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Law never made men a whit more just; and, by means of

their respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents of injustice.

Thoreau

[Abstract] Although anarchism had long been publicly reviled in the

United States and particularly since the assassination of President McKinley in 1901 by a

self-proclaimed anarchist, and although Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman had been

expelled from the country in 1919, a number of prominent American writers took up the

cause of two Italian anarchists who were arrested for robbery and murder in 1927. The

behavior and attitudes of these writers belie the dominant impression, fostered by the New

Critics, that American modernism was utterly conservative in its political and social

attitudes. Social class and notions of gender and race played a prominent role in how the

case was represented by these writers and by the official media.

"As late as the 1920s," wrote James Joll in his history of anarchism,

"two Italian anarchists, Sacco and Vanzetti, were to provide a cause c?l?bre

in which a whole generation of American liberals came of age."[1] Nichola Sacco, a shoemaker, and Bartolomeo

Vanzetti , a fish peddlar, immigrated from Italy to the United States in 1908. The two did

not meet until 1917, when each avoided conscription by fleeing to Mexico. They became

attracted to anarchist ideas out of sympathy for their fellow workers and disillusionment

about their adopted country. On April 15, 1920 in South Braintree, Massachusetts, a

paymaster and guard were killed during a robbery; three weeks later Sacco and Vanzetti

were arrested and charged with the crime. The evidence was problematic and both men had

alibis, but after seven years of imprisonment, many motions, and a last-minute review of

the case by the Governor of Massachusetts and the Presidents of Harvard and MIT, Sacco and

Vanzetti were found guilty. “When a verdict of guilty was returned,” writes Paul

Avrich, “many believed that the men had been convicted because of their foreign birth

and radical beliefs, not on solid evidence of criminal guilt.”[2]

In an eloquent speech that became famous, Vanzetti protested his innocence and

concluded by representing the execution as an act of "propaganda by the deed"

that took as its target the anarchists themselves:

If it had not been for this, I might have live out my life, talking at street corners

to scorning men. I might have die, unmarked, unknown, a failure. Now we are not a failure.

This is our career and our triumph. Never in our full life can we do such a work for

tolerance, for justice, for man`s understanding of man, as we now do by an accident. Our

words — our lives– our pains– nothing! The taking of our lives — lives of a good

shoemaker and a poor fish-peddlar — all! The last moment belongs to us — that agony is

our triumph![3]

Sacco and Vanzetti were electrocuted on August 23, 1927. Their trial had provoked

international protests. Bernard Shaw, Anatole France, and Albert Einstein wrote letters on

behalf of the anarchists.[4] Romain Rolland sent a telegram to Governor Fuller.

Members of the picket line were bailed out on a regular basis by Edward James, the nephew

of Henry. Explaining the prominence of novelists and poets among the protestors, writer

Malcolm Cowley said that some of the Massachusetts officials "turned themselves into

parodies of everything that artists hate in the bourgeoisie,"[5] and Upton

Sinclair remarked in his novel Boston that "the case worked upon the

consciences of persons who were cursed with artistic temperaments."[6]

The novelist John Dos Passos wrote the following account of the artistic community of

Greenwich Village after World War I, a description consciously resonant of the anarchists

and artists in fin-de-si?cle France:

American Bohemia was in revolt against Main Street [High Street], against the power of

money, against Victorian morals. Freedom was the theme. … The businessman could never

understand. It was part of a worldwide revolt of artists and would-be artists and thinkers

and would-be thinkers against a society where most of the rewards went to people skillful

in the manipulation of money … When artists and writers found it hard to make themselves

a niche in industrial society, they repudiated the whole business. Greenwich Village was

their refuge, the free commune of Montmartre on American soil. Les bourgeois ? la

lanterne.[7]

Modernism as it has been constructed by major theorists on both the left and the right

excludes or marginalizes texts written about the Sacco and Vanzetti case and the authors

who wrote them, partly because such theorists argue about the same writers—e.g.,

Joyce, Kafka, Eliot–and and partly because critics have tended to understand modernism as

either protofascist or apolitical, thereby excluding not only "traditional

realism" but also what Fredric Jameson calls "old-fashioned political art of the

socialist realist type." In 1969 an Americanist named Maxwell Geismar, describing the

reworking of the canon in the 1950s, wrote the following account of its revision by

conservatives and New Critics:

