The Devil in the White City

The Devil in the White City

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Themes and Colors
Sanity and Insanity Theme Icon
Modernity and Anonymity Theme Icon
Men and Women Theme Icon
Ego and Cooperation Theme Icon
Civic Pride and American Patriotism Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Devil in the White City, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Ego and Cooperation Theme Icon

The designers of the World’s Fair are enormously successful people even before they complete the exhibition — and they know it. Burnham, Olmsted, Sullivan, Root, Ferris, and their colleagues are proud and more than a little arrogant. They get involved with the Fair in order to ensure that their architectural legacies will survive long after they die. The size and scale of the buildings they design testify to their enormous ambitions.

The designers’ egocentrism takes different forms. Sullivan and Olmsted oppose the towering scale and imposing style of the World’s Fair because they find it bombastic, old-fashioned, and disruptive to the fun of the event. But this certainly doesn’t mean that Sullivan and Olmsted are more humble than their colleagues. Olmsted, who designed Central Park in New York City, cares deeply about his colleagues’ opinion of him; the same is true of Sullivan. Olmsted is a landscape architect, and he understands that his designs’ success hinges on their harmony with the other design. In other words, he knows that he needs to cooperate with the other ambitious architects if he is to be personally successful.

In general, Larson suggests that creative geniuses have to balance ego and cooperation if they are to succeed. The career of Daniel Burnham may be the best example of this principle. Burnham is motivated by his own selfish ambitions. Because he was rejected from Harvard and Yale as a young man, he wants to impress the Eastern American architects. But in spite of his ambitions, Burnham excels at cooperating with others. His partnership with John Root, and later, his skillful negotiations with the other architects at the World’s Fair, hinge upon his acknowledgment that he can’t do everything himself.

By and large, Larson makes fun of people who are too egocentric. Harriet Monroe, who publishes a poem commemorating the Dedication Day ceremonies at the World’s Fair and arrogantly thinks that it is a brilliant achievement, ends up burning her own work for kindling. Although ego is necessary for completing monumental tasks like the construction of the White City, it’s not enough, especially in a largely anonymous field like architecture. (After all, only a small handful of people alive today have even heard of Daniel Burnham or the 1893 World’s Fair, at least before reading The Devil in the White City.) Without cooperation to temper ego, nothing can be accomplished.

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Ego and Cooperation 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 Ego and Cooperation.
Part 2, Chapter 1 Quotes

The dome was too much — not too tall to be built, simply too proud for its context. It would diminish Hunt’s building and in so doing diminish Hunt and disrupt the harmony of the other structures on the Grand Court.

Related Characters: Daniel Burnham, Richard Morris Hunt, George B. Post
Page Number: 114
Explanation and Analysis:

As the architects of the Chicago World's Fair plan their designs, controversy inevitably breaks out. The planners of the World's Fair are a veritable who's who of the country's greatest designers and architects, and also a who's who of the country's biggest egos. As the Fair draws nearer, the architects, such as Hunt, Post, and Burnham, have to learn to work together. One example of how the architects must learn to cooperate comes in this quotation: Post has designed an enormous domed building that—in spite of its majesty—will distract from the other buildings and ruin the overall effect.

With every decision Burnham and his colleagues make, they have to ask themselves two questions: is this right for my building, and is it right for the World's Fair as a whole? Naturally, the first question comes much more naturally than the second, and in this case, Post has failed to ask the second question altogether. The most successful architects at the World's Fair learn to balance their desire for individual glory with their enthusiasm for the success of the Fair and the city as a whole.


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The shared vision expressed in their drawings struck [Olmsted} as being too sober and monumental. After all, this was a world’s fair, and fairs should be fun.

Related Characters: Frederick Law Olmsted
Page Number: 116
Explanation and Analysis:

As the designers of the World's Fair proceed with their plans, they bicker over the basic "look" of the Fair. Burnham proposes a style of architecture that favors big, white, neoclassical buildings, overflowing with pillars and domes. Olmsted, on the other hand, wants something lighter and more playful: he's afraid that big white buildings (the titular "white city") will discourage people from enjoying themselves.

