Living My Life
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|Publisher||Alfred A. Knopf|
Living My Life is the 993-page autobiography of Lithuanian-born anarchist Emma Goldman, published in two volumes in 1931 (Alfred A. Knopf) and 1934 (Garden City Publishing Company). Goldman wrote it in Saint-Tropez, France, following her disillusionment with the Bolshevik role in the Russian revolution. The text thoroughly covers her personal and political life from early childhood through to 1927, and has constantly remained in print since, in original and abridged editions. Since the autobiography was published nine years before Goldman died in 1940, it does not record her role in the Spanish Civil War.
Emma Goldman was born in 1869 in Kovno, Lithuania (then Russian Empire). Her parents Abraham and Taube owned a modest inn but were generally impoverished. Throughout her childhood and early adolescence, Goldman travelled between her parents’ home in Lithuania and her grandmother’s home in Königsberg, Prussia before relocating to St. Petersburg. Though much of her childhood was unhappy, as her father was often abusive, Goldman was close with her sister Helena and valued the modest schooling she received. In 1885, Goldman immigrated to Rochester, New York to join her older sister Lena and escape the influence of her father who wanted her to take a husband. Despite finding work in a clothing factory, Goldman did not stay in Rochester long. Enraged by the execution of the Haymarket bombers in 1887, she moved to New York and became one of the nation’s most notorious anarchists.
Goldman begins Living My Life with her arrival in New York City on August 8th, 1889—the day she began her life as an anarchist. She does not begin with her autobiography chronologically, as she considered her first twenty years to be something of a previous life. As Goldman recalls, “All that had happened in my life until that time was now left behind me, cast off like a worn-out garment.” Living My Life reflects upon Goldman’s time prior to New York as a means of explaining her principles and conversion to anarchy. For instance, she describes her employment in a Rochester clothing factory as an introduction to her antagonism toward industrial labor. Goldman claimed to work ten and a half hours a day and earned only $2.50 a week asked the owner for a raise, before she was rebuffed and found work elsewhere. Moreover, in 1887 Goldman “consented” to marry Jacob Kreshner, a fellow Jewish immigrant. This marriage, however, would not survive long. While Goldman attributes her husband’s disinterest in books and his growing interest in gambling toward their growing antagonism, the discovery of his impotence was the breaking point for Goldman, who recalled being left in “utter bewilderment” on her wedding night. Goldman recalls only being “saved from utter despair” in Rochester by her fascination of the events at Haymarket and her subsequent move to New York City.
Goldman’s memoir describes her first months in New York City fondly. The book vividly describes her efforts to meet Johann Most, the notorious German anarchist and editor of the newspaper Die Freiheit. Most, after the first meeting, became her mentor. Goldman’s recollections heavily imply that Most was determined to craft her into a “great speaker,” one that could take his place as a leader for “the Cause.” It was during her unofficial tutelage that Goldman began public speaking. Beginning first by stumping in New York City, Goldman expanded her skills and departed shortly thereafter on a lecture tour of Cleveland, Buffalo, and her family’s home of Rochester.
One of the key moments of Living my Life was Goldman’s fateful encounter with a young Jewish anarchist named Alexander “Sasha” Berkman. The two met on Goldman’s first day in New York and quickly became close friends and lovers. While Goldman credits both Most and Berkman with influencing her belief in anarchism, Living My Life positions Berkman and Most as rivals for Goldman’s personal affections. Goldman recalls being courted by both men and being drawn to both in different ways:
“The charm of Most was upon me. His eagerness for life, for friendship, moved me deeply. And Berkman, too, appealed to me profoundly. His earnestness, his self-confidence, his youth—everything about him drew me with irresistible force.”
These thoughts were indicative of Goldman’s ruminations regarding “free love--” a persistent theme throughout the memoir. Maintaining that “binding people for life was wrong,” Goldman carried on romantic affairs with Berkman, but rejected the advances of Most. In reflection, Goldman determines that Most “cared for women only as females” and ultimately “broke” with her because he wanted women “who have no other interest in life but the man they love and the children they bear him.”
