Living My Life
by Emma Goldman
New York: Alfred A Knopf Inc.,1931.
EQUIPPED WITH A DOZEN CAREFULLY PREPARED LECTURES AND supplied with a sample of the invention, I started out full of hope to win converts to our Cause and orders for the new album. My perentage on the sales would help to pay my travelling expenses, relieving me of the unpleasant necessity of the comrades supporting my tours.
Charles Shilling, a Philadelphia anarchist, whom I had met on my previous visits in that city, had undertaken all arrangements for my lectures and had also invited me to stay with his family. Both he and Mrs. Shilling were charming hosts, and Charles a most effective organizer. In six large meetings I spoke on the New Woman, the Absurdity of Non-Resistance to Evil, the Basis of Morality, Freedom, Charity, and Patriotism. Lecturing in English was still rather difficult, but I felt at home when the questions began. The more opposition I encountered, the more I was in my element and the more caustic I became with my opponents. After ten days of intensive activities and warm camaraderie with the Shillings and other new friends, I left for Pittsburgh.
Carl, Henry, Harry Gordon, and Emma Lee had arranged fourteen lectures in the Steel City and adjoining towns, except in the place I wanted most to go to, Homestead. No hall could be had there. My first pilgrimage was, as always, to the Western Penitentiary. I went out with Emma Lee. We walked close to the wall, and she noticed that now and then I ran my hand along the rough surface. If only thoughts and feelings could be transferred, the intensity of mine would penetrate the grey pile and reach through to Sasha. Almost five years had passed since his imprisonment. The Warden and the keepers had tried their utmost to break his spirit, but they had reckoned without Sasha's power of resistance. He remained undaunted, clinging with every fibre to the determination to come back to life and freedom. In that he was sustained by many friends, none more devoted than Harry Kelly, the Gordons, Nold, and Bauer. They had been working for months on the new appeal for pardon. Their efforts, begun in November 1897 found support among various elements. Through the help of Harry Kelly, who was canvassing the workers' organizations in Sasha's behalf, strong resolutions favouring his release had been passed by the United Labor League of Western Pennsylvania. The American Federation of Labor, at its convention in Cincinnati, the Bakers' International Union, the Boston Central Union, and many other labour bodies throughout the United States had taken favourable action. Two of the best Pittsburgh lawyers had been engaged, and the necessary funds raised. There was tremendous interest in Sasha and his case, and our friends were certain of results. I felt rather sceptical, but as I walked along the prison wall that separated me from our brave boy, I hoped against hope that I might be proved wrong.
Continuous lecturing and meeting many people were a strenuous job. It brought on several nervous attacks, which left me weak and spent. Yet I could not rest. I begrudged every minute that took me away from my work, especially because popular interest in our ideas seemed so great. Some of the newspapers, contrary to their usual custom, gave fair reports of my meetings; the Pittsburgh Leader even published a whole-page story, actually saying kind things about me. "Miss Goldman does not look at all the vicious being she is pictured," it wrote among other things. "You would not judge from her personal appearance that she carried bombs about in her clothes or that she was capable of the incendiary utterances which have marked her platform career. On the contrary, she is rather prepossessing than otherwise. As she converses, her face lights up with intelligent ardour. Indeed, the chances are ninety-nine in a hundred that a stranger asked to guess what and who she was would tell you she was a school-teacher or a woman whose mind runs in progressive channels."
The writer surely believed he was bestowing a compliment when he said I looked like a school-teacher. He meant it for the best, no doubt, but my vanity was hurt, nevertheless. Did I really look so inane, I wondered.
In Cleveland I delivered three lectures. The reports in the papers were very amusing. One simply stated that "Emma Goldman is crazy" and "her doctrines demoniacal ravings." Another enlarged upon my "fine manners, more like a lady than a bomb-thrower."
