Book review: The Devil in the White City

I believe I first learned about The Devil in the White City on a tour of Irvington. It was a fall night as a hundred or so of us trudged from site to site in Irvington, an eastern neighborhood of Indianapolis. The tour was a ghost tour special for the Halloween season. I learned much about historical tidbits of the area, including H.H. Holmes, the so-called devil in the book title.

One house we stopped outside of was presumably haunted. Current owners confirmed this. And by the way, the house was where H.H. Holmes killed a boy. Who? What? Holmes, a serial killer during the world’s fair in Chicago in 1893, passed through Irvington, albeit it temporarily.

With that information, I thought that I needed to read this book about Holmes and Chicago. Years later I finally have.

As I read it, I had to remind myself that it was non-fiction. The book reads like a novel. Two threads and main characters run through the book. Holmes and his murder spree. Burnham, the Chicago architect in charge of making the world’s fair a reality, and the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893.

Sporadically as I was reading, I remembered that Holmes existed. He was real. His deeds happened. And then I’d need to put down the book. But in between those times of realization, the “novel” was easy to consume.

Larson weaves fascinating descriptions about the inner lives of people. Their hopes, dreams, and fears come alive. These people seem real and relatable.

The history of how the fair came to be, details about society and life of the times, the labor struggles, and economic woes of the times are also engrossing. I thought of the world’s fair in Chicago as just magically coming into being. But this book depicts its real struggle and how close it came to not happening. Again and again.

Chicago being picked to host the world’s fair reminded me of sites selected for modern-day Olympics. Everyone wants the honor but then the reality hits. Much money and energy is poured into the endeavor. The city boasts some honor for hosting the event, but then the costs turn out to be so high. And everything built for the event is left to rot after the crowds disperse.

The world’s fair in 1893 was no different. On the surface, the fair was a smashing success. A beautiful temporary site rose from the barrenness that was a city park in Chicago. Word spread about the White City and visitors were enthralled with its beauty.

What would happen when the fair ended six months later? There was no talk of repurposing buildings or the site. The structures were left to rot. Or more accurately to become a shanty town for the hordes of homeless and unemployed during the economic downturn that the fair straddled and deepened. When the fair closed, thousands more were spit out to join the ranks of the unemployed in an economically depressed country. They inhabited the abandoned White City.

Until fire destroyed much of the structures on the site.

It was a sad ending to a beautiful, inspiring event. Chicago was galvanized. It proved to others that it was cultured enough, educated enough to host a world’s fair that would not only make Chicago proud, but the rest of the country.

Nothing really remains of the fair today. One of the buildings was made into a more permanent structure—which houses the Field Museum today. The landscaped grounds designed by the famous Olmstead still sport the wooded island and lagoon. But the fair is all but gone.

Sadly, I did not realize the location of the fair, the historical significance of the location of the Field Museum, or the grounds having been designed by Olmsted—despite having visited the museum several times in my life. Though to be fair, based on the description of Olmsted in The Devil in the White City, I suspect that the landscape in the park no longer conforms to any of Olmsted’s designs and would have him spinning in his grave.

Larson names drops quite a bit in The Devil in the White City. The world’s fair attracted and influenced lots of people. Olmsted was just one among many. (Olmsted designed Central Park, along with dozens and dozens of other well-known places.) Frank Lloyd Wright appears in these pages as a former colleague of another exposition architect, Louis Sullivan, possibly drawing his prairie style inspiration from the Japanese buildings on the Wooded Island. Walt Disney’s father appears—the White City may have influenced his own designs. Eugene Debs pops up as the organizer behind late 1800s train strikes. Baum visited the fair and went on to write about the magical land of Oz. Buffalo Bill headed the wild west show next to the fair. The Ferris’s wheel made its debut at the fair. And on and on.

Larson does an excellent job weaving all of these histories together, giving us glimpses in some cases and more in-depth looks in others into people and events. The White City almost seems impossible to have been. The killings by Holmes seem impossible to have been. Yet both took place. The book shows the heights of joy and the depths of tragedy—from all of the killings, the abandonment and destruction of the fair site, and the pain suffered by both anonymous and named people. Life is transitory. This book drives home that point.

