In Jimmy Corrigan, The World’s Columbian Exhibition serves as an impressive backdrop for a depressing story about Jimmy’s granddad who was left by his dad during a Fair visit. The World’s Columbian Exhibition was held in Chicago in 1893, at the time when American economy has transitioned from an agriculturally based to an industrialized one and the changes in the society were extensive.[i] The ideology of the World’s Columbian Fair was to diminish the fear of change that existed in the nation by promoting a sense of unity and a sense of pride for great American accomplishments, and promising a better tomorrow.[ii] In Chris Ware’s book, The Exhibition and its meaning is reevaluated with a 100 year distance.
One of the most impressive features of the exhibition was the White City, specially built for this occasion. The White City, that was build at the Jackson Park, took two years to construct. The main buildings were in the Beaux-Arts style, which accentuates logic, harmony, and uniformity. In the words of Henry Demarest Lloyd, the White City “…revealed to the people possibilities of social beauty, utility, and harmony of which they had not even been able to dream.”[iii] However, all these buildings were just empty shells inside. Some of the most beautiful frames in Jimmy are drawings of white buildings of the World’s Faire.[iv] Nonetheless, Ware often reminds us that these buildings were not meant to last and he often depicts their internal emptiness. Just before he reveals to us that these neoclassical buildings were steel and iron constructions, Ware offers us a project of making a paper house to emphasize the fact that the White City was basically just like a paper house project only on a much larger scale. The buildings were not real and their beauty was an illusion. In reality they were just frameworks of steel and iron rails that were covered with “staff” (plaster-like material) and later painted white to look like marble.[v] Ware accentuated the emptiness of these buildings in order to show that the World’s Fair’s promises of “social beauty, utility, and harmony” were short-lived, similarly to the grand buildings of the exhibition that were breathtaking but never meant to last. In Jimmy we see a critique of values promoted during the World’s Columbian Exhibition that in many ways influenced and determined the direction of society in twentieth century.
The White City was built to demonstrate how far America had come and what it became since its discovery 400 years ago. Its empty buildings displayed marvels of new technology, and thousands of exhibitions offered evidence of progress. They were there to offer hope and promise of a better tomorrow while at the same time encourage the American pride. “Pride in American goods and business, they felt, would be part of the overall plan of encouraging pride in America--and as we will see later, would inspire confidence in the new group of corporate leaders who would shape America in the twentieth century.“[vi] “Leo Tolstoy, who didn't personally attend, but read about the Exposition in Russian papers, found that the "Chicago exhibition, like all exhibitions, is a striking example of imprudence and hypocrisy: everything is done for profit and amusement--from boredom--but noble aims of the people are ascribed to it. Orgies are better." (qtd. in Rydell, 8) Ironically, Edward Bellamy, the very well-respected man whose utopian ideas were gestured to in theWhite City, believed that the "underlying motive of the whole exhibition, under a sham pretense of patriotism is business, advertising with a view to individual money-making."[vii] For historian David Nasaw, the fairs “ were paeans to progress, concrete demonstrations of how order and organization, high culture and art, science and technology, commerce and industry, all brought under the wise administration of business and government, would lead inevitable to a brighter, more prosperous future.”[viii]
Chris Ware draws our attention to the role of corporations in the World’s Columbian Exhibition by bordering the story about Jimmy’s granddad with images of famous McDonalds arches. The frames of the corporation are at the beginning and at the end of the story. In a way, it seems as if Ware was trying to tell as that are personal stories are not important. For me, this bordering with the McDonalds arches meant that our individual lives, happy or sad, have no meaning and no influence on the ruling force of our society, the corporations. Society run by corporations does not have an individual’s well being in mind. Bellamy, one of the earliest critics of the World’s Fair, wrote “…humanity was never confronted with a fate more sordid and hideous than would have been the era of corporate tyranny…”[ix] The only purpose that corporate run society has is the profit. Corporations are the alpha and the omega that will exploit our noble human emotions for the profit, as they did during the World’s Fair. Interest of the corporations, which was hidden behind the Exhibition’s motto “Not Matter, But Mind; Not Things, But Men”[x] was the main reason for the Fair. Exhibitions of the Fair were divided into twelve sections (transportation, machinery, mining, and so on) with categories of corporate business, such as General Electric, Westinghouse, and many others. “The substance of the exhibition offered, then, not simple matter and things, but matter and things as commercial products.”[xi]
In the summer of 1893, when the World’s Columbian Exhibition with its White City opened, many factories and banks went out of business, and fear of economic instability was sweeping the nation. Only a year after the World’s Exhibition, the great railroad strike began and would eventually result “in the most destructive civil violence since the Civil War”.[xii] However, the World’s Exhibition was not there to address social divide of the time, it was there, in the words of Chauncy M. Depew, “to celebrate the evolution of man”. In Jimmy Corrigan, Chris Ware contrasted the “evolution of man” celebrated in the World’s Fair with the vicious cycle of abandonment and the lack of “evolution” in Jimmy’s family. Generation after generation Corrigans have left their sons behind. Scars of rejection and insecurity culminated in Jimmy, leaving him incapable to have a relationship with a woman. At the age of 36, Jimmy has never been kissed and probably the cycle of abandonment would end with him, because he could never find the courage to ask a girl out. In a case of a Jimmy’s family, Ware presented deterioration rather than evolution of man and it all started when Jimmy’ s granddad was “thrown from the largest building in the world” at the World’s Fair.