To Detroit I returned as to a dear old friend, and I went to Robert Reitzel straight from the train. His condition had been steadily growing worse, but his will to live would not be extinguished. I found my knight paler and more emaciated than before. The suffering he had been through since my last visit lined his face, but he had not lost his characteristic wit and humour. It was both joy and agony to see him. Yet he would not have me sad. He launched into stories that were convulsing by virtue of his great gift for comical recital. Particularly funny were his experiences as pastor of a German Reformed congregation, a position he held when he first came to America. Once he was requested to preach in Baltimore. The evening before he had spent in the circle of gay friends, with whom he worshipped at the shrine of wine and song till early dawn. Spring was in the air; the trees were alive with birds singing lustily to their mates. All of nature was vibrant with naked voluptuousness. The spirit of adventure was upon Robert when he walked out into the breaking day. Hours later he was found riding astride a beer-barrel, stripped to the skin, and stentoriously serenading the lady of his heart. Alas, she happened to be the fair daughter of a prominent member of the congregation that had invited the young pastor. There was no German sermon in Baltimore that day.
Unforgettable were the hours I spent with my knight. The sunshine of his spirit drew me into its orbit and made me reluctant to tear myself away. I wished I could pour sustenance into the sick body from the youth and strength that were mine.
Cincinnati was dull and disappointing after Detroit. A complaining letter from Ed made it doubly so. He could not bear my long absence, he wrote; better a thousand times to make a radical break, to live without me, than to have me only in snatches. I replied, assuring Ed of my love and of my desire for a home with him; but I reiterated that I would not be bound and kept in a cage. In such a case I should have to give up our common life altogether. What I prized most was freedom, freedom to do my work, to give myself spontaneously and not out of duty or by command. I could not submit to such demands; rather would I choose the path of a homeless wanderer; yes, even go without love.
St. Louis was not less dreary, but on the last day the police came to the rescue. They broke up the meeting in the middle of my speech and hustled everybody out. There was some consolation in the thought that the extensive quotations from my speech in the papers would reach a greater audience than the hall could hold. Moreover, the action of the authorities gained me many friends among Americans who still believed in freedom of expression.
Chicago, city of our Black Friday, cause of my rebirth! Next to Pittsburgh it was the most ominous and depressing to me. But I no longer felt as friendless there as on previous occasions when the fury of 1887 was still active and the opposition from the followers of Most was blind and bitter against me. My imprisonment and succeeding activities had won me friends and turned the tide in my favour. I now had the support of various labour unions which the efforts of Peukert had secured for me. Since 1893 he had been living in Chicago and spreading propaganda there. I found sweet hospitality with Comrade Appel, a prominent local anarchist, who, together with his vivacious wife and children, made their home a pleasant place to visit. The Free Society group was doing splendid work in Chicago, and a series of fifteen lectures had been arranged by them for me.
The gatherings themselves were of the usual character, with no special incidents occurring. But several events lent significance to my stay in the city, proving a lasting factor in my life. Among them were my meeting Moses Harman and Eugene V. Debs, and my rediscovery of Max Baginski, a young comrade from Germany.
In the exciting August days of 1893 in Philadelphia, when the police were hunting for me, two young men had called to see me. One was my old friend John Kassel; the other was Max Baginski. I was particularly glad to meet Max, who was one of the young rebels who had played such an important part in the revolutionary movement in Germany. He was of medium height, spiritual-looking, and frail, as if he had just been through a long illness. His blond hair stood up in defiance of the persuasions of a comb, his intelligent eyes appearing small through the thick glasses he wore. His pronounced features were an unusually high forehead and a face contour that looked as Slavic as his name sounded. I tried to engage him in conversation, but he seemed depressed and indisposed to talk. I wondered whether the large scar on his neck was the cause of his self-consciousness. In the years following I did not see Max again until my release from prison and then only casually. Subsequently I heard that he had gone to Chicago to take charge of the Arbeiter Zeitung, the publication formerly edited by August Spies.
On my previous visits to Chicago I had refrained from going to he office of the paper to seek out Baginski. I had heard that he was a staunch adherent of Most, and I had suffered too much persecution from the latter's followers to care to meet any more of them. The appearance of a friendly notice in the Arbeiter Zeitung about my lectures, and an unaccountable urge to see Max again, induced me to look him up on my arrival in the city.
