The Dynamite Club

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 1)

The Dynamite Club is a perceptive portrayal of fin-de-siècle Paris. In this historical account of the period, John Merriman presents the development of anarchism as a reaction to poverty and political exclusion. He also addresses the issue of terrorism and the motivation behind it and elucidates the fact that repression and execution do not deter terrorists. Merriman defines modern terrorism as an assault upon innocent victims. He recognizes that the terrorism anchored in religious difference rather than class distinction that is faced by Western society in the twenty-first century is of a very different nature than that which spread through late nineteenth century European society, especially in Paris. He seeks, however, to identify why the violence of terrorism becomes the driving force for certain individuals, and draws the limited lessons of the past that may apply to the present.

The Dynamite Club traces the brief life of Émile Henry, who was guillotined on May 21, 1894, for the bombing of the Café Terminus, in which one person was killed, and for an earlier police-station bombing in which two police officers lost their lives. Merriman blends together a detailed account of Émile’s life, a history of anarchism and its advocates, and a psychological and sociological inquiry into the anarchists’ advocacy of violence, particularly of violence directed against random victims. In the prologue, Merriman immediately depicts the key event of his book, the bombing of the Café Terminus. He then states his reason for writing the book, to find out why Émile Henry bombed the café.

Merriman proposes that there is a connection, although an elusive one, between the terrorism of the Islamic fundamentalists in the twenty-first century and the terrorism spread by the nineteenth century anarchists. He argues that the story of the late nineteenth century is the story of a changing world and that Émile was no ordinary terrorist. He was a bourgeois intellectual; his family was propertied, and he did not target symbols of oppressive political authority but rather diners in a Parisian café. For Merriman, Émile Henry was the first modern terrorist.

Having established the premise of his text, Merriman next familiarizes his readers with fin-de-siècle Paris. He describes the large boulevards created by Georges Haussman. These boulevards literally destroyed the people’s Paris, where insurgents had been able to disappear during the city’s various previous rebellions, starting with the French Revolution. Haussman redesigned the city, whose narrow streets were incapable of accommodating modern volumes of traffic, creating wide boulevards through which people and commodities could flow with ease throughout the city. These new boulevards enabled the government to suppress rebellion readily, as it did with the Paris Commune.

Merriman details the great wealth enjoyed by the Parisian bourgeoisie, particularly their elegant clothing and jewels. He describes as well the city’s magnificent buildings (especially the Opéra); its plush carriages; and the lights illuminating fabulously luxurious shops, cafés, and restaurants located in the center of Paris. To these, he sharply contrasts the dreary and dark suburbs, where the impoverished working class lived in the most abject conditions. Workers walked from the suburbs to their jobs serving the wealthy bourgeoisie, jobs that could be lost at the whim of their employers and that seldom provided enough money to feed workers’ families. The Paris presented by Merriman is a Paris of sharp and bitter contrasts and of division, where some live in great luxury and others barely survive. Readers become immersed in the Paris of Émile Henry, where hatred of the bourgeoisie and of governmental authority grew ever stronger within the working class.

In the next chapter, “The Second Son of the...

(The entire section is 1592 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 1)

Booklist 105, no. 9/10 (January 1, 2009): 26.

Kirkus Reviews 76, no. 23 (December 1, 2008): 1245.

Library Journal 133, no. 20 (December 1, 2008): 141.

Publishers Weekly 255, no. 46 (December 17, 2008): 49.

The Washington Post, March 8, 2009, p. B07.