The emotional and highly publicized case of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti became a touchstone and rallying cry for American radicals in the early 20th century. The two Italian immigrants were accused in 1920 of murdering a paymaster in a holdup. Although the evidence against them was flimsy, they were readily convicted, in large part because they were immigrants and anarchists. Despite international protests, they were executed on August 23, 1927. Novelist John Dos Passos became deeply involved in the case after he visited Sacco and Vanzetti in Massachusetts prisons. In the fall of 1920 he joined the Sacco-Vanzetti Defense Committee. The case and execution were commemorated in an outpouring of literary expression. John Dos Passos’s "They Are Dead Now—
-" appeared inthe New Masses, October 1927. A stark poem that repudiated its own form as inadequate to the subject, it opened “This isn’t a poem.” In the poem, the executions ended the dreams not only of Sacco and Vanzetti, but those of many others who had followed the trials with disbelief and outrage.
This isn’t a poem
This is two men in grey prison clothes.
One man sits looking at the sick flesh of his hands—hands that haven’t worked for seven years.
Do you know how long a year is?
Do you know how many hours there are in a day
when a day is twenty-three hours on a cot in a cell,
in a cell in a row of cells in a tier of rows of cells
all empty with the choked emptiness of dreams?
Do you know the dreams of men in jail?
They are dead now
The black automatons have won.
They are burned up utterly
their flesh has passed into the air of Massachusetts their dreams have passed into the wind.
“They are dead now,” the Governor’s secretary nudges the Governor,
“They are dead now,” the Superior Court Judge nudges
the Supreme Court Judge,
“They are dead now” the College President nudges
the College President
A dry chuckling comes up from all the dead:
The white collar dead; the silkhatted dead;
the frockcoated dead
They hop in and out of automobiles
breathe deep in relief
as they walk up and down the Boston streets.
they are free of dreams now
free of greasy prison denim
their voices blow back in a thousand lingoes
singing one song
to burst the eardrums of Massachusetts
Make a poem of that if you dare!
Source: John Dos Passos, “They Are Dead Now—” New Masses, October 1927, 228–229.