NPR's "All Things Considered" weekend edition.
A segment on Detroit that aired March 23, 2013, and includes some comments from me based on Detroit: A Biography".
For Detroit: A Biography ...
Los Angeles Times, April 26, 2012
In the early 19th century, Detroit was a bustling frontier town, focused on agriculture but with an increasingly diverse economy. If only that diversity had been maintained, Martelle writes, the city's story might have been a happier one. By the 1920s, automobile manufacturing was making Detroit boom. Powerful unions vaulted auto workers into the middle class. But the dependence on one industry — one that was cyclical, shortsighted and eager to relocate to the suburbs — eventually helped doom the city. The devastating 1943 and 1967 race riots; the conjoined plagues of crime and drugs and failing schools, and the city's often inept political leadership combined to make matters worse. To fill out the picture, Martelle offers vivid portraits of a handful of Detroiters. Among others, he tells the stories of a struggling black single mother, an entrepreneurial bar owner, and a couple of urban pioneers who unaccountably paid $300,000 for a two-bedroom condo in the once-elegant, half-deserted neighborhood of Brush Park. (The condo is now worth considerably less, he reports.)
Cleveland Plain Dealer, April 1, 2012
"Many writers and artists have tried to capture Detroit, focusing on race, politics, Motown, the automotive industry or, increasingly, those stark pictures of stripped, burned-out buildings -- images that Martelle's sources describe, disparagingly, as "ruins porn." But Martelle succeeds with a different approach, treating the city biographically and seeking out its formative life events. It's an ambitious book, sure to intrigue and incense Metro Detroiters, who remain deeply divided on politics, industry and controversial figures from Henry Ford to five-term Mayor Coleman Young. Martelle measures Detroit through population shifts and job growth, as well as water-line usage, fire deaths, rat bites and the cost of housing. The author resists a one-horse explanation for how a city that reached 1.85 million people in 1950 dwindled to 714,000 by 2010. Strife over race and class might be the most consistent themes in the book, which chronicles a clash over escaped slaves in 1833 and builds to the 1967 riot that made national news. Detroit and Cleveland are very different cities. But readers here will see parallels, especially when it comes to the pain inflicted by a lack of regional planning, out-migration to the suburbs, veiled and blatant bigotry, loss of industry and the incentives race among local governments."
Michigan Public Radio, March 30, 2012
Click through for a link to a podcast of an interview with me by host Jennifer White.
Publishers Weekly, February 6, 2012
Former Detroit News reporter Martelle (Blood Passion) vividly recounts the rise and downfall of a once-great city, from its origins as a French military outpost to protect fur traders and tame local Indian tribes, to the industrial giant known colloquially as Motown, and now when its “economy seized up like an engine run dry.” Founded by a French naval officer named Cadillac, the city became a vibrant river town with the Erie Canal’s opening, exporting both to the east and westward to Chicago. The 1855 opening of Lake Superior later expanded its postbellum shipping capacity and brought heavy industry. By 1929, about 10% of the city’s population of 1.6 million (the nation’s fourth largest) worked in automobile manufacturing. But a series of downturns ravaged the city: the 1973 OPEC oil embargo helped destroy the city’s auto-industry dominance, and drug-dealing gangs caused a murder rate that far outstripped New York’s. Today, says Martelle, Detroit has been abandoned by both the Big Three auto makers and most of its citizens, leaving primarily black residents, many uneducated, jobless, and poor. Martelle, also an occasional contributor to PW, offers an informative albeit depressing glimpse of the workings of a once-great city that is now a shell of its former self. Illus.; 10 b&w photos. Agent: Dystel and Goderich. (Apr.)
Kirkus Reviews, February 1, 2012
Former Detroit News journalist Martelle (The Fear Within: Spies, Commies and American Democracy on Trial, 2011, etc.) explores the troubled city where he once worked.
The author shows how “no other American city has been gutted so deeply.” From its peak in 1950, Detroit has lost 60 percent of its population and many of its employment opportunities, a situation caused in part by auto-industry decline, racism and anti-unionism. The industry decentralized across the country before globalizing, and most of Detroit's population, where it could, left for the suburbs. Now Mayor Dave Bing wants to raze abandoned neighborhoods and seal them off from the rest of the city. Martelle's case study combines history, economic evaluation and firsthand accounts from individual Detroiters. The city was settled by the French about 75 years before the United States was founded and was a center of diversified industry before it became the heart of the auto economy between 1910 and 1929. It was also a center of industrial unionism during the New Deal and was synonymous with the “arsenal of democracy” in World War II. The city’s death warrant, writes Martelle, was signed when the industry converting back to auto production after the war failed to diversify. Now much of it is returning to meadows and pasture. A valuable biography sure to appeal to readers seeking to come to grips with important problems facing not just a city, but a country.
For The Fear Within: Spies, Commies, and American Democracy on Trial ...
