Living My Life
by Emma Goldman
New York: Alfred A Knopf Inc.,1931.
OUTDOOR MEETINGS IN AMERICA ARE RARE, THEIR ATMOSPHERE always surcharged with impending clashes between the audience and the police. Not so in England. Here the right to assemble constantly in the open is an institution. It has become a British habit, like bacon for breakfast. The most opposing ideas and creeds find expression in the parks and squares of English cities. There is nothing to cause undue excitement and there is no display of armed force. The lone bobby on the outskirts of the crowd is there as a matter of form; it is not his duty to disperse meetings or club the people.
The social centre of the masses is the out-of-door meeting in the park. On Sundays they flock there as they do to music-halls on weekdays. They cost nothing and they are much more entertaining. Crowds, often numbering thousands, drift from platform to platform as they would at a country fair, not so much to listen or learn as to be amused. The main performers at these gatherings are the hecklers, who hugely enjoy bombarding the speakers with questions. Pity him who fails to get the cue from these tormentors or who is not quick enough at repartee. He soon finds himself confused and the helpless butt for boisterous ridicule. All this I learned after I nearly came to grief at my first meeting in Hyde Park.
It was a novel experience to talk out of doors, with only a lone policeman placidly looking on. Alas, the crowd, too, was placid. It felt like climbing a steep mountain to speak against such inertia. I soon grew tired and my throat began to hurt, but I kept on. All at once the audience began to show signs of life. A volley of questions, like bullets, came flying at me from all directions. The unexpected attack, finding me quite unprepared, bewildered and irritated me. I felt my trend of thought slip from me, and my anger rise. Then a man in front called out: "Don't mind it, old girl, go right on. Heckling is a good old British custom." "Good, you call it?" I retorted; "I think it is rotten to interrupt a speaker like that. But all right, fire away, and don't blame me if you get the worst of the bargain." "That's right, old dear," the audience shouted; "go ahead, let's see what you can do."
I had been speaking on the futility of politics and its corrupting influence when the first shot was fired. "How about honest politicians - don't you believe there are such?" "If there are, I never heard of one," I hurled back. "Politicians promise you heaven before election and give you hell after." "'Ear! 'Ear!" they screamed in approval. I had barely got back to my speech when the next bolt struck me. "I say, old girl, why do you speak of heaven? - Do you believe in such a place?" "Of course not," I replied; "I was only referring to the heaven you stupidly believe in." "Well, if there is no heaven, where else would the poor get their reward?" another heckler demanded. "Nowhere, unless they insist on their right here - take their reward by gaining possession of the earth." I continued that even if there were a heaven, the common people would not be tolerated there. "You see," I explained, "the masses have lived in hell so long they would not know how to behave in heaven. The angel at the gate would kick them out for disorderly conduct." This was followed by another half-hour of fencing, which kept the crowd in spasms. Finally they called for the hecklers to stop, admit defeat, and let me go on.
My fame travelled quickly; the crowds grew in size at every meeting. Our literature sold in large quantities, which delighted my comrades. They wanted me to remain in London because I could do so much good there. But I knew that out-of-door speaking was not for me. My throat would not hold out under the strain and I could not bear the disturbing noises of the street traffic so close at hand. Besides, I realized that people standing up for hours grew too restless and weary to be able to concentrate or to follow a serious talk. My work meant too much to me to turn it into a circus for the amusement of the British public.
More than my exploits in the park I enjoyed meeting people and witnessing the vital spirit which prevailed in the anarchist movement. In the United States activities were being carried on almost exclusively among the foreign element. There were few native anarchists in America, while the movement in England supported several weekly and monthly publications. One of them was Freedom, among whose contributors and co-workers were some very brilliant and talented people, including Peter Kropotkin, John Turner, Alfred Marsh, William Wess, and others. Liberty was another anarchist publication, issued in London by James Tochatti, a follower of the poet William Morris. The Torch was a little paper published by two sisters, Olivia and Helen Rossetti. They were only fourteen and seventeen years old, respectively, but developed in mind and body far beyond their age. They did all the writing for the paper, even setting the type and attending to the press work themselves. The Torch office, formerly the nursery of the girls, became a gathering-place for foreign anarchists, particularly those from Italy, where severe persecution was taking place. The refugees naturally flocked to the Rossettis, who were themselves of Italian origin. Their grandfather, the Italian poet and patriot Gabriele Rossetti, had been condemned to death in 1824 by Austria, under whose yoke Italy then was. Gabriele fled to England, settling in London, where he became Professor of Italian at King's College. Olivia and Helen were the daughters of Gabriele Rossetti's second son, William Michael, the famous critic. Evidently the girls had inherited their revolutionary tendencies as well as their literary talents. While in London, I spent much time with them, greatly enjoying their prodigious hospitality and the inspiring atmosphere of their circle.
