Living My Life
by Emma Goldman
New York: Alfred A Knopf Inc., 1931.
LIFE IN PRISON, UNLESS ONE HAS VITAL INTERESTS OUTSIDE, IS deadly dull. Until Kate arrived, our existence in Jefferson had been no exception. But the publicity campaign kept up by Frank O'Hare by means of his wife's letters brought many surprises and unexpected results. After the library and the hot food came an influx of convict plumbers, carpenters, and mechanics to install shower-baths. Then the walls of our wing were whitewashed and preparations were being made to whitewash the cells. Presently Kate received an offer to be excused from the shop. "Is it only because of the pull you have outside?" I asked her. "My friends have tried hard to relieve me from machine work, but I am still pegging away at it." "You have never been together with Mr. Painter on a political job," Kate laughed; "we are friends." "You mean you know each other from behind the scenes?" I questioned. "Precisely," giggled Kate, "and now you understand why Mr. Painter is willing to do things for me." Kate refused to be released from the shop; it would spoil her chance of keeping up her criticism of evils that needed to be reformed.
Meanwhile it became known that an investigator was to visit the penitentiary. The usual investigating fraternity inspires prisoners with anything but confidence. This man, however, was from the Survey, the liberal research magazine. Winthrop Lane had published a report of the unique strike of the politicals in the Leavenworth disciplinary barracks, and we had been impressed by his sympathetic understanding of the protestants in prison; his coming was therefore looked forward to with interested suspense.
When I was called down to the office, I was surprised to find myself alone with Mr. Lane. It was a pleasant experience to be able to converse with a human being without the surveillance of the head matron, which we always had to endure at visits. Mr. Lane had already investigated the blocks and the punishment cells in the men's wing, and we discussed penal institutions in general. I did not suggest that he visit the shop, assuming that he would do so as a matter of course. But to my amazement Mr. Lane failed to come to see the women at work. Whatever his report about our place, it would be wanting, I feared, without his personal observation of the very thing that caused all the hardships and trouble in the prison.
My fiftieth birthday I spent in the Missouri penitentiary. What more fitting place for the rebel to celebrate such an occasion? Fifty years! I felt as if I had five hundred on my back, so replete with events had been my life. While at liberty I had hardly noticed age creeping up, perhaps because I had counted my real birth from 1889, when, as a girl of twenty, I had first come to New York. Like our Sasha, who would jestingly give his age minus his fourteen years in the Western Penitentiary, I used to say that my first twenty years should not be held against me, for I had merely existed then. The prison, however, and still more the misery abroad in every land, the savage persecution of radicals in America, the tortures social protestants were enduring everywhere, had an ageing effect on me. The mirror lies only to those who want to be deceived.
Fifty years --- thirty of them in the firing line --- had they borne fruit or had I merely been repeating Don Quixote's idle chase? Had my efforts served only to fill my inner void, to find an outlet for the turbulence of my being? Or was it really the ideal that had dictated my conscious course? Such thoughts and queries swirled through my brain as I pedalled my sewing-machine on June 27, 1919.
The week before, I had again fallen ill and had been told by the physician to stay in my cell. Feeling particularly weak on my birthday, I had remained in bed, hoping that Dr. McNearney would understand that I needed a rest. To my astonishment an orderly came to tell me that the doctor had ordered me back to the shop. I was certain that McNearney knew nothing about it, and that it was the head matron's doing. But I was too weary of the continual struggle with her, and I dragged myself to work. At noon I discovered that the lady had imposed an additional punishment on me. She had not delivered the flowers, packages, and stack of mail received for me. In the evening I found half of the flowers and plants wilted from the excessive heat. It was provoking --- they had committed no offence, and I thought it petty revenge to have denied them drink and air. I proceeded to clean and bathe them in salt water. Some raised their drooping heads and seemed to revive. They nodded tender birthday messages from my darling Stella and from many other known and unknown well-wishers. A beautiful pink rose rambler plant had come from my troubadour of many years, Leon Bass. No adversity in domestic and business life could dim his interest in our ideas or his devotion to me. Leon was a true knight of old, serving without thought of reward. His solicitude for my welfare was most touching and a rare trait among radicals, who seem to think that people in public life have no personal needs or desires.
