IN an urgent letter to his parents in 1893, Hamlin Garland told them to leave their Dakota farm and come to Chicago: “Sell the cook stove if necessary and come. You must see this fair.” The World’s Columbian Exposition also astonished a very different writer, Henry Adams, who made two separate visits; and his brother Charles, after initial hesitation (“Hell! I would exactly as soon take a season ticket to a circus”), insisted on staying an extra week. From May 1 until October 30, more than 20 million other visitors flocked to the White City, the most successful and most consequential international exposition in American history. Upon 1,037 acres along Lake Michigan, a culture expressed itself, a nation defined itself; and in commemorating an earlier discovery of America, the Fair epitomized the aspirations of an era.
Undoubtedly, much of the allure of the White City was due to the spectacle it made of itself. Sprawling across an area three times larger than any previous world’s fair, the grounds had been created ex nihilo and laced with lagoons under the direction of Frederick Law Olmsted, the landscape architect who turned unpromising marshland into a garden. The Manufactures and Liberal Arts Building was the biggest roofed structure ever constructed; three times grander than St. Peter’s, it could easily seat 300,000 on its 44 acres of floor space. To raise its twelve million pounds of steel trusses, the highest travelling derrick in the world also had to be built, although its height of 250 feet was matched by the first Ferris Wheel, a 1200-ton structure from which dangled 36 pendulum cars each holding 40 passengers. At the tallest stop, they could gaze upon the largest dome in the world (atop Richard Morris Hunt’s Administration Building) and the largest effigy (Daniel Chester French’s statue of the Republic) and the largest fountain (Frederick MacMonnies’s Columbia). Inside the buildings were housed the largest collection of paintings ever assembled (with more than a thousand oils in the American exhibit alone), the world’s biggest hunk of cheese (eleven tons, provided by Canada), a 120-ton rifled gun (part of the Krupps’ ominous $1.5 million ordnance display), and a horseless carriage. The exposition’s director of works, Daniel H. Burnham, could not resist hyperbole in reviewing the sweep of American history and finding only the Revolution and the Civil War of comparable impact.
Usually with more restraint, visitors and participants commented widely about the splendors and defects of the White City. It inspired a half dozen memorial volumes and was mentioned in 13 novels, including William Dean Howells’s Traveler from Altruria, in which the exposition serves as the only actual foretaste of Utopia. Yet David F. Burg’s study is the first full-scale scholarly work ever published about the White City; the case he advances for its historical significance is unimaginative, often uninstructive, but compelling. It should come as no surprise that Chicago, the phoenix of 19th-century cities, would have lavished $19 million to mount something to satisfy the taste for the gargantuan. But what could not have been anticipated was the extent to which the exposition transcended boosterism, provoking Henry Adams to measure it as “a step in evolution to startle Darwin.”
Though Mr, Burg places the Fair against the backdrop of late Victorian culture and society and presents it as an epiphany in the life of Chicago, he is especially attentive to the controversial architecture of the exposition. Here he takes issue with its most imposing critic, Louis Sullivan, whose Autobiography of an Idea (1924) warned that “the damage wrought by the World’s Fair will last for half a century from its date, if not longer. It has penetrated deep into the constitution of the American mind, effecting there lesions significant of dementia.” Burg concedes that the classical idiom and uniform cornice line hardly encouraged inventiveness, but one would hardly guess from Sullivan’s bitterness that perhaps the most popular edifice at the Fair was his own Hall of Transportation, which alone escaped the glistening white stucco and paint that made all the other major buildings monochromatic. Its entrance, replete with five receding arches overlaid with gold leaf, won the medal of the Société des Arts Décovatifs, distinguishing the “Golden Door” as the only architectural feature of the Fair to be so honored amidst the uniformity of the Beaux-Arts motif.
Sullivan was only one of an extraordinary corps of artists whose spirit of grand collective enterprise was so infectious that the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens exclaimed to Burnham: “Look here, old fellow, do you realize that this is the greatest meeting of artists since the 15th century?” Burg does not try to validate that claim, but he leaves Burnham’s reputation secure as the prodigal father of American urban planning and confirms 1893 as the most accurate birthdate of the “City Beautiful” movement. For the Chicagoans did not invigorate an already used area, as precedent dictated. Instead they created a separate, enchanting enclave in order to demonstrate, as Burnham put it, how “the orderly arrangement of fine buildings and monuments” might suggest “civic beauty [which] satisfies a craving of human nature.” The White City thus resembled Howells’s visionary Altruria “in being a design, the effect of a principle, and not the straggling and shapeless accretion of accident.” Even Adams, recognizing whirl as king elsewhere, agreed; and in his Education he devoted a chapter to Chicago as “the first expression of American thought as a unity; one must start there.”
Unfortunately, Burg’s treatment of American thought in relation to the Fair is shallow and undiscerning. In the same breath as Dreiser, he speaks of the rhymester Eugene Field (“of whom Chicago might be justly proud”). Veblen is unmentioned, perhaps because he occasioned little civic pride, although The Theory of the Leisure Class connects the legacy of the Fair to the pecuniary culture. Nor is the actual influence of the prints Frank Lloyd Wright admired in the Japanese pavilion traced in his later architecture. John Dewey, Josiah Royce, and Lester Frank Ward were among the luminaries who spoke at the auxiliary congresses, but Burg does not bother to summarize—much less interpret—their papers. The White City used three times more electricity than the city of Chicago itself so that for Adams, awestruck by the twelve huge dynamos that dominated the Westinghouse exhibit, the ubiquitous new form of power he acknowledged in his autobiography was not only a metaphor. Yet Burg brings no subtlety to his discussion of the transformation in sensibility Adams perceived between Chartres and Chicago.