One of the members of the Torch group was William Benham, familiarly known as the "boy anarchist." He attached himself to me, constituting himself my companion at the meetings as well as on trips through the city.
Anarchist activities in London were not limited to the natives. England was the haven for refugees from all lands, who carried on their work without hindrance. By comparison with the United States the political freedom in Great Britain seemed like the millennium come. But economically the country was far behind America.
I had myself experienced want and I knew of the poverty in the large industrial centres of the United States. But never had I seen such abject misery and squalor as I did in London, Leeds, and Glasgow. Its effects impressed me as not being the results of yesterday or even of years. They were century-old, passed on from generation to generation, apparently rooted in the very marrow of the British masses. One of the most appalling sights was that of able-bodied men running ahead of a cab for blocks to be on the spot in time to open the door for a "gentleman." For such services they would receive a penny, or tuppence at most. After a month's stay in England I understood the reason for so much political freedom. It was a safety-valve against the fearful destitution. The British Government no doubt felt that as long as it permitted its subjects to let off steam in unhampered talk, there was no danger of rebellion. I could find no other explanation for the inertia and the indifference of the people to their slavish conditions.
One of my aims in visiting England was to meet the outstanding personalities in the anarchist movement. Unfortunately Kropotkin was out of town, but would be back before I left. Enrico Malatesta was in the city. I found him living behind his little shop, but there was no one to interpret for me, and I could not speak Italian. His kindly smile, however, mirrored a congenial personality and made me feel as if I had known him all my life. Louise Michel I met almost immediately upon my arrival. The French comrades I stayed with had arranged a reception for my first Sunday in London. Ever since I had read about the Paris Commune, its glorious beginning and its terrible end, Louise Michel had stood out sublime in her love for humanity, grand in her zeal and courage. She was angular, gaunt, aged before her years (she was only sixty-two); but there was spirit and youth in her eyes, and a smile so tender that it immediately won my heart. This, then, was the woman who had survived the savagery of the respectable Paris mob. Its fury had drowned the Commune in the blood of the workers and had strewn the streets of Paris with thousands of dead and wounded. Not being appeased, it had also reached out for Louise. Again and again she had courted death; on the barricades of Pére Lachaise, the last stand of the Communards, Louise had chosen the most dangerous position for herself. In court she had demanded the same penalty as was meted out to her comrades, scorning clemency on the grounds of sex. She would die for the Cause. Whether out of fear or awe of this heroic figure, the murderous Paris bourgeoisie had not dared to kill her. They preferred to doom her to slow death in New Caledonia. But they had reckoned without the fortitude of Louise Michel, her devotion and capacity for consecration to her fellow sufferers. In New Caledonia she became the hope and inspiration of the exiles. In sickness she nursed their bodies; in depression she cheered their spirits. The amnesty for the Communards brought Louise back with the others to France. She found herself the acclaimed idol of the French masses. They adored her as their Mère Louise, bien aimée.
Shortly after her return from exile Louise headed a demonstration of unemployed to the Esplanade des Invalides. Thousands were out of work for a long time and hungry. Louise led the procession into the bakery shops, for which she was arrested and condemned to five years' imprisonment. In court she defended the right of the hungry man to bread, even if he has to "steal" it. Not the sentence, but the loss of her dear mother proved the greatest blow to Louise at her trial. She loved her with an absorbing affection and now she declared that she had nothing else to live for except the revolution. In 1886 Louise was pardoned, but she refused to accept any favours from the State. She had to be taken forcibly from prison in order to be set at liberty.
