The Wild West

Reading between the lines.
Oct. 1 1997 3:30 AM

The Wild West

Anthony Lukas' Big Trouble.

Big Trouble: A Murder in a Small Western Town Sets Off a Struggle for the Soul of America
By J. Anthony Lukas
Simon & Schuster; 880 pages; $30

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As a result of these huge authorial efforts, Big Trouble is bigger than it had to be. It includes long digressions on subjects ranging from the European origins of private detective work to the gradings along the circuitous railroad route from Denver to Boise. The major characters receive ample biographical treatments, but so do dozens of other figures, famous and obscure, who had only fleeting links to Lukas' story. The book certainly rewards readers whenever it returns to the main story. Lukas' mastery of historical events and contexts, and his ability to dramatize them, was acute. But it is a shame, in an age of blockbuster publishing, that Lukas' editors either did not or could not prevail upon him to lighten up, on himself and on his audience.

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Historians may also question whether the Steunenberg affair, on its own, touched off, in Lukas' words, "a struggle for the soul of America." To be sure, the larger industrial conflicts of the period amounted to such a struggle. And to his credit, Lukas, for all his obvious sympathies with the workers, was scrupulous in assessing the events surrounding the murder. (In his epilogue, he offered compelling, albeit circumstantial, bits of evidence that strongly suggest that Haywood and the others actually were involved in an assassination plot.) But Lukas never fully clarified why Steunenberg's murder and its aftermath were as pivotal as his subtitle implies they were. In fact, the immediate result of the trials was to widen the breach between Haywood (who became increasingly radical) and his more cautious WFM associates (who wound up pulling back from the revolutionary IWW). In this sense, Lukas' story may have been important as part of the struggle over the future of organized labor, but less so as a struggle over America's soul, at least when compared with the truly momentous Homestead and Pullman strikes of the 1890s, the Triangle Shirt Waist Co. fire of 1911, or any of the other more familiar set pieces of turn-of-the-century labor history.

Still, it is the rare author who can re-create, with so much passion and exactness, aspects of our history that most Americans would just as soon forget. Anyone who knew Tony Lukas even slightly was deeply impressed by his boundless, open-minded curiosity about the injustices of modern life, along with his stubborn reportorial integrity about getting to the very bottom of any story as best he could. Its flaws aside, Big Trouble is a brave book that exhibits those qualities bounteously. And so its tale is truly tragic.

Sean Wilentz, professor of history and director of the Program in American Studies at Princeton University, is the co-author of The Kingdom of Matthias: A Story of Sex and Salvation in 19th-Century America.