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Title: The Story Of My Life
Author: Clarence Darrow
Amazon link

Clarance Darrow was an American lawyer best known for his involvement in the 1925 Scopes "monkey trial" in which he (unsuccessfully) defended the teaching of evolution in a Tennessee high school (a story told in the play and movies entitled Inherit The Wind).

I'm reading his autobiography, entitled "The Story Of My Life" (available free in HTML format at Project Gutenberg Australia and in Kindle-friendly prc format at MobileRead).

I've only read the first four chapters so far, but it's already clear that it's a fascinating book in many respects. Darrow writes with a clear, flowing voice, telling a coherent narrative while being completely unafraid of natural digressions. It is exactly what the title claims it to be - an old man telling his life story. It was published in 1932 (and thus may not technically be in the public domain in the US), about six years before his death.

The early chapters draw a vivid sketch of life in a small town in late 19th century Ohio. Of childhood and baseball and public school and family. A real slice of Americana, as they say. How he became a lawyer, and what it was like serving in that capacity in rural America. But it's also seeded with Darrow's opinions on religion and politics and the school system and so much more. Interesting in themselves. All the more so when you consider the source.

I don't agree with everything he says, but I'm so swept up in how he says it, and in the opportunity to see the world as it was through his eyes.

Some excerpts that jumped out at me, for various reasons...

First of all, I have noticed that most autobiographers begin with ancestors. As a rule they start out with the purpose of linking themselves by blood and birth to some well-known family or personage. No doubt this is due to egotism, and the hazy, unscientific notions that people have about heredity. For my part, I seldom think about my ancestors; but I had them; plenty of them, of course. In fact, I could fill this book with their names if I knew them all, and deemed it of the least worth.

I have been told that I came of a very old family. A considerable number of people say that it runs back to Adam and Eve, although this, of course, is only hearsay, and I should not like to guarantee the title.

This is the second paragraph (and the beginning of the third) of the first chapter. It caught my attention because of Darrow's part in the Scopes trial. I wouldn't be surprised if he had that claim to fame in mind when he wrote it.

A little further down the same page:

All of it had an important bearing upon me, and shows the many, many close calls I had when I was casting about for an ancestral line and yearning to be born. The farther back I go, the more unlikely it seems that I am really here, and I sometimes pinch myself to make sure that it is not a dream;

He's talking here about the odds of his coming to existence, as he does for the next few paragraphs. How unlikely it was that his grandparents came to live in the same place, that his parents met, etc. Which is true, of course, for all of us. And yet... if his parents hadn't met, they'd probably have married other people, and their children (who were never born in our world) would have had the chance to think how unlikely it was that they were born. But still, I like the way he puts it.

A few pages from there:

Doubtless a certain vanity has its part in moving me to write about myself. I am quite sure that this is true, even though I am aware that neither I nor any one else has the slightest importance in time and space. I know that the earth where I have spent my life is only a speck of mud floating in the endless sky. I am quite sure that there are millions of other worlds in the universe whose size and importance are most likely greater than the tiny graveyard on which I ride.

Again, I just enjoy his turn of phrase.

Any one who desires to write a story of his ideas and philosophy should omit childhood, for this is sacred ground, and when the old man turns back to that fairyland he lingers until any other undertaking seems in vain.

But the first bell in the academy tower has stopped ringing and I must betake myself and my books up the hill.


As I entered the academy I was at once aware that I had changed. I had stepped out of childhood, where we were controlled by commands, and had become a youth, where I had some rights. In all my years at the district school our teachers were women. Now we had a man. It took some time and trial to feel out just how far we dared to run counter to his will, or to act on our own. But we learned, in the true scientific manner, of trial and error, and trial and success.

I love that transition. And the way he ignores his own advice. And his reflection on his boyhood view of teachers. (More interesting because he ended up becoming a high school teacher for a brief period after college.)

Then, for the first time, we studied history. Not for any special purpose, or, seemingly, with any end in view, but it was necessary that we put in the time.