For some, “The evolution of man” that was celebrated in the World’s Columbian Exhibition was only for the white Americans. As Jimmy’s granddad remembered, for his adopted African – American granddaughter’s family history project, “ Well they only let coloreds in for one day or so I think…”[xiii] . In a view of Frederick Douglass, a former slave, author, and statesman, the White City was “ a whited sepulcher.” In his opinion the difference between the Court of Honor, with its symmetrical plan and white buildings, and the Old World customs and folkways, with numerous people in their traditional costumes, among them the African-Americans, Asian, and Indian, served to “… shame of the Negro, the Dahomians are here to exhibit the Negro as a repulsive savage.” However, the civilization celebrated in the White City that was contrasted against the “repulsive savage” was build by hard work of African-Americans. They were excluded form the Exhibition. “American blacks stood beyond the gates, petitions for an exhibition, a building, or a separate department all rejected. They were denied participation in the Fair, in its administration, on the National Commission, even on the construction force and ground crews.”[xiv]
Because of the media in which Chris Ware is telling Jimmy’s story, we can see what Frederic Douglas was talking about. The frames that guide us through the White City are large, sometimes taking up the whole page. People are minuscule compared to the magnificent ‘marble” buildings. However, once we leave the White City, we are entering into completely different world. The organized and harmonious White City is behind us and we venture into “Dwellings of the Cannibals[xv]”. Frames depicting this part of the Exhibition are small, twenty squeezed on one page, but unlike the White City frames that were focused on the buildings, on this page our attention is draw to people. The Old World customs and folkways is a place in which Jimmy’s granddad experienced rare act of kindness in his life. An Italian immigrant, a father of his school friend, gave him a little lead horse as a gift. This is the only time, in the whole World’s Exhibition sequence, that Jimmy’s granddad is fully dressed. In all other frames that depict his visit to the exhibition Jimmy’s granddad wears a nightgown, symbolizing his feelings of insecurity and insignificancy. Manly, he feels like this because of his father, but at the same time we cannot deny that in the White City, and in the society it represents, there is no niche for a lost soul like Jimmy’s granddad. “Dwellings of the cannibals”, that was meant to represent the inferior societies was a more friendly place than the White City. The Exhibition contrasted these two worlds as places of superior and inferior progress, but Ware contrasted them on a human scale. In Ware’s context, the White City becomes cold and heartless world.
In Chris Ware’s comic book, the World’s Columbian Exhibition was revaluated. The “evolution of men” glorified in this Fair acquires a new meaning when we look at the life of Jimmy Corrigan. The White City was build for white men. It celebrated their achievements in technology, agriculture, and machinery. All the roads to success were open for them. Even though, Jimmy is rather an extreme example, and we cannot consider him as a typical example of white men in America, he represents a significant number of men that are lost in this society, who have no sense of purpose and direction. The better life promised by the World’s Exhibition did not come true for them. Jimmy’s family situation can be explanation for many of his problems, but the role of the society concerned only with profit, where individual lives do not matter can not be ignored.
[iii] Alan Trachtenberg The Incorporation of America
[iv] Chris Ware Jimmy Corrigan the Smartest Kid on Earth
[ix] Edward Bellamy Looking Backward
[x] Alan Trachtenberg The Incorporation of America
[xi] Alan Trachtenberg The Incorporation of America
[xii] Alan Trachtenberg The Incorporation of America
[xiii] Chris Ware Jimmy Corrigan the Smartest Kid on Earth
[xiv] Alan Trachtenberg The Incorporation of America
[xv] Chris Ware Jimmy Corrigan the Smartest Kid on Earth