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A First-Rate Biography of a Giant, Flaws and All,
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This review is from: Clarence Darrow: Attorney for the Damned (Hardcover)
After days of deliberation (i.e., engrossing reading), this reader is ready to return a verdict: Judgment for the Author!
And it was by no means an easy case.
Darrow would seem a daunting, perilous task for a biographer. He was born four years before the Civil War, lived into FDR's second term, and in between was a pervasive, dominant force in almost every significant U.S criminal case and legal issue (and plenty other things that captured his boundless interest). Colorful, controversial, narcissistic, fearless, grandiose and thoroughly brilliant, he strode through the 1880-1930 legal landscape like a true Colossus, no-holds-barred, to give a powerful voice to those for whom society had already spoken, denounced and consigned to severe punishment.
He was sensational newspaper fodder, in days when newspapers were rampant but often unreliable. He and his contemporaries (virtually every American figure of note crossed paths somehow with Darrow) left extensive correspondence and writings. Everyone knew of him and had an opinion. The Scopes trial was the first to be broadcast live nationally on radio. Leopold and Loeb captivated the country--and those are just two of Darrow's more famous cases.
How to separate man from myth, fact from hyperbole, and articulate a workable understanding of what drove this remarkable figure?
Enter Farrell-a prominent investigative journalist (suitably here, neither lawyer nor academic), who seemingly leaves no stone unturned in his painstaking search for the essence of Darrow. With a writing style that is concise, cogent and fluid, Farrell succeeds in making Darrow come alive. What emerges in this fresh and colorful account is a portrait of a man both blessed with gifts and riddled with flaws, for whom almost any means--even juror bribery--justified the ends of manacling perceived injustice.
Farrell wisely lets Darrow speak his own great court arguments; the author also draws judiciously from reliable primary sources such as letters, diaries and observations by contemporaries. Farrell is respectful of earlier writers who have tackled Darrow's life in full, but points out where (and why) they missed a mark. This author also deftly weaves in outstanding secondary sources, such as treatments of specific cases. The net effect is a modest but knowing and confident author's tone--quite a feat considering the prodigious effort involved.
The requisite source notes are here, although I would have preferred more separate entries, rather than frustrating "round up" notes. Fortunately, the Bibliography is a reader's dream. Alas, my Kindle version had only limited photograph images (the Darrow Wikipedia page alone was more enlightening in this respect). Also, I found the publisher's bally-hoo of new revelations and "Free Love" lifestyles to be, well, of relatively minor stir in the grander scheme of things.
But these are minor criticisms. I hope other readers will experience the rare joy I had, of setting aside preconceptions/skepticisms about this icon, and letting Farrell completely take over the story-telling reins. It is a memorable and invigorating ride and one I highly recommend.