Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Clarence Darrow Writes About A Publisher And Prohibition

by Stephen J. Gertz

On October 24, 1931, legendary American lawyer and social reformer Clarence Darrow (1857-1938) wrote to American attorney, civil rights pioneer and president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Arthur Spingarn, about his as yet to be published autobiography.

"The book will be finished this month. As I have said, no contract has been made with any one, but several publishers seem anxious to get it. I do not feel like giving it to Liveright & Co. I have said that I will show it to them, which I will do; still, that is superfluous, if they are not in the running. I presume I could ask each publisher to make an offer, and I could safely give it to the one that makes the best offer; still there are other things to consider. Had I better send a copy of manuscript to you to deliver to them when I send out any others? Have you any idea of the best way to handle the situation? I do not like to make any pretense that I feel is not true, but I think I should put it where I want to, and, of course, since I have given them $1,000.00 and you got me a clean release, I have the right to do it. One of these days I will be in New York, but on account of the other fellow rushing his book out in a hurry – after promising to wait! – I felt that I had better get mine done. With thanks, and best wishes, [signed] Clarence Darrow."

A postscript in holograph reads: "I have a story in this coming Nov. number of Vanity Fair on what one can and can not do to get rid of prohibition. We can not repeal the 18th Amendment. I think my plan has never been published."

Clarence Darrow, the son of pro-suffrage and abolitionist parents, began his celebrated law career in Ohio. He soon found himself defending anarchists, union leaders and murderers. His slow, shambling demeanor belied a brilliant mind, evident in his spectacular defense in the 1924 Leopold-Loeb murder trial and the famous Scopes trial of 1925, the latter upholding the right to teach the theory of evolution. Among Darrow’s high-profile defenses were such racially charged cases as the Sweet Case, in which a black family used deadly force to defend itself against an attack while attempting to move into an all-white Detroit neighborhood. The NAACP (with the support of Spingarn, the letter’s recipient) also offered Darrow’s services to the Scottsboro Boys, nine black teenagers accused of raping a white woman in Alabama in 1931 and convicted by an all-white jury. A pacifist and civil libertarian, Darrow was knowledgeable, shrewd and deeply committed to justice.

After the 1919 passage of the 18th Amendment, which banned the production and sale of alcohol in the United States, Darrow became an outspoken opponent. He published such articles as “The Ordeal of Prohibition” in the August 1924 issue of American Mercury, and the same year he debated the issue with prominent Unitarian minister John Haynes Holmes. He co-authored a book entitled The Prohibition Mania (1927), and he published several articles in Vanity Fair including “Why the 18th Amendment Cannot Be Repealed” in the November 1931 issue, referred to in this letter. Darrow lived to see the repeal of prohibition with the passage of the 21st Amendment in 1933.

The letter also discusses Darrow’s autobiography, The Story of My Life, which Charles Scribner’s Sons published in 1932. Darrow had defended New York publisher Liveright & Co. against charges of obscenity alleged by the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice and Boston's Watch and Ward Society, but he apparently did not want to use the publisher for his own work.

Arthur Spingarn (1878-1971), the son of an affluent Jewish family, earned a law degree at Columbia and, along with his brother Joel, dedicated his life to racial justice for blacks. He headed the legal committee of the NAACP and, in 1940, succeeded his brother as president of the civil rights organization, holding the position until 1965. He also became known for his vast collection of books, manuscripts and ephemera related to American blacks, most of which are now at Howard University.

Image courtesy of Lion Heart Autographs, with our thanks, and a tip o' the hat to its cataloger.

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