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Clarence Darrow's Life as an 'American Iconoclast'

Andrew Kersten's take on famed attorney for the have-nots

May. 9, 2011
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I now have two books on my shelves with “American Iconoclast” in their titles, Andrew E. Kersten's Clarence Darrow: American Iconoclast (Hill & Wang) and Marion Elizabeth Rodgers' life of H.L. Mencken. They are fitting titles in both cases, for the two men were, besides being friends, dedicated to mocking sacred cows.

Kersten could also have borrowed the title of another (if lesser) Mencken biography, Terry Teachout's The Skeptic, for if there were anything else the two iconoclasts shared, it was skepticism, especially in the matter of religion. That would be fitting again, because one of the many places defense lawyer Darrow and journalist Mencken crossed paths was at the 1925 Scopes “monkey trial” in Tennessee in which the central, if not judicial, issue was religion vs. evolution, with Darrow (and Mencken) on the side of evolution.

But one thing Darrow was not, Kersten shows, was the low-key, inscrutably smiling, grandfatherly figure Spencer Tracy projected in Inherit the Wind, the 1960 film about a Scopes-like trial with Tracy's character based on Darrow. Rather, Darrow was, despite or because of a deeply ingrained pessimism that led him to see reality as fundamentally evil, “dedicated to smashing the structures and systems of social control that impinged on the liberties and freedoms of average people.”

He was a “legal and political genius who…advanced liberty and democracy in America and around the world.” Most of all, however, Darrow was, Kersten writes, “the best criminal and civil liberties lawyer in America and…defender of the oppressed.”

Born in 1857 and raised (by politically and religiously radical parents) near Kinsman, Ohio, Darrow in 1887 moved to Chicago, his base for the rest of his life and where for a time he became a cog in the political machine. Edgar Lee Masters, not yet a famous poet, was his law partner for a while; they did not get along at all.

For 50 years he took on all sorts of cases, particularly for organized labor or individual workers, African Americans, the have-nots and otherwise downtrodden, and leftist causes. Some are still celebrated, such as the Scopes trial and the defense of union leader Eugene V. Debs over his role in the 1894 Pullman strike.

Darrow had switched sides in the latter, resigning his position as a railroad-company attorney to defend Debs. That was essentially the beginning of his career as, in the words of journalist Lincoln Steffens, “attorney for the damned.” Occasionally in the future he would defend the wealthy, such as in the 1924 Leopold-Loeb “thrill killing” in Chicago, but that was just to pay the bills.

Which is to say, he did not get rich by defending the luckless and moneyless. Even though he did not live high, he was frequently strapped for cash. After the 1929 stock-market crash, he and his wife barely had enough money for household expenses.

Though we suffer no shortage of books about Darrow, there is room for this one. Kersten views Darrow's life through the prism of politics, seeing his importance to U.S. history as a political activist rather than as a jurist.

Kersten asserts that, while he has long admired and been fascinated with his subject, he does not, as others have done, revere him. That may be true, but he certainly wears, if not his heart, then his inclinations upon his sleeve. Objective but not impartial, Kersten wades in with non-scholarly appellations and descriptions: In 1895 Chicago, he says, Charles Yerkes was “the pirate of public transportation”; George Pullman and others “used their vast ill-gotten fortunes to rob, steal, and cheat”; mine owners “behaved like God-ordained feudal kings.”

That all may have been the case, and very likely was, but in the work of an academic (Kersten is a professor of history and labor studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay) we are used to seeing it presented in less impassioned, less judgmental language.

Still, never mind. The author catches his subject in all his contradictions, his philosophical flip-flops and familial flaws, his living “life fearlessly, sometimes recklessly.” In the end it was his brilliant, determined championing of the chronically un-championed that turned the American iconoclast into an American icon.


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