Following her break with Most, Goldman continues her work by describing her complicity in an attempt to murder Henry Clay Frick, chairman of Carnegie Steel Company, in 1892. Goldman lived with Berkman in New England when they heard news of the Homestead Strike, which had erupted at one of Carnegie’s Pittsburg area steel mills. Frick’s attempts to violently repress the strikers enraged Berkman and Goldman who quickly devised a plan for Frick’s assassination. Living My Life describes how Goldman was motivated by the doctrine of “Propaganda by Deed” in Most’s Science of Revolutionary Warfare. She recounted her belief that Frick’s death would “re-echo in the poorest hovel, would call the attention of the whole world to the real cause behind the Homestead struggle.” In her account, the couple agreed that Berkman would travel to Homestead and sacrifice himself for the Cause, while Goldman would remain in New York to raise funds and deliver speeches in the wake of the assassination. To demonstrate her devotion to conspiracy, Goldman details how she had even considered prostitution to raise $15 needed for Berkman’s travels before agreeing to accept a loan from her sister with the pretense of her being ill.
Living My Life describes the aftermath of the attempted assassination as a difficult time in Goldman’s life. Berkman failed in his attempt to assassinate Frick, who survived his wounds. In fact, Berkman was not, as expected, killed after the attack but was sentenced to twenty-two years in prison. Furthermore, rather than receiving praise from her anarchist comrades, Most condemned the Berkman and reversed his opinion on “Propaganda by Deed.” Goldman writes that she was so infuriated by the “betrayal” of Most that she publicly horsewhipped her former mentor at a public rally. Goldman’s penchant for radicalism and inspired speaking grew in the wake of the Homestead strike and subsequently resulted in increased police attention, resulting in her arrest in Philadelphia under charges of inciting to riot in August 1893.
Following a description of her year in prison and her later travels in Western Europe, the memoir examines Goldman’s return to lecturing for the anarchist cause in the late 1890s. Lecturing in Cleveland in 1900, Goldman recalls being approached by a young man who gave the name “Nieman.” Responding to the young man’s interest in anarchist literature, she gladly gave him a reading list and thought nothing strange of the event. It was soon discovered that Nieman was the alias of Leon Czolgosz, the assassin who fatally shot President McKinley in September of 1901. Goldman, implicated as an accomplice in the assassination, was arrested in Chicago. Though held in contempt by the American public and badly beaten during a prison transfer, Goldman was released due to lack of evidence.
Goldman’s autobiography depicts the repercussions of McKinley’s assassination as long lasting and severe. Despite being acquitted of all charges, Goldman’s association with Czolgosz made her a pariah to anarchist and non-anarchist alike. Despite her wrongful imprisonment, Goldman stood by Czolgosz and sought to discover his justification for the assassination. Goldman reflects that although Czolgosz’s action was misguided, she “was not willing to swear away the reason, character, or life of a defenseless human being.” Goldman attempted to enlist anarchist support in a campaign to hire Czolgosz an attorney—in order to give him a chance to “explain his act to the world.” Few, however, showed willingness to associate with the assassin. Her belief in the movement was shaken. As Goldman suggests, many of her comrades had “been flaunting anarchism like a red cloth before a bull, but they had [run] to cover at its first charge.”
Despite these difficulties, Goldman established her own radical newspaper, Mother Earth in 1907. Throughout the following decade, Goldman describes her political associations with the recently released Alexander Berkman to protest US preparedness, political repression, restrictions on homosexuality and birth control. The memoir devotes particular attention to Goldman’s view of homosexuality. Goldman writes, recalling an interaction with a woman who confessed to her feelings of “homosexuality,” “To me anarchism was not a mere theory for a distant future; it was a living influence to free us from inhibitions… and from the destructive barriers that separate man from man.” Her increased attention as the result of these speaking engagements led to greater attention from law enforcement. Goldman was arrested under the Comstock Act following a speech on birth control in 1915, but was shortly thereafter released.
