Searching for Emma Goldman: Originally appeared in Razorcake #10, 2002

Jan 21, 2013

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Searching for Emma Goldman
By Sean Carswell
Originally appeared in Razorcake #10, 2002

Changing the World with Words

My buddy Chris and I were hanging out outside the Roxy after the Anti-Flag show. I felt like how I feel after a good show: drenched in sweat, ears ringing, and throat sore from screaming along with the lyrics. One look at Chris and I could tell he felt the same way. A few people who I kind of knew (guys I’d seen at shows a lot and chatted with enough times to be embarrassed about not knowing their names, but—to be honest—I didn’t know their names) came up, and we started to talk about Anti-Flag’s set. Gradually, the conversation drifted to the singer’s between-song banter, which wasn’t really banter. It was more like preaching. One of my friends asked why the singer preaches so much. His point was with a name like Anti-Flag, anyone could guess their political slant and if the whole crowd is singing along with their songs, chances are high everyone in the crowd knows the songs’ meanings. So wouldn’t that make the preaching redundant?

Another one of my friends pointed out it wasn’t that he minded the singer’s preaching as much as that the fact that the singer expressed himself much better in the lyrics. So he should let the lyrics stand on their own. This led to the old debate about mixing politics and music. The age-old questions asked included,  “What good does it do to sing about politics if you’re not going to actually do something about it? Aren’t lyrics just words and who in history has ever changed the world with words alone?”

“What about Emma Goldman?” one guy asked. “All she did was give lectures and look at all the good she did. She spoke about birth control when it was considered obscene to talk about it and she even got arrested in 1916 for it, but she still told a bunch of poor women how to prevent pregnancy. You can’t say that wasn’t a positive change made by words alone.”

“Yeah, but giving birth control information is a very specific thing. It’s different from saying, ‘War is bad; we shouldn’t be over in Afghanistan.’ It’s not like Emma Goldman thought she could stop a war by talking about it,” someone said.

“But she did think that. And the U.S. government feared it when she spoke out against a war. They thought it was so dangerous when people like Emma Goldman spoke out against conscription (drafting people into the military) that Congress made it a crime to speak out against World War I. And when Goldman did it anyway, they stuck her in jail for two years, then deported her after she was done serving her time,” the Emma Goldman fan said.

I listened to this friend of mine (whose name I didn’t know) talk about Emma Goldman and thought, why does this punk rock kid know so much about a woman who lived a hundred years ago? It’s kind of strange.

I thought about it more, though, and realized it probably wasn’t so strange. For starters, a lot of punks consider themselves anarchists, and Emma Goldman was the grandmother of anarchy. Additionally, Emma Goldman has become a legend in the punk rock community. Punk bands have been named after her, including Dance Emma Dance and Songs For Emma; the woman who writes the column on punk parenting for Maximum Rocknroll named her daughter after Emma Goldman; the Swedish punk band Randy sings about her in a few of their songs; and over the years, I’ve seen Goldman’s quotes and Goldman’s autobiography, Living My Life, in punk houses and underground bookstores and zine libraries all across the country.

Still, I thought, she may be a legend, but she’s become a legend mostly in the sense that a lot of people know of her, but don’t know anything about her. So as I stood on the sidewalk outside of the Anti-Flag show, my sweat drying and my friends arguing about punk and politics, I decided I should write an article about Emma Goldman, for all the punk rock kids who have circle-A’s on their leather jackets, for all the music fans who scream along with political lyrics but wonder if all the screaming does anyone any good, for all the women and girls who wish they had a tough-ass female role model, and for anyone else who reads Razorcake because they want a look at our society beyond the television-and-Wal-Mart culture. I even wrote the intro to the article in my head.

Then, I promptly forgot about it.

As Chris and I rode home from the show, Chris turned to me and said, “You know, I’m embarrassed to say it, but I don’t know anything about Emma Goldman. Do you?”

“Yeah,” I said. “I read her autobiography and a bunch of her essays and stuff.”

“What’s so cool about her?” Chris asked.

