three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
37-Nov-Dec-2008
By: 
Howard Blum
user_rating: 
0
Award Year: 
0

A-American LightningA former reporter for the New York Times and currently an editor for Vanity Fair, Howard Blum has twice been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for his investigative reporting. This is his eighth book.

The Topic: At the turn of the 20th century, many observers thought that the United States was on the verge of another civil war—not between North and South, but between management and labor. One of the most notable (yet rarely discussed) strikes in that war was a 1910 bombing of the virulently antiunion Los Angeles Times. The attack was intended to be coordinated with others in as many as 100 American cities. Blum dramatizes the attack, the manhunt for the perpetrators, and their eventual fate. In doing so, he sketches the grand figures who became involved with the bombing and its aftermath, including gumshoe William J. Burns, famed lawyer Clarence Darrow, and filmmaker D. W. Griffith (best known as the director of the notorious Birth of a Nation).
Crown. 352 pages. $24.95. ISBN: 0307346943

Dallas Morning News 4 of 5 Stars
"[A] thumping-good drum roll of narrative history. … Mr. Blum, an award-winning investigative reporter, has written about the Jewish Brigade, the Yom Kippur War and the search for the true Mount Sinai. This time he blows the dust off a page of America’s own incendiary past and brings it to pulsating life." Jane Sumner

Wall Street Journal 4 of 5 Stars
"The dynamiting of the Los Angeles Times was, for Howard Blum in American Lightning, the war’s decisive engagement. … Mr. Blum, with extraordinary skill, restores the conflict’s immediacy at the crucial moment when both sides saw the war’s cost and began reluctantly to take the long and difficult road to armistice." D. J. Waldie

Chicago Sun-Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"‘Novel’ is not an inappropriate word to use in connection with American Lightning, Howard Blum’s fast-moving, skillfully constructed account. Journalist and author Blum (The Brigade) makes the facts work for him and upon the reader the way the nascent motion pictures he describes worked upon audiences of the period." Roger K. Miller

Los Angeles Times 3 of 5 Stars
"[A]stonishingly, American Lightning … is the first book devoted in its entirety to this seminal event. So what have we got? The answer is a mixed bag, a swiftly paced and hugely engaging narrative that covers most of the bases, but from a limited point of view." Richard Rayner

Denver Post 2 of 5 Stars
"Blum had a terrific idea and it is clear that he intended to write a masterful meditation on the tense relationship between unions and capitalists a century ago. It is obvious he wanted to examine the growing class struggle of those times, labor’s flirtations with socialism and anarchy, and the role of various types of social activism as a means to securing decent wages for anxious working men. But he lost his way." Elaine Margolin

Critical Summary

Most critics were eager to learn more about this neglected event in American history and were glad to have Blum as their teacher. They were most impressed by the first half of the book, which covers the attacks and investigation and which was several times compared to a Hollywood thriller or an episode of the television show 24. Reviewers were less thrilled by the second part of the book, where Blum introduces Darrow and Griffith into the story. Several felt that these great American personalities were presented superficially, perhaps because Blum attempted too great a scope in the book. But on the whole, critics found American Lightning to be a satisfying work of narrative history.