As I continue my journey in the Ramonat Seminar I become more aware of the essential tools and ideologies in a historian’s work. Space and place, two intertwining concepts, provide the historian with an opportunity to explore the past outside the boundaries of academic environments, such as a course on the Vietnam War or a seemingly polished biography of an English monarch. Whether through an imaginative experience or a physical trip to a historical setting, the ideas of space and place maintain the historian’s aptitude for thinking critically and ability to encapsulate the world’s history.
For class we read Chapter 1 of Dr. Dominic Pacyga’s Slaughterhouse, an examination of Chicago’s industrious world of meatpacking and butchering in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The Back of the Yards or “the yards,” as they were referred to by locals, employed 40,000 workers and slaughtered and sold more than a billion livestock in its century-long history. Though putrid in smell and visually gory, the Stockyards attracted thousands of tourists, and some locals, to showcase their innovative technology in slaughtering and meatpacking. It was a Disneyland of sorts. My class and I had the privilege to visit and tour the Stockyards in West Chicago with Dr. Pacyga. In our three hour tour of “the yards” and the surrounding neighborhood, Dr. Pacyga described stories of industrialism, social activism, and racial-ethnic tensions. His detailed narrative provided the groundwork for a visual history of what was once a bustling place of industry and tourism; I am still having trouble wrapping my head around the tourist appeal of a slaughterhouse.
Remnants of Chicago’s meatpacking industrial complex: the entrance to the Stockyards on Exchange Avenue, designed by Daniel Burnham ca. 1875 (L), and the railroad used for transporting livestock and other goods throughout the area (R).
So you may be thinking: what does this have at all to do with Dorothy Day? Well, the co-founder of The Catholic Worker lived in Chicago during her teenage years. Upton Sinclair’s inventive, yet near realistic, tale of suffering and class warfare in The Jungle inspired a young Dorothy to explore the stockyards with her younger brother. She entered into Sinclair’s world of economic hardships and nauseating smells, creating a deep desire to understand those affected not only by the meatpacking industry but those who are faced with inconsolable afflictions. In her 1952 memoir The Long Loneliness, Dorothy reflects on her observations of West Chicago’s impoverished landscape: “Though my only experience of the destitute was in books, the very fact that The Jungle was about Chicago where I lived, whose streets I walked, made me feel that from then on my life was to be linked with theirs, their interests were to be mine; I had received a call, a vocation, a direction in my life.”
When I studied abroad in Ireland last semester I would switch to “amateur-historian” mode whenever I found myself in a historical site of interest. I had the privilege of traveling to Rome and Vatican City for part of Holy Week, including Easter. Amidst the slow-moving crowds of tourists I was able to catch a glimpse of the Sistine Chapel, the fifteenth-century worship center known for its Michelangelo frescoes. I can still hear the moderately-dressed Swiss Guard echoing with passionate force, “No photo, no photo!” Having been raised Catholic, the moments spent in the Sistine Chapel were gratifying, both on a spiritual and historical level. Before entering the chapel I was only familiar to its sights from photographs and literature. While standing in the Sistine Chapel (among the hoards of tourists) I was able to visualize and understand the physical challenges the Renaissance painters endured to create a stunning masterpiece of Biblical art. I was also astounded to be in the room where the popes of the last five-hundred years have been elected to lead the world’s Catholics. In Ireland I traveled to Cobh, a port town on the southern coast where millions of migrants left for the United States. The train station and processing facilities are still intact, having been converted to a museum commemorating the mass Irish exodus of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. For many trans-Atlantic passenger lines, Cobh was the last point of departure, including the ill-fated RMS Titanic. My visit to the port town consisted of a walk along the harbor where several Irish immigrants boarded to pursue the American Dream. As the self-proclaimed family historian/genealogist, Cobh provided me with an insight into my own ancestors’ experience of leaving Ireland during a time of anxiety and famine.
Michelangelo’s famed “The Last Judgment” in the Sistine Chapel, Vatican City (L); rebelliously taken while under surveillance by Swiss Guards. A statue of Annie Moore, the first documented Irish immigrant to the United States, in the port town of Cobh, Ireland (R).
Thanks for reading, and happy fall!