Many familiar names were among those of the fifty signers of the birthday message I received from New York and the thirty-five signatures of another from Los Angeles. A box of oranges from a friend's own grove in California; luscious apples and preserves from Butler Davenport, my friend for years, whose dramas were performed in the quaint little theatres built by himself on his estates in Connecticut and in New York. From East and West the congratulatory messages came, expressing appreciation of my work and what I had meant to the writers.
My own family's affection for me had grown with the years. Sister Lena had blossomed out like a flower in her love for me. Her life, filled with hardships and pain, might have corroded the heart of many another woman. But Lena had become more gentle and understanding, even humble. "I do not presume to compare my love for you with Helena's," she once wrote me, "but I love you just the same." It made me remorseful to think of the poor affection I had given her in the past. My old mother had also come very close to me of late years. She kept sending me gifts, things made by her own trembling hands. Her birthday letter, written in Yiddish, was filled with affection for her most wayward child.
The thought of Helena was the only cloud on my birthday sky. Her daughter Minnie had come all the way from Manila to help her mother over their great loss. But my sister was wrapped in her precious dead, and the living could do nothing to loosen its hold. Helena alone had failed me on the day she had always filled with her love before. But I understood.
I felt myself very rich indeed. An abundance of affection and loyalty was my share, and it bore witness that my life and work had been worth the suffering and travail.
A few months after Kate had arrived she was granted the privilege of her typewriter, and my correspondents had been blessing her ever since. "Such a relief," they wrote, "not to have to spend hours in puzzling out your hieroglyphics." On a previous occasion, when I had acquired a Blickensdoerfer, they had also rejoiced to be free from the ordeal of trying to decipher my letters. Alas, their glee had been premature, because my typing did not prove more legible than my handwriting. I was trying hard to improve, stoically enduring the pains in my neck from constant practice, but the heartless lot did not begin to appreciate it. They had even suggested I should be psychoanalyzed for the peculiar complex that made me strike the wrong keys. They kept on finding fault with my most perfect copy. But when Kate became my "secretary," all complaints ceased.
She was thorough in everything, particularly in mechanical things, and adept at handling machines, however intricate. Her father had been a mechanic, and Kate had grown up in his shop, dabbling in machinery since she had been a tot. Later she had become her parent's assistant, and her greatest pride was her membership in the Machinists' Union. But what is a union card among friends? Out of her bigness of heart, Kate scabbed for me. Besides the day's task and her own mail after work hours, she also did my letters. Shamelessly I took advantage of her good nature and exploited her for my correspondence. The Federal authorities had robbed me of my forum and of Mother Earth, and letters became my platform. Censorships had taught me to express proscribed ideas in guileless disguise.
With my good old comrade Jacob Margolis I argued hotly the merits and demerits of Soviet Russia. I agreed with him on the danger to the Revolution from the dictatorship of the proletariat, but I fought his lack of faith in the men who had helped October to birth and who were defending its gains against a hostile world. I stressed the point that the time would undoubtedly come when the anarchists would have to take issue with the Lenin-Trotsky group, but not while Russia was in danger from enemies within and without. My comrade replied that he certainly had no intention of siding with the interventionists. He was concerned, however, in keeping anarchism free from any affiliations with the political school that had always fought us in the past and would crush us in Russia just as soon as they should feel their State machine strong enough for it. Our controversy continued for a considerable time, proving as stimulating as a personal talk with Jake.
Other letters to New York friends were in defence of Robert Minor, our co-worker in various campaigns. His cabled articles on Russia, which had appeared in one of the New York dailies, caused much indignation in radical ranks. While some of his criticisms of the Bolsheviki were plausible, they contained passages obviously not from Bob's pen. I felt that his reports were being doctored. I urged that it was infantile to suspect everybody as a traitor who did not fully accept the dicta of Lenin, Trotsky, or Zinoviev. They were human, like the rest of us, and likely to make mistakes. To call attention to the latter could not harm the Revolution. As for the apparently garbled accounts, we should have to wait for Robert Minor's return to America, when he could explain things.
