Tue 16 Mar 2010
I knew that battles between wealthy industrialists and labor forces during the late 19th and early 20th centuries were fierce. In my high school U.S. history class we talked about little else. But “American Lightning: Terror, Mystery, and the Birth of Hollywood” told a story that I had never heard before.
In 1910, the rabidly anti-labor Los Angeles Times’ building was bombed in a dynamite attack, killing 21 people. The private detective whose agency was given the task of hunting down the bombers was Billy Burns, known at the time as America’s true-life version of Sherlock Holmes. After months of cross-country hunting he discovers similar bombings throughout the nation and is able to uncover the men at the heart of the plot. Two of the men, brothers Jim and J.J. McNamara, are put on trial and defended by Clarence Darrow, a famed defense attorney and friend of labor organizations. The book weaves the stories of Burns and Darrow together to good effect, but Blum also tries to force in a third character: D. W. Griffith, the director and father of Hollywood.
I fully understand the siren song of research and how you can become enthralled by tangential stories. But that’s why you have an editor – to stop you from getting sidetracked from the real subject. The whole D. W. Griffith story arc felt tacked on and beside the point. The further into the book I read, the more irritated I became that the D. W. Griffith material never truly intersected with the stories of Billy Burns and Clarence Darrow.
Oh, Blum tried to force them together. Two movies were made during the time period about the McNamara case, but neither of them was made by D. W. Griffith. Blum’s argument was that the filmmakers had been influenced by Griffith because he was a pivotal director in the industry. He also claims, without any stated proof or examples, that the labor struggles in general and McNamara case in particular inspired Griffith’s KKK paean “Birth of a Nation.” But the only concrete historical moment of intersection comes in the epilogue when the three men ran into each other in a hotel lobby. Color me underwhelmed.
It felt like he was trying to pad out the book, which runs about 335 pages in the paperback edition. He had such a great, captivating story to tell with the dynamite plot that I just don’t understand why he was devoting pages and pages to the creepy relationship Griffith had with actress Mary Pickford. Tell us more about the bombastic owner of the Los Angeles Times, or the weird muckraking journalist Lincoln Steffens, who declared that it was a justifiable dynamiting. Enough with the laborious attempt to link Griffith to Burns and Darrow.
Verdict: I give “American Lightning” full marks for two-thirds of the book, so I’m going to round up and give it a 7 out of 10.