Saturday, August 09, 2008

Book Review: The Devil in the White City

The difference between a popular history and a more formal history, so far as I can tell, is that popular histories are written as novels or stories, where the reader gets into the heads of the characters, enjoys dialogue, gets hints of the scenery, and so forth. A formal history tells things from the omniscient voice of the historian; events are described, narrated, and occasionally sprinkled with known quotations from the historical figures in question. The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness in the Fair that Changed America is of the popular variety, and darned absorbing at that.

This novelistic history by Erik Larson describes the building of the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago, also called the Columbian Exposition because it commemorated the 400th anniversary of Columbus's discovery of America (this was before Columbus fell out of favor with politically correct historians, obviously). This story alternates between the doings of the architects and of one H. H. Holmes--one of the first known serial killers to be captured and tried--who was doing business down the street. The juxtaposition of this great accomplishment in upper-middle-class urban planning (you can find hints of it in Disneyland and the Magic Kingdom in Orlando) and the insidiousness of this killer give a "top and bottom" view of 19th century American society while also telling a ripping good tale.

What surprised and chagrined me the most is how little I knew about all this, despite growing up in the Chicago area. Okay, sure: I knew that the Museum of Science and Industry was once one of the Fair's buildings, and I was pretty sure I knew about the fair being the site of the first Ferris wheel. However, it never occurred to me that the airport on the South Side might have derived its name from the fair's "midway" or that the Fair featured the first large-scale use of electric lighting using alternating current (AC) rather than direct current (DC). There are lots of little tidbits like that throughout the book--small bit players in the overall narrative who later go on to have greater influence afterward, such as Elias Disney, father of Walt and Roy, who was one of the construction workers at the Fair and told his sons tales of building a dream city by the Lake.

Larson also does a splendid job of conjuring up the social and physical environment of Chicago in the 1890s. Having been brought up nearby, I grew up with Carl Sandburg's poem celebrating the tough city for what it was, especially then:

Hog Butcher for the World,
Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation's Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders

You also get a sense of the dynamism of the city, which I probably picked up by contact, especially from my raucous Irish family, who lived on the city's West Side for much of the first half of the 20th century. The book gets you up close with the labor movements; the tony suburbs and squalid slums; the dirty politics; the scorching summers, stormy springs, temperate autumns, and bitter winters; the occasional inferiority complex toward, and rivalry with, New York. The book's actual narrative runs 390 pages, but it's a brisk one, and Larson manages to capture a lot of details that bring the city to life.

I really liked this book, though it is not for everyone. Where the wonders of the "White City" are conveyed brilliantly (a few more pictures might still have helped), Larson is just as adept at describing the sinister and horrifying actions of Holmes. A young (25 at the time of the Fair), self-made man, Holmes had an insouciant, social manner and assertive personality that allowed him to acquire the resources to build a complete "Castle," what today we might call a mall, with restaurants, hotel rooms, stores, and secret soundproof chambers that allowed him to abduct, kill, and dismember several young women without anyone being the wiser. He eventually confessed to 27 murders, though Larson could only confirm a minimum of nine--bad enough.

Holmes might have gone on his merry way for quite a bit longer, had he not gotten into financial trouble (he was also a shameless liar who rarely paid his debts). Holmes was also protected, in part, by the morals and culture of the times. There was simultaneously an acceptance that Chicago was a dangerous place and that hundreds of people disappeared there every year, and yet a naiveity about the evil one man could do, especially if he was polite, well-dressed, and possessed of good looks and a pleasant manner.

The reason Larson's book cannot be taken as simply a story is that it did, in fact, occur. Because real life doesn't have the nice, tidy, catharsis that fiction does, Larson does not necessarily treat us to any great lessons or unambiguous resolutions. However, there is enough "closure" (to use an ugly 21st century word) to give this book the feeling of a truly well written novel. However you approach The Devil in the White City, you will come away with an appreciation of Larson's literary talent.

One thing I must close with, in jest since that's how Larson put it in his acknowledgments. He adds a truly terrible thought at the end of this book (okay, it was terrible to me, anyway): "I must confess a shameful secret: I love Chicago best in the cold." Brrrrr! He's welcome to it.

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