Kindling the Mob
Anything that Burns You: A Portrait of Lola Ridge, Radical Poet
By Terese Svoboda
Schaffner Press, 2016
In the 1910s, a visitor to Ferrer Center, an anarchist meeting place on St. Mark’s Place in Manhattan, could hear talks by everyone from Margaret Sanger and Upton Sinclair to Clarence Darrow and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, with topics ranging from “The Limitation of Offspring” to “The Syndicalism and Woman.” Anarchists, labor activists, pacifists, and radicals of all stripes danced, socialized, and argued. Named for the Spanish radical Francisco Ferrer, revered and demonized for creating “modern schools” to educate students outside the confines of church and state, the Center also had free art lessons, classes in French, Spanish, and Esperanto, and poetry readings by then-well known figures like Harry Kemp, “the hobo poet” and Edwin Markham, author of the hugely celebrated ode to laborers, “The Man with the Hoe.”
The Center’s first manager was the poet Lola Ridge. Already thirty-seven (though she claimed to be much younger), Ridge had no family support or steady income but over the next thirty years would produce five well-regarded collections of poems, edit several influential magazines, and agitate for a range of radical causes. Ridge sought out and found excitement and community with the energy of one who had fled small town life early on, winning admirers and patrons everywhere she went. She was at the front lines of the protesters marching to the jailhouse where Sacco and Vanzetti were executed; in the 1930s she paid court to Diego Rivera and explored Baghdad, while regretting not having had the money to join John Reed, another Ferrer Center regular, in witnessing the Russian Revolution. In her biography, Anything that Burns You, the poet, novelist and essayist Terese Svoboda seeks to capture Ridge’s fire, bringing to life the radical world that made Ridge possible, as well as the reactionary forces that buried her legacy and the tragedy that prevents Svoboda from fully embracing her legacy.
Ridge was born to an Irish family that soon made its way to New Zealand. The first nation to grant women the right to vote, New Zealand proved a particularly fertile training ground for a lifelong radical. Her early years coincided with the premiership of Richard Seddon, a populist who preached the class struggle to an eager audience of recent arrivals from Ireland and Scotland. But it was after leaving a first husband behind to travel to California and New York that she found herself at the center of the radical scene in which she made her life. This was the world she captured in The Ghetto. Unlike many writers, she saw not only the suffering of the poor but their hopes and desires, as many struggled to find time to study and take part in the thriving movements for transformation:
Nights, she reads
Those books that have most unset thought,
New-poured and malleable,
To which her thoughts
Leaps fusing at white heat,
Or spits her fire out in some dim manger of a hall,
Or at a protest meeting on the Square,
Her lit eyes kindling the mob. . .
A dedicated anarchist, she would write about the brutal anti-black St. Louis riots, the Irish revolution, and Sacco and Vanzetti. She wrote an essay on women and art that held up androgyny as a creative ideal, anticipating many of Virginia Woolf’s famous writings on the topic and the work of feminists a half decade later. She read her ode to the anarchist Alexander Berkman on the eve of his deportation; her widely circulated poem to the imprisoned labor leader Tom Mooney was credited with bringing continued attention to his cause.
Svoboda presents the avant-garde and radical circles in which Ridge traveled as far more hospitable to women than many that would come later. Her book is filled with delightful accounts of Ridge’s unconventional friends and contemporaries. There’s Evelyn Scott, poet with a legendary love life, with whom Ridge kept up a passionate twenty-year correspondence; Elinor Wylie, whose first novel was feted by critic Carl Van Doren with a torchlight parade; and the Baroness Freytage-Lovinghoven, who “wandered the Village with a pack of big dogs, her head shaved and half of it painted read, wearing black lipstick, a bra made of two tin cans tied together, and an electric tail light winking on her derriere.” Her friends pursued a variety of sexual and living arrangements with varied levels of success. It was most often the women who ran the farthest and hardest from traditional marriage, taking advantage of the rights Ridge fought for alongside her onetime friend Margaret Sanger. In Ridge’s case, after leaving her first husband behind in Australia, she had a lasting and largely successful relationship with David Lawson, a younger engineer she met at the Ferrer Center. In keeping with her politics, the two married only when the deportation of her friends Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman made her fear the same fate:
When [Berkman and Goldman] were arrested, all lists and ledgers were confiscated, including a complete registry of the anarchists’ friends in the United States. On November 7, 1919, as many as 10,000 suspected Communists and anarchists were arrested in twenty-three states. . . An FBI official declared, “I believe that with these raids the backbone of the radical movement in America is broken.” . . . Although she was not divorced from her first husband, she married David Lawson five days before the Berkman/Goldman going away party.
