Jesse W. Schwartz, “‘Dynamite Talk’: William Dean Howells, Racial Socialism, and a Legal Theory of Literary Complicity” (pp. 522–550)

In the wake of the 1886 Haymarket bombing in Chicago, William Dean Howells famously stood alone among his peers and against nearly all public opinion by defending the accused, denouncing the court, and appealing for clemency. Scholars ever since have found it difficult to explain Howells’s transition from the often hidebound “Dean of American Letters” into an ardent—if provisional—activist. However, as Howells made clear from the start, his sympathies were not with the anarchists themselves but against the “civic murder” committed by the court. Taking the writer at his word, this essay returns to the transcript of the Haymarket trial in order to identify the catalyst behind Howells’s unlikely conversion. By linking the defendants’ tracts and speeches with subsequent political acts allegedly committed by their sympathizers, the prosecution had manufactured a juridical reconciliation that successfully collapsed all conceptual space between word and deed, thereby leaving every writer potentially liable for the social lives of their texts. In A Hazard of New Fortunes (1889), Howells’s literary response to both the bomb and the trial, the beleaguered author would attempt to unstitch this legal contiguity by appraising characters for their susceptibility to radical speech. Yet, by linking the degree of this complicity to ethnicity rather than politics, the novel ultimately upholds the legal logics that Howells had so vigorously opposed.

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