Hill & Wang, Paperback, 9780809034796, 306pp.
Publication Date: May 8, 2012
Clarence Darrow is best remembered as the defense attorney in some of the most famous (and infamous) cases in American legal history. With his brilliant closing argument that saved the thrill killers Leopold and Loeb from the gallows and his impassioned defense of John T. Scopes’s right to teach evolution in the classroom, Darrow became a legend even in his own time. But such a towering reputation often obscures the man behind it, and attempts to shoehorn him into a single political party due to his long association with the labor movement have only further muddled his legacy. As the historian Andrew E. Kersten shows in this insightful biography of America’s most celebrated lawyer, neither Darrow’s courtroom performances nor his politics define his career or enduring importance. Going well beyond the familiar story of the socially conscious lawyer and drawing upon new archival records, Kersten reveals that Darrow was an iconoclast driven by the rising interference of corporations and government in ordinary working Americans’ lives. In the face of the country’s inexorable march toward modernity, Darrow dedicated himself to smashing systems of social control, fighting for liberty and individualism everywhere he went.
“Kersten reveals a man whose life took nearly every possible turn: a corporate attorney who became labor's leading lawyer; an ambitious politico who came to detest political parties; a devout pacifist who drummed up support for war. Kersten, who has written two books on labor history, focuses much of American Iconoclast on Darrow's role in the big labor trials of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The book is at its best in this section, with vivid portraits of the front line in what was seen at the time as a great war between capital and labor.” —Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel “Forty years ago, Clarence Darrow’s life story inspired me to sell my successful publishing company and found a civil rights law firm. Readers of Andrew E. Kersten’s riveting new account of this great infectious trial lawyer will no doubt consider leaving life as usual and joining Darrow’s quest for justice. Kersten’s well-written book reveals Darrow as an early crusader against corporate abuse of human rights in the mold of Upton Sinclair, Ralph Nader, and Michael Moore.” —Morris Dees, founder and chief trial counsel, Southern Poverty Law Center “Andrew E. Kersten’s Clarence Darrow is a superb biography, at once highly readable and historically astute. It is full of personality and politics, a compelling narrative that illuminates how Darrow’s complex and contradictory legal career helped define and animate twentieth-century American liberalism.” —Nelson Lichtenstein, MacArthur Foundation Chair in History, UC Santa Barbara, and author of The Retail Revolution: How Wal-Mart Created a Brave New World of Business “Kersten explodes Darrow’s messy, complicated life . . . This is no hagiography, but rather a portrait of a truly human character trying to effect change while battling private demons.” —Kirkus Reviews “The brilliance and daring of Darrow's legal strategies make this skillful, absorbing biography most riveting, especially with his masterful handling of the controversial Leopold-Loeb case, the unpopular Scopes ‘monkey trial,’ and the Sweet case, where a black family defended their home from attacks by their white neighbors.” —Publishers Weekly “A richly detailed but accessible account of Clarence Darrow’s complicated life . . . Unlike many Darrow biographies, this one shows how much more there was to the man than law and politics. Highly recommended for all interested readers and all libraries.” —Stephen L. Hupp, Library Journal