Clarence Darrow, Friend and Colleague of J. E. Roberts

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Darrow0001 Clarence Darrow was a few years younger than Roberts, and like him was gradually making a name for himself in the nationwide freethought community represented at the American Secular Union conference in Cincinnati in 1900.  Darrow was not yet the widely known figure that the Leopold and Loeb case and the Scopes Trial would later make him.  This event in 1900 was apparently the first time these two men came into personal contact.

Born in Kinsman, Ohio, in 1857, Darrow had a different background from the majority of freethinkers: he was born into it.  His father had trained to be a Unitarian minister, but lost his faith. Darrow looked up to his father as “the village infidel” and sought to emulate his moral commitment and intellectual courage. Darrow studied at AlleghenyCollege in Pennsylvania and at the University of Michigan, but earned no degrees. He became a lawyer through apprenticeship in a law office in Youngstown,   Ohio, passing the examination in 1878, the same year Roberts completed his education for the ministry.

Darrow married in 1880. After a few years in smaller towns, the couple moved to Chicago in 1887. There Darrow soon got involved in local and then wider politics. He worked closely with John P. Altgeld, helping to elect him governor of Illinois in 1892. In addition to giving political speeches as a member of the Democratic Party, Darrow also gave popular lectures.

Darrow’s fame spread beyond Illinois with his defense of Eugene Debs following the Pullman Strike of 1894. In 1896, he hoped to be elected representative from Illinois’s 3rd District. He spent more time campaigning for the top of the ticket William Jennings Bryan and for Governor Altgeld’s reelection than for himself; all three lost. In the process, Darrow developed a long-lasting dislike of Bryan.

Clarence Darrow was a restless man, not at all a homebody. His work and political activity took him away from home a lot, and his wife Jessie’s disappointment pushed him further away. After several years of this, he asked her to divorce him. No fault divorce was unheard of in this era. Jessie could have found plenty of faults with Clarence. Instead, she graciously allowed him to divorce her, though charges had to be invented, for the sake of his career. The divorce was filed in 1897.

Darrow would marry again in a few years, but when he and Roberts shared the podium in Cincinnati in 1900, he was living as a bachelor. According to several reports, he tended to look rather scruffy and ill-dressed. If Roberts’s appearance lived up to the photographs available, they would have made a striking contrast. In addition to questions of dress, Darrow’s square face contrasted with Roberts’s narrow one. Both men would have their ups and downs in the years to come. Although Darrow was only four years younger than Roberts, his fame beyond Illinois would not peak until the 1920s, with the Leopold-Loeb Trial and the Scopes Trial. Roberts, in contrast, though he did not know it, was close to his peak of popularity, which would come in 1902. This may have been partly because Roberts’s style of speaking retained more of the nineteenth century than that of Darrow. Location and contacts were also factors in the difference.

The two men shared an admiration for Ingersoll, but they developed quite different philosophies. While Roberts followed Ingersoll in style and substance, often quoting him, Darrow admired Ingersoll for his success in broadening awareness of freethinking, but he took his own views from other sources. In spite of this difference, Roberts and Darrow maintained a long friendship. Darrow was frequently available to speak at Roberts’s podium, and Roberts usually made use of Darrow’s presence to raise a little extra money. They shared a love of civil argument, and the pleasure of speaking before an audience.

This post is taken from the biography, John Emerson Roberts: Kansas City’s “Up-to-date”Freethought Preacher.  There’s more information and a link on the Books page.


Dr. Roberts Reaches a Wider Audience: From the Biography

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94933_CoverFrontIn November 1900, Roberts was one of several featured speakers at the Twenty-fourth Annual Congress of the American Secular Union and Freethought Federation held in Cincinnati, Ohio. This group, supported by The Truth Seeker, and by Ingersoll, who regularly spoke at its meetings during his life, was a coalition of local societies and interested persons. It supported secular interests such as keeping World’s Fairs open on Sundays. . . .

Roberts chose for his topic “This Natural World of Ours.”  As reported the following month in The Truth Seeker, this speech shows that Roberts is still as reverent as any minister. He has transferred his reverence to nature, the “sublime” discoveries of astronomy, and the gradual revelation of the universe as an “ordered whole.” As he has done before, Roberts faults Christianity for condemning the world as evil. If God lost the world to the devil, he argues, this makes God the creator a failure. He speaks harshly of medieval piety:

Within the cloister, the sanctuary and the cell, with bleeding knees on floors of stone, crouched and cowed the saints in terror. With aching bones, exhausted bodies, tortured nerves and disordered brains, they were visited by visions of horror. Those hideous dreams were called revelations from God, and have come down to us as theology.

