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Book Review

A Legend Who Braved the Odds to Make Laborers Her Cause

MOTHER JONES The Most Dangerous Woman in America by Elliott J. Gorn Hill & Wang $27, 408 pages

March 26, 2001|MERLE RUBIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Asked to state her place of residence, the woman who called herself Mother Jones memorably replied: "I live in the United States, but I do not know exactly in what place, because I am always in the fight against oppression, and wherever a fight is going on I have to jump there. . . . My address is like my shoes; it travels with me wherever I go." Like Davy Crockett and Johnny Appleseed, she made herself a legend. Certainly, she was a far cry from the "legends" who now flourish by offering up "secrets" of their private lives to a public hooked on triviality. And unlike our current "legends," who work hard to seem younger than their age, Mother Jones actually lied about her birth date in order to present herself as seven years older than she in fact was. White-haired, pink-cheeked, clad in long, dark grandmotherly dresses, she braved thugs, bullets, police, judges, governors and jail. Her period of greatest fame and activity was the first quarter of the 20th century, fighting for the miners of West Virginia and Colorado, revolutionaries in Mexico and child laborers everywhere.

Mother Jones was born Mary Harris in Cork, Ireland, in 1837, a decade before her family was forced by the potato famine of 1846-48 to emigrate. In 1861, she married a Memphis iron molder named George Jones, with whom she had four children. Only six years later, Mary Jones lost her husband and all four children to yellow fever. It was not until just before the turn of the century that Mary Jones, who had become active in the labor movement, began signing her letters "Mother Jones," an identity she embraced until her death in 1930.

In 1925 (when she was 95 by her calculation, but actually a mere 88), she published her autobiography: a powerful account of her life, inaccurate in detail but truthful in its expression of her passionate beliefs. It told almost nothing of her youth or her personal life but focused almost entirely on her public role. The lack of information about her early years has presented a challenge to her biographers. In 1974, Dale Fetherling offered the first comprehensive account of Jones' life. And now Elliott J. Gorn, a professor of history at Purdue, has continued the task of filling in the blanks and sorting out fact from legend. His spirited and sympathetic biography also calls attention to an important but largely forgotten part of American history. Or, as Mother Jones put it in the pungent style redolent of her Roman Catholic heritage: "Those were the days of sacrifice for the cause of labor. . . . Those were the days when we had no halls, when there were no high salaried officers, no feasting with the enemies of labor. Those were the days of the martyrs and the saints." They were also the days of unregulated cycles of boom and bust; the consolidation of wealth in the hands of a few; the exploitation of workers and the brutal repression, even murder, of those who attempted to organize, strike or speak out.

The coal miners were Mother Jones' chief cause. She also became involved with the Socialist party under the leadership of the remarkable Eugene V. Debs. Her greatest forte, however, was action, not theory. Even in the toughest circumstances, she found a way to get things done. When the police closed down an opera house in Alabama where Debs had been scheduled to speak, Mother Jones, as Debs recalled, "notified the authorities that the meeting would be held as advertised and that if the doors were not open they would be opened. . . ." When striking miners had nothing to eat, Mother Jones went to local farmers and got them to donate food. She had an instinctive rapport with people of all races, creeds and nationalities. "She came into the mine one day and talked to us," recalled one miner. "Her voice was low and pleasant. . . . She didn't become shrill when she got excited; instead, her voice dropped in pitch and the intensity of it became something you could almost feel physically. . . . She had a complete disregard for danger or hardship and would go in wherever she thought she was needed. . . . With all this, she was no fanatic. She had a lively sense of humor--she could tell wonderful stories, usually at the expense of some boss. . . ."

Although clearly an admirer of Mother Jones, Gorn is by no means uncritical of her flaws and inconsistencies. If anything, he is sometimes a bit too inclined to judge her by the current standards of political correctness. But his immensely readable biography succeeds in conveying what was most important about her: her altruism, her pragmatism and, most of all, her courage.

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