The book starts with Burnham on a trans-Atlantic voyage long after the fair and ends with the knowledge that a colleague from the fair died with the sinking of the Titanic. In between are tales and descriptions that have stuck with me. Larson has taken the real and weaved it into a story that almost seems to be a fabrication rather than a recounting of actual events. The beauty of the White City was too fleeting. As was Larson’s recollection of its existence.

Movie review: East of Eden (1955)

East of Eden was on my to-see list for several years. I seemed to have escaped ever reading Steinbeck’s classic. A visit to Steinbeck’s museum in Salinas, California prompted me picking up The Grapes of Wrath, but time got away from me and his other books didn’t make it into my orbit.

A visit to Fairmount, Indiana last year with all of the James Dean sites and museum reminded me that I hadn’t actually seen a James Dean movie.

So it was with some delight that I saw East of Eden. Having not read the book, I really walked into the movie fresh, with no idea really of the plot. I also have no idea how true to the book the movie was. How well did the movie do with covering Steinbeck’s story? That will have to wait for another time.

East of Eden is set in Salinas and the Monterey Peninsula—not very far apart geographically but they seem to occupy entirely different worlds. The story is set just prior to the US entry into World War I. Railroads connect the two worlds of the farmland of Salinas with the city of Monterey, with James Dean’s character (Caleb) hitching rides to get from one world to the other.

Railroads were also the defining moment for the fertile farmland in California’s Central Valley. If only there was a way to keep produce fresh during transport from the California farmland to places back east. Caleb’s father tinkers with the idea of putting lettuce on ice for transport by rail. Unfortunately, his attempt ends in failure; he bet heavily on his idea and lost.

East of Eden uses this backdrop to explore ideas of identity, the self-made man, and parent-child relations. Caleb is the bad child compared to his perfect brother Aron. References to Cain-Abel are stark. Caleb doesn’t kill Aron but rather eclipses him. As the story progresses, Aron becomes the sulky one, brooding and beset with troubles. Caleb steals the heart of Aron’s betrothed. In the end, Caleb assumes the long-desired place in his father’s heart.

Caleb is bedeviled by the role he seems to be forced to play. Others see him and thus he sees himself as the bad brother, a disappointment to his father and to everyone else. He assumes this interpretation of himself and becomes obsessed with the idea that his badness was inherited. His mother was long gone from the scene—died after childbirth. Or did she? Somehow Caleb suspects that she is still alive and tracks her down. As he suspected, he takes after his mother—a woman who refused to conform to the roles assigned to women at the time. She is a successful businesswoman. To break free of the constrains on women at the time, she had to leave her family and personal relationships behind.

After interacting with his mother, Caleb seems to accept himself more. He is like her. Genetics are destiny it seems. But he still strives for acceptance and love from his father—a highly unlikely source of either. He devotes himself to helping his father succeed in his endeavor to send fresh produce east. His father partially accepts his hard work and inventive ideas.

After seeing his father’s money and dream disappear when the venture ends in failure, Caleb uses his talent and skills to earn back the money his father lost. He takes advantage of the times, knowing that the US entrance into World War I would result in increased food prices. Borrowing money from his mother, he invests—along with a partner—in produce futures. At a birthday celebration for his father, he presents his father with the money. Sadly, his attempt to receive love and acceptance fails. He and his work are rejected by the high morals of his father who views benefiting from the high prices caused by the war as immoral.

Advised by others to leave the area and the family, Caleb seems destined to strike out on his own. But fate intervenes. On what will apparently be his deathbed after a stroke, his father asks Caleb to stay and care for him. Caleb, the wayward son continually rejected by others, seems like a vulnerable little boy who has finally received what he needed all along: love and acceptance from his father.

As his first major film, James Dean played the role of Caleb well. Critics point out that he played sulky teenagers well but that was all he played; his accolades may be misplaced. Perhaps if Dean lived, we would have discovered that this was the only type of role he could play. Or perhaps we would have discovered that he really was a great actor with a wide repertoire. We will never know.

