A picaresque biography of a picaresque city; a thick tome that, despite its weight, one puts down with reluctance. Miller (History/Lafayette College; Lewis Mumford: A Life, 1989) begins in 1673, with Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet, the first Europeans to explore the site. But the true focus of the narrative is the 19th century, following Chicago's explosive growth from a small fort in 1803 to a sprawling city of more than a million people 90 years later. The climax of the book is Chicago's 1893 Columbia Exposition, an almost unimaginably opulent, massive display of American achievement. It was appropriate that this world's fair commemorating 400 years of American development should be hosted by Chicago, writes Miller, who embraces the common thesis that 19th-century Chicago was the most American of American cities: ""the epic of Chicago is the story of the emergence of modern America."" But Miller takes the argument one step further, asserting that Chicago differed from the rest of the country because it took the most significant trends shaping America to their extremes, for better and for worse. Nowhere else was unbridled capitalism given such free reign. Nowhere else was there a location so ideally suited to the production of wealth and the emergence of ""the most compelling of all creations of the 19th century, the wildly expanding industrial metropolis, city of smoke and steel and sweat."" Miller describes Chicago as a ""living drama"" peopled by colorful, complex characters: industrial and merchandising geniuses who created jobs but exploited and denigrated their workers, for example; or the corrupt politicians who nonetheless also gave much to their constituents. Miller argues that Chicago illuminates our era as well. Capitalism's pluses and minuses, the influence of the city, the responsibilities and limitations of government, the ferment that generates artistic creativity, and other very modern issues are made clearer by this epic history.