Isaac’s Storm and The Devil in the White City

Having read and enjoyed Erik Larson’s non-fiction account of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America, I decided to read his tale about the flood that devastated Galveston seven years later, Isaac’s Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History. It turned out to be almost as good.

Right before going to Chicago in April seemed like the right time to read the first book. It was. It gave me a lot of background about Chicago architecture, one of the things Barbara and I were interested in exploring on this trip. It also gave me a good picture of what the city must have been like just over a hundred years ago. And the characters and the story held my attention. Larson writes history as if it were fiction.

Isaac’s Storm presents a trickier topic to carry off well. Grand architecture, after all, is a more stirring topic than meteorology. Yes, as the book says, this flood “remains the greatest natural disaster in American history,” but the focus of the book is more on prediction and prevention than it is on the effects of the disaster. The characters and the plot are still captivating, but somehow it wasn’t quite the same thing. Perhaps if I had been going to Galveston instead of Chicago the effect on me would have been reversed.

The common theme in both books is the interplay between ambition and arrogance. The Titanic plays a small but important role in each. More generally, both of Larson’s turn-of-the-century stories present a world of apparently limitless possibility. With science we can do everything! I often teach about these decades in an entirely different context: how the scientific, artistic, and literary revolutions of fifty years, exemplified by Darwin (ca. 1871), Monet (ca. 1872), Freud (ca. 1900), and Joyce (ca. 1921), led to the philosophical and mathematical goals of Russell and Whitehead (ca. 1910) — only to be crushed by Gödel (ca. 1931) and chaos theory (ca. 1961). At the end of the 19th Century, it was clear that science could do anything. It could erect tall buildings on soggy ground, it could build the greatest world’s fair ever, it could predict the weather.

Except that it couldn’t do quite all those things. Unlimited ambition is not realistic. Unlimited ambition is arrogance. These are the real themes of Larson’s books.

Categories: Books