I enjoyed the acting Dean brought to the role as well as the film in general. The themes explored were engaging and the film shots interesting, sometimes off kilter at an angle. I am looking forward to watching his other films…and reading more Steinbeck.

Book review: Our Family Dreams: The Fletchers’ Adventures in Nineteenth Century America

Often the names of streets, parks, and neighborhoods point to the history of a city. Fletcher is one such name. In exploring the local history of Indianapolis, I routinely encountered the name Fletcher.

I learned about the Fletcher family plot in Crown Hill Cemetery and heard stories during tours. I drove down Fletcher Avenue and found myself wandering Fletcher Place when I trekked the cultural trail. I discovered a stunning portrait of Louisa Fletcher, a descendant (granddaughter?) of Calvin Fletcher, who moved to Indianapolis in the early 1800s, at the IMA. Booth Tarkington, a playwright buried in Crown Hill and with a theatre named after him, was married to Louisa. Calvin’s diary is an early historical source of sorts of Indianapolis. Wherever I turn I seem to encounter the Fletchers.

Somewhere, I do not remember where, I learned about Our Family Dreams, an account of the Fletcher clan. I was immediately intrigued.

The book is a delight and a disappointment. A disappointment because it focuses on only the 19th century. I was left wanting more and wondering about the clan in the 20th century. (Louisa doesn’t appear in its pages.) A delight because it is a deep dive into the two Fletcher brothers (Elijah and Calvin) and along the way provides insights in 18th and 19th century life, the political and cultural realities of the country, and early Indianapolis.

Smith starts his story with the patriarch of the family, Jesse Sr., who moved to Vermont to start a farm. His life was consumed with hard work, but he never really got out of the shadow of debt. Despite (or perhaps because of) his poverty, he recognized the value of education, even for girls. Several of his children were educated, either through his direct financial support or from the support of older siblings who were educated and out in the world seeking success.

The focus on Elijah and Calvin provides a fascinating insight into different cultural areas in the US before, during, and after the Civil War. The Fletchers in Vermont were an anti-slavery family. When Elijah left home to seek his way in the world, he was headed to Raleigh for a teaching assignment but stopped short in Virginia, where he took to the southern way of life.

Calvin, in contrast, headed west, eventually ending up in the new city of Indianapolis, which was located in a nominally anti-slavery state. (Indiana’s status can be debated; the legislature was dominated by pro-slavery Democrats and Hoosiers along the banks of the Ohio River often sympathized and sided with pro-slavery sentiment. However, Indiana sent one the largest numbers of soldiers to fight in the Union Army and was constitutionally anti-slavery. See blog posts that mention slavery in Indiana.)

The two brothers stayed in close contact over the decades, each residing over family dynasties of a sort. Elijah quickly became a plantation owner in his own right. Calvin was a lawyer, farmer, landowner, and pillar of the community. Whereas Elijah supported and condoned the owning of slaves, Calvin in his legal capacities helped some slaves brought to Indiana attain their freedom. (According to Indiana law, when slaves were brought to the state for residency—as opposed to transiting through the state to another destination—they automatically gained their freedom. At least in theory according to the law. Reality was a different matter.)

Snippets in the stories about Calvin resonate with history that I have encountered in my explorations of Indiana. In Ohio, Calvin lived with and studied law with a lawyer, reminiscent of the tales I heard about how men studied law in Madison on the Ohio River. As a young lawyer, he rode the circuit in Ohio and Indiana.

His household, once he was established as a pillar of society, consisted not just of family but of servants. And he took in widows and orphans for periods of time. Although I hadn’t encountered other historical figures in my travels who housed random widows and orphans in their own home, it was not uncommon for wealthy men to establish special houses for widows where their basic needs were met.

The story about how Calvin ended up marrying his first wife was enlightening. He realized he needed a helpmate through life but was torn about who it should be. He approached the task of getting a wife more as a rational choice rather than a matter of the heart. He was clearly concerned about status—a wife could improve one’s status or hurt it. He was originally drawn to a student of his but she was from a poor, ignorant family. She would not raise his status, but she could be a project, a person for him to educate and mold. His dilemma seems strange from a 21st century perspective. Frankly, with his attitudes, he seems like a condescending jerk.