During a large meeting in Havre someone fired two shots at Louise while she was on the platform talking. One went through her hat; the other struck her behind the ear. The operation, although very painful, called forth no complaint from Louise. Instead she lamented her poor animals left alone in her rooms and the inconvenience the delay would cause her woman friend who was waiting for her in the next town. The man who nearly killed her had been influenced by a priest to commit the act, but Louise tried her utmost to have him released. She induced a famous lawyer to defend her assailant and she herself appeared in court to plead with the judge in his behalf. Her sympathies were particularly stirred by the man's young daughter, whom she could not bear to have become fatherless by the man's being sent to prison. Louise's stand did not fail to influence even her fanatical assailant.
Later Louise was to participate in a great strike in Vienne, but she was arrested in the Gare du Lyon as she was about to board the train. The Cabinet member responsible for the massacre of the working-men in Fourmies saw in Louise a formidable force that he had repeatedly tried to crush. Now he demanded her removal from jail to an insane asylum on the ground that she was deranged and dangerous. It was this fiendish plan to dispose of Louise that induced her comrades to persuade her to move to England.
The vulgar French papers continued to paint her as a wild beast, as "La Vierge Rouge," without any feminine qualities or charm. The more decent wrote of her with bated breath. They feared her, but they also looked up to her as something far above their empty souls and hearts. As I sat near her at our first meeting, I wondered how anyone could fail to find charm in her. It was true that she cared little about her appearance. Indeed, I had never seen a woman so utterly oblivious of anything that concerned herself. Her dress was shabby, her bonnet ancient. Everything she wore was ill-fitting. But her whole being was illumined by an inner light. One quickly succumbed to the spell of her radiant personality, so compelling in its strength, so moving in its childlike simplicity. The afternoon with Louise was an experience unlike anything that had happened till then in my life. Her hand in mine, its tender pressure on my head, her words of endearment and close comradeship, made my soul expand, reach out towards the spheres of beauty where she dwelt.
After my return from Leeds and Glasgow, where I spoke at large meetings and became acquainted with many active and devoted workers, I found a letter from Kropotkin asking me to visit him. At last I was to realize my longcherished dream, to meet my great teacher.
Peter Kropotkin was a lineal descendant of the Ruriks and in the direct succession to the Russian throne. But he gave up his title and wealth for the cause of humanity. He did more: since becoming an anarchist he had forgone a brilliant scientific career to be better able to devote himself to the development and interpretation of anarchist philosophy. He became the most outstanding exponent of anarchist communism, its clearest thinker and theoretician. He was recognized by friend and foe as one of the greatest minds and most unique personalities of the nineteenth century. On my way to Bromley, where the Kropotkins lived, I felt nervous. I feared I should find Peter difficult of approach, too absorbed in his work for ordinary social intercourse.
But five minutes in his presence put me at my ease. The family was away and Peter himself received me in such a gracious and kindly manner that I felt at home with him at once. He would have tea ready directly, he said. Meanwhile should I like to see his carpenter shop and the articles he had made with his own hands? He took me into his study and pointed with great pride to a table, a bench, and some shelves he had fashioned. They were very simple things, but he gloried in them; they represented labour and he had always stressed the need of combining mental activity with manual effort. Now he could demonstrate how well the two can be blended. No artisan ever looked more lovingly and with greater reverence upon the things created by his bands than did Peter Kropotkin, the scientist and philosopher. His wholesome joy in the products of his toil were symbolic of the burning faith he had in the masses, in their capacity to create and fashion life.
Over the tea which he himself prepared, Kropotkin asked me about conditions in America, about the movement, and about Sasha. He had followed the latter's case and he knew every phase of it, expressing great regard and concern for Sasha. I related to him my impressions of England, the contrasts between its poverty and extreme wealth alongside of political freedom. Was it not a bone thrown to the masses to pacify them, I asked. Peter agreed with my view. He said that England was a nation of shopkeepers engaged in buying and selling instead of producing the necessaries required to keep her people from starvation. "The British bourgeoisie has good reason to fear the spread of discontent, and political liberties are the best security against it. English statesmen are shrewd," he continued; "they have always seen to it that the political reins should not be pulled too tightly. The average Britisher loves to think he is free; it helps him to forget his misery. That is the irony and pathos of the English working classes. Yet England could feed every man, woman, and child of her population if she would but release the vast lands now held in monopoly by an old, decaying aristocracy." My visit with Peter Kropotkin convinced me that true greatness is always coupled with simplicity. He was the personification of both. The lucidity and brilliance of his mind combined with his warm-heartedness into the harmonious whole of a fascinating and gracious personality.
