The Devil in the White City

by Erik Larson

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How does The Devil in the White City depict late 19th-century America and how does it compare to modern America?

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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.

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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.

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What is theoretical picture of late 19th century America that emerges from The Devl in the White City? How is that time like & unlike modern US?

I'm not sure what your use of the word "theoretical" means in this context; however, I think perhaps you mean something like the stereotypical or generic.  Anyway, that's the picture I'm going with.

The turn of the century brought tremendous growth in America, and we especially see it in The Devil in the White City.  This story is a little skewed for a question like this because it takes place primarily in a big city--which was not the norm for America at the time.  There are a few things we can determine about America from the book, though.

1.  Big cities were dangerous and corrupt.  Young girls came to town and were never seen again.  Graft and corruption were omnipresent.  They were dirty and certainly works in progress.  In fact, the picture I take from this reading is that Chicago (more than New York, which had been around longer and didn't have the same character as a midwestern city) is a city trying to keep up with its own growth.  It was a wilder town, because the people of the Midwest were, shall we say, a little less refinedthan many Easterners--though New York had its share of corruption, of course. It was just so easy for someone to get lost in the midst of the busy-ness and unsanitary conditions and people taking advantage of naivete (something Holmes took gruesome advantage of, of course).

2.  People believed in the greatness of America.  This was an event which drew millions of people; in fact, the numbers tell us nearly 30 million people attended the Fair from all over the world.  That number was almost half the total population of the U.S. at the time.

3.  Americans were creative and inventive and innovative.  Look at everything new which came from this event--foods, energy, architecture, engineering, transportation, sanitation--you can name plenty more, as you've read, too.

4.  Americans were resourceful.  We see that over and over as Burnham and his crews had to overcome obstacles--some of them overwhelming--time after time. 

5.  This is an era in which America had "kings" of commerce and philanthropy.  This was especially evident in New York, of course, as such "royalty" was just rising to power in the West.  The word tycoon fits this era perfectly.

6.  People (not just Americans) were still able to be awed by sights and sounds and experiences which we would find rather mundane today.  The gondola rides, for example, brought Venice to people who had generally only heardof such wonders.  (Las Vegas has taken advantage of that same kind desire for experience, but there is no real awe today.)  People were not in touch with the rest of the world through every possible media, and travel was not as common for them.  Bringing sights from around the world was awe-inspiring to the pioneering, manufacturing, working people of America.

That should get you started, anyway. 

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