As someone in the early years of Indiana, he was, to my chagrin, a land speculator, even owning land as far away as northwest Indiana (Michigan City). (My disappointment is that he was part of land speculation in Indiana that stole land from the native Americans and sold the land for a tidy profit.)

He was anti-slavery but racist. He supported the liberation of slaves and their rights but like Lincoln, believed that once freed, they should return to Africa. He kept out of debates in the 1844 presidential election but refused to support the anti-slavery Quaker ticket. He thought, perhaps rightly, that the Quaker ticket would only succeed in splitting the other tickets. (Neither other ticket was ideal: Whig Clay from pro-slavery Kentucky or Democratic pro-slavery Polk.) He also employed former slaves on his farm.

Indiana was settled with lots of Germans and was populated with numerous breweries. German societies such as the Athenaeum in Indianapolis that celebrated culture and education were common, but at least in Calvin’s day, the Germans he encountered seemed not to be of this class. He viewed Germans as ignorant and backwards and thus looked down on them.

Calvin was involved in the nascent banking industry as a banking president. The early banking industry, as I learned in my explorations, was anything but above board. Banks were meant for the wealthy elite, not the common folk. Often they went belly up and were dens of corruption. Calvin though is portrayed as an above-board kind of guy. I wonder more about his role in the early banking industry in Indiana.

He was an enthusiastic supporter of what he described as internal improvements (what we now refer to as infrastructure projects.) He actually visited the Erie Canal in New York and thought that canals would be better than railroads. (Railroads would only last a couple decades, he thought. He must have realized the error of his judgement; he was at one point on a railroad board.) As with banking, I wondered what his involved in the doomed canal projects in Indiana was. Indiana’s ill-fated attempt to build canals throughout the state ended in failure and the state’s bankruptcy.

Smith mentions in passing the Panic of 1837 and how it contributed to a depression that lasted until 1843. Again, the early financial history of Indiana—and Calvin’s role in it—would be fascinating to learn. My impression is that the state bankruptcy due to the flawed investment in canals led to the panic and ensuing depression, but I am not at all certain that the banking industry didn’t contribute to it as well.

Calvin watched politics and society become more and more divided in the 1840s. He was a staunch abolitionist but not everyone (or most people?) in Indiana shared his views. The protestant churches started to split into northern and southern branches around this time period.

He was friends with Henry Ward Beecher, a Presbyterian minister who preached against slavery. (The Presbyterian Church split into northern and southern branches over the issue of slavery in 1861.) Henry is incidentally the father of Harriet Beecher Stowe, who wrote the anti-slavery treatise Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Calvin was not only an abolitionist, but he was active in temperance and education reform movements, the latter a topic dear to the Fletcher family in general. In the 1830s Horace Mann initiated educational reforms in Indiana. In 1852, Indiana finally established free education. (See blog posts about education in early Indiana.)

Through Calvin’s correspondences with his brother Elijah, we get a glimpse into the political and social realities of the decades leading up to the Civil War. Calvin feared that annexing Texas, which wanted to allow slavery, would lead to war in Mexico and upset the balance of slave vs. non-slave states. He ruminates on John Brown and his attack at Harper’s Ferry. His son Elijah, now a preacher in a church in New Albany in southern Indiana, recounts the pro-Confederate sympathies of his congregation. (Many Hoosier families along the Ohio River were split, with fathers supporting one side and sons the other. Despite this, pro-Confederate sentiments weren’t sufficient to support a Confederate raid into Indiana.)

The pro-Union governor Oliver Morton turned to wealthy businessmen and community leaders to help gather troops, supplies, and funds for the Civil War. One person that Morton turned to was Calvin, whom he enlisted to gather munitions.

Although in his 60s, Calvin traveled to Canada to gather munition for the cause. Given his advanced age (he died at 68), Calvin tried to avoid being further pressed into service. When Morton wanted him to travel with him to Terre Haute, he sent his son Miles in his place. On that trip, Miles was tragically killed by a passing train.