On his return to America, Minor proved that his European articles had been deliberately altered in New York editorial rooms to hurt Russia and to injure his standing in radical ranks. He planned to see Sasha and me as soon as we should be released and to give us a full report of the situation in Russia.
An article in the Liberator signed "X" contained a violent attack on the anarchists in Russia. Stella had been assured by Max Eastman that a refutation from me would be published, and I devoted several Sundays to an analysis of the charges made against my Russian comrades. I pointed out that the writer had not adduced a single proof for his assertions, that he had shown gross ignorance of his subject, and that he had even lacked the courage to sign his name. I demanded that he come out in the open so that we could argue the matter fairly. A letter from Max Eastman spoke highly of my article and assured me that it would soon appear. But he did not keep his promise, and my refutation was not published.
I was not surprised. On a previous occasion Max Eastman had demonstrated his peculiar conception of free speech and press. His poetic soul had always craved these rights for himself and his group, but not for anarchists. Max Eastman was living up to the good old Marxist tradition.
Lack of fairness to an opponent is essentially a sign of weakness. And, truth to tell, Max Eastman was neither strong nor brave. His spiritual somersault at his trial, and his sudden glorification of the policies of America's "greatest statesman in the White House," testified to it. Well, what of it? He possessed other gifts worthy a king's ransom: he was a poet and handsome. Better a Napoleon in his own domain than a common soldier in the social battle.
It saddened me to learn that Catherine Breshkovskaya had left America without replying to my appeal. Nor had she expressed any protest against the crimes committed by Uncle Sam in the name of lofty ideals. Miss Alice Stone Blackwell had questioned her silence in the face of so much wrong. In reply the veteran fighter had said that she could not jeopardize her chances of helping the destitute children of Russia, for which purpose she had come to the United States.
Kate's repeated complaints about unfairness to the Federal prisoners finally brought an official investigator to question us. We were compelled to make the same task as the State prisoners and we were equally punished in case of failure. But we did not receive the same benefits. Advancement to Grade A gave the Federals only the right of a third letter a week whereas the State prisoners were rewarded by the reduction of five months on each year and were also made eligible to parole. The investigator interviewed us separately. His efforts were apparently exhausted by a significant remark to Kate. "You and Miss Goldman," he said, "must have stiffened the backs of these girls. I always find it difficult to get prisoners to talk frankly. But this time they expressed themselves freely and they all told the same story." The Federals desperately clung to the hope that the investigation would bring results. I did not try to discourage them, though I knew that even Mr. Lane, of the Survey, had failed to have his critical article on conditions in our prison accepted by the magazine.
A new batch of letters from Frank Harris served to strengthen the mutual-admiration society that had sprung up between us. I had been greatly impressed by his Contemporary Portraits, naming those of Carlyle, Whistler, Davidson, Middleton, and Sir Richard Burton as the most successful. Among the short stories I had chosen Montes the Matador, The Stigmata, and Magic Glasses. I wrote Frank that I regarded them as his literary masterpieces. I knew that he was inclined to feel hurt if one did not consider all his works great, and I feared that my preferences might impair our friendship. But Frank Harris heaped coals of fire on my sinful head by calling me "a great and unerring critic." "You will be out soon," one of his letters read, "which delights my soul; but I will still be boiling in the fires of the Philistines. Why do they not deport me? I would thus save passage money." He asked permission to arrange a banquet in my honour when I should be released. He had made no mention of Sasha, and I informed him that, though I appreciated his offer, I could not accept any testimonial of a public character that did not also include my old pal.
A similar reception was being planned by Mrs. Margaret Sanger, as Stella notified me. I felt much surprised at it. Friendship is best tested in time of danger. While Sasha's fate was hanging in the balance in connexion with San Francisco, Mrs. Sanger had offered no help and showed no interest. She had been good enough to permit her name on the list of his publicity committee, but every leading radical had done no less. Outside of that she had kept cautiously in the background, though she had always claimed to be a very particular friend of Sasha. I had no desire to hurt Mrs. Sanger, but I had to decline her proposal.