Living My Life continues by discussing Goldman’s efforts to counter-act military preparedness and the draft—especially the 1917 arrest of both Goldman and Berkman. The two were arrested on charges of encouraging men to avoid conscription into the army. inspired by anti-War sentiment in the United States ,Goldman and Berkman focused significant attention to anti-conscription articles in Mother Earth and held several anti-preparedness rallies. Following an unsuccessful appeal to the Supreme Court, the couple was sentenced to two years in prison and forced to pay a ten thousand dollar fine.
The autobiography concludes with Goldman’s exile in the Soviet Union. After serving their full sentences, both Goldman and Berkman were released in the midst of the first Red Scare and were subsequently deported to the newly formed Soviet Union. Although Goldman writes that she “longed” to return to her “native land” and aid in its reconstruction after the 1917 Revolutions, she “denied the right of the government” to force her. While Goldman was optimistic of the revolutionary workers state, upon arrival her optimism was shaken by the Bolshevik dictatorship and their means of violent repression and coercion. As stated in Living My Life:
“[The dictatorship’s] role was somewhat different from the one proclaimed in public. It was forcible tax collection at the point of guns, with its devastating effect on villages and towns. It was the elimination … of everyone who dared think aloud, and the spiritual death of the most militant elements whose intelligence, faith, and courage had really enabled the Bolsheviki to achieve their power.”
These feelings were compounded by the brutal repression of the Kronstadt sailors, who had rebelled under the pretense of anarchist principles. After witnessing the sailors’ defeat by the Soviet military after several days of siege, Goldman committed herself entirely to escaping the Soviet Union.
Goldman concludes her memoir by describing her flight from Soviet Russia and her subsequent travels abroad. Securing a visa to leave the Soviet Union, Goldman and Berkman arrived in Latvia on December 1, 1921. The couple traveled between Germany, France, England, Sweden, and Canada on temporary visas. However, after being commissioned by the New York World, Goldman published a series of articles describing her experiences in Russia—these articles would later be compiled into My Disillusionment in Russia. Goldman’s determines that her book positioned her as a major leftist critic of the Soviet Union and reignited her career as a lecturer. Following a lecture tour of Canada in the late 1920s, Goldman moved to the French village of Saint-Tropez with the intent of beginning Living My Life.
Living My Life received a positive reception from literary critics even outside of radical circles. In an anonymous letter to the editor in the Washington Post, a reviewer compared Goldman’s criticism of the Soviet Union to John Dewey’s philosophy that “violence begets violence” and agreed with her insistence that progress could not be achieved through dictatorship. A more formal review written by R.L. Duffus in the New York Times praised Goldman on the human portrayal of her “tempestuous” life. The most impressive aspect of Goldman’s book, wrote Duffus, was the realization that what motivated Goldman was not “hatred” for the ruling classes, but “sympathy” for the masses. Extending this analysis to many of the other historical actors in Living My Life, Duffus concluded that perhaps the anarchists “hated authority because authority as they had known it had been neither kind nor just to them.” Describing Goldman as a “vanishing” species motivated to radicalism out of pure humanity, Duffus credited Living My Life as “one of the great books of its kind.”
Criticism did, however, come from her former acquaintances—namely, her former roommate Helene Minkin. Minkin, an anarchist in her own right, published her memoirs in a serialized format in the Jewish daily newspaper Forverts in 1932. She intended to defend Johann Most, whom she had married in 1890s, from the scathing criticism he received in Living My Life. Minkin rejected the accusation that Most broke with Goldman and married her because he wanted a wife who would take a domestic role. While Minkin claims to be unsure as to exactly why Goldman and Most broke, she argues that her personal relationship with Most was neither subordinate nor traditional. As Minkin herself described her role: “Most, as I have noted once already, had the right to desire a little happiness for himself in the midst of his bitter and turbulent struggle… It would often bother me when I saw that Most wobbled a bit on his pedestal, and I supported him so that he wouldn’t be pushed down from his heights.” Minkin believed Goldman to be unfairly critical of Most’s attitude toward women.
