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An essay by Israel Zangwill


Title:     Chicago
Author: Israel Zangwill [More Titles by Zangwill]

The function and value of literature are curiously illustrated by the passing away of the Great White Elephant. The criticisms by spectators of the World's Fair have not been so comprehensive as the Fair itself, and I feel that I ought to supplement them by the impressions it made upon one who did not see it. For, despite the assurance of the official programme, that I delivered an address in the Parliament of Religions, I was in England, so far as I know, the whole time. The first impression the Fair made upon me was one of sublimity--but of what Sir William Hamilton calls "the material sublime," scarcely at all of "the moral sublime," which was supposed to be its _raison d'etre_. I was, of course, aware that great spiritual facts underlay the physical grandeurs; but spiritual emotion is difficult to get at a distance. One requires the actual objects to impinge on the soul, the architectural glories and industrial splendours to touch through bodily vision. One realises it so vaguely, and fails to get the half-aesthetic, half-religious, uplifting that concrete visualisation should supply. It is, perhaps, a pity that Whitman did not live to see the spectacle, he whose inspiration came so often from synthesis, from a vision of the ALL. The cosmopolitan cataloguer, the man who made inventories almost epical, is the one man to whom the Fair would have been a magnificent inspiration. Judging from the Fair, Whitman would seem justified in claiming to be the voice of America. The Fair was like him both in its moral broadness and its material all-inclusiveness. In his absence no poet has risen "to the height of this great argument," so that now the insubstantial pageant is faded, now that "the cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces, the solemn temples," have dissolved, "like the baseless fabric of a vision," they have left not a rack of real literature behind. And to what but literature can one look for a permanent conservator of the eternal lesson of an ephemeral exhibition? Truly, as the Latin poet said, literature is more durable than monuments and dynasties. Except as an object-lesson in the unity and federation of mankind, the Fair had no valuable _raison d'etre_, and, unfortunately, the school-term was short and the number of pupils comparatively limited.

America is a long way from everywhere, even from itself, and the moral heat dissipates in crossing the ocean to the Old World. The Congress of Religions in whose voluminous report the Fair has still a chance of surviving itself, was the most patently spiritual side of the Exposition, and was, undoubtedly, a most valuable index of the progress of human catholicism. That the sects are as narrow as they are numerous, is still largely true, and half the world is still ignorant of how the other half prays, though by a happy accident of birth all the world inherits the one true religion. The greatest force in the universe is the "_vis inertiae_," and the forces already at work must "dree their weird." To those who are outside all the sects without even circumscribing them, the World's Fair must bring home at once the greatness and vanity of man's life--man who lives like the angels and dies like the brutes--the mortal paradox that has puzzled all thinkers from the Psalmist to Pascal. For the unbeliever this must ever be the ugly reverse of all glories that are merely material, though the sensuous optimist need not allow the skeleton at the feast to spoil his appetite.

The last impression made by the World's Fair upon me was one of sadness--sadness at not having seen it.

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Israel Zangwill's essay: Chicago