Essay: Eric Larson the Devil in the White City

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Devil in the White City - Chicago and the World's Fair, 1893

Non-Fictional Glimpse at America's Best & Worst

Erik Larson's the Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America opens the door to an interesting comparison with life in America in 2009, and one of those comparisons in particular is the need for America to pull itself up out of the mire of a deep recession just as Chicago needed to pull itself up out of the bad image it had been saddled with in 1893.

In hindsight America has always been a chapter-by-chapter story recounting good overcoming bad, ignorance outweighed by knowledge, corruption put out of business by legislation and oversight, ordinary people doing extraordinary things and technological innovation solving serious social and economic problems that hitherto seemed unsolvable. The pertinent question now is can America once again rebound from seemingly insurmountable odds in 2009 just as America did in the late 19th Century in part due to the wildly successful World's Fair in Chicago? Indeed, America in 2009 is a place where millions of people have been put out of jobs, hundreds of thousands of families are forced from their homes due to foreclosures, banks have fallen into lethal pools of red ink, property values plummet daily like stones and consumer confidence at an all-time low.

This paper will build its theme on an interesting correlation between the America of 1893 - and Chicago specifically - and the America of 2009. To wit, due in large part to the World's Fair in 1893, Chicago played out the classic American story by emerging from having an image as a dangerous and dirty city in the late 19th Century - with a myriad of serious social and economic problems ripping at its soul and holding down its citizens - into a respected, cleaner, safer big American city in the early 20th Century. That was no mean feat, as this paper will point out.

Was Chicago termed a "windy city" not because of its climate but because of hot air from "local braggadocio"? Writer David Traxel of the New York Times believes that was the reason for the "windy city" phrase. Did Chicago really need to pull out all the stops (even beyond the proverbial rabbit out of a hat) in terms of its ability to put on a great show for the world? This question is particularly germane following the stunning success of the Paris Exposition four years earlier during which "a glamorous display of cultural sophistication and engineering expertise" helped to establish the model for future nations to follow (Traxel, 2003).

No way could Chicago top the engineering achievement that was showcased in Paris by the unveiling of Gustav Eiffel's thousand-foot tower even though as Larson writes on page 16, the "Chicago spirit" had rebuilt much of the city following the Great Fire of 1871. And Larson notes that even though Chicago had become a leader in commerce, manufacturing, and architecture it had not been able to shake the "widespread perception" that it was a "secondary city that preferred butchered hogs to Beethoven" (Larson, p. 16).

And likewise, with the theme of Obama / Chicago carrying through in this essay, as bright, as scholarly, as articulate and obviously poised as Obama was during primary and presidential campaigns, he had a hard time shaking the perception that he was inexperienced and just a first-term U.S. Senator from Chicago. Add to that the fact that he was an African-American with a very unusual name and had a hard time shaking the false accusation that he was "a Muslim." He also had a difficult time proving that he was born in the U.S. (in Hawaii, by the way) when his detractors used the Internet and other sources to plant the story that he was actually born in Kenya, the home of his father.

That sounds a bit like Chicago having a hard time shaking its image as a rough-and-tumble dirty city where livestock were slaughtered by the thousands every day and it was rife with "...coal smoke, foul odors, corrupt politics and... greed" (Traxel, 2003).

The attitude in Chicago during the development of the Fair - "Failure was unthinkable" (Larson, p. 33) - is identical to what the attitude should be today in the U.S., as America faces yet another crippling economic crisis. President Barack Obama and his administration should be thinking that "failure is unthinkable" and they very well may be thinking those identical thoughts. If they are not thinking those sorts of thoughts the nation is in more trouble than it seems to be in.

The double irony connected with this juxtaposition and comparison is that Barack Obama comes from Chicago, where he worked the streets as a community organizer and also worked at the University of Chicago as a lecturer. His tormentors from the conservative side of the political spectrum during the campaign used the theme of Chicago as a place known for its "dirty politics" to degrade his image and his candidacy. That's the same context in which New York City derided Chicago as not worthy of being given the World's Fair in 1893. Nastiness seems to always be just around the corner in any Chicago political scenario - witness the grim spectacle of the recent Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich (who tried to sell a U.S. Senate seat) and the new scandal associated with the man Blagojevich appointed to take Obama's place in the U.S. Senate - and it was not so different at the end of the 19th Century in that sense.

And moreover, civil history is not on the side of the "Windy City" when the subject comes up relating to the carnage in Chicago's Grant Park during the 1968 Democratic Convention. This particular black mark on Chicago occurred because police beat hundreds of people including innocent convention-goers, bystanders and news reporters like Mike Wallace and Dan Rather. The official report called the violence a "police riot" and the sting from that ugly scene can still be felt in Chicago.

Indeed, Chicago did end up putting on a successful World's Fair in 1893 thanks in large part to the energy and talent of designer Daniel Burnham, upon whose shoulders fell the burden of "...restoring the nation's pride and prominence" following the hugely successful Paris exposition (Larson, p. 33). One could say that the burden of digging America out of its current economic slump falls on the shoulders of Obama much the way the burden of uplifting Chicago and America through the World's Fair fell on Burnham's shoulders.

Interestingly Chicago was involved in a fierce competition to win the competition over who would host the World's Columbian Exposition, just as Obama won a fierce, seemingly unending competition to be the Democratic nominee for president. And following the contentious primary, during which he was trailing Senator Hillary Clinton by 30 points before rallying to beat her, he then had to go through a brutal, sometimes savage campaign to defeat the Republican candidate John McCain. Nothing came easy for Obama on his trek to the White House.

Nothing came easy for Chicago either, as it competed with Washington, St. Louis, and New York City for the rights to host the Fair. The tension described by Larson on pages 17-18 reflects that citizens were gathering outside the Chicago Tribune to follow the vote in Congress as to which city would get the Fair. New York was certainly the nation's cultural capitol and there was angst between the two cities that spilled over into the editorial pages of the Chicago Tribune. Larson writes (p. 16) that the Tribune warned, "...the hawks, buzzards, vultures, and other unclean beasts, creeping, crawling, and flying, of New York are reaching out to get control of the fair" (Larson, p. 16).

No one publicly called Obama a "beast" during the campaign, and no serial killer like H.H. Holmes murdered young women who had come to Chicago and elsewhere to help the Democratic candidate - or any candidate. But there was an accusation of a connection between Obama and a man whose organization once killed people.

To wit, Republican Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin did accuse Obama of an association with a "terrorist" who was part of a radical organization called the Weather Underground in the 1960s. Obama was linked on numerous occasions with Bill Ayers, as the Republican campaign sensed it was behind the Democratic campaign and began to attack with a blistering venom equal to the "buzzards, vultures, and other unclean beasts" the Tribune used in attacking New York City's bid for the rights to put on the Fair.

Our opponent, Palin said, "is someone who sees America, it seems, as being so imperfect, imperfect enough, that he's palling around with terrorists who would target their own country" (Kuhnhenn, 2008). In rallies that Palin held around the country she frequently alluded to the alleged association (which Obama denied) between Obama and Ayers; and during some of those… [END OF PREVIEW]

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