Author discusses ‘lost’ stories at Beloit College

BELOIT, Wis.—An eye for a good yarn and a penchant for uncovering “lost” stories from the past have won writer Erik Larson critical accolades and fans around the world. The author of such bestsellers as Isaac’s Storm (1999) and The Devil in the White City (2003), Larson will deliver a presentation titled “Breathing Life into the Dead: The Art of History,” Monday, Nov. 5, at 8 p.m., in Eaton Chapel, on the Beloit College campus. The lecture is free and open to the public.

Larson’s books resurrect events and names that once crowded the front pages of America’s newspapers and tabloids. Using fiction-writing techniques, the author weaves together nonfiction tales that offer a vivid window into the past. Isaac’s Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History chronicles the devastating hurricane that struck Galveston, Texas, in 1900, while focusing on Isaac Cline, a weatherman in the nascent National Weather Service. The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair that Changed America traces the parallel stories of architect Daniel H. Burnham, director of works for Chicago’s 1893 Columbian World Exposition, and Dr. H. H. Holmes—a serial killer who preyed on visitors to the Windy City.

Larson’s most recent book, Thunderstruck (2007), illuminates the invention of “wireless” radio communication by Guglielmo Marconi, and details how the early telegraph was successfully used to apprehend a murderer.

As a writer of narrative historical non-fiction, Larson has developed a very personal approach to research. He rarely consults the Internet, preferring to dig through dusty archives and first-person accounts without the help of assistants. In a 2003 interview with Alden Mudge for Book Page, Larson admitted his books differ significantly from volumes compiled by historians.

“If I bring anything to the party, it’s a knack for finding the telling details,” he said. “What I love is the stuff that never makes it into professional history, because it belongs in the footnotes, because it’s not appropriate. That’s the stuff I live for.”

Larson’s visit to Beloit will be complemented by two fascinating exhibits on display in the museums of Beloit College. “The Columbian Exposition and Beloit” highlights connections between the 1893 Columbian World Exposition and the Logan Museum of Anthropology; “A World in a Windy City: The Chicago Columbian Exposition” features artifacts and images from the exposition. Viewed together, they provide a context for understanding how such expositions influenced popular cultural perceptions, as well as the development of museums and the discipline of anthropology.

“The Columbian Exposition and Beloit” is on display in the first floor gallery of the Logan Museum of Anthropology; “A World in a Windy City” appears in the Neese Gallery, in the Wright Museum of Art. Both will remain open through Dec. 16.

from the Oct. 10, 2007, issue

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