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Reviews in American History 30.1 (2002) 88-92

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A Tarnished Icon

Eric Arnesen

Elliott J. Gorn. Mother Jones: The Most Dangerous Woman in America. New York: Hill and Wang, 2001. xiii + 408 pp. Illustrations, notes, and index. $27.00.

Years ago, it was not uncommon to hear the Progressive era described as the "age of industrial violence," a phrase that made explicit the centrality of the labor question, and the sheer level of physical and ideological conflict it generated, to the era. Labor struggles, of course, have by no means vanished from recent accounts of the early twentieth century-- there are, after all, too many labor historians in the academy to let that happen. But scholars of Progressivism have long since turned their attention to other matters, downplaying the intensity or importance of industrial unrest or subsuming it under a broader rubric of "the social question." Elliot J. Gorn's excellent and highly readable biography of Mother Jones does not have as its purpose a recasting of the Progressive era, but in carefully retracing the path trod by Mary Harris--on foot, by train, or in automobiles--Gorn cannot help but restore labor conflict to the central place it deserves in the first two decades of the twentieth century. For wherever Harris/Jones went, one could almost be certain to find a war zone in which workers and managers were pitted sharply against one another, civil liberties were scarcely in evidence, and employers and their state allies relied upon legal and extralegal repression to maintain capital's control. For Mother Jones/Mary Harris, the Progressive era was only an age of industrial violence.

The Mother Jones whose life Gorn reconstructs is not quite the same woman who stars in the 1925 Autobiography of Mother Jones, long the principal source of biographical information on her. Of her early years Jones said virtually nothing; her childhood received five sentences, while out of the book's roughly 250 pages, six are spent on the first half of her life. Not that it matters too much, for little of what she wrote provided any insight into her inner, personal self. "The early twentieth century was not an age of personal revelation," Gorn notes, "but Mother Jones carried reticence to an extreme." The Autobiography revealed "no interior life; the world of affairs is everything, interpersonal relationships all but nonexistent" (p. 282). Nor was her rendition of her life's story particularly accurate. She misrepresented her age, [End Page 88] adding seven years onto her life for effect, and often inflated the anecdotes of her involvement in labor conflicts "to epic proportions" (p. 184). The Autobiography was merely a polemic, designed to "fire the faithful and convert nonbelievers" (p. 282); it "contains metaphorical, if not strictly literal, truths," Gorn concludes kindly (p. 183). With little assistance from his subject, Gorn ably sets the record straight, providing tentative but plausible analyses of her character and psychological disposition along the way. The result is a highly accessible, dramatic, and sometimes moving story which strips away the accumulated layers of mythology surrounding this Progressive-era labor activist.

Mother Jones's reluctance to discuss her early, personal life was perhaps understandable, given the tragedies that befell her. Born Mary Harris in County Cork, Ireland, in 1837, the second of five children to the poor, Catholic couple Richard and Ellen Harris, she emigrated to Canada when she was fourteen or fifteen years old. The young Harris acquired a Catholic education and briefly worked as a teacher before putting her dressmaking skills to economic use. She eventually opened a dress shop in Memphis, Tennessee, on the eve of the Civil War. Against the backdrop of a bloody war and emancipation, Harris married iron molder and trade unionist George Jones; together, they had four children between 1862 and 1867. Personal catastrophe struck when a yellow fever epidemic swept through Memphis in 1867, leaving Mary Jones the sole survivor of her family. Now a thirty-year-old widow, Jones cared for the epidemic's victims before moving to Chicago to begin life anew. Her activities over the next...


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