What is the picture of late nineteenth century America that emerges from The Devil in the White City?
The United States portrayed in Devil in the White City is one of contrasts and great gaps between the rich and poor, the fortunate and the unfortunate, those bent on improvement and those bent on vice. For example, while the Chicago World's Fair of 1893 showcased marvels, such as villages imported wholesale from Egypt, a theatre with 1,500 seats, a vast hall, and beauty that made people weep, it also had an element of what Larson refers to as "darkness" (page 5). For example, many workers were injured in building the fair, and fire killed others.
Central to the book is the story of the murderer who lurks amid the people at the fair. Part of what made Chicago so dangerous was its anonymity. As Larson writes, "How easy it was to disappear" (page 11). The city he describes is one in which vice thrives. He quotes Ben Hecht, who wrote of Chicago, "the devil was still capering in a flare of brimstone" (page 11). In such a place, still reeling from rapid expansion and the advent of industrialization, people died anonymously all the time. This is the picture of America that Larson paints--one of great progress, symbolized by Daniel Burnham (the architect, along with John Root, who built the World's Fair), and Dr. Henry Holmes, the murderer who killed people during the fair. Burnham shows the bright side of the country's progress and growing world power, while Holmes shows the way in which the untamed urban growth and industrialization of the time could create a situation in which vulnerable women could be killed.
A few words come to mind if I had to describe the America Larson depicts:
The picture that is painted is of a society that is quickly changing due to technological innovations. These innovations are seen in the building of the fair, the topics of the fair (science as a significant focus), and in the methods Holmes uses to build his murder house. For good or bad, technology and innovation is being used in very creative ways that no one has seen before.
Additionally, this use of technology and the speed with which it is developed, applied, and consumed, seems unstoppable. The desire for bigger and better is emphasized throughout the book. This is no more apparent than in the description of the fair itself. Its size and scope was unrivaled in modern times. The Ferris Wheel's construction alone was not only innovative for its design, but Larson noted over and over that the wheel and the fair were in direct competition with the level of expectation that the Exposition in Paris had previously set for fair-goers.
So, overall, the picture of America in the late nineteenth century is that of a country quickly evolving technologically and scientifically.