The Magazine

Terror at the 'Times'

When labor met anarchy, the result was explosive.

Jan 5, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 16 • By WINSTON GROOM
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There remained the matter of
Darrow's witness/juror tampering, the evidence of which was indisputable. Darrow was put on trial and, after his attorney proved to be a drunk, he took over his own defense. Darrow made a long (one-and-a-half day), rambling, emotional appeal, which left him and everyone else, including the jury, sobbing. Indeed, it so moved the panel that they performed a "jury nullification," of the sort seen in the O.J. Simpson case, and Darrow was acquitted--not once, but twice!

So there you have it. Well, not quite. While all these thing were going on, the author has decided to cram the classic filmmaker D.W. Griffith into a sort of shadow plot that has practically nothing to do with the story, except that it has recently become commercially popular in these kinds of histories to "compare and contrast" (or so they used to say in high school) simultaneous events or characters in order to flesh out the story.

Griffith's tenuous connection is that he had met the detective Burns many years earlier, and was making movies in California at the time of the trial. The irony here is that, since Griffith is today widely considered a racist because of his Birth of a Nation, the author is forced to climb all over himself excoriating the best known film of one of the heroes of his book, concluding in the end that Griffith somehow patterned the Klansmen in Birth of a Nation on the oppressed laborers who took to dynamite terrorism to settle their disputes!

The book itself? I shake my head. I shook it while reading the book. I am not familiar with Blum's earlier works, but it appears that, in this instance, he has created a new genre--the "docu-book." It is sort of like what docu-drama film people do when they give a historical character, or characters, lines to say where there is no evidence that they ever said them--in other words, made-up dialogue.

Blum is, I hope, a better historian than to crib up phony dialogue, but he apparently is not above assigning his characters all sorts of phony--or at least unprovable--thoughts and emotions. Thus, running throughout the story, you have sentences such as these: "He had never felt as vulnerable." Or: "He felt as if he were racing against a ticking clock." (My recently retired editor at Knopf, Ash Green, would cringe at such statements, and scribble a margin note: "How do you know this?")

These unfortunate moments of what might be called advanced schoolgirl writing serve to undermine the credibility, rather than enhance the tension or drama, of what is otherwise a very good story, and Blum's decision to refer to the main characters by their first names is annoying because it is confusing.

Likewise, he flings off adjectives like a wet dog shaking off drops of water. Tear open the book anywhere to facing pages and you might encounter, as I did, stillnesses that are terrible, flames that are inescapable, thoughts that seesaw, bearings that are gilded, attorneys who are relentless, operatives who are diligent, and so forth.

As I was writing this I bumped into an English professor friend who wore a T-shirt emblazoned with "Simplicity Is Everything." It's not a bad slogan, and reminded me of American Lightning. None of us is perfect, but it left me wondering: Where were the editors on this project? The sad truth is that there aren't many good editors anymore, the old-style craftsmen who would shape and cut and worry over every sentence until they made it as right as it was going to get. Today, editors are largely book-buyers--but that's another story.

That aside, it's a good read about an intriguing period in American history, and Howard Blum's analysis in most aspects is usefully penetrating. It's worth the price and time, which is how I judge books.

Winston Groom's new book, Vicksburg, 1863, will be published in April.