I thought about trying to condense her life into a twenty minute car ride, talking about how—even though she was in St. Louis, Missouri when President McKinley was murdered in Buffalo, New York—she was still arrested for his assassination; or talking about the time when her boyfriend was tarred and branded solely because he was her boyfriend; or talking about the one point in her life when she was in Sweden after having been kicked out of America and having just recently fled Russia to avoid her own political execution, and she faced ten days until her visa expired and no country in the world would let her in—every government feared her. I sidestepped talking about how she was considered the most dangerous woman in the world for large periods of her life. Instead, I just told my favorite Emma Goldman story.

Shake the Hand of the Most Dangerous Woman Alive

Emma Goldman arrived in San Francisco in 1908 and was met at the train station by a group of police officers, including the police chief himself. The officers didn’t directly do anything. They just made their presence known.

They followed her taxi to her hotel, where four more detectives were waiting. Confused and angry, Goldman turned to Alexander Horr, her friend and the person who booked the San Francisco leg of her speaking tour, and asked Horr why the police were following her.

“Don’t you know?” Horr said. “Rumors have gone abroad that you are coming to San Francisco to blow up the American fleet now in the harbor.”

Initially, Goldman thought Horr was kidding with her. The police continued to tail her, though, and reporters and photographers tracked her down to ask about her plans to blow up the fleet. In her typical, no-bullshit manner, Goldman told reporters, “Why waste a bomb?”

As it turned out, all the attention the media and police gave Goldman sparked interest in her speeches. People who ordinarily never would have come out to see her speak lined up hours in advance to try to get into her lecture. The hall where she spoke could hold five thousand people, and it was filled to capacity. People were turned away at the door, and the crowd grew hostile toward all the police officers taking up space in the hall. The police chief begged Emma to help him, fearing the hostility of the crowd. He offered her this deal: he would march his officers out of the hall if Goldman would agree to not incite the crowd to riot against the cops. Goldman agreed and the officers marched out “like guilty schoolboys, accompanied by the jeering and hooting of the crowd.” (1)

Among the people who remained in the audience was a soldier named William Buwalda. Buwalda was a fifteen-year veteran and, by all accounts, he was an excellent soldier. He had even been honored by the military for his part in the U.S. attack on the Philippines. According to Buwalda, he’d heard of all the hoopla surrounding Goldman’s lecture that night and decided that it would be the perfect opportunity for him to practice his stenography skills.

That night, Goldman spoke about patriotism. She spoke of how countries’ borders were just arbitrary lines that senselessly divide people. She spoke of war as being little more than “two thieves too cowardly to fight their own battle,” (2) so they pit the working class of one region against the working class of another. She evoked a vision of a beautiful world where people’s hopes and dreams weren’t destroyed by their jobs and their societies. In the end, the crowd loved what she had to say. Goldman was surrounded by admirers, people who wanted to shake her hand and thank her for her speech.

Goldman shook hands and spoke with different members of the excited crowd. In the midst of the excitement, Goldman found herself face to face with the soldier, William Buwalda. Buwalda, who was still in uniform, stuck out his hand. Goldman shook it. According to Buwalda, he said, “How do you do, Miss Goldman?” (3) Then, he walked away.

A few police officers who witnessed this scene followed Buwalda home and reported the incident to his superiors. Buwalda was subsequently kicked out of the military. William Buwalda was stripped of his rank, court-martialed, and sentenced to five years in prison on AlcatrazIsland for attending an Emma Goldman lecture while still in uniform and for shaking Emma Goldman’s hand.

