SA1135 | With Claw and Fang: A Fact Story in a Chicago Setting | Bernie Babcock & Trevor Blake
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The infamous late 19th-century book Might is Right has secured a unique place in the literature of extremism. Unlike so many utopian manifestos of the day, the bombastic yet lyrical text attributed to Ragnar Redbeard (a pseudonym) sought to upend all egalitarianism, all theism, and all political idealism. Such sacrosanct values were, by Redbeard’s stentorian decree, swept into the garbage bin—to be replaced with the singular might. To be sure, the author did not posit this to be a good way, or the best way, but merely the only way things exist and prosper: struggle and strife as the eternal state of life, even when gowned in the pious sackcloth of the church or the saffron sheets of the temple. Since its original publication in 1896, the influence of Might is Right has been found in curious places, from syndicalist broadsides of the IWW to the canonical texts of the Church of Satan, but perhaps the most surprising historical example of literary “Redbeardiana” traces to the puritanical paraphrasis of a largely forgotten American writer named Julia “Bernie” Babcock. Following the death of her husband in 1897, the 29-year-old Babcock turned to writing as a means of earning income for her large family. She found some early success and her work was championed by one of the oldest (still active) political parties in the United States: the Prohibitionist Party. It was during her brief residence in Chicago at the turn of the 20th century that Babcock most likely came across Ragnar Redbeard’s inflammatory book, which had already caused a stir in the anarchist and unionist milieu of the time in the US and abroad. She used the book as many others have since her time: as uncredited primary source material for her own work. The result of her effort was With Claw and Fang: A Fact Story in a Chicago Setting, a bizarre novel of prohibitionist agitprop that depicted anarchists conspiring with liquor barons to corrupt the hearts and minds of good Christian people. Babcock’s lurid tale was intended as nothing less than a full-on assault on what she believed to be the greatest enemy of civility: “Personal Liberty.” While it may be tempting for contemporary readers to mock Babcock’s moral rectitude and to dismiss her novel for its prudish melodrama and flat caricatures, the independent historian Trevor Blake (author of Confessions of A Failed Egoist, Underworld Amusements, 2014) favors a more nuanced consideration of her life and work. In his introduction to this new edition of With Fang and Claw, Blake reveals the author to be a sympathetic and even fascinating woman of her time. As an individual Miss Babcock proved to be a singular cultural force who, through a curious connection to HL Mencken, founded a local historical museum that today has a budget of hundreds of millions of dollars. She was a widowed mother of five children who deployed her skills as a polemicist rather than accept handouts. If Bernie Babcock is remembered for nothing else, we may yet marvel that her ironic appropriation of a firebrand scribe served to introduce one of history’s most blasphemous tomes to many good Christian soldiers. Indeed, she would have them read Redbeard’s introductory pronouncement: “I dip my finger in the watery blood of that Lamb of God, that impotent mob-redeemer, that bastard Jew, and write above his thorn-torn brow ‘King of eunuch virtues! Fraud! Liar! Fiend!’”