Had Harris written a series of novels as good as this one, I suspect that he would be better known today. It has its faults, but overall it is a first-rate piece of work, a powerful story told thrillingly and with conviction.
The background to the story is this: in 1886 in Chicago a bomb was thrown into a group of policeman engaged in breaking up a protest meeting, killing many of them and wounding many more. A number of arrests were made and seven men charged with the crime, all except one of whom were obviously innocent. A travesty of a trial took place, and all seven were condemned to death, though two were later pardoned and one - the only guilty one, Louis Lingg - committed suicide with a home-made bomb the materials of which had been smuggled into the gaol.
These bare facts are turned by Harris into a story which is manages to be convincing on a human level even when its sense of politics is completely askew. The central character is one Rudolph Schnaubelt, who Harris makes the thrower of the bomb, with some justification in fact. Schnaubelt tells us how he emigrated to the United States and witnessed at first hand how foreign workers were pitilessly exploited and their protests brutally supressed, and how the sense of injustice thus engendered led to socialist and anarchistic movements. Schnaubelt falls under the spell of the magnetic Anarchist leader Louis Lingg, who convinces him that an act of extreme violence is needed to draw the attention of the public to their plight.
The character of Lingg as drawn by Harris is a problematic one: Harris himself says in his preface that he made him too idealised. But I have to disagree with this view despite its impeccable origin: after all, it is Schnaubelt, Lingg's avowed disciple, not some objective, detached authorial voice, who tells us what Linng was like. An exaggerated near-saintliness in such a characterisation is perfectly credible. If someone is able to persuade you to commit mass murder in the name of some cause, it is likely that you also view that person as morally superior, simply to be able to justify your own actions. What is less convincing is Harris' version of Lingg's politics: as John Zerzan, a latter-day anarchist writer points out in his afterword to this edition, Lingg's politics are weirdly liberal for a supposed extremist, (more like those of Harris himself at the time, a comfortable, mildly socialistic, paternalism) and this is what sounds the more jarring note.
Despite Harris' inability to be an Anarchist, there is no doubting his sympathy for those involved. He is scathing indeed about the evils of capitalism in its rapacious trampling of the weak and unfortunate. This passion is one of the strengths of the book as it makes the psychology of Schnaubelt all the more empathetic. Schnaubelt's character is also lent some truth by the way the love story between him and his sweetheart Elsie is told. Their almost unbearable longing for one another, repeatedly dampened by the reality of their position, their poverty, and the danger that a child would represent to them, is artfully portrayed. This subject was something Frank definitely knew about.
Schnaubelt throws the bomb, and the world is never the same again. Under Lingg's orders he flees, eventually reaching Europe, while back in Chicago innocent men are tried. From the point of explosion, Schnaubelt suffers from a terrible heart-sickness - of guilt at his crime, of being free while others face death, and of the loss of his two loves, Elsie and Lingg. But this sickness of spirit is shadowed by a more final malady of the body: tuberculosis. At the end Schnaubelt is dying, still possessed of the optimistic dream that his terrible deed was not in vain.
This edition includes reproductions of photographs of the real-life protagonists. John Dos Passos does a fine job of presenting a short life of Harris, with a few excusable inaccuracies, given that he was writing in 1963, more than a decade before Phillipa Pullar's unparalleled biography became available. I can whole-heartedly recommend this volume: it is Harris at his absolute best. (And here are some equally favourable opinions from when it was first published.)