Last week, as well as one real life, slightly freckly one, I took two literary companions with me to the beach. Iris Murdoch (The Bell, since you ask, and thank you Jan Casey for the inspiration), and a certain Erik Larson. Murdoch’s company was, as expected, faultless, with just the right mix of humour, melancholy and human fallibility – and some provocative reflections on the psychology of catholics. I entirely agree with this reviewer. Larson was more of an unknown quantity, but, as it turned out, an intriguing one.
The book in question, ‘The Devil in the White City’ (and in this case many thanks to David Kester for the recommendation) is a very individual account of the ‘Columbian World Fair’ built by Chicago in 1893 to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus setting foot on solid ground. America’s 400th birthday party, and an attempt to prove to the rest of the world it had come of age. It followed the example of previous such World Fairs/ Great Exhibitions/ ‘Expos’ in inviting contributions and displays from all nations, and foregrounding developments in science, art and technology. It made history for – among many other things – the invention of shedded wheat, and the Ferris wheel, Chicago’s answer to Paris’s scene-stealing Eiffel Tower unveiled at their own world fair of 1889. But its USP, as it were, hinted at by the name, the ‘White City’, was its sheer scale and distinctive architectural presence. All neo-classical, all whitewashed, it struck a remarkable contrast to neighbouring Chicago proper (dark, filthy, dangerous), and became a ground-breaking demonstration to Americans that their cities might be places of beauty as well as commerce.
The unique thing about Larson’s book is his approach to this subject: his is, in fact, a story of two men, told in parallel. A tale of two of history’s great creative minds and powerful personalities, bent on very different ends. One, the architect who envisioned and built the fair, and the other, the psychopath who carefully seduced and destroyed unworldly young women who came to Chicago to see this most awesome of 19th century spectacles.
Actually, if I had one criticism of the book, it is that the two narratives, apart from their simultaneity in place and time, seem really to bear scant relation to one another. Both are fascinating, but neither gains quite enough by being interwoven with the other to warrant the effort. However, I can understand the irresistible temptation of this project for the historian, this mission into the past to reconstruct – and compare – the doings of two compelling characters. And in fact the combination of architectural history, murder and inept 19th century policing made great beach book fodder. Highly recommended.
It is also essential reading for anyone with an interest in the curious phenomenon of world fairs. Larson does a great job of conveying the Jules Verne-esque ambition and theatricality, and the patchy distinction between the real, the exotic and the mystical that was a feature of Victorian thinking. It was a time when ambitions were rarely tempered by reality, because reality was changing so quickly: if men were now able to make light without a flame (electricity), and build babel-like towers out of steel, what other equally improbable things might turn out to be possible? It must have been an exciting time to be alive.
Having recently familiarised myself (for the purposes of essay-writing) with the Parisian Expos of 1889 and 1900, I have begun to suspect that the fact that we still have a globe-trotting merrigoround of ‘World Expos’ – the modern day descendants of these 19th century circuses – blinds us to the enormity of the spectacle they must once have been. Kicked onto the world stage by our very own Prince Albert in 1851, the world fair tradition provoked the technical advancement (including in warfare) which has eventually erased its own relevance.
With the immediacy of access to knowledge about the rest of the world that we now have, via screens if not through actual physical travel, the World Expo as an event has presumably lost at least part of its power and meaning. If we want to know what China is manufacturing or what a certain African tribe believes – it’s pretty easy to find out. But back then knowledge of the world was a privilege few could access. The fairs opened it up to the masses. Even longer ago than our own generations the magic of the fair must have started to wane. After the First World War, only 20 years after Paris was captivated by electric light shows for the first time, the world must already and suddenly have seemed a far less mystical and enticing place.
But can we recreate what the spectacle of the fair signified to Victorian eyes? Can we imagine the sheer gobsmacking amazement that must have accompanied the sight of – for example – entire Pygmy tribes in mock-up huts on the banks of the Seine, of a steel and glass palace enclosing giant oaks in Hyde Park, or of the rapid construction on the shores of Lake Michigan of a gleaming white city? I think the resonance of these affairs is still just within our grasp – but for how much longer? With all the recent WWI centennial activity, someone ought to bring this 19th century phenomenon into the popular spotlight. There are historians aplenty to do the talking heads bit. And, most wonderfully, Thomas Edison can supply all the footage.