Calvin mentions the train that stopped in Indy on its way to taking the newly elected Abraham Lincoln to Washington DC. Given Lincoln’s status as saint in modern times and their (later?) shared abolitionist view, I expected Calvin to be pro-Lincoln. If anything, Calvin seemed lukewarm about Lincoln. He actually met Lincoln briefly at the White House, but the meeting did not leave him with a great impression either of Lincoln or his administration (!). (Interesting, brother Elijah met Jefferson at Monticello and was less than impressed by him.) When Lincoln’s funeral train stopped in Indy on April 30, Calvin and his wife did pay their respects as Lincoln laid in the Indiana statehouse.

The stories of his children are equally fascinating as the history he lived through. Although he attempted to instill deep morals in his children and prized education, on the whole his children did not turn out as expected. Those from whom he expected great things seemed to disappoint but those who seemed disappointing turned out quite well.

On the whole, his sons wanted to distinguish themselves in battle during the Civil War rather than stay and help with the family business. Calvin rarely mentions his daughters. Maria married Cyrus Hines (who served in the Civil War and post-war practiced law with Benjamin Harrison). After Maria died in childbirth, her sister Lucy married Cyrus—a marriage that Calvin disapproved of.

His son Billy, originally a disappointment, distinguished himself after being captured during the Civil War. He used his medical training to help anyone he could during confinement. Following the war, he became a respected pillar of society, setting up different institutions in Indianapolis.

Calvin also found himself trying to right the ways of errant siblings and nephews, which he wasn’t always successful in doing. His brother’s daughter Indiana pleaded with him to obtain a pass to the north for her. (She was located on her late father’s plantations during the war.) Understandable given his role helping Morton and the side he took in the Civil War, he mainly stayed silent, never satisfying her request. He and his branch of the family had chosen the Union. Elijah and his branch had chosen slavery and the Confederacy.

In all the book is a fascinating look into different political, societal, and historical elements of the US—all through the prism of the Calvin and Elijah Fletcher families. Much that is mentioned weaves with histories and customs that I learned elsewhere. The book did raise other questions and left me wanting to learn more about the Fletcher family and their role in Indiana and American history.

Book review: The World of Pooh: The Complete Winnie-the-Pooh and The House At Pooh Corner

It is amazing how much of Pooh sticks with you over the years.

I had a longing to revisit Winnie-the-Pooh and managed to get my hands on the complete works of Pooh by A. A. Milne. I remember one particular Pooh book from my youth: the one where Pooh visits Rabbit and gets stuck in his doorway. This story is included in the complete works.

The Pooh stories were clearly inspired by a young boy and his teddy bear. Originally in the stories the bear was named Edward Bear but quickly referred to as Winne-the-Pooh. Milne created these stories to entertain a real Christopher Robin who dragged his stuffed bear around.

The stories in Winne-the-Pooh contain the original cast of characters: Pooh, Piglet, Eeyore, Kanga and baby Roo. The House At Pooh Corner introduces Tigger to the Hundred Acre Wood. Christopher Robin is always popping in and out of the stories. He lives in a tree in the forest but is often out doing things and only occasionally joins the other inhabitants in the forest.

The stories were a delight to reread. I remember most, if not all, of the various chapter-length tales—the game of Poohsticks, Roo’s Strengthening Medicine, Eeyore losing his tail. This odd collection of friends is timeless. They do not age and frankly neither do you. Like Christopher Robin in the stories, you can pop in to visit them at any time and it feels like no time has passed since you last interacted with them.

Pooh and his friends seem like archetypes—I always thought that they each represent different aspects of ourselves. Rabbit the know-it-all. Owl the wise and knowledgeable. Kanga the kind mother. Roo the overexcited youngster. Eeyore the perpetually depressed. Piglet the anxious and fearful. (Well, he is a Very Small Animal after all.) Tigger the exuberant lover of life. Pooh the calm, humble bear who accepts all. (My favorite was always Tigger who is quite bouncy.)