Interesting (though probably not uncommon) attitude, especially from the perspective of a schoolboy. But then, that's only a part of Darrow's view on the philosophy of school, on which he further elaborates shortly:

As I look back at my days at the district school and the academy, I cannot avoid a feeling of the appalling waste of time. Never since those days have I had occasion to use much of the arithmetic that I learned. In fact, only the merest fraction has ever been brought into service. I am satisfied that this is the experience of almost all the boys and girls who went to school when I was young; and as near as I can tell this is true to-day. I began grammar in the grades, and continued it in the high school, but it was a total loss, not only to me but to all the rest. I would be the last to deny the value of a good understanding of some language, but the method of our public school was the poorest and the most expensive for getting that understanding. For my part, I never could learn grammar, at either the primary or the high school. I have used language extensively all my life, and no doubt have misused it, too; in a way, I have made a living from its use, but I am convinced that I was rather hindered than helped in this direction by the public schools. I am well aware of my own defects in the use of language and have always tried, and still try, to correct my shortcomings in this respect, but with only indifferent success.

All I'll say to that is that I find it amusing that he is here expressing, eloquently and with perfect grammar (down to the semicolon in the midst of that very sentence), his inability to learn proper grammar.

Most of the rules for grammar and pronunciation are purely arbitrary. Any one who makes any pretense of observation and experience cannot fail to note the differences in the forms of speech and pronunciation in different countries and in various sections of each country. The correct use of words can only come from environment and habit, and all of this must be learned in childhood from the family or associates, otherwise it will not be known. Committing rules represents only feats of memory that have no effect on speech.

Memorizing history is likewise of no avail. We learned the names of presidents and kings, of the generals, of the chief wars, and those accidents that had been accepted as the great events of the world; but none of it had any relation to our lives.

I think you get the idea. And yet he spent much of the second chapter talking about his family's love of book learning. How his parents, alone amongst their siblings, had it. How all but one of their children had it. How their house was not only the only family home in town to have books other than the bible, but how it their bookshelves were filled. How much he loved reading and the intellectual life. It's not the reading and the teaching to which he is objecting, but material and how it's taught.

As I look back at the district school and the academy, I plainly see the boys and girls that gathered at the ringing of the bell. They were the children of the men and women of Kinsman and the territory just outside. Most of these families were farmers. Next in number were the small shop-keepers. There were two or three blacksmiths, a stone-cutter, a tinner, a carpenter, a few laborers, two doctors, two or three preachers, and a dentist. Few of these had ever been far from home, and all knew next to nothing of the outside world. Most of their children followed in their steps. Very few of these laughing, boasting boys and girls ever left the old village, and almost none were drawn into any broader or different fields than their parents knew before. None of them ever found any practical use for what they learned, or tried to learn at school beyond ordinary reading and writing. The exceptions who aspired to other avenues were moved by some inner or outer urge and specially prepared for their future course of life.

Schools probably became general and popular because parents did not want their children about the house all day. The school was a place to send them to get them out of the way. If, perchance, they could learn something it was so much to the good. Colleges followed the schools for the same reason. These took charge of the boy at a time when he could be of little or no use at home, and was only a burden and a care.


Schools were not established to teach and encourage the pupil to think; beyond furnishing a place for keeping the children out of the way, their effort was to cement the minds of pupils according to certain moulds. The teachers were employed to teach the truth, and the most important truth concerned the salvation of their souls. From the first grade to the end of the college course they were taught not to think, and the instructor who dared to utter anything in conflict with ordinary beliefs and customs was promptly dismissed, if not destroyed. Even now there are very few schools that encourage the young or the old to think out questions for themselves. And yet, life is a continuous problem for the living, and first of all we should be equipped to think, if possible. Then, too, education should be adjusted to the needs of the pupil and his prospective future. Wise teachers and intelligent parents can tell at an early age the trend and probable capacity of the mind of the child. All learning should be adapted to making life easier to be lived.

