An Exposition for the Ages
“I try to use the rules of typography to govern the way that I "draw", which keeps me at a sensible distance from the story as well as being a visual analog to the way we remember and conceptualize the world” -- Chris Ware
The World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 was a highly successful celebration of American culture during the end of the 19th century. Magnificence of new architecture, technology and arts provided a significant American optimism as well as displaying a powerful image of American excellence. Likewise, in the graphic novel Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth, author Chris Ware displays the significance of the World’s Columbian Exchange to one specific character, Jimmy’s great grandfather. Ware purposely uses large portions of frames and pages describing the event and its significance to storyline. Among many reasons Ware included this specific American landmark, the most profound is the symbolic imagery that challenges the reader to understand a deeper meaning through the character of Jimmy Corrigan. This symbolic meaning behind the World’s Columbian Exposition allows us as readers to focus on Jimmy Corrigan in a new sense and have a better understanding of the seemingly dull and simplistic character, Jimmy. America was seen then as the one of the most powerful emerging nations during that era and Chris Ware dares us to use it as metaphor for the current American society and compare how far we have come.
To better understand this expansive idea and get a feel for the significance, some background on the World Columbian Exposition would be useful. Opening to the public on May 1st, 1893, the celebration was held on the 400th year anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the New World. The city of Chicago beat out other contesting cities in large part due to banker Lyman Gage’s financial prowess, his ability to raise several million dollars in a 24-hour period bested other viable cities including Washington D.C., St. Louis and New York City, winning the privilege to host this influential world’s fair (Bancroft, 1893). When the Exposition opened in Chicago, only 22 years had passed since the devastation of the Chicago fire, in which a three and a half square mile area burned through the heart of city over a short 36-hour period (Society, 2008). The United States as a country had just recently felt the end of a destructive Civil War only 28 years before. During this truly remarkable interval of time the country and Chicago transformed and boomed during the Age of Reconstruction and flowed into a Gilded Age, a time of an enormous population and wealth increase (Bancroft 62). Along with this industrial growth came class conflict and growing concerning regarding this violence. As a solution, America followed in European footsteps and tried to ease tensions and provide some “cultural cement” by turning to the world’s fair. Despite the flaws and failings of first world fair in Philadelphia and growing concern from American’s whether or not this idea would solidify in the states, momentum for a second was building in order to celebrate the upcoming Columbian quadricentennial(Society, 2008).
After Congress voted for and approved the undertaking of the world’s fair in Chicago(Society, 2008), under the guidance of American architect David Burnham and landscape architect Fredrick Law Olmstead the Chicago World’s Fair began to take shape. The process was enormous and the architectural talent displayed was remarkable, buildings such as: Agriculture, Electricity, Horticulture, Machinery Hall, Mines and Mining; to name a few, all made up “the White City”(Bancroft, 1893). Buildings made of white stucco and use of extensive streetlights presented the moniker of a white city. In these buildings exhibits displayed the “culture and civilization” of the time. It was without a doubt a symbol of “emerging American Exceptionalism”.(Nye, 1994).
Aside from that brief history lesson, now imagine a young boy, dreaming of attending this colossal achievement, stepping through the Golden Door of Transportation and immediately filled with awe. This must have been the case for anyone of any age experiencing such a triumph, courtesy of the human fabric.
Back to the story of Jimmy Corrigan, unfortunately Jimmy never experiences this; in fact he hardly experiences any happiness or excitement throughout the whole novel. Yet, this expansive series of frames takes place in the heart of his story, his novel. Why? Perhaps it is to parallel his boring and dull life to show contrast by comparing it to such an exquisite time period. However, the symbolism stretches deeper; start for example, at the beginning of the flashbacks of Jimmy’s grandfather. The transition from Jimmy’s story in the present, to Chicago 1893, begins and ends with a house or building, however the architecture and detail is important. Notice how bland and unimpressive the architecture of the house is, or for that matter throughout the whole story in Jimmy’s life. The contrast is obvious while flipping through these pages; Ware’s precise use of detailing on these buildings was not only time consuming but also involved lots of research and study. With that in mind, Ware went to these lengths not to simply impress readers with his skill, but to strike a connection between Jimmy and the reader.
