History Commons Groups

February 11, 2009

Books We Read: American Lightning

Filed under: Books We Read — Max @ 9:56 pm
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American Lightning, by Howard Blum
2008 Crown Publishers

Nothing from this book is likely to appear on the History Commons any time soon: it deals with the bombing of the Los Angeles Times building in 1910 and the repercussions and rationales behind the bombing, which claimed 21 lives. The Commons doesn’t yet have a project dealing with US labor relations (the driving issue behind the bombing), nor does it, as a rule, cover events from a hundred years past.

Too bad, because it’s a hell of a good read about a historical incident that has long been forgotten by most, but at the time an incident that rocked the nation.

It covers, among other subjects, the huge, brawling conflict between the burgeoning labor unions and the anti-union corporations (remember Matewan?); the relations between the press, big business, and the American citizenry; the impact the nascent film industry has on shaping public opinion; civil liberties and the US court system; and others. It features, among other players, lawyer Clarence Darrow, filmmaker D.W. Griffith, private sleuth Billy Burns, labor leader Samuel Gompers, journalist Lincoln Steffens, and a rowdy cast of anarchists, corrupt corporate bosses, unscrupulous labor leaders, bribed jurors, snippy actresses, libertines, rogues, and the like — America at its Gilded Age finest.

You won’t find any heroes in this book. (Hint: spoiler alert, if that sort of thing worries you about a narrative history.) Labor leaders indeed hired a small gang of anarchists and thugs to bomb the LA Times and numerous other non-union work sites, so by our lights, they were domestic terrorists. The captains of corporate finance on the other side were equally as dirty, using any and all illegal tactics to keep the unions at bay while they desperately put together an illegal, multi-million dollar land and water deal that shamefully abused the rights of the original landowners (remember Chinatown?). Lawyers on both sides, including members of Darrow’s team, bribed jurors and intimidated witnesses. Detectives, including Burns, the “Sherlock Holmes” of his time and the future head of the FBI, casually flaunted the most basic and fundamental laws and Constitutional rights to “get their man.” (Burns mounted what may be the first instance of electronic surveillance in American history: true to form for this story, he illegally listened in to conversations between the suspects and their lawyers.) By the time I was finished reading the book, I wanted all of them in jail. And me a staunch labor supporter….

One of the unexpected elements in the book is the involvement of filmmaker D.W. Griffith. He is involved only peripherally for most of the book — the various perpetrators and law officers enjoy his short Biograph films during the course of the main events, but all of Griffith’s actions have little real connection to the crime, the investigation, or the trial. Nevertheless, Griffith’s involvement is important. Partly because of the sensational nature of the crime and the trial, Griffith chooses to relocate to a sleepy farm village outside of Los Angeles called Hollywood. Griffith is remembered today for “Birth of a Nation,” considered a celebration of racism and the Ku Klux Klan; in this book he is shown to be a far more complex and socially conscious man, not a great thinker but a great storyteller who helped launch the American film industry.

Other characters are equally memorable, and memorably flawed. Darrow is a tormented figure who, fifteen years before the Scopes Monkey Trial, sees his career, and his life, as in its twilight. The trial (and his affair with a young activist) energizes him and relights his interest in social issues; it is doubtful that Darrow would have taken on the Scopes trial so many years down the road had he not taken on the defense of the Times bombers in 1911. Billy Burns isn’t as well known today as some of the others in this book, but Burns is a standout: a fiery Irishman who is devoted to bringing criminals to justice, and if he himself has to break some laws to bring his quarry to justice, that doesn’t give him a moment’s pause.

As far as I can tell from paging through his sourcing, Blum is an impeccable researcher who manages to weave the disparate elements of his story into an engaging narrative. Blum remembers what so many other historical writers forget: that history is a story driven by people and issues alike, and a good narrative history combines both into one compelling tale.

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