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“Broken Icarus,” “The Devil in the White City,” and the World’s Fair Nonfiction Novel

“Broken Icarus,” “The Devil in the White City,” and the World’s Fair Nonfiction Novel

  • Discussing David Hanna's "Broken Icarus" and the "World's Fair Nonfiction Novels”

When the United States rejoined the Bureau of International Expositions in 2017, in support of a since-failed bid to bring a World’s Fair to Minneapolis in 2023, responses ranged from disbelief to indifference. No U.S. city has hosted a major fair since the Louisiana World Exposition of 1984, which publicly declared bankruptcy at mid-run. 

Over the last half-century, World’s Fairs have slowly slid into irrelevancy, squeezed out on all sides by commercial trade and technology shows, elaborate theme parks, a healthy distaste for nationalistic grandstanding, an unhealthy suspicion of scientific progress, and a 24/7 global mass media that has considerably shrunk the planet. If we think about World’s Fairs at all these days, many of us tend to regard them as relics of more ingenuous eras.

However quaint they may seem today, for more than a century, World’s Fairs captured the imaginations of millions, and grandly showcased the genius of their times. From London’s Great Exposition of 1851, to New York’s space age World’s Fair of 1964-65, these fairs delivered a dazzling mix of scientific, architectural, and industrial wonders, as well as international pavilions promising glimpses at other nations as they endeavored to present themselves to the world. 

Fairs marked the public premieres of telephones, color televisions, and touchscreens; Paris’ Eiffel Tower and Seattle’s Space Needle remain iconic symbols of their cities and enduring reminders of historic fairs. The ferris wheel debuted at Chicago’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 and has remained a staple of fairs large and small across the globe ever since. Without exaggeration, turn-of-the-century German sociologist Georg Simmel succinctly described the fairs of his day as “momentary centers of world civilization.”

In addition to imagining the future, these fairs also reflected the best and worst of their own eras, and responded to their times with an often-messianic sense of mission. As such, they tell us as much about where we were then as where we might have been going.

World’s Fairs have inspired several indelible novels, among them E.L. Doctorow’s elegiac Bildungsroman World’s Fair, which in historian Robert Rydell’s words “turned the World’s Fair into a structuring metaphor for his generation.” Great Plains novelist Mildred Walker’s wondrous Light from Arcturus draws its title from a captured celestial beam that lit the opening night of the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair. Jonathan Coe’s Expo 58 recreates the international intrigue afoot at Cold War-era fairs and stands as the sharpest, funniest British spy thriller this side of Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana. These books do much to illustrate how deeply World’s Fairs were embedded in and imprinted on their times. 

Additionally, scholarly books like Rydell’s World of Fairs and Fair America, published in the 1990s, provide valuable insight into World’s Fairs and their cultural and historical contexts. More recently, Theda Perdue’s Race and the Atlanta Cotton States Exposition of 1895, Tracey Jean Boisseau and Abigail M. Markwyn’s Gendering the Fair, and Cheryl R. Ganz’ The 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, have expanded the field that Rydell defined in his path-breaking work.

These books offer social and cultural analyses of various aspects of the fairs, and contextualize them within specific historical trends. These include international cooperation and realignment, imperial expansion and colonialism, eugenics, the shifting roles of women in society, industrial growth, corporations as avatars of future-shaping science and technology (or as historian Jonathan Lears has termed it, “corporate reclamation of national mythology”), and consumerism as civic virtue. But none of these scholarly histories are aimed at audiences outside the ranks of historians and cultural anthropologists. As such, they’re written for target demographics far narrower than the vast and diverse crowds who once reveled in the great World’s Fairs they discuss.

Chicago, 1893 and 1933: The Devil in the White City and Broken Icarus

David Hanna’s Broken Icarus: The 1933 Chicago World’s Fair, the Golden Age of Aviation, and the Rise of Fascism, published this week, approaches Chicago’s strikingly successful Depression-era Century of Progress Exposition from a decidedly less scholarly angle, constructing an accessible, propulsive, multilayered narrative around key aspects of the fair.

