More Powerful Than Dynamite

Author Thai Jones is an assured narrator and brings the book's setting of 1914 New York vividly to life.

More Powerful Than Dynamite By Thai Jones Walker & Company 416 pp.

Late on the morning of July 4, 1914, a peal of thunder rippled across Upper Manhattan. Pedestrians on Lexington Avenue between 103rd and 104th streets looked up to see an avalanche of powdered stone and splintered wood cascading down from the top floor of a tenement building on the west side of the block. When the air cleared, a young man's body was hanging from the balustrade of a fire escape far above the street, limbs akimbo. The name on the flyleaf of the address book in his pocket identified him as Arthur Caron, a onetime protégé of Upton Sinclair and a member of the anarchist community that regularly gathered uptown. Caron and two accomplices had accidentally detonated a cache of Russian nitroglycerine they were storing in the apartment of one of their comrades, the makings of a bomb intended for the Westchester County estate of the philanthropist John D. Rockefeller, Jr. It was the largest dynamite explosion New York had ever seen.

American radicals have never been particularly skilled bomb makers; half a century after the Lexington Avenue explosion, three members of the Weather Underground did the exact same thing, inadvertently leveling a townhouse in Greenwich Village with the explosives they intended to deliver to an army officers' dance at Fort Dix in New Jersey. That symmetry was what drew the journalist-turned-historian Thai Jones, the son of members of the Weather Underground, to the 1914 incident. More Powerful Than Dynamite is at once a narrative history of the explosion and something more ambitious: a panoramic evocation of a uniquely combustible moment in New York history, when the city was obsessed with transforming itself for the better but lethally conflicted over what that actually meant.

More Powerful than Dynamite advances in the manner of an Alejandro Gonzales Iñárritu film, tracing the paths of the people and ideas that are fated to collide on Lexington Avenue. Jones toggles between three idealists, each bearing an irreconcilable vision of progress. John Purroy Mitchel, New York's youthful mayor, has just arrived in office with proto-technocratic visions of using social science to solve the city's myriad ills, only to find his ambitions swallowed by a series of disillusioning law-and-order crises. John D. Rockefeller, Jr., the son of the richest man in the world, Standard Oil founder John D. Rockefeller, has thrown himself into philanthropy, leading crusades against societal evils -- prostitution, intemperance, irreligion -- with a patrician earnestness and condescension that the wags in the city newsrooms find hysterical. Alexander Berkman, an anarchist of some legend -- his attempt to assassinate the industrialist Henry Clay Frick in 1892 was arguably the first act of modern political terrorism in the United States -- now drifting unhappily into autumn, has become the éminence grise of Caron's circle of young radicals, aspiring propagandists of the deed who were bent on ending capitalism's terminal injustice through an act of transformative violence.

Jones is unequivocally a man of the left, but More Powerful than Dynamite is remarkable for the degree of humanity the author grants his entire cast of characters, plutocrats and radicals alike. He is an assured narrator with a knack for the throwaway character study, by turns sympathetic and biting. Describing the art collection in Rockefeller's Tarrytown mansion, Jones writes, "The money to build it may have come from his position in life, but nobody could accuse him of inheriting his taste." His portrait of Berkman is novel-worthy, capturing the pathos of an aging provocateur, his best years lost to prison, scoffing at the "halfway anarchists in the cafés" even as he frets over his waning relevance to them.

But Jones's most arresting character is New York City itself. Drawing heavily from the rambunctious New York newspapers of the era, he conjures a vivid image of a city in the midst of a wrenching and often terrifying transition into modernity, the sounds of progress often indistinguishable from the sounds of terrorism. "One rushes to the window at the first explosion with a mind revolving disaster," a visiting Londoner, describing the sound of the sandhogs dynamiting away the rock beneath the city to make way for new railroad tunnels, wrote in The New York Times in January 1914. "There is no disaster of any kind. It is New York growing; New York tearing down something big to make way for something bigger; New York expressing with all the violence of shattered rock its eternal dissatisfaction with the thing that is, its eternal aspiration toward the new and better."

Charles Homans is a special correspondent for The New Republic.

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