As a historian of American literature I wondered why all the major figures whom I

admired–from Howells and Mark Twain to Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, Ellen Glasgow and

Thomas Wolfe–were in such eclipse. I wondered why Melville, a great American radical and

social reformer, was being made into such a conservative. … I wondered why Scott

Fitzgerald, an attractive novelist of manners at best, was being revived so heavily, while

the American Twenties were being glorified … It was then I suddenly realized why

Sherwood Anderson, Dreiser, Tom Wolfe, who had all been radical figures of the period,

were being read out of American literature. [8]

In both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, novels critical of the existing social

structure, with its restricted distribution of wealth and power and concomitant

injustices, tended toward realism and naturalism. Proponents of this art considered

accessibility, sentiment, and realism necessary political weapons in the arsenal of

opposition. Members of the Frankfurt School debated the efficacy of such artistic

strategies; Bertolt Brecht and Theodor Adorno argued that these tactics, having been

coopted by the "culture industry," were not conducive to the demystification of

social structures. While his fellow Marxist Georg Luk?cs condemned modernism for its

complicity with the dissolution of the subject and social relations under capitalism,

Adorno attacked American mass culture, arguing that "hermetic works can be, and are,

more critical of the status quo than those that go in for tangible social criticism but in

so doing make use of non-radical forms, thus giving tacit recognition to the rampantly

flourishing culture industry." [9] When modernism is constructed differently and less

narrowly, however, its politics also appear different. In The Politics of Modernism

Raymond Williams argued that canonical modernism is "a highly selected version of the

modern"; he urged that critics "search out and counterpose an alternative

tradition taken from the neglected works left in the wide margin of the century."

[10] Many of these neglected works are implicitly or explicitly engaged with oppositional

politics.

Both as a historical event and as a neglected issue in 20th-century American

literature, the Sacco-Vanzetti case raises a number of interrelated, layered issues:

first, the racialized class politics of the trial, with its overt anti-immigrant animus;

secondly, the rich history of the trial’s setting, which seemed to underscore the

issues of rebellion and freedom; thirdly, the formal strategies of the writers who

attempted to represent the trial, and the way in which assumptions about gender

participated in, or were resisted by, those representations; and finally, the current

neglect of these texts and others of the period, in a country whose apparently brief

historical memory allowed its media to dub the O.J. Simpson case “the trial of the

century.”

Katherine Anne Porter, John Dos Passos, and Edna St. Vincent Millay were among those

who picketed and were arrested at the trial.[11] Porter (1890-1980) was a Texas-born

short-story writer and novelist who made a name for herself with her first collection, Flowering

Judas (1930). Her most famous novel was Ship of Fools (1962), which she had

worked on for two decades; it was made into a film with an international cast. In 1966

Porter was awarded both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. Millay, born two

years after Millay in Maine and a graduate of Vassar, was most famous for her lyric poems

and sonnets; she had published numerous collections by the time of her death in 1950 and

secured a place in American literary history. Dos Passos, born in 1896 in Chicago, was a

graduate of Harvard who went on to drive an ambulance in France during World War I and

then to write about his first book about his war experiences. His most famous literary

achievement is the trilogy entitled U.S.A. , which describes the lives of both

fictional and historical characters in the social dramas and conflicts of the first

decades of the twentieth century. The third volume of the trilogy, The Big Money,

takes the Sacco-Vanzetti case as representative of a number of disturbing trends in the

American public sphere—corruption, commercialism, exploitation, injustice. Upton

Sinclair, whose novel Boston is the longest text dedicated to the subject of

Sacco and Vanzetti, belonged to another generation than Porter, Millay, and Dos Passos;

born in 1878 in Baltimore, he is known primarily as a socialist, California candidate for

public office, and muckraking novelist, who published more than 100 works of fiction and

nonfiction between 1901-1940 and who continued writing into his last years. His most

famous novel, and the one most likely to be studied in American classrooms, is The

Jungle (1906), an expos? of the meatpacking industry in Chicago.