Everybody Needs Some Emma Sometimes

Emma Goldman’s 1908 trip to San Francisco, ending with William Buwalda’s court-martial, is a good introduction. The story has so many aspects that were essential to her life: her courage in the face of authority; her ability to show anarchy as a positive, peaceful force (especially when compared to most governments); and the way that her speeches would give people hope and also scare the hell out of people in power. I tell this story whenever I’m talking to people who have never heard of Emma Goldman. Hell, I tell this story whenever I can get someone to listen to it and I’ve been telling it a lot lately. I guess this is because Emma’s been on my mind more often recently. It has a lot to do with the current political atmosphere. I think about the U.S. government’s unrestrained attack on the people of Afghanistan and it inspires me to re-read Goldman’s views on militarism. I hear about Attorney General John Ashcroft pushing his USA PATRIOT Act through Congress and crushing our civil rights into a fine powder, and I think of Goldman’s work in the free speech movement. I watch a dopey Texas oil boy who can’t get through a sentence without looking at a teleprompter call himself my leader and then try to start the next war in my name, and I dream of anarchism. And lately, I’ve been wishing that Emma was still around. If ever there was a time when we needed her back more, this would be that time.

So, a year after my conversation outside the Anti-Flag show and nearly a century after Goldman caused such a ruckus in San Francisco, I went back there to find her.

The Source on the West Coast

Of course, I knew she had been dead for over sixty years when I headed to the Bay Area looking for her. Her death didn’t dissuade me, though. I knew I couldn’t meet her as a person; I couldn’t sit down and have a chat with her. Still, I wanted to believe that something of Emma Goldman, the human being, still existed. I hated the thought of her life being forgotten, but something tells me that Emma Goldman won’t be forgotten. Like I said, she’s a legend. But it’s the legend part that I feared even more. I feared her life was becoming a myth and this bothered me because if she’s a myth we can all cop out. We can say, “Sure, Emma Goldman did that, but I’m no Emma Goldman.” If we can see that she was a human and, in addition to the great things she said and did, she had trouble paying her bills and had self-destructive love affairs and sometimes did the wrong things just like all of us do, then maybe we can see that standing up for what we believe in (even if our beliefs are unpopular), just like Emma did, isn’t so far-fetched. I had to meet this woman, her own death be damned.

Originally, I wasn’t sure where to start looking. Then, I remembered something that the historian Howard Zinn said when I interviewed him. I’d asked Zinn a question about Goldman, and he didn’t know the answer. He did tell me about “the source” for anything pertaining to Emma Goldman: a woman named Candace Falk. He told me Candace Falk had assembled an enormous collection of Goldman’s letters, writings, and personal effects. He told me that she (along with a group of dedicated historians, archivists, and volunteers) has made this collection available to the public at the Emma Goldman Papers Project. I took that clue and did a little research on my own. I decided since I really had to meet Emma Goldman in person, the closest I could come to doing that was to go to the Emma Goldman Papers Project in Berkeley. I had no choice, really. I contacted Candace Falk, scheduled an interview, and drove up.

A Feminist, a Guitar Shop, and a Dog Named Emma

In 1975, Candace Falk, her boyfriend Lowell, and their dog were traveling from Vermont to California when they stopped to visit some of Falk’s friends in Chicago. Among those friends was a guy named John Bowen. Bowen worked in a guitar shop in Hyde Park. Falk and Lowell stopped by. As they went inside the shop, Falk told her dog to wait by the front door. The dog came into the shop anyway. (“You know anarchists,” Falk told me. “She wasn’t going to listen to authority.”) The dog ran up to Bowen. Rather than getting upset, Bowen knelt down to pet the dog. He asked Falk, “What’s her name?”

“Emma,” Falk said. “Red Emma Goldman.”

“That’s strange,” Bowen said. “In the back of the shop, when I was cleaning the storeroom, I swear I think I saw some letters of hers.”

Bowen went back to the storeroom, where he dug around for a long time, looking for the letters. Finally, he found them in a large boot box. He returned to the front of the store with the letters, and he let Falk and Lowell take a look at them.

