The “devil” of Erik Larson’s gripping The Devil in the White City is not just the murderer Henry J. Holmes, who serves as the terrifying counterpoint to architect Daniel Hudson Burnham’s efforts to conceive and construct the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Instead, Larson explores many different devils that plague Chicago as a whole. Larson paints a portrait of a city besieged by economic and labor struggles, the stress of technological development, a flood of immigration, and crime.
Chicago, perched at the end of the Gilded Age, is an American city not only trying to establish an identity, but desperately trying to hold itself together against the ever-widening rift between labor and capital. As presented by Larson, Chicago is a city that exploits this rift, giving rise to a battlefield between the two. Larson comments that “the thing that entranced me about Chicago in the Gilded Age was the city’s willingness to take on the impossible in the name of civic honor” (393).
This “civic honor” is the heart of The Devil in the White City, revealing a great deal about the city’s nature and determination to carve out an identity for itself. The downside of Chicago’s ambitions to stage a six-month world’s fair, Larson suggests, is that it threatens to undo an already-tenuous social structure. Chicago, however, is full of pride following the Great Fire of 1871. “They had not merely restored it; they had turned it into the nation’s leader in commerce, manufacturing, and architecture” (Larson 16).
Chicago, in the last nineteenth century, barrels forward in the name of progress and is resolved, almost blindly, to come out from under the shadow of New York City. The Devil in the White City, while it follows architect Burnham and murderous doctor Holmes on their antithetical missions, is much more concerned with the American dream. That is, the dream that Larson (as well as many historians) feels America has abandoned. Historian Jack Beatty, in his book Age of Betrayal, traces how the dream of “free soil, free labor, free men and free land” (14) has been traded for the favor of big corporations.
During the Gilded Age, Beatty sees an America corrupted from within. The disparity between the rich and the poor has never been greater, he says, with a virtual elimination of the middle class. The dream established by Lincoln during the Civil War is submarined by a partnership between government and business—one that is, at the time, questioned by very few Americans. Chicago is an excellent lens through which to view the fall of the Gilded Age, mainly because of the city’s “explosive growth” (Larson 23). It is a city that cannot keep up with itself in many ways.
As the skyscrapers grew taller and transportation became more effective, Chicago “also grew dirtier, darker, and more dangerous” (Larson 28), pointing toward the dark side of progress. There are prices to pay for progress, which forms an ever-present undercurrent of unease in Larson’s depiction of Chicago. Ambition informs Chicago’s “civic honor” of staging the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. The fair, when completed, would cover over 600 acres of land, complete with new buildings, European architecture, and exhibits from cultures from around the world.
Everything about the fair was designed to “out-Eiffel Eiffel,” referring to the Eiffel Tower, which was introduced at the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris. This speaks to an overwhelming desire for the world’s immediate recognition of greatness. For example, when plans were being drawn up for the fair’s multitude of exhibits and wonders, the ideas were driven by size and stature. The fair, being America’s first, was steered in the direction of not only being memorable, but so grand of vision as to be intimidating.
Impossibly large towers were proposed, even from Gustave Eiffel himself, until George Ferris came up with the idea of a spinning wheel, which would become the first “Ferris wheel. ” The Chicago World’s Fair was a forced reflection of great amount of ingenuity and innovation that occurred during the Gilded Age. Chicago, however, was still beset by the problems of all growing big cities. In fact, the city’s ambitions to compete with New York City brought on unexpected (and unwelcome) parallels:
[New York journalist Jacob] Riis had toured Chicago’s foulest districts and announced them worse than anything he had seen in New York. In his talk he noted the fast approach of the exposition and warned his audience, “You ought to begin house cleaning, so to speak, and get your alleys and streets in better condition; never in our worst season have we had so much filth in New York City” (Larson 212). Through the Gilded Age and Larson’s book, Chicago constantly struggles to maintain its identity against New York City.
In Blair A. Ruble’s insightful book, Second Metropolis: Pragmatic Pluralism in Gilded Age Chicago, Silver Age Moscow, and Meiji Osaka, Ruble explores the plights of three cities that are the second-largest ones in their countries. Ruble posits that all three cities, near the turn of the twentieth century, were the fastest-growing, most innovative ones. He argues that each city, such as Chicago, faced insurmountable challenges, such as how to manage the growing disparities between the working class and the cultural elite.
The ways in which the elite handled each problem, Ruble believes, said something about their fate. In Chicago’s case, Ruble focuses on the rapid expansion of the city against its inability to create an effective transportation system. Chicago was not only flooded with immigrants, but it was markedly overcrowded. It was practically bulging at the seams. Ruble focuses on mayor Carter Henry Harrison, who in Larson’s book was noted for “establish[ing] Chicago as a place that tolerated human frailty even as it nurtured grand ambition” (213).
