Monday, October 17, 2011
The Life of Emma Goldman, Part II, in which Emma Goldman Continues to Dazzle the World With Awesome, if by Dazzle You Mean Terrify/Infuriate, and I Do
If you didn't read Part I, you probably should, for continuity's sake. It's over here. I believe we were discussing how awesome Emma Goldman was. Last time we checked in with her, she was hanging out with Alexander Berkman (aka Sasha) and Johann Most, but she was fighting with Most a lot, mostly (ha!) because he was kind of a prick. This has been your late-19th century anarchist movement recap. So, come 1892, and the Homestead Strike is happening. The details of the strike aren't particularly important for the purposes of this blog. If you're interested though, and you totally should be, because DAMN, an overview can be found here. The relevant bit is basically that the strike was huge, ultimately insanely violent (Pinkerton agents actually surrendered to the strikers at one point. That didn't work out as well for them as they'd hoped.) and that the steel company, led by an industrialist named Henry Clay Frick, was making a strong effort to completely screw the union.
Emma and Sasha went to Homestead, Pennsylvania themselves, and a few days after their return to New York, that serious violence I mentioned broke out. Seven strikers were killed by Pinkerton agents, including a child. Emma and Sasha had been planning to get a manifesto written and distributed; now they decided that wasn't enough. Since Frick had given the order for what happened, they decided that there was only one thing to do. Recalling Johann Most's idea of "propaganda of the deed," they decided it was time to murder Henry Clay Frick. Lest you start feeling bad for Frick, he was not a good guy. His role in the Homestead Strike aside, he was generally known for being an immoral dick, even by 19th century capitalist standards. Whenever I mention Frick, try to imagine him with a monocle in his eye, a massive cigar in one hand, and a brandy snifter full of orphans' tears in the other, leaning back in a leather-upholstered armchair, with his feet resting on a weeping poor person. He should be laughing maniacally, and maybe kicking a puppy or something. That should give you a general idea. (This blog does not condone shooting rich douchebags. It does, however, condone pointing out that rich douchebags are rich douchebags. Also, in fairness to Frick and his surviving descendants, if he has any, I should clarify that the above description is hyperbole, and Henry Clay Frick almost certainly never drank orphans tears by the snifterful.)
Anyway, Sasha said that he would do the murdering. Emma wanted to go with him, but he insisted that it was unnecessary to have more than one person die (death penalty being still VERY much in effect in 1892) to bring down one man, and besides, he wanted someone to be able to tell the American people why he had done it. He had it all worked out; he would kill Frick, he would be sentenced to death, and he would then dramatically kill himself in prison. Emma found this, it has to be said, an incredibly sexy idea. I mean that both in the sense that she thought it was a really sound idea, for propaganda purposes, and that it made her want to bone Sasha’s brains out even more than she was already doing. Seriously, read her autobiography; it’s right there in the subtext. Ah well, she was young, and he was fairly dashing, I suppose, if you like them young, Russian, and with poor self-preservation instincts.
Even with a flawless plan like the one above (and many people would say that a plan that involves killing yourself in prison is at least two degrees removed from flawless), problems started to arise quite quickly. Sasha was trying to make a bomb, and it turned out that he kind of sucked at it. Or the materials they'd bought kind of sucked at exploding, either way, it wasn't going to kill Frick. Then they realized that, after the money they'd spent on the shitty bomb materials, they couldn't afford to both get Sasha to Pittsburgh and pay for a gun. So either Sasha was going to have to get to where Frick was, and then kill him with his bare hands, or he was going to have to shoot him from very, very far away. Sasha decided to go ahead and buy the ticket, and leave Emma in charge of finding the money for a weapon and sending it to him once he got there.
Faced with needing to buy a murder weapon and having no way to do so, Emma decided to try prostitution, because why not? She reasoned that Sasha was giving up his life, she should be able to give her body. She made herself some fancy underwear (seriously, she was a multi-talented lady! Cook, dressmaker, orator, revolutionary, that is a pretty impressive resume for someone still in her early twenties!), borrowed five bucks to buy a dress, and went out on Saturday night, walking up and down Fourteenth Street (in case you want to go on an Emma Goldman walking tour of NYC, yes, Fourteenth Street is where she attempted to hook) looking for a customer.
