The Downside of Achievement: Root in The Devil in the White City

Novels are often written to convey an inherent truth of life. However, when a nonfiction book is written and the inherent truth is still prevalent, one must take notice of the lesson to learn. This concept occurs in The Devil in the White City, a nonfiction work by Erik Larson describing the events leading up to and during the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago; it is arranged in a novelistic manner, and it is accompanied by a life lesson, just as in a traditional novel. One of the characters, John Root, and his role in the World’s Fair, illustrates the lesson that although one may work tirelessly, the realization of his dreams may never come.

In The Devil in the White City, Root is prevalent in the beginning of the novel as the architectural mastermind behind the construction of the Fair. His partner, Daniel Burnham, “believed Root possessed a genius for envisioning a structure quickly, in its entirety” (Larson 26). Throughout his presence in the book, he is portrayed as not particularly business-savvy, but instead extremely knowledgeable – he is the brains behind the Burnham and Root company. Unfortunately, he dies of pneumonia before the construction of the Fair begins. Even though he is the more hardworking and possibly the more intelligent of the two, Root dies and is unable to realize his dream of building the Fair, while Burnham, who handles more of the business side of the company’s operations, continues on to success. This illustrates that although it may seem fair and just for a situation to end in one way, one may end up getting the short end of the stick; although it may not be as drastic as death, as in Root’s case, Larson shows the reader that dreams are not always attainable.

Root, in history, is credited with overcoming many of the architectural struggles prevalent in Chicago due to the marshy soil. His main feat is developing the specific method of grilling iron rails that is necessary to hold up the weight of an entire building in the mushy Chicago ground. It was by creating this system that he and Burnham are able to build the Montauk Building; this structure was their “first important downtown building” (John). Root was an innovator, and his creative ideas often landed Burnham and himself jobs. Another of his many feats is the advancement of the Chicago School style of architecture. He, among other famous architects, is accredited with this development, which includes the mastery of steel in construction and the creation of the skyscraper (Rayfield). However, what would have been his most famous, and most lucrative, feat, is the World’s Fair. His previous achievements and advancements in the field of architecture, the very ones that handed him the opportunity to build the Fair, ultimately meant nothing to him, as his death erased the possibility of any achievements that may have stemmed from his aforementioned work. His situation shows that sometimes dreams, no matter how hard one works to achieve them, may never come true. Regardless of work, some things are out of one’s control.

Root’s career in architecture was not handed to him. He worked tirelessly in his adolescent years to reach his goals; his brother notes that he was extremely focused as a student: “John was in college… we always had a lot of drawing-boards in our bed-room on which were done all kinds of work: elaborate drawings of cathedrals (from his mind), palaces (in Spain), grand bridges… ”(Monroe 19). Root graduated from New York University with an undergraduate degree in science and civil engineering (18), neither of which helped him very much in architecture. His brother, however, depicted his home life during these young years and frantic; Root was constantly sketching and learning about architecture, pursuing his dream to the best that he could. After the Chicago Fire of 1871, he moved to Chicago to help rebuild the city, and, carrying only his portfolio of sketches, landed many jobs (23). This tedious work through his younger years shows dedication to the profession, and his work ethic proves him worthy of recognition. Unfortunately, these habits, created early in life, do not help him accomplish what he most wanted – to build the Fair – because death took him from the world before he was able to begin that part of his life.

Ironically, this book, and the Fair itself, are often seen as symbols of hope and achievement, but not everyone was able to enjoy these gifts. John Root was unable to achieve his dream, unable to reap the profit of his architectural finesse, due to death. In The Devil in the White City, as well as in Root’s life outside of the Fair, the inability of achievement is shown to be possible, even though one may work to no end to achieve his goal – a lesson very important if one aims to succeed in life.

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