[Marxism] America's Culture of Terrorism

Yoshie Furuhashi furuhashi.1 at osu.edu
Wed Nov 26 08:14:23 MST 2003


*****   America's Culture of Terrorism:
Violence, Capitalism, and the Written Word

by Jeffory A. Clymer

University of North Carolina Press
296 pp., 61/8 x 91/4, 5 illus., notes, bibl., index
$45.00 cloth
ISBN 0-8078-2792-4
$16.95 paper
ISBN 0-8078-5460-3
Published: Fall 2003

Description

Although the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 shocked the 
world, America has confronted terrorism at home for well over a 
century. With the invention of dynamite in 1866, Americans began to 
worry about anonymous acts of mass violence in a way that differed 
from previous generations' fears of urban riots, slave uprisings, and 
mob violence. Focusing on the volatile period between the 1886 
Haymarket bombing and the 1920 bombing outside J. P. Morgan's Wall 
Street office, Jeffory Clymer argues that economic and cultural 
displacements caused by the expansion of industrial capitalism 
directly influenced evolving ideas about terrorism.

In America's Culture of Terrorism, Clymer uncovers the roots of 
American terrorism and its impact on American identity by exploring 
the literary works of Henry James, Ida B. Wells, Jack London, Thomas 
Dixon, and Covington Hall, as well as trial transcripts, media 
reports, and the cultural rhetoric surrounding terrorist acts of the 
day. He demonstrates that the rise of mass media and the pressures of 
the industrial wage-labor economy both fueled the development of 
terrorism and shaped society's response to it. His analysis not only 
sheds new light on American literature and culture a century ago but 
also offers insights into the contemporary understanding of terrorism.

About the author
Jeffory A. Clymer is assistant professor of English at Saint Louis University.

<http://uncpress.unc.edu/books/T-6881.html>   *****

Jeffory A. Clymer: <http://www.slu.edu/colleges/AS/ENG/faculty/clymer.html>

*****   Introduction
Terrorism in the American Cultural Imagination

In the penultimate draft of The Rise of Silas Lapham's famous dinner 
party scene, William Dean Howells's patrician character Bromfield 
Corey gives vent to a shocking idea. "In some of my walks on the Hill 
and down on the Back Bay," Corey informs his startled guests, 
"nothing but the surveillance of the local policeman prevents me from 
applying dynamite to those long rows of close-shuttered, handsome, 
brutally insensible houses."[1] Reading these words in 1885, 
Howells's editor, Richard Watson Gilder of the Century, quickly 
issued a panicked response to his renowned author. He warned Howells 
that "it is the very word, dynamite, that is now so dangerous, for 
any of us to use, except in condemnation." Gilder then worried that 
Howells's fiction might yoke Howells himself to "the crank who does 
the deed,"[2] as if writing about dynamite and throwing dynamite are 
two versions of the same action. Howells ultimately acquiesced to 
Gilder's anxieties and substituted "offering personal violence" for 
the much more sinister "applying dynamite" in the American and 
English book versions of his novel.[3]

Gilder's apprehensions about dynamite suddenly seemed prophetic the 
next year when a bomb exploded at an anarchist rally in Haymarket 
Square in America's volatile western metropolis of Chicago. The 
interpretation of the Haymarket bombing as a terrorist conspiracy is 
my subject in Chapter 1, but I should also note here that Howells's 
name was indeed closely tied to the political violence at Haymarket, 
albeit in a way that Gilder certainly did not anticipate. Howells 
emerged after the bombing as the only major American literary figure 
to publicly condemn the sham legal proceedings accorded the Haymarket 
anarchists.[4] However, Gilder and Howells's interaction in Lapham's 
editing bears significance for reasons far beyond its implications 
for Howells's biography. Gilder's case of editorial nerves offers one 
important barometer of American culture in the 1880s, which the 
famous editor apparently could imagine only as a besieged society 
subject to cataclysmic terrorist assaults at any moment. His almost 
visceral response to the massive power and indiscriminating slaughter 
made possible by dynamite prompted Howells to reach for the seemingly 
more manageable and smaller-scale notion of "personal violence." 
Gilder's surprising concern that Howells's mere fictional pondering 
of a dynamite attack (let alone the depiction of a bombing itself) 
could somehow tie the author to a terrorist "crank" who actually 
throws a bomb also exemplifies the frequent disappearance of the 
boundary between fact and fiction in discussions of terrorism. 
Additionally, Howells's otherwise inconsequential revision in his 
most famous novel holds substantial import because the vast 
difference between his revisionary and original words -- "offering 
personal violence" and "applying dynamite" -- is also a key measure 
of modern terrorism itself. And lastly, in coupling the then-new fear 
of dynamite with the development of modern capitalism, personified 
here in the form of industrial magnate and stock speculator Lapham's 
intrusion into the wealthy enclave of Boston's Back Bay, this scene 
highlights the concurrent and interrelated trajectories that emergent 
conceptions of terrorism and the development of modern, industrial 
capitalism traced out in the United States at the end of the 
nineteenth century.

