The Devil in the White City

The Devil in the White City

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Civic Pride and American Patriotism Theme Analysis

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Civic Pride and American Patriotism Theme Icon

In interviews, Erik Larson has said that the most incomprehensible part of The Devil in the White City for modern readers is why Chicago wanted to host the World’s Fair so badly. One answer to this question is that Chicago wanted to prove itself to New York and other established American cities. In the 21st century, Chicago has a reputation as a great American city, full of rich culture and history, but in the 1890s, this wasn’t quite the case. Chicago was one of the largest cities in the country, but it was more than two hundred years younger than New York City or Boston. More importantly, most of the wealthy families in Chicago made their money from slaughterhouses — not exactly a glamorous way to get rich. By hosting the 1893 World’s Fair, Chicago wanted to show that it had its own unique culture and spirit, that it wasn’t just a “dirty place.” In order to make a good impression on the rest of the country, Chicago newspapers often omitted information about setbacks or failure, so that the Fair would seem as successful as possible.

At the same time that Chicago was using the World’s Fair as a vehicle for competing with New York City and other major Eastern cities, the United States as a whole was trying to assert its power to Europe, the cultural center of the Western world. The 1889 World’s Fair in Paris had been a great success, and Americans wanted to “top” the architectural achievement of that fair – the Eiffel Tower — this was what inspired George Ferris to design the Ferris Wheel. More generally, though, America’s architectural competition with France was only one part of its general competition with Europe. The United States was still just a little more than two decades out of the Civil War, and though its economy was growing rapidly, it still lagged far behind the massive European empires of the time — the British Empire, for instance, controlled one fifth of the world’s population. Through a successful and impressive World’s Fair, the United States hoped to send a message that it was a major architectural power, a major technologically power, and even a major military power. (Only five years after the World’s Fair, the United States used its superior military technology to crush Spain in the 1898 Spanish-American war and to annex Spain’s territories in the Americas.)

Chicago’s civic pride and its patriotism sometimes complemented each other, but often they worked against each other — for instance, architects from Eastern American cities initially refused to work on the Chicago World’s Fair because of their own loyalty to their cities. But ultimately, the World’s Fair was a success because the designers were able to put aside their civic rivalries and work together as Americans. Larson notes that the patriotism that compelled Burnham and his colleagues to complete the Fair is almost inconceivable today. At the same time, late 19th century patriotism arguably took a darker form than it does today. Many of the exhibits at the World’s Fair consisted of humans transplanted from Africa or other “exotic” locations, to be gawked at by Westerners. In many ways, America’s patriotism depended on putting the rest of the world — not just Europe, but non-Western countries — in a demeaning position. The Fair brought out America’s racism as well as its patriotism; indeed, patriotism and racism may be two sides of the same coin. The patriotism at the World’s Fair, then, represents what’s most admirable and awe-inspiring about the late 19th century, but also what’s most outdated and offensive about it.

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Civic Pride and American Patriotism ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Civic Pride and American Patriotism appears in each chapter of The Devil in the White City. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Civic Pride and American Patriotism Quotes in The Devil in the White City

Below you will find the important quotes in The Devil in the White City related to the theme of Civic Pride and American Patriotism.
Part 1, Chapter 2 Quotes

So far the year had been a fine one. Chicago’s population had toppled one million for the first time, making the city the second most populous in the nation after New York.

Page Number: 13
Explanation and Analysis:

In this quotation, Larson establishes the setting of the book: Chicago. At the time when the book begins, Chicago is still an up-and-coming city: big and industrial, but not as culturally prestigious as New York City. From the perspective of America at the time, size matters: the quote presupposes that the bigger a city grows, the more businessmen, artists, inventors, and entrepreneurs move there, and the more impressive the city becomes. But as we've already seen, it's more complicated than that: big cities may be culturally prestigious, but they're also more dangerous, especially for young women. The same demographic forces that led Chicago to become one of the greatest cities in the Western hemisphere also led Holmes, a brutal murderer, to get away with despicable crimes for many years.


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Though Chicago was rapidly achieving recognition as an industrial and mercantile dynamo, its leading men felt keenly the slander from New York that their city had few cultural assets.

