anarchy archives

An Online Research Center on the History and Theory of Anarchism



About Us

Contact Us

Other Links

Critics Corner


The Cynosure

  Michael Bakunin
  William Godwin
  Emma Goldman
  Peter Kropotkin
  Errico Malatesta
  Pierre-Joseph Proudhon
  Max Stirner
  Murray Bookchin
  Noam Chomsky
  Bright but Lesser Lights
  Cold Off The Presses
  Anarchist History
  Worldwide Movements
  First International
  Paris Commune
  Haymarket Massacre
  Spanish Civil War
Berkman, Alexander (1912) Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist, Mother Earth Press.



OFTEN THE CHAPLAIN pauses at my door, and speaks words of encouragement. I feel deeply moved by his sympathy, but my revolutionary traditions forbid the expression of my emotions: a cog in the machinery of oppression, he might mis take my gratitude for the obsequiousness of the fawning con vict. But I hope he feels my appreciation in the simple "thank you." It is kind of him to lend me books from his private li brary, and occasionally also permit me an extra sheet of writ ing paper. Correspondence with the Girl and the Twin, and the unfrequent exchange of notes with my comrades, are the only links that still bind me to the living. I feel weary and life worn, indifferent to the trivial incidents of existence that seem to hold such exciting interest for the other inmates. "Old Sammy," the rangeman, grown nervous with the approach of liberty, invents a hundred opportunities to unburden his heart. All day long he limps from cell to cell, pretending to scrub the doorsills or dust the bars, meanwhile chattering volubly to the solitaries. Listlessly I suffer the oft-repeated recital of the "news," elaborately discussed and commented upon with impassioned earnestness. He interrupts his anathemas upon the "rotten food" and the "thieving murderers," to launch into enthusiastic details of the meal he will enjoy on the day of release, the imprisoned friends he will remember with towels and handkerchiefs. But he grows pensive at the mention of the folks at home: the "old woman" died of a broken heart, the boys have not written a line in three years. He fears they have sold the little farmhouse, and flown to the city. But the joy of coming freedom drives away the sad thought, and he mumbles hopefully, "I'll see, I'll see," and rejoices in being "alive and still good for a while," and then abruptly changes the conversation, and relates minutely how "that poor, crazy Dick" was yesterday found hanging in the cell, and he the first to discover him, and to help the guards cut him down. And last week he was present when the physician tried to revive "the little dago," and if the doctor had only returned quicker from the theater, poor Joe might have been saved. He "took a fit" and "the screws jest let 'im lay; 'waitin' for the doc,' they says. Hope they don't kill me yet," he comments, hobbling away.

The presence of death daunts the thought of self-destruction. Ever stronger asserts itself the love of life; the will to be roots deeper. But the hope of escape recedes with the ebbing of my vitality. The constant harassing has forced the discontinuation of the Blossoms. The eccentric Warden seems to have conceived a great fear of an Anarchist conspiracy: special orders have been issued, placing the trio under extraordinary surveillance. Suspecting our clandestine correspondence, yet unable to trace it, the authorities have decided to separate us in a manner excluding all possibility of communication. Apparently I am to be continued in the solitary indefinitely, while Nold is located in the South Wing, and Bauer removed to the furthest cell on an upper gallery in the North Block. The precious magazine is suspended, and only the daring of the faithful "Horsethief " enables us to exchange an occasional note.
      Amid the fantastic shapes cast by the dim candle light, I pass the long winter evenings. The prison day between 7 A.M. and 9 Pm. I divide into three parts, devoting four hours each to exercise, English, and reading, the remaining two hours occupied with meals and "cleaning up." Surrounded by grammars and dictionaries, borrowed from the Chaplain, I absorb myself in a sentence of Shakespeare, dissecting each word, studying origin and derivation, analyzing prefix and suffix. I find moments of exquisite pleasure in tracing some simple expression through all the vicissitudes of its existence, to its Latin or Greek source. In the history of the corresponding epoch, I seek the people's joys and tragedies, contemporary with the fortunes of the word. Philology, with the background of history, leads me into the pastures of mythology and comparative religion, through the mazes of metaphysics and warring philosophies, to rationalism and evolutionary science.
      Oblivious of my environment, I walk with the disciples of Socrates, flee Athens with the persecuted Diagoras, "the Atheist," and listen in ecstasy to the sweet-voiced lute of Arion; or with Suetonius 1 pass in review the Twelve Caesars, and weep with the hostages swelling the triumph of the Eternal City. But on the very threshold of Cleopatra's boudoir, about to enter with the intrepid Mark Antony, I am met by three giant slaves with the command:
      "A 7, hands up! Step out to be searched!"

