Red Emma

Red Emma

by Kenneth R. Gregg, Jr.

Red Emma, b. 6/27/1869

Ben Reitman, her long-time friend and lover, said in 1907 of Goldman in their first meeting that

"She had a powerful face, beautiful, strong, clear, blue eyes, a nose that was not Jewish, and a strong, firm jaw. She was somewhat nearsighted and wore heavy glasses. Her hair was blond and silken and she wore it in a simple knot on the back of her head." (Photo here.)

She was an inspiration to her admirers. Margaret Anderson, founder of the avant-garde Little Review in Chicago would say of her that

"something tremendous has dropped out of life with her going. The exasperating thing about Emma Goldman is that she makes herself so indispensable to her audiences that it is always tragic when she leaves; the amazing thing about her is that her inspiration seems never to falter. Life takes on an intenser qualith when she is present; there is something cosmic in the air, a feeling of worlds in the making..."

Born in Kovno, Lithuania, Emma Goldman was, in the words of one of her biographers, "an almost mythical figure, the archetypal woman activist." In 1882 she moved with her family to the Jewish ghetto in St Petersburg where she started reading the radical literature of Turgenev and Chernyshevsky. When her father tried to force her to marry, she left with her sister, Helena, to America.

In 1886, Goldman emigrated to Rochester, New York, earning her living by working in clothing factories. The Chicago Haymarket Bombing soon transpired. An unknown assailant tossed a bomb into a throng of riot police, killing one instantly. In the chaos that erupted, seven policemen were killed, sixty injured, and civilian casualties were likely as high. The event marked the anarchist movement as violent and made Chicago known as a center of labor conflict. The event affected and divided both the labor movement and the anarchist movement, not only nationally, but also throughout the world. (Haymarket poster here)

The young Goldman was devastated when four anarchists (who she believed innocent) were hung, another committed suicide in jail, two had their sentences commuted to life in prison and one remained in prison even though there was no case against him. Goldman credited this event for her conversion to anarchism and subsequent divorce of her husband, Jacob Kershner, of less than a year. In August, 1889, Emma moved to New York City where she joined the Yiddish Anarchist movement leader, Johann Most, editor of the anarchist newspaper Freiheit. She met Alexander Berkman, young Lithuanian (from Vilnius) who shared her ideals and would come to share her bed.

In 1892, she conspired with Berkman in his failed attempt to assassinate Henry Clay Frick (in retaliation for Frick's role in the attack on strikers at Homestead). Berkman eventually served 14 years in Western Penitentiary for his crime; her guilt over Berkman's sole responsibility for a crime they both participated in remained a major influence for the rest of her life. Following the failed assassination, Emma gained not only national prominence, but became prominent in the anarchist movement as well. In 1895 she traveled to Vienna to study medicine, attending lectures by Freud. As a trained nurse, she would later spend years among the needy prostitutes in New York's brothels. In London, she met her ideological mentor, Peter Kropotkin. Returning to America a year later as a trained nurse, she made frequent cross-country speaking tours over the next few years.

Her anarchist agitation was interrupted in 1901 when Leon Czolgosz assassinated President McKinley. Goldman was blamed for Czolgosz's action and was forced into hiding by a massive wave of anti-anarchist hysteria (for many years she was "Mrs E.G. Smith"). The same year Berkman was released from prison Emma began publishing Mother Earth, in 1906. (Click here for newspaper sketch of Emma circa the Czolgosz incident.)

In 1904, while working as a nurse, she had opened up a "Vienna scalp and facial massage" parlor which was intended as a supplement to her income. Upon a chance meeting the next year with a troupe of Russian actors would change the direction of her life. Their lead actor, Pavel Orleneff, needed a manager and interpreter, which she was happy to undertake. Her return would be a benefit performance to raise money for a magazine which she had thought about for many years "to combine my social ideas with the young strivings in the various art forms in America," and the $250.00 box-office take was enough to start with.

