT, that allowed students to view images and documents in a digital archive and to create multimedia presentations. That's fairly standard now, but back in the early 1990s, Carl's courses were using computer techniques no one had thought of before."
Douglas Greenberg was president of the Chicago Historical Society when Smith put together both Internet projects, which were also designed and produced in collaboration with academic technologies experts. "They make huge amounts of material very accessible for individual users," he says. "What's so special about the projects is that they combine our massive collections with the technical wizardry from Northwestern and Carl's extraordinary historical imagination."
Another major advantage that the Web has over print publications for this sort of purpose is that the sites contain something of interest for everyone. "My younger daughter was 7 or 8 when the site for the Chicago Fire was completed," Greenberg says. "She would spend hours looking at the material and reading what she could read. At the same time, I knew graduate students who were using the site to great advantage."
Smith writes for what he calls "the literate general public." Yet as approachable as he is, that is not to say his standards are not high, especially when it comes to his students. The word out among the American studies undergraduates (about a dozen of whom are admitted to the program each year) and graduate students, too, is that Carl Smith has a sharply critical eye, but those who stick with him learn a lot.
"The first time I got a paper back from him, I cried," says Erin Braatz, a senior from Woodland Park, Colo. "I'd never had a professor take my writing apart like that. Afterward, I took a closer look at what he had written, and I realized that he was absolutely right. Ever since, I routinely take papers for other courses to him for criticism."
Graduates of the program also know that in Smith they have a friend for life. Beth Bailey (WCAS79) is an associate professor and Regents Lecturer in American studies at the University of New Mexico. Her career dates back to taking Smith's introductory American literature course, after which he recruited her into American studies.
Smith has maintained communication ever since, through Bailey's graduate days at the University of Chicago to stints in Washington, D.C., Hawaii, Kansas, New York and now New Mexico. "His level of energy and intelligence have always been inspiring to me," she says.
When he came to Northwestern, Smith was specializing in 19th century New England, particularly the Boston intelligentsia. His dissertation, earned at Yale, concerned travel and travel writing, especially that of Henry James and Henry Adams.
He has continued research on that time and place, but it did not take long for 19th- and early 20th-century Chicago to captivate him. "Chicago just before the Fire was much like the catastrophe that befell it," he wrote in the opening lines of the first Web site. "The city struck many as a titanic natural force in itself, unpredictable, unstoppable, all-consuming and impossible to ignore."
Smith notes in the Haymarket Web project that by the 1880s, much of the earlier optimism had vanished as many began to realize that rapid urbanization had its price. "While the Haymarket bomb was unquestionably a terrifying shock, it was no surprise," he starts off on that Web site. "Viewed in retrospect, it almost seems inevitable that the bomb exploded when and where it did."
As with every age, Smith emphasizes, the 19th century, especially its latter half, was a complicated period, particularly in American cities. "It was a time of terrible cultural tension and anxiety, in which an appalling miscarriage of justice took place," he says, referring to Haymarket. "The prosecutor and judge were good jurists who did a terrible thing because they were deeply frightened and angry."
At the same time, Smith understands the frustrations of the anarchists and others of the era who labored to change the status quo. Still, he does not say this justified the use of dynamite. "At the trial," Smith says, "the defense argued that although the defendants preached dynamite, there was no evidence to link them to this bomb. The trial was a travesty because the anarchists were convicted for their words, not their deeds."
To be sure, American studies to Smith is much more than a compilation and interpretation of events. Much of the art and literature of the age convey a similar sense of the unforeseeable vulnerability felt by the Haymarket actors. All one has to do to comprehend that point is to read Melville's Moby Dick, which is required in his introductory American literature survey course. The mere mention of the classic excites him.
"My preference is not to rank books, but, yes, that one is a clear favorite," Smith says. "It raises essential questions about knowledge and about the nature of experience. It's very funny, it's very violent and it's just a compelling story, some of the most gripping narration I've ever read. To try to communicate all that is a challenge. It's such a big book, and it's such a hard book."
Early on, Smith, who majored in English at Brown, gave serious consideration to journalism; between his first and second years of graduate school at Yale, he worked for Newsweek magazine in New York City. Over the years he has kept his hand in journalism, penning several Chicago Tribune Op-Ed pieces, most about popular culture and several humorous in tone. He was asked to write two 250-word entries for the Oxford Companion to United States History. One concerned the fire. The other? Michael Jordan, he answers with a slight smile, aware that yet again he has displayed his wide-ranging intellectual appetite.
"With Jordan, I had a sense that we were seeing something absolutely remarkable," he says. From the Chicago Bulls, Smith, who was born in the Bronx right after World War II and reared in the nearby suburb of New Rochelle, segues to New York's glory days of baseball in the 1950s. With his typical attention to detail, he notes that former Yankee catcher Yogi Berra turned 75 the day Northwestern interviewed him.
Indeed, Smith, an avid athlete, really does not see much intellectual distance between popular pastimes and American studies scholarship. His office in University Hall, which overlooks the Rock, holds a Wheaties box issued to commemorate Northwestern's last Rose Bowl trip. "Everything is grist for his mill, whether it be Herman Melville or tourist trap architecture," Binford says. "He's interested in what every text and object says about American culture."
During an hourlong lecture on his beloved Columbian Exposition in his Chicago history class, Smith, employing scores of evocative slides, brings up in rapid-fire fashion one informational nugget after another, including that 1) a massive engine that wowed everyone at Philadelphia's Centennial Exposition in 1876 was bought by George Pullman for his famous Chicago factory, 2) the Columbian Exposition arguably made neoclassicism the de rigeur architectural style for America's public buildings for the next half-century, and 3) Walt Disney's father may have been one of the thousands who built the White City, as the site was called.
In the last slides, Smith transports his audience to Southern California's Disneyland to bring it all together and make the over-arching point that the Chicago fair bequeathed America a particularly compelling type of temporary escape from the realities of urban life.
Lately he has turned away from the Web for a book project on cities and water in 19th-century America. Leading possibilities for this research include Chicago, New York, Boston and Philadelphia, which had the first organized waterworks dating to 1801. "When you're talking about water, you're talking about city life," Smith says.
Is this a stretch from waxing rhapsodically about novels or political broadsides from long ago? Not to Smith. "Some have observed that I work from one primordial thing to another," he says. "I once wrote an article on the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, so I was dealing with earth. Then I wrote a book on fire, whether it was the Great Chicago Fire or the fire of incendiary rhetoric and bombs. And now I'm working on water. This may be where Moby Dick is drawn in, too. "When you start talking about people's relationships to the elemental and the primordial, you're getting to the heart of values and beliefs."
Robert Freed is associate editor of Northwestern.