The Devil in the White City By Erik Larson Summary and Analysis Part II: Chapter 13 - Vexed

Summary

Chapter 13 begins in the spring of 1891 and spans the rest of the year. Throughout this chapter, Chicago's buzzing with activity surrounding the building of the fair, and Daniel Burnham busily faces multiple challenges head on. As the chapter opens, Burnham encounters a problem with the weight-bearing limit of soil in Jackson Park. All building sites clear testing except one, the heaviest and largest building of the lot. Meanwhile, Carter Henry Harrison, future mayor of Chicago during the fair, has lost the mayoral election, much to Burnham's delight. Prendergast vows to work harder to get Harrison elected.

To his dismay, Burnham is forced to take time off to wine and dine important people coming to the city to see the fair's development. This interruption, along with the architects not delivering their sketches on time, only delays production more and frustrates Burnham further. Olmsted becomes ill. Finally during the summer, the sketches start coming in, and Burnham begins to contract out work. As all this is happening, Burnham revisits the notion of building a structure that will surpass the excellence of the Paris exposition's Eiffel Tower. He is disappointed that U. S. engineers haven't shown more interest in coming up with a concept. To spark interest, the Tribune runs a contest, with no real contenders revealed. Eiffel himself puts in a bid, but the commission rejects the design as simply a bigger version of the Eiffel Tower. Burnham begins to think that the structure shouldn't be a tower at all, since Eiffel did the first one so well. After learning that Eiffel has been vying for the job, American engineers finally show a spark of interest.

From across the country in San Francisco, a new character enters the scene: Sol Bloom. At the 1889 exposition in Paris, Bloom, a young and savvy entrepreneur, bought the rights to a certain exhibit at all future expositions. However, Chicago has rejected his bid. Upset, he goes to talk to a friend who wields power, conveniently a member of the national commission of expositions. As a result, Sol Bloom ends up with the job of envisioning and creating the midway at the Chicago fair. Bloom heads to Chicago.

Back in Chicago, Burnham contemplates the challenges facing the fair. To battle the potential for crime, Burnham assigns a special police force for the fair's duration. Knowing that disease, especially cholera, threatens the safety of drinking water, Burnham devises a plan to not only purify Chicago water, but also offer fairgoers fresh water from a spring in Wisconsin — for a price. Burnham orders one of his contractors to go to Wisconsin to tap into opportunities. Additionally, Burnham also eases his looming fear that a fire could destroy the fair by prohibiting smoking on fair grounds, establishing a fire department, and installing fire hydrants. Burnham also orders his buildings to be made wind resistant after his chief structural engineer failed to execute wind tests.

Later, Burnham meets Bloom and gives him full authority to create the midway. Olmsted becomes annoyed after he hears a tugboat company has made an offer to Burnham, which could get in the way of Olmsted's vision of boating at the fair. Workers continue to threaten strikes, and a few deaths on the fair construction site stand to blemish Burnham's and the fair's reputation. Still, Burnham remains confident that he can deliver the fair on time.

Analysis

The nonlinear structure of Chapter 13 is consistent with many other chapters in the book. However, the pace at which this chapter moves from event to event, character to character, scene to scene, helps to create a frenzied feeling, a frenzy that mimics that of Daniel Burnham's. Burnham's pace is moving quickly now, too, with the fair's construction underway and increased urgency to finish as the deadline grows nearer. In this sense, style and structure help create a specific mood.

Additionally, this chapter highlights one of the key images used throughout the book: the image of fire. Previous chapters provide references to fire — from the Chicago fire of 1871 to Holmes's kiln. The image repeats in this chapter as Burnham's fear of fire is emphasized in his precautions with the fair. In this way, Larson uses the image of fire to symbolize destruction and evil. While Holmes embraces the fire from his kiln at the closing of the previous chapter, Burnham fears it at the end of this chapter.

The structure and content of this chapter mirror Burnham's life as he builds the fair. Burnham's challenges and obstacles are left open ended, with questions remaining as to whether he can meet his deadline and Chicago's expectations of him.

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