Friday, August 8, 2014

Review: "The Devil in the White City" by Erik Larson

"I was born with the devil in me. I could not help that I was a murderer, no more than the poet can help the inspiration to sing."

Occasionally I have a craving for really solid narrative nonfiction. In The Devil in the White City (subtitle: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America), Erik Larson chronicles the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago and the serial killer in its midst. It wasn't a particularly filling "meal" of a book, but it gave me a taste of the weird and unusual history which I love.

If the 1893 Chicago World's Fair was mentioned in any history class of mine, it was swiftly overlooked. Larson's loving chronicle brings to vivid life an era and a spectacle which I find now hard to forget. The number of visitors to the park on October 9th of that year set the record for highest attendance at any peaceable event in history!

Larson splits his narrative into three paths. One follows the architects, engineers, artists, and showman who attempted to surpass the glory of France's "Exposition Universelle" in 1889 in a fraction of the time. Another tracks the mentally ill man whose delusions led him to assassinate Chicago's leading figure in his hour of triumph. The third, and most riveting, closes in on H.H. Holmes and the dozens--possibly hundreds--of women he murdered during the days of the fair.

It is the most riveting, but also the least satisfying, from a narrative standpoint. Larson simply has more material on the crowd of men and women who engineered the World's Fair than he does on Holmes, a necessarily enigmatic figure whose deeds cannot be fully documented. The World's Fair was richly documented by newspapers, photographs, and letters. The devil's work is a matter of extrapolation and guesswork.

Despite--or due to--their speculative nature, the chapters on Holmes are the most richly characterized, full of detail and human interest. (Larson, to his credit, spends as much time developing the readers' interest in Holmes's victims as he does in Holmes himself.) Here Larson takes his inspiration from Truman Capote's In Cold Blood. Capote's tale is more engaging, due to his single focus, whereas Larson's attention is split between the construction of the White City and its resident devil. Still, when writing about Holmes alone, Larson conveys his balance of charm and chill almost perfectly.
A woman named Strowers occasionally did Holmes's laundry. One day he offered to pay her $6,000 if she would acquire a $10,000 life insurance policy and name him beneficiary. When she asked why he would do such a thing, he explained that upon her death he'd make a profit of $4,000, but in the meantime she'd be able to spend her $6,000 in whatever manner she chose.

To Mrs. Strowers, this was a fortune, and all she had to do was sign a few documents. Holmes accured her it was all perfectly legal.

She was healthy and expected to live a good long while. She was on the verge of accepting the offer when Holmes said to her, softly, "Don't be afraid of me."

Which terrified her.
The mad assassin, Patrick Prendergast, is easily forgotten by the reader. There is little to be said about him, as none of his actions particularly fascinating to read about until that last grim day. One has the sense that Larson included him out of a sense of duty--as, after all, he did play a striking role in the end of the World's Fair--but had neither much historical data to work with, nor much personal interest.

Larson's writing style is rich and graceful. He composes scenes and descriptions like a poet, sweeping the reader into the dreamworld that was the World's Fair, a perfectly planned miniature city full of new inventions and artistic ideals. He gets good mileage out of Goethe's famous description of architecture as "frozen music." In the afterward, he speaks of "the city's willingness to take on the impossible in the name of civic honor, a concept so removed from the modern psyche that... readers of early drafts of this book wondered why Chicago was so avid to win the [location] in the first place." That is indeed one of the elements of the Fair hardest for the modern reader to grasp.

Other elements of the scene he describes are perfectly familiar:
How easy it was to disappear!

A thousand trains a day entered or left Chicago. Many of these trains brought single young women who had never even seen a city but now hoped to make one of the biggest and toughest their home... The women sought work as typewriters, stenographers, seamstresses, and weavers. The men who hired them were for the most part moral citizens intent on efficiency and profit. But not always.

On March 30, 1890, an officer of the First National Bank placed a warning in the help-wanted section of the Chicago Tribune, to inform female stenographers of "our growing conviction that no thoroughly honorable business-man who is this side of dotage ever advertises for a lady stenographer who is a blonde, is good-looking, is quite alone in the city, or who will transmit her photograph. All such advertisements... bear the marks of vulgarity, nor do we regard it safe for any lady to answer such unseemly utterances."
 Anyone who has ever job-hunted on Craigslist will know exactly the kind of fraudulent "want ads" that long-ago officer meant.

Larson's narrative voice is also not as removed from the dark days of industrial Chicago as one might hope. He never mentions Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show, a neighbor and close competitor to the World's Fair, without referring to scalp-happy Indians in the next sentence. This is an inaccurate and harmful stereotype which ought to be stricken from history books, or at least, paired with equal discussion of the atrocities committed by white settlers.

The female engineers and architects who contributed to the Fair's success are nameless, receiving a scant line or two. Rather than discuss any details of the Women's Building and the reasons why it was the first building to be completed, Larson takes the opportunity to record the catfighting within Chicago's society matrons and to ridicule their aesthetic choices.

I was disappointed by these obvious "low blows" when reading about a fascinating and little-discussed period of history. Larson had the chance to highlight the accomplishments and experiences of all Americans, and chose instead to praise the same "wealthy white male" contingent that has been praised in every other history book.

Nevertheless, The Devil in the White City is a curious and intellectually tantalizing read for history buffs. The sheer list of technological advances pioneered and shown off to public view at the World's Fair is astounding: long-distance telephones, the zipper, direct current electricity as developed by Edison and alternating current as developed by Tesla, the automatic dishwasher, Aunt Jemima's Pancake Mix, Shredded Wheat, Juicy Fruit, Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, the first (and grandest) Ferris Wheel.

Reading about the the success--albeit temporary--of an artificial planned city, with public bathrooms, streetlights, a safe public daycare, purified running water, its own ambulance and police system, one cannot help but think of Disneyland. It comes as no surprise then to learn that Walt Disney's father participated in the planning of the fair. It also conjures dreams of what modern city planning could achieve, should the budgets be prioritized differently.

Complexity of Writing: 3/5
Quality of Writing: 3/5
Strength of Characterization: 4/5
Logic of Plot Development: 4/5
Evocation of Setting: 5/5
Effectiveness of Pacing: 3/5
Resolution of Conflict: 2/5
Emotional Engagement: 2/5
Mental Engagement: 3/5
Bechdel Test: fail
Diverse Cast: fail
Content Warning: misogyny, graphic violence, murder, kidnapping & murder of children

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