51Ok705RhtL._SX334_BO1,204,203,200_Heather Ann Thompson’s much anticipated book, Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy, has finally been released by Pantheon. What makes this particular account of the much-chronicled riot unique is the discovery of a treasure trove of transcripts and other court documents that were never meant to see the light of day. As Thompson writes in her Introduction,

One might well wonder why it has taken forty-five years for a comprehensive history of the Attica prison uprising of 1971 to be written. The answer is simple: the most important details of this story have been deliberately kept from the public. Literally thousands of boxes of documents relating to these events are sealed or next to impossible to access.

Given the compulsive, almost paranoid, control over information that the New York DOCCS continues to exert today, this is hardly surprising. Thanks to years of research and reporting, though, Thompson was rewarded with a couple of phone calls alerting her to thousands of documents and artifacts that were deposited at the Erie County courthouse and the New York State Museum. Most people who have done a lot of research can well imagine Thompson’s feelings on first encountering musty documents and blood-soaked artifacts, stacked up in darkened rooms. It must have been like Howard Carter entering King Tut’s tomb.

Nearly all of the items have since sunk back into the earth, somehow, and vanished from the public eye. “I can only hope,” Thompson writes in an end note, “that these vital materials that were in Buffalo and Albany have not been destroyed…”

51IoDOIXubL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_A couple of words about the book’s rhetoric, before I get into the content.

First, the title. The use of “Uprising” is clearly deliberate, and, I think, a good choice. Not that “riot” would be wrong; according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word comes from the Medieval Latin riota, meaning “quarrel, dispute, uproar.” But the connotation of mindless, directionless violence is unavoidable, and it does not accurately reflect the deliberate nature of most of the uprising. Chapter 11 of Blood, for example, is called, “Order Out of Chaos.” The hook part of the title—”Blood in the Water”—is unfortunate. It’s certainly catchy, but feels unoriginal, and unnecessarily lurid. In fact, there is already a series of historical novels called Blood in the Water, based on ocean combat.

This overwrought quality sometimes creeps over into the prose, as well. For example, Part 1 opens with a profile of one of the principles in the story:

Frank “Big Black” Smith wondered if he would ever get used to being locked up. His cell felt like a casket with the lid left off just far enough for noise, bugs, and weather to get in, and conditions outside of that cage were also grim.

This is not a direct quote from Smith, nor is it cited. Thompson probably didn’t know exactly what Smith was wondering, and there’s no way to tell if the casket metaphor was his, or hers. The Attica uprising is sufficiently compelling in its own right; this particular lily does not need to be gilded.

But such concerns are pedantic. They are also insignificant in the face of the sheer magnitude of Thompson’s undertaking. Almost anyone who has composed a paper knows how hard it is to structure the thing, even if it’s only five pages long. Thompson created an extensive narrative from a mass of flotsam and jetsam—brief notes, personal letters, interviews, artifacts, court reports, unpublished dissertations, previous articles, and newspaper accounts—most of it piled in jumbles on shelves, or packed indiscriminately into boxes. Her citation is at once immense and extraordinarily detailed. Some of it appears to be necessarily ad hoc, due to the unique nature of her sources. Here’s one specimen:

Russell G. Oswald, Commissioner, Department of Correctional Services, Memorandum to Nelson A. Rockefeller, Governor, Subject: “Activities Report—February 8, 1973–March 7, 1973,” March 7, 1973, Nelson A. Rockefeller gubernatorial records, Departmental Reports, Series 28, New York (State), Governor (1959–1973: Rockefeller), Record Group 15, Box 2, Folder 32, Rockefeller Archive Center, Sleepy Hollow, New York.

This is definitely one to share with my students when they’re having trouble citing a web page.

Next Up: The Causes.

Inmates at Attica State Prison in Attica, N.Y., raise their hands in clenched fists in a show of unity, Sept. 1971, during the Attica uprising, which took the lives of 43 people. (AP Photo)

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