Nor were the women of her circles without power behind the scenes. Ridge herself was perhaps most influential as the editor of the avant-garde journals Others and Broom, part of a golden age of small magazines when people clamored around newsstands for the latest poems and poets could make some kind of a living at it — though Ridge had a habit of blowing her earnings by throwing a party to celebrate each publication. She helped promote the work of Hart Crane and Jean Toomer; Kay Boyle, who went on to become and influential and prolific New Yorker writer, got her start as Ridge’s assistant. Svoboda is best when recreating this atmosphere, and in portraying the forces that undid it. We see Ridge visiting Paris and feeling it was inevitable Hitler would someday march there and she died a year after he did, her fears about her own fate mixed together with the news that the Nazis had taken Greece.
It has now been over forty years since feminist scholars began reworking the literary canon. One common thread in much of this scholarship was the recognition that, like Ridge, many women writers had once been far from obscure and were, in a sense, hiding in plain sight: they’d had prominent careers, only to have their work buried by changing fashions and political repression. Given the variety of Ridge’s work, it is surprising that she still has not experienced the same revival in interest and reputation as so many others. Svoboda’s book marks a compelling effort to change that, drawing on what scholarly writing does exist to demonstrate Ridge’s contributions to modernism, imagism, and the poetry of the city. The poems of Sun-up (1920) in particular, which The Dial compared to Joyce’s work, have a contemporary appeal in how they trace the dark imaginings of a young girl, describe with frankness female sexuality and orgasm, and present a less optimistic view of the city than her admirer Hart Crane:
Lights mad with creating in a river . . .turning its sullen back . . .
Heave up, river. . .
Vomit back into the darkness your spawn of light . . .
The night will gut what you give her.
Yet by the 1950s, anti-feminism and anti-communism were working together to bury whole generations of radical women artists. The high-handed disdain of the “New Critics” for most work written by women was matched by their assertions that writing could only be tainted by political commitment: Robert Lowell, an icon of so called “high” modern poetry, dismissed Ridge and her contemporaries with the bald assertion that “these poor people aren’t poets at all.” While few would make such a strong claim today, the idea that political commitment and literary innovation are opposed remains and, Svoboda argues, limits the appeal of what poetry can provide: “What has been lost by these omissions is the radical and political tradition in twentieth-century American poetry, the idea that such subjects are even appropriate for poetry.”
Yet there’s an ambivalence throughout the book, as Svoboda grapples with the more tragic elements of Ridge’s story, ones that prevent her from holding Ridge up as a feminist and radical icon. In 1896, her first child died of bronchitis at two weeks old. Twelve years later, having travelled with Keith, her second son, from Australia, she left him at the Boys and Girls Aid Society of Los Angeles, falsely claiming that his father was dead. He was eight years old and stayed in orphanages until 14, the age at which children were then sent out on their own. He eventually became an engineer, married and had children in Chile, but he committed suicide in 1942, a year after his mother’s death.
Despite being a prolific letter writer, Ridge left little direct record of how she felt about having abandoned him, and publicly she never publicly acknowledged his existence. Svoboda persuasively and poignantly reads maternal guilt and longing into Ridge’s work, in her depiction of poor mothers in The Ghetto and her treatment of the crucifixion story in Firehead (1929):
To his small frantic lips, the one
Deep need of his that I could ever fill
And wrapped him in a finer linen than I wore
But that was all.
We feel this shadow too in the many ailments Ridge suffered in her later life, in her dependence on the amphetamine Gynergen, and in the probable anorexia that took her weight as low as seventy-two pounds.
Despite the vast labor dedicated over the last forty years to rediscovering the lives and work of women artists, radicals and rebels, there remains something aspirational about their biographies: we read to believe that the stories of gifted and rebellious women were never completely tragic, no matter the obstacles. Svoboda’s book continues the tradition, offering a powerful introduction to this neglected figure and her world. To her credit, Svoboda lets readers make their own judgments about how much the tragedy should overshadow the rest. But it would be a mistake to see that tragedy too neatly as the price of her triumph — as the story of a woman who had to be free from motherhood to make her mark as a radical and artist. When she arrived in the United States, Ridge had no money, no family connections, no means to make a living, and no child care that would allow her to work. She very easily could have found herself in the situation of the women she wrote about in The Ghetto, who often left their children to fend for themselves while working in factories. Whatever we make of it, her decision was not an uncommon one: Svoboda notes that by 1910 more than 100,000 children lived in orphanages; Ridge’s friend Theodore Dreiser took up the cause of these children with Teddy Roosevelt.
However we weigh her triumphs against the tragedy, neither were hers alone: the triumph was one of communities that brought radicalism, creativity and women’s liberty to life; the tragedy was one shared by countless women whose lives Ridge sought to record and transform.
Laura Tanenbaum is an Associate Professor of English at LaGuardia Community College, City University of New York, where she teaches literature, composition and creative writing. Her writing has appeared in Jacobin, Narrative Magazine, The Sixties, failbetter and other publications. She blogs at The Golden Notebooks.