The Personal Was Always the Political
By Vivian Gornick
Yale University Press, 2011
The Frick Collection, housed in the mansion on Seventieth Street and Fifth Avenue that Henry Clay Frick, the coke and steel industrialist, built in 1913 for five million dollars, is known for its collections of paintings by European masters including El Greco, Vermeer, and Thomas Gainsborough as well as small bronzes, eighteenth-century furniture, and Oriental rugs. It may also have the most daunting set of rules of any New York museum. Its website tells visitors that they may not check travel luggage, camping backpacks or garment bags, take photographs, sketch on paper that exceeds 12 X 18 inches or with materials other than charcoal or lead pencils, or bring children under the age of ten. The website explains that these rules reflect the museum’s mission, “To preserve and display for the public the Collection, and to augment its holdings in fields established by Henry Clay Frick, reflecting the uncompromising levels of quality that he embraced, and maintaining the historic tranquility of Mr. Frick’s house.”
It is safe to say that the events of July sixth and twenty-third of 1892 do not reflect the historical tranquility the museum’s curators and publicists have in mind. As Vivian Gornick records in her short new biography Emma Goldman: Revolution as a Way of Life, the workers at the Carnegie steel plant in Homestead, Pennsylvania, had gone on strike after Frick, the plant manager, refused to deal with the union. Frick shut the plant, laid off the workers, and threw their families out of company housing. He then brought in strikebreakers and Pinkerton guards. On July sixth, a gunfight killed seven guards and nine strikers, leading to widespread support for the strikers. On the twenty-third, the twenty-one year old anarchist Alexander Berkman, known as Sasha, made his way into Frick’s office and shot him three times and then stabbed him in the leg. Frick survived; Berkman was sentenced to twenty-two years in prison and served fourteen.
At the time of the assassination, Goldman was twenty-three. Throughout her early years, spent moving with her impecunious family from Lithuania to Prussia to Russia, she struggled against the will of her father. When he decided to arrange her marriage at sixteen, as Gornick recounts, she pleaded to be allowed to go to school and to immigrate with her sister. He agreed only when she threatened suicide. In Rochester, New York, where she moved to join her sister Helena in 1885, she worked in a factory sewing overcoats. There she met a fellow worker who shared her intellectual interests but was impotent. She married and divorced him twice; though the two marriages lasted only a few months each, it was enough to cement her life-long antagonism towards marriage. Finally, at twenty, she arrived in New York City and immediately immersed herself into the vibrant radicalism of the Lower East Side. It was there she met Berkman. After the assassination attempt, she did not advocate political violence but nor did she condemn it, and she worked tirelessly for Berkman and other jailed anarchists.
In a vivid passage that, like many in the book, reads like something from a political novel, Gornick’s describes Goldman’s preparations for the event:
While Sasha was trying – and failing – to fashion a homemade bomb, Emma, absurdly enough, tried to raise money for clothes, a weapon, and a ticket to Pittsburgh, none of which they had, by selling herself. “If sensitive Sonya [in Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment] could sell her body,” she reasoned, “why not I?” But she was so awkward at it that her first night out on the street a kindly man took her into a saloon, bought her a beer, gave her ten dollars, and told her to forget it, she didn’t have the knack. Eventually, it was her sister Helena who, upon being told that Emma was sick, sent the necessary money.
Such details, rendered in Gornick’s sharp, telescoped prose style, may strike some readers as colorful distractions from Goldman’s social and political legacy. In a review at The New Inquiry, Bhasakar Sunkara criticizes Gornick for falling under Goldman’s mystique: “Instead of examining a political life, weget a trite celebration of the ‘good fight’ and some parlor gossip. It is, in a sense, the perfect biography for a neoliberal age that can’t help but smirk at genuine commitment.”
Sunkara is right that Gornick presents a story, and at times a celebration, of a life rather than an assessment of the anarchist project. Readers are likely to feel jarred when, in detailing the aftermath of that July 23rd, Gornick details how working for Berkman’s defense leads to her next significant relationship, with the Austrian anarchist Ed Brady, and leaves behind the fate of the Homestead workers, whose strike collapsed shortly after the assassination, and who returned to work on Carnegie’s terms. At another moment, a worker in the audience challenges Goldman’s scorn for the eight hour day, which she sees as a hopelessly reformist goal. He argues that while she is young, he couldn’t wait for the overthrow of the system, that “right now he needed two hours less of work a day to feel human, to read a book or take a walk in daylight.” Gornick’s account of her response becomes a part of the story of Goldman’s transformation into a more independent thinker and compelling speaker; the worker and his need for daylight are left behind.
