Back in September, when I was blogging about the Boston police strike, I meant to post something about Dennis Lehane’s historical novel, The Given Day. The book tells the story of several characters living in Boston at the time of the strike, including a well-connected young policeman, Danny Coughlin.
As a work of historical fiction, The Given Day is really quite extraordinary. Lehane has a remarkable gift for period detail and dialog — no small thing, given the propensity to exaggerate Irish accents in almost every fictional treatment of the city. Lehane does a truly fine job of bringing early 20th century Boston to life.
The book also makes a passionate argument on behalf of the strikers. Generally speaking, Lehane portrays city and state officials as hapless, venal, uncaring, heartless, and incompetent. Coolidge makes a few brief cameos, never to much effect, but his role remains implicitly central as Lehane crafts his ringing indictment of police commissioner Edwin Upton Curtis.
In her review of Lehane’s book, Janet Maslin drew attention to its depiction of Curtis:
“The Given Day” creates a particularly chilling portrait of Boston’s police commissioner, Edwin Upton Curtis, as a dangerous has-been with no regard for the safety, dignity or vulnerability of his cops.
That’s a fair assessment of Lehane’s treatment of Curtis, and to my mind, a fair assessment of Curtis, too. The police strike was avoidable, as almost everyone involved (including Coolidge) was well aware. But rather than trying to defuse the situation, Curtis made it worse.
The Boston police had a long list of legitimate grievances, including scandalously low pay and poor working conditions (as Amity noted in her recent Forbes article). The patrolmen, loosely organized as the Boston Social Club, had been negotiating with city officials for years. In return, they got a series of excuses and half-met promises.
To be fair, city officials were struggling with chronically tight budgets and dysfunctional political institutions — not to mention the economic upheaval of World War I. But the hard fact remains: Boston cops had been treated shabbily for years.
Many city and civic leaders were aware that something had to be done. Even as the prospect of a strike loomed large in the summer of 1919, hopes for a compromise ran high. But Curtis showed scant interest in finding common ground. Eager to assert his authority, he seemed intent on confrontation.
Once the police had crossed their Rubicon and begun the strike, different issues were in play. Coolidge had was determined to establish the primacy of law, order, and political authority. But we can admire his stand and still lament the need for it. The Boston police strike was an avoidable tragedy. The blame for it must be shared by the strikers (who played fast and loose with the public’s right to safety) and city officials (who refused to address complaints that even they acknowledged to be legitimate).