American Notebook: Popular Taste and the Agonies of the Young

American Notebook: Popular Taste and the Agonies of the Young

Within recent months the Leopold-Loeb murder case has served as the theme of a movie by Alfred Hitchcock, novels by Meyer Levin, James Yaffe and MaryCarter Roberts, a paperback case history, and a Broadway dramatization of Mr. Levin’s most successful and fascinating Compulsion. Superficially, it would seem obvious that this terrible murder and its aftermath—a sensational courtroom trial involving two wealthy, brilliant, wayward boys, the most successful criminal lawyer in the country, and a battery of conflicting psychiatrists—should prove magnetically attractive to writers. But thirty-three years have elapsed since the kidnap-murder, and we are surely entitled to wonder why the novelists of the 20’s, the 30’s, or the 40’s did not seize on this drama. Inevitably too a parallel question arises: why now the Leopold-Loeb case rather than the Sacco-Vanzetti case?

The answers to these questions are interrelated. For many of us both Leopold-Loeb and Sacco-Vanzetti have now come to represent two crucial illuminations of American life in the 20s. And if numerous writers and their publics are currently intrigued with that era (for reasons beyond the scope of this brief discusion), the fastening on one sensational trial rather than on the other should be ‘fairly clear to us in the 50’s. The Sacco-Vanzetti trial was an ending; the Leopold Loeb case a beginning. It is not just that Sacco and Vanzetti were in all likelihood completely innocent and were revered as martyrs throughout the civilized world, while Leopold and Loeb were admittedly guilty and were the universal objects of fascinated loathing—although that is not irrelevant. It is not even that Sacco and Vanzetti were poor and Leopold and Loeb were rich—although that too bears on the problem. It is, most importantly, it seems to me, that the Sacco-Vanzetti case is the last instance in recent history in which the American people were stirred in great numbers to protest an apparent and gross miscarriage of justice. The issues were clear cut, the verdict appalling. Just so, the Leopold-Loeb case may be viewed as one of the first instances in contemporary American history in which official cognizance was taken of the vast murky areas beyond such deceptively simple words as guilt and insanity. The issues were as clouded as the motives of the boys, the trial— heard by a single judge—an admission of the inadequacy of jury democracy, the judge’s verdict an uncomfortable compromise between revenge and therapy dictated by psychiatric testimony.


Lima