The Fair would have been an intriguing instance of the maturation of the American mind if only because the career of perhaps our most seminal historian was launched there. Though he was too busy getting his paper into shape in his hotel room to absorb much of the spectacle, Frederick Jackson Turner did deliver “The Significance of the Frontier in American History” to an unimpressed gathering of the American Historical Association. Burg’s claim that “the propounding of such a thesis could have occurred in no setting more appropriate than the World’s Columbian Exposition” must be regarded as obtuse, for the Fair itself foreshadowed the very metropolitan vision which Turner’s definition of American distinctiveness could not incorporate. The commercial atmosphere of the exposition did not overwhelm the aesthetic achievement toward which Turner’s archetypal frontiersman was so indifferent, and the cosmopolitanism manifested in the displays of 60 nations belied the nationalism that his essay encouraged. Even the young woman who composed the official ode, Harriet Monroe, later became the editor of Poetry and thus the sponsor of much of the writing that was so subversive of the Middle Border tradition that Turner celebrated. The Fair also unintentionally accelerated the decline of a markedly frontier and rural society in a manner unknown to Burg: the company whose catalogue helped shatter provincial isolation, Sears, Roebuck, got its most important transfusion of capital from the Rosenwald family, part of whose fortune had just been amassed from the ice cream and soda pop concession at the Fair.
The author slights the economic aspects of the exposition, even though virtually everyone who ever wrote about Chicago noted the prevalence of the business ethos, and even though Hubert Howe Bancroft’s Book of the Fair (1893) opens with the assertion that “man is a trading animal.” Without the financial support of the city’s economic elite, the ambitions of the nation’s artists could not have been realized. Nor could the feminist achievement of the Women’s Pavilion, designed and adorned without male intervention, escape elite dominance. The building was dedicated by the president of the Board of Lady Managers, Mrs. Potter Palmer, haughtily dismissed as an “innkeeper’s wife” by the touring Spanish Infanta but still the leader of the city’s high society. Burg mentions “Little Egypt,” the legendary hootchykootchy dancer whose exotic gyrations along the Midway Plaisance shook some Victorian conventions as well, but he otherwise shows little gift for making the picturesque seem pertinent. Unmentioned is Bernard Macfadden, whose side-show muscle-flexing and slogan that “Weakness is a Crime” helped inaugurate the cult of the strenuous life that addressed civilian fears of the eclipse of the manly virtues and “racial instinct.” Unlike Macfadden, Harry Houdini did not exactly get his start at the Fair. But he was there as a teenage performer, already showing audiences that skill and will could triumph over obstacles; and though absent from Burg’s account, Houdini’s is surely a name for the student of fin de sidcle popular culture to conjure with.
Instead, Burg gives disproportionate treatment to the World Parliament of Religions, an unprecedented ecumenical meeting of just about everyone from James Cardinal Gibbons to Mary Baker Eddy to Swami Vivekenanda. With representatives of 143 American denominations, plus foreign faiths, present, controversial claims were deliberately muted and gaseous idealism given every indulgence. Extensive excerpts show little but orotundity, and Burg is unamused by the assertion of the president of the World’s Congress Auxiliary that “the Parliament of Religions has emancipated the world from bigotry.” When journalists stopped reporting sermons, they started reporting religion; and Burg too might have been more skeptical toward the ecclesiastical equivalent of “ballyhoo” (a word which, unbeknownst to the author, Mencken believes originated on the Midway Plaisance).
Though excellent use has been made of the memorial volumes, the guide books, and the architectural journals, all of which directly relate to the Fair itself, Burg seems not to have read any private papers or local newspapers, which would have amplified his account. Nor does his bibliography of secondary sources inspire confidence: he can write about Olmsted without citing Laura Roper’s standard 1973 biography and about Burnham without citing Thomas Hines’s 1974 biography. The author does not acknowledge shorter studies of the Fair by Merle Curti, John Cawelti, Maurice Neufeld, and Justus Doenecke, whose “Myths, Machines and Markets” in the Journal of Popular Culture (spring 1973) is the best brief introduction to the 1893 exposition. Moreover, Richard D. Mandell’s Paris 1900 (1967) would have provided a felicitous comparative perspective. In his specific assessments, Burg rarely finds the jugular; and his prose is limp. Nevertheless Chicago’s White City of 1893 is not a dull book, a sign less of the author’s talent than of his topic,
For the Fair is undiminished as a piquant chapter in the history of the American imagination. Much of the charm of the White City for contemporaries lay in its exemption from the social fears of a deeply troubled decade, in which anxieties over industrialization, urbanization, and immigration measurably heightened. Burg fails to set the Fair securely within the context of the crises of the 1890’s, not even mentioning three figures who represented forces of serious political change. One was Edward Bellamy, whose Utopian novel Looking Backward inspired the mildly socialist Nationalist Clubs, whose last major meeting was held at the exposition, Another was Eugene V. Debs of the American Railway Union, who attacked paternalism at a labor congress there, thus shortening the fuse that was to explode into the Pullman strike the following year. The third was Jacob Coxey, who apparently got the idea at the fairgrounds for leading a march of the unemployed on Washington, thus presenting a startling “petition in boots.”
With the depression of 1893 lurking outside, even the festivities could not remain undisturbed. Every day John Philip Sousa’s exuberant band played Charles K. Harris’s “After the Ball”; but Burg does not quote the bittersweet lyrics, which lament that “After the break of morn. . ./Many a heart is aching. . ./Many the hopes have vanished/After the ball.” Two days before the Fair closed, the mayor of Chicago was assassinated after returning from a celebration of American Cities Day. After the mourning period, some said the World’s Fair should end in fire, others said with the wrecker’s ball; and the combined forms of devastation left only a couple of buildings standing in Jackson Park. What had begun in make-believe ended as a monument to the longing for harmony.