Saturday, October 27, 2012

Book Review: In Search of Sacco and Vanzetti

“In Search of Sacco and Vanzetti,” the new historical study by journalist Susan Tejada of one of the great watershed crises of the 20th century, succeeds better than anything else I have read in telling the human story of the two forever-paired principal figures while providing renewed insight into the case’s historical context. The two Italian immigrants, Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, were arrested in 1920 for a payroll robbery and double murder in Massachusetts they almost certainly did not commit, tried and found guilty the following year, and executed in 1927 despite a worldwide clamor over the unfairness of the proceeding.
While the case has been the subject of scores of studies, Tejada’s book nails the enduring significance of an affair that divided American public opinion between sympathizers for the two immigrant working men who espoused radical political opinions and those who wanted to string them up – and anyone else who shared those opinions. As Tejada states on the very last page of her book in her rollcall of comparisons between America then and now, “In 1917… lawmakers wrestled with opposing concepts of civil liberties and homeland security. They still do.”
While US opinion was divided on the fairness of the trial, for the rest of the world the case was a clear example of scapegoating a couple of convenient victims to assuage a capitalist-dominated society’s fear of Communist revolution in Europe and union agitation at home. That view is also too simplistic, but then as now – and I would add this similarity to the book’s final summation of comparison points – American politics continues to suffer from big money domination and an irrational fear of “socialism.” The jury that convicted Sacco and Vanzetti of the crime did not consist of the wealthy, but after the Red Scare years of 1919-20 and a string of what we now call “terrorist” bombings, appeals to a reactionary and anti-foreigner patriotism combined with the longing for a simpler American day – when, for instance, nobody in town spoke with an accent – prejudiced the average citizen against foreigners with crazy ideas. Again, as Tejada’s book concludes, just like today. In 1908 [the year of both immigrants’ arrival in the US], she writes, “America was struggling with immigration reform. It still is.”
The book’s insight into the similarities between Sacco and Vanzetti’s America of 100 and our post-911 America whets our interest to know more about the case’s two principals. Both men immigrated from a relatively backward Italy in search of a better world, and both were appalled by the heartless exploitation of the workers in America’s fiercely competitive industrial economy that treated workers like disposable parts. They met when they joined a small Italian anarchist group in Boston, part of a network of followers of a charismatic theorist whose ideas may have led to terrorist-style bombings in the year after World War I. Sacco is the less likely revolutionary as a skilled worker and family man who made a good living in Massachusetts shoe factories, but whose sympathies were always drawn to the downtrodden. Vanzetti, a bachelor day laborer, is a true believer in the “beautiful idea” of the anarchist utopia in which people would replace the current exploitive institutions with cooperative practices.
It’s Vanzetti, the reading man and voluble spokesman for his utopian ideas, who flourishes intellectually after he’s thrown into prison for seven years and has time at last to improve his command of English and study the world’s great thinkers. The effect of Vanzetti’s personality on rallying support for the defendants’ cause has been noted elsewhere. But Tejada makes a singular contribution is in its frank discussion of Vanzetti’s romantic fixation on the married woman who visits him in Charleston State Prison to tutor him in English. His love for Virginia MacMechan inevitably goes nowhere, but it answers an enduring puzzle about the heart of a kind man who loved women and children, but apparently never had romantic feelings for particular women. In fact he did have them, he just didn’t want them on the record. And his devotion to his revolutionary cause came first.
“In Search of Sacco and Vanzetti” takes readers back to an American reality few people today know much about. It’s a world in which a highly polarized society – “we are two societies” was a judgement widely cited by intellectuals following the case – chose ultimately to paper over it divisions by scapegoating critics and demonizing as “left-wing radicals” the very voices the rest of the world recognizes as part of a healthy debate. The American mindset still suffers from this imbalance. Even right-wing ideas as radical and nutty as Ayn Rand’s apotheosis of selfishness now receive attention in mainstream politics. Readers would do well to read “In Search of Sacco and Vanzetti” for an insight into the early 20th century roots of this witches’ brew of xenophobia, radical-hunting and J. Edgar Hoover.
As an account of the fascinating case of the “a good shoemaker” and “a poor fish peddler” (to use Vanzetti’s formulation) who became the center of an international affair, “In Search of Sacco and Vanzetti” is equally valuable as a first-rate read.