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.”[1] 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.”[2] 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.”[3] 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.[4] 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).[5] 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.[6] 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).[7] 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.[8] 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.[9] 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.[10] 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.”[11] 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.

[1] Erik Larson, The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America (New York: Vintage Books, 2003), xi.

[2] Hayden White, The Content of the Form (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987), 11.

[3] Hayden White, “Interpretation in History,” New Literary History 4, no. 2 (1973): 291.

[4] Erik Larson, The Devil in the White City, 373-374.

[5] Ibid, 285-286.

[6] Hayden White, “Interpretation in History,” 297, 300, 301.

[7] Ibid, 223.

[8] Ibid, 334.

[9] Ibid, 404.

[10] Ibid, 395.

[11] Ibid, xi.

4 responses to “Historical Narrative and Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City, Reviewed by Henri”

  1. Noah Lew says:

    Hi Henri! I found your blog post to be extremely well formulated and compelling. I especially enjoyed your paragraph in which you discussed Larson’s narration. A sentence that jumped out at me in particular was when you said “rather than provide analysis, Larson’s narrative seems to preclude it.” This sentence reminded me very strongly of my personal criticisms of Alain Corbin’s book The Village of Cannibals, as I found that he too allowed his narrative to preclude proper analysis.1 From what you are saying, it appears as though Larson chose to focus more on telling a good story than providing sound analysis. This flaw is one that is rife in the genre of popular histories, and something that should absolutely be considered further, especially when comparing popular histories to academic histories. One way in which I think you could have added to your already excellent review is by using Corbin’s analysis of the fair in Hautefaye as a foil for Larson’s portrayed the Chicago fair. I would be very interested to hear the similarities and differences between the two fairs, especially considering the fact that although it seems as though they were worlds apart, they both took place under 25 years apart from each other.

    1. Corbin, Alain. The Village of Cannibals: rage and murder in France, 1870. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992.

  2. Emma Awe says:

    Hello Henri! I found your review of “The Devil in the White City” to be very insightful. Larson’s popular history, from your perspective, appears to be interesting yet lacking in analysis. I would agree that the style of presenting history so entrenched within a narrative voice, and as more of a chronological story rather than an investigation into events, often leads to a history lacking in substance. It sounds like Larson not only writes a very stylistic version of events but also a dramatic one where, as you mentioned, he acts as an omniscient narrator. I can understand how this choice could leave readers looking for more factual interpretation and less embellishment. I find your point concerning the selection of historical figures to focus on to be a very excellent one. Larson’s choice to discuss largely white male elites disregards other groups which played a part in shaping Chicago’s history.

    Your conclusion concerning Larson’s piece is a positive one, and you commend his characterization and writing, however these points are eclipsed by a largely critical review. It may have been good to elaborate on these positive aspects a bit more, and draw on the fact that while Larson’s style of narrative has many flaws, it can also be very valuable. Hayden White explains that there is value in the inclusion of a narrative voice saying the following, “I merely wish to suggest that we can comprehend the appeal of historical discourse by recognizing the extent to which it makes the real desirable, makes the real into an object of desire, and does so by its imposition, upon events that are represented as real, of the formal coherency that stories possess.” In saying this, White suggests that story is important to make history interesting and readable, as it sounds like Larson does in his popular history.

    All in all, however, I believe your post, while perhaps lacking in an evaluation of the positive aspects of “The Devil in the White City”, is very well-thought out and truly analyses the disadvantage of stylistic narrativity.

  3. Michele says:

    I can very much relate to this review as I encountered very similar problems in mine. While I haven’t read your book, I can definitely understand your point. I think you argument can be summarized as follow: while historical narrative (as White conceives it) should be employed as a tool to properly understand and contextualize the facts, Larson (and the author of my book for that matter) elevates the narrative itself as the objective of his work. Moreover, I also appreciated how you pointed out how the author’s choice of characters is representative of a certain privileged narrative, while failing to even acknowledge less “popular” points of view. I feel that this might be another significant limitation of this kind of work: the way in which is strictly bound, arguably without even realizing it, to what can be defined as a mainstream narrative.

  4. Naomi says:

    Hi Henri.

    This was an interesting review (about an intriguing book) which really engaged with the issues inherent in narrative-heavy history. Your observations were particularly striking to me because they resonated so strongly with my own while doing this assignment. Like you, I found myself frustrated by a paucity of analysis in what I was reading, and by authors’ privileging of storytelling over rigor. With this in mind, your argument that Larson’s book challenges White’s linking of narrative and interpretation–“rather than provide analysis, Larson’s narrative seems to preclude it”–is a fascinating one. Larson’s book, like popular history generally, can perhaps serve as a counter-weight to White’s analyses, and should give us pause before we accept the universality of White’s views. In the context of Larson’s book, I also appreciated the connections your review pointed to between such narrative flair and erasures of alternative voices. Your observation that the ‘story’ Larson creates is of “great men in smoke-filled dining rooms driving humanity forward’ highlights, better than White does, how our propensity for narrative can bolster existing power structures.

    Relatedly, I also found your comments about Larson’s use of ‘conjecture’ in piecing his story together insightful and, again, in line with my experiences. When you mentioned the embellishment Larson seems to deploy in describing Holmes’s murders, I was reminded of White’s notion of “constructive imagination,” when our narratives assume the events that occurred between known fact A and known fact B. With presumably little evidence of what occurred, murders like those Holes committed present an interesting challenge for historians attempting to reconstruct the past. While I would agree that Larson’s narrative flair here is probably gratuitous (and would also question the historical value of reconstructing murder), it does highlight the difficulties historians face in ‘imaginatively’ reconstructing secretive moments.

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