Phyllis Vine’s book “One Man’s Castle: Clarence Darrow in defense of the American Dream is the second book I have read in less than a year about one of Clarence Darrow’s cases. Soon I am going to have to read a biography of him but for now I have to say that I think the real title of this book should have been “One Man’s Castle: Dr. Ossian Sweet’s fight for the American Dream”. The story is simple and dramatic, Dr. Sweet and his wife, brothers and several friends were moving into his new home and when a rock throwing mob attacks the house and the men take up arms to protect their castle. It could be a John Wayne movie. Except that the Sweets are black, the mob was inspired by the KKK, and it was 1920s Detroit.
The one fault I had with the book was the extensive background that Vine gave on the history of violence against African Americans and the reasons for the “Great Migration”. That is not a problem with the book, it was familiar ground and I got bored. Dr. Sweet’s early life and education were, for me, also familiar ground. I was even familiar with the Flexner Report, anyone interested in education and the corrupting practices of for profit schools should be, but I was surprised to learn that a historically Black medical school was rated one of the best schools in the nation by Abraham Flexner. I was impressed, and surprised, to learn that Dr. Sweet studied in Europe, Vienna and Paris, in some of the best medical institutions of the time. Those were not the last surprises Vine’s book held for me.
I waited until writing this review to check the authors credentials, I expected she was a journalist, someone experienced in writing popular articles for the masses, that is how the book reads. It is put together like a novel, the writing flows along as smoothly as a deep wide river. The index and bibliography should have tipped me off that Vine is in fact a scholarly historian who taught at both Sarah Lawrence and the University of Michigan. Her writing could make other historians jealous. Vine also managed to add two titles to my “to be read” pile, Walter White’s “Rope and Faggot: The Biography of Judge Lynch” and Arthur Garfield Hays’ “Let Freedom Ring”. Not many books these days can manage that.