The office of the Arbeiter Zeitung, made famous by the Chicago events, was on Clark Street. The medium-sized room was divided by grating, behind which I saw a man writing. By the scar on his neck I recognized Max Baginski. At the sound of my voice he rose quickly, opened the wire door, and with a buoyant: "Well, dear Emma, are you here at last?" he embraced me. The greeting was so unexpectedly warm that it immediately quieted my apprehensions of him as a blind follower of Most. He asked me to wait a moment to enable him to finish the last paragraph of the article he was writing. "Done!" he exclaimed cheerily after a short time; "let's get out of this prison. We'll go to lunch at the Blue Ribbon Restaurant."
It was past noon when we reached the place; five o'clock found us still there. The silent, depressed young man of my brief encounter in Philadelphia was very much alive and an interesting conversationalist, now intensely serious, again light-hearted as a boy. We discussed the movement, Most and Sasha. Far from being fanatical and narrow, Max showed greater breadth, sympathy, and understanding than I had found among even the best of the German anarchists. He greatly admired Most, he said, for the heroic struggle he had made and the persecutions he had endured. Yet Most's attitude towards Sasha had produced a very painful impression on Max and his co-workers in the "Jungen " group in Germany. They had all sided with Sasha, and still did, Max assured me; but since his coming to America he had begun better to appreciate Most's tragedy in the alien land in which he could never take root. In the United States Most was out of his sphere, without the inspiration and impetus that come from the life and struggle of the masses. Most, of course, had considerable German support in the country, but it is only the native element in a country that can bring about fundamental changes. It must have been the helplessness of his position in America and the absence of a native anarchist movement that had caused Most to turn against propaganda by deed and, with it, against Sasha.
I could not accept Max's explanation of Most's betrayal of what he had propagated for years. But his generous attempt objectively to analyse the causes that had brought about the change in Most gave me an insight into the character of Max. There was nothing petty about him, no trace of rancour or desire to censor, no vestige of a partisan spirit. He impressed me as a big personality; to be with him was like breathing the pure air of green fields.
My joy in Max was heightened by the discovery that he shared my admiration for Nietzsche, Ibsen, and Hauptmann, and that he knew many more whose names I had not even heard. He had known Gerhart Hauptmann personally and had accompanied him on his rounds through the districts where the weavers live in Silesia. Max was then editor of a labour paper, Der Proletarier aus dem Eulengebirge, published in the locality which had furnished the dramatist with the material for his two powerful social canvases, Die Weber and Hannele. The ghastly poverty and wretchedness had embittered the weavers and had made them suspicious. They were loath to talk to the young man with the ascetic face resembling a priest who had come to question them about their lives. But they knew Max. He was of the people and with them, and they trusted him.
Max related to me some of his experiences on his tramps with Gerhart Hauptmann. Everywhere they found appalling misery. Once they came upon an old weaver in a barren hut. On a bench lay a woman with a little baby, covered with rags. The child's emaciated body was a mass of sores. There was no food and no wood in the house. Utter destitution grinned from every corner. In another place there lived a widow with her grand-daughter of thirteen, a girl of extraordinary beauty. They shared the room with a weaver and his wife. All during his talk with them Hauptmann had kept stroking the child's head. "It was no doubt she who gave him the inspiration for his Hannele," Max commented; "I know how he was impressed by that tender flower in its dreadful environment." For a long time afterwards Hauptmann continued sending gifts to the little girl. He could sympathize with those disinherited because he knew from personal experience what poverty was; he had often gone hungry while a student in Zürich.
I felt I had found a kindred spirit in Max, one with understanding and appreciation of what had come to mean so much to me. The wealth of his mind and his sensitive personality held irresistible appeal. Our intellectual kinship was spontaneous and complete, finding also its emotional expression. We became inseparable, each day revealing to me new beauty and depth in his being. He was matured mentally far beyond his years, while psychically he was of the world of romance, of rare gentleness and refinement.
Another great event during my stay in Chicago was meeting Moses Harman, the courageous champion of free motherhood and woman's economic and sexual emancipation. His name had first become familiar to me through reading Lucifer, the weekly paper he was publishing. I knew of the persecution he had endured and of his imprisonment by the moral eunuchs of America, with Anthony Comstock at their head. Accompanied by Max, I visited Harman at the office of Lucifer, which was also the home that he shared with his daughter Lillian.