The letters were in Goldman’s handwriting, and they were addressed to Ben Reitman. For ten years, Reitman was Goldman’s lover and her manager. He booked her speaking tours, promoted her lectures, secured travel arrangements for her, set up interviews with the press, and took care of a variety of Goldman’s needs. Goldman and Reitman had a very rocky relationship during those ten years, partially because Reitman was a very promiscuous guy and slept with several other women while he was with Goldman. Though Goldman was a proponent of free love, her definition of “free love” meant that people were free to love each other without the involvement of the state. It meant that people had the capacity to be in love with more than one person at the time and if people found themselves in that situation, they should pursue their passions. Still, her definition of free love didn’t mean sleeping with strangers nearly every night. Reitman’s definition did, so there were problems. Still, Goldman forgave him for his affairs. She seemed to truly love Reitman and was willing to make some sacrifices to be with him. Their relationship had its steamy moments, too. As Falk points out, “He was a gynecologist. What can I say? He probably knew a lot more about female sexuality than most men did back then.”

When Falk came across these letters in the Hyde Park guitar shop, she knew about Goldman’s affair with Reitman and about his promiscuity. The letters fascinated Falk. They showed her feminist hero in a different light; they gave Falk an intimate view into Goldman’s love life. “I expected them to be so inspiring,” Falk told me. “So I started to read the letters, and, first of all, they’re really very sad. They’re really very tortured. And almost every one of them was about how awful it felt for her to speak about freedom and to give people a vision of complete freedom and feeling absolutely tormented by Ben’s understanding of freedom to be free love.”

Still, Falk and Lowell pored over the letters while customers came in and out of the guitar shop. Finally, Bowen told her that she could borrow the letters and photocopy them. Falk took the letters and a stack of nickels to a copy machine at the University of Chicago, and they started the long, slow process of copying them.

Since this was 1975 and the copy machine was pretty old even for the time, it took a long time to copy each letter. While Falk and Lowell waited for the copies, they continued reading the letters. As they got toward the end of the stack, Falk came across a letter in which Goldman said that, if anyone were to read her love letters, she would feel naked to the world. At this point, Falk stopped. She wrapped up her copies, gave the letters back to Bowen, and she, Lowell, and Red Emma headed back for California. “All during the time,” Falk told me, “I was thinking to myself, how could it be that Emma spoke so valiantly about her ideals when actually, her whole life was so tormented? I felt like I should keep her secrets.”

About a year later, the owner of the guitar shop (Bowen’s boss) decided that he was going to sell the letters. He contacted Falk about buying them. Falk’s first impulse was to buy the letters and keep them a secret. She was still a graduate student at the time, though, and she didn’t have enough money to buy them. While she was trying to raise the money, an archivist from the University of Illinois called Falk and told her that she had no right to buy those letters and that those letters shouldn’t belong to one person. They should belong to the public, and they should be somewhere that anyone could read them. This archivist also told Falk about several other similar letters that were kept in various archives throughout the U.S. This information gave Falk her second impulse: to research the love letters and write a book about Goldman’s love life.

At this point, Falk went on her own search for Emma Goldman. She applied for and received a grant. This allowed her to travel to various archives in Chicago, Boston, Ann Arbor, New York, and several other places, researching Goldman’s life and loves. Along the way, Falk also learned a great deal “about the Spanish Civil War, about Kropotkin, about the Russian Revolution, about all these fabulous things.” She spent six years doing this research. In the end, she wrote the biography Love, Anarchy, and Emma Goldman.

Falk told me that, when Love, Anarchy, and Emma Goldman came out, “it was very controversial because no one wanted to know that their great hero was this way.” My first thought was, what do you mean by “this way”? Because, though Goldman had an active love and sex life, I didn’t find it to be very scandalous. Granted, at times it was a little weird to read Goldman’s actual letters and see how she nicknamed and abbreviated things: her “Ms” (Mountains), her “T-B” (Treasure Box) and Reitman’s “W” (Willy). It was even weirder to read Goldman’s letter in which she longed for Willy: “Oh for one S--- at that beautiful head of his or for one drink from the fountain of life. How I would press my lips to the fountain and drink, drink, drink.” And Goldman and Reitman did have a bizarre Oedipal aspect to their relationship—Reitman called Goldman his “blue-eyed Mommy” and his mother his “brown-eyed Mommy.” Goldman (who was ten years older than Reitman) signed all her letters “Mommy.” And, though these things could be innocent enough on their own, the fact that Reitman was unnaturally close to his real mother added to the bizarreness of the nicknames and role-playing that he and Goldman did. Still, I don’t see why these little things would cause much controversy, especially since Love, Anarchy, and Emma Goldman was published at the tail end of the sexual revolution. Besides, the things Goldman did in her bedroom weren’t nearly as controversial as the things she said behind a podium.