Los Angeles Times, May 1, 2011
"In his cogent, nuanced account of the 1949 prosecution of American communists under the Smith Act, former Los Angeles Times staff writer Scott Martelle sees this case fitting into a troubling pattern. From the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 to the Patriot Act of 2001, he writes, 'The United States has a habit of convulsing with fear during times of stress, and in the process undercutting the very freedoms of speech, political belief and religious expression that Americans profess to hold dear.' The concerns that prompt this fear are real, Martelle stresses: There were communist spies in the 1940s, and there are terrorists at the turn of the 21st century. The steps taken to deal with them have generally been hasty and ill-considered, giving the government broad powers with unintended consequences. "The Smith Act vividly illustrates his point."
Publishers Weekly "starred" review, March 14, 2011
"In this illuminating examination of a troubling episode in America's past, veteran journalist (and PW contributor) Martelle (Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West) recounts the celebrated 1949 trial of 11 American Communists for violating the Smith Act, which outlawed advocating overthrow of the government by force. All were public spokesmen of the minuscule American Communist Party. During nine stormy months, the prosecution was reduced to quoting Karl Marx and obscure Communist texts to prove that the defendants had advocated violent revolution. Martelle presents convincing evidence that the judge favored the prosecution, goaded by defense lawyers who the author admits were tactless and quarrelsome. In the end the judge sent every defendant and many of the lawyers to prison. Few readers of this gripping history will quarrel with Martelle's conclusion that the defendants suffered for expressing unpopular opinions. Further, says Martelle, many Americans, including political leaders, continue to proclaim that those who want to destroy America should not be permitted to "hide behind" the Constitution."
Newark Star-Ledger, May 15, 2011
"Martelle, a first-rate storyteller, unfolds the nine-month trial and, in the process, puts a face on all the defendants, their lawyers, the prosecutor and the judge. He also places the trial in its historical context, when the fear of Communism wafted in the wind from the White House to even the New York Times. Although the Smith Act trial of 1949 generated much attention at the time, it has been conveniently forgotten by Americans who like to tout their freedoms. 'The Fear Within' forces us to remember."
Library Journal, May 15, 2011
"Martelle (Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West) details the 1948 arrest and trial of 12 Communist Party USA members, who were accused of espionage and conspiracy in violation of the Smith Act, which prohibited inciting acts of force and violence against the government. He carefully describes the primary defense argument, namely, that these people did nothing more than teach a doctrine and therefore the government’s case amounted to political repression. The author underscores the defense argument that the constitutionality of the Smith Act is suspect because of its inherent conflict with the First Amendment and that because the allegations involved no acts, they did not constitute a clear and present danger to the government. Nevertheless, 11 of the accused were convicted, and the author concludes that the judge’s charge to the jury was the deciding factor, as guilt rode on the defendants’ intent to overthrow the government and their use of words as a rule for action. VERDICT Aimed at an academic audience, this well-documented book is replete with analysis of the legal and political issues involved.—Philip Y. Blue, New York State Supreme Court Criminal Branch Law Lib., New York."
Kirkus Reviews, May 1, 2011
"Journalist Martelle (Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West, 2007) focuses on Dennis v. the United States of America, which had dramatic and disturbing ramifications to First Amendment rights to this day ... The nine-month Foley Square trial became a cause célèbre, not only for the anti-Communist crusaders, including Harry Truman, who was up for reelection, but for defenders of the First Amendment and radical activists who believed fiercely that the men were innocent and being framed for their beliefs. ... Martelle treads carefully through the evidence, keeping a close harness on his own sympathies for the defendants."
For Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West ...
Another round up review of several books that includes some nice praise -- and a valid critique -- of Blood Passion (3.6MB)
A review-essay in The New Yorker in January 2009 about another Ludlow-related book had some nice things to say about Blood Passion, calling it a "lively journalistic accounting." The essay is here
"Blood Passion” captures the tension and distrust between the two sides, sometimes reading with the ferocity of a Martin Scorsese movie. There are broad-daylight murders, beatings with canes, bodies left on train tracks and gun butts upside the head. Bullets rip through abdomens, strike a jaw, sever a spinal column. Another “tore off a large piece of [a] boy’s skull and brain, killing him instantly.” Los Angeles Times Book Review
"The events surrounding what came to be known as the Ludlow Massacre were less about 'the romantic notion of the resilience of the union men and women in the face of oppression,' and more about class distinctions played out against the incidental backdrop of an ugly strike, according to journalist Scott Martelle in an impressive new book about the conflict." Rocky Mountain News.
"Martelle's excellent book captures it with a journalist's flair for narrative and a historian's penchant for making the necessary inferences where they belong: on the page for all to see." Full review in San Francisco Chronicle.
"Martelle tells [the story] with exceptional skill and delicious detail. He has a feel for the terrain and has managed to reconstruct the lives of many of the actors, large and small. We learn much about the company’s gouging of its workers and of the appalling working conditions belowground. While his sympathies are obvious, however, Martelle makes it clear that this was no melodrama. Both sides played hardball, but in these closing years of the Progressive Era that was the only game around." Click here for the full review for the History Book Club.
The New West online news site covered the reading at the Boulder Bookstore.
Interview with journalist and historian Jon Wiener on Los Angeles station KPFK 90.7 (click through to the archives; the show ran Wednesday Sept. 26).
The Rocky Talk blogsite of the Rocky Mountain News hosted me for an online chat with Mark Wolf while I was in town.