The Devil in the White City By Erik Larson Summary and Analysis Part I: Chapter 4 - Becomingness

Summary

Six months after Chicago wins the bid for the fair, the exposition company unofficially asks Burnham to scope out sites. Burnham sends a friend, Ellsworth, to Maine to solicit 68-year-old and sickly Frederick Olmsted for help with site selection and building of the fair. Olmsted, a world-renowned landscape architect, is credited with creating Central Park in New York City. Without the authority to do so, Burnham's friend makes Olmsted an offer that Olmsted declines. Ellsworth continues to play on Olmsted's sense of patriotism, pride, and competition to tempt him into helping make the Chicago fair better than that of France's recent exposition. Olmsted eventually agrees to be part of creating the fair in an effort to advance the reputation of landscape architecture as a valid profession. He sees the Chicago fair as a venue in which to build public regard.

Once Olmsted accepts the offer, he and Henry Codman, a member of his firm, make a trip to Chicago to meet Burnham and scope out potential sites for the fair. During this time, Burnham and Olmsted foster a mutual respect and agree to work together. After Olmsted leaves Chicago, he writes two reports to the exposition's directors in which he contemplates the benefits and drawbacks of the potential sites. Olmsted also expresses his views on the need to work together and the important role that landscape architecture plays in the creation of the fair.

The action shifts to the Chicago Inter Ocean, a Chicago newspaper. A new character, Patrick Prendergast, is introduced. The author notes that Prendergast will greatly affect the Chicago's fair but fails to mention how. Here the reader learns of Prendergast's Irish immigration, the untimely death of his father when Prendergast was 13, and his eventual passionate interest in politics. This passion is so great that Prendergast begins to write to politicians frequently. Additionally, he becomes a staunch supporter of Carter Henry Harrison, a Chicago mayoral candidate.

Then the action shifts back to Burnham and the fair. The fair is still without a site, and the global economy is threatening the success of the fair before it is even built. Corporations and financial institutions fear extinction, and a blanket of concern covers those involved in creating a fair in Chicago that far exceeds the Paris exposition. By the end of this chapter, Burnham is officially named chief of construction of the fair, and he officially hires Root and Olmsted.

Analysis

This chapter introduces two more important characters in the novel, Olmsted and Prendergast. Olmsted's character further develops a theme already introduced in previous chapters: pride. Chicago's pride ultimately makes the city and its people dream big enough to win the bid for the fair under the premise of outdoing the recent Paris fair. In Olmsted is a man driven not by money or prestige but by something different: pride in his work. Ironically, Ellsworth's appeal to Olmsted's pride in his country isn't what gets him on board as landscape architect for the fair; Olmsted's pride in his profession prompts him to make a commitment in the fair.

In revealing the global economic decline of the time, the author creates a sense of urgency and suspense. Will the economy allow for the building of a fair grander than the Paris exposition? If so, will the fair draw a crowd that surpasses the numbers that attended Paris, and will the Chicago World's Fair be profitable? Given the slow-moving pace of the beginning stages of building, doubt arises as to whether the fair can be built in the established time frame.

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