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  • Dynamite Violence and Literary Culture
  • Sarah Cole (bio)

There are sell out magistrates,There are big-bellied financiers,There are cops,But for all these scoundrelsThere's dynamite…Long live the soundOf the explosion!

—attributed to Ravachol, French anarchist1

The explosion of bombs is an inescapable feature of the contemporary world. Marked by suicide attacks around the globe, and in the aftermath of a century which turned the bombing of civilians into the norm for warfare, our era seems unthinkable without such destruction. In the nineteenth century, by contrast, dynamite explosion represented an entirely new form of violence, as Alfred Nobel's invention of 1866 helped to sweep the world into its modern shape. From the moment of its inception, dynamite violence became an immediate and ever-escalating sensation, with its stunning ability not only to kill and maim, but within seconds to level an entire landscape.2 The violence of dynamite reverberated in every sensory register as something novel (hence sensational in that way, too), from its chemical smell, to its shattering sound, to its extreme tactile effects, and it held pronounced political associations, quickly becoming associated with terrorism. It shattered, exploded, ripped, and tore; it created its own palpable and recognizable form of wreckage; and its employment for radical causes suggested a future with unknowable and potentially frightful contours. In sum, dynamite violence added a potent new element to the modern imaginary. [End Page 301] Its literary and cultural legacy in England in the last decades of the century, and into the modernist period, is the subject of this essay.3

Dynamite's violence might be wide and indiscriminate, but its users were very particular: revolutionaries, and above all, anarchists, who were figured incessantly and in near-caricature as bomb-wielding maniacs.4 "In late-nineteenth century America," the historian Margaret Marsh writes, "the mention of the word 'anarchist' brought to the minds of most people a particular image: an unkempt, bushy-bearded man, swarthy and dirty, lurking in a dark alley with a bomb hidden under his coat."5 The bomb and the anarchist were partners; to understand the cultural significance of one is to permeate the world of the other. In addition to conjuring a typology of violent actors, the presence of dynamite made for complex, often flamboyant plots and styles, and its effects on the body created exceptional challenges that literary works both engaged and elided. Despite the excess attaching to this complex story—or perhaps as a consequence of it—to resurrect both the cultural and literary history of anarchism in this period is to draw a variety of conclusions about how the imagining of political violence and literary form did and did not cooperate.

For anarchists themselves, dynamite held highly idealized associations: it offered new vistas of power, not solely for its potential to wreak destruction, but also for its ability to terrify a wide public. The connotations of dynamite for radical politics are hard to overstate. It was the ultimate weapon of the one against the many, of any individual with only a smattering of training, or connection to other revolutionists, and a will to kill. The dynamite bomb seemed tiny in proportion to its capacity to do harm; it could fit easily into a small bag, or even a pocket. Above all, as the historian Paul Avrich argues, dynamite had virulent class connotations, and this is why its association with anarchism and with other kinds of radical threat was so profound:

Dynamite, in the eyes of the anarchists, had become a panacea for the ills of society. They saw it as a great equalizing force, enabling ordinary workmen to stand up against armies, militias, and police, to say nothing of the hired gunmen of the employers. Cheap in price, easy to carry, not hard to obtain, it was the poor man's natural weapon, a power provided by science against tyranny and oppression . . . Just as gunpowder had broken the back of feudalism and made way for the rule of the bourgeoisie, so dynamite would bring down capitalism and usher in the reign of the proletariat.6

If anarchists hailed dynamite for its equalizing properties, the broader culture was...


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pp. 301-328
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