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  • “Eternal symbols of a dream”Upton Sinclair, Sacco and Vanzetti, and the Meaning of Anarchism
  • Dan Colson (bio)

Not long after Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were executed in August 1927, Edna St. Vincent Millay published “Fear,” an attack on those in the United States who allowed them to die: “you do not at all know what an Anarchist is. . . . An anarchist, you insist, is a man who makes bombs and puts them under the State House” (5). Chastising the conservative and complacent masses, Millay defended Sacco and Vanzetti by stripping them of the capacity for violence— they simply “believ[ed] that human beings are naturally good” (5). “Fear” appeared in The Outlook and in a pamphlet printed by the Sacco-Vanzetti Defense Committee (SVDC). In her open letter, Millay repeated the theme seen in numerous SVDC publications designed to encourage public opinion to affect the ongoing legal wranglings: these anarchists were not violent; they were naïfs, unjustly subjected to flawed, yet salvageable government. Millay’s interest, however, was not to save Sacco’s and Vanzetti’s lives. Her text appeared after the men’s execution: they were dead, so now the goal is to consider what lessons we learn from their ordeal. And, consequently, her posthumous lamentation of injustice shaped the resonance of Sacco’s and Vanzetti’s martyrdom.

Arrested in 1920 for a robbery/murder they likely didn’t commit, Sacco and Vanzetti spent more than seven years in prison as their lengthy legal proceedings unfolded: after several failed appeals— that eventually reached the Massachusetts Supreme Court— the two Italian anarchists became globally famous. The state’s case relied on questionable evidence, bias against Italians, and, of course, the men’s politics. From jury selection, through the trial’s testimony and eventual verdict, until the numerous failed appeals, the forces of US justice treated the result as a foregone conclusion: two radical immigrants had little hope of receiving [End Page 183] fair treatment in the 1920s. The public— led by left-leaning intellectuals and radical organizations— recognized the flaws in the state’s legal case and interpreted the men’s treatment as a punishment for their political identity, rather than for any crime. This perceived miscarriage of justice sparked protests on six continents and an outpouring of support that led Governor Alvan T. Fuller to appoint a commission to investigate the trial. All was in vain, however: the two were executed in August 1927. In that year and the years following their execution, writing about Sacco and Vanzetti was a veritable cottage industry: many works directly addressed the trial, and even more touched on the affair obliquely. The outpouring of support prompted “poems from writers as diverse as Millay, Malcolm Cowley, Louis Ginsberg, Mike Gold, Lola Ridge, and Clement Wood” (Colson 965n4).1 The Sacco-Vanzetti Anthology of Verse was published in 1927, with America Arraigned, another small poetry collection, appearing the following year; Maxwell Anderson’s Gods of the Lightning also debuted in 1928; and H. G. Wells’s Mr. Blettsworthy on Rampole Island (which contains a brief section on Sacco and Vanzetti), was published in 1928, “signaling the highwater mark for post-execution literature” (Colson 965n5). Sacco’s and Vanzetti’s memory persisted, however, well into the 1930s, inspiring Nathan Asch’s Pay Day (1930), Bernard de Voto’s We Accept with Pleasure (1934), Anderson’s Winterset (1935), and, most famously, John Dos Passos’s The Big Money (1936).

No writer, though, undertook such a thorough examination of the Sacco and Vanzetti affair as Upton Sinclair. Boston, his two-volume, 700+ page novel, appeared in 1928, with serialization beginning only about six months after the men’s execution. Though little remembered today, Boston was a major novel by arguably the most prolific leftist writer of the period. It sold well, received generally positive reviews, and kept the fire of unrest surrounding Sacco and Vanzetti alive after their funeral. At the same time, it shaped their legacy, signaling the repurposing of the men into a political symbol that has little to do with their anarchist politics. In this essay, I read Boston as a text emerging in the interstices of Sinclair’s naturalistic literary form and...


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pp. 183-200
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