Living My Life
by Emma Goldman
New York: Alfred A Knopf Inc., 1931.
AT THE INTERNATIONAL SOCIALIST CONGRESS HELD IN PARIS IN 1889 the decision had been made to turn the first of May into a world-wide holiday of labour. The idea caught the imagination of tbe progressive workers in every land. The birth of spring was to mark the reawakening of the masses to new efforts for emancipation. In this year, 1891, the decision of the Congress was to find wide application. On the first of May the toilers were to lay down their tools, stop their machines, leave the factories and mines. In festive attire they were to demonstrate with their banners, marching to the inspiring strains of revolutionary music and song. Everywhere meetings were to take place to articulate the aspirations of labour.
The Latin countries had already begun their preparations. The socialist and anarchist publications carried detailed reports of the intense activities scheduled for the great day. In America, too, the call went out to make the first of May an impressive demonstration of the strength and power of the workers. Nightly sessions took place to organize for the event. I was again assigned to canvass the trade unions. The press of the country began a campaign of vituperation, charging the radical elements with plotting revolution. The unions were urged to purge their ranks of the "foreign riff-raff and criminals who came to our country to destroy its democratic institutions." The campaign had its effect. The conservative labour bodies refused to lay down their tools and to participate in the first-of-May demonstration. The others were too small, numerically, and still too terrorized by the attacks on the German unions during the Chicago Haymarket days. Only the most radical among German, Jewish, and Russian organizations held to their original decision. They would demonstrate.
The celebration in New York was arranged by the socialists. They secured Union Square and promised to permit the anarchists to speak from their own platform. But at the last moment the socialist organizers refused to let us erect our platform on the square. Most did not arrive on time, but I was there with a group of young people, including Sasha, Fedya, and several Italian comrades. We were determined to have our say on this great occasion. When it became evident that we could not have our platform, the boys lifted me up on one of the socialist trucks. I began to speak. The chairman left, but in a few minutes he returned with the owner of the wagon. I continued to speak. The man hitched his horse to the truck and started off at a trot. I still continued to speak. The crowd, failing to take in the situation, followed us out of the square for a couple of blocks while I was speaking.
Presently the police appeared and began beating back the crowd. The driver stopped. Our boys quickly lifted me off and hurried me away. The morning papers were filled with a story about a mysterious young woman on a truck who had waved a red flag and urged revolution, "her high-pitched voice putting the horse to flight."
A few weeks later the news arrived that the Supreme Court had decided against John Most's appeal. We knew it meant Blackwell's Island again. Sasha forgot his differences with Most, and I no longer cared that he had cast me out of his heart and life. Nothing mattered now except the cruel fact that Most would be returned to prison, that he would be shaved again, that his deformity, from which he had suffered so much, would again become the butt of ridicule and humiliation.
We were the first in court. Most was brought in, accompanied by his attorneys and his bondsman, our old comrade Julius Hoffmann. Many friends streamed in, Helen Minkin among them. Most seemed indifferent to his doom, holding himself erect and proud. He was again the old warrior, the unflinching rebel.
The proceedings lasted only a few minutes. In the corridor I rushed over to Most, took his hand, and whispered: "Hannes, dear Hannes, I'd give anything to take your place!" "I know you would, my Blondkopf. Write to me at the island." Then he was led away.
Sasha accompanied Most to Blackwell's Island. He returned enthusiastic about his splendid bearing: he had never seen him more rebellious, more dignified, more brilliant. Even the newspaper men had been impressed. "We must bury our differences, we must work with Most," Sasha declared.
A mass meeting was decided upon to voice our protest against the decision of the Supreme Court and to raise funds to continue the fight for Most and help make his life in prison as endurable as possible. Sympathy with our imprisoned comrade was general in the radical ranks. Within forty-eight hours we succeeded in filling a large hall, where I was one of the speakers. My speech was not merely about Johann Most, the symbol of universal revolt, the spokesman of anarchism, but also of the man who had been my great inspiration, my teacher and comrade.
During the winter Fedya left for Springfield, Massachusetts, to work for a photographer. After a while he wrote that I could have a job at the same place, taking care of the orders. I was glad of the chance; it would take me away from New York, from the everlasting grind of the sewing-machine. Sasha and I had been supporting ourselves with piece-work on boys' jumpers. Often we worked eighteen bours a day in the one light room of our flat, and I had to do the cooking and the housework besides. Springfield would be a change and a relief.
The work was not hard, and it was soothing to be with Fedya, who was so different from both Most and Sasha. We had many tastes in common outside of the movement: our love for beauty, for flowers, for the theatre. There was very little of the last in Springfield; in fact, the American play and theatre had become abhorrent to me. After Königsberg, St. Petershurg, and the German Irving Place Theatre in New York the ordinary American play seemed flat and tawdry.
Fedya was so successful with his work that it seemed folly to keep enriching our employer. It occurred to us that we might start out for ourselves and have Sasha with us. Though Sasha had never complained, I could sense in his letters that he was not happy in New York. Fedya suggested that we open our own studio. We decided to go to Worcester, Massachusetts, and to invite Sasha to join us.
We fixed up an office, put out a sign, and waited for customers. But none came, and our little savings were dwindling. We hired a horse and buggy to enable us to visit near-by places and secure orders from the farmers for crayon enlargements of family photographs. Sasha would drive, and whenever we bumped into trees and sidewalks, he would dilate on the natural cussedness of our horse. Often we travelled for hours before securing any work.
We were struck by the great difference between the New Englanders and the Russian peasant. The latter seldom had enough for himself to eat, yet he would never fail to offer the stranger bread and kvass (cider). The German peasants also, as I remembered from my schooldays, would invite us to their "best room," put milk and butter on the table, and urge us to partake. But here, in free America, where the farmers owned acres of land and much cattle, we were lucky to be admitted at all or be given a glass of water. Sasha used to say that the American farmer lacked sympathy and kindness because he himself had never known want. "He is really a small capitalist," he argued. "It is different with the Russians, or even with the German peasants; they are proletarians. That is why they are warm-hearted and hospitable." I was not convinced. I had worked with proletarians in factories and I did not always find them helpful and generous. But Sasha's faith in the people was infectious and dispelled my doubts.
Frequently we were on the point of giving up. The family we lived with used to advise us to open a lunch-room or ice-cream parlour. The suggestion at first seemed to us absurd; we had neither funds nor aspirations for such a venture. Besides, it was against our principles to engage in business.
Just at that time the radical press was again aroused by new atrocities in Russia. The old yearning took hold of us to return to our native country. But where get enough money for the purpose? The private call sent out by Most had found no adequate response. Then it occurred to us that an ice-cream parlour might prove the means to our end. The more we thought of it, the more convinced we became that it offered the only solution.
Our savings consisted of fifty dollars. Our landlord, who had suggested the idea, said he would lend us a hundred and fifty dollars. We secured a store, and within a couple of weeks Sasha's skill with hammer and saw, Fedya's with his paint and brush, and my own German housekeeping training succeeded in turning the neglected ramshackle place into an attractive lunch-room. It was spring and not yet warm enough for an ice-cream rush, but the coffee I brewed, our sandwiches and dainty dishes, were beginning to be appreciated, and soon we were kept busy till early morning hours. Within a short time we had paid back our landlord's loan and were able to invest in a soda-water fountain and some lovely coloured dishes. We felt we were on the way to the realization of our long-cherished dream.
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