Haymarket: A Novel by Martin Duberman [Review]

Many anarchists will know the Haymarket story, if only because it gave us Mayday: the 1886 struggle for the eight hour day in Chicago and other American cities, the bomb thrown during a workers’ meeting, the farce of a trial against eight anarchists, the execution of four and the suicide of a fifth. This novel covers all this by recreating the lives of Albert and Lucy Parsons and their world. Duberman is historically accurate but has gone beyond merely dramatising the trial records. He has built on his research to breathe life into history.

The relationship of Albert and Lucy forms the centre of the novel. Even without the drama of the Haymarket affair, theirs is a remarkable story: An ex-Confederate soldier who first became a Republican, then labour agitator and anarchist, and an African-American woman who forever maintained she was of Spanish and Native American origin, a political militant in her own right who was prepared to call for class violence against the rich. So, there are plenty of political arguments in the book, along with debates on sex and, inevitably, race. The radical culture of the Chicago anarchist movement, from beer halls to workers’ militias, is also shown.

Through a mixture of straight narration and fictional documents like diaries and personal letters Duberman manages to transmit a huge amount of information while maintaining the pace of the book, and the reader’s interest. Not only does he bring Lucy and Albert to life, but others outside the Haymarket eight like their close comrades Lizzie Swank and William Holmes.

The long view (the book begins with Lucy and Albert meeting in Texas in 1871) shows not only their personal history but the social context in a period of American history best described as open class warfare. The rich call for workers to be massacred, the police are an occupying force, and the courts a device for permanently silencing labour agitators. As Albert says:

The prosecution wants to convict us of murder on the basis of our opposition to the current social order - for our political views - yet hails the Captain Bonfields, who have committed actual deeds of murder, as ‘saviors of law and order.’”

If you’re interested in the history of the Haymarket Affair, this is a good introduction which will give you an accurate idea of what happened. As fiction, it not only records the names of the dead, it gives them back their voices. Which is a victory of a kind.

Haymarket: A Novel by Martin Duberma. Seven Stories Press, 2003. ISBN 1583226184