I was sorry to leave England; during my short visit I had met many people and made friends and I was enriched by personal contact with my great teachers. The days were indeed glorious. Never had I seen such a luscious green of trees and grass, such a profusion of gardens, parks, and flowers. At the same time I had never seen such dreary and dismal poverty. Nature herself seemed to be discriminating between rich and poor. The clear blue sky in Hampstead looked a dirty grey in the East End, the sunshine a blot of dull yellow. The crass distinctions between the different social layers in England were appalling. They increased my hatred of injustice and my determination to work for my ideal. I begrudged the loss of time which my proposed training as a nurse would involve. But I consoled myself with the hope that I should be better equipped on my return to America. I could not remain in London: my course was to begin on the first of October. I had to leave for Vienna.
Vienna proved even more fascinating than Ed had described it. Ringstrasse, the principal street, with its array of splendid old mansions and gorgeous cafés, the spacious promenades lined with stately trees, and particularly the Prater, more forest than park, made the city one of the most beautiful I had ever seen. The whole was enhanced by the gaiety and light-heartedness of the Viennese people. London seemed a tomb by comparison. There was colour here, life and joy. I longed to become part of it, to throw myself into its generous arms, to sit in the cafés or in the Prater and watch the crowds. But I had come for another purpose; I could not afford to be distracted.
My studies included, besides the subject of midwifery, a course in children's diseases. In my short experience as nurse I had seen how ill-fitted most graduate nurses were to take care of children. They were harsh and domineering and lacked understanding. My own childhood had been made hideous by these things, but it had also filled me with sympathy for children. I had much more patience with them than with grown-ups. Their dependence, aggravated by illness, always moved me deeply. I wanted not merely to give them affection, but to equip myself for their care.
The Allgerneines Krankenhaus, which gave courses on and treated every ill of the human body, offered splendid opportunities to the eager and willing student. I found the place a remarkable institution, a veritable city in itself, with its thousands of patients, nurses, doctors, and care-takers. The men in charge of the departments were worldrenowned in their particular spheres. The obstetric courses were fortunate in having at their head a famous gynecologist, Professor Braun. He was not only a splendid teacher, but also a lovable man. His lectures were never dry or tedious. In the very midst of an explanation or even during an operation the Herr Professor would enliven things by a humorous anecdote or by remarks embarrassing to the German lady students. In explaining, for example, the comparatively large birth-rate during the months of November and December, he would say: "It's the carnival, ladies. During that gayest Vienna festival even the most virtuous girls get caught. I do not mean to say that they give way easily to their natural urge. It is only that Nature has made them so fertile. A man has only to look at them, so to speak, and they become pregnant. So we must put it all on Nature and not blame the young things." Again, Professor Braun would outrage some of the more moral students by relating the story of a certain female patient. Several of the male students had been asked to examine her and diagnose the case. One by one they carried out the order, but no one ventured to speak out. They were waiting for the Professor to give his opinion. After his examination the great man said: "Gentlemen, it is a case most of you have already had, or you have it now, or you will have it in the future. Very few can resist the charm of its origin, the pain of its development, or the price of its cure. It happens to be syphilis."
Among those attending the obstetric courses were a number of Jewish girls from Kiev and Odessa. One had even come all the way from Palestine. None of them knew enough German to understand the lectures. The Russians were very poor, compelled to exist on ten roubles a month. It was an inspiration to find such courage and perseverance for the sake of a profession. But when I expressed my admiration, the girls replied that it was quite an ordinary thing: thousands of Russians, both Jewish and Gentile, were doing it. All the students abroad lived on very little; why could not they? "But your lack of German," I asked; "how will you get the lectures or read the text-books? How do you expect to pass your examinations?" They did not know, but they would manage somehow. After all, every Jew understands a little German, they said. Two of the girls were especially sympathetic to me. They were living in a wretched little hole, while I had a large and beautiful room. I asked them to share it with me. I knew that we should have to do night duty in the hospital, but most likely not at the same time. Our living together would reduce their expenses, and I should also be able to help them with their German. Soon our place became a centre for the Russian students of both sexes.
