An Analysis of The Devil in the White City (Erik Larson) by Joseph Suglia
Erik Larson’s The Devil in the White City (2003) is an unclassifiable book. It seems to tolerate no genre but its own. Yes, it is a work of history–there are copious end notes and a substantive bibliography; its research seems historiographically sound (though it is not; read Adam Seltzer’s book H. H. Holmes: The True History of the White City Devil); every direct quotation is taken from an imposing armature of sources. And yet it reads as if it were a novel.
The book is concerned with two figures who are said to be diametrically opposed to each other: Daniel Burnham, one of the chief architects of Chicago’s World Fair, and H. H. Holmes, murderer of young women (despite Larson’s claims, Holmes was a serial failure; he even failed at being a serial killer). Both are said to be emblematical of the Gilded Age, that is, late nineteenth-century industrial America. And both are said to have converged at the World’s Columbian Exposition.
The book’s premise seems to be that, in America’s Gilded Age, two polar energies were at work: that of technological construction and that of destabilization, the grandeur of architecture and what erodes stability and what reverses progress. Larson further qualifies this opposition in his introductory “Note”: “[I]t is a story of the ineluctable conflict between good and evil, daylight and darkness, the White City and the Black.”
But are architecture and destructuring, “good” and “evil” parallel oppositions? Where can “good” and “evil” be seen in the Gilded Age outside of these two isolated figures? Are architecture and destructuring indeed opposed to each other? Where else was this vague disassembling at work in the Gilded Age? Outside of a description of what Holmes and Burnham did and said, Larson does not provide answers to these questions.
The “voice” of the work is that of the grandfatherly storyteller. Nearly every sentence is bloated with hoary bombast. Patiently, bombastically, the author recounts the stories of the murderer and the architect. And yet what is the meaning of it all? Does this book have a clear and defensible thesis?
The Devil in the White City never affords its readers access to the killer’s mind. In the section of book entitled “Notes and Sources,” Larson concedes, “Exactly what motivated Holmes may never be known.” He defers to “what forensic psychiatrists have come to understand about psychopathic serial killers.” But should forensic psychiatry be given the last word? Is the dossier then closed after they have spoken?
What, exactly, is the relationship, for Larson, between the architect and the murderer? Is Larson suggesting that Holmes’s desire for “dominance and possession” was also the desire of Burnham? Does Burnham merely wear a more socially acceptable mask? Do they represent two variations of the same impulse? Regrettably, Larson never pursues any of these questions.