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By Andrew E. Kersten
Hill and Wang Copyright © 2011 Andrew E. Kersten
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A Midwestern Childhood
Clarence Darrow read autobiographies and biographies with suspicion. He disliked their self-serving nature, particularly those beginning with a list of famous ancestors. "The purpose of linking themselves by blood and birth to some well-known family or personage," he wrote, stimulated only the ego and little else. Like most people's, Clarence Darrow's distant relatives had no direct connection to him other than to set in motion a series of events that eventually resulted in his birth. That said, Darrow's immediate family and his childhood, especially the relationships with his mother and father, mattered to some degree. But those youthful experiences did not create the Clarence Darrow, that transformative and towering historical figure, that we know. Darrow's story is not a slow march to greatness and influence. Rather, his initial notions about right and wrong, about fairness and equality, and about citizenship and liberty sprang from his childhood experiences and his environment, the rural Midwest.
Despite writing about his childhood himself, Darrow had misgivings about exploring the "sacred ground" of his youth. We ought to heed his warning, especially since most of the information about his childhood comes from his own writings. Like others who have written about their pasts, Darrow sometimes blurred the lines between reporting his life and artfully creating it. It is best to see his two autobiographies — especially the second, which was published in 1932 and titled The Story of My Life — as the iconoclastic lawyer's closing statements in the defense of his reputation and legacy. Both works have truths in them, but both are also part of Darrow's project to build his own public image as a hedonistic pessimist, a skeptic, and an unerring, unstinting, and unflappable champion of freedom and liberty. But as we shall see, Darrow made mistakes, distilled his views, winnowed his causes, and changed his alliances. All this is largely absent in his own writings about his life. As he explained in The Story of My Life, "autobiography is never entirely true." This much we know: Darrow's family was an old one and one that belonged to the working class and had at various times fought privilege. Tongue in cheek, he once wrote that some Darrow genealogists claimed a relationship with Adam and Eve, but that he "should not like to guarantee the title." In fact, his pedigree went back to England, likely among the lower sorts who came to the New World seeking the fortunes that they were unable to make in the Old. "But this does not matter," Darrow wrote dismissively. "I am sure that my forbears [sic] run a long, long way back of that, even — but what of it anyhow?" Darrow saw himself as a product of chance, not relatives. He stood at the end of a long line of historical accidents, odd twists, and freak happenings. "When I think of the chances that I was up against," he remarked, "it scares me to realize how easily I might have missed out. Of all the infinite accidents of fate farther back of that, I do not care or dare to think." And ever the pessimist, at the end of his life, he mockingly wrote that "had I known about life in advance and been given any choice in the matter, I most likely would have declined the adventure." Darrow was correct: he did not have that choice. But he was not a completely self-made man. For Darrow, that familial atmosphere of which Henry Adams spoke was as much about place as about a family whose members were revolutionaries and skeptics and farmers who struggled to eke out a living.
In 1630, the first Darrow arrived in the New World. He was among a party of sixteen that held a royal land grant for the town of New London, Connecticut, along the Thames River, where they scratched out a meager existence. These Connecticut Darrows were also revolutionaries, forgetting, as Clarence put it, "the lavish gift of the King" in order to fight at Bunker Hill, Valley Forge, and Brandywine. Thus Darrow once joked that he was eligible for membership in the Daughters of the American Revolution, "although I would not exactly fit their organization, for, amongst other handicaps, I am proud of my rebel ancestry."
The Connecticut Darrows prospered moderately for more than a century and a half before branching out. In 1795, the Ammiras Darrow family left Connecticut for Boonville, a small town in upstate New York. Financial success remained just beyond the family's reach, so in 1824, after Ammiras's passing, his son (and Clarence's grandfather) Jedediah led his spouse and seven children on another trek west along the Lake Trail, which ran parallel to the bluffs along Lake Erie. This arduous and long five-hundred-mile trip led them to Trumbull County, Ohio. Their reward was inexpensive but excellent farmland in Kinsman.
Clarence Darrow's maternal ancestors, the Eddys, shared a similar migration story following the same path to the Western Reserve. Darrow rightly estimated that both families were "poor and obscure, else they would have stayed where they were." John and Samuel Eddy arrived in Plymouth in 1630. Later, like so many of his contemporaries, Great-grandfather Eddy drove west with purpose, moving to Connecticut, then to upstate New York, and finally to Windsor, Ohio, in the Western Reserve.