On August 28, 1919 Sasha and I had completed twenty months of our two-year sentence. Wicked anarchists though we were, we had earned four months each for good behaviour. We had done our bit much longer than many of the boys in the dug-outs. We should have been honourably discharged from service and allowed to return from the prison front. But Judge Julius Mayer had willed it otherwise by placing a high valuation on our heads. Twenty thousand dollars' fine! A United States commissioner was sent to the penitentiary to question me about my financial standing. He looked incredulous when I told him that anarchist propaganda is a pleasure and not a paying business. He grew still more dubious when I explained that the Kaiser, having been unseemly hurried in his departure from Germany, had neglected to make provision for our welfare. The commissioner decided to "look into the matter." Meanwhile Berkman and I would have to serve an extra month in payment of our fine, he declared. Two months for twenty thousand dollars! When did Sasha and I ever expect to earn so much money in so short a time?
Only thirty days. Then release from the hateful shop, the control, the surveillance, the thousand humiliations prison involves. Back to life and work again --- with Sasha. Back to my family, comrades, and friends. An alluring fantasy, soon dispelled by the immigration authorities. Ellis Island was waiting for the two distinguished guests. I wondered who would compete for my favours next. Would it be Russia, the long-awaited, or America, my old flame? In our uncertain fortunes only one thing was certain: Sasha and I would meet the future as we had always met it in the past.
The last days were drawing near. I had but one thing to regret: the friends I should have to leave behind. Little Ella, grown into my heart as my own child, still had six months to serve. I was less anxious about Kate, who was sure of a pardon before long. Ella would then have no one with her, and I grieved to part from her. And there were also poor little Aggie, the lifer, the coloured orderly Addie, serving ten years, and the other unfortunates who had become dear to me. I had tried to interest some of my women friends in New York in Addie. Several had responded and offered to give her a job when she was paroled. Did I know what she was "in for," they had inquired, "and would she be all right?" I could never bring myself to ask my fellow-prisoners on what charges they had been sent up. I would wait until they confided to me of their own accord. I told Addie what my correspondents had said. "I don't blame them at all," she commented; "they might think I'm here for stealin' or usin' dope. Tell 'em I'm here for killin' my man, who played me false." Convicts have their own code of ethics, I wrote back, and they can be trusted to live up to them, which is more than could be said of a great many people outside. Alice Stone Blackwell had asked no questions; she had secured employment for Addie and she would even pay her fare. But there the head matron had stepped in. She frightened Addie by telling her that "Emma Goldman's friends are Bolsheviki and bad women." She would only queer her chances for parole if the board should learn that she had such sponsors. Addie implored me to do nothing further in her case.
During my imprisonment death had robbed me of two more friends, Horace Traubel and Edith de Long Jarmuth. I had not known of their illness, and the news was a great shock. The poetic beauty of Horace's life accompanied him even to his grave. The church caught fire just as his friends had gathered to pay their last tribute. Red flames shooting on high greeted his remains. It seemed appropriately symbolic of Horace Traubel, the rebel and man.
Edith de Long Jarmuth, Japanese-looking with her blue-black hair, almond-shaped eyes, and marble-white skin, was like a lotus flower in alien soil. She was a strange and ethereal figure in her wealthy and heavy bourgeois home in Seattle. Later her apartment on Riverside Drive in New York became the rendezvous of radicals and intellectual Bohemians. Edith was their magnet, and she felt alive to their ideas and work. Her own interests, however, had no social roots; they sprang from her yearning for the exotic and the picturesque. In life as in art Edith was a dreamer who lacked creative strength. One loved her more for what she was than for what she did. Her personality and native charm were her greatest gifts.
Saturday, September 28, 1919, I left the Missouri penitentiary, accompanied by my faithful Stella, who had come from New York for the occasion. Only technically free, I was taken to the Federal Building to make an affidavit that I possessed no real estate or cash. The Federal agent looked me up and down. "You're dressed so swell, funny you claim to be poor," he commented. "I am a multimillionaire in friends," I replied.
The fifteen-thousand-dollar bond demanded by the Government pending inquiries by the Immigration Bureau was secured, and I was at last at liberty.
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