Emma soon found that she wasn’t very good at the whole prostitution thing. After a while, she was approached by a kindly elderly gentleman, who took her into a bar, bought her a beer, told her she wasn’t very good at the whole prostitution thing, confirming what Emma had just deduced for herself, gave her ten dollars, and advised her to go home. She took the money, a little embarrassed, and wrote her sister Helena, saying that she was sick and needed fifteen dollars. She got it, and was able to send Sasha the money he needed for his gun.
Unfortunately, Sasha was even worse at shooting people than Emma was at prostitution. After all, Emma got some money, so that’s something. Sasha, by contrast, while he definitely managed to get into Frick’s office and shoot him a few times, demonstrably failed to kill him in any way, shape, or form. He got off a couple of shots at point blank range, some of which hit some parts of Frick’s body, and after he was wrestled to the ground he even managed to stab Frick in the leg, but a few days after the attack, Frick was back at work, and Sasha was in jail. Henry Clay Frick: 1, Alexander Berkman: 0.
It should be noted that when Frick went down, like, literally as he was lying bleeding on the floor of his office, he announced “I do not think I will die. But whether I do or not, the company will pursue the same policy. And it will win.” Again, not saying he deserved to get shot, but how is that not a supervillian thing to say? It’s like an evil, capitalist version of “if you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.” The more I read about Henry Clay Frick the more convinced I become that he was secretly spending his nights trying to kill Batman or something.
The assassination did not have the effect Emma and Sasha had hoped for. They wanted to spark an uprising of the workers, and that frankly might have worked in their native Russia, but in America all it did was spark a mainstream backlash against the strikers, and a movement among the strikers to distance themselves from this crazy, foreign, Jewish, anarchist, outside agitator. While Sasha was awaiting trial for attempted murder, a devastated Emma took over his leadership role. She was having a problem though; she couldn’t find anywhere to live. She had become notorious enough by now that landlords didn’t want to rent to her, but she did eventually find a room in house where no questions were asked as to her identity. It took her a couple days to realize that it was a brothel, but that didn’t particularly bother her. After convincing the other girls there that no, really, she wasn’t, as she put it, “in the business,” she realized this could actually be a good arrangement. She was a dressmaker, and she was living in a house full of women whose income was reliant on their appearance. She was able to earn a living that way, and became quite close with all of her housemates. She doesn't mention in her autobiography if she ever asked them for prostitution pointers.
Outside the house, things weren’t going so well. Johann Most, the guy who had been such a strong advocate of shooting and exploding your way to a new society, was going back hard on his ideas now that one of his associates had been arrested for, you know, doing that. He began attacking Emma and Sasha in his paper. So Emma, following her well –established pattern of calm conversation in the face of disagreement, bought a horsewhip and attended Most’s next lecture. She challenged him on what he had said about Berkman. He called her a “hysterical woman,” so she jumped up onto the stage, lashed him across the face and neck, broke the whip over her knee, and threw the pieces at him. Like you do. She was immediately grabbed by an angry mob, but Fedya (the artist who was her friend and lover, see Part I) and a few other friends picked her up and physically carried her out of the hall, probably saving her from serious physical harm. Debate in the days before the internet was way more fun, is what I’m saying.
In the end, Sasha was convicted, and sentenced to 22 years. It didn’t help that he had chosen to represent himself, so that he could use his defense to argue his political position, despite, like Emma, not really speaking English that well. The court appointed a translator, but apparently the guy sucked at speaking either Russian, or English, or both, so after trying to correct him several times, Sasha tried to address the jury in English himself, but the judge shut him down, saying that the court had already heard enough of him. Which was interesting, because they hadn’t really heard anything from him at all, but you know. The jury came to a guilty verdict without even leaving the courtroom to deliberate, and the judge gave the maximum penalty on all charges, which added up to twenty two years in jail. Not that Alexander Berkman didn’t completely try to shoot Henry Clay Frick to death, because he totally did, but there’s a definite argument to be made for the idea that he did not receive an entirely fair trial, and that prejudice against both immigrants and anarchists played a role in his sentencing. Considering that he was 22 years old when he received his 22 year sentence, it must have seemed unbelievably long, both to him and to Emma.