Hanna’s approach to capturing the dramas converging at the fair is not a new one. It’s not even the first book to build such a narrative around the 1933 fair. William Elliott Hazelgrove’s Al Capone and the 1933 World’s Fair: The End of the Gangster Era in Chicago does so with surprisingly little overlap (and a more hard-boiled style), which only serves to indicate the richness of World’s Fairs as historical subjects and the many directions such books can go.

Broken Icarus belongs to an emerging genre that began taking shape following the breakaway success of Erik Larson’s New York Times bestseller The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America. Larson’s book is a peculiar combination of narrative architectural history and true-crime thriller that melds the contentious struggle to define the structural hegemony of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair’s “White City” with the gruesome tale of serial killer H.H. Holmes, who lured mostly single women to his fair-adjacent hotel and murdered them in his custom-designed gas chamber.

This ascendant genre might best be described as the “World’s Fair Nonfiction Novel”: a thoroughly researched, fast-paced, multi-threaded narrative, enlivened by colorful characters and well-sourced dialogue, that was launched—though not exactly typified—by Larson’s breakthrough book.

Larson consciously modeled his work on Truman Capote’s genre-defining nonfiction novel In Cold Blood. Like Capote’s 1966 masterpiece, Devil in the White City is in part a chilling true crime thriller. Readers particularly note the Capote influence as Larson probes deeply into the killer’s psyche (and at times speculates a bit too indulgently about what H.H. Holmes was thinking and feeling in the immediate aftermath of his crimes).

The Devil in the White City also provides a model for subsequent “World’s Fair Nonfiction Novels,” as it weaves together multiple storylines that converge around the fair. First and foremost (alongside the serial killer saga) is the backstory and construction of the Columbian Exposition’s famed neoclassical “White City” architecture, which brings to the fore the era’s most talented and strong-minded architects and landscapists, including Chicagoans John Root and Daniel W. Burnham, and Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed New York’s Central Park. The friction between upstart Chicago and established New York heightens the drama around the fair’s design.

Other converging strands include the genesis of George Ferris’s mighty eponymous wheel as the Exposition’s signature fairground attraction. One of The Devil in the White City’s oddest and most memorable moments occurs the night that the Wheel took its first trial spin, which sent thousands of metal bolts raining down on anyone unfortunate enough to be standing in the vicinity.

Like The Devil in the White City, Mark Hanna’s Broken Icarus often reads like a novel, rich in memorable characters and depictions of colorful contemporary public figures like German airship pioneer Hugo Eckener, Italian Air Force Marshal Italo Balbo, and Swiss scientists/balloonists Auguste, Jules, and Helene Piccard.

Through their stories Hanna illustrates how the soaring achievements of aviation’s pivotal era played out against the backdrop of the 1933 fair, and amidst Eckener’s and Balbo’s often fraught relations with the Fascist powers ascendant in their countries at the time. Hanna’s book terrifically complements Alexander Rose’s Empires of the Sky, which narrates the cloud-splitting arc of the Zeppelin company and its lighter-than-air airships. But by extending the focus to Balbo, Hanna provides greater perspective on the compromises both aviators—as designated cultural ambassadors—made with their country’s respective fascist regimes, and what those compromises cost them.

Hanna also makes a strong case for the centrality of aviation at the 1933 Chicago fair (along with other landmark innovations like color television), and how critical the aviation showcase was to the exposition’s efforts to elevate fairgoers’ spirits from dispiriting economic times. “The Technicolor vision of the future they produced could not have contrasted more sharply with the gritty black-and-white economic and political realities that surrounded them,” Hanna writes. “And yet, they were undaunted. No technology loomed larger at the fair than aviation. And no persons at the fair captured the public’s interest as much as the romantic figures associated with it.”

Though no subsequent “World’s Fair Nonfiction Novel” to date has proven as popular as Devil in the White City (perhaps because none digs as sensationalistically into the muck of true crime), several, like the just-launched Broken Icarus, are gripping and rewarding reads.

