Saturday, April 14, 2012

"Clarence Darrow: Attorney for the Damned" by John A. Farrell

I've been teaching the play Inherit the Wind to my 9th grade students for five years now. The drama is based on the famous Scopes "Monkey trial" from the '20s in which Tennessee's anti-evolution law was challenged. The protagonist of the play is Henry Drummond, a fictionalized version of the real life defense attorney in the case, Clarence Darrow. Although I knew some details of Darrow's life from teaching of the play, I was interested in learning more from Farrell's biography.

Darrow truly is a unique and perhaps unparalleled character in American history. He's famous for his participation in a number of sensational trials. We often snigger when we watch a courtroom drama and an attorney makes a long, impassioned speech that moves the jury to tears, but that's exactly what Darrow so brilliantly did, time and again. However, though he's often touted as a defender of the underdog, he's certainly more complicated than that, as Farrell effectively shows.

Nonetheless, there were things Darrow keenly believed. Writes Farrell, "The great theme of Darrow's life, the long war he fought in his march through courtrooms and cases, was the defense of individual liberty from modernity's relentless, crushing, impersonal forces." This theme is clearly seen in the Scopes trial, but is also seen in his frequent defense of the trodden down accused of murder (as when he defends labor leaders who killed politicians or a group of black men who had been beset by a mob after moving into a white neighborhood and shot a bystander). He also was fervently against capital punishment, believing that little in our lives was the result of choice. For this reason he defended all types of murderers (including the infamous Leopold and Loeb) against the death penalty.

One of the most fascinating things about Darrow is the lasting image he created in the courtroom. He spoke directly to the jury and the public--I was shocked by how well Lawrence and Lee seemed to have captured him in Inherit the Wind. According to Farrell, "Darrow crafted an American archetype: advocate for the common folk, hooking his thumbs in his vest or suspenders, regarding the jury from beneath that cascading shock of hair, speaking with plain but emotional conviction of the nobility of man, the frailty of mankind, and the threat to liberty posed by narrow-minded men of wealth--'the good people,' he called them, with no shortage of sarcasm--and their legal guns-for-hire."

But Darrow was not always the noble hero that we might like him to be. He took difficult and hopeless cases, but he also faced a lifelong concern with money, and so he also took cases defending nefarious business interests and gangsters. He most certainly played "dirty" at times, by bribing witnesses or jury members. Darrow also believed strongly in free love and had numerous affairs throughout his lifetime (while his wife, it appears, did not).

Farrell's book is excellently researched, with quotes drawn from numerous sources. Each part of Darrow's life is told in detail, though the sheer number of names mentioned can be somewhat overwhelming. Farrell did spend a significant amount of time on Darrow's prosecution for bribery and relatively little time on Leopold and Loeb, a topic I found much more interesting. The book lacks some of the drama and excitement that Darrow was so skilled at injecting into the courtroom, but it nonetheless paints a fair and thorough picture of the lawyer.

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