Since the late 19th century, one can argue that American technology has been declining and the peak was the World’s Columbian Exposition. It is true that we develop new electronic gadgets, faster computers or fancy things we don’t necessarily need relatively often. In fact, the “next big thing” in electronics is called the memristor, a microscopic component that can "remember" electrical states even when turned off. Or, try the Electronic Power Transmission which throws electricity a distance of a few feet, without wires or dangers to bystanders (that they know of). Honestly though, can we be surprised? New technological gadgets always fascinate me but I figure it is inevitable that a faster, smaller or more improved version of something new will come out. It is not much of a surprise to me, but instead another “toy”.
In comparison, advances during the late 19th century were monumental. Electricity, for instance, was heavily emphasized at the fair and as a result provided a new identity for modern America. Today, many couldn’t imagine a life without it let alone functioning without it; but a life without the memristor or the EPT seems feasible. "...most of all, the Columbian Exposition was a spectacle for the emerging technology that would power and transform the coming new century--electricity." (Judith Adams, 47). Clearly, this was a time when technology did not seem frightening or overpowering; rather it was a time of celebration. Where we stand now, the range of technology seems vast and we may be impressed, but how significant is it? Obviously, there are beneficial things that we must be grateful for because many of us rely on them. Medical advances keeping us alive longer and keeping us in better health, all very important and useful: Military weapons, nanotechnology, genetic engineering, space flight, household appliances, random widgets, etc. Most are beneficial and useful however, we may become a product of these inventions, getting caught up in these ideas that if we actually step back and look around we have actually hit a plateau. It is easy to say this when looking at something as grand as the Columbian Exposition yet, the argument is valid. Ware cleverly illustrates America being in such a high at the end of the 19th century, but currently we have might be losing that grandeur and American Exceptionilism that we once boasted.
Clearly, an extremely important aspect of the Columbian Exposition was the architecture. It was purposefully significant and spectacular mixing European, Classical and Renaissance styles. The buildings were so large that there were buildings inside buildings and the ostentatious exhibits displayed impressive collections of the newest advances in technology, industry, science, agriculture, and commerce. The Chicago Fair of 1893 was, in fact, a huge classroom, and the 27 million attendees were the students all learning a powerful message- America was the most powerful emerging nation in the world.
I was curious to know what has become of all these exhibits, buildings and structures. Unfortunately, very little remains and ironically the few clues that do remain are simple metal signs marking remains one of the most lavish displays of achievement in American history.(H.H. Van Meter, 1894). It's beyond ironic that the most prolific and spectacular public event of its era would end up in the most banal way possible. Shortly after the World’s Columbian Exposition closed, a railway strike occurred and the result was rioting. Chicago was once again demolished, intentional fires ravished the city leveling almost the entire ‘white city’. In the following years and decades the land was replaced by menial structures. Basically, it became a flat nothing with growing weeds; the Columbian Exposition seemingly had become a memory and slipped into the “dustbin of history”(H.H. Van Meter, 1894). Of course, many of the exhibits and artifacts are currently in museums and the impact is still felt and clearly what happened there did matter. Unfortunately, many people today haven’t experienced something as monumental for their time period as was the Chicago Fair in 1893.