I was surprised that in addition to the stories, I remembered the dialogue. Milne had a way with witty banter. I often found myself laughing out loud at exchanges between characters. In one story, Rabbit clearly wanted to be left alone, but he encountered Pooh who wanted to talk. (Who hasn’t been in this situation before?) “Hallo, Rabbit,” [Pooh] said, “is that you?” “Let’s pretend it isn’t,” said Rabbit, “and see what happens.” (page 106)

Other times, Pooh, a Bear of Very Little Brain, says something quite profound. Piglet, who is always nervous and worried, asks Pooh a question as they are walking in the forest. “Supposing a tree feel down, Pooh, when we were underneath it?” “Supposing it didn’t,” said Pooh after careful thought. Piglet was comforted by this. (page 272)

Other times he clearly is not too bright. As Piglet observed, “Pooh hasn’t much Brain, but he never comes to any harm. He does silly things and they turn out right.” (page 122). He cannot remember left from right. He knocks on the door to his own house, mentions that it is taking the occupant forever to answer, and then is reminded that it is his own house. He falls into his own trap for the mythical Heffalump. But he is a true and tried friend to all with a heart of gold.

The last story in the collection is sad—a collective good-bye to Christopher Robin who is clearly going off to school and putting his group of stuffed animals aside to Grow Up. But the nice thing is that the group did not grow old. The inhabitants of Hundred Acre Wood are still there, visiting each other to wish a Happy Thursday or doing simply Nothing. You can join them any time you need a break from Being an Adult.

Book review: Dear Madam President: An Open Letter to the Women Who Will Run the World

Dear Madam President is both a reflection on Palmieri’s role in Hillary Clinton’s campaign and a call to arms for women in leadership. The book is specifically for the woman who will be the first woman president, but her words really speak to women in any leadership role. Heck, they speak to any woman.

The book is an easy read, divided into nine chapter or exhortations. Through them Palmieri describes situations that happened during the Clinton campaign or during a visit with Elizabeth Edwards and then illuminates the lessons to be learned from them. She talks directly to the future woman president of the United States—Madam President. (She originally notes that Madam seems to define a woman by her attachment to a man but ends up using the title because frankly there is no neutral title for a woman that doesn’t denote her relationship with a man. Sigh.)

She acknowledges the failures that Hillary’s advisors (which includes herself) made in the campaign and their wrong assumptions. They advised her to run like a man, to run as a presidential candidate, not the potential first woman president. This was a mistake. Hillary should have embraced being the first woman president and forged her own model of leadership.

Palmieri recognizes that currently the only model for a person in power to follow is male. And that this needs to change.

As she explained this point and raised the fact that women have imitated male models in the workforce, I thought back to the 1980s, when middle class white women entered the workforce in large numbers. The clothing (remember the huge shoulder pads and mannish look to business attire?), the attitude, the mannerism all screamed women trying to be men.

Women had to prove that they belonged by proving that they were tough enough. They were just like the men, whose ranks they were fighting to enter. They had to embrace the male work style.

In hindsight this was a huge disservice to women, men, and the work world. We are still paying the price and trying to escape this male model.

Palmieri calls for a new way, a new model of leadership. What would it be like to lead like a woman?

She also recognizes in hindsight the refusal or inability of Hillary’s advisors to acknowledge the deep misogyny in the US. People disliked Hillary. They were OK with voting for a woman, they insisted, but not that woman. They didn’t trust her.

But suddenly they were OK with Hillary when she conceded the race. Palmieri surmised (rightly, I think) that people were not comfortable with Hillary—with a woman—being in a position of power. But as soon as she conceded, suddenly she stepped back into a traditional role played by women. Then she was OK.

The problem was clearly that the anti-Hillary folks didn’t trust Hillary because she was an “intelligent, capable, ambitious woman in a position of power.” (page 50) As such, she “represented an existential threat to the proper order of things.” (pages 54-55)

Palmieri mentions that Hillary’s advisors also didn’t understand the level of frustration in the population at large and how it was playing out in the populous movements in the campaigns. But the Clintons did. Palmieri mentions a book that the Clintons read and discussed, The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements—a book from the 1950s. It sounds eerily relevant to today (and a must read).

Palmieri’s lessons and advice to the future Madam President (and women in general) are good. Some lines jumped off of the page and felt like Palmieri was speaking directly to me. She described my own experiences, insecurities, and problems being a woman in a world that doesn’t value women.

Which things that she writes might speak directly to you?