Living My Life, Emma Goldman

I just finished Volume II of EG’s autobiography. If I had to describe it in one word: epic. Her life reads like a sitcom, political drama, and personal tragedy all rolled into one. Yet she is neither melodramatic nor self-effacing. She comes across as extremely earnest and honest about herself. She is at times proud of her work and at other times unashamedly confused and dejected.

Reading about famous historical incidents (the Haymarket fiasco, the Russian revolution, World War I) from EG’s perspective transforms them from meaningless dates and places in a text book into actual events with specific and various consequences on individual lives. Reading about famous figures (Margaret Sanger, Peter Kropotkin, Lenin!) from EG’s own experience turns them from symbols into real human beings.

Even otherwise grand statements come across as genuine in her voice: “To the end of my days I should be torn between the yearning for a personal life and the need of giving all to my ideal” (153). She evinces such an interesting self-knowledge and seems to traverse a constant cycle of introspection. The conflict between love relationships and her dedication to anarchism is particularly jarring and recurs throughout the text. “The stars could not be climbed by one rooted in a clod of earth. If one soared high, could he hope to dwell for long in the absorbing depths of passion and love?” (343). Yet she never attempts to “choose” one or the other—love or work, romance or ideal—and always seems to believe that she shouldn’t have to make that choice.

When EG travels to Russia to see the wonders of the revolution, we as the reader are allowed into her long and torturous disillusionment with the Bolshevik Regime. She begins by staunchly defending the Bolsheviks to all of their critics in the US and refuses to believe what her friends and associates tell her about the true nature of the “revolution.” She declares she must observe the aftermath and make her decision based only on her own judgment. After 200 pages of minutely detailed excitement, hesitation, bewilderment, horror, sadness, and ultimately renunciation of the Bolsheviks, EG still finds herself grappling with how to accept the desecration of her native country:

I was no longer deceived by their mask, but my real problem lay much deeper. It was the Revolution itself. Its manifestations were so completely at variance with what I had conceived and propagated as revolution that I did not know any more which was right. My old values had been shipwrecked… (813)

It is extremely refreshing to read about her uncertainties. Even someone as brilliant and talented as EG has insecurities and flaws, and doesn’t shy away from exposing them! This to me was the greatest part of reading her autobiography: she admits to being human, and doesn’t feel ashamed to disclose failure and regret.

Furthermore, despite being labeled “a man’s woman” by a women’s club in California, she comes across as extremely articulate about the gender inequities she witnesses. Of the women she encountered (when she worked as a nurse) who had succeeded in avoiding a loveless marriage and in earning their own livelihood, she laments

Lacking the courage to tell the world to mind its own business, the emancipation of the women was frequently more of a tragedy than traditional marriage would have been. They had attained a certain amount of independence in order to gain their livelihood, but they had not become independent in spirit or free in their personal lives. (371)

Very interesting. It seems no one concession is good enough for EG. Economic freedom, spiritual freedom, sexual freedom, intellectual freedom—none of them suffices on their own. She truly seems to embody the dictates of anarchism: freedom in one area of life only is not good enough. Complete reevaluation and reorganization must occur in order for human beings to accomplish a free society. Her determination to apply her sociopolitical standards to her own life and her refusal to separate the private from the public sphere seem characteristic of contemporary feminist theory. When a comrade tells her it is unseemly for an anarchist to dance “with reckless abandon” (wish I could have seen it!), she retorts “I did not believe that a Cause which stood for a beautiful ideal…for release and freedom from conventions and prejudice, should demand the denial of life and joy” (56). Rather than allowing others to define anarchism for her, she creates her own definition and embraces it completely in all aspects of her life.

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About Madeleine Gyory

Madeleine is a social media butterfly who tweets (and does some other things) for the Women's Media Center, a media advocacy non-profit based in NY. She loves reading, particularly stories by and about women. She graduated from Barnard College, and has spent time teaching English in Ecuador. Her favorite writers are Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and Jonathan Safran Foer.
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3 Responses to Living My Life, Emma Goldman

  1. andy gyory says:

    “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.” Now I can’t dance, but I can run and do other things and be part of that revolution! Emma is one of the clearest and most original, honest, and independent thinkers in American history. You have captured her well.

    • nasha says:

      love it! and love her. i wonder what she has to say about margaret sanger, i know they didn’t exactly play well together…

      • decompressinginecuador says:

        I think something’s missing from the story, but according to EG, Sanger refused to support her in any public way, even when she was arrested for distributing birth control information. EG got the feeling that Sanger didn’t want to share the spotlight with anyone on the birth control front, but it might have just been Sanger’s unwillingness to risk association with those dreaded anarchists…

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