Monday, April 30, 2018
[On May 4th, 1886, a labor protest and rally in Chicago's Haymarket Square in support of a nationwide strike turned into a confusing, bloody mess. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of contexts for the Haymarket Affair, leading up to a special weekend post on one of our most important current scholarly voices on labor.]
On revolutions, large and small, and a controversial moment in labor history.
One of the more eye-opening classes I took in college focused on 19th century European history, and specifically on the spate of revolutions and radical shifts in government and authority that dominated much of the century (particularly if it’s defined to include the end of the 18th century and so the French Revolution) for many European nations. Prominent European historian Eric Hobsbawn designated the first half of the century The Age of Revolution, as per the title of the relevant volume in his seminal multi-volume historical series, The Age of Revolution: 1789-1848 (1962). But even though 1848 did represent a culmination, with numerous nations undergoing revolutions of one kind or another, the decades afterward likewise included at least one more major upheaval (the Paris Commune of 1871) and a number of smaller but still significant revolts and shifts as well. There were lots of reasons why both the details of these historical events and the class that highlighted them were eye-opening for me, but I suppose the most salient is the contrast with the United States, which, despite the newness and definite fragility of its government and identity, underwent no comparable revolutions or changes in its government over the same period (the Civil War would seem to be an obvious exception, but I think it’s different in kind from any of the European revolutions in question, not least because the Confederacy didn’t want to turn Washington into a new form of government but rather just to break entirely from the existing one).
This isn’t going to be one of those posts where I try to entirely flip that vision of our history; I don’t think there are any unknown 19th century American revolutions waiting to be remembered and narrated (there is the 1898 Wilmington coup d’etat, but I’m talking national revolutions). But I do think that using the lens of the European revolutions, particularly in their near-ubiquitous emphasis on issues of class and caste as a chief factor in both their causes and results, can provide a helpful way to analyze one of the most complex and, yes, revolutionary elements of American life in the second half of the 19th century: the labor movement, and specifically the profound challenges it offered to American identity and changes it eventually effected. For one thing, the labor movement—and the singular term is a misnomer, there were many different labor movements in the period, with each particular union and organization representing a distinct community and vision and set of goals; but in the interests of space, I’ll refer to it with the collective term—was perhaps the only 19th century American social movement that comprised in large part an extension of existing, outside (and mainly European) movements. That doesn’t mean that labor in America didn’t take on shapes and tones specific and unique to our national history and culture and identity, but it did mean that some of the particularly prominent labor-related events that took place here were instigated in part by—and so, potentially, blamed on—international forces and organizations.
Exemplifying both the international instigations and the potential blame was the Haymarket Affair of May 1886, a labor protest (in support of the eight hour workday, the institution of which many different labor organizations had worked to make standard beginning on May 1st of that year) that turned into one of the more violent and chaotic events in the post-Civil War era. The principal organizer of the May Day marches and subsequent strikes in Chicago was Albert Parsons, an anarchist and founder of the International Working People’s Association; when the May 4th rally in support of the striking workers was torn apart by violence, both in the form of a bomb thrown at police and in a subsequent exchange of gunfire, it was eight anarchist leaders (five of them German-born) who were arrested and charged with inciting the bombing. The trial itself was largely a sham, since the prosecution admitted that it could not link any of the eight directly to the bombing, but an effective one, with all eight defendants found guilty and seven given the death penalty (four were eventually executed and a fifth killed himself while awaiting execution). But more telling still were the many journalistic responses to the anarchists, the authors of which consistently sought not only to criticize the anarchists’ political perspectives and castigate the labor movement for its association with them, but also and just as overtly to define them as foreign, as an unwanted alien presence in America (and thus to define the trial as a necessary, if not necessarily legally sound, repelling of this invasion of violent foreign ideas).
The aftermath of Haymarket highlights, on the one hand, the absence of overt revolutions in America—this was perhaps the moment of most heightened visibility for political radicals in the period, and yet the anarchists did not overthrow and remake Chicago’s government (as did the Paris Communists for that brief period in 1870) or in any other explicit way shift the nation’s political identity. But on the other hand, the eight hour workday was indeed instituted, just as the era’s labor movements eventually succeeded in achieving virtually every other significant goal (from an end to child labor to the creation of the work week, from safety regulations to more fixed wages and contracts, among many other advances). So it’s perhaps more accurate to say that America’s 19th century revolutions were social and gradual rather than political and radical—that the true bombs, that is, didn’t blow up our nation so much as slowly but profoundly reshape it. Next Haymarket history tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Haymarket histories or contexts you’d highlight?
Saturday, April 28, 2018
[A Recap of the month that was in AmericanStudying.]
April 2: Theater in America: Provincetown and Trifles: A theateriffic series starts with the moment, community, and play that signaled a dramatic shift.
April 3: Theater in America: The Iceman Cometh: The series continues with a dark and compelling portrait of hollow dreams, and where it comes up short.
April 4: Theater in America: Depression Drama and Odets: Activist drama in- and outside of approved spaces, as the series plays on.
April 5: Theater in America: Hansberry’s Husband and Wife: Lorraine Hansberry’s realistic, flawed, and deeply moving married couple.
April 6: Theater in America: Angels in America and Rent: The series concludes with two dramatic works that helped change our national conversations on AIDS.
April 7-8: Crowd-sourced American Drama: My latest crowd-sourced post, featuring the responses and thoughts of fellow AmericanStudiers. Add yours in comments, please!
April 9: Great American Novel Studying: The Blithedale Romance: A series on great American novels starts with the novel that shifted yet continued Hawthorne’s streak of masterpieces.