Nearly forty years after the editorial negotiation between Howells 
and Gilder, on 16 September 1920 a massive bomb drawn by a horse cart 
exploded in New York City. The blast took place directly in front of 
a United States Sub-Treasury building and across the street from J. 
P. Morgan's Wall Street offices. Thirty-eight persons were killed, 
hundreds were injured, and Morgan's offices were heavily damaged by 
the combined effect of the explosion and the hundreds of iron window 
weights that the bomb makers had included with the explosive 
material. Despite years of international sleuthing, and many 
accusations and admissions of guilt followed quickly by retractions, 
the person or persons responsible were never apprehended. Striking at 
the very nerve center of the American corporate economy, this grisly 
explosion made explicit the ties between the development of American 
capitalism and terrorism that were intimated in Howells's exchange 
with his editor. Not only did the bombing wreck Morgan's offices, 
but, in an eerily dramatic enactment of its symbolic destruction of 
capital, the explosion also destroyed thousands of dollars worth of 
paper bonds and stock securities that were in the possession of 
messengers victimized by the blast.[5]

Along with the (near) appearance of dynamite in the canonical Silas 
Lapham, the virtually forgotten terrorist attack on Wall Street in 
1920 marks the temporal boundary of this study. The Wall Street bomb 
came in the midst of, and perhaps as a response to, the ongoing 
persecution of "subversives" led by Attorney General A. Mitchell 
Palmer. Palmer's own home had, in fact, been targeted as part of the 
round of bombings that occurred simultaneously in several different 
cities in 1919 (a latter-day version of the fictitious conspiratorial 
plot woven by Henry James's notorious terrorist, Diedrich 
Hoffendahl). In response to these bombings, the Justice Department 
launched surprise raids on the headquarters of radical organizations 
throughout the country in 1919 and 1920. With the absence of anything 
resembling due process, the "Palmer Raids" led to the roundup, 
detention, and eventual deportation of hundreds of leftists. Though 
the raids came under their own public scrutiny not long thereafter, 
they left American radicalism, organized labor, and any real 
alternatives to the consolidation of American corporate capitalism 
crippled and in disarray for years to come. . . .

As with any cultural movement, there is not a straightforward line 
connecting the discourse of bombings in Howells and Gilder's exchange 
with the terms used to make sense of the Wall Street bombing nearly 
forty years later. The coexistence of words such as "terrorization" 
and "terrorism" suggests that a vocabulary for seemingly 
indiscriminate, mass, and public violence was solidifying but still 
emerging and somewhat indefinite. Moreover, these figures of speech 
are embedded in the period's specific historical conditions. As 
scholars have long articulated, the American economy's volatility and 
the vast disparities in the class structure at the turn of the 
twentieth century provoked violence on the sides of both labor and 
capital. But the contradictions of capitalism and the instantiation 
of a permanent working class during this period went beyond a simple 
cause and effect relationship that resulted in dramatic outbursts of 
violence, such as the 1886 Haymarket bomb, the bomb that killed 
Idaho's former governor in 1905, or the 1910 dynamiting of the Los 
Angeles Times building. More particularly, the economy's 
contradictions and disparities provided the grounds for an emergent 
way of imagining, understanding, and narrating certain forms of 
violence as "terrorism" across a wide representational range, 
including, among other places, the mass media, highbrow literature, 
the labor press, best-selling novels, and poetry aimed at mobilizing 
America's working class.

One primary objective of this book is to uncover a genealogy of 
modern terrorism that is visible in literary and other cultural 
artifacts produced in the decades on either side of 1900, a genealogy 
firmly rooted in the political and economic upheavals specific to 
those years. Yet while I am tracing the historical and literary 
contingencies, contradictions, and ambiguities that constitute the 
late-nineteenth-century aspects of a form of violence usually assumed 
to have originated much later, I do not wish to bracket aside the 
radical confusion that exists among both scholars and politicians 
concerning how to define terrorism in the first place. As Alex P. 
Schmid has noted, the terms "terror" and "terrorism" appear to have 
emerged in the revolutionary France of Maximilien Robespierre during 
the 1790s, while of course the application of coercive force to 
threaten society or its political leaders has existed and been 
theorized for centuries.[8] But as the meaning of terrorism shifted 
in the latter half of the nineteenth century from what we would now 
identify as the state terror of revolutionary France to ideas about 
terrorism that resonate strongly with our contemporary notion of it 
as insurgent and often conspiratorial violence performed by substate 
actors, questions about which forms of such violence should be 
considered terrorism have become notoriously variable, contradictory, 
and conflicted within both academic and political spheres.[9] Indeed, 
the definitional problem is perceived as so crippling that important 
scholars occasionally dismiss the issue out of hand. Paul Wilkinson, 
for instance, refuses to "become bogged down in days of definitional 
debate," choosing instead to focus on establishing "culpability for 
specific attacks or for sponsoring or directing them."[10] While 
viewing terrorism as simply a self-evident problem to be solved may 
be appealingly straightforward, such an approach nonetheless begs 
more questions than it can answer about understanding both political 
violence and the way we talk about it.

