Upon reading the first couple pages of American Lightning,
one comes across a list of characters that immediately signals that
Howard Blum's work will read more like a mystery novel, than historical
monograph. Blum states, "I had no ambitions to be a historian
.It's a reporter's
story." Really, Blum tries to play both roles. But the challenge with narrative
history is to walk the fine line between entertainment and education, and it is
easy to sense from his identification of American Lightning as a "sort of nonacademic
history" that he is aiming towards the former. While categorized as a
"narrative history," the need to make the book absorbing and compelling, should
not supersede the fact that this story has a concrete setting in the American
historical record. Blum should have noted in the preface, not in the
epilogue, that the quotations are documented and based in factual reality. That
being said, because Blum is experienced in writing concise and intriguing
pieces, he has produced a quick read that will be appreciated by most readers.
Blum makes a noble attempt to bring this "crime of the century", an event that has been overshadowed and largely forgotten until now, back into the limelight. Fortunately for him, his cast of characters is an all-star lineup and the intersection of detective Williams Burns, lawyer Clarence Darrow, and filmmaker D.W. Griffith in his plot seems effortless making his depiction of this historical event all the more captivating. It is easy to agree with fellow reviewers that the book is entertaining.
Although one reviewer equated Blum's approach to that of Truman Capote, the comparison between American Lightning and In Cold Blood is not completely plausible. Where Capote succeeded at captivating his audience by portraying the villains and their victims alike, Blum fails to take that route and instead takes the easier road by only dissecting the main characters - Burns, Darrow and Griffith. This is not to say that American Lightning is not interesting and a narrative page-turner, but unlike Capote, Blum does not turn over every stone only the biggest and shiniest. In essence, we only get one side of the story. True, the events took place over a hundred years ago so Blum could not interview any of those involved, but with the vast amount of documentation at his disposal, he might have told us a bit more about those individuals time has overlooked.
Perhaps the one character who deserved much more attention than he received in this book was that of Harrison Gray Otis, owner of the Los Angeles Times. The "General," as he was referred to, comes off like the typical robber baron of the times, out for the money with little or no concern for the working class and animatedly anti-union. Yet, for even the most trained American historian, his name does not ring a bell nor does he rank with that of Vanderbilt, Morgan, and Rockfeller. If this man was really the face behind labor hostilities, Blum needed to put him under the scope more than he did. The one aspect of Otis's determination that intrigued me was his obsession to gain power which extended to controlling a necessity of life: water. Blum briefly skims the surface of how water in the arid American West could have been as much of motive for terror and domination in the early 20th century as oil has become in more recent years. Unfortunately, that part of the story gets pushed aside early on and is never fully reintegrated. For a much more thorough account on this topic, Donald Worster's Rivers of Empire investigates how water and aridity played the most significant role in developing the wild West from the time of occupation by Native Americans, up to the lingering affect of the National Reclamation Law, until the 1980s.
In the end, most readers will appreciate American Lightning for bringing this forgotten part of history to the surface and turning it into an enthralling story; and scholars more versed in American history will gain a better perspective of how this event affected the choices Burns, Darrow, and Griffith made later in life. Out of a scale of 5, I would give it a 4.5.
Top: William J. Burns. 2nd: Clarence Darrow. 3rd: D.W. Griffith. Bottom: Harrison Gray Otis.
Right: The remains of the Los Angeles Times Building (1910)
This review was originally published in October 2008, and has been updated for the October 2009 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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