Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Last Trials of Clarence Darrow

51. The Last Trials of Clarence Darrow, by Donald McRae

If you are going to write a biography of someone who has been the subject of as many books as Clarence Darrow has, it's not enough to write well. You'd better have something new to say. Unfortunately, McRae, while a decent enough writer for the most part, does nothing to add to our knowledge or understanding of Darrow.

For many years, Darrow carried on an extramarital relationship with journalist Mary Field Parton. He was clearly the love of her life (despite her marriage to Lemuel Parton); whether she was the love of his is not, I think, as clear as McRae suggests. McRae has taken this relationship, using Parton's diaries, letters between Darrow and Parton, as well as writings and interviews with Parton's daughter, Margaret, and has set it as a framing device for his description of three of Darrow's most famous cases, cases that came towards the end of his legal career.

The difficulty is that those cases (the Leopold-Loeb sentencing hearing, the Scopes trial and the murder trial of Ossian Sweet and his co-defendants) have been written about at great length. Here's one bibliography regarding Scopes, and this was compiled more than ten years ago! And the same source on Leopold and Loeb. Although writings about the Sweet case are not as extensive, they are readily available.

If the Parton connection had any relevance to, or effect on, Darrow's participation in, or conduct of, these cases, then the device would work. But, if she did, it is not apparent from McRae's book. For the most part, he simply quotes her diaries or her daughter's writing as to what she was feeling at the time of the events, or engages in speculation as to her or Darrow's reactions. Further, he takes Mary and her daughter (who was quite young at the time of these events) at face value, without seeming to take into account their biases. Should we really assume that Mary is correct in her assessment of Darrow's wife, Ruby, and his satisfaction or lack thereof in his marriage, when she wanted to be married to him herself? People are not generally objective about their rivals in love!

I have the sense that McRae thought there'd be a book in Darrow's relationship with Parton, but found that there simply wasn't sufficient source material to write a full-length book. So he used it as padding. This would have been far better off as an article in a periodical such as The New Yorker.

Finally, I am tired of non-fiction writers who really want to be novelists. Non-fiction is about fact. It is not about pretentious, overblown invention. The opening paragraph of the book gives a broad hint of problems to come. I have to quote that paragraph in full, with my comments, so you'll see what I mean:

"Darkness spread slowly across a city in tumult. It seeped through the burnt orange and faded [is that a verb or an adjective?] red streaks of a sky that softened the stone buildings towering over her [Who is "her"? The "darkness"? The "city"?] Alone in the Loop on a summer evening [well, that's arrant nonsense to anyone who knows the Loop!], Mary Field Parton picked her way through the teeming streets, slipping quietly past the blurred faces and babbling voices. [Wait! What happened to "Alone in the Loop . . . ?"] And the farther she walked the more she lowered her gaze, as if willing herself to become invisible. The dusk framed her own trepidation [huh?] as she went to meet the man she had loved so long."

Writing like this is guaranteed to lose me from the start.

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