Jailbird by Kurt Vonnegut - review by Charles Swann

Charles Swann

The Magical Power of Money



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It is one of the ironies of American history that the founder of the Pinkerton detective agency, that efficient tool of post civil war capitalism, left Scotland to avoid arrest after his involvement in a Chartist demonstration in 1842. He was, after his arrival in the land of the free, an ardent abolitionist deeply involved in the Underground Railroad. Before his death he had put his mouth where his money was by writing Strikes, Communists, Tramps and Detectives – a book which leaves it in no doubt that only the last group is reputable, and that it is legitimated by its ability to suppress those undesirables naive enough to think that the Declaration of Independence should be read literally. The irony is compounded by historiography: the authoritatative Dictionary of American Biography offers an implied justification of this strange career by stating that Pinkerton’s policeman father was killed in a Chartist riot in 1829. Neat, but, alas, not entirely true. I am not sure whether there was a ‘police force’ in Glasgow in 1829: I am fairly confident that there were no Chartists.

So it goes, as Vonnegut has so often and (sometimes) so understandably written. This attempt to give history the symmetry of a certain kind of fiction is – to say the least – a mistake, one which makes Vonnegut’s attempts to understand the paradoxical history of his country and to

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