And then, as mentioned, he turned around to become a teacher:

During the winter I taught a district school in a country community. I remember even the salary, or wages, that I received. The pay was thirty dollars a month "and found"--the latter of which I collected by going from house to house one night after another, and then returning to my own home on Friday night. Boarding around was not so bad. I was "company" wherever I arrived, and only the best was set before me. I had pie and cake three times a day. I taught in the same school three winters, which completed that part of my career. I have been teaching more or less all my life, but confining my activities to those who did not want to learn. In this three years I had some fifty scholars, ranging from seven years old to a year or two above my own age. On the whole, it was a pleasant three years. I am not sure how much I taught the pupils, but I am certain that they taught me. In most district schools rods and switches were a part of the course. My school was large and had caused much trouble to the teachers before I came, but I determined that there should be no corporal punishment while I was there, and of this the pupils were early informed. I told them that I wanted no one to do anything through fear. I joined in their games and sports, including, of course, baseball when the snow was not on the ground. I lengthened the noon hours and recesses, which made a hit with the pupils but brought criticism from their parents. However, I managed to convince them that I was right, and am still quite sure that I was. Whether they learned much or little, they certainly enjoyed those winters. No matter when I go back to my old home I am sure to meet some of the thinning group whom I tried to make happy even if I could not make them wise. I feel sure that if the same effort could be given to making people happy that is devoted to making them get an education which could not be accomplished this world would be a much better home for the human race.

I just find that fascinating. What it was to be a teacher in a rural community of the time, and how he reformed things in his little pocket.

Then we get to see what it took to become a lawyer:

At that time the full course was two years. At the end of one year I was positive that I could make my preparation in another year in an office, which would cost much less money and give a chance to be admitted to the bar at twenty-one. So I went to work in a law office in Youngstown, Ohio, until I was ready for examination for admission to the bar. In those days a committee of lawyers were chosen to examine applicants. They were all good fellows and wanted to help us through. The bar association of to-day lay down every conceivable condition; they require a longer preliminary study, and exact a college education and long courses in law schools, to keep new members out of the closed circle. The Lawyers' Union is about as anxious to encourage competition as the Plumbers' Union is, or the United States Steel Co., or the American Medical Association.

When I considered that I was ready for the test I presented myself, with some dozen other ambitious young men, for the examination. A committee of lawyers was appointed to try us out. That committee did not seem to take it as seriously as examiners do to-day. I was not made to feel that the safety of the government or the destiny of the universe was hanging on their verdict. As I remember it now, the whole class was passed, and I became a member of the Ohio Bar.

And so, in Chapter Four, he tries to set up practice:

I had no money and no influential friends. I had a rather meagre education. I had never been carefully and methodically trained, and I have felt the lack of it all my life.

Interesting, isn't it, in light of his many comments about the school system in the previous chapter?

And then there's the beginning of the very next paragraph:

I was strong and healthy. I seemed to have a good mind. I really had a rather good education. While this education was not detailed and explicit, still it was broad and comprehensive for one of my years.

He flows from there back to philosophy:

I took a little office in the village of Andover, ten miles from Kinsman, borrowed some money to buy some books, and flung my shingle to the breeze. I did not succeed at first. I am not certain that I ever did. In fact, I don't know the meaning of the word "success." To some--perhaps to most--it means "money." I never cared much for it nor tried to get much of it or ever had a great deal, but still most of my life I have had what I needed. To some, success means political preferment; this I never wanted. It is hard enough to maintain an independent stand and freely express one's self without being handicapped by the desire for office or money. Most people who follow a political career grow to be cowards and slaves; for that matter, so do men who sell prunes. In life one cannot eat his cake and have it, too; he must make his choice and then do the best he can to be content to go the way his judgment leads. Whether he really has anything to do with the making of a choice is still another question for which I have plenty of time and space later on.

And then on to a description of the local farmers:

There were some things that they did not merely believe. These they knew. They knew that Protestantism was inspired and that all of its creeds, however conflicting, were true. They knew that the Republican party and all of its doctrines came as a divine revelation. They knew that the farmers were the backbone of the country and the most intelligent people in the world. They knew that all pleasure was sinful, and suffering was righteous; that the cities were evil and the country was good. Of course there were no saloons in the place.

