Erik Larson: Celebrated author's historical imaginings blur line between fact and fiction

Historians in the News

As a work of history, "The Devil in the White City" by Erik Larson is gaining traction.

Since being published in 2003, Larson's dual story of Daniel Burnham overseeing the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 and serial killer H.H. Holmes preying on young women in the Chicago neighborhood near the fair site has sold more than 1 million copies.

Now, it's being cited as a source by academic scholars such as Carl Smith, who lists "The Devil in the White City" in the bibliographical essay for his top-notch monograph "The Plan of Chicago."

In addition, librarians and other experts, such as Anita Silvey, the author of the recently published reference work "500 Great Books for Teens," are recommending Larson's book as a fine example of non-fiction writing.

The problem is that key scenes in the book, as well as other descriptions, characterizations and details, aren't based on historical sources or eyewitness accounts, but on Larson's speculations, on what he seems to believe must have happened or could have happened. Yet he presents them as fact.

This is important because the bedrock of good history books and other non-fiction works is truth. Any interesting fact in a non-fiction book--for example, that in New Salem, young Abe Lincoln could throw a cannonball farther than anyone else--is all the more interesting because it's true.

Our knowledge of Lincoln's cannonball prowess is from the important biography that his longtime law partner and friend William Herndon wrote after interviewing many of the people who knew the future president as a boy and young man. It's a fact that gives us a sense of Lincoln's strength and physical presence. That's what the facts of history provide, glimpses into the real world.

Contacted for this story, Larson replied in an e-mail: "There are 857 footnotes in `The Devil in the White City,' citing material from 139 different books, articles and archives, and from hundreds of newspaper articles in 1890s editions of the Chicago Tribune, the Philadelphia Public Ledger, and The New York Times, all of which I consulted in the course of approximately three years of research. Yet these endnotes are by no means exhaustive. A truly comprehensive list, noting the source of every detail, would require a companion volume. Nonetheless, `The Devil in the White City' is, figuratively speaking, an open book, its logic and sourcing transparent to all."

In a note in the front of the book, Larson writes that the story he tells is true: "However strange and macabre some of the following incidents may seem, this is not a work of fiction. Anything between quotation marks comes from a letter, memoir, or other written document."...

Read entire article at Patrick T. Reardon in the Chicago Tribune

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