Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Controlled energy

In More Powerful than Dynamite: Radicals, Plutocrats, Progressives, and New York's Year of Anarchy, young Thai Jones resurrects a lost metropolis

The following has been posted on the Books page of the History News Network site. 

I didn't plan to read this book. I'd put it on a pile of forthcoming titles, one I consulted after finishing the last book I reviewed sooner than planned. I thumbed through the first few pages of a couple on that pile and found myself engaged by the portrait of New York City mayor-elect John Purroy Mitchel on New Year's Eve of 1913. Maybe this book about the year 1914 was worth embarking upon after all.

It was only after I was well into it that I realized More Powerful Than Dynamite has an arresting provenance that makes the particular manner of its execution all the more remarkable. At first I wasn't too surprised by blurbs that didn't quite come from the usual suspects. Kenneth Jackson, sure -- blue chip. Little odd to have him share a back cover with Noam Chomsky, though. And Marge Piercy. Don't think of Samuel G. Freedman as a fellow traveler. Bill Ayers? Don't imagine you'll find this book lying around Obama '12 campaign headquarters. Outside of radical circles, this is not exactly an endorsement a lot of writers would flaunt. 

Turns out the Ayres connection is not merely incidental. The jacket copy informs us that Thai Jones was "born while his parents were fugitives from justice" and that he "went by a series of aliases until the age of four." Jones's previous and first book, The Radical Line: From the Labor Movement to the Weather Underground, One Family's Century of Conscience (2004), describes a genealogy of radical leftist politics. In the foreword of this book, Jones explains his interest in 1914 New York originated in a now largely forgotten anarchist bomb blast on upper Lexington Avenue that paralleled the notorious one by the Weather Underground in Greenwich Village in 1970. In both cases, radicals were victims of a blast they intended to inflict on others.

I rehearse this background for Dynamite because one might plausibly expect its author to carry the torch for his family's radicalism. Or, perhaps equally plausibly, to repudiate it with a fierceness that derives from that source. But this is a remarkably measured piece of writing by a truly gifted young man still in his thirties. Jones is a former reporter for Newsday, and this book began as a PhD dissertation at Columbia. It combines the lean prose of a journalist with the depth of an academic. But Jones's eye for detail is novelistic, and he is a master of understatement.  He turns the neat trick of making moderation marvelous.

Many of the events discussed in Dynamite -- the Ludlow Massacre out in the Colorado coalfields; the reform efforts of the Mitchel administration; and, of course, the outbreak of the First World War -- will be familiar to students of the period. Ditto for a cast of characters that includes Woodrow Wilson, Upton Sinclair, and John D. Rockefeller, Jr. But this biographically-driven narrative is populated by a host of obscure ones like the International Workers of the World activist Fred Tannenbaum, police commissioner Arthur Woods, and the charismatic hunger-striker Becky Edelsohn, all of whom burst into life on these pages (nowhere more so than in the otherwise sleepy suburb of Tarrytown, which in May of 1914 gave Manhattan a run for its money in political drama). Jones narrates public demonstrations with cinematic clarity -- Occupy Wall Street was downright genteel compared to the string of uprisings in the city in the first half of 1914 -- even as he manages to capture the inner life of his characters with an empathy that's moving in its own right. So it is that we experience the radical Alexander Berkman's melancholy nostalgia for the terrorism of his youth, Mayor Mitchel's awkwardness in serving citizens he didn't particularly care to meet, and Commissioner Wood's careful, patient efforts to learn from previous police mistakes maintaining public order. We even feel some sympathy for poor John D. Rockefeller Sr., who can't get through a round of golf without being importuned for stock tips by grasping companions.

Which is not to say that Jones suspends judgments. He notes that Rockefeller Jr. was deeply anguished by the Ludlow situation, which it was his family responsibility to manage. "But," he notes, "while Rockefeller was unwilling to ignore the the inequities of business, he was equally unable to intercede against the executives of Colorado Fuel and Iron." This dithering literally proved fatal, a sin for which Rockefeller sincerely tried to atone. Conversely, Jones shows that while Woods showed far more respect for the First Amendment than any of his predecessors (more for tactical than philosophical reasons), he replied to criticism about authorizing unprecedented wiretaps of suspected radicals by saying, "There is altogether too much sappy talk about the rights of the crook . . . He is a crook. He is an outlaw. He defies what has been put down as what shall be done and what shall not be done by the great body of law-abiding citizens. Where does his right come in?" Jones wisely lets us draw our own conclusion without comment.

The author's self-control has a deeply historical quality; he shows us people living through dramas whose outcomes they could not know, struggling to understand what is happening to them and trying, not always successfully, to grow from their experiences. Young Fiorello LaGuardia was an admirer of Mayor Mitchel who honored his memory --  to a point. The leaders of his Progressive stripe "had attempted to separate government from politics, but that does not work in a democracy," a mistake LaGuardia did not make. One of the few people who comes off truly badly in this book is Walter Lippmann, who coined the phrase of its title. As he is in so many accounts of this period, Lippmann is everywhere and always seems to have a pithy remark that's both incisive and at least faintly condescending. He's heartless, and in his way is harder to take than Rockefeller the younger.

Toward the end of this book -- a little later than we should, really -- its larger argument comes into focus, which involves the role of Progressives as mediators between the plutocrats and radicals of the subtitle. Jones asserts that the events of 1914 were decisive in swinging reformers toward the right, which had lasting implications for American politics. Perhaps there's grist here for his next book.  

In any case, Dynamite showcases a rare talent notable for its equipoise in balancing heart and head.   Jones serves the memory of his subject with quiet grace. And he serves his readers with stories that deserve to be remembered. Here truly is a career worth following.