I was known in Vienna as Mrs. E. G. Brady. I had to come abroad under that name, for I should not have been admitted under my own. I had emancipated myself from the notion that one must not assume a fictitious name. I could, of course, have procured a passport on Kershner's citizenship papers, but, I had not used his name since I left him. In fact, after that I saw him only once, in 1893, when I was ill in Rochester. I had nothing but painful recollections of that name. Brady was Irish, and I knew it would arouse no suspicion as to my identity. Passports could then be had for the asking.
In Vienna I had to be extremely careful. The Habsburgs were despotic, the persecution of socialists and anarchists severe. I could therefore not associate openly with my comrades, as I did not wish to be expelled. But it did not prevent me from meeting interesting people active in various social movements.
My studies and frequent night duty in the hospital did not lessen my interest in the cultural events of Vienna, its music and theatres. I met a young anarchist, Stefan Grossmann, who was remarkably well informed about the life of the city. He had many traits I disliked: his efforts to hide his origin in chameleon-like acceptance of every silly Gentile habit irritated me. The very first time I met Grossmann he told me that his fencing-master had admired his germanische Beine (Germanic legs). "I don't think that's much of a compliment," I replied; "now, if he had admired your Yiddish nose, that would be something to boast about." However, he came often, and gradually I learned to like him. He was an omnivorous reader and a great admirer of the new literature - Friedrich Nietzsche, Ibsen, Hauptmann, von Hoffmansthal and its other exponents who were hurling their anathemas against old values. I had read some of their works in snatches in the Arme Teufel, the weekly published in Detroit by Robert Reitzel, a brilliant writer. It was the one German paper in the States that kept its readers in contact with the new literary spirit in Europe. What I had read in its columns from the works of the great minds that were stirring Europe only whetted my appetite.
In Vienna one could hear interesting lectures on modern German rose and poetry. One could read the works of the young iconoclasts in art and letters, the most daring among them being Nietzsche. The magic of his language, the beauty of his vision, carried me to undreamed-of heights. I longed to devour every line of his writings, but I was too poor to buy them. Fortunately Grossmann had a supply of Nietzsche and other moderns.
I had to do my reading at the expense of much-needed sleep; but what was physical strain in view of my raptures over Nietzsche? The fire of his soul, the rhythm of his song, made life richer, fuller, and more wonderful for me. I wanted to share these treasures with my beloved, and I wrote him long letters depicting the new world I had discovered. His replies were evasive; Ed evidently did not share my fervour for the new art. He was more interested in my studies and in my health, and he urged me not to tax my energies with idle reading. I was disappointed, but I consoled myself that he would appreciate the revolutionary spirit of the new literature when he had a chance to read it for himself. I must get money, I decided, to bring back a supply of books to Ed.
Through one of the students I learned of a lecture course given by an eminent young professor, Sigmund Freud. I found, however, that it would be difficult to attend his series, only physicians and holders of special cards being admitted. My friend suggested that I enroll for the course of Professor Bruhl, who also was discussing sex problems. As one of his students I should have a better chance to secure admission to Freud.
Professor Bruhl was an old man with a feeble voice. The subjects he treated were mystifying to me. He talked of "Urnings," "Lesbians," and other strange topics. His hearers, too, were strange: feminine-looking men with coquettish manners and women distinctly masculine, with deep voices. They were certainly a peculiar assembly. Greater clarity in these matters came to me later on when I heard Sigmund Freud. His simplicity and earnestness and the brilliance of his mind combined to give one the feeling of being led out of a dark cellar into broad daylight. For the first time I grasped the full significance of sex repression and its effect on human thought and action. He helped me to understand myself, my own needs; and I also realized that only people of depraved minds could impugn the motives or find impure so great and fine a personality as Freud.
My various interests in Vienna kept me occupied the greater part of the day. Still I managed to attend plays and hear a good deal of music. I heard for the first time the entire Ring des Nibelungen and other works of Wagner. His music had always stirred me; the Vienna performances- magnificent voices, splendid orchestra, and masterly leadership - were enthralling. After such an experience it was painful to sit through a Wagner concert conducted by his son. One night Siegfried Wagner conducted his own composition Der Bëenhäuter. It was pale enough; but when it came to a work of his illustrious father, he was completely ineffectual. I left the concert in disgust.
