The Scruffy Rube’s #CBR4 Review #8 The Devil in the White city
This review can be read in it’s entirety here
The real crux of Erik Larson’s pop-history novel: The Devil in the White City, lies in the oversized dreams that support American identity. At the start of the Roaring 90’s, as America felt fully prepared to move beyond the war that had torn it in two, as it began to stand up on the global stage, it was high time for people to dream big. So we stretched out across the country, we linked the oceans with a railway, we expanded business and art and culture and crafted new inventions to announce our presence to the world. And as our prominence increased, so too did our appetites, both for the good and for the bad.
Larson does a masterful job of interweaving our appetites and our grandiose dreams through two main figures. On one side is Daniel Burnham, a visionary architect who sought to turn the 1893 World’s Fair–a showcase of Chicago and America–into a festival for the senses and ode to the art of construction; on the other Herman Webster Mudgett, a sociopath straight out of nightmares who killed at least nine and likely many dozens more for the sheer visceral thrill of total control.
What is most captivating about Larson’s work is that, throughout the build up to the World’s Fair, Burnham seems the most daft and decried by public eyes. (He and others chose a desolate, swampish site to welcome the world? He wanted to build monstrous buildings of unprecedented scale at a feverish pace, regardless of the human lives risked in the process? He ruled the building process like a tyrant? What a maniac!) While Mudgett–aka Dr. Henry Holmes aka Harry Gordon aka Henry Howard–would seem like the epitome of a Gilded Age entrepreneur to his friends and neighbors. (He wants to own a drug store, then build an apartment building and he is always so accommodating to young women. What a gentleman!) We can always tell the truth about each man, but Larson adroitly balances what the reality is with what the perception was creating a masterful sense of “you-are-there” non-fiction so rare in the field.
Perhaps the only flaw with the book is the sprawling cast of cacophonous Chicago that populates the pages around Burnham and Mudgett. With settings and lead actors so captivating a casual reader can easily be forgiven for convoluting the names of victims and tycoons, architects and diarists. But through all of that, the burning passion and dreams of these wildly different men echo their age and foreshadow our own intense desires. Who hasn’t wanted to shake loose the bonds of society and pursue their deepest desires? Who hasn’t wanted to stand tall, turning themselves into a quasi-immortal in the eyes of their generation? And while we hope to emulate Burnham’s edifying dreams rather than Mudgett’s destructive ones, the fundamental truth is that both men reflect an undeniably human trait: to want, to desire, to dream.