The Man Who Never Died: The Life, Times, and Legacy of Joe Hill, American Labor Icon

By William M. Adler

(Bloomsbury, $30, 448 pages)

Who is this author?

William M. Adler, who lives in Colorado, is a freelance writer whose work has been published in many major magazines, such as Esquire, Rolling Stone, Mother Jones, Texas Monthly and the Texas Observer. Adler also has written two other books. He traced the success and subsequent failure of a black family’s cocaine distribution business in “Land of Opportunity: One Family’s Quest for the American Dream in the Age of Crack.” In “Mollie’s Job: A Story of Life and Work on the Global Assembly Line,” he shows problems of the global economy and free trade by chronicling three women who held the same factory job that moved from New Jersey, where it paid $8 an hour, to Mississippi, where it paid less and finally to Mexico, where it paid $4 an hour.

What is this book about?

BItter class warfare, capitalism under attack, embattled unions, unhappy workers: they’re all in the news today, but they are nothing new. About 100 years ago, these issues were making headlines too, and one controversy was about Swedish immigrant Joe Hill, a protest song writer, labor union organizer and supporter of the Industrial Workers of the World, or Wobblies, as they were known. Hill is known mainly today as the hero of the folk ballad “I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night,” with the famous line, “I never died, says he,” often sung by Pete Seeger, Joan Baez and others.

He was convicted of murder in Utah in 1914 and sentenced to death by firing squad. Many suspected he was being railroaded, and “The Man Who Never Died” provides strong evidence that was indeed the case. But though Hill had the support of such important figures as Pres. Woodrow Wilson and Helen Keller, he turned down the chance at a pardon and demanded a new trial, evidently feeling he was more important to the labor movement as a dead martyr than a live free man. Perhaps he was right.

Why you’ll like it:

History may not precisely repeat itself, but it does spiral around similar concerns, and reading about how labor issues played out some 100 years ago can help us understand the current controversies about unions, the Occupy Wall Street movement and the eternal clash between rich and poor. Adler is strong on research, having spent four years delving into newspaper accounts of the day, archival material and other biographies of Joe Hill to illuminate the man and the context of his life and death. Often it is easier to understand historical events if they are focused on one person’s life story. Adler provides that opportunity to his readers.

What others are saying:

“Joe Hill is a mythic, martyred figure in the history of American radicalism, part-labor organizer, part-songster. Bill Adler has done a fine job of rediscovering the man as well as the legend,” says Princeton history professor and author Sean Wilentz.

“William Adler, an investigative historian, delivers a controversial verdict… Mr. Adler concludes that Hill came to believe that he was worth far more to his cause as a symbol than as an individual. His rousing last words show him to be a man mindful of his legacy: ‘Don’t waste time in mourning. Organize!’” says Economist magazine.

“The Man Who Never Died” reminds us that it took a people’s movement to create America’s middle class, and that people must get moving pronto — for the bosses, bankers, BS-ers, and bastards are going all out to kill it….Don’t mourn, read this book, get out of the La-Z-Boy, and join the action,” says Jim Hightower, best-selling populist author, radio commentator and editor of the “Hightower Lowdown” newsletter.

When is it available?

“The Man Who Never Died” is available now at the Hartford Public Library.

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