Nevertheless, Gornick provides a lucid introduction to and meditation on the meaning of a life, moving thematically from Goldman’s early misery in Russia to the exhilaration of the radical world of the Lower East Side; through years of tireless organizing and speaking to her 1919 deportation and unhappy exile in the Soviet Union; to the later years in which, even as the media viewed her as a quaint and harmless throwback, she devoted herself to the cause of the anarchists fighting in the Spanish Civil War.
Furthermore, the question Gornick asks – that of what kind of a life a “genuine commitment” to radicalism creates – is a powerful one. It’s a question that has been central throughout Gornick’s work, from her early accounts of the second wave feminist movement to her 1977 oral history The Romance of American Communism through the book that this one most directly resembles, The Solitude of Self, a 2005 reflection on the life of the women’s rights activist and abolitionist Elizabeth Cady Stanton. As a child of the Old Left, Gornick has long been familiar with, and has responded to, the critique that an emphasis on the personal distracts from the genuinely political. In The Romance of American Communism she describes an especially arduous evening interviewing “one of those Marxists to whom my thesis – the passion at the heart of the Communist experience – is anathema, smacking of reactionary frivolity.” The critique would also have been familiar to Goldman. In another novelistic passage, Gornick recounts Goldman’s fascination with Berkman’s austere approach to radicalism:
Sasha was well read, intellectually inclined, sensually fearful, and extraordinarily doctrinaire. He leaned across the coffee cups, looked directly into her eyes, and, his didactic voice cutting through the noise of the café, began his instruction in the need for radical severity. “Nothing personal mattered,” Emma wrote of the Sasha she met that first day in New York.
For Goldman the personal would come to matter very much. Decades before the phrase became a staple of the women’s movement, the personal would be the political. Gornick is ideally situated to examine the contradictions of Goldman’s relationship to feminism, which are at least as complex and fascinating as her changing relationship to political violence. We can see this range from the titles of a series of lectures sometime around 1915: an analysis of the popular evangelical preacher Billy Sunday is followed by “Misconceptions of Free Love”; a talk on Nietzsche is followed by “Jealousy: Its Cause and Possible Cure.” Birth control, the war, and, particularly notably for 1915, homosexuality, were all discussed. One especially regrets not having been present for the concluding lecture of the series, “Variety or Monogamy – Which?” Yet despite of, or because of, her famous advocacy for sexual liberation and birth control, she could no more accept the centrality of the legal reforms championed by the feminists of her time than she could accept the eight-hour day as the ultimate prize for workers:
She did not oppose suffrage, but she reviled the suffrage movement; she was all for personal emancipation, but she scorned women in the professions; she thought women should work, but she pronounced motherhood the most important thing in a woman’s life; her contempt for the strong-willed modern woman who had lost the ‘sacred desire’ for love and motherhood was boundless. D.H. Lawrence could not have improved on Goldman’s diatribes against the sterility of the modern woman’s life.
Throughout the biography, Gornick coolly outlines the ways these contradictions were embodied in Goldman’s life. Encouraged by Brady to train as a nurse and midwife, she treated her own likely infertility with relief, even as she wrote rapturously about the role of motherhood. Her faith in the transformative freedom of sexual liberation, which was to render jealousy instantly irrelevant, comes up again and again against the reality of her love affairs, each one of which promises to fulfill the vision that the last one had betrayed. In her review in Moment, frequent New York Times contributor Virginia Heffernan embraces the same elements of the biography that Sunkara criticizes, describing the pity she felt for Goldman, who was “cornered often” by the contradictions of being a woman radical. In Heffernan’s telling, the question about Homestead is neither why the strike failed, or the ethics and efficacy of political violence, but how “to explain the young Russian girl’s effort to prostitute herself to aid her boyfriend’s plot to assassinate Henry Clay Frick on behalf of American steel workers.”