After thinking about it for a while, though, I decided that, when Falk said that Goldman was “this way,” she meant that Goldman’s private life didn’t match up to her public ideals. For example, Goldman preached total freedom and equality. Yet, her relationships were riddled with subtle power struggles. Still, when I read Love, Anarchy, and Emma Goldman, Goldman’s flaws didn’t bother me so much. I actually enjoyed learning about that part of Emma Goldman because, as I said earlier, I’d rather see her as a human who did great things despite her faults than see her as a mythologized “great hero.”

Destroying Mothers

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I got to Berkeley. I’d never been to the Emma Goldman Papers Project before, and I got a little bit lost on my way. I knew I’d gone too far when I reached

Telegraph Avenue, Berkeley’s famous street of kooks and wingnuts. I drove back a couple  blocks. I seemed to be in the right place: on the fringe of the university, just beyond the shops and the crowded strip. And then, there it was: a low, red brick building. The door was obscured by the trees in front and it looked so unobtrusive I was surprised I had seen it at all. I parked in the adjacent alley.

A couple of minutes later, Candace Falk showed up. Though she was probably in her late forties, she radiated with the enthusiasm of a kid, and even her wild, curly brown hair seemed to defy authority. We introduced ourselves and Candace, knowing that I was doing this interview for Razorcake, said, “I’m sorry if I don’t look very punk rock.”

“No need to apologize for that,” I said, thinking to myself that dedicating your life to archiving the works of one of history’s most notable anarchists is a lot cooler than wearing a leather jacket with a big circle-A on it.

Candace led me through the front door of the EGPP and gave me the tour. She showed me the conference room, where one whole wall was covered with filing cabinets full of Goldman’s letters. (Goldman had been an obsessive letter writer during her lifetime, and it wasn’t uncommon for her to write ten letters in a day. Falk traveled to various archives in the U.S. and abroad and collected and/or photocopied thousands of these letters.) On top of the filing cabinets were rows of books on anarchy, labor history, the free speech movement, and so on. Posters of Goldman hung on the wall, as well as a huge portrait of Roger Baldwin (the founder of the American Civil Liberties Union). I asked about the portrait and the books, and Falk explained to me that the EGPP was about more than just Emma Goldman. It was about archiving a whole movement and a period of American history that is being left out of textbooks and history classes.

From there, Falk took me deeper into the archives, through the cluttered desks and the computers and the stacks of books, stopping at a bookshelf. She grabbed a bound book off the shelf and said, “Here we have copies of Mother Earth.” I knew that Mother Earth was the magazine founded by Goldman and her comrades in 1906. Mother Earth published the works of prominent anarchist writers like Alexander Berkman, Hippolyte Havel, and Emma Goldman herself. Eventually, in 1917, the U.S. Post Office refused to deliver copies of the inflammatory “In Memoriam: American Democracy” issue because it condemned drafting young men into the army. I’d read all about Mother Earth and had even read articles that once ran in Mother Earth, but I’d never seen the actual magazine. I looked at the professional layouts and the yellowing pages and asked, “Who reprinted all of these issues?”

“Those aren’t reprints,” Candace told me. “Those are the originals.”

