The history of mankind represents complicated and interrelated set of webs that find their interpretations in various kinds of art. Beginning with the drawings on the wall of caves human beings have attempted to depict important events through their own vision and imprint it for the next generations. Nowadays, history is present in all manifestations of cultural heritage. One of the brightest kinds of art that illustrates events and personalities of historical importance is literature. Numerous books refer to significant occasions and help us view them from the perspective that is slightly different than the one suggested in the textbooks. This paper attempts to analyze the representation of American history and culture by means of literature and prove that literary works contain valuable and accessible information.
Understanding American History: Larson’s Devil in the White City and Yang’s Americans Born Chinese
One of the books that provides interesting insight into the realities of American past is entitled Devil in the White City. This is a book written by a famous American journalist and writer, Erik Larson. Published in 2003, it tells a story of the first American serial murderer and the one of the construction of World’s Columbian Exposition. It is based on true stories about Daniel Burnham, who was the architect of the fair, and Dr. Holmes, cruel butcher, who brought fear and terror to that place. While one is fighting against the limitation of time, another one is performing his crimes. Belonging to non-fiction, this book has a tang of captivating novel that maintains the tension till the very end. In addition to its aesthetic value, it depicts important events and personalities with historical accuracy while providing general impression of the life of the big city at the end of the 19th century.
The story itself is ornamented with historical evidence about Chicago in 1890s. The city itself is depicted as a great and mysterious place that impresses with its cultural achievements and shocks with the cruelty of crimes. “It was so easy to disappear, so easy to deny knowledge, so very easy in the smoke and din to mask that something dark had taken root. This was Chicago, on the eve of the greatest fair in history” (Larson, 2011, p. 25). The historical focus is centered on the fact of how this city received a right to open a fair; it also provides the details of its constructions. The author emphasizes the lack of time and stressful conditions of labor that accompanied the process of creation of this place.
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The depiction of the city is intertwined with the description of the fair itself, and it provides understanding of its cultural and social value. Known as 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, it was built in honor of Christopher Columbus and the day he stepped on the American land, but its architect, Burnham, turned it into “something enchanting, known throughout the world as the White City” (Larson, 2011, p. 17). The name “White City” appeared due to its resemblance with the style of Roman architecture painted in dazzling white color. I was surprised to find out that it was considered to be the most influential fair in world’s history – the text itself provides statistical data of the 27,5 millions of visitors that attended the fair during the six months of its existence (Larson, 2011, p. 17). This data as well as details concerning obstacles that were faced by its creator help readers to acknowledge its significance. In fact, at the end of the 20th century the growth of the population of Chicago set it on the second place in the list of the biggest cities in the United States. However, it lacked the development in cultural life. And the appearance of the fair was supposed to change it.
Depicting little men with great expectations to build a construction of historical importance, The Devil in the White City throws the light on the phenomenon of the American Dream. The author himself claims that the book deals with the key traits of experiencing this fever. Larson states that it 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” (Larson, 2011, p. 9). Central attention is given to the ambitions of the passionate architect who set the goal to make the impossible possible. “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood,” states David Burnham (Larson, 2011, p. 41). He is the one who fights against time and other obstacles in order to purchase his dream.
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Another important focus is made on the story of a serial killer that terrorized the city and the visitors of the fair in particular. It makes the readers acquainted with the other, darker side of the White City. It was surprising to encounter such a detailed description of the scheme used by H. H. Holmes to capture women and murder them. He opens a hotel that with the growth of popularity of the fair becomes full of women. Moreover, it was interesting to get to know that this “doctor” courted his victims making each of them fall in love with him however he was actually married. I was surprised with the poor efficiency of the police and the law enforcing authorities. The fuss around the fair helps Holmes cover the traces of his cruel crimes and misleads the detectives. The book perfectly depicts the world of the first man in American history who was murdering his victims without any motives but simply for the sake of killing itself.
Another book, covered during this course that draws my attention is entitled American Born Chinese. Written by Gene Luen Yang, it touches upon more recent social issues connected with the problem of immigration and the clash of different cultures. It refers to the topic of an Asian growing up in the USA and helps the readers understand all the difficulties faced by people with other culture. Completed in the form of a graphic novel and depicting adventures of stereotypical Chinese characters, it is available for understanding for people of various generations.
The book includes three separate tales that together form the fullest understanding of the victimized life of Chinese people. The first story is about the Asian-American Jin Wang, and it focuses on his friendship with Wei-Chen Sun and relationships with other children. It introduces the problem of teen alienation and provides shocking evidence of cruel jokes based on racial stereotypes like the one about Chinese people eating dogs. The second one is fantastical story about a Monkey King who does not want to be a monkey. It raises the awareness of the issue of self-denial and rejection of own origins. In addition, it has significant cultural value as it makes foreign audience acquainted with the personages of famous Chinese fables. It was interesting to get acquainted with the mythical character of a Monkey King. Apart from this personage, the readers get to know Tze-Yo-Tzuh, who is actually the equivalent of the creator of the universe and everything that exists in it. Finally, the third one tells the story of Chin-Kee that is strangely distorted with the stereotypes about the Chinese.
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The most interesting and impressive for me is the story of Chin-Kee that displays the author’s deepest fears regarding the treatment of Asian people in the USA. He arrives in the country in order to meet his American cousin, Danny. Danny is a Caucasian boy who rejects his own origins (Yang, 2006, p. 197). He is afraid that his family connections with his Chinese cousin will become evident, and people will treat him differently. Throughout the story, Chin-Kee often makes Danny embarrassed and annoys him in every possible way. A good example is his performance in the library. I find this part of the book rather entertaining as it ridicules stereotypical traits typical of Asians and proves that in real life these people are different. The story of Chin-Kee illustrates that the difference starts in the mind of people, and relationships with the surrounding society only strengthen that what already exists.
To conclude, both books provide the great insight into important historical and cultural phenomena. The first one, Devil in the White City, makes us acquainted with the two great men and the two sides of life in Chicago. Its main values lie in the demonstration of the significance of 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, which was the greatest construction of that time. Aiming at promotion of the cultural status of the city, it managed to raise the spirit of people after the Civil War. The story of a murderer provides valuable historical facts about the state of a criminal in the American’s past. The second book, American Born Chinese, gives account of the issue of immigration and trials of living as a minority. It depicts personages in search of acceptance in a foreign cultural environment and helps the readers experience the vision of the life in the USA immanent to Chinese people.