It’s not surprising to find author and Detroit native Kevin Boyle handling reviews of the new Clarence Darrow biographies in this week’s New York Times Book Review. As a history professor and author of the nonfiction work Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age, Boyle has crossed literary paths with defender Clarence Darrow many times before, and has become a go-to for input surrounding American history’s best-known trial lawyer.
In his New York Times review Clarence Darrow, Equal Opportunity Defender, Boyle lists a slew of Darrow’s notorious clients including famed union militants, anarchists, corrupt politicians, “homicidal socialites” and other high-profile defendants. To Boyle’s credit, however, he only hints at the mention of Darrow’s case involving African-American physician Ossian Sweet who “dared to move into a white neighborhood in 1920’s Detroit.”
The quick mention of Ossian Sweet is a testament to Boyle’s own humility. Sweet sits at the center of Boyle’s compelling book Arc of Justice, which has been selected by the Michigan Humanities Council as this year’s featured title for the 2011-2012 Great Michigan Read.
Published in 2004, Boyle’s Arc of Justice was released to high praise. Called “electrifying” and “powerful” by critics, Arc of Justice snagged several coveted literary prizes such as the 2004 National Book Award for Nonfiction and the Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize, and was nominated as a finalist for both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award.
Arc of Justice tells the story of Ossian Sweet and the chain of events that occurred after the African-American physician purchased a home for his family in a completely white Detroit neighborhood in 1925. After Sweet has an altercation with his new, enraged neighbors, Clarence Darrow steps in to act as his defender in what would become the famous Sweet Trials. Ultimately, Sweet’s life and the course of Detroit’s racial history are forever altered.
“Four decades of courtroom battles,” writes Boyle, “- one trial of the century after another. The best of them turned into great dramas of systemic injustice and human frailty, with Darrow always at the center, basking in the spotlight.”
Knowledge is power, and it often rounds out the reading experience when you can bring a bit more with you to a title. If you’re planning on reading Boyle’s Arc of Justice, you might want to check out his take on authors Andrew E. Kersten and John A. Farrell’s new Darrow biographies. For a much briefer but thorough article on Clarence Darrow, try The New Yorker piece Objection, which quotes from Kersten’s new work.
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-Post by Megan Shaffer