The true secularists among the audience would have enjoyed this immensely. It is not clear whether all would have agreed with where Roberts goes next. He makes a general argument that the world is divine. He sees only two possibilities: either the world was created, in which case it must reflect its creator and that creator’s divinity, or it was not. If it was not created, then the natural world “is eternal, self-existent, intelligent and self-sufficient. Can God be more than that?” Either way, he asserts, the world is divine. The Christian theologians, he claims, “turned into a cell” and refused to see the light in which this divinity should be obvious.

After offering the lessons of astronomy as evidence that the world is wonderful and not evil, Roberts goes on to personify the natural world as mother:

The faithful world pays the strictest and most minute attention to the least and humblest thing, and treats it with the same dignity that she does the largest and greatest things, the worm, the bird, is as much provided for in the intelligent plan of nature as is any rational being . . . Moreover the laws of nature are moral. They exist in the interest of the health and well-being of man.

He affirms that the origin of life is unknown, adding, “It may be that the vital forces were somehow in the earth; we can only guess, but we do know that being here the great mother-world nourishes, cherishes and sustains all.”

Having praised the world that is, Roberts turns to the question of the world to come. We can have no knowledge of this, he says. Why, then, have Christians assumed it would be perfect? “Can it be that the dream of the beautiful world beyond was the gambler’s dream of something for nothing, or the visionary’s dream of sudden wealth?” A world that was not earned would be immoral. Rather, this is the world we have, and moral action will make it right:

There is an eternal law of exactness and compensation whereby the great world gives back to every one in equal measure and undiminished what each one gives to the world. If we knew this world and kept its laws we should find that sickness and disease, deformity, weakness of will, and poverty were unnecessary, and we should look upon them as disgraceful just as we look upon crime. If we knew this world and kept faith with it we should make our heaven here and ask for none here or anywhere that we did not make.

Roberts was paid $25 for giving this speech. Another speaker at the Cincinnati gathering was Clarence Darrow, who also received payment of $25.

More on Clarence Darrow to come.  All of the above is from the biography, John Emerson Roberts: Kansas City’s “Up-to-date” Freethought Preacher. For more information and a link, go to the Books page.

Happy Equinox!


It’s the midpoint on the sun’s journey from south to north.  I know it is really the earth’s tilt that causes this apparent journey, but it is hard to think in those terms.  We humans have always seen it as a shift in the sun, not in the ground we stand on.  It’s the first day of spring, and in the garden, the plants are already ahead of me.


The large grass plant has made a big start.  It has far to go, since its seed heads will reach seven feet or more.


The chamisa, which will also grow large, is nagging me about the sloppy pruning job I did on it this winter.  I couldn’t decide which branches to cut down to the ground.


The pansies, which provided a bright spot through the winter, also are happier with the warming weather and longer days.  They’d look even better if I got out to rake out the old weeds around them.

That’s how it is with gardens.  There’s too little to do until suddenly there’s too much.  If you’re still waiting for spring to reach your yard, get those tools ready and replan your days.  I didn’t do that.  I should have seen this coming!

Finding Troy


The Greeks turn up in unexpected places.  Recently I found them in Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing.  I suppose most writers are guilty of seeking out and devouring books about writing.  We read every one that comes to our attention, even though, after about five of them, each may only provide one new idea or trick for keeping at the writing craft.  It was a quotation on a LinkedIn group which brought Bradbury to my attention.  It had been several months since I’d read a good craft book so I tracked down a used copy.

The book is a collection of essays about Bradbury’s own work, his methods, his efforts at teaching.  It is well worth reading although you may, as I did, feel a bit jealous when he speaks of being able to type out a full story in one short sitting.

The Greeks show up not among the Martians and other aliens with whom Bradbury has spent most of his time, but in one of the poems that form a sort of coda to the book, in the form of Troy.  Troy is a symbol of archaeological work, the digging and finding of treasure, as it was when Schliemann excavated there in the late nineteenth century.  For Bradbury it becomes a metaphor for his finding his own unique path in life.  Others tried to dissuade him, but “I knew my Troy.” he says. He had to keep it secret. however.   “I dug when all their backs were turned.” he says, in order to avoid the scorn of those who did not believe.  He concludes the poem speaking about what he found:

One Troy? No, ten!
Ten Troys? No, two times ten!  Three dozen!
And each a richer, finer, brighter cousin!
All in my flesh and blood,
And each one true.
So what’s this mean?
Go dig the Troy in you!

How satisfying that he can stay with and expand that one image, that Troy that has been magical since Homer.  It rings and resonates.

For me, one Greek leads to another, one archaeological site leads to another.  Schliemann, who found Troy, also unearthed gold masks and other riches at Mycenae where Agamemnon ruled.  He went looking for Pylos, the home of Nestor, the wise older advisor of the Iliad.  Like Schliemann, I cannot settle on one site.  But Bradbury does promise many Troys.

