For book The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson: 1. What is the author arguing or trying to prove? What is the overall purpose of the book? For...

For book The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson:

  • What is the author arguing or trying to prove? What is the overall purpose of the book? For example: Are there previous historical works that they are attempting to build on? Or trying to discredit? Is the book new and ground-breaking research?
  • What types of primary sources are used to create this book?
  • Offer an overall critique of the book.
  • Expert Answers

    An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

    In accordance with eNotes policy, Homework Help posts may contain one question. This answer addresses the first question posed.

    By concentrating on a crucial event in Chicago, Illinois (and US history), Erik Larson shows how the city's importance developed—both as a regional center and a national metropolis. Within his focus on the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, he centers on two distinct individuals, each of whom dominates a singular narrative.

    One of two central narratives in the book is that of the man responsible for creating the exposition and, by extension, establishing Chicago's lasting national significance. The other narrative is that of a serial killer who terrorized the city during the exposition. The impact of this man's notorious actions included not only adding to the popular conception of urban centers as dangerous places but also established the "serial killer" (well before this term was in common use) as an American phenomenon that was a counterpart to British developments (e.g., Jack the Ripper).

    One reason that Larson chose Chicago and this exposition as his central focus is that it played a key role in consolidating the United States as a unified country that stretched from coast to coast. It was at this event that Frederick Turner gave his now famous speech about the closing of the American frontier.

    Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
    An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

    In The Devil in the White City, Erik Larson re-creates the history of the Chicago World's Fair of 1893, also known as the Columbian Exposition. Using primary sources, including newspaper articles, diaries, first-person accounts, and other documents, he interweaves the stories of two real men--Daniel H. Burnham, a talented architect who, with his partner, constructs and publicizes the fair, and H.H. Holmes, a serial killer who uses the construction of the fair to carry out trickery and murder. 

    The author has several purposes in writing this book, which is a type of narrative non-fiction (meaning it is history with a strong, compelling story). First, it's a great story--it's entertaining and about the growth of one of America's greatest cities. Second, Larson re-creates the wonder and chaos of the process of creating America's urban areas, including the anonymity they offered to scoundrels like Holmes. Third, by bringing together two stories that have not been connected before, he is in a sense drawing closer connections between the two protagonists--Burnham and Holmes--and suggesting that one used the fair to achieve greatness and the other (obviously Holmes) used the fair for evil. In this sense, the book offers a story that is new and ground-breaking, and it builds on more traditional, straightforward histories by using different types of primary sources (journals, diaries, newspapers, etc.). Larson may not be trying to discredit other writers but to offer a new perspective on historical events.

    The result, by most readers' and critics' accounts, is stunning. The book is very readable and suspenseful to the point of being compelling, and, by using a broad variety of sources, Larson re-creates in fascinating and often gory detail what the time period was like. 

    Approved by eNotes Editorial Team

    We’ll help your grades soar

    Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

    • 30,000+ book summaries
    • 20% study tools discount
    • Ad-free content
    • PDF downloads
    • 300,000+ answers
    • 5-star customer support
    Start your 48-Hour Free Trial