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"We Stand Defeated America": Sacco and Vanzetti in U.S.A.

The emotional and highly publicized case of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti became a touchstone and rallying cry for American radicals. 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. The case and executions were commemorated in an outpouring of literary expression. Dos Passos returned to the subject of Sacco and Vanzetti in his epic three-volume work of fiction, U.S.A. In this excerpt, cops beat up the fictional character Mary French outside the Charlestown jail where Sacco and Vanzetti awaited their executions. “Newsreel LXVI” followed with a collage of contemporary headlines. Finally, “The Camera Eye (50),” a stream-of-consciousness montage, was Dos Passos’s impassioned personal response.

"Only a few blocks from Charlestown jail," a voice yelled.

This time the cops were using their clubs. There was the clatter of the horses‘ hoofs on the cobbles and the whack thud whack thud of the clubs. And way off the jangle jangle of patrolwagons. Mary was terribly scared. A big truck was bearing down on her. She jumped to one side out of the way behind one of the girder supports. Two cops had hold of her. She clung to the grimy girder. A cop was cracking her on the hand with his club. She wasn’t much hurt, she was in a patrolwagon, she’d lost her hat and her hair had come down. She caught herself thinking that she ought to have her hair bobbed if she was going to do much of this sort of thing. “Anybody know where Don Stevens is?” Don’s voice came a little shakily from the blackness in front. “That you, Mary?” "How are you, Don?“ "O.K. Sure. A little battered round the head an’ ears.” "He’s bleedin' terrible,“ came another man’s voice. ”Comrades, let’s sing," Don’s voice shouted. Mary forgot everything as her voice joined his voice, all their voices, the voices of the crowds being driven back across the bridge in singing:

Arise ye prisoners of starvation . . .

Newsreel LXVI

[Supreme Court Chief Justice Oliver Wendell] Holmes Denies Stay

A better world’s in birth

Tiny Wasps Imported From Korea In Battle To Death With Asiatic Beetle

Boy Carried Mile Down Sewer; Shot Out Alive

Chicago Bars Meetings

For justice thunders condemnation

Washington Keeps Eye On Radicals

arise rejected of the earth

Paris Brussels Moscow Geneva Add Their Voices

It is the final conflict

Let each stand in his place

Geologist Lost In Cave Six Days

The International Party

Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die

Shall be the human race.

Much I thought of you when I was lying in the death house—the singing, the kind tender voices of the children from the playground where there was all the life and the joy of liberty—just one step from the wall that contains the buried agony of three buried souls. It would remind me so often of you and of your sister and I wish I could see you every moment, but I feel better that you will not come to the death house so that you could not see the horrible picture of three living in agony waiting to be electrocuted.

The Camera Eye (50)

they have clubbed us off the streets they are stronger they are rich they hire and fire the politicians the newspaper editors the old judges the small men with reputations the college presidents the wardheelers (Listen businessmen college presidents judges America will not forget her betrayers) they hire the men with guns the uniforms the policecars the patrolwagons

all right you have won you will kill the brave men our friends tonight

there is nothing left to do we are beaten we the beaten crowd together in these old dingy schoolrooms on Salem Street shuffle up and down the gritty creaking stairs sit hunched with bowed heads on benches and hear the old words of the haters of oppression made new in sweat and agony tonight

our work is over the scribbled phrases the nights typing releases the smell of the printshop the sharp reek of newprinted leaflets the rush for Western Union stringing words into wires the search for stinging words to make you feel who are your oppressors America

America our nation has been beaten by strangers who have turned our language inside out who have taken the clean words our fathers spoke and made them slimy and foul

their hired men sit on the judge’s bench they sit back with their feet on the tables under the dome of the State House they are ignorant of our beliefs they have the dollars the guns the armed forces the powerplants

they have built the electric chair and hired the executioner to throw the switch all right we are two nations America our nation has been beaten by strangers who have bought the laws and fenced off the meadows and cut down the woods for pulp and turned our pleasant cities into slums and sweated the wealth out of our people and when they want to they hire the executioner to throw the switch

but do they know that the old words of the immigrants are being renewed in blood and agony tonight do they know that the old American speech of the haters of oppression is new tonight in the mouth of an old woman from Pittsburgh of a husky boilermaker from Frisco who hopped freights clear from the Coast to come here in the mouth of a Back Bay socialworker in the mouth of an Italian printer of a hobo from Arkansas the language of the beaten nation is not forgotten in our ears tonight the men in the deathhouse made the old words new before they died

If it had not been for these things, I might have lived out my life talking at streetcorners to scorning men. I might have died unknown, unmarked, a failure. This is our career and our triumph. Never in our full life can we hope to do such work for tolerance, for justice, for man’s understanding of man as now we do by an accident.

now their work is over the immigrants haters of oppression lie quiet in black suits in the little undertaking parlor in the North End the city is quiet the men of

the conquering nation are not to be seen on the streets

they have won why are they scared to be seen the

streets? on the streets you see only the downcast

faces of the beaten the streets belong to the beaten

nation all the way to the cemetery where the bodies of the immigrants are to be buried we line the curbs in the drizzling rain we crowd the wet sidewalks elbow to

elbow silent pale looking with scared eyes at the coffins

we stand defeated America

Source: John Dos Passos, “The Big Money,” in USA (New York: Modern Library, 1937), 460–464.

See Also:"Save Sacco and Vanzetti": The Defense Committee's Plea
"They Are Dead Now": Eulogy for Sacco and Vanzetti
"March On, O Dago Christs": Sacco and Vanzetti Memorialized