23 August 2007

Sacco & Vanzetti

executed August 23, 1927

It's a day after the death of Grace Paley, who lived a great life, and who I was certain would live forever.

I'm sure Paley would be happy we have such respect for her, but I suspect she'd want us to think less about her death than about the eightieth anniversary of the deaths of Sacco & Vanzetti. Alright then. I'm still too stunned at the idea of a world without Grace Paley to offer any coherent thoughts on her or her work, but I can fire up some Woody Guthrie and reflect on the executed men.

The Sacco & Vanzetti case was, after all, a lightning rod for controversy and passion in the 1920s, eventually gaining attention from around the world. It inspired writers and artists and contributed to many people's radicalization, at least for a little while.

Here's what Time, in a curious journalistic prose-poem, said afterward:

Editor Waldo Cook of the much-venerated Springfield, (Mass.) Republican, was among those who called on Governor Fuller in person to beg clemency.

James K. Trimble of Philadelphia telegraphed: ". . . We are members of the New York Stock Exchange and deal in long investments. . . . For God's sake do not canonize two saints for future generations of Reds."

Professor Ellen Hays, 67, head of the English Department at Wellesley College, said: "I feel I must voice a protest." She joined picketers at the State House, was arrested.

Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote a poem beginning, "Let us abandon then our garden and go home." She also picketed, was jailed.

Boston Common, for the first time in history, was closed to public orators. Order there and elsewhere was maintained by the full Boston police force on 24-hour duty. Riot squads were equipped with automatic rifles, hand grenades, tear bombs. Exciting looking characters were immediately boxed in by police and marched off "to protect them from mob violence."
Last night, I watched a recent documentary on the case. I've been aware of Sacco & Vanzetti at least since high school, but I didn't remember the date of their execution. I had noticed the film listed among the new releases at Netflix, and it was available sooner than some other recent movies on my queue, so it was what arrived. Coincidentally, my father had watched it the day before and emailed me to recommend it. He said my paternal grandfather, who grew up in the Dedham and Needham areas of Massachusetts, saw Sacco & Vanzetti going into the Dedham courthouse a few times, and he mentioned the men, who he suspected were innocent, on a number of occasions while my father was growing up. My grandfather was a civil engineer in Needham, where there is a Cheney Street (a dead end). My father worked for the family business for a little while, and during that time he got to spend some time at the old shoe factory where the robbery-murder that was pinned on Sacco & Vanzetti took place -- he was on the survey team for the shopping plaza that replaced the factory. He said he didn't remember going inside the building itself, but spent a couple weeks surveying the grounds.
Let us sit here, sit still,
Here in the sitting-room until we die;
At the step of Death on the walk, rise and go;
Leaving to our children's children this beautiful doorway,
And this elm,
And a blighted earth to till
With a broken hoe.

--Edna St. Vincent Millay,
"Justice Denied in Massachusetts"