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The Peculiar American Stamp’

Novels, 1875-1886

by William Dean Howells
The Library of America, 1,232 pp., $25.00


On May 1, 1886, American workers in general and Chicago’s workers in particular decided that the eight-hour work-day was an idea whose time had come. Workers demonstrated; and a number of factories were struck. Management responded in kind. At McCormick Reaper strikers were replaced by “scabs.” On May 3, when the scabs left the factory at the end of a long traditional workday, they were mobbed by the strikers. Chicago’s police promptly opened fire and America’s gilded age looked to be cracking open.

The next night, in Haymarket Square, the anarchists held a meeting presided over by the mayor of Chicago. A thousand workers listened to many thousands of highly incendiary words. But all was orderly until His Honor went home; then the police “dispersed” the meeting with that tact which has ever marked Hog-city’s law-enforcement officers. At one point, someone (never identified) threw a bomb: a number of policemen and workers were killed or wounded. Subsequently, there were numerous arrests and in-depth grillings.

Finally, more or less at random, eight men were indicted for “conspiracy to murder.” There was no hard evidence of any kind. One man was not even in town that day while another was home playing cards. By and large, the great conservative Republic felt no compassion for anarchists, even the ones who had taken up the revolutionary game of bridge; worse, an eight-hour workday would drive a stake through the economy’s heart.

On August 20, a prejudiced judge and jury found seven of the eight men guilty of murder in the first degree; the eighth man (who had not been in town that night) got fifteen years in the slammer because he had a big mouth. The anarchists’ counsel, Judge Roger A. Pryor, then appealed the verdict to the Supreme Court.

During the short hot summer of 1886, the case was much discussed. The peculiar arbitrariness of condemning to death men whom no one had seen commit a crime but who had been heard, at one time or another, to use “incendiary and seditious language” was duly noted in bookish circles. Yet no intellectual of the slightest national importance spoke up. Of America’s famous men of letters, Mark Twain maintained his habitual silence on any issue where he might, even for an instant, lose the love of the folks. Henry James was in London, somewhat shaken by the recent failure of not only The Bostonians but The Princess Casamassima. The sad young man of The Princess Casamassima is an anarchist, who has had, like James himself that year, “more news of life than he knew what to do with.” Although Henry Adams’s education was being conducted that summer in Japan, he had made, the previous year, an interesting comment on the American political system—or lack of one:

Where no real principle divides us,…some queer mechanical balance holds the two parties even, so that changes of great numbers of voters leave no trace in the sum total. I suspect the law will someday be formulated that in democratic societies, parties tend to an equilibrium.

As the original entropy man, Adams had to explain, somehow, the election of the Democrat Grover Cleveland in 1884, after a quarter-century of Republican abolitionist virtue and exuberant greed.

Of the Republic’s major literary and intellectual figures (the division was not so clearly drawn then between town, as it were, and gown), only one took a public stand. At forty-nine, William Dean Howells was the author of that year’s charming “realistic” novel, Indian Summer; he was also easily the busiest and smoothest of America’s men of letters. Years before, he had come out of Ohio to conquer the world of literature; and had succeeded. He had been the first outlander to be editor of the Atlantic Monthly. In the year of the Haymarket Square riot, he had shifted the literary capital of the country from Boston to New York when he took over Harper’s Monthly, for which he wrote a column called “The Editor’s Study”; and a thousand other things as well. That summer Howells had been reading Tolstoy. In fact, Tolstoy was making a socialist out of him; and Howells was appalled by Chicago’s judge, jury, and press. He was also turning out his column, a hasty affair by his own best standards but positively lapidary by ours.

In the September 1886 issue of Harper’s, Howells, who had done so much to bring Turgenev and Tolstoy to the attention of American readers, decided to do the same for Dostoevsky, whose Crime and Punishment was then available only in a French translation. Since Howells had left school at fifteen, he had been able to become very learned indeed. He had taught himself Latin and Greek; learned Spanish, German, Italian, and French. He read many books in many languages, and he knew many things. He also wrote many books; and many of those books are of the first rank. He was different from us. Look at Dean run! Look at Dean read! Look-say what Dean writes!