One's mental picture of great personalities usually proves false upon nearer contact. With Harman it was the contrary; I had not sufficiently visualized the charm of the man. His erect carriage (in spite of a lame leg, the result of a Civil War bullet), his striking head, with its flowing white hair and beard, together with his youthful eyes, combined to make the man a most impressive figure. There was nothing austere or forbidding about him; in fact, he was all kindliness. That characteristic explained his supreme faith in the country that had struck him so many blows. I was no stranger to him, he assured me. He had been outraged by the treatment I had received at the hands of the police, and he had protested against it. "We are comrades in more than one respect," he commented, with a pleasant smile. We spent the evening discussing problems affecting woman and her emancipation. During the talk I expressed doubt as to whether the approach to sex, so coarse and vulgar in America, was likely to change in the near future and Puritanism be banished from the land. Harman was sure it would. "I have seen such great changes since I began my work," he said, "that I am convinced we are not far now from a real revolution in the economic and sexual status of woman in the United States. A pure and ennobling feeling about sex and its vital rôle in human life is bound to develop." I called his attention to the growing power of Comstockism. "Where are the great men and women who can check that stifling force?" I asked; "outside of yourself and a handful of others the Americans are the most puritanical people in the world." "Not quite," he replied; "don't forget England, which has only recently suppressed Havelock Ellis's great work on sex." He had faith in America and in the men and women that had been fighting for years, even suffering calumny and imprisonment for the idea of free motherhood.
During my stay in Chicago I attended a Labour convention in session in the city. I met a number of people there prominent in trade-union and revolutionary ranks, among them Mrs. Lucy Parsons, widow of our martyred Albert Parsons, who took an active part in the proceedings. The most striking figure at the convention was Eugene V. Debs. Very tall and lean, he stood out above his comrades in more than a physical sense; but what struck me most about him was his naïve unawareness of the intrigues going on around him. Some of the delegates, non-political socialists, had asked me to speak and had the chairman put me on the list. By obvious trickery the Social Democratic politicians succeeded in preventing my getting the floor. At the conclusion of the session Debs came over to me to explain that there had been an unfortunate misunderstanding, but that he and his comrades would have me address the delegates in the evening.
In the evening neither Debs nor the committee was present. The audience consisted of the delegates that had extended the invitation to me and of our own comrades. Debs arrived, all out of breath, almost at the close. He had tried to get away from the various sessions in order to hear me, he said, but he had been detained. Would I forgive him and take lunch with him the next day? I had the feeling that possibly he had been a party to the petty conspiracy to suppress me. At the same time I could not reconcile his frank and open demeanour with mean actions. I consented. After spending some time with him I was convinced that Debs was in no way to blame. Whatever the politicians in his party might be doing, I was sure that he was decent and high-minded. His belief in the people was very genuine, and his vision of socialism quite unlike the State machine pictured in Marx's communist manifesto. Hearing his views, I could not help exclaiming: "Why, Mr. Debs, you're an anarchist!" "Not Mister, but Comrade," he corrected me; "won't you call me that?" Clasping my hand warmly, he assured me that he felt very close to the anarchists, that anarchism was the goal to strive for, and that all socialists should also be anarchists. Socialism to him was only a stepping-stone to the ultimate ideal, which was anarchism. "I know and love Kropotkin and his work," he said; "I admire him and I revere our murdered comrades who lie in Waldheim, as I do also all the other splendid fighters in your movement. You see, then, I am your comrade. I am with you in your struggle." I pointed out that we could not hope to achieve freedom by increasing the power of the State, which the socialists were aiming at. I stressed the fact that political action is the death-nell of the economic struggle. Debs did not dispute me, agreeing that the revolutionary spirit must be kept alive notwithstanding any political objects, but he thought the latter a necessary and practical means of reaching the masses. We parted good friends. Debs was so genial and charming as a human being that one did not mind the lack of political clarity which made him reach out at one and the same time for opposite poles.
The following day I visited Michael Schwab, one of the Chicago martyrs whom Governor Altgeld had pardoned. Six years in the Joliet Penitentiary had undermined his health, and I found him in the hospital with tuberculosis. It was amazing to witness with what endurance and fortitude an ideal can imbue one. Schwab's wasted body the hectic flush on his cheeks, his eyes shining with the fatal fever in his blood, convincingly spoke of the tortures he had endured during the harrowing trial, through the months of waiting for reprieve, followed by the execution of his comrades, and his own long years in prison. Yet Michael said hardly a word about himself, nor did he permit a complaint to escape him. His ideal was uppermost in his mind, and everything bearing upon it was still his sole interest. I felt with a feeling of awe for the man whose staunch and proud spirit the cruel powers had failed to break.
