Thursday, February 26, 2009

"Triangle" by David Von Drehle

Just finished reading "Triangle" by David Von Drehle and found it to be an excellent work of historical writing.

I've previously enjoyed quite a bit Von Drehle's writing for Time Magazine... which sent me off in search of books written by him. What I found in "Triangle" was a detailed look at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire of 1911 that left 146 Garment Industry workers dead.

What Von Drehle does with the book (subtitled "The Fire That Changed America") is paint both a portrait of the lives lost in this disaster, but also one of how that loss was not in vain. I find it terribly interesting when a writer can take an event and provide the context for that and then show it's ramifications in a larger picture. This is exactly what's accomplished here as Von Drehle starts by profiling the working lives of those who would have perished in the fire and then goes from there.

The Garment Industry grew rapidly around this time with it's ranks being filled by under paid and over worked immigrants from Europe. At the time of the fire, there had been efforts to improve the lot of these workers (most of whom lived crammed into tenement buildings in New York City), but things didn't really start to get better until after the tragedy. One would like to think that the loss of life wasn't required, but Von Drehle shows how in this situation, it combined together with efforts already undertaken (and with extraordinary individuals) to improve employee working conditions.

In fact, "Triangle" shows how the fire was in many ways the catalyst pushing forward progressive ideas as an alternative to the previous approach of the Tammany Hall regime that controlled New York politics. These progressive ideas would be later championed by FDR and become the bedrock of the Democratic party in America.

The other thing that "Triangle" does on a much more micro level is provide a face to those who perished in this tragedy. Very interesting stuff and for those who are interested in history, it's certainly worth the time to read.