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Terrorism on American Soil through the Lens of Literature

America’s Culture of Terrorism: Violence, Capitalism, and the Written Word
by Jeffory A. Clymer
University of North Carolina Press

Photo of "America’s Culture of Terrorism" book coverAs a scholar of literature, Jeffory Clymer, an associate professor of English at UK, is obsessed with words and how individuals struggle to define the events of their day. An Illinois native with a longstanding interest in the history of labor issues and class struggle, Clymer’s dissertation topic—terrorism in American literature and culture—began to come into focus after he read accounts of an 1886 bombing at a workers’ rally in Chicago’s Haymarket Square.

The workers were on strike for an eight-hour workday. A few days into the strike, anarchists and labor radicals organized a rally to draw the city’s attention to the conflict. At the protest, someone—who was never identified—threw a bomb that killed eight policemen. “Newspapers reported Haymarket as the first incident of terrorism on U.S. soil,” says Clymer, who came to the University of Kentucky last fall from Saint Louis University.

His continued reading about violence on American soil during this historical period led him to the 1920 bombing of J.P. Morgan’s Wall Street office in New York, in which a still-unknown bomber killed 38 and injured hundreds. The multimillionaire Morgan was a major financier and banker.

Clymer happened to be reading these accounts at around the time of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing and was struck by the fact that the targets of all three bombings were symbols of capitalism and governmental authority. Other similarities between historic and contemporary acts of terrorism—the attendant media frenzy and violence without a claim of responsibility—deepened his interest in the subject of terrorism on American soil.

Clymer began examining how 19th-century writers used language to name, explain and make sense of these acts of violence. Clymer focused his research on the period of American history between Haymarket and the J.P. Morgan Wall Street bombing, and was particularly interested in the ways in which acts of violence are connected to the growth of industry and capitalism.

His resulting book, America’s Culture of Terrorism: Violence, Capitalism, and the Written Word, examines works by Henry James, William Dean Howells, Jack London, and Ida B. Wells, as well as trial transcripts and media reports to show how emerging ideas about terrorism were, in part, shaped by how these writers and transcripts portrayed various terrorist acts on U.S. soil.

Clymer becomes animated when discussing the social value of literature and says it’s his prerogative as a professor of English to delve into territory that is more commonly reserved for historians and social scientists.

“I’m a literature professor, but I see literature as being deeply enmeshed in the culture,” he explains. “Imaginative literature is a genre where real and intractable social problems are articulated, described and processed. We comprehend events through language, and literature is one of culture’s important sites where we establish—and fight over—our terms, ideas, and ways of talking about or understanding life.”

Clymer had completed the manuscript for America’s Culture of Terrorism before September 11, 2001. However, the magnitude of the events of that day led him to add an epilogue that reflects the difficulty in making sense of such a catastrophic occurrence. He found that as with previous examples of terrorism in our history, 9/11 compelled Americans “to attempt to regain our mental balance by groping toward” a collective understanding of terrible events.

—Laura Sutton

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