Friday, December 11, 2009

Devil and the White City

All that remains obviously visible now of the White City is the former Palace of Fine Arts, which now resides comfortably in the middle of the University of Chicago - a tribute to science and technology. Now known as the Museum of Science and Industry, its web site states its vision as follows: “to inspire and motivate our children to reach their full potential in science, technology, medicine and engineering.” Is this true? Hell, yes! Every day, scores of yellow buses transport hundreds of hyper-kinetic children into this magnificent monument to scientific progress to be inspired, perhaps, to reach their full potential as engineers, architects, scientists, and physicians.

When I lived in San Francisco, we had a Palace of Fine Arts; interestingly, it is also the only surviving building from a World's Fair—the 1915 San Francisco World's Fair. San Francisco's 1915 fair was known as The Panama-Pacific International Exposition and celebrated the opening of the Panama Canal. Today it houses a splendid art collection and serves as the site for many glittering (and pompous) gatherings featuring fine wines, chamber music, and well dressed socialites. San Francisco's Palace of Fine Arts had its own little literary brush with terror, though—in film rather than print—as one of the settings for Alfred Hitchcock's classic, Vertigo.

Let's see...a segue, a segue, I need a segue. Screw it. Erik Larson and The Devil in the White City is a blockbuster tribute to the genius and determination of architect and urban planner Daniel Burnham and a testament to the madness and depravity of physician, murderer, and purveyor of cadavers Henry Holmes. Larson has succeeded in captivating the public, I believe, because he skillfully whipsaws us back and forth between the noblest and finest of human aspirations and behaviors and the meanest and most sickening depths of the human psyche.

Robert Louis Stevenson got the same morbid stranglehold on his readers' emotions in The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde when he catapulted his Victorian audience between depravity and goodness in a single conflicted and tortured double character. Stevenson's work continues to speak to us. It has been recast as a play and, in recent years, even as a Broadway musical which ran from 1997 to 2001. The romp between good and evil is always winning combination. Good choice of a time tested formula, Larson!

I wish the story of Daniel Burnham had been enough for Larson. Burnham was a pretty extraordinary fellow, and certainly worthy of his own biography in his own right. Anyone who says otherwise is jealous, retarded, or some combination thereof. However, in the end, that's just not what people want. I found three biographies of Daniel Burnham on Amazon's website, and I don't think I know anyone who has even read any of these biographies. Sorry, Burnham. It's just your lot in life to have your life oddly juxtaposed with a homicidal maniac.

Most of us do not live in shining white cities or in palaces filled with resplendent fine arts, just like the majority have no idea what it's like to reach for the kind of greatness that Daniel Burnham tried to grasp. On the other hand, most of us have never encountered the dark and loathsome places Henry Holmes designed and inhabited, but every now and then we are tempted to hang pruriently over their edges, just for a moment, before we finally skitter away.

This desire to taste all of life—not just the piece of the universe that we happen to inhabit — has been fed for centuries by playwrights, journalists, and story tellers...roiling stews that combine ambition, passion, goodness, wickedness, heroism, kindness and cruelty. Erik Larson may not be Shakespeare or even Robert Louis Stevenson, but I suppose he knows a winning formula when he sees one.

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