All take readers on captivating journeys into the fairs and eras they describe, often ingeniously reconstructing not only the world of the fair, but the universe swirling around it. Here follows a quick survey of the best of the breed.

Paris, 1889: Eiffel’s Tower

Like The Devil in the White City, Jill Jonnes’ riveting Eiffel’s Tower: And the World’s Fair Where Buffalo Bill Beguiled Paris revisits the first golden age of World’s Fairs, when cities used fairs to assert their global pre-eminence with ever more grandiose architectural behemoths, and unveiled inventions that would transform society in the fast-approaching next century. Eiffel’s Tower centers on Paris’s Exposition Universelle of 1889, which bequeathed the city’s defining structure, Gustave Eiffel’s 300-meter Tour D’Eiffel. The 1889 fair also marked the 100th anniversary of the storming of the Bastille and the abolition of the French monarchy (never mind that the “century of republicanism” celebrated at the fair had twice been interrupted by coups d’etat and lengthy Bonapartist interludes).

While it’s difficult to imagine Paris today without the Eiffel Tower, Jonnes recounts how steadfastly many Parisians resisted the construction of the proposed iron “monstrosity,” as well as competing proposals for a taller-than-the-Washington-Monument structure to tower over the fair. The most amusing design, she reports, featured a gigantic guillotine, intended to showcase the invention that had sent French monarchism screaming into oblivion a century earlier.

In addition to Gustave Eiffel, Jonnes’s delightful dramatis personae includes New York Herald publisher James Gordon-Bennett, who fled personal scandal in Manhattan in 1877 to take up residence in Paris, where he established an international edition of his family’s paper (forerunner of the long-lived International Herald-Tribune), and installed himself as “a fascinating specimen of [a] new transatlantic type—the Boorish American millionaire.”

Other Americans who feature prominently in Jonnes’s story include Buffalo Bill Cody and Annie Oakley, whose Wild West Show (with a sizable payroll of role-playing “Indian warriors”) proved all the rage in Paris. Thomas Edison’s phonograph made its international debut at the fair, and paved the way for Edison to steal much of Buffalo Bill’s thunder when the inventor arrived in Paris midway through the fair’s six-month run.

Buffalo, 1901: The Electrifying Fall of Rainbow City

No matter how much turn-of-the-century World’s Fairs promised to project a far-reaching view of a different and dazzling future, they also inevitably mirrored their own eras. Perhaps no fair embodied these two tendencies better than the first major U.S.-based fair of the 20th Century: Buffalo, New York’s 1901 Pan-American Exposition. And perhaps no book more perfectly encapsulates the “World’s Fair Nonfiction Novel” and its ability to rescue a fair from obscurity as Margaret Creighton’s The Electrifying Fall of Rainbow City: Spectacle and Assassination at the 1901 World’s Fair.

Practically a national obsession in its time, with its beguiling hydroelectric light show and magnificent sculptures, the Pan-American Exposition owns a permanent footnote in U.S. history as the site of one world-changing tragic incident. When an anarchist gunman assassinated President William McKinley at the Buffalo fair on September 6, 1901, it not only marked the death of a second-term American president; it also ushered in the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt and the revival of a then-moribund political career that would largely come to define the decade that followed.

The Pan-American Exposition proclaimed, by its name alone, the United States’ arrival as an imperial power. Designed to simultaneously assert and soft-pedal the country’s incipient hemispheric dominance (arriving hot on the heels of a century-closing binge of island conquests), and emphasizing Pan-American cooperation by inviting only North American and South American countries to exhibit, the Exposition clearly (and forcibly) delineated the civilized from the primitive. This extended not just to Central and South American exhibitors but also to the “150 Southern Darkies” singing and dancing on the fair’s “Old Plantation,” and Native Americans and Filipinos (under embattled U.S. annexation since 1898) exhibited with exaggerated Otherness in horrific “human zoos.”

