Monday, March 06, 2006

From " The Terror Last Time" in The New Yorker

In William Dean Howells’s 1890 novel “A Hazard of New Fortunes,” an old German socialist named Lindau rails against capitalism so bitterly that he upsets a friend. Lindau apologizes, saying that his bark is worse than his bite—or, in Howells’s rendition of his thick German accent, “My parg is worse than my pidte.” At the time Howells was writing, however, many Americans had come to believe that a bark, if sharp enough, was tantamount to a bite. In his opinion, this confusion of word and deed had caused innocent men in Chicago to be hanged.

On May 4, 1886, several anarchists had addressed a crowd in the Haymarket, a square in Chicago two blocks long where farmers sold produce. When nearly a hundred and eighty policemen arrived to break up the rally, someone threw a bomb, and the police opened fire. At least seven patrolmen died, and at least four civilians. Over the next few weeks, the authorities rounded up and detained hundreds of the city’s anarchists. Eight men were put on trial for murder, the most prominent of whom were Albert Parsons and August Spies (pronounced “Spees”). Parsons led the city’s English-speaking anarchists, and Spies the German-speaking ones. Aside from Parsons and a teamster named Samuel Fielden, the defendants were of German ethnicity: Michael Schwab had assisted Spies in editing the movement’s German-language newspapers; George Engel and Adolph Fischer had belonged to a militant cell; Louis Lingg, a wild young man, had dabbled in bomb-making; and Oscar Neebe, a yeast-maker, had served on a few anarchist committees.

The prosecution never proved that any of the eight had planned, committed, or even known in advance about the Haymarket bombing. Instead, it relied on their words. All of them had praised violence in the cause of socioeconomic justice. “If we would achieve our liberation,” Parsons had told a crowd of protesters in April of 1885, “every man must lay by a part of his wages, buy a Colt’s navy revolver, a Winchester rifle, and learn how to make and use dynamite.” The prosecution argued that anarchism itself constituted a conspiracy to commit murder, and the jurors agreed, sentencing all but one of the defendants to death. The person who actually threw the bomb was never identified.

William Morris, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, and Friedrich Engels signed petitions on behalf of the condemned, but Howells was virtually the only American writer to do so. “For many weeks, for months, it has not been for one hour out of my waking thoughts,” he wrote. “It blackens my life.” The newspapers mocked him for caring—over one of his heartfelt letters, the Chicago Tribune printed the snide headline “MR. HOWELLS IS DISTRESSED”—and called the anarchists Europe’s “scum and offal”; they were hyenas, wolves, vipers, savages, cutthroats, and fiends. One student of the Haymarket affair has called it “the first major ‘red-scare’ in American history.”

In November, 1887, Parsons, Spies, Engel, and Fischer were hanged. Howells began “A Hazard of New Fortunes” and poured into it his disillusionment and anger. Toward the end of the book, a policeman clubs Lindau for heckling. At the same moment, a bullet strikes an innocent bystander, who examines, as his last sight on earth, this policeman’s face. “It was not bad, not cruel,” the dying man sees. “It was like the face of a statue, fixed, perdurable, a mere image of irresponsible and involuntary authority.”

Perhaps Howells had in mind the statue that commemorated the Haymarket affair, a bronze policeman raising his right arm as if to calm a crowd. Chicago’s leading businessmen erected it in 1889, while Harper’s Weekly was serializing “A Hazard of New Fortunes.” By coincidence, in an anarchist parade a few years before, a float had carried an effigy of a policeman in the same pose, but with a club in its right hand, as if it were about to strike—as if gesture were about to become act.

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