Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Butchertown Chronicles: "Savage Peace" by Ann Hagedorn

For research into my next novel, Butchertown, I recently read Savage Peace: Hope and Fear in America, 1919 by Ann Hagedorn. It’s an often exciting and moving book about America during the year after World War I ended, when American troops returned to an even more turbulent country than the one they left barely two years before.

In this book, “Savage” hardly begins to describe what happened. If you think things are bad now, take a trip through the year 1919. You’ll need a stout heart for the journey.

Savage Peace is part of the genre that relates the events of a single year. (1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus is another example of this approach.) Judging from this, the first in this specialized genre I’ve read, this may not an optimum approach.

I found at least three or four great books jostling for attention here, all of them told passionately and compellingly. One is about Uncle Sam’s war on dissent against his wars. World War I set the United States on the road to becoming the global power that it remains today. This “success” (I use the term gingerly), also seemed to stoke native fear and paranoia to unprecedented and alarming ferocity.

Once the war was over, the United States seemed to turn its war fever inward, like an auto-immune disease. With no more dirty Huns to fight, the country declared war on itself, especially its more foreign-seeming elements, political leftists and radicals, especially those who were immigrants, such as Emma Goldman and a remarkable little spitfire named Mollie Steimer.

Even stalwart liberal patriots such as poet Carl Sandburg found themselves behind bars. The Bolshies weren’t just hiding under the bed—they had woven themselves into the mattress to set it afire. The government even set private organizations loose on the populace.

Unions, naturally, were also targeted. Wages were suppressed during the war years of 1914 to 1918, and neither unions nor workers had much appetite for thwarting the war effort with wage hikes and other demands. Once the war ended though, the manufacturers were content to go on paying crap wages for crap hours. Massive strikes ensued, which were put down with sometimes murderous ferocity.

To be sure, there were some reasons for alarm: Fire-bombing anarchists were in their heyday then and even autocrat Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer deserves a measure of sympathy after his house was bombed with him and his family inside. But these crimes were committed by tiny groups of gamy crackpots and dunderheads who did a better job of hoisting themselves on their own petards. They had no credible or reliable links to more serious, high-profile radicals, all of whom were well-aware of the damage that violence could do to their cause.

But, of course, that’s much too much nuance for the radicals on the right, especially since many of them held, or were about to grab hold of, the levers of power, among them one J. Edgar Hoover. It’s so much easier, so much simpler, to declare all your opponents enemies of the state and life and throw ‘em in the nearest pokey. Thinking things through is not a characteristic of the radical mind, no matter its compass bearings.

When that mindset achieves power, the results can be disastrous, as they were here: resources wasted, thousands of lives ruined and America’s nervous slump into an armed quasi-dictatorial camp that would have made Mussolini and Stalin dance a two-step. The bloody Bolshie revolution that the government and its many supporters swore again and again was going to happen RIGHT NOW OR TOMORROW WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE! never happened . . . nope, not even close . . . though plenty of other bad things did.

The second great book cramming Savage Peace follows the continued rise of the civil rights movement. The movement had been on an upswing ever since the release of D.W. Griffith’s racist classic film “The Birth of the Nation.” During World War I, black troops served with great distinction, but only the French Army could be bothered to award them medals.

When black soldiers returned home, though, they were not greeted as heroes, but as ominous threats to white privilege and supremacy. Practically any black soldier who dared to wear his uniform in public risked a fiendish and horrific death at the hands of white mobs, crimes that were evil through and through. The sadism of these assaults is mind-boggling and stomach churning.

Most poignant of all is a very strange, sad tale of white Mabel Emmeline Puffer and black Arthur Garfield Hazzard, two people who did what then seemed unimaginable: fall in love and get married. This is real tragic history that even turns “Romeo and Juliet” a little pale.

The third great book lies in a curious incident, a side war, most people have forgotten and relatively few knew of at the time: An American attempt to invade the Soviet Union and stop the Bolshevik revolution (not a bad motive, considering the horrors that befell Soviet Russia and its satellites). A definite case of “a bridge too far,” the war was almost hilarious in its fruitlessness and ineptitude, but for the suffering incurred and the damage it did to American foreign policy interests and prestige.

Along with Woodrow Wilson’s strenuous, but failing efforts to bring a lasting peace in Europe, any one of the above stories would make a terrific book on its own. But author Hagedorn’s panoramic ambitions strains to cover more bases than necessary: brief chapters on the scientific confirmation of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity; the first transatlantic flights, even the creation of pulp hero Zorro. All wonders worth writing about, but these are sidebars to the stories that truly engage Hagedorn and the reader. The result is a sometimes disconnected mishmash that pulls you in one chapter, then pushes you away the next, then finally trails away in a series of postscripts.

The limitations of this approach seem obvious. Hagedorn appears to have started out wanting to cover everything that happened in America in 1919, to weave some sort of epic tapestry, such as might be written by Robert K. Massie. In that, she doesn’t succeed. I doubt anyone could, not in one single year. The stories within are too sprawling and continue even now. The calendar just gets in the way of history.

Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield

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Thomas Burchfield has recently completed his 1920s gangster thriller Butchertown. He can be friended on Facebook, followed on Twitter, and read at Goodreads. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.

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