Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
About This Book
In The Devil
in the White City, Erik Larson takes readers into a richly complex moment in
American history, a moment that would draw together the best and worst of the
Gilded Age, the grandeur and triumph of the human imagination, and the poverty,
violence, and depravity that surrounded it.
The book's two most powerful figures, the great architect Daniel Burnham and
the psychopathic killer, Henry H. Holmes, in many ways embody the opposing
forces of the age. Burnham was responsible for building the White City,
overcoming a series of crushing professional obstacles and personal tragedies to
make the Fair the magical, awe-inspiring event that it was. He brought together
some of the greatest architects of the dayCharles McKim, George Post, Richard
Hunt, Frederick Law Olmsted, and othersconvinced them of the importance of
the Fair, and somehow got them to work together to achieve what many considered
to be an impossible project in an astonishingly brief amount of time.
Simultaneously, in the shadow of the White City, Henry H. Holmes set up his own
World's Fair Hotel to take advantage of naive young single women arriving in
Chicago from surrounding small towns. Using his mesmerizing charm and an uncanny
ability to fend off creditors and police, Holmes bent his victims to his will
and committed a series of murders as cold-blooded as any in American history.
But The Devil in the White City is about more than just two men. It is
about America on the threshold of the twentieth centurya time of widespread
violence, fantastic wealth, growing labor unrest, and financial panic; a time
when Buffalo Bill could take a bow to Susan B. Anthony; and a time when men and
women as diverse as Jane Addams, Theodore Dreiser, Thomas Edison, Samuel Gompers,
and Frank Lloyd Wrightcould all gaze in wonder at the magnificence of the
In the note "Evils Imminent," Erik Larson writes "Beneath the gore
and smoke and loam, this book is about the evanescence of life, and why some men
choose to fill their brief allotment of time engaging the impossible, others in
the manufacture of sorrow" [xi]. What does the book reveal about "the
ineluctable conflict between good and evil"? What is the essential difference
between men like Daniel Burnham and Henry H. Holmes? Are they alike in any way?
At the end of The Devil in the White City, in Notes and Sources,
Larson writes "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, a
concept so removed from the modern psyche that two wise readers of early drafts
of this book wondered why Chicago was so avid to win the world's fair in the
first place" [p. 393]. What motives, in addition to "civic honor," drove
Chicago to build the Fair? In what ways might the desire to "out-Eiffel
Eiffel" and to show New York that Chicago was more than a meat-packing
backwater be seen as problematic?
The White City is repeatedly referred to as a dream. The young poet Edgar
Lee Masters called the Court of Honor "an inexhaustible dream of beauty" [p.
252]; Dora Root wrote "I think I should never willingly cease drifting in that
dreamland" [p. 253]; Theodore Dreiser said he had been swept "into a dream
from which I did not recover for months" [p. 306]; and columnist Teresa Dean
found it "cruel . . . to let us dream and drift through heaven for six months,
and then to take it out of our lives" [p. 335]. What accounts for the
dreamlike quality of the White City? What are the positive and negative aspects
of this dream?
In what ways does the Chicago World's Fair of 1893 change America? What
lasting inventions and ideas did it introduce into American culture? What
important figures were critically influenced by the Fair?
At the end of the book, Larson suggests that "Exactly what motivated
Holmes may never be known" [p. 395]. What possible motives are exposed in The
Devil in the White City? Why is it important to try to understand the
motives of a person like Holmes?
After the Fair ended, Ray Stannard Baker noted "What a human downfall
after the magnificence and prodigality of the World's Fair which has so
recently closed its doors! Heights of splendor, pride, exaltation in one month:
depths of wretchedness, suffering, hunger, cold, in the next" [p. 334]. What
is the relationship between the opulence and grandeur of the Fair and the
poverty and degradation that surrounded it? In what ways does the Fair bring
into focus the extreme contrasts of the Gilded Age? What narrative techniques
does Larson use to create suspense in the book? How does he end sections and
chapters of the book in a manner that makes' the reader anxious to find out
what happens next?
Larson writes, "The juxtaposition of pride and unfathomed evil struck me
as offering powerful insights into the nature of men and their ambitions" [p.
393]. What such insights does the book offer? What more recent stories of pride,
ambition, and evil parallel those described in The Devil in the White City?
What does The Devil in the White City add to our knowledge about
Frederick Law Olmsted and Daniel Burnham? What are the most admirable traits of
these two men? What are their most important aesthetic principles?
In his speech before his wheel took on its first passengers, George Ferris
"happily assured the audience that the man condemned for having wheels in
his head' had gotten them out of his head and into the heart of the Midway
Plaisance" [p. 279]. In what way is the entire Fair an example of the power of
human ingenuity, of the ability to realize the dreams of imagination?
How was Holmes able to exert such power over his victims? What weaknesses
did he prey upon? Why wasn't he caught earlier? In what ways does his story "illustrate the end of the century" [p. 370] as the Chicago Times-Herald
What satisfaction can be derived from a nonfiction book like The Devil
in the White City that cannot be found in novels? In what ways is the book
like a novel?
In describing the collapse of the roof of Manufacturers and Liberal Arts
Building, Larson writes "In a great blur of snow and silvery glass the
building's roofthat marvel of late nineteenth-century hubris, enclosing the
greatest volume of unobstructed space in historycollapsed to the floor
below" [p. 19697]. Was the entire Fair, in its extravagant size and cost,
an exhibition of arrogance? Do such creative acts automatically engender a
darker, destructive parallel? Can Holmes be seen as the natural darker side of
the Fair's glory?
What is the total picture of late nineteenth-century America that emerges
from The Devil in the White City? How is that time both like and unlike
contemporary America? What are the most significant differences? In what ways
does that time mirror the present?
John Berendt, Midnight
in the Garden of Good and Evil; E. L. Doctorow, World's Fair;
Theodore Dreiser, Sister Carrie; Eric W. Hickey, Serial Murderers and
Their Victims; Jon Krakauer, Into Thin Air; Upton Sinclair, The
Jungle; Mark Twain, The Gilded Age; Edith Wharton, The House of
Copyright Vintage Publishing.
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Vintage.
Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.
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