Saturday, May 26, 2007

Hardeman reviews Stannard on Race, Rape and Clarence Darrow's Spectacular Last Case (and notes on narrative history)

For writers of narrative history, one challenge is the way to build an argument into the story. An analytical framework is always part of narrative history -- a theory of history (explicit or implicit), and an analysis of the components of the particular historical episode inform the way the research is conducted and the narrative constructed. What seems to the reader to be a seamlessly well-told tale is the product, not only of painstaking research, but of puzzling over questions of causality and the nature of historical method. While every historiographical turn may not be parsed for the reader, the challenge is how to adequately highlight and develop the most central arguments while also maintaining the power of the narrative form.

All writers should struggle with this balance, and many have trouble getting it right, so it is not an unexpected criticism for Martin J. Hardeman to find fault with David E. Stannard's book, Honor Killing: Race, Rape, and Clarence Darrow's Spectacular Last Case (Penguin, 2005) for an apparent misfit between a narrative that he finds well written, and an analysis that he calls "truly fascinating." By pointing to this as his disappointment with the book, Hardemen helps readers reflect on the craft of narrative history.

Hardeman (Dept. History, Eastern Illinois University) reviews Stannard on H-Law. He writes:
David E. Stannard's Honor Killing: Race, Rape, and Clarence Darrow's Spectacular Last Case is about a place, a time, and two criminal cases. The place was the Territory of Hawaii. The time was 1931 to 1932. And, the two criminal cases consisted of a very messy allegation of gang rape, made even messier by the different races of the alleged rapists and their victim, and the later revenge kidnapping and murder of one of the accused.

What became known as the "Massie Case" began on September 13, 1931, when Thalia Massie, the twenty-year old wife of a naval officer reported her sexual assault by five native Hawaiian men to the Honolulu police department. Over time and with the assistance of the chief of detectives, Mrs. Massie's description of her assault, the assailants, and the license plate of their car would become more detailed. Ultimately, it would lead to the arrest, indictment, and trial of Horace Ida, David Takai, Henry Chang, Ben Ahakuelo, and Joseph Kahahawai,two of whom were Japanese, one Hawaiian-Chinese, and only two native Hawaiians....[The jury failed to reach a verdict, and a retrial was ordered.]

The next act began on January 8, 1932, when Tommie Massie, his wife's mother (Grace Fortescue), and two Navy enlisted men kidnapped and murdered Joseph Kahahawai in a bungled attempt to extort a confession. Arrested the same day, the four were eventually indicted for murder in the second degree.
The new trial attracted world-wide attention and, for an almost unheard of fee of $40,000, Clarence Darrow as lead attorney for the defense. Confessing that he had fired the fatal shot, Tommie Massie pled temporary insanity. However, Darrow's actual defense was built on the right of a husband to avenge the sullied honor of his wife. To the general surprise of the public, Darrow's eloquence failed. The jury found all four guilty. But, the story was not quite over. Under pressure from the local white elite as well as from the Hoover administration in Washington, the Territory's governor, Lawrence M. Judd, commuted the ten-year sentences of the four to sixty minutes each.

Honor Killing is both enlightening and entertaining. Even though detailed descriptions of the trials and the bizarre people that surrounded them take up more than three-fourths of the text, they are not David Stannard's primary concern. He sees the Massie case as a catalyst. It provided a reason and a platform for Hawaii's non-whites to unite despite ethnic and racial differences. It was a spark that ignited a democratic revolution. It began with columns in the Hawaii Hochi, a Japanese-language newspaper, questioning Thalia Massie's rape allegation as well as the impartiality of the investigation by the police and the public prosecutor's office. Doubt infected Princess Abigail Kawananakoa who provided funds for the accused men's lawyer. Doubt affected other members of the native Hawaiian upper-class as well as ordinary members of the non-white majority, doubt that turned into conviction for the thousands of mourners that attended the ceremonies surrounding Joseph Kahahawai's funeral. Conviction and solidarity steadily led to the political overthrow of the white oligarchy that had ruled since annexation.
Honor Killing is a worthwhile read. But, Stannard's lively narrative and truly fascinating analysis are not a seamless fit. Somehow, the cruel frivolity of the Massie affair (with its echoes of the Scottsboro case) so dominate the text that analysis seems like an afterthought. Because of this, his book is a little less than it could have been.

For the full review, click here.