Book review: Death in the Haymarket (James Green 2007)

Rating: 5/5

James’ Green’s Death in the Haymarket: A Story of Chicago, the First Labor Movement and the Bombing that Divided Gilded Age America tells the tale of the Haymarket Affair. The introduction gives a peek into the morning of May 5, 1886, the day after the eponymous Haymarket Affair, a bombing that killed seven police officers. The first chapter begins after the death of Lincoln in 1865. We follow the labor movement in Chicago for the next twenty-one years, through massive change and upheaval. Chicago more than quadrupled in size during this time period, burned in 1871, and went through two depressions. Immigrants composed more than 40% of the population during this time, and the industrial revolution led to capitalization and massive changes in labor practices.

Death in the Haymarket contains a lot of startlingly relevant themes: police brutality, terrorism, income inequality, xenophobia, protests that sometimes contain violence, political corruption, and economic turmoil. Interpretations of the Haymarket Affair have swung wildly more than once since they occurred 130 years ago. The Haymarket bombing was the first red scare (at this time, referring to anarchists rather than communists); four men were hung for their connections to the event. Green presents a humanizing thought-provoking narrative that suggests his sympathy to the men of the 1880s labor movement, but gives the reader plenty of tools to come to other conclusions.

WHY THIS BOOK?

I didn’t know anything about the labor movement. I certainly like my 40 hour work week and my safe working conditions, but I didn’t know how they came about. Haymarket doesn’t get into those details, but it certainly demonstrates what a long and bloody fight it was.

Between criticisms of teachers unions, passage of right-to-work legislation, and the increase of anti-employee policies like contractor status and cuts to benefits, we are seeing the erosion of some accomplishments of the labor movement. I knew that people were once passionate about these issues. I wanted to step back into that time. Haymarket fulfilled this goal.

THE GOOD

There’s a lot of great stuff to say about Haymarket. It tackles a boatload of complicated topics in a modest 320 pages. It introduces compelling and exciting characters, heros and villains and a lot of in between. It practically follows a novelistic arc; we begin with the optimism of the post Civil War labor movement, followed by political engagement, the suppression of that engagement by monied interests, the radicalization of the movement, the tragedy of police brutalities and slaughters at protests, the retaliation through terrorism, closing with further suppression following the bombing, and regrouping.

Haymarket tells a story of humans through individuals; my favorites were Lucy and Albert Parsons. Albert was orphaned a young age, raised by an enslaved woman, and fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War at the age of 15. After the war, he went to Texas as a Republican enacting Reconstruction. There, he married Lucy, who appears and was believed to be African American; she always maintained that she was Native American. Albert worked for a printing press in Texas. Albert lost his job and faced violence numerous times fighting for the rights of freed slaves in Texas. Eventually, he moved to Chicago and fought for the rights of workers. He and Lucy became famed speakers. Lucy continued for over 50 years.

Haymarket tells a story of humans through the immigrant communities; Chicago in the late 1800s was second only to Prague in quantity of Bohemians. My great-grandfather came to this country from Bohemia in the early 1900s and became a coal miner in southern Illinois. These battles affected him. We know nothing of him other than the vague strokes of tragedy that made it to the public records; he was widowed, gave up his children around the time he was declared insane, and died shortly thereafter. Haymarket describes wage earners being slowly squeezed to death in a dehumanizing machine of class warfare. These were the vices that led men to face death for better working conditions.

Haymarket made me wonder how many families suffered tragedies like our family. It made me grateful for what I have today. It was a cautionary tale for how very far there is to fall.

THE BAD

Haymarket introduces a dizzying array of characters. I couldn’t keep track of them all. We meet politicians, police officers, German anarchists, American anarchists, various socialists, wives, rich men, judges, writers and more. Green creates such good characters, and I was annoyed to keep forgetting. A reference would have be really helpful.

Secondly, I found the early chapters spent in the 1860s and 1870s less interesting. They mostly didn’t contain the characters that occupied the later chapters. Although they were really helpful for context later on, they were slow for me.

Finally and most substantially, Green carefully tells how perception of the Haymarket Affair morphed with time, swinging back and forth a couple of times. But although Green is clear about his own contemporary feelings of the events, he does not give voice to other contemporaries. Is Green’s opinion the widely held one? If not, what faults does Green suggest in the evaluations of his contemporaries? We learn that the event is still fraught enough with symbolism that commemoration of the Haymarket Affair remains thorny today. But we also learn that the “Chicago Martyrs,” the men hung for the Haymarket Affair, are still remembered by laborers around the world. Part of understanding an argument is the refutation of counter-arguments; this is absent in Haymarket.

OVERALL

This is a solid, well-written book about a topic you probably don’t know well. As our country debates over the relationship between employer and employee, this glimpse into the past offers insight into today’s arguments. Haymarket is an exciting nonfiction read with a great set of characters and a strong sense of place.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s