While the Haymarket Square riots were causing Howells to question the basis of the American “democracy,” he was describing a Russian writer who had been arrested for what he had written and sent off to Siberia where he was taken out to be shot but not shot—the kind of fun still to be found to this very day south of our borders where the dominoes roam. As Howells proceeded most shrewdly to explain Dostoevsky to American readers, he rather absently dynamited his own reputation for the next century. Although he admired Dostoevsky’s art, he could find little similarity between the officially happy, shadowless United States and the dark Byzantine cruelties of czarist Russia:

It is one of the reflections suggested by Dostoevsky’s book that whoever struck a note so profoundly tragic in American fiction would do a false and mistaken thing…. Whatever their deserts, very few American novelists have been led out to be shot, or finally expelled to the rigors of a winter at Duluth…. We invite our novelists, therefore, to concern themselves with the more smiling aspects of life, which are the more American, and to seek the universal in the individual rather than the social interests. It is worth while even at the risk of being called commonplace, to be true to our well-to-do actualities.

This was meant to be a plea for realism. But it sounded like an invitation to ignore the sort of thing that was happening in Chicago. Ironists are often inadvertent victims of their own irony.

On November 2, 1887, the Supreme Court denied the anarchists’ appeal. On November 4, Howells canvassed his literary peers. What to do? The dedicated abolitionist of thirty years earlier, George William Curtis, whose lecture Political Infidelity was a touchstone of political virtue, and the noble John Greenleaf Whittier agreed that something must be done; but they were damned if they were going to do it. So the belletrist who had just enjoined the nation’s scribblers to address themselves to the smiling aspects of a near-perfect land hurled his own grenade at the courts.

In an open letter to the New York Tribune (published with deep reluctance by the ineffable Whitelaw Reid) Howells addressed all right-thinking persons to join with him in petitioning the governor of Illinois to commute the sentences. No respectable American man of letters had taken on the American system since Thomas Paine, who was neither American nor respectable. Of the Supreme Court, Howells wrote, it “simply affirmed the legality of the forms under which the Chicago court proceeded; it did not affirm the propriety of trying for murder men fairly indictable for conspiracy alone….” The men had been originally convicted of “constructive conspiracy to commit murder,” a star-chamberish offense, based on their fiery language, and never proved to be relevant to the actual events in Haymarket Square. In any case, he made the point that the Supreme Court

by no means approved the principle of punishing them because of their frantic opinions, for a crime which they were not shown to have committed. The justice or injustice of their sentence was not before the highest tribunal of our law, and unhappily could not be got there. That question must remain for history, which judges the judgment of courts, to deal with; and I, for one, cannot doubt what the decision of history will be.

Howells said that the remaining few days before the men were executed should be used to persuade the governor to show mercy. In the course of the next week the national press attacked Howells, which is what the American system has a national press for.

On November 11, four of the men, wearing what look like surgical gowns, were hanged. Of the others, one had committed suicide and two had had their sentences commuted. On November 12, Howells, undaunted by the national hysteria now directed as much against him as against the enemies of property, wrote another public letter:

It seems of course almost a pity to mix a note of regret with the hymn of thanksgiving for blood growing up from thousands of newspapers all over the land this morning; but I reflect that though I write amidst this joyful noise, my letter cannot reach the public before Monday at the earliest, and cannot therefore be regarded as an indecent interruption of the Te Deum.

By that time journalism will not have ceased, but history will have at least begun. All over the world where civilized men can think and feel, they are even now asking themselves, For what, really, did those four men die so bravely? Why did one other die so miserably? Next week the journalistic theory that they died so because they were desperate murderers will have grown even more insufficient than it is now for the minds and hearts of dispassionate inquirers, and history will make the answer to which she must adhere for all time, They died, in the prime of the first Republic the world has ever known, for their opinions’ sake.

Howells then proceeds to make the case against the state’s attorney general and the judge and the shrieking press. It is a devastating attack: “I have wished to deal with facts. One of these is that we had a political execution in Chicago yesterday. The sooner we realize this, the better for us.” As polemic, Howells’s letter is more devastating and eloquent than Émile Zola’s J’accuse; as a defense of the right to express unpopular opinions, it is the equal of Milton’s Areopagitica.

Unfortunately, the letter was not published in the year 1887. Eventually, the manuscript was found in an envelope addressed to Whitelaw Reid. The piece had been revised three times. It is possible that a copy had been sent to Reid who had not published it; it is possible that Howells had had second thoughts about the possibilities of libel actions from judge and state’s attorney general; it is possible that he was scared off by the general outcry against him. After all, he had not only a great career to worry about but an ill wife and a dying daughter. Whatever the reason, Howells let his great moment slip by. Even so, the letter-not-sent reveals a powerful mind affronted by “one of those spasms of paroxysmal righteousness to which our Anglo-Saxon race is peculiarly subject….” He also grimly notes that this “trial by passion, by terror, by prejudice, by hate, by newspaper” had ended with a result that has won “the approval of the entire nation.”

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