For days my enfeebled nerves quiver with the shock. With difficulty I force myself to pick up the thread of my life amid the spirits of the past. The placid waters have been disturbed, and all the miasma of the quagmire seethes toward the surface, and fills my cup with the bitterness of death.
      The release of "Old Sammy" stirs me to the very depths. Many prisoners have come and gone during my stay; with some I merely touched hands as they passed in the darkness and disappeared, leaving no trace in my existence. But the old rangeman, with his smiling eyes and fervid optimism, has grown dear to me. He shared with me his hopes and fears, divided his extra slice of cornbread, and strove to cheer me in his own homely manner. I miss his genial presence. Something has gone out of my life with him, leaving a void, saddening, gnawing. In thought I follow my friend through the gates of the prison, out into the free, the alluring "outside," the charmed circle that holds the promise of life and joy and liberty. Like a horrible nightmare the somber walls fade away, and only a dark shadow vibrates in my memory, like a hidden menace, faint, yet ever-present and terrible. The sun glows brilliant in the heavens, shell-like wavelets float upon the azure, and sweet odors are everywhere about me. All the longing of my soul wells up with violent passion, and in a sudden transport of joy I fling myself upon the earth, and weep and kiss it in prayerful bliss....

The candle sputters, hisses, and dies. I sit in the dark. Silently lifts the veil of time. The little New York flat rises before me. The Girl is returning home, the roses of youth grown pallid amid the shadows of death. Only her eyes glow firmer and deeper, a look of challenge in her saddened face. As on an open page, I read the suffering of her prison experience, the sharper lines of steadfast purpose.... The joys and sorrows of our mutual past unfold before me, and again I live in the old surroundings. The memorable scene of our first meeting, in the little cafe at Sachs', projects clearly. The room is chilly in the November dusk, as I return from work and secure my accustomed place. One by one the old habitues drop in, and presently I am in a heated discussion with two Russian refugees at the table opposite. The door opens, and a young woman enters. Well-knit, with the ruddy vigor of youth, she diffuses an atmosphere of strength and vitality. I wonder who the newcomer may be. Two years in the movement have familiarized me with the personnel of the revolutionary circles of the metropolis. This girl is evidently a stranger; I am quite sure I have never met her at our gatherings. I motion to the passing proprietor. He smiles, anticipating my question. "You want to know who the young lady is?" he whispers; "I'll see, I'll see."Somehow I find myself at her table. Without constraint, we soon converse like old acquaintances, and I learn that she left her home in Rochester to escape the stifling provincial atmosphere. She is a dressmaker, and hopes to find work in New York. I like her simple, frank confidence; the "comrade" on her lips thrills me. She is one of us, then. With a sense of pride in the movement, I enlarge upon the activities of our circle. There are important meetings she ought to attend, many people to meet; Hasselmarm is conducting a course in sociology; Schultze is giving splendid lectures. "Have you heard Most?" I ask suddenly. "No? You must hear our Grand Old Man. He speaks to-morrow; will you come with me?"-Eagerly I look forward to the next evening, and hasten to the cafe. It is frosty outdoors as I walk the narrow, dark streets in animated discussion with "Comrade Rochester." The ancient sidewalks are uneven and cracked, in spots crusted with filth. As we cross Delancey Street, the girl slips and almost falls, when I catch her in my arms just in time to prevent her head striking the curbstone. "You have saved my life," she smiles at me, her eyes dancing vivaciously.... With great pride I introduce my new friend to the inteligentzia of the Ghetto, among the exiles of the colony. Ah, the exaltation, the joy of being) ... The whole history of revolutionary Russia is mirrored in our circles; every shade of temperamental Nihilism and political view is harbored there. I see Hartman, surrounded by the halo of conspirative mystery; at his side is the velikorussian, with flowing beard and powerful frame, of the older generation of the narodovoiltzy; and there is Schewitsch, big and broad of feature, the typical dvoryanin who has cast in his lot with the proletariat. The line of contending faiths is not drawn sharply in the colony: Cahan is among us, stentorian of voice and bristling with aggressive vitality; Solotaroff, his pale student face peculiarly luminous; Miller, poetically eloquent, and his strangely-named brother Brandes, looking consumptive from his experience in the Odessa prison. Timmermann and Alcinikoff, Rinke and Weinstein-all are united in enthusiasm for the common cause. Types from Turgenev and Chernishevski, from Dostoyevski and Nekrassov, mingle in the seeming confusion of reality, individualized with varying shade and light. And other elements are in the colony, the splashed quivers of the simmering waters of Tsardom. Shapes in the making, still being kneaded in the mold of old tradition and new environment. Who knows what shall be the amalgam, some day to be recast by the master hand of a new Turgenev? ...

