A City in Crisisby David Rosen
More Powerful Than Dynamite: Radicals, Plutocrats, Progressives, and New York’s Year of Anarchy
(Walker & Company, 2012)
Thai Jones’s More Powerful Than Dynamite is written in the spirit of a-year-in-the-life of Gotham, tracking events, both minimal and momentous, that took place in 1914 (give or take a few years). A century can seem a very long time ago, yet, in Jones’s book, 1914 seems almost like yesterday.
The year started out cold and bitter, the city reeling from a drawn out recession that had begun in January 1913 and would continue until the economy expanded with the U.S. entry into World War I. Amidst this recession, a slate of reformers captured City Hall, vowing to replace Tammany Hall corruption with a progressive administration. But they faced an uphill battle as unemployment and homelessness mounted.
Jones offers valuable insight into the daily living conditions of ordinary New Yorkers and how reform policies actually worked—or didn’t. During a particularly severe snowstorm, for example, unemployed men were hired to shovel city streets for 35 cents an hour. “Each person sent from the unemployment bureau was directed to a private contractor who took 25 cents off the top plus a dime to hire the shovel,” Jones writes. “After an eight-hour day, and another nickel for the foreman, a man might have a dollar left. But he didn’t get a dollar, he got a ticket, which he could use only at a particular saloon. There he was charged 20 percent to cash the thing and was forced to buy a drink.” Such was progressive reform.
The book recounts many similar all-but-forgotten dramas. Using a historical lens, More Powerful Than Dynamite examines the current divide between rich and poor; yesterday’s haves and have-nots shed light on today’s 1 percent and 99 percent. This morality tale is embodied in the lives of oil baron and philanthropist John D. Rockefeller, Jr. and the anarchist activist and writer Alexander Berkman. The “class war” between JDR, Jr. and Berkman frames Jones’s story, but Jones presents both men as more complex characters than conventionally depicted.
For most of his life, JDR, Jr. existed in the shadow of JDR, Sr., and his vast corporate enterprise and fortune. Berkman gained international notoriety in a failed assassination attempt on industrialist Henry Clay Frick during the 1892 Pittsburgh steel strike. Berkman’s act was considered one of the first instances of modern political terrorism in the U.S.; he was convicted of attempted murder and sentenced to 22 years in prison, only to be pardoned in 1906.
In the spring of 1914, JDR, Jr. and Berkman’s paths crossed—even if they weren’t aware of it. The Ludlow Massacre, as it has become known, was a showdown between coal miners trying to organize with the United Mine Workers of American and old-line capitalists fighting unionization. On April 20, private guards of the Baldwin Felts Detective Agency attacked striking workers at the Rockefeller-owned Colorado Fuel and Iron Company, killing 18 men, women, and children.
New Yorkers from nearly all segments of the left, including socialists and anarchists, mobilized to express their outrage. Mass rallies took place in Union Square, drawing thousands, with Berkman often a principle speaker. Though JDR, Jr. had largely given up daily involvement in his father’s businesses, he became the target of their political rage, for Ludlow and for the miserable working and living conditions experienced by New York City’s poor.
On July 4, Berkman’s activism became terrorism. A little after nine in the morning an explosion shattered the side of a tenement building at 1626 Lexington Avenue. Local residents were showered in shattered window glass, brick fragments, cracked piping, and splintered wood. The explosion came from an apartment that was home to anarchists and the bodies of three of them, Charles Berg, Arthur Caron, and Carl Hanson, were found amongst the rubble. The police determined that a cache of Russian nitroglycerine had detonated. The corporate press inveighed that the anarchists were making a bomb and that it was intended for JDR, Jr. (The press never failed to report that is was the largest dynamite explosion in the city’s history.)
The clash between JDR, Jr. and Berkman and the unrest in New York City in 1914 is set against a rapidly shifting historical context. In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson was reelected based on his campaign promise: “He kept us out of war.” Wilson, along with Congress, declared war in April 1917. JDR, Jr. and Berkman also experienced upheaval: JDR, Jr. became a labor-management “reformer,” and Russian native Berkman, whose activities had long unsettled the government, was deported (along with about a thousand others) in the notorious Palmer Raids.
Jones fills out his narrative with a host of supporting characters. Among them are such better-known figures as John Purroy Mitchel, affectionately known as the “Boy Mayor” who, at 34-years-old, took over City Hall. He shines a light on Emma Goldman, the celebrated radical anarchist and feminist who was deported along with Berkman. There are appearances by socialite Mabel Dodge, progressive journalists Walter Lippman, and Upton Sinclair, and three key city commissioners.
But more revealing are the ordinary people Jones introduces, especially anarchists Fred Tannenbaum, Becky Edelsohn, and Arthur Caron. These people played distinct roles during a year of crisis only to subsequently disappear from the historical stage; it’s good that Jones has given them their due.
The unasked question raised by More Powerful Than Dynamite is: To what extent have we, yet again, gone back to the future? Jones’s book, the culmination of his Columbia Ph.D., was written long before the Occupy Wall Street activists seized Zuccotti Park. Nevertheless, he was prescient enough to look back on the challenges of New York in 1914 as a way to examine today’s mounting social crisis.
Jones is a journalist, formerly with Newsday. His parents were part of the Weather Underground, the 1960s radical organization that, like Berkman, believed in the propaganda of the deed but, sadly, turned into a terrorist debacle. The dust jacket on More Powerful Than Dynamite says that because Jones’s parents were fugitives, when he was born “he went by a series of aliases until the age of four.”
In March 1970, a half-century after the Independence Day Lexington Avenue blast, a failed bomb-building explosion ripped through a Greenwich Village townhouse, leaving three of Jones’s parents’ comrades, Ted Gold, Diana Oughton, and Terry Robbins, dead. One can only wonder how this sobering experience, let alone his incognito childhood, influenced the writing of More Powerful Than Dynamite.
A good historical account is more than the author who writes it. It is a bridge from today to yesterday and back. Perceptions of the past are grounded in assumptions about the present. And, if a historical account is successfully executed, it speaks to both. More Powerful Than Dynamite is filled with ghostly echoes and premonitions of what might happen in 2014, a century after the tumultuous year in New York’s history.
DAVID ROSEN is author of Sex Scandal America: Politics & the Ritual of Public Shaming; writes the Media Current blog for Filmmaker; and regularly contributes to AlterNet, CounterPunch and the Huffington Post. Check out www.DavidRosenWrites.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.