Sasha was allowed a visitor, but it had to be someone in his immediate family. He sent Emma a message asking her to get his “sister from Russia” to come see him. Not being an idiot, Emma figured out that he meant her. Posing as his sister, she went in to see him. Though neither were particularly proficient in English, they were forbidden from speaking in any foreign language. Consequently, not all that much was actually said. However, Sasha kissed her, and pulled off the old trick of passing something into her mouth; a note with instructions to get another meeting. She didn’t get the other meeting though. The official she talked to was determined that Sasha, who had “tried to kill a good Christian man” would have no other visitors, and he eventually twigged that Emma was not, in fact, Sasha’s sister. One has to wonder if the kiss was what gave it away; it’s hard to imagine a kiss that would both look appropriate for siblings, and allow something to be passed from one mouth to the other. Emma left, but not before sweeping all the stuff off the guy’s desk onto the floor. Emma Goldman did not make a habit of holding back her feeling. Which is, of course, why we love her.
With Sasha in jail, Emma took over the leadership role he used to hold. She acquired a new lover, a guy named Edward Brady. To hear her talk about it, he was ok, but not nearly as awesome as poor martyred Sasha. (In the humble opinion of this blogger/Emma Goldman impersonator, Emma gave Sasha way, way too much credit. Look, Berkman was ok, but he was not worthy of being an Emma Goldman Obsession. She had a few obsessions. Anarchism. Justice. Equality. Birth control. Not letting people shut her up. These were all great, worthy obsessions. I just happen to think that Berkman didn't quite deserve to be among them.) But I digress.
She continued speaking, collecting and distributing food for the homeless, and organizing a mass meeting in Union Square. It was at that meeting that she made her famous speech exhorting the crowd to “demonstrate before the palaces of the rich; demand work. If they do not give you work, demand bread. If they deny you both, take bread. It is your sacred right!” She was arrested the next day in Philadelphia. The meeting she was supposed to be running that day went on, with Voltairine de Cleyre (future blog entry waiting to happen, believe me!) taking Emma’s place, and the crowd protesting against her arrest. Although she was, like Emma, an avowed atheist, Voltairine’s Christian schooling came through kind of hilariously obviously in her defense of Emma Goldman. It largely consists of her explaining, in detail, why Emma Goldman is exactly like Jesus. Which is not a comparison a good atheist would make, but is still kind of awesome. Emma learned a very important lesson on this occasion in jail.
She was kept in a cell for a couple days with nothing to do, and when she asked for something to read, the guard brought her a Bible. Emma, a better atheist than Voltairine, threw the book back at the guard. “I had no need of religious lies; I wanted some human book, I told her.” Instead, she got a lecture on how much she was going to burn in hell. From then on, she carried a book with her whenever she spoke publicly. Getting arrested was fine with her, but being put in jail with nothing to read was simply unacceptable. This is #7 on my list of personal list of reasons Emma Goldman was amazing.
While she was being taken back to New York for trial, the detective accompanying her busted out the classic “good cop” routine, telling her what a shame it was that such a “brilliant girl, with such abilities,” with her whole life before her, was going to waste it in jail. He told her that he was Jewish too, and that he felt sorry for her, and was just trying to help her. Then he asked her, in exchange for her freedom, and a large cash payment, to inform on other political radicals in New York. Emma threw a glass of water in the guy’s face. She called him a “miserable cur,” (it was the 19th century, you could say stuff like that. Oh, the insults of old…raise your hand if you wish you could call a cop a miserable cur. That’s what I thought.) and declared “I’ll take prison for life, but no one will ever buy me!”
She used her trial as a platform to express her political ideas. Obviously. She ended up being sentenced to a year in Blackwell’s Island for inciting to riot. Or, in her words, "for talking," which actually sounds just as accurate. Prison sucked. It usually does. However, Emma got a ton of reading done, (including authors like Thoreau, Whitman, John Stuart Mill, and Emerson) and began training as a nurse. When she was released, she was met with a crowd of supporters, happy to see their favorite anarchist safe and free once again.
She went straight back to work. She was still getting medical training, and she traveled to England, where she, to make a long story short, fucking rocked it. She brought her incredibly powerful public speaking style with her, and coped pretty well with the English tradition of ruthless heckling, then traveled to Vienna, and started reading Nietzsche and Freud. She went to hear Freud speak, and heard, for the first time, frank discussions of homosexuality.
She would go on to be an advocate of LGBT rights, before there was even a term for it. This was in spite of her being not remotely LGBT herself, but in fact being what some might call avidly, enthusiastically, and perhaps even voraciously heterosexual. (Emma Goldman really like dudes. That in itself was kind of a radical position to take in her day and age.) (Heh, I said “position” when talking about sex. Yeah, that was kind of funny.)