Page Number: 29
Explanation and Analysis:

By 21st century standards, it's hard to grasp that there was ever a point when Chicago was actively competing for the glory and recognition of other American cities. But in the late 19th century, Chicago was on the rise: there were plenty of businessmen who'd made the city wealthy, but it was missing a certain element of class and sophistication.

As the quotation suggests, cultural prestige—even though it's impossible to measure—mattered deeply to the leaders of Chicago. The desire for this prestige explains why Chicago's elite invested so much of their time and energy in the Chicago World's Fair: the Fair cemented Chicago's status as a national leader in matters of architecture, entertainment, and technology.

Part 3, Chapter 11 Quotes

The exposition was Chicago’s great pride. Thanks mainly to Daniel Burnham the city had proved it could accomplish something marvelous against obstacles that by any measure should have humbled the builders.

Page Number: 288
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Larson sums up the achievement of the Chicago World's Fair: it proved (both to the U.S. as a whole and the rest of the world) that Chicago was a force to be reckoned with: the site of incredible technological and organizational achievements.

There's an interesting tension in this quotation, however, between individual achievement and collective achievement. True, the World's Fair is Burnham's triumph, since he was the head of the board of Fair planners. But of course, Burnham could never have succeeded without the independent genius of Olmsted, Ferris, Sullivan, and countless others. It was the collective genius of a group of people, as much as the individual genius of an organizer like Burnham, that made the Fair a success. Moreover, the success belonged to Chicago as a whole: after all, the Fair was only proposed in the first place because of the city's growing wealth and desire for prestige.

Epilogue, Chapter 1 Quotes

As Wright’s academic star rose, so too did Sullivan’s. Burnham’s fell from the sky. It became re rigueur among architecture critics and historians to argue that Burnham in his insecurity and slavish devotion to the classical yearnings of the eastern architects had indeed killed American architecture. But that view was too simplistic, as some architecture historians and critics have more recently acknowledged. The fair awakened America to beauty and as such was a necessary passage that laid the foundation for men like Frank Lloyd Wright …

Related Characters: Daniel Burnham, Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright
Page Number: 376
Explanation and Analysis:

After the World's Fair, there was a period in American architecture in which Burnham's neoclassical style, epitomized by the white monumental buildings at the Fair, became the norm for U.S. cities. But by the 1920s and 30s, the pendulum had swung back in the other direction: modernism and the avant-garde (represented by Louis Sullivan, one of Burnham's rivals, and his protege, Frank Lloyd Wright) became the most celebrated styles in U.S. metropolises.

Larson, having written 400 pages on the genius of Daniel Patrick Burnham, is understandably reluctant to admit that Burnham was second-rate, as so many contemporary architects claim. Instead, Larson opts for a "third way"—he admits that Burnham was a little old-fashioned, but argues that even if Burnham's specific style wasn't the most influential, it led to a general interest in architecture itself, paradoxically paving the way for figures like Frank Lloyd Wright (who rejected the aesthetic principles Burnham had stood for).

Epilogue, Chapter 4 Quotes

The fair’s greatest impact lay in how it changed the way Americans perceived their cities and their architects. It primed the whole of America — not just a few rich architectural patrons — to think of cities in a way they never had before.

Page Number: 373
Explanation and Analysis:

Assessing the influence of the Chicago World's Fair on the United States, Larson is led to a couple of interesting conclusions. Here, he argues that the Fair reinforced the metropolis as a site of architectural innovation: a place where a talented team of architects could work together to reshape an entire neighborhood in one uniform style. Furthermore, the Fair reinforced architecture as the ultimate public, democratic art form: Burnham and his colleagues built buildings designed for everyone in Chicago to enjoy, from the elite to the poor.

The irony of Larson's point—an irony that should be lost on nobody who's read the book thus far—is that the "new city" that Burnham and his colleagues built (a city of beautiful white buildings and exciting new places) was also the city in which murderers like Holmes had an easy time killing their victims. Perhaps it's fair to say that Holmes and Burnham—in spite of the tremendous differences between their characters—were both reacting to the same set of influences.  In a time when millions of new people flooded into American cities, Burnham chose to respond to the demographic changes with a new, democratic style of building, while Holmes chose to respond with a new level of brutality and cruelty.