CLARENCE DARROW: AMERICAN ICONOCLAST by Andrew E. Kersten
Hill and Wang; (April 26, 2011), 320 pages
American Iconoclast is one of two recently published Darrow biographies and at less than 250 pages – excluding notes, etc. - is a short book and a fairly quick read. The author spotlights/focuses in on particular moments in Darrow’s life – usually in the courtroom – and usually, though not exclusively, when Darrow was representing labor and individuals pitted against corporations and “CEOs”, i.e. the little man against the big boss - Thus unionization being a particularly relevant topic. What is covered here is done extremely well, yet this is not a cradle to grave story of Darrow’s life, but rather a biographical overview – the topics and cases of the author’s choosing. And this may frustrate some readers who are looking for more information. For instance the Scopes Monkey Trial and the Leopold and Loeb case are both dealt with in the same chapter with only several pages allotted to each.
The book opens with Darrow’s “ancestry/heritage” - childhood in Ohio with his multiple false starts there; his first marriage and fatherhood; all covered at a fairly brisk pace. With his move to Chicago, including a few more false starts in the world of Windy City politics and as a corporate attorney, the author hones in as Darrow finds his niche and identity - first representing the murderer of Chicago Mayor Carter Harrison - this a foreshadowing of the Leopold and Loeb case, with Darrow arguing against capital punishment.
With the associated publicity from that trial and his inclinations, Darrow then became the voice and defense of “Labor” during the late 1890’s/early 1900’s. This transition not as far-fetched as it may initially sound; several of Darrow’s “labor movement” clients were accused of capital crimes, i.e. the murder of former Idaho Governor Steunenberg and the bombers of the L.A. Times Building. The majority of this book then follows Darrow’s involvement in the burgeoning Labor Movement – both in and out of the courtroom - although this story is not a straight-line narrative either.
After the LA bombers’ trial Darrow was accused of bribing at least one of the jurors. Darrow, feeling he’d been abandoned by the labor movement – and specifically their financing during his trial - Clarence abandoned Labor. This change of heart and breach with his former “client” was further compounded by America’s entry into World War I; Darrow a very public and vocal pro-war advocate. (Clarence being Clarence, he had second thoughts about his stance prior to the war’s conclusion, but the damage had been done.)
The conclusion of the book, including the Scopes and Leopold/Loeb trials, Darrow’s second marriage and financial troubles, then re-enters the biographical express lane and is quickly covered. If you are looking for a full-length biography of Darrow, this is not the place to start. On the other hand, if you are looking for a supplement to Darrow’s life, particularly his involvement with the labor movement, this book will more than suffice.
One quick note/nit. With the introduction of many, if not most of the historical figures in this book, the author includes each individual’s year of birth and death, i.e. (xxxx-xxxx), after their name, which became more than a little cumbersome for this reader, particularly when there was a list of historical figures.
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