It’s somewhat depressing but highly ironic to realize this, however, this is how history often works, things lost and forgotten. I have to admit, before reading Jimmy Corrigan I had only know brief knowledge of the exposition and I certainly had no idea how vast it truly was. Looking at the very last page of the exposition we see Jimmy’s great grandfather and his father standing atop the “largest building in the world” according to ‘Jimmy’. As they stand there a flash to future reveals that Jimmy’s great grandfather is actually remembering all of this in a dream he is having at an orphanage. We see him getting thrown off this building in his dream, symbolizing his father abandoning him and eventually leaving him by himself. The last line says, “He simply mumbled something dull to me, and stepped aside… I wasn’t really paying attention. So I just stood there watching the sky, and the people below, waiting for him to return. Of course he never did.” I interpret this two ways, obviously the literal abandonment of a father and the imagery our abandonment of the Exposition. The scene culminates with the beauty and accomplishment of the Exposition and the happiness of the young boy all leading us back to the real story of Jimmy Corrigan. Presented with this significant experience, and then bringing us back down to reality. A scary and saddening realization we are faced with indeed, can we ever exceed something so grand?
Chris Ware doesn’t appear to think so, or at least so far. He meant for us to ponder about our own situation and question whether we are living in a time of Jimmy’s great grandfather or in the time of Jimmy. For example, directly after the last frame of the Exposition I discussed (a drawing which exemplifies the massive scale of a structure) he immediately swings us back into the simplicity and lackluster of the present. McDonald’s arches silhouette the backdrop of the next frames, as we become engulfed, once again, in the simplicity of Jimmy Corrigan.
The times we live in now I wouldn’t be surprised if America has gained a stigma of greed, fraud, and mismanagement. This may not be a direct relationship to technology but it is certainly relevant. Ware poses this question through his contrasting images, and the question is plausible. We clearly had a peak in advancement during that era but where America stands now is debatable. From what I gather, our situation is nowhere near as promising as it was in 1893, when the possibilities seemed endless. We surely make advances and great strides but they will most likely never compare to the potential and possibilities displayed at the World’s Columbian Exposition.
Nonetheless, the main point stands; technology will most likely never cease to grow, but as for an impact in everyday life Ware shows us we came a long way, in the wrong direction. Specifically, the postcard page in Jimmy Corrigan is a prime example. Reading those misleading descriptions, then flipping the page to reveal the lackluster buildings and commonplace design seemed comical. However, after thinking about this page, the realization occurred that this is the current state of many of our local towns; in fact this is almost exactly what my town looks like. That consideration made an impression and clearly made me understand Jimmy Corrigan on a different level. Certainly, there is no denying the advances of technology in this century or let alone decade, with the medical advances, improved weaponry or nanotechnologies. Regardless, what should be taken from Ware’s contrasting images throughout his novel is simple; Jimmy Corrigan symbolizes not the decline in technology but the decline in significant impacting inventions. Essentially we can be compared to the character of Jimmy Corrigan, and perhaps we haven’t come that far since the World’s Columbian Exposition.
Ware, Chris. Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth. New York: Pantheon, 2000.
Bancroft, H. H. (1893). The book of the fair; an historical and descriptive presentation of the world’s science, art, and industry, as viewed through the Columbian Exposition at Chicago in 1893. Chicago, San Francisco, The Bancroft Co., 1893.
The Vanishing Fair. H.H. Van Meter, with illustrations by William and Charles Ottman (The Literary Art Company, Chicago, 1894).
The World's Columbian Exposition: Idea, Experience, Aftermath. Julie K. Rose (1996).
The World's Columbian Exposition of 1893. Kristin Standaert, Paul V. Galvin Library Digital History Collection, Illinois Institute of Technology.
H.H. Van Meter, w. i. (1894). The Vanishing Fair. The Literary Art Company, Chicago,.
Nye, D. (1994). American Technological Sublime. 1893: Cambridge, Mass. : MIT Press.
Society, C. H. (2008, November 25). Chicago Historical Society. “The World’s Columbian Exposition.” Retrieved on November 25, 2008, at. Retrieved from http://www.chicagohs.org/history/expo.html
an aside , I found a pretty cool link to some virtual simulation and pictures of the World’s Columbian Exposition