There are nine layers at Hissarlik, the site of Troy.  Schliemann was wrong about which was the Homeric Troy.  He thought Priam’s Troy was the second layer; it appears now to have been the sixth.  Layers are also metaphor: the layer of history is overlaid by the layer of excavation in the tales of the place; between what we learn and what happened there is always a big gap, but the set of tales about what was found adds its own layer to the story.

Each of us, Bradbury suggests, has our Troy or series of Troys to find, though we would be wise not to talk too much about them.  Mine is the next poem project; it always takes some searching to find what I’m after.  May you be fortunate in finding your Troy.

Recommendation: Joe Somoza


I Thought of Buying

a new shirt to
walk around in
San Francisco.
But then I thought, “Why not
wear my old shirt
with the warped, stretched
collar and fade spots.”?
I don’t want to “visit”
San Francisco:
I want to live there
for however long
our stay, the way
I’ve lived inside
my green shirt with its
emblem on the pocket
grown more
faded with every washing.
I want to be
a San Franciscan there,
stop at Bob’s for lunch,
next to that tobacco shop on
Polk Street where other
San Franciscans walk by in their
everyday faded wear, wearing
usual faces that might
look in on me
having lunch there
at a booth
beside the window.

This is my favorite poem in Joseph Somoza’s new collection Miraculous.  I like it both for the craft and for the idea, because I too would like to “live” in San Francisco for as long as my visit might last, to be a casual part of it.  He has captured that longing well.

The book is a collection of twenty-five love poems.  Many express love for his wife, Jill, others, like the one above, love for places, still others love of words or love of life.

Here’s one that’s mostly word play:


The ground, like coffee grounds
spilled on the ground and
ground together with ground by the
rain drop by drop that dropped
down to the ground, pitting it
among twigs, stones, ants, and,
here and there, grass stalks that
don’t stalk and don’t talk, I talk for
them in a presumptuous way
trying to be the sumptuous way they
green the ground green wherever
they are, grown from the ground
to where the rain rains
and the sun suns.

And here’s the beginning and end of “When She’s Gone”:

She’s out
shopping, and as often
happens when she’s gone,
corners of the house
begin to fill
with her―the stove
where she left today’s
bean soup warming
for me to watch, . . .

It’s only because she’s
gone that I can
tell you this.
It’s because she’s not
around to talk to
that it occurs to me.

For the rest of this poem, and the other twenty-two, buy the book, which is enhanced by drawings by Louis Ocepek.  His sketches of stray items suit the mood of the poems well.  Miraculous is produced by blurb.com: http://www.blurb.com/b/3809469-miraculous.

Somoza’s latest full length book is Shock of White Hair, published by Sin Fronteras Press and available on Amazon.

A Winter Walk


It was a hike, really, but a short one.  I had to make a trip down to El Paso and stopped in the Franklin Mountains on the way back for a short trip up a canyon.  It was a trail I had not walked before and I was disappointed at the rockiness of the old jeep road up.  The weather was poor: wind blowing up a lot of dust across the valley below.  In time my irritation subsided in the pleasures and challenge of the moment.

canyonThere was lots of red soil and rock

red rock

And yucca plants sturdy on the slopes.

yuccaI love the color of the hillside, but it is hard to capture: the deader stalks provide a background I think of as mauve, a sort of dusty dim purple, for the bright yellow-green of the scattered prickly pear.

carpet lookI can imagine a carpet in those colors, but since I have no place to put one, I admire it across the canyon. I return from an adventure like this thinking I must do this more often.  Spring and its increasing heat will be here soon.  I’ll hope for better light for photographs next time.

Poetry for the People


In journals like Poetry there are frequent essays discussing who reads poetry, who should read poetry, why more people don’t, and what the real role of poetry in society and culture is or should be.  It’s a never ending quandary.  People for whom poetry is important bewail its lack of influence in wider spheres.

Now and then, instead of arguing, somebody does something about making poetry more accessible.  Like providing it for free, in small doses.

One such effort is The Rag, put out by Karin Bradberry and Elaine Schwartz and made available free at bookshores and other sites in Albuquerque.  The Rag is a monthly publication on one 8 ½ by 14 inch page, folded in quarters.  One panel has all the background and contact info.  The other seven-eighths of the sheet are crammed full of poetry.  There are thirteen poems in the March issue, one of which is mine:


We have two hands,
dexterous and sinister.

Not ambidextrous, are we
meant to be ambivalent?

Turning this way, that,
picking up and letting go,

the two-fisted body
divides the mind

which waffles, wavers
though the tug

between x and y
is never equivalent.

There is great variety in the poems selected.  I congratulate the editors: March 2013 is their 177th issue.  For any poetry journal, that’s a good long run.  May it continue and thrive.

Subscriptions, for those who live beyond reach of stores where it is offered for free, are $15.00 per year, available from Karin Bradberry, 11322 Campo del Sol NE, Albuquerque, NM 87123.  Use the same address for submissions of 3-5 poems.

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