Three of the texts in this article –Upton Sinclair`s Boston, Katherine

Anne Porter`s memoir The Never-Ending Wrong, and Edna St. Vincent Millay`s poem

"Justice Denied in Massachusetts"– do go in, contrary to Adorno`s negative

aesthetics, for "tangible social criticism" in "non-radical forms";

the fourth, John Dos Passos`s The Big Money, deploys its modernist innovations in

the service of political engagement and has accordingly remained on the margins of the

canon. The protestors adopted different strategies to record their obsessive or enduring

interest in the case. Porter`s memoir is a brief, conflicted retrospective of her personal

involvement in the protests. Sinclair`s massive two-volume "documentary novel" Boston,

rather like a forerunner of Truman Capote`s "nonfiction novel," attempts after

much research to present both the historical specifics of the case and imagined

supplementary characters and conversations. By contrast, Dos Passos`s The Big Money,

like its two predecessors in the trilogy USA, adopts modernist narrative

strategies not to evade the political or to invent a private language but to represent the

various public discourses and ideological conflicts of the 1920s, including the

Sacco-Vanzetti case. Many more novels, plays, and poems were written about Sacco and

Vanzetti; an overview of this literature appears in Louis Joughin and Edmund Morgan`s The

Legacy of Sacco and Vanzetti.[12] Of the reception of these works the

authors comment:

Novels of the extreme left usually suffer a curious fate; they are overpraised by those

whose political sympathies lie with the author, and are undervalued by neutral or liberal

critics. This fact is not entirely irrelevant to the Sacco-Vanzetti literature; it, too,

as a class of writing, has usually met the same judgment by predisposition. [13]

Most of those who wrote about the case were not anarchists, but all were moved to

action by the injustice of the trial, apparently a sequel to the Haymarket trial of

1886-87, which had also attracted the sympathy of intellectuals for those anarchists,

accused of throwing a bomb and starting a riot in Chicago. The American intellectuals

involved in the Sacco-Vanzetti case were fellow travelers of sorts, partially attracted by

anarchism`s humanitarian principles, its outrage against social and economic injustice,

its ambivalence toward modernity, but simultaneously critical of the anarchist propensity

to violence, "propaganda by the deed."

As Sacco and Vanzetti`s supporters recognized, it was both ironic and appropriate that

Boston was the location of the two anarchists` trial and execution. In his novel about the

case, entitled simply Boston, Upton Sinclair often alludes to the history of the

city : the Boston Tea Party, the Boston Massacre, the Liberty Bell, the Brahmins who

claimed descent from the first Puritan settlers. "An odd turn of fate," writes

Sinclair of Vanzetti, "that this Italian seeker of liberty should have been convicted

within sight of Plymouth Rock, and killed on ground over which Paul Revere had

ridden." [14] Boston is the setting of Hawthorne`s "My Kinsman, Major

Molineux," Henry James`s The Bostonians, and the beginning of The

Education of Henry Adams, whose author observes, "Politics … had always been

the systematic organization of hatreds, and Massachusetts politics had been as harsh as

the climate." [15] The Commonwealth of Massachusetts had been the scene of

prior infamous trials, both historical (the Salem witch trials) and fictional (The

Scarlet Letter). William Lloyd Garrison published the antislavery newspaper The

Liberator in Boston. More than perhaps any other American city, Boston is a complex

site of rebellion and tradition, of hereditary class privilege and immigration — all

elements of the Sacco-Vanzetti case. The executions of Sacco and Vanzetti, like the

executions of the Haymarket anarchists, exposed contradictions in the social imaginary of

a unified America. The executions also supported the claims of anarchist theorists that

justice and the State were incompatible.

Another figure haunting the Sacco-Vanzetti trial had lived in New England. In his

political essays David Henry Thoreau, who like Godwin has been described as a

"philosophical anarchist," [16] inveighed against institutionalized forms

of injustice, in particular the Fugitive Slave Act, the Mexican War, and the execution of



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