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Darrow proves worthy of two top-notch biographies

Atticus Finch, he wasn't.

He was, however, a fascinatingly full-blooded, marvelously multidimensional and hugely flawed manifestation of an American archetype:

The Lone Lawyer.

Clarence Darrow, in other words, is a biographer's dream.

In this case, two biographers.

The "attorney for the damned," as legendary muckraker Lincoln Steffens lionized Darrow, has never been more captivatingly accessible to readers than he is now, thanks to the crackling new books by Washington, D.C., journalist John A. Farrell and Green Bay, Wis., academic Andrew E. Kersten.

Both are titled "Clarence Darrow," and they're quite welcome. There hadn't been a significant biography of this giant in 31 years.

For subtitles, Farrell uses the Steffens sobriquet; Kersten prefers "American Iconoclast."

Better than anyone else, Darrow championed The Individual against The System. Both authors do justice to this paragon of righteous anger, and it's doubly pleasurable not having to choose between them.

"American Iconoclast" -- "What made Darrow an American icon," Kersten writes, "was his social and political activism. He always backed the underdog snared in the traps laid by the privileged."

Darrow, a rural abolitionists' son who lived from 1857 to 1938, never hesitated "to make larger political statements in the cause of advancing American democracy by expanding rights, liberties, and freedoms."

"There is no question," Kersten says, that Darrow's 1887 move from small-town eastern Ohio to Chicago was "the most important decision of his life."

Craggy, rumpled and more than 6 feet tall, this "dynamic, transformative force" would snap his suspenders, in one reporter's telling, "like the explosion of a .45." Yet the emotional caliber of his homespun summations could cause jurors -- men and women alike -- to weep.

Oppressed railroad workers and miners had no better friend. Nor did the cause of women's rights -- starting with the right to vote.

"In his forty-seven years as a lawyer, he had defended 102 clients who faced execution," Kersten points out. "He had failed to save only one, [Chicago mayoral assassin] Gene Prendergast, his first case."

It's safe to say that if it weren't for Darrow's pioneering arguments, the death penalty nowadays wouldn't be so rare.

Darrow was a founding attorney of the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "For nearly three decades," Kersten says, "Darrow had been an outspoken supporter of African American civil rights."

As a historian, Kersten is reluctant to engage in present-day conjecture, but he does treat the reader to a tantalizing little afterword that asks: WWDD?

What would Darrow do?

Which no doubt would have amused the man himself, since it's a prerogative he fiercely defended: the right to think.

"Attorney for the Damned" -- Farrell's anecdotal narrative exceeds Kersten's professorial prose by a couple of hundred pages, providing the reader with a long, rejuvenating bath rather than a swift, bracing shower while reveling in "the grandest legal career in American history."

Farrell's descriptive powers are spellbinding, and he exhaustively plumbs wide-ranging archives and recently discovered private letters -- found in a box marked "Christmas ornaments" -- for maximum impact.

"He sought to make even the most hideous of crimes comprehensible," Farrell writes. Darrow is quoted as saying, "The first task of a lawyer is to put forward the human side of his client, to show that jury that the defendant is merely a man like themselves."

The author delves into not only the Darrow who was rock-ribbed, but the one who had feet of clay: the rakish bohemian, the machine politician, the mismanager of money, the pre-conversion corporate apologist, the guilt-ridden divorced father, the betrayer. Also, the ethical relativist who might have bribed a juror or two when the prosecution wasn't above doing the same.

Darrow was fearless. He had no compunction, for example, about accusing President Grover Cleveland -- whom he considered a toady for Gilded Age plutocrats -- of doing "violence to the Constitution."

And he was tireless. Throughout perhaps 2,000 trials, more than a third of them pro bono, his single-minded pursuit was justice. But justice tempered by mercy. Always mercy.

Among his clients were labor crusaders, teenage thrill killers, unionist brothers who murderously dynamited a newspaper building and a black man defending his home against a racist mob.

Resonating to this day is the 1925's "Monkey Trial" of 1925 of Tennessee high school teacher John Scopes. At issue was the right to discuss evolution in the classroom, and Darrow the agnostic left his creationist counterpart -- celebrated orator and three-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan -- stammering in intellectual tatters.

"The great theme of Darrow's life," Farrell says, " was the defense of individual liberty from modernity's relentless, crushing, impersonal forces." Darrow was not only "a Byronic hero," but -- in America's founding spirit -- "Jefferson's heir."

There's a granular exactitude to Farrell's examination of Darrow's nearly 81 years, right down to the moment when the cinders, ashes and bone fragments from his cremation were scattered in a Chicago lagoon.

A reader of either of these books can't help but be struck by the parallels between Darrow's time and our own.

"Ignorance and fanaticism is ever busy and needs feeding," Darrow warned, a plea for eternal vigilance against the intolerant among us who would undermine basic human dignity and fundamental fairness.

The working class, for instance, needed protection from what Farrell terms "the threat to liberty posed by narrow-minded men of wealth and their legal guns-for-hire."

In his absence, "the little guy" has never seemed more alone.

Gene Krzyzynski is a veteran copy editor for The News.


Clarence Darrow: Attorney for the Damned

By John A. Farrell


576 pages, $32.50

Clarence Darrow: American Iconoclast

By Andrew E. Kersten

Hill and Wang

320 pages, $30