While other narrative histories do an effective job with the McKinkley assassination—particularly Murdering McKinley by the estimable Eric Rauchway of Winter War fame—Creighton weaves it seamlessly into the story of the fair. With particular poignancy, she recounts the story of James Benjamin Parker, a Black waiter who tackled the president’s assassin, anarchist Leon Czolgosz, and gave McKinley a decent chance at survival by preventing Czolgosz from firing off more shots. Creighton describes how Parker briefly became a national sensation when the press picked up his story—especially in the heady days when McKinley appeared poised to pull through—before Buffalo police, secret service, and local and national press began to turn on Parker in general revulsion at the idea that such a story might have a Black hero.

Other well-drawn characters who emerge in Creighton’s stories of the fair include Annie Edson Taylor, a middle-aged Michigan woman who attempted a death-defying tumble over Niagara Falls that same summer in a custom-made barrel; and McKinley assassin Czolgosz, whose gravitation to Emma Goldman’s anarchist orbit Creighton casts as part of a growing revolt against America’s imperial expansion and widening wealth gap.

Creighton also ably chronicles a mounting obsession with the Czolgosz trial and his impending execution. In meta-fictioneer Robert Coover’s hands, the nation’s bloodlust for Czolgosz’s execution might have resulted in its relocation to the stadium on the Pan-American Exposition’s grounds. While such a Public Burningstyle spectacle never came to pass for the president’s assassin, the Buffalo fair did, remarkably, feature one scheduled, sold-out public execution: that of the aggressive, musth-afflicted elephant Jumbo II, a bizarre tale that must be read to be believed.

New York, 1939-40: Twilight at the World of Tomorrow

If the Pan-American Exposition of 1901 found America in the first flush of imperial muscle-flexing, the New York World’s Fair of 1939 quite literally represented a “World of Tomorrow” rising from the ashes of a near-dystopian present. Years in the making, Gotham’s pursuit of a World’s Fair began in the mid-1930s with four pressing problems: reviving a city and a country in the throes of the Great Depression; finding a place to stage a massive fair in a crowded city; overcoming New Yorkers’ conviction that World’s Fairs were hopelessly cornball; and countering the perception throughout the vast hinterlands that a New York-based fair wouldn’t be cornball enough.

See Also

James Mauro’s Twilight at the World of Tomorrow: Genius, Madness, Murder, and the 1939 World’s Fair on the Brink of War does a masterful job of illustrating how all of these challenges converged on the 1939-40 fair in Queens’ Flushing Meadows, the rehabilitated, smoke-choked garbage dump memorably termed “the valley of ashes” in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby

Twilight at the World of Tomorrow chronicles Albert Einstein’s early years in the United States, as he fled Nazi Germany with a price on his head, attended the fair as both a bemused opening night speaker and later as a visitor, and struggled with the implications of his discoveries on nuclear fission.

FDR also makes an appearance on the fair’s opening day, punctuating his benediction by proclaiming the dawn of a “homogeneous” America. His phrasing echoes the eugenicist bent that dominated U.S. fairs (not to mention much of America itself) over the three decades prior.

The book also describes New York Parks Commissioner Robert Moses’ instrumental background role in launching the World’s Fair project, working the city’s levers of power as only he could to acquire and clear the noxious valley of ashes for the thinly concealed purpose of building a Flushing Meadows über-park to bear his stamp and long outlast the fair.

The undisputed star of Mauro’s show is the fair’s irrepressible president: Grover Whalen, ex-police commissioner, greeter and glad-hander par excellence, master promoter, and man of a thousand ticker-tape parades—with an unmatched gift of gab and boundless ambition for the fair he shaped. Whalen envisioned the fair’s World of Tomorrow as a triumph of bold scientific achievement embodied in the fair’s iconic structures, Trylon and Perisphere, and the irresistible intersection of technology and commerce signifying American economic and industrial might. And like all U.S. fairs since 1893, the World of Tomorrow also paired education and enlightenment with an Amusement Zone replete with Coney Island-style thrill rides and titillating sex shows.

Central to Mauro’s story are the global political conflicts that increasingly overshadowed the fair, particularly in its second season as Nazi-occupied countries like Poland and Czechoslovakia began the summer with their pavilions draped in black. Mauro also recounts the (non-unrelated) series of bomb threats and bombings that plagued the city and circled the fair throughout its run.

