Monday, August 13, 2012

Talkin’ Socialism: J. A. Wayland and the Radical Press by Elliott Shore

The fascinating and tragic story of an American idealist
This book tells the amazing story of how Girard, Kansas, a tiny town in the southeastern corner of the state, became the nerve center of the socialist movement in early twentieth century America. J. A. Wayland, a newspaper entrepreneur and real estate speculator, had founded other radical papers in Indiana and Colorado before starting the Appeal to Reason in Girard. The Appeal would go on to become the most widely distributed socialist periodical in American history—with a half million subscribers nationwide—and an influential force in socialist party politics. This carefully researched book details the rise and fall of Wayland and the Appeal, and examines the conflicts that arose between Wayland’s capitalist business practices and the paper’s socialist mission. Notable incidents in the history of the Appeal to Reason include the initial publication, in serial form, of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and its support of Eugene V. Debs in his campaigns as Socialist candidate for the Presidency of the United States. The Appeal was also embroiled in numerous labor disputes and lawsuits, even suffering from the occasional scandal. Along the way there are cameo appearances by union advocate Mother Jones, attorney Clarence Darrow, and Presidents Roosevelt, Taft, and Wilson. Shore doesn’t concentrate his narrative entirely on the Appeal, but also provides a broad overview of the radical press at the time. Talkin’ Socialism reminds us of an era when newspaper editors, of papers large and small, were the pundits, celebrities, and philosophers of their day. It was a fascinating time in American history when socialism was seriously considered as a viable option for American government by millions of people in the working and middle classes. Shore examines why that idealism ultimately failed to triumph, and how the downfall of socialism in America was inextricably linked to the downfall of the Appeal itself.

In the interest of full disclosure I must confess that I work for the publisher of this book. It was published over 20 years ago, however, and has long been out of print, so I have had nothing to do with its production or sales. I read it simply because the subject was of interest to me. Anyone interested in the history of American socialism or the radical press will enjoy this book and should definitely seek out a used or library copy.

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