Historical Narrative and Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City, Reviewed by Henri
In The Devil in the White City: Murder Magic and Madness at the Fair That Changed America, Erik Larson tells the story of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair from the perspective of two vastly different characters: Daniel Burnham, the architect named director of works at the fair, and Henry Howard Holmes, the prolific serial killer who roamed its grounds. To Larson, Holmes serves as an ideal counterpoint to the sublime beauty of Burnham’s vision, a “devil” whose genius and novelty matched that of the “Fair That Changed America.” The picture here is of a moment in time that marked a great historical transition, the beginning of an age of electric lighting, urban planning, and the modern serial killer. While Larson is a gifted storyteller, the narrative framework of The Devil in the White City fails to perform many of the functions one would expect of more conventional histories.
The book’s methodology, while providing an engrossing narrative, is lacking in analytical insight. Larson seems more interested in telling a good story than in putting forward an argument, despite the sensationalistic subtitle that the Chicago World’s Fair “changed America.” The work of Hayden White, who argues that all modern history writing involves some form of “narrativity,” can be of some use here. To White, all narratives contain certain common elements, such as chronology, and a system for “assigning importance or significance to events.” Narrative provides an important explanatory function, as prioritizing certain facts over others can allow for the charting of causation, for instance. In addition, White sees narration as a means to render history “comprehensible.” Larson’s work is certainly comprehensible, but it suffers from a paucity of analysis that seems at odds with the aims of narration as elucidated by White. If Larson is attempting to demonstrate the transformative effect of the Fair on American life, his narrative does not provide very much to support the idea. While it is true that the Fair saw a grouping of some of the most renowned architects in the American pantheon, like Louis Sullivan, Frederick Law Olmstead, and Daniel Burnham himself, there is not very much shown in the narrative to suggest that the Fair had a lasting and profound influence on American architecture, aside from a few words in the epilogue about the “City Beautiful” movement. The Fair also hosted some of the great minds of turn-of-the-century America, and Larson duly provides a few juicy anecdotes regarding their attendance. Larson describes, for instance, the amusing circumstances surrounding the meeting of Buffalo Bill Cody and Susan B. Anthony, as well as the reason for Mark Twain’s absence at the Fair (he was ill and bedridden for the duration of his stay in Chicago). Here again, however, the Fair’s larger role as a turning point in American history remains largely unproven. Where an academic history would opt for more focus, Larson meanders through the history of the Fair, seemingly structuring the book purely according to chronology. Rather than provide analysis, Larson’s narrative seems to preclude it.
Still, it could perhaps be said that Larson’s narrative functions as an “impressionistic” or “contextualist” history, as White calls those with less “formal coherency,” that is, those that attempt to provide a sense of the atmosphere of a period. Even here, however, Larson’s treatment of Chicago during the World’s Fair seems inadequate. Most of the primary sources he draws upon consist of the writings of the likes of Burham, Sullivan, and Olmsted, as well as Holmes. This is unsurprising, seeing as these are the main characters of the book. What is disappointing in The Devil and the White City is perhaps not the research itself but Larson’s choice of characters. These are all, almost without exception, affluent, Anglo-American men. Cleavages of class, race, and gender make virtually no appearance in the text. When they do, it is usually as obstacles to the success of the Fair, as when a strike threatens to postpone opening day, or when a worker is killed during construction (a total of seven were killed). Chicago’s squalor, its working conditions, and the state of its labour movement are mentioned in passing. The experience of the colonized peoples brought to the Fair to populate its exhibits, often little more than human zoos, is also largely absent, or relayed through the observations of their White American managers. The picture that emerges as a result is one of great men in smoke-filled rooms driving humanity forward. This is not to diminish the achievements of Burnham and his associates, only to say that the larger story of life in Chicago in the Gilded Age, the place Larson alludes to as “the Black City,” is insufficiently explored. Even the dark counter-narrative of Holmes can be said to suffer from the same problem. Holmes, a physician fond of insurance fraud, moved for the most part in comfortably middle class circles.
One of the more unusual aspects of Larson’s book is its novelistic style. Where historians, and indeed even popular historians, typically narrate as impartial observers whose knowledge of their subjects is finite, Larson often assumes the perspective of the omniscient narrator who knows the most intimate thoughts and feelings of his characters. This is certainly not an academic approach, yet it manages to considerably enliven the events depicted, particularly those pertaining to Holmes. As a reader, just as one acknowledges that Larson is guilty of embellishment, one trusts that the picture he is trying to create is generally accurate, and that his writing is informed by concrete evidence, in the form of memoirs or interviews with witnesses. This, however, is not always the case, particularly where Holmes’ motives and the details of his murders are concerned. The death of one victim, Julia Conner, is particularly disturbing, Holmes deriving sexual satisfaction from murdering a pregnant mistress of his with chloroform. As Larson admits in his notes, however, many of details in the scene are purely speculative, as Julia Conner’s body was never found and Holmes never specified how she was killed beyond the fact that it was during a “criminal operation,” an abortion. Holmes’ reasons for committing the murders, described by Larson repeatedly and in quite explicit terms as sexual gratification derived from a sense of dominance, are not substantiated by Holmes or by any witnesses, but are rather one possible explanation suggested by mental health professionals among several. Larson’s account thus appears as little more than conjecture in many places, a sin that would be more forgivable if Larson had stressed his artistic intentions from the outset. The reverse is true. In the preamble Larson claims, “However strange or macabre some of the following incidents may seem, this is not a work of fiction.” There is something slightly dishonest in this, particularly seeing as Larson’s novelistic passages alternate with more conventional narration, as well as lengthy quotations from letters and diaries, creating a uniform impression of veracity where there ought not be.
Despite all of the problems raised above, The Devil in the White City is a thoroughly enjoyable read. Larson is an excellent writer, with an eye for character that is lacking among professional historians. Nonetheless, there is little in the structure or scope of his book that would be instructive to academic historians.
 Erik Larson, The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America (New York: Vintage Books, 2003), xi.
 Hayden White, The Content of the Form (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987), 11.
 Hayden White, “Interpretation in History,” New Literary History 4, no. 2 (1973): 291.
 Erik Larson, The Devil in the White City, 373-374.
 Ibid, 285-286.
 Hayden White, “Interpretation in History,” 297, 300, 301.
 Ibid, 223.
 Ibid, 334.
 Ibid, 404.
 Ibid, 395.
 Ibid, xi.