The families homesteaded two dozen miles apart. Given that distance in the mid-nineteenth century, it was highly unlikely for a Darrow and an Eddy to meet, let alone marry and raise a family. But Amirus Darrow and Emily Eddy — Clarence's parents — did meet and fall in love while attending Ellsworth Academy in Amboy, Ohio, thirty-five miles from Windsor and sixty from Kinsman. The Eddys, who were quite well off, had no trouble sending Emily, but the Darrows had to scrape together the money to send Amirus. Emily Eddy and Amirus Darrow became schoolyard sweethearts with a shared passion for reading. Amirus's thirst for knowledge and his zeal for books were legendary in Clarence's hometown. Amirus had a personal library unlike any other. In his 1893 reminiscence, Kinsman native Colonel Ralph Plumb recalled that "nearly every house had a Bible and an almanac, but beyond that books were very scarce." A neighbor might have another book, like "Riley's Narrative [but that] was lent from house to house and did good work in cultivating a taste for reading." Outside the family, Amirus's book collection must have seemed an outlandish, immoral indulgence. Even Clarence Darrow thought it odd that his parents were such bibliophiles. No one else in either extended family was. Aside from one of his mother's brothers who "seemed fairly well-informed," Darrow could not remember another relative who "cared at all for books." Furthermore, Emily's parents "were inclined to believe that a love of books was a distinct weakness, and likely to develop into a very bad habit." Darrow said the same of his father's family. However, this was no mere bad habit. Amirus never had much money, yet he bought books like an aristocrat. His house was littered with them. "They were in bookcases, on tables, on chairs, and even on the floor. The house was small, the family large, the furnishings meager, but there were books whichever way one turned."
Like their parents, Amirus and Emily Darrow emphasized education in their children's upbringing, even to the point of straining the family's finances. Amirus was a learned man. In 1845, after they graduated from Ellsworth Academy, Emily and Amirus married and moved to Meadville, Pennsylvania, so Amirus could attend Allegheny College, a Methodist institution. He did not finish. Likely his faith in Methodism ended after the schism in the American Methodist Church over slavery. Instead, Amirus and Emily, who had become abolitionists, joined the Unitarian congregation in Meadville. In 1849, Amirus completed his theology degree but decided not to become a minister. By that time, he and his wife both were freethinkers, who sought the answers to life's questions through investigation, reason, and rigorous debate. They were also political activists, seeking justice for the oppressed.
Perhaps the most meaningful and influential part of Clarence's childhood relates to his parents' freethinking beliefs. Amirus and Emily belonged to one of the most important intellectual, political, and cultural movements of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Freethinkers influenced all aspects of American life from politics and politicians such as Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865) to social movements like abolitionism and women's rights. Both Amirus and Emily adopted free thought well before its golden age between Reconstruction and the First World War. Historian Susan Jacoby has defined American free thought as an encompassing philosophy "running the gamut from the truly antireligious — those who regarded all religion as a form of superstition and wished to reduce its influence in every aspect of society — to those who adhered to a private, unconventional faith revering some form of God or Providence but at odds with orthodox religious authority." What united freethinkers was a "rationalist approach to fundamental questions of earthly existence — a conviction that the affairs of human beings should be governed not by faith in the supernatural but by a reliance on reason and evidence adduced from the natural world." Both Amirus and Emily were avid readers of the great American and French skeptics, they participated in free thought–inspired movements to emancipate slaves and married women, and they were unflinching supporters of public education. And yet they celebrated Christmas, and Emily never completely broke from the church. Moreover, unlike many freethinkers, Emily was a temperance advocate. Thus, as freethinkers Darrow's parents were middle of the road.
In 1849, forgoing any idea of becoming a minister and a minister's wife, Amirus and Emily, along with their two sons, Everett and Channing, moved to Farmdale, Ohio, a short distance from Kinsman. Amirus took up the trades of his forefathers and became a furniture maker as well as an undertaker. Emily assumed the role of the rural housewife, managing the household and taking care of their children: Edward Everett (who went by Everett), born in 1846; Channing, born in 1849; Mary, in 1852; Herbert (who died in infancy), in 1854; Clarence, in 1857; Hubert, in 1860; Herman, in 1863; and, finally, Jenny, in 1869. All but Everett, Channing, and Jenny were born in Farmdale. The family had moved back to Kinsman in 1864. Both Kinsman and Farmdale were small, rural towns that owed their existence to the banking, insurance, legal, agricultural, and modest cultural services that they offered farmers. They were the places for farmers to buy implements, sell their produce, mail letters and packages, consult a lawyer, deposit money, attend holiday parades, and join local celebrations.
