One of the joys of teaching is having the chance to talk about great books with bright students. I enjoy teaching few books more than John Merriman’s The Dynamite Club, the story of a young French anarchist named Émile Henry, who detonated a bomb in a crowded Paris café in 1894. And I’ve taught no student brighter than Fletcher Warren (’15), a History and Business & Political Science double-major at Bethel University. So I thought I’d share the joy and, with his permission, pass along his response to the questions I asked of my Modern Europe class last month:
…how well does John Merriman succeed in meeting his stated goal, to answer “why did Émile Henry do what he did?” — to “[get] inside the mind of a bomber” (p. 3) from a past century and another culture? Why, as he says, is this “no easy task”? What makes him successful (or keeps from being successful) in answering his question?
In his essay, Fletcher picked up on several of the themes that keep recurring in this course: e.g., what we mean by “modern” Europe; how historians practice empathy. He prefaced his essay with the following comments:
I want to offer a brief preface to this piece of writing. I found the book to be riveting and deeply fascinating as a historical work. Perhaps more so, it was impactful on a human level. It is this dichotomy that runs through my essay and which I was never quite able to articulate within the confines of the assignment. Anarchy has always interested me, not least because of its tangled intersections with religion, politics, economics, labor, and philosophy – for me, the substance of history. As I read the book, I attempted to engage Henry’s story with empathy. Oddly, I found myself unable to do so. Instead, I found myself sympathetic and revolted at turns. Perhaps this unexpected identification with Henry stems from some perceived similarities in our societies, as I note in the essay. The ongoing destruction of the Minnesota Orchestra (I have a number of friends among the musicians), trends in higher education in general and Bethel in particular, and my general Ludditidity have left me feeling quite downcast as regards the future. It is easy to see how in his particular time and place, Henry acted the way he did. His actions were horrendous and ultimately failed to create anything like the world he desired, yet at the end of the book, empathy now comes easily.
Thanks for listening,
* * * * *
In his book, The Dynamite Club, John Merriman attempts to explain why Émile Henry, a French bourgeois-turned-anarchist, was driven to indiscriminately throw a bomb into a Paris cafe. Merriman does an admirable job painting the backdrop of fin-de-siècle France and the historical contours of 19th century anarchism, but in the last analysis, I feel his book fails in its stated goal: to answer why Henry did what he did. I can think of few ways in which Merriman could have improved the book as a work of history; the book is impeccable in its contextualization and narrative. Yet somehow I sense that Merriman is treading in the grey marches of the historical enterprise. It may be possible to write this sort of history ‘correctly’, yet stumble in the last analysis for want of the ineffable. I am not often dissatisfied with the historical approach that assumes human behaviour can be explained largely by context and contingency – even if that approach tends to push human agency into a far corner – but this book does not satisfactorily explain Henry on these grounds.
Merriman’s task is, admittedly, difficult. The tenor, language, and zeitgeist of 1890s Paris is quite a foreign world to 21st century Americans. Moreover, the concrete institutions and collective memory of French life are radically different; as the oft-referenced suppression of the Paris Commune indicates, the ordinary Parisian’s life was lived under the shadow of a revolution whose breath was still living memory. However, unlike [Robert] Darnton’s 18th century thought-world, this Paris is recognizably modern. Its political philosophies – socialism, liberalism, and conservatism – and their responses to grinding social inequality have morphed over the intervening years, but not beyond recognition. Indeed, I might suggest that as a result of industrialization, poverty and inequality themselves had become qualitatively new – both of which are issues that remain with us to this day, albeit to a different degree. Merriman suggests, and I concur, that although our worlds are vastly different, there may be a “gossamer thread” connecting 19th century anarchistic bombings with our own 21st century terrorisms.
To some extent then, I think it possible to empathize with Henry, even across cultural and temporal distance. Merriman does an excellent job in tracking 19th century anarchism, showing how its adherents were largely born into poverty and deprivation. Disenfranchised from the levers of power, anarchists came to seek liberation for the oppressed through violence against the oppressors. Ironically (delightfully so to the anarchists; perhaps horribly so to us), the technological progress that had in part created the social inequalities of the day furnished the anarchist’s chosen weapon: dynamite. Glorying in its destructive powers, anarchists of a certain persuasion adopted ‘propaganda by the deed’, a strategy that foreshadowed the coming Marxist-Leninist revolutionary vanguard. Henry, his family life shaped by the repressions of the Third Republic, fervently embraced the anarchistic creed in spite of his privileged background.
These details offer a compelling picture of the historical context and personal causes of Henry’s actions. Yet they do not account for the whole of Henry. They do not account for the interior psychological landscape of a man who killed for those he despised, saying “I love all people in their humanity for what they should become, but I have contempt for what they are.” What tortured philosophies led him down his path? The questions that I am interested in cannot perhaps be answered in history. In the last analysis, it is difficult to express exactly why I feel Merriman failed in his task. Perhaps it is because he succeeded so well in writing the mere history of a man who demands to be accounted for by much more than ‘the usual means’.
– Fletcher Warren
 As I have mentioned before, drawing a direct comparison between pre-20th century conditions and modern American standards is somewhat a dubious enterprise. I leave uncontested the notion that by and large, people living today have virtually limitless comfort and security as compared to 19th century French laborers.
 Perhaps literature offers a better insight. I think particularly of G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, a book which I have read many times over the years. In spite of its lack of overt historical context, the book is a product of its times (1908), and in many ways is much more successful than Merriman at immersing the reader in the thought-world of anarchy, bomb-throwing, and pessimistic intellectualism which was so characteristic of the late 19th century. I do highly suggest the book, and think it would be an excellent companion to the Merriman for future classes.