Vienna brought me many new experiences. One of the greatest was Eleonora Duse as Magda in Sudermann's Heimat. The play itself was a new dramatic event, but what Duse put into it of herself transcended Sudermann's talents and gave to his work its real dramatic depth. Years before, in New Haven, I had seen Sarah Bernhardt in Fedora. Her voice, her gestures, her intensity were a revelation. I thought then that no one could rise to greater heights, but Eleonora Duse attained a higher zenith. Hers was a genius too rich and too complete for artifice, her interpretation too real for stage tricks. There were no violent gestures, no unnecessary movements, no studied volume of sound. Her voice, rich and vibrant, held rhythm in every tone, her expressive features reflecting her own wealth of emotion. Eleonora Duse interpreted every nuance of the turbulent nature of Magda blended with her own spirit. It was art reaching towards the heavens, itself a star on the firmament of life.
When examinations drew near, I could no longer indulge in the temptations of the fascinating city on the Danube. Soon I was the proud holder of two diplomas, one for midwifery and one for nursing: I could return home. But I was loath to leave Vienna; it had given me so much. I lingered on for two more weeks. During that time I was a great deal with my comrades and learned much from them about the anarchist movement in Austria. At several small gatherings I lectured on America and our struggle in that country.
Fedya had sent me my return fare, second class, and a hundred dollars to buy myself some clothes. I preferred to invest the money in my beloved books, purchasing a supply of the works of the writers that were making literary history, especially the dramatists. No amount of wardrobe could have given me so much joy as my precious little library. I did not even dare to risk shipping it in my trunk. I took the books with me in a suit-case.
Standing on the deck as the French liner steamed towards the New York dock, I spied Ed long before he saw me. He stood near the gangplank holding a bunch of roses, but when I came down, he failed to recognize me. It was late afternoon of a rainy day, and I wondered whether it was because of the dusk, my large hat, or the fact that I had grown thin. For a moment I stood watching him scanning the passengers, but when I saw his anxiety growing, I tiptoed up from behind and put my hands over his eyes. He spun round quickly, pressed me tempestuously to his heart, and exclaimed in a trembling voice: " What is the matter with my Schatz? Are you ill?" "Nonsense!" I replied, "I have only grown more spiritual. Let's get home and I'll tell you all about it."
Ed had written me that he had changed our quarters for a more comfortable flat, which Fedya had helped to decorate. What I found far excelled my expectations. Our new home was an old-fashioned apartment in the German inhabited part of Eleventh Street. The windows of the large kitchen overlooked a beautiful garden. The front room was spacious and high-ceilinged, simply but cosily furnished with lovely old mahogany. There were rare prints on the walls, and my books were arranged on shelves. The place had atmosphere and taste.
Ed played the host to me at an elaborate dinner he had prepared, with wine sent by Justus Schwab. He was rich now, he informed me; he was earning fifteen dollars a week! Then he related news of our friends: Fedya, Justus, Claus, and, most of all, Sasha. While I was abroad, I had not been able to keep in direct touch with Sasha, and Ed had acted as our go-between, which meant anxious delays. I was overjoyed to learn that there was mail for me from my brave boy. I thought it wonderful that he should have been able to send out a missive to reach me on the very day of my arrival. Sasha's letter was, as always, permeated with his fine spirit. It contained no complaint about his own life, but showed great interest in activities outside, in my work and impressions of Vienna. Europe was so far away, he wrote; my return to America brought me closer, although he knew that he would never see me again. Perhaps I would come to Pittsburgh on a lecture tour. It would mean something to feel me in the same city.
Before my departure for Europe our friend Isaac Hourwich had proposed that we aid Sasha by an appeal to the Supreme Court on the ground of the illegal proceedings at his trial. After considerable effort and expense we had succeeded in procuring the trial records. It was then discovered that there were no legal reasons on which any procedure for a revision was to be based. Representing his own case, Sasha had omitted to take exceptions to the Judge's rulings, as a result of which no appeal could be made.
During my stay in Vienna several of our American friends had suggested an application to the Board of Pardons. Inwardly I rebelled against such a step on the part of an anarchist. I was certain that Sasha would not approve of it, and therefore I did not even write to him about the proposal. During my absence abroad he had been repeatedly put into the dungeon and kept in solitary confinement until his health gave way. I began to think that consistency, while admirable in oneself, was criminal if allowed to stand in the way of another. It led me to set aside all considerations and to implore Sasha to let us appeal to the Board of Pardons. His reply indicated that he felt indignant and hurt that I should want him to beg for pardon. His act bore its own justification, he wrote; it was a gesture of protest against the injustice of the capitalist system. The courts and the pardon boards were the bulwarks of that system. I must have grown less revolutionary, or perhaps it was only my concern for him that had decided me in favour of such a step. In any case he did not wish me to act against my principles in his behalf.
