Devil in the White City

“That night the exposition illuminated the fairgrounds one last time. ‘Beneath the stars the lake lay dark and sombre,’ Stead wrote, ‘but on its shores gleamed and glowed in golden radiance the ivory city, beautiful as a poet’s dream, silent was a city of the dead'” (333).

In Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City, men squabble for power and wealth in the end of the 19th century. Larson’s nonfiction is set in Chicago in 1893, the set of the World’s Fair. Larson tells the story of two blue-eyed men thirsty for power of a different kind. Daniel Burnham is the charismatic architect who envisioned and oversaw the creation of the World’s Fair. H.H. Holmes is the charismatic doctor who killed numerous women during the World’s Fair.

Both men wanted what most men in Chicago wanted at the time, notoriety and success. Ambition seemed to me the prevailing theme behind Devil in the White City. Ambition led Chicago to win the honor of hosting the World’s Fair, ambition led to H.H. Holmes marrying numerous women, and perhaps even killing them, and ambition led to the incredible success of the World’s Fair, including the creation of Ferris’s wheel.

While this book had some tedious sections about Frederick Law Olmsted (the landscape architect for the fair), the overall feel of this nonfiction thriller was one of heightened anticipation and horror. I couldn’t read the last 100 pages at night.

In the end, the character that intrigued me the most was Sol Bloom, a minor character who was in charge of the Midway at the World’s Fair. Bloom, who started life as a poor son of an immigrant, became famous for his success at the Fair. He was 23 years old. Bloom has one of the last quotes in Devil in the White City, and it is a great one.

“‘But one thing was quite clear…’ he wrote. ‘[B]eing broke didn’t disturb me in the least. I had started with nothing, and if I now found myself with nothing, I was at least even. Actually, I was much better than even: I had had a wonderful time'” (381). In a time when most of America was thirsty for fame, success, and money, Bloom’s opinion on a life well lived was refreshing. It doesn’t hurt that he ended his life as a successful politician who helped create the United Nations.

-A

 

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