She came back to New York, and began working as a midwife and a nurse in the tenements of the Lower East Side. It was around this time that she became a fan of the idea of birth control; she helped many women give birth to babies they didn’t want and couldn’t afford to take care of, and was repeatedly asked for help performing abortions, something she refused to do, not because she was opposed to it, but because she had never been trained to do it safely. Emma’s work with birth control has led some to call her a eugenicist. Eugenics was definitely something that a lot of early feminists and birth control advocates were into, including Emma's friend Margaret Sanger (for more on feminism's eugenics problem, see Victoria Woodhull), but Emma was definitely not a eugenicist, even a little bit. She basically just thought people should be able to decide whether having kids was a good option for them. It’s a pretty major leap from that to eugenics.
Emma was arrested again around this time, and told “anarchists have no rights in this community” (the community in question was Providence, Rhode Island, but it would turn out to include the whole United States. (Teaser for Part III!) She was also fighting with her lover, Edward Brady, who had basically decided that women were for making babies and while he was fine with Emma going around being a nurse and stuff, didn’t like the whole getting educated, lecuturing, Nietzsche-reading thing. They basically broke up over Nietzsche. I have absolutely no statistics with which to back this up, but I’d guess they weren’t the first couple to do that. They probably wouldn’t be the last, either. During the next few years, Emma became incredibly active in politics, traveling and speaking, and generally being a badass. I won’t get into every meeting and piece of awesomeness she organized during this time, but I will mention one argument she had with a fellow anarchist, because I think it’s hilarious. See, Emma had become passionate about sexual freedom and birth control, and a lot of anarchists weren’t fans of that idea; they thought it wasn’t important, and that talking about it made them look bad in the eyes of society’s prudes. (Note: for extra points, guess what was in the pants of the people who said birth control wasn't important. If you said a penis and a couple of testicles, you get five extra credit points. If you said that only men wore pants in the 19th century, so the question was kind of silly to begin with, you get seven.)
Emma got into a lengthy argument with a prominent anarchist on the subject, with him claiming that the issue of sex, sexual freedom, and birth control needed less attention, her claiming that it needed all the attention it could get. Finally Emma ended the argument with these words: “All right, dear comrade, when I have reached your age, the sex question may no longer be of importance to me.” He had to agree that she had him there. We all had to agree that that was simply an awesome, and thoroughly ballsy thing to say.
She spoke at anti-war meetings in England, met up with a few more famous anarchists, including Hippolyte Havel, a Czech anarchist and student of the great Jara Cimrman who became (you guessed it!) her lover. (A modern-day anarchist friend of mine once remarked of Emma Goldman that she was not particularly good at choosing her men, but that she made up for it by choosing plenty of them. Hippolyte was a pretty swell guy, though, so that worked out ok.) She traveled with him to Paris.
One night, she was offered the chance to go have dinner with Oscar Wilde, who was in exile in France at that time. She was about as excited as, well, any reasonable person would be to hang out with Oscar Wilde, until her friends pointed out that she was kind of already supposed to be giving a talk that night. She was understandably upset, and tried to reschedule Oscar Wilde for the next day, but his failing health kept him in, and she never did get to hang out with him, which I think may represent the saddest missed connection in the history of awesome witty 19th century people EVER. Try and picture Oscar Wilde and Emma Goldman hanging out socially. Did your mind just explode from sheer excellence? Mine did. It’s making it hard to keep typing actually, but I’m going to try and keep going.
Emma Goldman didn’t just want to hang with Oscar Wilde because he was the wittiest wit to ever wit; she had vocally defended him when he was on trial for his homosexuality. When she was asked “how did you dare come out in public for Oscar Wilde in puritan America?” she responded with one of her other top best lines ever. “Nonsense! No daring is required to protest a great injustice.” Because she was awesome.
I think we'll leave it there for now. Join me next week, for Part the Third, in which someone gets shot by someone with way better aim than Berkman.
Lessons for Modern Activists: If you have the opportunity to meet Oscar Wilde, for God's sakes, take it! I'm sorry, I know other things happened in this chapter, but I can't get over the crushing sadness of Emma Goldman not meeting Oscar Wilde.
The life of Emma Goldman continues in Chapter III, here...