BOOK REVIEW: ‘In the Clutches of the Law’

IN THE CLUTCHES OF THE LAW: CLARENCE DARROW’S LETTERS
Edited with an introduction by Randall Tietjen
University of California Press, $100, 618 pages

In 1991, Randall Tietjen, newly minted from law school, had the idea that a book of letters written by famed lawyer Clarence Darrow might make for an interesting project and began investigating collections at various libraries. Then an amazing thing happened. On a visit to the Chicago home of one of Darrow’s granddaughters, a dusty box of old papers was brought up from the basement in the hope it might interest the young man. Stuffed inside, in no particular order, were 110 original letters, spanning from 1896 to 1933, written to Darrow from some of the most famous Americans of the day: Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, H. L. Mencken, Sinclair Lewis, Helen Keller, William Jennings Bryan, among others. Further investigation into the basement yielded additional treasure. There, in a corner of stacked boxes (in one labeled “Christmas ornaments”) were Darrow’s scrapbooks and correspondence. Letters written by Darrow are extremely rare; no one had ever seen these. That night, Mr. Titejen spent the entire evening feverishly photocopying the material before returning it to the family. Then he went home, exhilarated.

For the next two decades, while juggling his law practice, Mr. Tietjen selected 500 of the best letters written by Darrow from more than 2,200 in existence (discoveries from the basement included). The result is the first scholarly edition of Darrow’s letters and it is nothing short of a triumph. With impeccable scholarship, legal expertise and a passion for his subject, “In the Clutches of the Law” is one of those rare books that brings insight and reward at every random page. Footnotes provide clarification and an underlying narrative without being intrusive. They are a model of condensation yet accomplish the editor’s goal of providing context about the events and relationships in Darrow’s life. Supplementary material includes 56 illustrations, a chronology, a biographical register identifying key personages and a thorough, detailed index that is a pleasure to use. Of equal interest is the editor’s discussion of his methodology and criteria for selection.

The 32-page introduction provides additional discussion and correctives to controversial matters, such as the alleged jury bribery cases that John A. Farrell explored in his own 2011 biography, “Attorney for the Damned.” Examples from the correspondence are given, with varying interpretations of his guilt or innocence. Speculation about Darrow’s affairs, most recently explored by Donald McRae in “The Last Trials of Clarence Darrow,” (2009) is also discussed by Mr. Tietjen. He makes a persuasive case that Ruby, to whom Darrow was married for 35 years (1903 to his death in 1938), remained the one woman he respected and loved most. “I have never spent a dull hour with you,” he wrote; he missed her whenever they were apart.

There is little reason to believe Darrow wanted his letters published. Few were written for posterity. Most were rapidly scribbled, with sloppy handwriting and punctuation, rendering them a challenge to decipher. But Darrow was a talented writer; one has only to read the collection of his thrilling courtroom speeches edited by Arthur Weinberg. The correspondence demonstrates wit, curiosity, his interest in books, a sympathy for his clients and a tolerance for his fellow man (although he thought “the great majority of any country is not much above the morons”). Especially poignant are his letters to his son Paul and his increasing anxiety as he neared the end of his life and the spiraling stock market dissipated his wealth. By giving us Darrow’s voice and thoughts in their original source, this collection captures him in a way no biography ever can.

Many of the letters betray Darrow’s pessimistic and melancholy outlook. He often contended that “the intelligent person is less happy than the fool.” Mr. Tietjen argues that Darrow’s grim realism contributed to his success as a lawyer. If critics dismissed Darrow as “an infidel and misanthrope” whom no young lawyer should ever try to emulate, he nonetheless remains the one to achieve the most fame. He spent 50 years defending such underdogs as Leopold and Loeb, Ossian Sweet and John Scopes; all of those battles are told here in vivid detail. As Darrow admitted, “My best emotions come from fighting the law.” Thanks to sensitive editing, the volume concludes with Darrow’s responses to a Q & A from the Associated Press. The impact and power of this letter cannot be overstated.

Twenty years in the making, “In the Clutches of the Law” will remain the best reference work and biographical portrait of Darrow for another 20 years and more. It will last through the ages by all those seeking an informative and entertaining book about one of the most influential lawyers in American history.

Marion Elizabeth Rodgers’ most recent compilation is H. L. Mencken’s “Prejudices” (Library of America, 2010).

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