Ruble credits Harrison for being a true visionary and keenly aware of the problems his city faced. However, Ruble’s notion of “pragmatic pluralism” plays into his ultimate assessment of Chicago (and Harrison) at the turn of the century. For Ruble, Chicago demanded a leader who understood and applied “pragmatic pluralism”: a unique (and rare) ability to satisfy everyone’s interests. It is a talent for balancing the interests of the wealthy and the poor, as well as making compromising for the sake of the city’s future development.
“Pragmatic pluralism” speaks to the best, long-run interests of everyone, not the short-term interests of a few. Ruble charges Harrison with doing well at managing certain crises, but losing sight of the goal line. He is portrayed not as a failure, but a victim of economic and social circumstances that befall other cities of rapid expansion and developmental growth. Chicago, just like Moscow and Osaka, failed to deliver on its promises and further reflect the American dream. Chicago’s idealism, Ruble says, had been corroded by a relationship between business and government (213).
This tension between labor and capital plays itself out in The Devil in the White City in many fascinating ways. Larson is particularly good in crafting a book that underscores these tensions in both highly dramatic and skillfully subtle ways. First and foremost, he tells twin stories of the fair, focusing on the fair’s architect (Burnham) and the calculating doctor (Holmes)—two stories that run contrary to one another. Larson portrays both of them as brilliant men in their own regards—geniuses at accounting for every detail, anticipating every contingency, and staying one step ahead.
Larson’s book lays out all of the obstacles that stand in the way of Burnham and Holmes’s ambitions. The impossibilities that both men overcome is almost as staggering as the fair itself—a dreamlike world populated with characters as diverse as Buffalo Bill, Thomas Edison, and Frank Lloyd Wright. It is easy to get swept up into the unreality of it all, of which Dora Root wrote “I should never willingly cease drifting in that dreamland” (Larson 253). This dreamlike quality, echoed by others in the book, is used by Larson to offset the harsh reality of the world beyond it.
The fair’s eventual end seems to echo the end of the Gilded Age in many ways—a symbolic shift from the ideal to the real. When columnist Teresa Dean says, “It seems cruel, cruel, to give us such a vision; to let us dream and drift through heaven for six months, and then to take it out of our lives” (335), one gets the feeling that Larson is using her quote to comment on the collapse of the American dream itself. Labor and capital disappear against the World’s Fair, their tension ceasing to exist in the unreality of it all, but rear their head in another fundamental way.
While some could argue that the inclusion of Henry H. Holmes in The Devil in the White City is nothing short of a marketing ploy, Holmes is actually central to the power of Larson’s book. Burnham and Holmes should be viewed as symbols, rather than historical figures: the idealist versus the opportunist, the laborer versus the capitalist. Burnham believes that all things are possible, even when faced with the challenge of staging a fair where “failure was unthinkable” for fear of the nation’s honor being “tarnished” (Larson 33). He is a man who believes in himself and those around him.
Burnham is the laborer, working to sustain the American dream and keep it alive. He is, quite literally, the architect of America’s future. Holmes, on the other hand, has a completely different agenda. Holmes is the capitalist, looking to exploit weakness and profit for himself: Holmes understood that powerful new forces were acting upon Chicago, causing a nearly miraculous expansion. The city was growing in all available directions, and where it abutted the lake, it grew skyward, sharply increasing the value of land within the Loop. Everywhere he
looked he saw evidence of the city’s prosperity. … Holmes knew— everyone knew—that as skyscrapers soared and the stockyards expanded their butchery, the demand for workers would remain high, and that workers and their supervisors would seek to live in the city’s suburbs… (Larson 44-45) As such, Holmes seized upon the idea of the “World’s Fair Hotel,” which was actually a crematorium and torture palace. He could essentially bend young women to his will, take their money and their trust, and have an endless supply of them visiting his hotel during the fair.
It is almost an unthinkable series of crimes, especially in Holmes’s ability to evade suspicion, though the Chicago Times-Herald notes that his story “tends to illustrate the end of the century” (370). This quote informs the entire book and the Gilded Age at once: opportunism and evil masquerading as something benign and trusted. Closely recalling Holmes’s demeanor, the government—entrusted by the people to lead them—sold itself to the corporations. Both Holmes and the government are complicit in failing to deliver the American dream to the people and, instead, employing it for their own gains.
The Gilded Age seems remarkably similar to the contemporary world. In fact, many parallels could be drawn between then and now. Presidents and politicians are controlled by the lobbyists and those who have funded their campaigns. The money that has helped put them in office will continue to shape policy and determine our country’s course of action. In light of these realities, Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City is not just a fascinating piece of history, but it is a cautionary tale that seems more relevant than ever before.