April 10: Great American Novel Studying: The Great Gatsby: On Gatsby’s anniversary, the series continues with the novel’s limits and how to complement them.
April 11: Great American Novel Studying: The Marrow of Tradition: A character whose presence and absence both reflect a novel’s greatness, as the series rolls on.
April 12: Great American Novel Studying: Ceremony: Three pages that exemplify Leslie Marmon Silko’s novel’s inspiring greatness.
April 13: Great American Novel Studying: Endings: The series concludes with happy, sad, and perfect endings to great American novels.
April 14-15: Great American Novel Studying: Recent Contenders: A special weekend post highlighting five recent novels that stake their claim to the GAN title.
April 16: NeMLA Recaps: Back to the Board: A series recapping the recent Northeast MLA Convention starts with two reasons why I’m rejoining the NeMLA Board.
April 17: NeMLA Recaps: West of Sunset and Historical Fiction: The series continues with two takeaways from Stewart O’Nan’s inspiring opening night creative event.
April 18: NeMLA Recaps: Castillo, Nixon, and the Present Crises: The depressing yet bracingly hopeful themes of two special lectures, as the series rolls on.
April 19: NeMLA Recaps: Two Teaching Roundtables: What I learned from two impressive roundtables on the fraught and crucial question of Teaching under Trump.
April 20: NeMLA Recaps: Three Other Inspiring Panels: The series concludes with three of the many great American Lit panels I attended as the incoming Area Director.
April 21-22: NeMLA and You: A special weekend post, on three ways you can get involved with NeMLA for next year’s convention in Washington, DC and beyond!
April 23: Assassination Studying: In the Line of Fire: An assassination series start with the scene that humanizes the JFK assassination, and the flaws of the film that surrounds it.
April 24: Assassination Studying: James Garfield: The series continues with the mundane nature of our second presidential assassination, and why it matters.
April 25: Assassination Studying: William McKinley: “Where was he radicalized?” and the McKinley assassination, as the series rolls on.
April 26: Assassination Studying: John Wilkes Booth: On the date of his death, three stages in the life and story of our most dramatic assassin.
April 27: Assassination Studying: Squeaky Fromme: The series concludes with the silly and deadly serious sides to Gerald Ford’s wannabe assassin.
Next series starts Monday,
PS. Topics you’d like to see covered in this space? Guest Posts you’d like to contribute? Lemme know!
Friday, April 27, 2018
[On April 26th, 1865, John Wilkes Booth was killed after a nearly two-week manhunt following his assassination of Abraham Lincoln. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of different assassinations and their contexts!]
On the silliest and yet the most serious would-be political assassin in American history.
Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme’s famous nickname is only one of many silly details about President Gerald Ford’s unsuccessful 1975 assassin. Fromme wore a flowing red robe and elfin red hat to Sacramento’s Capitol Park, where Ford was holding a televised event; she carried a pistol with no round in the chamber, and when she was immediately restrained by the Secret Service after pointing the gun at Ford, she emphasized to the cameras that the gun “didn’t go off.” Later she would tell the court during her trial that she “was so relieved not to have to shoot it, but, in truth, I came to get life. Not just my life but clean air, healthy water, and respect for creatures and creation.” When the prosecuting attorney recommended a harsh sentence, Fromme threw an apple at him (drawn from the folds of another flowing robe) and knocked off his glasses (“Sandy Koufax couldn’t have thrown a better pitch,” her defense attorney noted when asked about the incident). Much of Fromme’s assassination story reads more like a minor Wes Anderson film than an act of attempted political violence.
Yet there’s a problem with that image, and it has to do with how Fromme spent the eight years prior to her pseudo-assassination attempt. In 1967, when she was only 19 years old and a homeless Junior College dropout, she met Charles Manson on Venice Beach, and quickly fell under the psychotic cult leader’s spell. Although she was not charged with taking part in the Manson Family’s brutal 1969 murder spree, she and other followers camped outside the trial, carving X’s in their foreheads when Manson did so and working to prevent other Family members from testifying against Manson. When Manson was sentenced to life in prison, Fromme and others continued the Family’s legacy of violence as well as its relationship with the Aryan Brotherhood, and she (along with other Family and Aryan Brotherhood members) played some role in the brutal murder of a young married couple (James and Lauren Willett) in Stockton (CA) in the fall of 1972. Although she was not connected to any crimes between 1972 and 1975, she was living with another Family member throughout this time, and the red robe she was wearing at the time of her assassination attempt was in honor of Manson’s nickname of “Red” for her.
None of those histories necessarily mean that Fromme was really trying to assassinate Ford in 1975, but they do significantly change any image of her as a silly environmental activist or performance artist or the like. Indeed, the question I raised about Leon Csolgosz in Wednesday’s post—where was he or she radicalized?—has a crystal clear answer for Lynette Fromme, and that answer is “In the midst of one of the most brutal and horrific cults in American history.” Given that, I can’t help but wonder if some of the sense of silliness (which to be clear I’ve given into myself) is a form of white privilege, an inability to see a petite white woman as part of a group of bigoted, violent killers and criminals. Yet that’s precisely what Fromme was, and what she apparently remained throughout her three-plus decades in prison: a disciple and devotee of one of the most despicable figures in American history. Fortunately she was not able to commit an act of political violence in service of those beliefs, but she quite possibly took part in—and at least overtly condoned and supported—multiple, far more violent acts against innocent, private people. This is not a would-be assassin to laugh at.
April Recap this weekend,
PS. What do you think? Other assassination contexts or connections you’d highlight?