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(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

Author Kevin Tierney, who presently teaches law at the University of California’s Hastings College in San Francisco, has written one of the most complete studies to date of America’s foremost trial lawyer: Clarence Darrow, the courtroom spellbinder who defended the most unpopular causes and personages of his day, including organized labor, anarchists, child murderers, and blacks charged with murdering whites. In Darrow: A Biography, the myth of Darrow, brave defender of the weak and hated, is given considerable reinforcement. For here is the battler of legend, who, although struggling against an army of enemies bent on his destruction or humiliation, wins case after case: the Loeb-Leopold “thrill murder” affair, the John Scopes “Monkey Trial” in Tennessee, the Ossian Sweet case in Detroit. On the other hand, one sees Darrow in a different light than that in which he is usually portrayed. He is presented as a frustrated writer yearning to be part of the Chicago Renaissance group of poets and novelists; as a victim of bad luck, judgment and timing; and as a midlife failure.

The twists and turns of Darrow’s life were dramatic, with astonishing success followed by terrible defeat which, in turn, was followed by phoenixlike recovery. In fact, it could be said that Tierney’s principal aim in writing about Darrow is to demonstrate how supremely hard it was for him to win not only a name for himself but also the respect of fellow colleagues, many of whom were repulsed by his sense of superiority. A lesser man would have been broken by any one of the sizable defeats life dealt Darrow. However, his will and large heart, combined with a love of courtroom debate, made him the “people’s champion” late in life.

From tiny Kinsman, Ohio, an unincorporated hamlet not even appearing on maps of the day, Darrow started his life’s quest in solid Horatio Alger fashion, having neither prosperous or well-connected parents nor a decent school record upon which to rely. Tierney stresses that Darrow’s skepticism, his obstinacy, and his at times vehement unconventionality were there from the outset, as was his ambition to forge ahead no matter what or who stood in his way. Since anything which restricted his capacity to learn firsthand about the world and its workings angered him, it was only a matter of time before he spurned Kinsman’s dull ways and headed for law school at the University of Michigan. Nevertheless, even a university setting was too predictable and orderly for Darrow, too isolated from the combative real world he wanted so much to be part of, so he left.

Out in the world, unknown by it but ready to be known, Darrow learned law his own way through doing rather than by diligent study. First he went to Youngstown, where he passed the bar examination, then to Andover, and finally to Ashtabula, Ohio, where he became active in politics, falling under the sway of reformer John Peter Altgeld’s essay, “our Penal Machinery and Its Victims,” a tract defending the legal rights of society’s lower-class.

After a time, Darrow’s restlessness led to his making the final big move of his life when he journeyed to Chicago, the new metropolis teeming with life, possibilities, and problems. Immediately upon his arrival there in 1887, he allowed Chicago to be the one schoolmaster he would listen to. The city would, in turn, teach him some of life’s cruelest lessons and force him to assert his brilliance and ability.

At the time of Darrow’s arrival, Chicago was already a swollen giant of a city with a population hovering around the one million mark; it was well-known for its wild, unruly populace and incredible growth rate. As Tierney points out, “No other place challenged its preeminence in actuality or prospects. America’s young hopefuls assessed Chicago as the city of the future.” So important, in fact, had the city become by the end of the nineteenth century that some believed the nation’s capital would be moved from...

(The entire section is 3,053 words.)