“Once to every man and nation,” goes the poem by James Russell Lowell, “comes the moment to decide, in the strife of Truth with Falsehood for the good or evil side.” The poem was set to music as a hymn and I sang it as a chorister at St. Paul’s Church in Dedham and later in the Groton School Choir.
It brings to mind a scene in John P. Parker’s remarkable autobiography His Promised Land. Parker was fleeing slavery aboard a steamboat and while changing his hiding place he came face to face with one of the sailors. The sailor could have collected a sizeable bounty for turning Parker in, but he showed his true character: he pointed to a corner of the ship’s hold and later brought him some soup.
Parker later became a highly successful businessman and he returned to the South many times, helping hundred of enslaved people to escape to freedom.
In 1927 Edmund Wilson wrote a story called “The Men From Rumpelmeyers” about a young man visiting Boston during the Sacco and Vanzetti trial. The title refers to an expensive catering firm mentioned in Virginia Wolfe’s novel Mrs Dalloway. The young man and the family he’s visiting hear about the appeals to Massachusetts Governor Alvan T. Fuller for clemency and the governor’s appointment of a committee to advise him on the matter consisting of the presidents of Harvard and MIT.
The family and their visitor avoid discussing the trial, although one of the sisters declares she believes Vanzeztti when he says he is innocent. Indeed millions of people all over the world had seen the evidence against the defendants discredited during their appeals and had heard the remark of Judge Webster Thayer after the initial trial:
“Did you see what I did with those anarchistic bastards the other day?”
Demonstrations were held in every major city in North America and Europe, as well as Tokyo, Auckland, Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, Sydney, Melbourne, Montevideo, and Dubai.
When he gets home, the young man gets two letters, a flirtatious one from the sister and an appeal from Sacco and Vanzetti’s defense fund. He ignores them both, illustrating, as Wilson’s biographer Jeffrey Meyers writes, “how easy it is to be indifferent to suffering.”
Wilson himself later wrote to his friend John Peale Bishop, “All the different kinds of Americans, eminent and obscure, had suddenly, in a short sudden burst of intensified life, been compelled to reveal their true characters.”
On this occasion, Edna St, Vincent Millay revealed her true character — and she had plenty of it. She joined hundreds of people on the picket lines in front of the State House, including Dorothy Parker, John Dos Passos, Katherine Anne Porter and many others. She got arrested for “sauntering and loitering” on Boston Common, and she even obtained an interview with the governor himself.
She showed Fuller accounts of a man hanged in Maine who was later found to be innocent. Later that day she wrote the governor a letter, quoted in Nancy Milford’s brilliant biography of Millay, Savage Beauty:
“You promised me, and I believed you truly, that you would think of what I said. I exact of you this promise now… I cry to you with a million voices: answer our doubts. Exert the clemency which your high offiice affords.
“There is need in Massachusetts of a great man tonight. It is not yet too late for you to be that man.”
Pow! I’ll bet that line stuck with him for the rest of his days.
Governnor Fuller and the presidents of Harvard and MIT, Abbott Larence Lowell and Samuel Wesley Stratton, showed their true characters; the appeals were denied; and Sacco and Vanzetti were executed.
“Then it is the brave man chooses while the coward stands aside.”