From Out of the South

A review of All God's Children: The Bosket Family and the American Tradition of Violence by Fox Butterfield

If posterity knows what it is doing, this book will be considered a classic of the violent decades, as the era of Reagan and Bush and Clinton (the froth of Iran-Contra and the Gulf War and Whitewater having subsided) may be remembered. How did our inner-city neighborhoods fall into the hell that is milked for blood and profit every night on the eleven o'clock news? What has gone wrong with young black men? Why have so many followed the path of increasingly lethal impulsivity traced in Fist Stick Knife Gun, Geoffrey Canada's recent "personal history of violence in America"? We have heard the answers: poverty and racism and drugs, urbanization and the fractured family, the NRA, the media. And most of us are tired of them--or, rather, of their attached politics. All God's Children, by coming at today's violence through history's, northern urban violence through southern rural violence, black violence through white, puts the whole problem into a suggestive new context. The ghosts of touchy white cavaliers may loom over black city kids who kill for being "dissed." Butterfield quotes a white southerner, William Faulkner: "The past is not dead. It isn't even past."

On April 16th, 1988, at approximately 12:42 p.m. in the visiting room of the Shawangunk [New York] state prison, prison guard Earl Porter felt a vicious hate-filled thrust as an eleven-inch stiletto blade was plunged into his chest to the hilt, just a fraction of an inch from penetrating his heart. The heart had definitely been the target. And as the stiletto blade invaded the chest cavity of prison guard Earl Porter, in search of his most vital organ, Bosket's most vital organ was singing a song of hateful joy.
To this day, the only regret Bosket has is not having killed prison guard Earl Porter and spitting on his corpse --not because he was Earl Porter, but because he was the system.

Willie Bosket, who had murdered two men and claimed to have committed 2,000 crimes by age fifteen, wrote that in a letter to the deputy superintendent of Shawangunk. At Bosket's trial the prosecutor read this admission of guilt to the jury. Refusing counsel, Bosket mounted his own defense. His legs bound by heavy shackles that clattered gloomily across the courtroom floor, his arms handcuffed in front of him, the handcuffs chained to his waist, a further chain connecting these chains to his shackles, Bosket read from the same letter.

Why am I so bitter? Why am I so angry towards the system? . . . The reason is because . . . Willie Bosket has been incarcerated since he was nine years old and was raised by his surrogate mother, the criminal justice system. . . . This being the case, Bosket is only a monster created by the system he now haunts.

Reading Bosket's testimony, and thinking that his story might throw light on the epidemic of violence among black youths, E. R. Shipp, an African-American editor at The New York Times, asked one of her reporters, Fox Butterfield, to investigate. It was a felicitous, though unlikely, choice. One of the last American reporters to be evacuated from Saigon in 1975, Butterfield, who holds a graduate degree in East Asian studies, had spent much of his Times career covering Vietnam and China. But he had lived in the pre-civil-rights-era South, where Willie Bosket's roots also lay. And Butterfield's father had been an American historian, someone who believed in the explanatory significance of origins. "You could not be raised in his house without imbibing his reverence for the power of history," Butterfield writes. "It was his inspiration . . . that sent me searching into the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to find out why late-twentieth-century America has become plagued with violence."

Willie Bosket opened a door on a besetting national problem. "Any so-called civilized society," he wrote in answer to a letter from Butterfield asking to tell his story, "should be extremely concerned with the sociological, criminological, penological, and hereditary implications involved in the Willie Bosket case."

Searching for the causes of Bosket's violence in his family history, Butterfield discovered that his father (whom Willie had never met) was a murderer who had been sent to the same reform school at the same age as Willie. His grandfather had a criminal record. His great-grandfather was a "legendary badman." The surface of Bosket's story kept giving way, sending Butterfield deeper into the past.

It was known as "Bloody Edgefield." From the earliest days of settlement the upcountry South Carolina county was the scene of violence and mayhem. The people of Edgefield were mostly Scotch-Irish refugees from war and oppression. Benjamin Franklin called their Pennsylvania cousins "white savages," to which assessment Butterfield adds "tough, blunt, touchy, hard-drinking, and pugnacious." They lived by a medieval code of honor: if you insulted a man, cheated him, or cast a covetous eye upon his wife, he would kill you.

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Jack Beatty is a senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly and the editor of Colossus: How the Corporation Changed America, which was named one of the top ten books of 2001 by Business Week. His previous books are The World According to Peter Drucker (1998) and The Rascal King: The Life and Times of James Michael Curley (1992). More

Jack Beatty"The Atlantic Monthly is an American tradition; since 1857 it has helped to shape the American mind and conscience," senior editor Jack Beatty explains. "We are proud of that tradition. It is the tradition of excellence for which we were awarded the National Magazine Award for General Excellence. It is the tie that binds us to our past. It is a standard we won't betray."

Beatty joined The Atlantic Monthly as a senior editor in September of 1983, having previously worked as a book reviewer at Newsweek and as the literary editor of The New Republic.

Born, raised, and educated in Boston, Beatty wrote a best-selling biography of James Michael Curley, the Massachusetts congressman and governor and Boston mayor, which Addison-Wesley published in 1992 to enthusiastic reviews. The Washington Post said, "The Rascal King is an exemplary political biography. It is thorough, balanced, reflective, and gracefully written." The Chicago Sun-Times called it a ". . . beautifully written, richly detailed, vibrant biography." The book was nominated for a National Book Critics' Circle award.

His 1993 contribution to The Atlantic Monthly's Travel pages, "The Bounteous Berkshires," earned these words of praise from The Washington Post: "The best travel writers make you want to travel with them. I, for instance, would like to travel somewhere with Jack Beatty, having read his superb account of a cultural journey to the Berkshire Hills of western Massachusetts." Beatty is also the author of The World According to Peter Drucker, published in 1998 by The Free Press and called "a fine intellectual portrait" by Michael Lewis in the New York Times Book Review.

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