Monday, July 24, 2017

Book Review: Clarence Darrow for the Defense

Title: Clarence Darrow for the Defense


(Check out that price! That vintage-type binding where the jacket of the paperback edition was simply attached to a hardcover copy of similar size is what I happen to have, so that's the image I'm using. Other, more reasonably priced, editions of this book are available and are what you'll probably get if you order Clarence Darrow for the Defense here. If you must have this specific cover, we'll get it, but it'll cost you.)

Author: Irving Stone

Date: 1941

Publisher: Doubleday

ISBN: none

Length: 584 pages text plus 56 pages notes and index

Quote: “I may hate the sin, but never the sinner.”

Many people, Christians, Jews, Humanists, and probably other kinds, had said that before Clarence Darrow said it. Many have said it since. Still, it seemed to Irving Stone and it seems to this reader like a good epigram for Darrow's life and work.

If the great Humanist celebrity lawyer had a fault (which Stone will not readily admit) it was that, while reserving the right to hate sin, he didn't hate sin enough. Darrow was a philanderer; in times of stress he was a drunkard; about some of the people and things he defended he seems to have been deliberately naïve, if not an outright liar. Nevertheless he became legendary for having a gift of rhetoric and a generous heart.

Let's just say that Stone, who is primarily remembered as a novelist, is not trying in this biography to debunk any myths about Darrow's having been a sort of Secular Humanist saint. Clarence Darrow for the Defense reads, as the publisher enthusiastically claimed, like a novel but Auguste Comte would surely have called it a hagiography.

The central organizing principle of Darrow's thought, Stone says, was the idea that humans have no real choice about what they do. While most of us might agree that our being slaves to hereditary and environmental factors is a depressing idea (not to mention being inconsistent with the reality that some of us have consciously changed the way we react to those factors), for Darrow it was liberating. It reduced everyone to a single moral level; it required people to say even of felons that “there but for fortune go I.” Some of Darrow's contemporaries walked away from junior positions in law firms because they didn't want to defend criminals. Darrow could and did defend almost anybody, with a clear conscience.

That Darrow is now remembered mostly for defending a teacher for promulgating evolutionist doctrine as if it were scientific fact...is not Stone's fault. Darrow was, of course, the only other celebrity lawyer willing to take that side of a public debate against William Jennings Bryan. And, though Bryan certainly lost, Darrow didn't actually beat Bryan in the debate; Bryan fell victim to his own gluttony. Darrow scored points, but any argument that admits a theory as a fact is unwinnable.

Clarence Darrow for the Defense is mostly the story of all the other cases Darrow won. He defended Mildred Sperry, who had confessed committing perjury to keep her job, on the grounds that “Has anyone not told a lie to help a friend?” He defended labor unions from the charge of violating the existing “anti-trust” laws. He defended thieves and murderers, though not habitual criminals:

“[A student called Druggan, who admitted having stolen a car, told Darrow] 'I just didn't want to be there when they were passing out the time.' Darrow won an acquittal for the boy, then said to him, 'I've given you your chance; now you go straight. If you ever get into this kind of trouble again don't come back to me.' Before long Druggan had become one of Chicago's big lawyers and, without Darrow's knowledge, engaged the firm of Darrow and Sissman to handle his business. One day he bumped into Darrow in the anteroom. 'What are you doing here?' demanded Darrow sternly. 'Oh, I'm in the civil department now, Mr Darrow,' replied Druggan, edging away. 'Well, see that you stay there,' cautioned Darrow. 'If you ever get over into my department again you'll be there when they're passing out the time.'”

At one point Darrow was charged with conspiracy to bribe a jury; he had to rely on an inferior lawyer's help to defend himself. He was acquitted, but felt at the time that his “lawyering days” were over. He had other sources of income, and other talents; he had written some reasonably successful fiction. But he was a trial lawyer by vocation, not merely profession, and couldn't give it up if he tried. He did not try to avoid “lawyering” for very long.

Though Darrow's sentimental blame-society-for-everything approach to questions of criminal law has done considerable harm to American culture, it seemed very idealistic and “progressive” at the time. It appealed, ironically, to Darrow's own strict conscience and sense of public spirit, to try to justify other people's lack of either quality. Darrow was an agnostic, albeit shaped by Christian influences. Perhaps his willingness to blame the circumstances that made other people steal or kill had its origin in a desire to blame the circumstances when Darrow, himself, deserted his wife and lived in what was then called flagrant sin with other women.

About Darrow's attitudes toward women generally...Clarence Darrow was born in 1857, thus born into what may well have been the most flagrantly racist, sexist, and elitist generation of White males ever to infest this planet. He was racist, and he was sexist. Stone neither denies nor defends that. Still, Darrow could have been much worse than he was. Stone admits that Darrow brayed in public that letting women vote would “set back Progress fifty years,” but maintains (though how would he know?) that Darrow voted for female suffrage. And Darrow does seem to have fought against his elitist tendencies.

Darrow's racist tendencies were addressed directly and deliberately by N.A.A.C.P. spokesmen. As Stone relates, Darrow was “told that one colored man and two white men would come to see him.” Upon seeing that the blue-eyed blond in this committee was the one considered legally “Colored,” Darrow agreed to defend a Black man charged with defending his home during a riot. It should have been one of the easiest cases in Darrow's long career. Stone describes the racism that then prevailed in Detroit as being bad enough to make the defense of Henry Sweet one of the cases that took the most out of Darrow. Well, Darrow was seventy-five years old.

He had, it's true, refused to defend the Scottsboro Boys, but for that he had a better excuse than refusing to side with Black men or with women. The “Communist Party...cared far less for the safety and well-being of those...[students] than the exploitation of their own cause,” Darrow reported. In order for a Prog like Darrow to have noticed it, the American Communist Party's hand in the case must have been heavy indeed.

A more objectively written biography would no doubt leave readers with a lower opinion of Clarence Darrow than Stone obviously wants them to have. However, this web site generally leans toward the position of de mortuis nil nisi bonum. Bad ideas are our enemies and should be attacked vigorously while they are, in their abstract way, “alive.” People are not our greatest enemies, and although there's much to be said for calling living people to account for their debts and trespasses, the position of this web site is that attempts to discredit the recently dead are ineffectual ways to oppose bad ideas and inexcusable ways to hurt the feelings of the bereaved. Darrow died in 1938; in 1941 a lot of living people could have been hurt by an aggressive, muckraking study of Darrow's long and controversial life. Possibly Stone's approach was, in its time, the right one for a biographer to take.


The time for a more critical study of Darrow's life and work might be now.

Inadvertently, a friend who knows nothing about books seems to have thrust upon me one of the more valuable editions of this book. Amazon's main link to the picture of the edition I have gives a three-figure collector price; the page admits that ordinary used copies, which are what I have, are selling for only $35 apiece. This web site can do better than that. If you're willing to take a different edition you can buy Clarence Darrow for the Defense here for $5 per book, $5 per package, and $1 per online payment, as with most books discussed here. You could fit at least three more paperback books into a package along with this one, whether they're other titles by Stone or Fair Trade Books, and pay only the one $5 shipping charge.