Before she became a magazine, Mother Jones was a woman. A foulmouthed, fiery, white-haired, Irish woman in wire-framed spectacles and a black frock. You may recall only that she lived a long time ago, or that she was a union organizer. Perhaps you remember that she agitated against child labor or that she helped organize coal miners across Appalachia. Anyway, chances are you don’t know the whole story, since apart from Jones’s own misleading, gap-filled autobiography, there’s been only one book-length biography of her, and that was published over 25 years ago.
But now there’s Mother Jones: The Most Dangerous Woman in America. Written by historian of masculinity Elliott J. Gorn (The Manly Art: Bare-Knuckle Prize Fighting in America), this fairly conventional book traces Jones’s life chronologically, from her birth (as Mary Harris; Jones was her married name) to her death, in 1930, at age 93. Mostly Gorn does what any good biographer aims to do: drawing on all the skills in his social historian’s toolbox, he capably recounts, one by one, the central events in Jones’s personal and professional life. He tells of the yellow-fever epidemic that killed her husband and all four of her children, maps her transformation from Mary to Mother, and details the various labor victories she helped organize among soft coal and anthracite miners. Intermittently, he reflects on both the gendered contradictions in her life and ideology (although active in politics, for instance, she was against suffrage for women) and on what she might have been doing during the many enigmatic, unrepresentable decades of her life.
Though he does his best, Gorn doesn’t, in the end, tell the whole story; he can’t. A larger-than-life figure who wore her activist “Mother” persona like a tight-fitting costume (“Perhaps it is best to think of Mother Jones as a character performed by Mary Jones,” Gorn writes), Jones lived a life that was—despite her enormous public prominence—unusually hard to document. Born into poverty in Cork, Ireland, she lived the first half of her life in the sort of working-class obscurity (as a schoolgirl in Toronto, a teacher in Memphis, a seamstress in Chicago) that barely leaves a paper trail; and later, she so consistently lied about and obscured fundamental aspects of her biography—her age, her past history, her family’s whereabouts—that it’s downright impossible to make a thorough accounting. To his credit, Gorn makes analytical use of those absences, recognizing that his story is less the story of Mary Jones than of the activist persona she performed throughout the last 30 years of her life. And he fills the gaps with plausible “she likely”s and “there must have been”s.
But there’s something else far more troubling missing from Gorn’s tale. Although he paints a competent portrait of the firebrand and her world of turn-of-the-century labor politics—with cameos by the Socialist Party, the IWW, Eugene Debs, John Rockefeller, and Teddy Roosevelt—he seems to have gone out of his way to avoid telling this story in a narratively engaging fashion. Jones’s life contained truckloads of mystery and passion, color and cursing—her central accomplishments, indeed, were won during a long, vivid good-versus-evil fight. Yet Gorn’s account is a dry read, and plods along even when, having dug up shards of evidence suggesting semiscandalous reasons for one mysterious gap in Jones’s biography, he opens her story up to new possibilities. In any other book, this might be a mild disappointment; here, because the art of storytelling was Mother Jones’s bread and butter, it seems like some kind of violation of her memory. “I hate violence,” she once said. “I favor drama.” Respectful and idea-driven, Gorn’s book is a thorough work of historical biography. But it hardly does justice to the violence and the drama of Mother Jones’s life.