Court of Honor and Grand Basin at Chicago Worlds Fair

I followed up my first trip to Chicago this year with a reading of The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson.  The book has a fabulous Notes and Sources section.  This guy knows how to research and it shows in the informative and interesting text.  It is cleanly written and ambitious.  When I think of the scope of this book, I’m still impressed.  Larson has attempted to illuminate a diverse group of strong personalities both individually and collectively.  It works well with the men directly related to the Fair and even with the side story of Mayor Harrison and P. E. J. Prendergast.  H. H. Holmes, on the other hand, is so tangential that he doesn’t fit into the whole.  An interesting personality?  Yes.  But his only relationship with the others is one of proximity.  The two main stories are independently interesting, but they don’t seem to mesh well.  There are also points where the pace lags simply because there is so much to tell.  Larson has such stores of information to share it must have been a terrible task to choose what to leave out.  Particularly in the middle of the book, I felt overburdened by too many stories, too many emotions, and too much waiting for that Fair to open already!  Still, the book is worth reading.  Beside the value inherent in itself, the book expanded my knowledge of Chicago, architecture, and what hotels NOT to stay in.  It also piqued my interest in Frederick Law Olmsted and landscape architecture.

While considering the strengths and weaknesses of The Devil in the White City, I was reminded of two other books I’d read that employed similar methods of mixing history with biography.  I know that sounds funny.  The two seem to go together naturally.  The two books I’m thinking of, however, both use an historical background to illuminate their human subjects.  Most of the biographies I’ve read do the opposite, showing the historical event(s) within the context of the subject’s life.  It’s the difference between placing a character within a setting, and developing the setting from which the character is then drawn out.  These books seem to approach the history and the biography in a balanced way that I enjoy.

The Professor and the Madman, by Simon Winchester, is a great example of drawing the subject from his surroundings.  The link between the Civil War and the madness Dr. W. C. Minor later experiences (which may have actually allowed him to make his huge contribution to the OED) is developed with a sensitivity to story that reaches the reader simultaneously as a biography and a history.  I won’t write a full review on this book.  It’s been years since I read it, but I remember it as a positive experience, even if I’ve forgotten many of the details.  Some, on the other hand, I have not.  Some images are powerful enough to remain imprinted on my brain.  That’s all I’m saying.  When you read the book yourself, you’ll know what I’m talking about.

Megan Marshall’s The Peabody Sisters does not devolve upon a specific event as the other two books do.  Instead it follows the American Romantic movement.  It mirrors The Devil, however, in its successful attempt at portraying several powerful personalities as they are influenced by, and influence, that historical context.  The ties that bind these people are both familial and philosophical.  The marriage of history and biography in this book works in part because of the marriages of the sisters.  The relationships are close and Marshall uses them in much the same way Larson would later in The Devil, to bring out each individuals’ unique characteristics by virtue of those relationships.  Again, it has been several years since I read The Peabody Sisters, so no in-depth review.  I did love the book.  I enjoy this particular period, and Nathaniel Hawthorne is one of my favorite authors.  And if you want to know what he has to do with this, read the book.


Have you read any of these books recently?  I would love to hear your perspective.  If you have favorite history/biographies heavy on story and balanced in presentation, I welcome your suggestions.

  1. I haven’t read these books, but it sounds like you enjoyed them and they’ve had staying power. That’s the mark of a great book.

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