My presence in Chicago gave me the opportunity to fulfil a wish of long standing: to do honour to our precious dead by placing a wreath upon their grave in Waldheim Cemetery. Before the monument erected to their memory we stood in silence, Max and I, our hands clasped. The inspired vision of the artist had transformed stone into a living presence. The figure of the woman on a high pedestal, and the fallen hero reclining at her feet, were expressive of defiance and revolt, mingled with pity and love. Her face, beautiful in its great humanity, was turned upon a world of pain and woe, one hand pointing to the dying rebel, the other held protectingly over his brow. There was intense feeling in her gesture, and infinite tenderness. The tablet on the back of the base was engraved with a significant passage from Governor Altgeld's reasons for pardoning the three surviving anarchists.
It was nearly dark when we made our way out of the cemetery. My thoughts wandered back to the time when I had opposed the erection of the monument. I had argued that our dead comrades needed no stone to immortalize them. I realized now how narrow and bigoted I had been, and how little I had understood the power of art. The monument served as the embodiment of the ideals for which the men had died, a visible symbol of their words and their deeds.
Before I left Chicago, the news reached me of Robert Reitzel's death. While his friends knew that the end was only a question of weeks, yet we were stunned. My own loss was the more poignant because of my closeness to my dear "knight." His rebellious ardour and artistic soul stood so vividly before me that I could not think of him as dead. It was particularly on my last visit to him that I came fully to appreciate his true greatness, the heights to which he could rise. A thinker and poet, he was not content merely to fashion beautiful words, he wanted them to be living realities, to help in awakening the masses to the possibilities of an earth freed from the shackles the privileged few had forged. His dream was of things radiant, of love and freedom, of life and joy. He had lived and fought for that dream with all the passion of his soul.
Now Robert was dead, his ashes strewn over the lake. His great heart beat no more, his turbulent spirit was at rest. Life continued on its course, made more desolate without my knight, robbed of the force and beauty of his pen, the poetic splendour of his song. Life continued, and with it grew stronger the determination for greater effort.
Denver was a centre of our work, with a number of men and women of the individualist as well as of the communist school of anarchism active there. They were nearly all native born; some of them could trace their ancestry to the pioneers of colonial days. Lizzie and William Holmes, co-workers of Albert Parsons and his close friends, and their circle were persons of keen and clear minds, grounded in the economic aspects of the social struggle and well-informed otherwise also. Lizzie and William had been in the thick of the eight-hour struggle in Chicago and were contributors as well to the Alarm and other radical publications. The death of Albert Parsons had been an even greater blow to them than to most comrades because of their year-long friendship. Now living in Denver in poor quarters and barely earning enough to sustain life, they were still as devoted to the Cause as in the days when their faith was young and their hopes high. We spent much time discussing the movement and particularly the period of 1887. Their picture of Albert Parsons, the rebel and the man, was most vivid: To Parsons, anarchism had not been a mere theory of the future. He had made it a living force in his everyday existence, in his home life and relations with his fellows. Descended from an old Southern family that prided itself on caste, Albert Parsons felt kinship with the most degraded of humanity. He had grown up in an atmosphere that tenaciously clung to the idea of slavery as a divine right, and State honours as the only thing worth while in the world. He not only repudiated both, but married a young mulato. There was no room for colour distinctions in Albert's ideal of human brotherhood, and love was more powerful than man-made barriers. The same generous quality had impelled him to leave his place of safety and deliberately walk into the clutches of the Illinois authorities. The urge of sharing the fate of his comrades was more important than anything else. And yet Albert passionately loved life. His fine spirit manifested itself even in his last moments. Far from giving way to rancour or lamentations, Parsons intoned his favourite song, Annie Laurie, its strains ringing in his prison cell on the very day of execution.
