(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

Most of them young immigrant women, 146 workers perished when flames engulfed the Triangle Shirtwaist Company factory in New York’s Greenwich Village in 1911. The factory, on the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors of the Asch building, was overcrowded with workers and highly flammable materials. Only one exit door was unlocked, and firefighting apparatus reached only to the sixth floor. In Triangle, David Von Drehle blends scholarly research and a lively narrative style, enabling him to report on the fire, the trial that followed it, and the contemporary social and political world with journalistic immediacy.

In Von Drehle’s view, the fire at the Triangle factory in 1911 has been overlooked as a significant event in American history. Both the pre-fire labor movement and the Triangle fire itself, he argues, “helped to transform the political machinery of New York City—the most powerful machine in America, Tammany Hall.”

To bring this tragedy to his readers, Von Drehle presents history with the immediacy of an investigative report. For example, the book’s prologue echoes the melodrama of tabloid prose as it describes what New Yorkers called Misery Lane, the makeshift morgue crowded with people searching desperately for their missing daughters and wives among the burned human remains. The sense of immediacy in these opening paragraphs is maintained throughout the text, though for the most part the tabloid tone of the prose recedes. No scholar’s footnotes interrupt the narrative flow. Rather, at the end of the book a notes section gives supporting details for textual data, and a selected bibliography follows.

The opening chapter illustrates Von Drehle’s narrative style. “Spirit of the Age” begins with the arresting statement: “Burglary was the usual occupation of Lawrence Ferrone, also known as Charles Rose,” who had been hired by Tammany Hall “to beat up a young woman” strike leader. His victim was Clara Lemlich, a heroic strike organizer for the International Garment Worker’s Union local 25. Ferrone and his accomplices were hired by the antilabor establishment, the rich and the powerful, to give “a quick and savage” beating to their enemy, this twenty-one-year-old seamstress. Von Drehle gives a full account of Lemlich’s life and pro-labor activities because she represents the many women workers in New York’s factories during this period who influenced “the drive for women’s rights (and other civil rights), the rise of unions, and the use of activist government to address social problems.”

Lemlich came from a family of many sisters working in an industry that employed women only in the lowest of positions and showered them with injustices. She was also one of many who fought back, again and again, in those years preceding the Triangle factory fire. Von Drehle’s text is convincing: American history needs to recognize how this force of women “changed America.”

Von Drehle highlights the attack on Lemlich as he begins his narrative, because the beating led “to the ravenous flames inside the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, which trapped and killed some of the hardiest strikers from the uprising Lemlich worked to inspire.” This vicious beating represents the pre-fire battles between laborers and owners over those unjust working conditions that allowed the fire to take place. Similar attacks on individuals, the many police assaults on picket lines, the subsequent arrest and imprisonment of women strikers: All strengthened the workers’ position and caught the attention of those among the rich and powerful who already leaned toward progressivism. New York in 1909 had a progressive governor, Charles Evans Hughes, while the United States had a progressive president, Theodore Roosevelt. New York City, however, still had Tammany Hall, which was anything but progressive in regard to labor conditions before the fire. First the strikers, then the fire (which killed so many that it stood as New York’s greatest tragedy until the 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center) shocked that political machine, already weakened, into the changes for which the strikers and their allies had fought so hard.

Von Drehle looks at the many who were affected by the fire: workers, owners, politicians, lawyers. Surprisingly, all emerge from the immigrant and immigrant-descendant population in New York City, primarily of European stock, whether Eastern,...

(The entire section is 1818 words.)