The Devil in the White City

by Erik Larson
Start Free Trial

What is the picture of late 19th-century America that emerges from Devil in the White City? How is that time both like and unlike modern America?

Expert Answers

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

One theme that emerges from Devil in the White City is that people had not yet grasped the darker side of modern America. The Chicago World's Fair of 1893 marked the beginning of many aspects of modern growth, including the large, anonymous city. The fair introduced many modern conveniences—everything from...

See
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

One theme that emerges from Devil in the White City is that people had not yet grasped the darker side of modern America. The Chicago World's Fair of 1893 marked the beginning of many aspects of modern growth, including the large, anonymous city. The fair introduced many modern conveniences—everything from the zipper to dishwashers to motion pictures, and fairgoers were amazed by the grandeur and majesty of the buildings that architect Daniel Burnham had designed. Today, we are still awed by new advancements in technology, and in this way, we are similar to people at the time of the fair.

However, people at the time did not realize the darker side of all of these advancements. Dr. Holmes was able to kidnap women and kill them in part because the new, modern city was haphazard and a place of anonymity. It would take some time before people took in and understood that progress, while breathtaking at times, had a darker side that needed to be minded. Modern Americans have a better grasp not only on the advantages of modern life but of the disadvantages that need to be managed and corrected.

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

Larson's Devil in the White City features an America that is still struggling to present herself as cultured and beautiful to the rest of the world.  While Devil focuses specifically on Chicago, the city is representative of the hard-working, rough nature of industrialized 19th century America.  The fair is Chicago's and America's opportunity to portray themselves in a different light, one hopefully much different than the seedy slaughterhouse view that most held of Chicago at the time.  Some of the positives that the book does reveal about late 19th century America are the ability of people to transform themselves, the ingenuity of the country (as seen in the advances in architecture made during the city's preparation), and the national spirit that still existed.

Similarities between Larson's America and modern-day America: America's love for technology and building "big," the ability of a city to swallow up newcomers, and individuals creating new personas for themselves (this is especially easy in today's America with the popularity of identity theft.

Differences between then and now: With the glut of access to television, movies, and the Internet, Americans from rural areas of the country should not be so naive in moving to large cities (though some obviously still are).  The fair no longer plays a vital role in American culture and society.  Massive conventions and televised announcement from tech giants have taken the place of the fair to reveal new gadgets and technology. Finally, the America of Larson's time had not yet proved itself in World War 2, but today's America is expected by many other countries to provided security and the biggest and newest of almost everything.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team