Once upon a time, they tell us, violence actually meant something, great literature inspired revolutionary acts, and comradeship was cherished as the finest form of love. And they make readers believe it too, in an eminently readable, richly informative narrative that casts a rosy aura around two of the most notorious subversives in American history.
Little more than a century ago, in the days when equality was eclipsed by exploitation at the intersection of American industry and immigration, a Russian-born anarchist known as Sasha Berkman believed in a society without government, free from all forms of oppression, suppression and repression. He and his sometime lover and lifelong muse, Emma Goldman, were reviled in the press as dangerous, immoral, “firebrand-flinging radicals,” whose extreme views and aggressive actions were “an insult to the American way of life.” They lived in a menage a trois with Berkman’s cousin, and championed social justice in causes such as libertarian education, prisoners’ rights, women’s equality, free love and birth control. They also endorsed violence as a “tool of social transformation.” Most famously, they plotted together to assassinate Pittsburgh’s own Henry Clay Frick in what Berkman proudly referred to as “the first terrorist act in America.”
Enraged by the humiliations inflicted by the “bloody barbarism of capital” upon steelworkers in the Homestead Strike of 1892, the 21-year-old Berkman, equipped with a new suit and a revolver provided by Goldman, traveled from New York City to Pittsburgh, intent upon killing the chairman of Carnegie Steel. There, after registering at a downtown hotel under the name of Rakhmetov, the hero of Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s radical novel, “What Is To Be Done?,” he stormed Frick’s office, shooting him twice and stabbing him with a homemade dagger.
But what was intended as an “act of liberation” to ignite a full-fledged revolt against the capitalist system went awry when Frick fought back and survived the attack. His remarkable self defense and speedy recovery, combined with the loss of his infant son only a few days later, won Frick the sympathy of the public. Legitimate labor activists were aghast at Berkman’s deed, and he received no thanks from that quarter, nor mercy from the jury that heard his case. Berkman compounded his error by representing himself at his trial (thus creating the awkward situation of cross-examining his victim) and was sentenced to 22 years in Allegheny City’s Western Penitentiary.
Although his mission failed, Berkman’s actions nevertheless had significant repercussions. The radical community that had nurtured his ideals split into competing factions over the use of destructive force, creating a strain of non-violent anarchy that endures today in both the Tea Party and Occupy movements. At the same time, the stereotype of the sinister, heavily accented anarchist was born in the popular imagination, and for the rest of his life, Berkman fell under suspicion whenever a shot was fired or a bomb thrown anywhere in the U.S.A. His harrowing experiences in Western Penitentiary resulted in the 1912 publication, “Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist,” which led to an investigation of penal reforms in Pennsylvania and elsewhere. Finally, and most importantly, Berkman’s incarceration marked the ascendency of Emma Goldman, one of the most dynamic and influential public figures of the early 20th century.
While Berkman passed the remainder of his youth behind bars, Goldman, suffering from a form of survivor’s guilt, dedicated herself to the mitigation of her comrade’s suffering and defense of his reputation. When, for instance, a fellow anarchist denounced Berkman at a public gathering, Goldman leapt on stage and horsewhipped him. On another occasion, following the example of Sonya Marmeladova in “Crime and Punishment,” she donned a corset and resorted to prostitution in order to afford books and cigarettes for Sasha. Although one gentleman offered her $10 with no strings attached, Goldman found she had no taste for the business, and discovered her real talent in public speaking.
A tiny woman, measuring less than five feet high, even in heels, Emma Goldman nevertheless possessed a “strong and resonant voice,” a “wonderful vigor,” and sufficient charisma to sway whole crowds with her oratory, make friends in every walk of life, and seduce a string of lovers in spite of her unapologetic homeliness. Described by her contemporaries as “zealous,” “swaggering” and “indefatigable,” she was respected even by her political enemies. When President McKinley’s assassin cited Goldman’s rhetoric as the inspiration for his crime (“Her words set me on fire”), she was proclaimed “the most dangerous woman in America,” of which she was inordinately proud.
But for all her inflammatory remarks and ferocious reputation, Goldman is portrayed in “Sasha and Emma” as a generous, expansive soul who loved to cook for friends, loved to dance, loved pretty things, and viewed anarchism as a “beautiful ideal, not inconsistent with joy.”
In their eagerness to humanize Goldman the historical figure, the authors have removed not only her sting but much of her appeal as well. She cheerfully embraces all situations as opportunities — even prison, where she acquired training as a nurse and midwife while serving time for inciting a riot — and enjoys a succession of triumphs as a dressmaker, restaurateur, theater manager, drama critic and publisher. It is difficult to imagine the “magnetic” personality of which her contemporaries spoke, since she appears not as the carnal “Red Emma,” but as a sort of matronly cheerleader who supported all rebels — with the emphasis on support rather than rebellion. This is not a problem for the casual reader, who will find the story most entertaining, but those who are sympathetic to the anarchist’s calling will squirm to see their heroine depicted in such a way.
Goldman was, in the Averiches’ words, “the blazing sun to Berkman’s morose moon”; for while she thrived amidst the rapid pace of modern life, he struggled to find his place in the world that awaited him after prison. The treatment that he receives at the authors’ hands is effective in destroying the caricature of a Boris Badenov-style anarchist, but it also reduces Berkman to a tragicomic figure defined by a parade of epic failures from the Frick fiasco onward. Berkman botched at least three suicide attempts in his pursuit of “a rebel’s defiant demise,” and when he finally died in 1936, several days after a self-inflicted gunshot wound, one acquaintance speculated that “he felt guilty that he wasn’t able to kill Frick,” adding rather unkindly, “And when he committed suicide he was still a bad shot!”
At Sasha’s bedside when he breathed his last was Emma Goldman, whose destiny had been entwined with his since their conspiracy in 1892, and cemented forever by their simultaneous deportation to Russia in 1919 for violation of the newly enacted Espionage Act. On the eve of their departure, Sasha declared “our friendship and comradeship of a lifetime has been to me the most beautiful inspiring factor in my whole life.” Sentimental words indeed.