My journey from Denver to San Francisco through the Rocky Mountains was replete with new experience and sensations I had looked at the Swiss mountains when I had stopped for for a few days in Switzerland on my way from Vienna. But the sight of the Rockies, austere and forbidding, was overwhelming. I could not free myself from the thought of the puerility of all man's efforts. The whole human race, myself included, appeared like a mere blade of grass so insignificant, so pathetically helpless, in the face of those crushing mountains. They terrified me, yet held me in their beauty and grandeur. But when we reached the Royal Gorge, and our train slowly picked its way along the winding arteries hewn by the hand of labour, relief came and renewed faith im my own strength. The forces that had penetrated those colossi of stone were everywhere at work bearing witness to the creative genius and inexhaustible resources of man.
To see California for the first time in early spring, after twenty-four hours through drab Nevada, was like beholding a fairyland after a nightmare. Never before had I seen nature so lavish and resplendent. I was still under its spell when the scene changed to one of less exuberance, and the train pulled into Oakland.
My stay in San Francisco was most interesting and delightful. It enabled me to do the best work I had accomplished till then, and it brought me in contact with many free and rare spirits. The headquarters of anarchist activity on the Coast was Free Society, edited and published by the Isaak family. They were unusual people, Abe Isaak, Mary, his wife, and their three children. They had been Mennonites, a liberal religious sect in Russia, of German origin. In America the Isaaks had first settled in Portland, Oregon, where they came under the influence of anarchist ideas. Together with some native comrades, among whom were Henry Addis and H. J. Pope, the Isaaks founded an anarchist weekly called the Firebrand. Because of the appearance in the latter of Walt Whitman's poem, "A Woman Waits for Me," their paper was suppressed, its publishers arrested, and H. J. Pope imprisoned for obscenity. The Isaak family then started Free Society, later moving to San Francisco. Even the children co-operated in the undertaking, often working eighteen hours a day, writing, setting up type, and addressing wrappers. At the same time they did not neglect other propagandist activities.
The particular attraction of the Isaaks for me was the consistency of their lives, the harmony between the ideas they professed and their application. The comradeship between the parents and the complete freedom of every member of the household were novel things to me. In no other anarchist family had I seen children enjoy such liberty or so independently express themselves without the slightest hindrance from their elders. It was amusing to hear Abe and Pete, boys of sixteen and eighteen respectively, hold their father to account for some alleged infraction of principle, or criticize the propaganda value of his articles. Isaak would listen with patience and respect, even if the manner of the criticism were adolescently harsh and arrogant. Never once did I see the parents resort to the authority of superior age or wisdom. Their children were their equals; their right to disagree, to live their own lives and learn, was unquestioned.
"If you can't establish freedom in your own home," Isaak often said, "how can you expect to help the world to it?" To him and to Mary that was just what freedom meant: equality of the sexes in all needs, physical, intellectual, and emotional.
The Isaaks maintained this attitude in the Firebrand, and now again in Free Society. For their insistence on sex equality they were severely censored by many anarchists in the East and abroad. I had welcomed the discussion of these problems in their paper, for I knew from my own experience that sex expression is as vital a factor in human life as food and air. Therefore it was not mere theory that had led me at an early stage of my development to discuss sex as frankly as I did other topics and to live my life without fear of the opinion of others. Among American radicals in the East I had met many men and women who shared my view on this subject and had the courage to practise their ideas in their sex life. But in my own immediate ranks I was very much alone. It was therefore a revelation to find that the Isaaks felt and lived as I did. It helped to establish a strong personal bond between us besides our common anarchist ideal.
Notwithstanding nightly lectures in San Francisco and adjoining towns, a mass meeting to celebrate the first of May, and a debate with a socialist, we still found time for frequent social gatherings jovial enough to be disapproved by the purists. But we did not mind it. Youth and freedom laughed at rules and strictures, and our circle consisted of people young in years and in spirit. In the company of the Isaak boys and the other young chaps I felt like a grandmother -- I was twenty-nine -- but in spirit I was the gayest, as my young admirers often assured me. We had the joy of life in us, and the California wines were cheap and stimulating. The propagandist of an unpopular cause needs, even more than other people, occasional light-hearted irresponsibility. How else could he survive the hardships and travail of existence? My San Francisco comrades could work strenuously; they took their tasks very seriously, but they could also love, drink, and play.
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