"Real America." Circa 1880.

But then he changes tone (after moving to a slightly bigger town):

With me, as with most lawyers, a case became a personal matter, and my side was right. My feelings were always so strong that fees were a secondary matter.

The most important case I had in Ohio was an action of replevin for a harness worth fifteen dollars. There were other cases that involved more money, but this concerned the ownership of a harness which my client, a boy, had been given for attending a wealthy man in a case of illness. The suit was commenced before a justice of the peace ten miles away. I received five dollars for the first trial, but the jury disagreed. It was set for a second trial, but my client had no more five-dollar bills, so I tried it again at my own expense. My client lost the case, but I persuaded a friend of mine to sign a bond to appeal it to the Court of Common Pleas. By that time I had moved to Ashtabula, but went to the adjoining county to try the case, although after the first five-dollar bill I never got a cent, always paying my own expenses and those of my client, too. I won the case before the jury, but it was taken to the Court of Appeals, where the verdict was reversed. Again it was tried by the jury, who again decided in favor of my client. Once more it was carried to the Court of Appeals, which again reversed the case--the result hinged on a question of law. So I decided to appeal to the Supreme Court, although, in the meantime, I had moved to Chicago. I wrote the brief, argued the case, paid all expenses, and the court decided in my favor. It was seven or eight years from the time the case was commenced before it ended. I had spent money that I could not afford to spare, but I was determined to see it through.

This was long ago. There was no money involved, and not much principle, as I see it now, but then it seemed as if my life depended upon the result. Outside of the immediate jurisdiction it was not a famous case, but there are still living in Trumbull County, Ohio, a number of people who remember the case of "Jewell versus Brockway"--which involved the title to a harness.

And something about his time away from work:

Fortunately, there was usually a poker game in progress somewhere, almost any time of the day or night. The limit was small, to be sure, as befitted a community of slender means, but none the less inspiring. After baseball, the next game to fascinate me was poker. With congenial companions, a deck of cards and a box of chips, and a little something to drink, I could forget the rest of the world until the last white bone had been tossed into the yawning jack pot. I don't know whether I would recommend the sport or not; I doubt if I would recommend anything if I thought my advice was to be followed. Everything depends on one's point of view of life. I am inclined to believe that the most satisfactory part of life is the time spent in sleep, when one is utterly oblivious to existence; next best is when one is so absorbed in activities that one is altogether unmindful of self. Poker is able to supply this for many, in all ranks of life; yet I would not advise any one to play, or not play, but do most emphatically advise them to keep the limit down.

And back to work, but with a slightly different view:

Much of the business of the country lawyer in my day was the trial of cases before justices of the peace. These often seemed to be exciting events. And right now I am not so sure but that the old-time country lawyers fighting over the title to a cow were as clever, and sometimes as learned, as lawyers now whose cases involve millions of dollars, or human lives. The trials then were not so much a matter of rote. A lawsuit, then, before a justice of the peace, was filled with color and life and wits. Nor was the country lawsuit a dry and formal affair. Every one, for miles around, had heard of the case and taken sides between the contending parties or their lawyers. Neighborhoods, churches, lodges, and entire communities were divided as if in war. Often the cases were tried in the town halls, and audiences assembled from far and near. An old-time lawsuit was like a great tournament, as described by Walter Scott. The combatants on both sides were always seeking the weakest spots in the enemy's armor, and doing their utmost to unhorse him or to draw blood.

A country lawsuit not only gave the farmers and others not employed somewhere to go, but it left in its wake a chain of hatreds and scars that never healed.

That's more than enough, I'm sure. And just from the first four chapters. But I had to share. I go from admiring his clever turns of phrase to soaking in his wisdom to gasping at his boldly opinionated philosophy to sitting back in wonder as a world gone by comes to life before me. I'm not sure if reading it in bits and pieces has the same effect, but hopefully the highlighted passages speak for themselves. I find it fascinating and enthralling, and I hope at least some of you will give it a chance.
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October 2012


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