Darrow maintained an uneasy love affair with his childhood hometown. Kinsman was confining, stilted, intolerant, and homogeneous, but it also was as ageless as it was idyllic. Nestled in a sleepy green valley near the west bank of the Shenango River Lake, and close to Pymatuning, Stratton, and Sugar creeks, Kinsman had the indelible mark of a New England village, as the writers of Ohio's Work Progress Administration guide described it. It was also a quintessential small Ohio town — much like the hometowns of other Ohio notables: Sherwood Anderson (1876–1941), Thomas Edison (1847–1931), Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885), Rutherford B. Hayes (1822–1893), and William Dean Howells (1837–1920). Kinsman had a gristmill, a sawmill, a blacksmith, a shoemaker (in whose shop men met to argue about politics), a carriage factory, a town square, a whiskey distillery, a tavern, a few churches — Presbyterian, Methodist, and Catholic — and houses that denoted the class of the townspeople. The largest houses were near the center of town, with the fanciest of them prominently positioned on one end of the town square.
Kinsman was known both for its groves of heavy timber — especially oak, beech, maple, hickory, chestnut, elm, and white pine — and for its soil, which was "of a superior quality," according to the History of Trumbull and Mahoning Counties. Most farmers grew corn and raised cows, chickens, and pigs. They made money, however, from the wheat crop. Kinsman never had a large population, at most a few hundred, and from a child's perspective the town seemed rather staid and uninspiring. "If I had chosen to be born I probably should not have selected Kinsman, Ohio, for that honor," Darrow wrote in his second autobiography. "[I]nstead, I would have started in a hard and noisy city where the crowds surged back and forth as if they knew where they were going, and why." Yet Darrow could never escape the fact that his intellectual roots were in small-town America. As he wrote in the very next sentence of that later autobiography, "my consciousness returns to the old place. My mind goes back to Kinsman because I lived there in childhood, and to me it was once the centre of the world."
His first book, a semiautobiographical novel, Farmington, was a thinly disguised reminiscence of his hometown. Looking back after he had already established himself as a crusading lawyer and a political insider of national significance, Darrow claimed that the roots of his philosophy of life had sprung from the homespun, sleepy confines of rural Ohio. Midwestern farm life, he wrote, taught him some cherished basic life lessons about pessimism, fatalism, and skepticism as well as about liberty, freedom, democracy, and tolerance. In these rural areas, neighbors depended upon one another so much as to look past and forgive what they might label as antisocial behavior — of course, within reason. Tolerance, even of town skeptics like Clarence's father, was a valued ideal. Moreover, Darrow imbibed and imbued midwestern sensibilities about charity, decency, fairness, and citizenship. Like his neighbors, he cherished the liberties and freedoms that rural life afforded, from owning land to profiting from hard labor. At the same time, he came to reject the darker sides of small-community life, particularly its tendency to promote intellectually suffocating homogeneity, especially in church and in school, and certain kinds of provincialism that were antithetical to skepticism. He also drew other, more saturnine philosophical lessons from his childhood in Trumbull County that eventually lent themselves to his pessimistic outlook on life.
Clarence Darrow had a similarly complex relationship with his immediate family. With only a few exceptions, he claimed his siblings hardly had any significant impact upon his life, and as an adult he did not keep close tabs on most of them. "I was only one of a large family, mostly older than myself; but while I was only one, I was the chief one, and the rest were important only as they affected me," he wrote egotistically. And there was a pecking order among the young Darrows. "It must have been the rule of our family that each of the children should have the right to give orders to those younger than himself." At work or at play, the children rarely got along. "We quarreled," he wrote, "simply because we liked to hurt each other." Chores also brought out their ugly side. "We children were supposed to help with the chores around the house; but, as near as I can remember, each one was always afraid that he would do more than his share." Of course, the exception was when someone was ill. In his first autobiography, Darrow recalled a time when his brother, most likely Everett, was quite sick. "I was wretched with fear and grief," he recounted. "I remember how I went over every circumstance of our relations with each other, and how I vowed that I would always be kind and loving to him if his life were saved." The brother lived, but the young Clarence did not change; neither did anyone else in the family. Darrow blamed it on their New England roots. His parents, he surmised, "were raised in the Puritan school of life, and I fancy that they would have felt that demonstrations of affection were signs of weakness rather than of love."
Although they had his respect and admiration later in his life, Darrow felt alienated from his parents. "Both my father and mother must have been kind and gentle and tender to the large family that so sorely taxed their time and strength; and yet, as I look back, I do not have the feeling of closeness that should unite the parents and the child." Still, they did affect the man Darrow became. And while most biographers have focused heavily on Amirus's role as father and as a teacher, believing that he had the greatest responsibility in shaping his son, Clarence himself believed that it was his mother, not his father, who was more influential in his life.
Excerpted from Clarence Darrow by Andrew E. Kersten. Copyright © 2011 Andrew E. Kersten. Excerpted by permission of Hill and Wang.
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