I paused and stared at the magazine in my hand and felt the jolt of excitement that comes with holding an original document, because I knew that Mother Earth was a small, underground operation run by a few dedicated people, just like Razorcake. And I know that, with each issue of Razorcake, I handle nearly every copy as I load them into my truck outside the print shop, or stick mailing labels on them, or pack them into boxes bound for distributors, or whatever. In fact, my fingerprints are probably on the cover of the magazine you’re reading right now. And I wondered who had handled this Mother Earth that I held in my hand. Had Berkman or Reitman or M. Eleanor Fitzgerald or any other of the anarchists I’d read so much about passed this magazine on to a friend? Had one of them stuck this magazine in a box that Emma Goldman herself took with her on her speaking tours? Had Goldman sold this magazine to a young, working class woman, who read it and started down the road that led her to rise up against the conditions in the factory where she worked? Had a young man read this magazine and decided not to sign up for the draft to fight another rich man’s war? And exactly where had this magazine been passed around, put on a shelf, packed away, donated, unpacked, and archived so that, nearly a hundred years after it had been published, it ended up in my hands? And whose fingerprints were on the cover?

In the next room, I made a much more concrete connection to an anarchist. I met Barry Pateman, another historian working on the EGPP. Since both Pateman and Falk were ready to do the interview, and since I couldn’t spend all day daydreaming about fingerprints on a magazine, we headed into the conference room to talk about the hows and whys of the archives that surrounded us.

The first thing I wanted to know was how Falk went from a boot box full of letters and a biography on Goldman’s love life to this impressive historical archives. While she was writing the biography, the National Archives in Washington, DC started a commission called the National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC). “This commission was set up to collect and organize the papers of the Founding Fathers and that was supposed to be the basis of keeping the nation great. And Emma Goldman wasn’t on their list. It was all men. The Great White Men Project, but there was a huge radical movement at the time, even among historians. This guy named Jesse Lemisch gathered a whole bunch of historians and petitioned the National Archives, saying, ‘We don’t want a Great White Men Project. We want a history of the people.’ So, in a very typical top-down fashion, the National Archives chose the papers of the ‘great individuals’—they still couldn’t go for the people and movements, you know. But Emma Goldman got on the list, along with Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Susan B. Anthony, Margaret Sanger, and Martin Luther King. So that’s how we got started.”

The commission offered Falk the position of editor of the Emma Goldman papers, and Falk accepted. I thought it strange that the U.S. government—the same one that deported Goldman in 1919 because she spoke out against World War I—would later give money to a project dedicated to keeping alive her words and ideals. Apparently, this irony hadn’t slipped past Falk, either. As she says, “Our project started out with a kernel of federal funding, which a lot of anarchists wouldn’t take. But I felt like, okay, the government deported her and we’re bringing her back with government money.” Apparently, even the NHPRC had a sense of humor about this, too. With a sardonic smile, Falk told me that the NHPRC “say that they started with the Founding Fathers and we’re part of the Destroying Mothers.”

In the initial stages of the EGPP, Falk befriended Sara Jackson, a woman who worked in the National Archives in DC. Jackson was one of the first African American archivists, and she loved the fact that someone was archiving Goldman’s life. Jackson told Falk, “Candace, I’m going to declassify Emma Goldman’s government documents for you.” Falk was amazed. This was before the Freedom of Information Act had been passed, and government documents were nearly impossible to view. Thanks to the generosity of Jackson, though, the public was allowed, for the first time, to see the inside government reports dealing with the raiding of the Mother Earth offices in 1917, with Goldman and Berkman’s anti-conscription trial, and with the false implications of Goldman’s involvement in the assassination of President McKinley. J. Edgar Hoover’s file regarding Emma Goldman’s deportation was also declassified (the deportation of Goldman was one of the first cases that Hoover—who later became the first director of the FBI—worked on).

In return for her generosity, Jackson asked the EGPP to do her a favor. “Because she loved us and trusted us,” Falk said, “[Jackson] would stick in a document or two about lynching during World War I. And we would make sure that those documents would get to the right historians, the ones who would use them.” And in this way, the EGPP kept alive the spirit of Emma Goldman by engaging in their own subversive activities in the name of justice.

Over the years, the EGPP amassed the impressive collection that surrounded me when I interviewed Falk and Pateman, but they also had to struggle to stay afloat. As the federal funds began to shrink, the EGPP had to find other ways to raise money. They relied on donations from a wide variety of people: workers in methadone clinics, historians, writers, anarchists, the children and grandchildren of Goldman’s old friends. Even Ben Reitman’s daughter, Mecca, donated money to the EGPP. They also relied on federal and private grants, and the money that they raised through selling their “Emmarabilia”—stuff like T-shirts, calendars, magnets, and even a coffee mug with Goldman’s mug shot and her words, “Sooner or later the American people are going to wake up.” And even now, every day is a struggle for the EGPP to stay alive. The important thing, though, is that it stays alive.

