Tuesday, October 25, 2016
October 25, 2016: American Killers: The Devil in the White City
[For this year’s installment in my annual Halloween series, I’ll be AmericanStudying serial killers in American culture and history. Add your boos and other thoughts in comments, please!]
On two reasons to celebrate Erik Larson’s bestseller, and one important critique.
The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America (2003), Erik Larson’s gripping account of both the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago and a serial killing doctor who operated (grisly pun very much intended) in the shadow of the fair, is one of the 21st century’s most successful works of historical nonfiction to date (so much so that it is being adapted as a feature film, directed by Martin Scorcese and starring Leonardo DiCaprio as the killer). Even if I weren’t a public scholar looking to connect with mainstream audiences outside of academia, the striking success of Larson’s book would be an inspiring example of how such broad audiences are interested in historical stories, as long as they’re well-chosen and –told. Indeed, the nonfiction bestseller list is as usual full of historical nonfiction—and while some of it falls into the category of the distinctly propagandistic voices (O’Reilly and Limbaugh et al) who helped prompt my first moves toward public scholarship, much of it is being written by impressive public scholars and intellectuals like Larson, David McCullough, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and many others.
Moreover, such bestselling historical nonfiction doesn’t just engage readers on its own terms—it also offers starting points for further historical awareness and engagement. I’ve written multiple times, in this space as well as in my first book, about the complexities and meanings of the Columbian Exposition; I agree with Larson’s subtitle phrase that the fair changed (as well as reflected) late 19th century America on many levels. And in one key narrative choice, Larson makes the fair a central part of his book’s focus: by featuring not only serial killer H.H. Holmes but also the Exposition’s chief architect Daniel H. Burnham as his two protagonists, Larson fully and impressively intertwines the fair and its histories and contexts (such as the development of Chicago, in which Burnham played a key role as well) with the story of Holmes and his crimes. No one event or moment can explain an entire period in American history and culture, of course—but we have to start somewhere, and beginning with the Columbian Exposition offers American audiences a number of key themes and questions that could prompt further research into and analysis of Gilded Age America. Larson’s book offers a great way into that process.
Yet Larson’s focus on serial killer Holmes, while entirely understandable and of course integral to the book’s popular appeal, also reflects a limit of much bestselling historical nonfiction as well as of our true crime and horror narratives. That is, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that both Holmes and Burnham are white men, as the majority of both our most celebrated historical figures and our most infamous historical killers have occupied that over-emphasized demographic category. I’m not suggesting that there aren’t still stories featuring such figures that need better remembering in our collective narratives—there most definitely are, and both Burnham’s and Holmes’s were such stories before Larson told them. Yet to my mind the most interesting figures and stories linked to the Columbian Exposition are those of others: Ida B. Wells and the group of African Americans who wrote this amazing pamphlet; Sophia Hayden and the women who produced and operated the Woman’s Building; Chief Simon Pokagon and that amazingly revisionist pamphlet (which he distributed to visitors at the fair). Perhaps Larson’s book can help lead audiences to those figures and stories—but not necessarily, and at the very least we need more bestselling historical nonfiction that starts with them. They might not be as sexy as a serial killing doctor, but they’re just as closely tied to both the devils and the ideals that the white city featured.
Next killer tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other American killers or scares you’d highlight?