Cocktail party biography

Anarchist Emma Goldman's extraordinary life gets short shrift.

Emma Goldman 521 (photo credit: Jerusalem Post)
Emma Goldman 521
(photo credit: Jerusalem Post)
Americans are living in an era in which political figures vie vigorously, defiantly, desperately to prove they are more conservative than their rivals.
With the possible exception of atheist, no labels are more toxic to an American in political life than liberal, leftist or progressive.
Socialist, a common epithet hurled against President Barack Obama, likewise means anti-American, with overtones of Marxist, European, certainly foreigner, and in some contexts maybe even crypto-Jew. And anarchist? That’s in no one’s vocabulary. Anarchism is beyond the pale.
Anarchists, of course, largely have themselves to blame for their relegation to the farthest frozen reaches of the political wilderness.
Bad enough being utopian, the anarchists’ historical association with assassination and other forms of violence have made them anathema to the masses. Murder one president (William McKinley in 1901) or be involved in one bloody riot (Chicago’s Haymarket Square, 1886) and your comrades may as well pulp their pamphlets and put their picket signs to good use as firewood.
Why then a book in 2012 about a minor footnote to history called Emma Goldman? Yes, she was for decades the most prominent proponent of anarchism, drawing thousands to her lectures. And yes, she was witness to many of the great social and economic upheavals of the 20th century. And yes, she had an utterly fascinating personality and personal history.
But has Goldman’s story any resonance in today’s world? Not really. Except as an exemplar of an individual who unfailingly lived according to her beliefs, which is no small thing.
Emma Goldman (1869-1940) was by any measure an extraordinary woman, the sort who was admired by even her fiercest opponents.
And her opponents were legion.
She preached and practiced free love, birth control and other forms of personal freedom for women, but had no time for the feminists’ notion of equal rights or the suffragists’ demand for the vote. (Equal to what? And why vote when she condemned all forms of government?) She furiously opposed capitalism but refused to make common cause with socialists or communists.
(She loathed bosses, leaders, the very idea of anyone holding power over anyone else.) She was militantly anti-war. (It was her anti-conscription stance, not her anarchism, that would earn her imprisonment and then deportation from the United States.) And she was Jewish to the bone. In her all-consuming pursuit of justice, she was a direct descendant of the prophets of old, even though she was doggedly atheistic, even though as a pacifist she opposed nations going to war against Hitler.
So yes, irrelevant, quaint, dogmatic, dangerous, frequently foolish, hopelessly idealistic and out of touch with reality, call her what you will (during her lifetime she was called all these things and more). Goldman, nonetheless, remains an astonishing individual, self-educated, self-created, a champion of the oppressed, a warm and loving human being, a true believer. And if she was a magnificent failure, then she was still a model of dedication and determination and self-realization.
As such she is well deserving of biographical study. Several biographies in fact have been written in just the past 25 years or so – these in addition to Goldman’s own 1931 autobiography, “Living My Life.”
Paltry biography
So is Vivian Gornick’s “Emma Goldman” a welcome addition to the literature? Not in this corner.
Gornick, a feminist writer and memoirist, several times self-aggrandizes herself as Goldman’s biographer, but her brisk overview is no biography. Gornick’s 142 pages of text may introduce the archanarchist, but so does the extensive Emma Goldman entry in Wikipedia, whose notes and bibliography far outstrip Gornick’s.
One can only wonder what the editors of the Yale University Press’s Jewish Lives series can be thinking by publishing a “biography” whose brevity insults its subject.
Why not call it Jewish Lives for the Short- Attention-Span Generation and be done with it? Gornick, whose idea of fine writing amounts to kneading colons and semi-colons into every other sentence, brings little to the table. She covers the facts and adequately provides background information, but she devotes as much time to Goldman’s sex life as she does to her political activities.
These things were certainly not unrelated, but why the impulse to sensationalize the story of a woman whose public life in itself was spectacularly sensational? Worse, Gornick only rarely gives us Goldman’s words, which is especially frustrating, since Goldman’s entire career was built on words – in her countless speeches, books, pamphlets and manifestos, and in the cascade of articles she wrote for both the mainstream press and for her anarchist magazine, Mother Earth.
For the record, Emma Goldman was born into a Yiddish-speaking family in Kovno, Lithuania, and emigrated at age 15 to Rochester, New York, where an older sister had preceded her. If working in a sweatshop radicalized her, then the shooting of striking laborers in the Haymarket riot turned her against all authority and all economic systems.
She got her anarchism from reading Proudhon, Kropotkin and Bakunin, and her taste for direct action from her lover Alexander Berkman, who tried to kill the steel magnate Henry Clay Frick. In an era when the US had some 300 left-wing publications and when a Socialist presidential candidate (Eugene V. Debs) could garner a million votes, Goldman was ever at the forefront of radical politics. She published and lectured tirelessly, constantly on the move like the perpetual wandering Jew, spreading her views on personal freedom and revolt against political and economic oppression, from village to town to city throughout America (and later from country to country).
She married now and again, almost absentmindedly (once it was simply to gain a passport), developed shameless crushes and took numerous lovers. Her only respites were her periodic jail sentences. The closest thing she ever had to a home were the cafés that catered to Yiddish-speaking radicals On New York’s Lower East Side.
Deported with Berkman to Russia in 1919, Goldman enthusiastically embraced the Revolution. But soon enough she was dismayed by a meeting with Lenin and horrified by the Bolshevik crackdown on anarchists and other “enemies of the state” (see Goldman’s “My Disillusionment in Russia,” published in 1923 but still in print).
Her last two decades were spent in England (which she hated) and in the south of France (Peggy Guggenheim bought her a villa there). The strong anarchist component of the Spanish Republic in the 1930s appeared to Goldman as the realization of a life-long dream. She raced to Spain and exulted in its anarchist communes. But General Franco’s overthrow of the republic was surely one of the nails in the woman’s coffin.
“Spain has paralyzed my will and killed my hopes,” Goldman wrote.
As noted above, Gornick gives us the outline of this remarkable life, but little else. In a particularly bad stumble, Gornick’s only attempt to establish Goldman’s legacy is in reference to counterculturists of the 1960s, and even then she gets it wrong.
If Goldman was adopted by feminists of the era, it was a misconceived adoption.
(Goldman believed love and motherhood were of primary importance in the lives of women.) And if any of the Sixties crowd adhered to Goldman’s beliefs, it was that small number who, opting out of the system and living off the grid, went off to form communes in the desert.
Gornick never mentions these, nor the early kibbutzniks who also embodied several anarchic principles. (Goldman had no more interest in Zionism than in any other form of nationalism, but she was a lifelong proponent of cooperative living.) Nor does Gornick mention the black-masked anarchists who in recent years have made their mark at every G7, G8, or G-whatever confab of industrialized nations. Nor does Gornick acknowledge the Occupy Wall Street movement, which, by virtue of its leaderless, ideology-free nature, is perhaps the most notable manifestation of anarchy today.
Those truly interested in Emma Goldman are advised to seek out her autobiography and other writings, Alice Wexler’s books on Goldman, and Alexander Berkman’s “Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist.”
Those wishing only a cocktail party introduction might try Gornick – or Wikipedia.