Living My Life provides critical insight as to the mentality of radical immigrants in the United States during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Goldman personally explores the often neglected topics of political violence and the nature of human sexuality in the early anarchist movement. At the beginning of Goldman’s autobiography, the Haymarket bombing was a recent memory and American anarchists had already been tied to notions of violence and assassination. As historian John Higham posits, after Haymarket, the immigrant was widely stereotyped by American nativists as “a lawless creature given over to violence and disorder.” Goldman’s early narrative emphasizes the violent tendencies of the movement, as it was only a few years following her arrival in New York City that her and Berkman attempted to assassinate Henry Frick. However, in the years following the attempt on Frick’s life, Goldman and her allies turned away from the use of violence and assassination for political purposes. In the wake of McKinely’s assassination, Goldman published an article that withheld direct praise for Leon Czolgosz and instead offered sympathy for those driven “by great social stress” to commit atrocities. Concluding with her condemnation of Soviet Russia’s use of murder and coercion to control its people, Living My Life is indicative the often-complex relationship between anarchism and violence.
Goldman’s radicalism also influenced her personal views on sexuality. Coming from a traditional Russian Jewish family that stressed marriage and motherhood, Goldman rejected societal norms in favor of “free love.” As Goldman recalls in responding to critics of her open sexuality, “I insisted that our Cause could not expect me to become a nun… If it meant that, I did not want it… Even in spite of the condemnation of my own closest comrades I would live my beautiful idea.” While Goldman’s example is not entirely representative of immigrant women involved in radical movements, her story is one that presents an interesting case in which radical ideology was tied to a rejection of gender norms and a championing of sexual equality and liberation.
Living My Life remains an informative text on the nature of immigrant radicalism in the United States. It offers an informative and personal view of political activism seen by many Americans as foreign, misguided, violent, and sexually depraved. Anarchism, seen as anathema to American values, was, at its height, an influential and vocal ideology amongst many Germans, Italians, and Eastern European Jews. Emma Goldman used her autobiography to highlight how her private and personal life challenged American norms and influenced a sub-culture that had a profound impact on American and European history.
- The free expression of the hopes and aspirations of a people is the greatest and only safety in a sane society.
- Imagine, capitalist America also divides the anarchists into two categories, philosophic and criminal. The first are accepted in highest circles; one of them is even high in the councils of the Wilson Administration. The second category, to which we have the honor of belonging, is persecuted and often imprisoned. Yours also seems to be a distinction without a difference. Don't you think so? (to Lenin)
- No sacrifice is lost for a great ideal!
- I do not believe in God, because I believe in man. Whatever his mistakes, man has for thousands of years past been working to undo the botched job your God has made.
- As to killing rulers, it depends entirely on the position of the ruler. If it is the Russian tsar, I most certainly believe in dispatching him to where he belongs. If the ruler is as ineffectual as an American president, it is hardly worth the effort. There are, however, some potentates I would kill by any and all means at my disposal. They are Ignorance, Superstition, and Bigotry — the most sinister and tyrannical rulers on earth.
- America had declared war with Spain.... It did not require much political wisdom to see that America's concern was a matter of sugar and had nothing to do with humanitarian feelings. Of course there were plenty of credulous people, not only in the country at large, but even in liberal ranks, who believed in America's claim. I could not join them. I was sure that no one, be it individual or government, engaged in enslaving and exploiting at home, could have the integrity or the desire to free people in other lands.
- The people are asleep; they remain indifferent. They forge their own chains and do the bidding of their masters to crucify their Christs.
- Nothing would prove more disastrous to our ideas, we contended, than to neglect the effect of the internal upon the external, of the psychological motives and needs upon existing institutions.
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