As my opening anecdotes suggest, I argue that emergent means of 
narrating industrial capitalism and classed identity were deeply 
intertwined with the way modern terrorism was imagined as a form of 
violence in turn-of-the-century America. For some writers, the 
"terrorist" materialized in these decades as a blameworthy, violent 
figure onto which the disruptions and chaos of a rapidly capitalizing 
economy could be projected and displaced. Alternatively, for other 
authors and commentators, the invisible, shocking, and unpredictable 
nature of terrorist violence offered a material, symbolic, and 
fitting response to both the seemingly veiled workings of corporate 
capitalism and the ideological contradictions of a capitalist 
economy. And certainly, on the other side of the coin, workers 
themselves were regularly the victims of capitalist-sponsored 
assaults committed by the likes of Pinkerton agents, private armies, 
and even state officers. The aftermath of the 1886 Haymarket bombing, 
violence during the 1892 strike at Andrew Carnegie's Homestead, 
Pennsylvania, steel mills and throughout the 1890s in Idaho's silver 
mines, and the machine-gun massacre of striking miners housed in a 
temporary tent encampment at Ludlow, Colorado, in 1914 provide only 
the most notorious examples. Working-class victims and important 
writers, such as Jack London, vigorously protested these violent 
encounters, even using the word "terrorism" to describe the 
authorities' brutality. For example, a Chicago anarchist sheet 
decried the "legalized terrorism" of the Red Scare that followed the 
Haymarket bombing, and workers also drew upon this language during 
the Texas and Louisiana lumber wars after the turn of the 
century.[11] Yet the historical episodes in this book repeatedly 
underscore the ability of mainstream commentators, spokesmen of 
capital, and state officers grounded in legitimating institutions to 
convey a dominant idea that government violence effectively protected 
law and order against the truly conspiratorial and nihilistic 
violence of working-class terrorists.

In addition to this late-nineteenth-century ideological struggle over 
what constituted terrorism, the 1866 invention of dynamite prompted 
Americans to worry about anonymously committed mass violence in ways 
that were qualitatively different from earlier fears of slave 
uprisings, urban mobs, riots, or even, in a labor context, the rural 
revenge killings of the Molly Maguires. Invented by Alfred Nobel, and 
so tremulously referred to by Gilder in his 1885 communication with 
Howells, dynamite in large part precipitated the emergence of the 
kind of terrorist activity (and the widespread disquietude it 
incites) that is recognizable as such by citizens of the early 
twenty-first century.[12] Rendering the dagger or the pistol obsolete 
weapons of, to use Howells's term, "personal violence," dynamite 
exponentially increased the scale and magnitude of violence while 
also offering anonymity to the bomb thrower. Suddenly, social fear, 
rather than being focused on a highly visible mob or a spontaneous 
uprising, could coalesce around the notion of a dangerous and often 
indistinguishable individual, perhaps even, as with Howells's 
Bromfield Corey, someone who looked nothing like the usual image of 
an anarchist or outlaw. Representing a key development in the 
cultural and imaginative history of terror, a dynamite bomb's 
potential for extensive and targeted damage far outstripped earlier 
forms of assassination, regicide, and the relative unpredictability 
of arson. . . .

[The full text of the introduction is available at 
<http://uncpress.unc.edu/chapters/clymer_americas.html>.]   *****

-- 
Yoshie

* Bring Them Home Now! <http://www.bringthemhomenow.org/>
* Calendars of Events in Columbus: 
<http://www.osu.edu/students/sif/calendar.html>, 
<http://www.freepress.org/calendar.php>, & <http://www.cpanews.org/>
* Student International Forum: <http://www.osu.edu/students/sif/>
* Committee for Justice in Palestine: <http://www.osudivest.org/>
* Al-Awda-Ohio: <http://groups.yahoo.com/group/Al-Awda-Ohio>
* Solidarity: <http://www.solidarity-us.org/>




More information about the Marxism mailing list