1) 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?
2) 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?
3) 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?
4) 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?
5) 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?
6) 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?
7) 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
8) 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?
9) 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?
10) 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 wrote?
11) 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?
12) 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 roof-that marvel of late
nineteenth-century hubris, enclosing the greatest volume of
unobstructed space in history-collapsed to the floor below" [p.
196-97]. 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?
13) 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?