The Devil in the White City

It’s hard for me to think of a time when I did not consider Chicago to be my favorite city. My first visit there was when I was five, and I was hooked on its kind majesty, its flat expanse, its alleys and bridges and tunnels and unity despite all that architectural division. And its FAO Schwarz toy store, of course. I’ve visited again and again, always dumbfounded by how such a kind and cultured urban space could exist in the middle of the country, and by how other cities seem not to adopt its simple, unique demeanor. In fact, I was there just six months ago, intending to read The Devil in the White City in situ, but Byrne’s How Music Works took a little longer than I intended. Now I’m desperate to go back, because it turns out that I knew nothing of the city’s incredibly dark past. The seediness makes me that much more curious.

In the introduction to The Devil in the White City, author Erik Larson warns us that we’re about to read something so unusual, so unbelievable, that we might forget it’s non-fiction. And he was right to issue that warning. There were so many times, paging through this book, when I’d forget it was all true. As the story of Daniel Burnham, chief architect of the 1893 World’s Fair, trudged along, I wondered why it wouldn’t pick up, why the author hadn’t chosen to pace the story with more fervor and excitement. But that trudging must have mimicked real life, the constant bureaucratic pitfalls, weather delays, labor shortages, equipment problems, transportation issues, and other large-scale annoyances that Burnham encountered as he was trying to erect a city within a city in a fraction of the time that a normal city could have been built. The book only dragged because Larson chose to tell it in a parallel timeline with that of H.H. Holmes, blue-eyed pharmacist and cold-blooded killer. Holmes’ murderous activities were far more interesting from the outset, again, until I remembered that everything he was doing had happened to real people, and then I wished it had all been made up. Larson toys with our emotions without even making anything up. He’s a master of non-fiction — that’s probably why this book was a National Book Award Finalist, among many other reasons.

It’s not perfectly written — he strives to maintain a good portion of the type of language used at the turn of that century, and so some of the metaphors feel outdated, clunky, and even unnecessarily cheesy. He rarely editorializes, and even though this maintains the factual accuracy of the book, I almost wish he had inserted his own opinions of the buildings and the behaviours of the cast and crew, because he must have gotten to know them quite well as he was researching the book. I suppose he let their actions speak for themselves.

But he manages to paint a very different portrait of Chicago than any other I’ve seen before, using the shades of its black and white sides, and thus telling a far more stark and beautiful story. At once I want to know what that Chicago was like, in its utter chaos and stench, and I also know that I’d probably be the exact victim that Holmes targeted. Chicago sounds terrifying and enticing — how calm it seems now.

The idea of a World’s Fair is so foreign, just over 100 years later. I suppose the Olympics or the World Cup has taken the place of these kinds of events, and even so, the host city and country don’t really have to construct buildings like they used to. The stadiums are lasting legacies, but the athlete villages disappear. Anyhow, the pressure was so great back then, to succeed, to sustain bragging rights, to uphold a reputation across the world, to avoid disappointing and offending, to instill values — though our world has changed dramatically, and judgement is almost instantaneous, I find it comforting that modern society across the world has abandoned this idea of the World’s Fair. Of course, these fairs still exist, but they don’t seem to carry the same weight that they used to. Now that travel is more readily available, so we can travel the globe if we have the means, instead of letting it come to us.

Now when I return to Chicago, I’ll have even more of an appreciation for the majesty of its buildings and the mystery behind them. Even though much of what was built for the fair is gone now, I want to go back to Jackson Park and just think about it. Over the course of one summer, fame, fortune, and favor gathered in one place. The poor experienced opulence and the wealthy experienced grunge. Maybe that’s why I like it so much — everything evens out in the Midwest.

Just a single quote, because it’s more fun to read and experience the story than pinpoint the language:

p. 97, regarding one of many extravagant banquets // “It was the first in a sequence of impossibly rich and voluminous banquets whose menus raised the question of whether any of the city’s leading men could possibly have a functional artery.”