Dillinger’s Wild Ride The Year that made America’s Public Enemy Number One, Elliott J. Gorn (Oxford University Press, 2009).
Why, you might ask, is there a book published in 2009 about a bank robber killed by the FBI and Chicago Police in 1934? Read this book and find out that this particular work is but a drop in the bucket compared to the recent explosion of works on the subject of John Dillinger. It took apparently 25 years after Dillinger’s death for the first full-length book about him to appear. There was quite a lot of interest in the subject around that time, both in print and in the movies, lasting up to the 1930’s, when the interest waned and Dillinger was pretty much ignored for a time. In the 1950’s and 60’s a series of cheap pulp novels, mostly falsified versions exploiting the Dillinger years, appeared. By the 1960’s more serious works began to appear and in recent years this interest in this old-time bank robber has substantially intensified (witness, for example, the movie about Dillinger starring Johnny Depp, currently one of our most accomplished and important actors).
Why this particular book about John Dillinger? In the author’s own words: “I take a little different tack here. Like the others I tell the story of Dillinger’s wild year. Using government documents and newspapers I describe the activities of the gang and the efforts of law enforcement agencies to stop them. More than that, however, I seek to explain how the Dillinger story was created, interpreted, and reworked, how Americans felt about his exploits and how we have come to remember him.” I believe Mr. Gorn does a credible job on this score. And I think he does a good job of reviewing the chronology of Dillinger’s exploits and clearing up some of more glaring falsifications of the story.
There is more to this book than that, however. The Dillinger story is fascinating from a number of different perspectives and more complicated than one might think. First, the story also relates to the beginnings of the FBI and how the success of that institution rested with the young J. Edgar Hoover, who might well have lost his job had he not finally succeeded in killing Dillinger. If that had happened there is no doubt the FBI would have developed differently than it did under Hoover. Second, this story is symbolic of the changes that were occurring in American society at that time, particularly the change from a rural agrarian life to an urban one and what were believed to be the ill effects that change was bringing about. Third, the author’s brief reviews of what was occurring in print about Dillinger at the time reveals the rather undisciplined and haphazard ways of the press. Some accounts of Dillinger made him out to be a sort of folk hero in the style of Jesse James, but others portrayed an entirely different picture of a ruthless killer and bandit. I take exception to the author’s claim that, “Given the integrated nature of print culture by the 1930’s, the Dillinger story was told with considerably uniformity.” As there were quite contradictory accounts of Dillinger and his activities I suppose this boils down to what he means by “considerable uniformity.”
Still another fascinating aspect of this book is that it describes a situation eerily similar to what we are experiencing right now, what with banks taking advantage of the public, public outrage at what they are doing, and a belief they are responsible for our truly bad times and deserve whatever they get. Dillinger’s robberies met with sympathy from the public as they felt Dillinger was only doing what the banks themselves were doing, robbing people. Thus it was that Dillinger was perceived more or less as an innocent farm boy (which, strictly speaking he was not), abused by the penal system, who then turned to a life of crime, but more in the style of Jesse James than Al Capone. Dillinger was a bank robber but not really a gangster in the mode of Al Capone, at least in the eyes of the public.
Finally, Dillinger himself was a fabulous creature, on the one hand a hardened criminal, but on the other a loving family member, loyal and friendly, outgoing, fearless and brave, and able to joke and banter with the police even when in their custody and threatened with the electric chair. He was apparently a truly likeable, even charming guy, who enjoyed the company of women, movies, and the good life in general. It is not surprising that over the years Dillinger has grown into a mythological figure, even a kind of folk hero, especially at a time when there is the same need for such a figure as there was in the 1930’s. It is not as easy to rob banks as it was in Dillinger’s day, there are few, if any, daylight robberies involving shoot-outs with the cops, fast cars, and handsome gun molls. Law enforcement has grown much more sophisticated with respect to communication, helicopters, better armed police, and so on. The “romance” you might say, has gone. But Dillinger and his gang, and the events that made him so famous, have now become part of the irreality and mythology that makes up American culture.