Goldman and Alexander Berkman in 1917
For progressive critics who share Sunkara’s concerns, this is where “the personal is political” has threatened to lead us since the liberation movements of the sixties and seventies: the political has become the personal, echoing the consumerism and self-indulgence of contemporary culture. But Gornick argues that the link between eros and politics was, if anything, much stronger in Goldman’s time:
This belief in the mythic power of erotic love was, a hundred years ago, shared by the whole of Western culture. Poets and intellectuals, businessmen and philosophers, teachers and lawyers saw in its pursuit a metaphor for liberation of the spirit at the highest level. To know love was to penetrate the mysteries of the human condition, to see with radiant clarity the meaning of life and the world, not as it is but as it could be.
Or, as Gornick put it in her essay “The End of the Novel of Love,” “When I was a girl the whole world believed in love. My mother, a communist and a romantic, said to me, ‘You’re smart, make something of yourself, but always remember, love is the most important thing in a woman’s life.” The women of Gornick’s Bronx youth saw no contradiction between political radicalism and their belief in romantic love, a belief only strengthened by the fact that their own marriages bore as little resemblance to what they read in “Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary and The Age of Innocence . . . as well as the ten thousand middlebrow versions of those books, and the dime-store novels” as their lives bore to a worker’s paradise. In this way Goldman stood apart not for her beliefs but because she had the opportunity and the will to put them into action. The results were, shall we say, mixed.
Perhaps these results show, as conservatives would argue, that sexual liberation is an empty promise and we would do best to reconcile ourselves to the kinds of marriages complained about and endured around kitchen tables like those of Gornick’s childhood. Perhaps it shows, as some on the opposite side of the political spectrum would have it, that sexual freedom is perfectly compatible with the worst excesses of capitalism, and a dead end for those seeking true liberation. Yet consider a passage such as Gornick’s decription of how Goldman’s relationship with Brady faltered when, “like so many progressive men who fall in love with a New Woman precisely because she is a New Woman . . . [he] was soon made unhappy by the very element that distinguished his New Woman.” Or Goldman’s assertion that “few children [born] in wedlock enjoy the care, the protection, the devotion free motherhood is capable of bestowing” – something it is hard to imagine almost anyone asserting today, let alone “at a time when unwed pregnancy induced the kind of social ostracism meted out to lepers.” Moments like these tempt us to resurrect Gandhi’s much-cited quip and say of sexual liberation that it would be a good idea. What is clear is that you can’t tell Goldman’s story without considering the question of sexual freedom as Goldman imagined it and as she attempted to live it. Gornick herself, despite frequent lacerating observations about the ways Goldman relentlessly romanticized her own life, ultimately leads us to admire how Goldman refused “the gap between practice and theory”:
It takes a certain kind of mad courage to reject the claim of experience as superior to that of idealism, and to go on insisting, against all odds, that ultimately the ideal will work because it must work, because it is not acceptable that it not work. This is the courage of the born refusenik, who, any day of the week, will discard defeatist reality in favor of the elevating ideal.
Perhaps Goldman’s faith in the eros of revolution is hopelessly outdated – but it is worth noting that one of the most successful social movements since the Civil Rights movement, the gay rights movement, accessed this part of the public imagination, making a claim not only for sexual freedom but for new forms of community, family, and identity.
A year after the Homestead Strike, speaking in Union Square in the midst of an economic depression, three miles south of the site where Frick would build his monument to Gilded Age tranquility, Goldman exhorted a crowd to take their demands directly to the wealthy who were within reach: “Do you not see the stupidity of asking relief from Albany with immense wealth within a stone’s throw of here? Fifth Avenue is laid in gold, every mansion a citadel of money and power. . . 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.”
As I write this, the occupation of Liberty Plaza, another two miles south, is entering its second month. On October 11th, about 500 protestors made their way to Fifth Avenue and the Upper East Side, visiting the buildings of News Corp. CEO Rupert Murdoch, oil tycoon and political donor David Koch, and Jamie Dimon, CEO of JP Morgan Chase & Co and others whose wealth the Fifth Avenue dwellers of Goldman’s time could hardly have fathomed. There has been much debate about the specific demands of the protestors, their personal qualities, and whether the anarchism of some activists would aid or hurt the cause. What is clear, however, is the power they have already displayed in breaking beyond the familiar rituals of contained dissent. This power has come from the impulse that Gornick places at the center of Goldman’s story: the willingness to speak from “the history of one’s own hurt, thwarted humiliated feelings at the hands of institutionalized authority,” and the refusal that follows, the faith that says things will be different because they cannot be the same.
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 short fiction has appeared in Monkeybicycle, failbetter, SmokeLong Quarterly, and other publications. She blogs at goldennotebooks.blogspot.com.