A stimulating biography of the pugnacious labor organizer that sheds light on radical movements while questioning the myth-making machine that surrounds great figures.
Gorn (The Manly Art, not reviewed) tells the story of two women: Mary Harris Jones and her nom de guerre, Mother Jones. Digging deep into news archives, journals, census files, and other sources, he finds truths about the life of the former that have been obscured by the self-created myth of the latter. Mary Harris was born in Ireland during the summer of 1837; Mother Jones claimed May Day, 1830, as her natal date. After emigrating to America, Mary Harris Jones lost her four children (and her husband) to yellow fever in 1867; Mother Jones proclaimed herself a mother to all workers. Through this juxtaposition, the reader sees what is, despite some unfulfilled promise and a fair share of lost battles, an American success story. An immigrant, a woman, an elderly widow, and a worker, she made her voice heard throughout her adopted land by dint of “nothing but courage, compassion and commitment,” Gorn writes. Yet her legacy has been “blunted,” he asserts, along with “memories of America’s radical tradition.” Once an “apostle of working-class militance,” since her death in 1930 Mother Jones has been sanitized into a benevolent matriarch. Gorn never offers an entirely satisfactory answer to the question of how and why a middle-aged, widowed seamstress made her way onto labor’s center stage at the end of the 19th century. He settles on cumulative experience as the key, arguing that personal tragedy and early exposure to radical thinking, combined with nearly half a century of witnessing poor people’s struggles, “energized the life of Mother Jones.”
Amid the current concerns over global labor exploitation, this is a timely, unromanticized reminder that human suffering has accompanied industrial change in the past, and that people fought to ameliorate it.