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Fair and Foul

Erik Larson’s new book balances beauty and terror in 1890s Chicago; Norman Mailer gives fiction lessons.

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Unreal read: Murder in the metropolis.  

The world’s fair in Chicago in 1893, Henry Adams wrote, was “the first expression of American thought as a unity.” Erik Larson, in The Devil in the White City, gives us an example of what that means: Cracker Jack, shredded wheat, Juicy Fruit gum, more electric lights than had ever been strung in one place, and, as ever, the desire to put Europe in its place. The exhibition in Paris in 1889 had wowed the world. The Eiffel Tower, especially, had been a stick in the eye of America’s architects and engineers—when Monsieur Eiffel offered to build an even better tower for Chicago, it was as if he’d offered to sleep with their wives.

Chicago, too, had a perpetual inferiority complex. The city was desperate to be seen as more than a stage in the country’s alimentary canal, in which Western grasslands were converted into cattle and thence to high-quality protein for the East. Was unfettered, free-swinging, Chicago-style capitalism inimical to civilization? The city had something to prove.

Architect Daniel Burnham, of Burnham and Root, at the time the preeminent firm in Chicago (he later built the Flatiron Building), was charged with proving it. He put together a consortium of the country’s greatest architects, including Charles McKim, of McKim, Mead, and White; George B. Post, who built many of the most elaborate mansions on Fifth Avenue and in Newport; proto-modernist Louis Sullivan (his sole New York building is at the head of Crosby Street, on Bleecker); and Frederick Law Olmsted, designer of Central Park, still gifted—and difficult—at age 68. Together, in Jackson Park on Lake Michigan, they built the White City, a simultaneous Beaux-Arts triumph and last gasp. The buildings were spray-painted (then a new process) white—with lead paint. Their answer to the Eiffel Tower was a giant passenger wheel affording magnificent views of the fair, which has had its own sort of immortality—its builder was a man named Ferris. The devil is H. H. Holmes (born Herman Webster Mudgett, he renamed himself after the famous detective), a doctor who capitalized on the anonymity of the metropolis to run his own human slaughterhouse, killing as many as 200 people, including entire families. Larson was shrewd to resurrect him—he’s undoubtedly the brightest mass murderer this side of Hannibal Lecter, an inventor, entrepreneur, and gifted swindler, handsomer, in Larson’s telling, than Ted Bundy, with vivid blue eyes. Burnham and Holmes are two sides of the coin, creatures of the new metropolis, using American energies and know-how to radically different purposes.

The Devil in the White City is, in one sense, a deadline drama, as the architects rush to complete their labors, squabbling among themselves while keeping the suits at bay, then gathering around a giant hearth to smoke, drink fine Madeira, and discuss the new city—the new world—they are bringing into being.

As Burnham was planning his city, Holmes was building his own dream house nearby. It occupied an entire Chicago block, a veritable Bluebeard’s Castle (the neighbors actually called it the castle) with airtight, soundproof rooms and a chute for transporting bodies to the basement and a special kiln. During the fair, he had the inspired idea to convert it to a hotel. Holmes was a huckster, too, the original American Psycho, with a consummate salesman’s confidence that he could talk and lie and cajole his way through any situation. Not content simply to dispose of his victims, he mixed business with his gruesome pleasure by selling many of their skeletons to medical schools.

Larson’s book is a police blotter and construction log and shipping record and diner’s journal, among other things, and it has a cast of thousands, including Buffalo Bill, Thomas Edison, Theodore Dreiser, Archduke Ferdinand, an entire Algerian village (heroic but ultimately unsuccessful efforts were made to import Pygmies), the Boss Tweed–like bon vivant Mayor Carter Henry Harrison, and Harrison’s eventual assassin, a crazed file clerk named Patrick Prendergrast. Mrs. Astor’s factotum Ward McAllister fires his own snooty salvos from the East. “It is not quantity, but quality that the society people here want,” he wrote in his New York World column. “Hospitality which includes the whole human race is not desirable.”

Larson is a talented writer with a gift for surprising language, and an admirable impulse to show and not tell. The book whips back and forth from character to character, anecdote to anecdote, building plenty of momentum in the process—though it sometimes feels like a blizzard of index cards. The basic emotional food groups here are awe (at the glorious White City), pity and terror (for Holmes’s victims) leavened by the amusement of watching our ancestors capering about in their funny hats and coats discovering any number of things we now take for granted. The book can feel a little skeletal, analytically. Larson has balanced beauty and terror, the genius and flaw of the modern city. The book is a parable, a kind of one-liner—is there always a devil in the white city?


Who would have guessed that fearsome Norman Mailer, stabber of wives, puncher of rivals, would become chatty Grandpa Fiction, lecturing the younger generation and emphasizing his points with his dual walking sticks. But here he is. In his new book, The Spooky Art: Some Thoughts on Writing, he reflects on his 60-some years of writing fiction, around a spine of his old interviews and essays. He chucks in everything and the kitchen sink—Marx and Freud, phenomenology, the nature of God, suicide, the necessity of putting on literary airs, remarks or extended ruminations on a score of great novelists. The last section is outtakes, titled, charmingly if a little dottily, “A Lagniappe for the Reader.”

Mailer’s impulse to take a proposition to the limits of logic and beyond, then sticking to his conclusions, has not abated with age—he even has to devote a couple of paragraphs to defending his unusual title. And he still contends that he wasn’t wrong about some of his notorious (masturbation leads to madness? What if he’s right?) ideas.

There’s a real sense in this book of sharing his adventure: we happy few, we novelists. There’s also a sense that the war hasn’t gone well. “The things I’ve stood for have been roundly defeated,” he writes. “Literature . . . has been ground down in the second half of the twentieth century.” This sounds like a complaint from his younger colleagues, but it’s not. As a novelist, Mailer still lives in the Kennedy era: Ask not what the country can do for the novelist; ask what the novelist can do for the country. “We haven’t done the imaginative work that could have helped define America, and as a result, our average citizen does not grow in self-understanding,” he says. Mailer fetishizes bravery, which has sometimes made him seem silly. But in many ways, he has achieved it—he’s still ready to be wrong, even ridiculous. Which is the meaning of aesthetic risk.

The Devil in the White City
By Erik Larson.
Crown; 464 pages; $25.95.
Buy it on bn.com

The Spooky Art
By Norman Mailer.
Random House; 330 pages; $24.95.
Buy it on bn.com


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