Beautiful, Radiant Things

I knew I had my reasons for reading and re-reading Emma Goldman’s autobiography and essays. I had my reasons for taking the trek to Berkeley to come as close as I could to meeting her. But still, a few hours spent reading books and a few more driving and conducting an interview were one thing. Dedicating your life to the woman was another. So, after hearing the story of their struggles, I had to know why Falk and Pateman had dedicated so much of their lives to Goldman.

I asked them the question point blank: What’s so important about Emma Goldman in 2002? A long pause followed my question, but I got the feeling that they paused not because they didn’t know. They paused because they didn’t know how to sum up all of the things that made her important. After thinking about this one for a bit, Falk summed it up nicely: “She represents somebody who underwent incredible harassment in her life. She really took a hit for her beliefs and she still had a vision of hope and promise and belief in beautiful, radiant things. I think everybody needs that. And you don’t need it from a sugar-coated person who thinks the world is actually only nice. You need to hear it from somebody who is in the grit of it, who stares into the flames of violence and oppression. From somebody who can look into the ugliness and still believe there is beauty.”

Okay, I thought, so they draw some strength off of Goldman’s words and actions, just like I do. But there has to be more. They’re historians, after all. What about the whole cliché about people who don’t learn from history being doomed to repeat it? I tried to prod them in this direction by asking them if they saw any parallels between the time when Goldman and Berkman were deported (which was also when the U.S. was gearing up for World War I) and our current time and political situation. To my surprise, Pateman became passionate about the lack of parallels.

“One of the things we have to be careful about,” he said, “is drawing too many simplistic conclusions. This is a far more complex society than it was in Goldman’s period of time. In 1918, you could be a Wobblie (a member of the Industrial Workers of the World) organizer and the police could kick your door in, cut your testicles off, and lynch you, and nothing would happen to them. You could be a Wobblie organizer and come off a train and they could beat you to death with an iron bar. They could suddenly raid a building. The soldiers would just turn up, trash the Everett Wobblie Hall, and beat to a pulp anyone who was in there, and nothing would happen to them. So it’s not quite the same now. But my argument would be that, in a way, the culture that we’re in now is far more sinister than it was then. That’s why I make the point that it’s not the same. Violence now is far more cerebral. It’s far more cunning and clever. It’s far more inherent in everyday life.”

Pateman went on to explain how the clumsy brutality of a hundred years ago has been replaced by the manipulation of information and the media, how now it’s difficult to know at all what you’re fighting against. Pateman illustrated this point by asking, “How many Arab men are in prison now? How many have been imprisoned in the last ten months? How many? I don’t know. I know there’s a lot. I know there’s over five hundred, but I don’t know how many. Who does? Where’s the names? Even in the radical left papers, where are they?”

I couldn’t answer these questions, of course. And, truth be told, I agreed with everything that Pateman had said. Still, it didn’t answer my initial question of why Goldman would still be important in the here and now. I kept thinking that there must be more, there must be something concrete about Emma Goldman that makes her such an attractive historical figure because she’s not just a legend to punk rockers. Really, she’s had several rebirths in underground communities. She’s been an icon for early feminist groups; for anti-Vietnam War groups; for anti-Gulf War groups; for anarchists taking over the streets in Eugene, Oregon; for the protestors who threw bricks through Starbucks windows in Seattle; and for protestors who condemned those who threw bricks through Starbucks windows in Seattle. Really, with the exception of Che Guevara, I can’t think of any historical figure who the people have embraced as tightly as Emma Goldman. So what makes people love her so much?