Mother Earth (1906-17) was a true accomplishment of Emma Goldman's tireless work for the next decade. She originally had hopes of publishing a periodical under the title, "The Open Road" (from Whitman's poem), but found out at the last minute that another literary publication with that name had already started and was threatening a lawsuit if she used the same name. Fortunately, on a buggy ride in the countryside in February, she noticed the early signs of spring, "indicating life was germinating in the womb of Mother Earth." The rest was history. The first issue on March 1, 1907, 64 pages long. The first printing of 3,000 was sold out in a week and another 1,000 printed. She closed the massage parlor and never looked back. With the help of many of her friends and lovers, the publication had a base of talent to keep the publication running with a high level of quality in both prose and poetry. With Benjamin Tucker's Liberty coming to a close due to a fire in slightly more than a year, Mother Earth would become the primary outlet for American anarchism for the next generation.

Goldman published a broad spectrum of anarchist and libertarian thinking as well as many literary writings. While she was regarded as an anarchist-communist, in part from her background with Most and Kropotkin, in my analysis of all of her written essays in Mother Earth completed some years ago, it was clear that she was strongly influenced by American political thinkers. She referenced George Washington more than anyone else, and the next most-referenced thinkers were Alexander Hamilton(!), Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine. The European activists and authors, such as Kropotkin, Bakunin and Reclus, were hardly mentioned. Upon reflection after my original studies, it may be that, since she was writing for an American audience, that she emphasized American libertarians, but I think it doubtful. Her inclination was to be quite forthright and open on such matters. Also, the writers in Mother Earth were often individualists, or defenders of individualism--Voltairine de Cleyre (who was perhaps the finest of her contributors), Leo Tolstoy, Bolton Hall, among others.

The articles and fiction were generally on topical matters as well as general commentaries on specific issues--feminism, birth control, free speech, civil liberties, education, literature and prison reform. She also kept a running correspondence in the pages on her lecture tours (which helped to finance the publication), as well as social events for anarchists (Masquerade Balls--she once came as a nun, and "Mid Summer Dance and Ice Cream Party"--"Tickets, 20 cents, Hat Check, 10 cents").

Several authors who became better known began writing in Mother Earth. John R. Coryell, who frequently wrote under the name Margaret Grant, was the originator of the "Nick Carter" detective series and the "Bertha M. Clay" romance novels. Eugene O'Neill's first printed piece, the poem "The American Soveriegn"," was in the May 1911 issue of Mother Earth. O'Neill first discovered the periodical while browsing in Benj. R. Tucker's Unique Book Shop in New York as a college dropout, became a regular reader and would continue to correspond with Goldman long after her deportation in 1919 (his editor at Random House was Goldman's nephew Saxe Commins).

Goldman was jailed in 1917 as a result of her work in the No-Conscription League and her anti-war stand against World War I, also causing Mother Earth to be shut down by the government. Her niece, Stella Comyn, would continue it for a year as Mother Earth Bulletin and later publish the mimeographed "Instead of a Magazine," but Goldman was unable to help.

Goldman and Berkman were deported in 1919 to Soviet Russia after incarceration for two years. At first, Goldman was excited to see first hand revolutionary Russia, but she quickly realized that the Bolsheviks and the massive dictatorship created by Lenin was crushing the "spontaneity of the masses." In 1921, Libertarian sailors revolted at Kronstadt against the Bolshevik government. The suppression of Kronstadt by the Communists was too much for Goldman and Berkman and they left Russia in a state of disillusionment. For the next few years, traveling from country to country as she would get permission, she wrote a long series of articles and two books about her experience in and the ideological contradictions she perceived within Soviet Russia.

Goldman married the British James Colton in 1926 for the convenience citizenship offered. She lived in seclusion for a few years in France in order to write her autobiography, which was published in 1931. During this long exile, Goldman continually sought to return to the United States. In 1936, Alexander Berkman committed suicide after prolonged agony caused by an aggravated case of prostate cancer. For the next three years, Goldman committed herself to the support of the Spanish anarcho-syndicalists and their fight against Communists, Republicans and Fascists in Spain.

Goldman died from a stroke in Toronto in 1940 while attempting to save an Italian anarchist from deportation, where he faced certain death in Fascist Italy. Only after her death was she admitted back into America, where Emma Goldman found her eternal resting place at Waldheim Cemetery in Chicago, buried near the Haymarket martyrs.

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