The fervent saga of Mother Jones

March 18, 2001|By James Asher | James Asher,Sun Staff

"Mother Jones: The Most Dangerous Woman in America," by Elliott J. Gorn. Hill and Wang. 408 pages. $27.

America quaked in the decades after the Civil War. The Plains Indians were at war. The nation's cities were swollen with immigration. The industrialization of the country was well under way, marking the beginning of the end of an agrarian society. Former slaves tested their freedom. Coal was being gouged from the Appalachian and Rocky mountains in prodigious quantities. Steel was making fortunes in Pennsylvania. Textile mills and garment shops were filled with the young and old alike, eking out what some might call a living.

Life was stark: black and white, right and wrong, just and unjust.

It would be decades before modern relativism would submerge such certitude. In the meantime, advocates and zealots stridently argued their causes.

Out of this 19th century social soup, almost as if by magic, came Mary Harris aka Mary Jones aka Mother Jones.

These days, few know Mother Jones as more than the name of a magazine and a footnote to history, if that. Her deeds, her words and her fervent objections to the indefensible have been largely lost or forgotten by a world much changed from those days of certainty.

Happily, Elliott J. Gorn, a professor of history at Purdue University, has written a wonderful book about Mother Jones.

This work is a well-crafted history. Serious in its research, Gorn's book is hardly an academic text. It is a joy to read, full of passionate details about Mother Jones and her very passionate work as a union organizer.

As a scholar-writer, Gorn succeeds where many other historians have failed. He gives life to Mother Jones. He puts her in context and reveals a remarkable life whose raison d'etre now seems oddly quaint despite the many dangers she faced.

Gorn takes the reader from Mother Jones' mysterious beginnings -- she was a widow and in her 60s when she broke onto the American labor scene -- through her union efforts with mine workers in West Virginia and in the west to her children's crusade against child labor to her flirtation with socialism and her depressing later years fighting to stay vigorous in her 80s and 90s.

He describes her successes, her rising notoriety and influence. He also gives a picture of the slanders she endured -- even the allegation that she was a madam in a house of ill repute before embarking on her union life.

But more importantly, Gorn shows how she helped remake the social fabric of America. Standing with the poor and mistreated workers of yore, Mother Jones helped create the climate for better wages, union recognition and an end to "industrial slavery."

What is unsettling about this history of labor activism is how different today's world is from the time of Mother Jones. Workers' interest in unionism has waned in the decades since as the workplace has changed for the better. One wonders too how Mother Jones might react to the power of the national unions and the drift many took into racketeering and violence.

Today's union rhetoric often echoes that of the days of struggle in the 19th century even as working conditions in America are pristine in comparison.

What is clear, however, is that Mother Jones could galvanize the populus with her graphic examples of the "cruel toil [of workers] under the iron wheels of greed." Advocates these days would do well to set aside their specious arguments of worker exploitation and focus instead on issues more connected to the reality of work as it is now.

Otherwise, they risk besmirching all that Mother Jones stood for.

James Asher is an editor at The Sun and a former editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer. He has been writing for newspapers for more than 25 years.

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