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The Devil in the White City

10 May

I know this book came out years ago and it’s been patiently sitting on the shelves back home for me to read it. At last, I have.

Talk about enthralling. Erik Larson‘s chronicles Daniel Burnham‘s prodigious efforts to make the 1893 World’s Fair spectacular while contrasting the creation of a dream city with a serial killer, Dr. H.H. Holmes‘ building a sinister white castle, a site of nightmares, that would help Holmes lure in his victims, pretty, young women, alone in the city.

The book reads like a novel weaving in facts and research perfectly. In fact, I so enjoyed Larson’s research that it spurred me to look up Holmes on Lexis and the World’s Fair on JSTR. I felt Burnham’s frustrations as the deadline for opening the fair neared and so problems cropped up: impatient businessmen wanted to tighten the workers threatened to strike, East Coast architects resisted contributing, dates and deadlines got confused, the economy tanked, fatal accidents halted work. New Yorker reminded Chicago that the country’s reputation was on the line. This fair had to outdo any and all prior fairs. This story alone would have kept me interested. Larson provides the bonus of a true crime story which dramatically unwinds.

Reading The Devil in The White City made me appreciate what a unique era this was and how our era will never have an event that’s so magical and inspiring. Visitors had seen nothing like it. The event transformed people giving a generation a whole new view of what a city could be, how people needn’t settle for the black, bleak putrid cities they’d known. A city could inspire and enrich. I’d definitely read more of Larson’s work.

The Burning of the White City. (Electricity Bu...

The Burning of the White City. (Electricity Building on left, Mines and Mining Building on right.) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A movie is in development, but it could be too gory for my tastes.

A few good quotations:

‘Ellsworth insisted that what Chicago had in mind was something far grander than even the Paris exposition. He described for Olmsted a vision of a dream city designed by America’s greatest architects and covering an expanse at least one-third larger than the Paris fair.'(49)

‘He was the smoothest man I ever saw.”said C.E.Davis, whom Holmes had hired to manage the drugstore’s jewelry counter. Creditors, Davis said, would “come here raging and calling him all the names imaginable, and he would smile and talk to them and set up the cigars and drinks and send them away seemingly his friends for life. I never saw him angry. You couldn’t have trouble with him if you tired.'(72)

‘He argued that Chicago’s fair, unlike any other before it, would be primarily a monument to architecture. It would awaken the nation to the power of architecture to conjure beauty from stone and steel.'(80)

In a great blur of snow and silvery glass the building’s roof—that marvel of late nineteenth-century hubris, enclosing the greatest volume of unobstructed space in history—collapsed to the floor below” [p. 196–97

The young poet Edgar Lee Masters called the Court of Honor “an inexhaustible dream of beauty” [p. 252]; Dora Root wrote “I think I should never willingly cease drifting in that dreamland” [p. 253]; Theodore Dreiser said he had been swept “into a dream from which I did not recover for months” [p. 306]; and columnist Teresa Dean found it “cruel . . . to let us dream and drift through heaven for six months, and then to take it out of our lives” [p. 335]

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Posted by on May 10, 2012 in American Lit, history, non-fiction

 

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