Often the solitary hours are illuminated by scenes of the past. With infinite detail I live again through the years of the inspiring friendship that held the Girl, the Twin, and myself in the closest bonds of revolutionary aspiration and personal intimacy. How full of interest and rich promise was life in those days, so far away, when after the hours of humiliating drudgery in the factory I would hasten to the little room in Suffolk Street! Small and narrow, with its diminutive table and solitary chair, the cage-like bedroom would be transfigured into the sanctified chamber of fate, holding the balance of the world's weal. Only two could sit on the little cot, the third on the rickety chair. And if somebody else called, we would stand around the room, filling the air with the glowing hope of our young hearts, in the firm consciousness that we were hastening the steps of progress, advancing the glorious Dawn.

The memory of the life "outside" intensifies the misery of the solitary. I brood over the uselessness of my suffering. My mission in life terminated with the Attentat. What good can my continued survival do? My propagandistic value as a living example of class injustice and political persecution is not of sufficient importance to impose upon me the duty of existence. And even if it were, the almost three years of my imprisonment have served the purpose. Escape is out of consideration, so long as I remain constantly under lock and key, the subject of special surveillance. Communication with Nold and Bauer, too, is daily growing more difficult. My health is fast failing; 1 am barely able to walk. What is the use of all this misery and torture? What is the use? ...
      In such moments, I stand on the brink of eternity. Is it sheer apathy and languor that hold the weak thread of life, or nature's law and the inherent spirit of resistance? Were I not in the enemy's power, I should unhesitatingly cross the barrier. But as a pioneer of the Cause, I must live and struggle. Yet life without activity or interest is terrifying.... I long for sympathy and affection. With an aching heart I remember my comrades and friends, and the Girl. More and more my mind dwells upon tender memories. I wake at night with a passionate desire for the sight of a sweet face, the touch of a soft hand. A wild yearning fills me for the women I have known, as they pass in my mind's eye from the time of my early youth to the last kiss of feminine lips. With a thrill I recall each bright look and tender accent. My heart beats tumultuously as I meet little Nadya, on the way to school, pretending I do not see her. I turn around to admire the golden locks floating in the breeze, when I surprise her stealthily watching me. I adore her secretly, but proudly decline my chum's offer to introduce me. How foolish of me! But I know no timid shrinking as I wait, on a cold winter evening, for our neighbor's servant girl to cross the yard; and how unceremoniously I embrace her! She is not a barishnya; I need not mask my feelings. And she is so primitive; she accuses me of knowing things "not fit for a boy" of my age. But she kisses me again, and passion wakes at the caress of the large, coarse hand.... My Eldridge Street platonic sweetheart stands before me, and I tingle with every sensual emotion of my first years in New York.... Out of the New Haven days rises the image of Luba, sweeping me with unutterable longing for the unattained. And again I live through the experiences of the past, passionately visualizing every detail with images that flatter my erotic palate and weave exquisite allurement about the urge of sex.

This page has been accessed times since October 3, 2002.


[Home]               [Search]               [About Us]               [Contact Us]               [Other Links]               [Critics Corner]