by David Von Drehle
Atlantic Monthly Press, 352 pp, $25.00
reviewed by David Carpman
Triangle, David Von Drehle’s portrait of the buzzing metropolis that was turn of the century New York, describes the catastrophic 1911 fire at the Triangle shirtwaist factory as both the product of and the catalyst for rapidly changing times. From the squalid tenements of the chaotic city to the omnipotent, cheerfully corrupt Tammany Hall, Von Drehle details how the efforts of strikers and wealthy ideologues gave rise to the era of progressivism. The movement failed to find roots in the legislature, however, until the Triangle fire inspired a few hardy crusaders to carry through some of the most significant labor reforms ever effected, including fire safety regulations and the fifty-four hour working week law.
Von Drehle transforms the vision of the American melting pot into a seething forge of warring politics, money, and ethnicity, tempering the country on its rise, through the advent of mass production, to the twentieth century. After a fascinating description of New York power dynamics, he segues into a minutely detailed, intensely gripping account of the fire itself, which for ninety years was the city’s worst workplace disaster. The desperate cry of workers trying to warn their colleagues before the fire rises to their floors is echoed by the fledgling labor movement trying to alert the nation to their hardships: “For God’s sake, these people don’t know. How can we make them know?”
The narrative is given authority through Von Drehle’s impressive balance between the personal and the national. He provides contextual exposition in broad, engaging passages, and gives the bulk of the action to a specific group of fully-drawn characters. The facts of the meticulously researched account are thus firmly rooted in the interplay of personalities, and in the frequent conflicts between human emotion and necessity. Triangle is an enjoyable and compelling exploration of an influential tragedy, which was the death knell for one era even as it was the herald of another.