Saturday, July 12, 2008

The Devil in the White City -- In the White City Discussion Questions

6. At the end of The Devil in the White City, in Notes and Sources, Larson writes: "The thing that entranced me about Chicago in the Gilded Age was the city's willingness to take on the impossible in the name of civic honor, a concept so removed from the modern psyche that two wise readers of early drafts of this book wondered why Chicago was so avid to win the world's fair in the first place" [p. 393]. What motives, in addition to "civic honor," drove Chicago to build the Fair? In what ways might the desire to "out-Eiffel Eiffel" and to show New York that Chicago was more than a meat-packing backwater be seen as problematic?

I think Chicago also had financial motives to build the fair and pride in their city to show it off as one of the biggest and best in America. "Out Eiffeling Eiffel" was problematic because American's engineers didn't step up to the task of building an engineering marvel rapidly. Showing New York that Chicago wasn't just a backwater city with a lot of growth was problematic because Chicago was just that. Chicago did not seem to be a city of culture and refinement. At least, not as it was portrayed in the book.

7. Larson writes, "The juxtaposition of pride and unfathomed evil struck me as offering powerful insights into the nature of men and their ambitions" [p. 393]. What such insights does the book offer? What more recent stories of pride, ambition, and evil parallel those described in The Devil in the White City?

The pride and evil of Holmes? Or the pride of Burnham (and the leading men of Chicago) and the evil of Holmes? I considered the question to be asking the latter when I read it the first time. If Burnham had had less pride in the fair designed just as he wanted and viewed just as he wanted, the fair might have been more of a success both financial and for its visitors. As for Holmes, I have to wonder how so many people fell for his guises. It's hard to believe he was got away with all that he did and no one noticed at the time.

8. In his speech before his wheel took on its first passengers, George Ferris "happily assured the audience that the man condemned for having 'wheels in his head' had gotten them out of his head and into the heart of the Midway Plaisance" [p. 279]. In what way is the entire Fair an example of the power of human ingenuity, of the ability to realize the dreams of imagination?

Speed and the act of taking the dreams and ideas and actually transforming them into reality. The fair was actualized in a very short time period for the amount of construction, landscaping, and exhibitions put together, especially so considering the time period and the lack on modern technology. The architects, financiers, Olmstead, and Ferris dreamed big, made the plans for those dreams, then made them happen.

9. In describing the collapse of the roof of Manufacturers and Liberal Arts Building, Larson writes: "In a great blur of snow and silvery glass the building's roof — that marvel of late nineteenth-century hubris, enclosing the greatest volume of unobstructed space in history — collapsed to the floor below" [p. 196–97]. Was the entire Fair, in its extravagant size and cost, an exhibition of arrogance? Do such creative acts automatically engender a darker, destructive parallel? Can Holmes be seen as the natural darker side of the Fair's glory?

Of course, the fair was an exhibition of arrogance. To New York, to Paris. It takes a certain amount of arrogance in a man to create and build such buildings and a wheel. And in a city, to think that all that was done could be done bigger and better than anywhere else in the space of two years.

I do not think creative acts automatically engender darker, destructive ones. It just seems wrong somehow to think that way, to me. I do think Holmes can be seem as the darker side of the fair's glory. Such men are drawn to places where they (and their actions) can go unnoticed due to the size of the population and visiting crowds, the commotions and events, and the shortage of law enforcement, especially trained ones. But I do not think Homes can be seen as the natural darker side of the fair's glory. To me, to say this would imply that having a great and glorious fair would also have to include having a dark disaster. Yes, it was more likely, given the conditions in Chicago at the time of the fair and the magnitude of the fair, that some dark disaster would occur but one didn't necessarily have to occur just because the fair did.

This section of the book seemed jumpy and patchy to me. It was harder to read in consistent threads. For example, there was a short section on three couples in love and marriage which didn't seem to have anything to do with the narratives being told and the people weren't brought up again (yet). I am guessing the author wanted to include stories of love in the time of the fair, perhaps to balance out Holmes's lack of love in his courtships. But the section seemed out of place and unnecessary to me.

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