Review: ‘Goddess of Anarchy’ by Jacqueline Jones

Jan. 15, 2018 

"Goddess of Anarchy: The Life and Times of Lucy Parsons, American Radical" by Jacqueline Jones; Basic Books (464 pages, $32)


Lucy Parsons knew how to use a soapbox. In pamphlets, in packed lecture halls and on real soapboxes in parks around the country, she captured media attention from the 1870s through the 1930s with her calls for workers to rise up against brutal industrialists and corrupt police. "Let us kill them without mercy, and let it be a war of extermination without pity," goes one of her quotes.

Strong words for the impassive wife, mother and dressmaker seen in photos. But Parsons’ life was one of contradiction. Born to an enslaved black mother, she championed the cause of white working classes. She appeared to dote on her husband, but was willing to see him hanged. Her life was all about the struggle to bring down capitalism and replace it with a society in which people worked freely for themselves.

Biographer Jacqueline Jones uses research to give Parsons’ saga epic sweep, recapturing a time that could have reshaped the United States if things had gone differently. She traces the fiery Parsons from antebellum Virginia to post-Reconstruction Texas to Chicago, where the deadly Haymarket affair of 1886 became her defining moment.

Parsons is seen as a "principled" anarchist who joined many radical groups only to quit in spats over what the new world order should look like. Old age finds her unrepentant and somewhat mystified that the inevitable revolution did not come.

Parsons made good copy then, and she does now. Many scenes will have the reader thinking, "Oh, no, she didn’t." She did.



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