What is Eric Larson's argument in his book Devil in the White City?if there is an argument and if not, why not?

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pholland14 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Larson's book Devil in the White City offers a contrast between the awe-inspiring White City of the Chicago World's Fair with the horror of H.H. Holmes's murder spree.  While many of the fair's attendees marveled at the World's Fair, they were not aware of the headache it caused the fair's designers as well as the Chicago town fathers who simply had to have this event in their city in order to satisfy their own egos.  Many people admired H.H. Holmes—he was good-looking, charming, and a pharmacist.  Based only on these facts, he would have been a good choice for the women of the period.  However, Holmes had a dark side, and, thanks to his custom-built murder house, he was able to use his charms over and over.  While Larson wrote this book as a gripping historical narrative for the general population, one can see many Gilded Age themes in it.  During the Gilded Age, the United States looked quite prosperous if seen from the vantage point of its financial tycoons.  However, if one looked under this veneer and saw the poor workers and crowded cities, which enabled someone like Holmes to kill for years without being caught, then one would see that there was some darkness in this "ideal world."  Larson's work epitomizes the Gilded Age in this respect.  It is not so much an argument as it is a memorable story that makes one see the problems of the period in a human light that contemporary readers can appreciate.  

teachersage eNotes educator| Certified Educator

While Larson is writing narrative non-fiction and wants primarily to tell a story while letting readers draw their own conclusions, he also inevitably chooses and arranges his material to make a point. One of Larson's fascinations, which he will pick up again in his book about Nazi Germany titled In the Garden of Beasts is the way people enable evil by not being able to accept its presence in their midst until great damage has been caused by it. The Chicago World's Fair is, among other things, a symbol of the unprecedented technological progress of the 19th century. What people in the book do not want to recognize, however, is that the same technological progress that can lead to a better life also can enable evil. In Larson's narrative, the kinds of advances in technology celebrated at the World's Fair also allow a serial killer in Chicago to build a gas chamber to murder his victims and construct an acid bath and crematorium to dispose of the bodies, a methodology chillingly similar to that used in the Nazi holocaust. The book invites us to recognize the importance of not being naive about the existence of evil in our midst.

lmetcalf eNotes educator| Certified Educator

I think that one interesting point to draw from the novel as a whole is the contrast between the "white" city of the World Fair, and the dark nature of the serial killer, Holmes. Larsen blends fact with fiction to create this story, but in totality it creates the argument that beauty can be a facade that just barely covers the dirty, awful behavior hidden the surface. The World's Fair was intended to bring the best and brightest things to Chicago, and for Chicago and the United States to show off its glory, but the actual construction  was done cheaply with the intention for the buildings to only be pretty for the 6 months of the fair and to be only temporary structures. Just as the Fair is a show, so is Holmes' character. He appears one way on the outside, and yet is pure evil. He uses the cover of the Fair to hide his crimes. Just as the designers of the Fair want to produce something great, they also had their petty, ugly disagreements behind the scenes. I think you could craft an interesting analysis of the theme of appearance versus reality.

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The Devil in the White City

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