Olmsted and Burnham's aesthetic differences say a lot about how they approach their respective careers. Olmsted, the chief designer of Central Park, favored a subtle style of design, whereas Burnham liked big, "heavy" buildings that drew attention to themselves with their majesty and seriousness. As the title of the book makes clear, Burnham won his quarrel with Olmsted: the Fair was white and monumental. Whatever one thinks of Olmsted's opinion, one thing is clear: in the clash of egos at the Fair, some major artists like Olmsted were silenced.

Part 2, Chapter 3 Quotes

At Jackson Park, aggravation was endemic. Simple matters, Burnham found, often became imbroglios. Even Olmsted had become an irritant. He was brilliant and charming, but once fixed on a thing, he was as unyielding as a slab of Joliet limestone.

Related Characters: Daniel Burnham, Frederick Law Olmsted
Page Number: 143
Explanation and Analysis:

Burnham, who's been placed in charge of the World's Fair, struggles to control the volatile group of architectural "prima donnas" on his board. One of these prima donnas is Frederick Law Olmsted. Olmsted has been a good friend to Burnham, yielding to Burnham's "vision" of the Fair. But there are also times when Olmsted refuses to back off from his point of view, and Burnham finds it exhausting trying to convince such a brilliant man as Olmsted of anything he doesn't already believe.

The quotation is important because it reminds us that Burnham, in spite of his vast architectural talent, isn't really on the board of the World's Fair to build buildings. Burnham is chosen to head the Fair because he's good at organizing and delegating other people. Burnham's job is to communicate an overall idea of how the Fair should look, then rely on his talented board members to carry out this idea in time for the 1893 Fair.

Part 2, Chapter 5 Quotes

If an engineer capable of besting Eiffel did not step forward soon, Burnham knew, there simply would not be enough time left to build anything worthy of the fair. Somehow [Burnham] needed to rouse the engineers of America.

Related Characters: Daniel Burnham
Page Number: 155
Explanation and Analysis:

As Burnham proceeds with his designs for the Chicago World's Fair, it becomes clear that the Fair isn't going to serve its intended purpose: it's not going to put Chicago on the map to the extent that was hoped. The Fair is going to fail because it lacks a single truly impressive architectural marvel; something that can rival the achievement of Gustave Eiffel, the architect of the Eiffel Tower in Paris. The quotation is important, then, because it reminds us what an international project the Chicago World's Fair really was: Chicago wasn't only trying to impress the elite of New York and Philadelphia; it was trying to assert American dominance in technology and engineering to Europe as well.

It's very revealing that when Burnham faces a crisis of creativity, he doesn't try to design anything himself. Burnham, in spite of his intelligence and talent as a designer, isn't really a creative force on the board of the World's Fair: his job is to encourage creativity in others.

Part 2, Chapter 7 Quotes

Unlike the majority of the audience, Monroe believed the poem to be rather a brilliant work, so much so that she had hired a printer to produce five thousand copies for sale to the public. She sold few and attributed the debacle to America’s fading love of poetry. That winter she burned the excess copies for fuel.

Related Characters: Harriet Monroe
Page Number: 182
Explanation and Analysis:

One of the best parts about Larson's book is that he captures the failures of the World's Fair as well as the successes. Although there were some titanic talents working in Chicago in the 1890s, there were also plenty of mediocrities. One such mediocrity, Harriet Monroe, tried and failed to become a popular poet, publishing her work and then later burning the copies to keep herself warm.

When writing about a big historical event like the Chicago World's Fair, it's tempting to focus on the figures who attained the most success, such as Louis Sullivan or Burnham himself. Larson, however, gives a fuller view of Chicago at the time by writing about both the successes and the failure of the era. (And while Monroe's poem probably wasn't very good at all, there's a grain of truth in her remark that America no longer loves poetry—the sentiment seems to reflect the decline in public morals that is a central theme of Larson's book.)

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.