Ed had sent me that letter to Vienna. It had made me unhappy. It disappointed me, but it did not abate my efforts. Friends in Pennsylvania had informed me that the personal signature of the applicant for a pardon was not necessary in that State. I again wrote to Sasha, emphasizing that I considered his life and freedom too valuable to the movement to refuse to make an appeal. Some of the greatest revolutionists had, when serving long terms, appealed in order to gain their freedom. But if he still felt it inconsistent to take the step for his own sake, would he not permit our friends to do so for mine? I could no longer bear, I explained, the consciousness of his being in prison for an act in which I had been almost as much involved as he. My please seemed to make some impression on Sasha. In his reply he reiterated that he had no faith whatever in the Board of Pardons; but his friends on the outside were in a better position to judge the step they intended to take and therefore he would offer no further objections. He added that there were certain other matters he would like to talk over; could not Emma Lee try to get a permit?
Emma had moved to Pittsburgh, where she secured a position in a hotel as supervisor of its linen department. She had begun a correspondence with the prison chaplain, whom she gradually interested in an attempt to have Sasha's right to visits restored. After months of waiting the chaplain succeeded in having a permit sent to Emma Lee. But when she called at the penitentiary, the Warden refused to let her see Sasha. "I, and not the chaplain, am the sole authority here," he told Emma; "as long as I am in charge, no one will be allowed to see Prisoner A-7."
Emma Lee felt that a violent protest on her part would only hurt Sasha's chances with the Board of Pardons. She showed greater control than I had on that fatal day at Inspector Reed's store. We continued to cling to the hope that our efforts would tear Sasha from the clutches of the enemy.
I communicated with Voltairine de Cleyre, reminding her of her promise to help in our efforts for Sasha. She replied promptly by composing a public call in his behalf, but she sent it to Ed instead of to me. For a moment I felt angry at what I considered a slight, but when I read the document, my wrath melted away. It was a prose poem full of moving power and beauty. I wrote her my thanks without reference to our misunderstanding. She did not reply.
The campaign for the appeal was launched, the entire radical element supporting our efforts. A prominent Pittsburgh lawyer had become interested and consented to take the case to the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons.
We worked energetically, driven on by great expectations. Sasha's hopes, too, were reviving; life, pulsating life, now seemed to open before him. But our joy was short-lived. The Board refused to act on the appeal. Berkman would have to complete his first seven years' sentence before the "actual wrong" of his other sentences could be considered, the Board held. It was evident that nothing displeasing to Carnegie and Frick would be done.
The shock to me was crushing, and I dreaded its effect on Sasha. How should I write to him, what should I say to help him over the cruel blow? Ed's reassuring words that Sasha was brave enough to hold out until 1897 did not help me. I lost hope that a commutation would ever be granted him. The threat of Inspector Reed that Sasha would not be allowed out alive was ringing in my ears. Before I could bring myself to write him, a letter arrived from Sasha. He had not banked much on a favourable outcome, his letter read, and he was not much disappointed. The action of the Board merely proved once more the close alignment of the American Government and the plutocracy. It was what we anarchists had always claimed. The promise of the Board to reconsider the appeal in 1897 was merely a trick to hoodwink public opinion and to tire out the friends who had been working for him. He was sure the flunkeys of the steel interests would never act in his behalf. But it did not matter. He had survived the first four years and he meant to keep on fighting. "Our enemies shall never have the chance to say that they have broken me," he wrote. He knew he could always count on my support and on that of the new friends he had gained. I must not despair or relax in my zeal for our Cause. My Sasha, my wonderful Sasha - he was not only brave, as Ed had said; he was a tower of strength. As so often since that day when the steam monster at the Baltimore and Ohio Station had snatched him away from me, he stood out like a shining meteor on the dark horizon of petty interests, personal worries, and the enervating routine of everyday existence. He was like a white light that purged one's soul, inspiring even awe at his detachment from human frailties.
Go to Chapter 15
Return to Table of Contents