I continued to talk with Falk and Pateman about Goldman’s life and about the EGPP’s various projects, all the while trying to figure out what this elusive Emma Goldman quality was. Finally, after a couple of hours of questions, answers, and discussions, Pateman articulated this quality to me. It took him a while to articulate it, and he had to couch it in a larger framework, but this is how he explained the whole attractive complexity of Emma Goldman to me:

He talked about Goldman’s life as a whole. He talked about the fame and notoriety she gained in her life. He talked about major events of Goldman’s life: she went to San Diego, where vigilantes abducted Ben Reitman, covered him in tar, beat him with sagebrush, and branded him just to keep her from speaking. She was attacked and spat at continually. She was wrongfully accused of plotting to assassinate one president and convicted of the act in the nation’s newspapers. She was imprisoned for speaking out on birth control and against the draft. She and her closest friend, Alexander Berkman, were deported and sent to Russia—the country of their youth and the place where the workers had recently revolted against the aristocracy and created what appeared (from the outside at least) to be a workers’ paradise. Goldman went there and saw instead that Russia had become just as vicious as (and, in many ways, even more vicious than) any other country. Berkman and Goldman saw their friends killed in Russia because their friends were anarchists. The two managed to escape from Russia, but they were forced to live in exile for fifteen years in Europe while fascism was growing in Germany and Italy, and Stalinism was growing throughout Eastern Europe. Then, when she was in her late sixties, she went to fight in the Spanish Civil War, where the anarchists actually took over in Catalonia. And she had to watch the anarchists beaten back by the communists and the fascists. And she still didn’t give up.

“Even when she died,” Pateman said, “she was still trying to stop the deportation of Italian anarchists from Canada. John Taylor Caldwell gives a beautiful story about Emma Goldman in 1937. She came to speak in Scotland and they booked her in a cinema because she’s Emma Goldman. But the communist party said, ‘No. She is a representative of a large anarchist union.’ And they stopped their members from going because they knew she was going to talk about the Spanish revolution. And the meeting was an embarrassment. Thirty people, including John Caldwell, showed up because the left disowned this woman for insisting to speak out for free speech, insisting on challenging Stalinism. Thirty people were there. They had to bring a table down, and everyone sat in the front row to listen to her. She sat down and didn’t try to give it any mouth or rhetoric. She sat down and talked about the schools and the women’s groups she’d seen in Spain. She talked about the way they tried to organize the shoe factories and collectives and anarchist lines without any state intervention, and how it was working, but it was being beaten back by their own comrades. And she didn’t shout.

“Caldwell said that he cried at the end, because here was this woman: old, tired, beaten. But she never gave up. Maybe that’s the best thing you can say about anyone: they never gave up.”

And that seemed to really strike at the heart of the matter.

“Out of the Chaos the Future Emerges in Beauty and Harmony” (4)

As I walked out of the Emma Goldman Papers Project, I felt like I’d found Emma Goldman. I made a direct connection to her—not as a legend, but as a person who said and did amazing things. And we can all still feed off of her strength and intelligence and gather inspiration from her. The spirit of resistance and the vision of beautiful, radiant things is alive and as powerful as it has ever been. And, thanks in part to Candace Falk, Barry Pateman, and the EGPP, everyone—even sweaty kids outside of an Anti-Flag show—can tap into it.

And maybe, in our own little ways, we can all be the next Emma Goldman.

To learn more about the Emma Goldman Papers Project, go to its web site at The EGPP will also be releasing the first two volumes of a four-volume set of books called Emma Goldman: A Documentary History of Her American Years in April of 2003. The books will be packed with Goldman’s letters and reprints of other original documents, as well as a great deal of information about the early anarchist movement, the early free speech movement, and the turn of the century labor movement in the U.S. And, through these books, you can go on your own search for one of American history’s most dynamic and inspirational figures. In the meantime, you can still read the books that Goldman wrote, like Living My Life and Anarchism and Other Essays.

1. Living My Life, pg. 426

2. Anarchism and Other Essays, pg. 133

3. Love, Anarchy, and Emma Goldman, pg. 73

4. An Emma Goldman quote, lifted from a T-shirt the EGPP sells