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Book Review: “American Lightning” by Howard Blum

American Lightning by Howard Blum

"American Lightning" by Howard Blum

Blum’s “American Lightning” is a work of popular history, in the vein of Simon Winchester or Erik Larson, but Blum’s book is neither as readable or entertaining as those he’s trying to imitate. Blum attempts to weave together three threads: Billy Burns investigating the bombing of the Los Angeles Time’s building, the contemporary life of Clarence Darrow, who will represent the bombers at their trial, and the early film career of D.W. Griffith.

The Burns sections make up a good, procedure detective story, rather like an episode of Law & Order. Burns and his operatives collect clues, interview witnesses, tail suspects, and finally get their men (probably). The stage is set for a showdown between capital and labor, embodied in the trial of the bombers. Unfortunately for future novelistic-historians, the trial ends with a whimper, and so does the book.

This is only a third of the book, though. The other two stories have interesting moments, but are disconnected from the whole. Clarence Darrow defends the bombers at their trial, but the book spends far too much time on his complicated professional and personal life in the years before the trial, which is unnecessary to understand the main tale. Similarly, the story of D. W. Griffith and early Hollywood has interesting moments, but it even more disconnected from the main thread of the “plot.” As far as I can tell, the only points of connection between Griffith and Burns are (1) that they briefly collaborated once on a different case and (2) that the labor unions, aiming for sympathy for the bombers, who are connected with organized labor, made their own film. Their propaganda piece was inspired by Griffith’s idea that “movies could be polemical” (apparently an idea that he invented, according to Blum), but Griffith was not involved in the film that was made about the bombers.

Omitting the stories of Griffith and Darrow would have made for a shorter, tighter book. The main “plot” is fascinating (almost more by what didn’t happen and what could have happened), but “American Lightning” is overlong, over-stuffed, and too disconnected to be a leading example of the “popular history” genre.

Written by timwestover

September 24th, 2011 at 8:21 pm

Posted in Reviews