“All of this made the World’s Fair itself a kind of symbolic epicenter of the global political scene—a stage upon which conflicting elements could act out their grievances and receive the appropriate attention each party felt it rightly deserved,” Mauro writes. “This wasn’t exactly what Grover Whalen had in mind for his World of Tomorrow, but in some major way it elevated the fair’s status from a mere exposition to a gathering place for the voices of dissent in the face of oppression—the world in miniature played out in a scale-model replica on the grounds of Flushing Meadows.”

New York, 1964-5: Tomorrow-Land

The 1939-40 New York World’s Fair proved remarkably successful in leaving a deep and lasting imprint on the millions who attended it, not least among them E.L. Doctorow, perhaps the finest New York-born novelist who came of age while the World of Tomorrow was casting its spell. But it failed to achieve two of its organizers’ fundamental aims: to turn a profit (the fair lost millions of dollars), and to establish the glorious Flushing Meadows park that would provide a capstone to Robert Moses’ epic career as New York’s city planning czar. It would take one more New York World’s Fair to bring that dream even partially to fruition. 

Perhaps the most widely read “World’s Fair Nonfiction Novel” after Devil in the White City—and certainly the book that maintains the most daring highwire act—is Joseph Tirella’s Tomorrow-Land: The 1964-65 World’s Fair and the Transformation of America. Tirella portrays a colossus of a fair that was colossally out of step with its times. But Tomorrow-Land’s real mission is to chronicle the surrounding cultural and political trends that the ruthless and omnipotent World’s Fair potentate Robert Moses and his fellow septuagenarian fair-shapers resisted, overlooked, or simply ignored.

As such, Tomorrow-Land concerns itself less with the fair experience in Queens than the world-in-tumult around it, often just outside its doorstep. He recounts in rich and revealing detail the shocking 1964 rape and murder of Kitty Genovese that occurred blocks away from the fair on a Kew Gardens street in full view and earshot of 38 neighbors, and the cresting Civil Rights movement that threatened to bottle up traffic to the fair’s opening day with a coordinated expressway “stall-in” organized to protest discriminatory fair-specific and city-wide hiring practices. Tirella also charts the parallel rise of Bob Dylan and the Beatles, both of whom Moses refused to book at his fair. Over some advisers’ objections, Moses engaged personal favorite Guy Lombardo—who had his biggest hits in the ’30s—for weekly performances at the fair. Meanwhile, during the fair’s second season, the Beatles and Dylan would rattle its walls with thunderous shows at neighboring Shea Stadium and Forest Hills. 

Tirella also ushers readers into the day-glo world of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, who piled into a second-hand school bus called Furthur and launched a cross-country odyssey from San Francisco to Flushing Meadows to experience the World’s Fair first hand. Kesey and company found the fair impossibly square, and consigned it (like most things) to the “boring unless you’re tripping” slag heap.

Tirella delivers a magnificent snapshot of a turbulent decade at its midpoint, and improbably manages to do justice to nearly every subject he draws into his brisk and seamless narrative. Perhaps the worst critique one could level at this book would be that it gives the largely Disney-designed fair itself somewhat short shrift, if not so much in Tirella’s attention to its organization, intentions, and predictable financial failures as in capturing what fairgoers experienced when they attended it.

“Wisdom Without Pain”

Like other “World’s Fair Nonfiction Novels,” Tirella’s Tomorrow-Land goes where the story takes it, eschewing a linear account of the fair for a more revealing portrait of the times. In Tirella’s telling, master builder Robert Moses’s grandiose promises that his fair would deliver an “Olympics of Progress” and a fair embodying “Peace Through Understanding” fell short on both counts.

But Moses was onto something when he said he hoped his exposition’s inviting mix of enlightenment and entertainment would offer fair visitors “wisdom without pain.” If that notion didn’t find its fullest realization in the fair itself, perhaps it has in the daring brand of historical storytelling that, many decades later, has brought the lost world of World’s Fairs thrillingly back to life.

Broken Icarus
by David Hanna
Published June 15th, 2022

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