Emma Goldman in San Francisco

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EVERYBODY knows that San Francisco made flowers grow out of her own ashes. But everybody does not know that San Francisco has just made stones turn into flowers in behalf of the bravest little spook smasher that ever dared the dark. San Francisco never does things by halves. If she likes you she hugs you; if she doesn’t she takes a drink and forgets you. This time she took a drink but it was in celebration of her discovery. And next year when Emma Goldman returns to take the hand of “the City loved round the world,” she will find (what she doubtless knows already) that the love and appreciation that are born of growth are the only really great tributes Life has to offer.

The lecture session began on the 4th of July under unusual and gratifying circumstances. Emma Goldman for once talked in a decent hall, decent in the sense that it was both well situated and capacious. And notwithstanding the fact that the press as usual refused to favor her with a word of notice, large and larger audiences attended nightly for twenty-four successive lectures, thereby proving that minority appreciation combined with friendly representation is a force which suppressors would do well to consider.

“The Psychology of War” led the way for a brilliant series of interpretive discourses. The initial audience was generous in numbers even though Mr. Bryan had outdone himself the greater part of the day in a futile endeavor to weary the populace. It was evident he had not touched the meat eaters who listened attentively while Miss Goldman singed the wings of patriotism and caused it to fall earthward with a sickening thud.

The next evening “The Misconceptions of Free Love” came nigh causing a panic in the breasts of certain timid persons who were overcome with dread at the thought of Cupid being turned loose. One gentleman in a fever of doubt asked Miss Goldman how she would arrange to care for all the little bastards who certainly would grace this sphere if restrictions were removed. He got his answer. He got it in a searing reference to the numberless little bastards whose wan faces decorate the panes of our handsome orphanages. Miss Goldman quoted Isadora Duncan who said that “the child cannot be legitimatized;” that its birth, its presence are the only legitimization that can be bestowed. It is a frightful manifestation to see human beings trying to twist Life into the channels of their own abortive fancy. The discussion of sex seems always to do this thing.

“Jealousy” set eyes blinking and mouth pursing. Few could follow the reasoning that advocated open windows and unlatched doors. The majority of the audience seemed to think the lad who sets fire to the hearts of mankind would lose his power to generate sparks if the evil eye of suspicion were bandaged in his sight. Meantime Cupid went cavorting around the hall laughing at the puzzled ones. That little boy must be Emma Goldman’s child. He seems so at home in her presence.

“The Follies of Feminism” brought out a troop of the faith-charged. It was written in their eyes that they believed heaven itself attainable if only decision be inscribed and dropped in a box. The hall was dotted with unconscious surprises when Miss Goldman told how the women of Colorado were the ones who had fought Ben Lindsley the hardest when he had sought via the polls to render further service to his fellowmen. She drew a life portrait of that police person, Katie Davis, showing how delicate the gentle sex is when it gets a first-rate chance to sandpaper the feelings of helpless humanity. Somehow the opinions that went out of the hall were different from those which came in. It does our sisters good to hear the truth about themselves; and to hear what a useless little plaything voting-paper is.

“The Immorality of Prohibition and Continence” stirred some of our “good” citizens to the depths. One physician rose to refute Miss Goldman by saying that the sex victims which fill our asylums are the result of incontinence and not continence. Then he had to hear what he undoubtedly knew: that incontinence is caused primarily by the continence which induces abuse, abuse being the necessary forerunner to all incontinence. Truth is nowhere handsomer than when it lights on the stoney pate of Science.

The lecture, “Monogamy or Variety, Which?” all but caused a riot because of the queries it evoked. When it came time for the questions one stately old dame who had a face like a plumber’s wrench propounded this astonishing interrogation: “Would any man here be willing to share his wife with another man?” One lone portion of male generosity rose. His nerve was cheered. Then Grandma reversed the question and tested the weaker sex. Two women stood to their guns, and one even took her hat off to emphasize her willingness to share one of Adam’s successors. It may be added she was an old maid so her apparent unselfishness should not be over-rated.

“Our Moral Censors” showed Miss Goldman at her best. Anthony Comstock and his crew of joy effacers happened to be holding forth in this City at the time so it was an easy matter to reply with fresh argument to the hypocritic Aim flam which serves such dabblers as a base. Every opportunity was given Anthony’s supporters to take the platform in his defence but not a spokesman showed himself. One skirted purist fled the hall almost as soon as Miss Goldman began, which prompted the speaker to remark that that was the way reformers usually replied—by taking to their heels.

“Nietzsche, the Intellectual Storm Center of the War” elicited a banner attendance and the keenest attention. Plainly the majority of those who came to hear that lecture had no understanding of nor interest in the philosophy of Anarchism; but they wanted to know why the man who had advocated “the Will to Power” should not be held responsible for the present carnage in Europe. Clearly they interpreted his teachings as favoring the elevation of one weakling over another, whereas nothing could have been further from the intent of the great iconoclast.

Miss Goldman pointed out that Friedrich Nietzsche’s “superman”—if he emerged at all—must emerge from a revised conception of present standards; that Nietzsche’s vision was above and beyond the concepts of today; that only through the effacement of limitation could man measure up to the height conceived by this gigantic intellect. She quoted Nietzsche’s “Thus Spake Zarathustra” to show not only his attitude toward the uniformed brand of debility we term “aristocracy,” but also his healthy contempt for the buzzing satellites that know only how to whirr but never how to whack. No one having heard Miss Goldman’s interpretation could longer list Nietzsche on the side of short-sighted aspiration. She made plain that he stood for the fathoming of depths which at present are hardly conceivable; and that those who dispute this fact prove merely that they do not understand Friedrich Nietzsche.

At the conclusion of the lecture series only a portion of which I have been able to touch upon there occurred in San Francisco an event of the first importance. Emma Goldman not only spoke in respectability’s sanctum. She did so by invitation. The feat was due to the grit and tenacity of a little man named Power who demonstrated that size is of no importance where courage and purpose prevail. Mr. Power was in charge of the Religious Philosophies’ Congress holding sessions in San Francisco’s new Civic Auditorium and he took upon himself the responsibility of having Emma Goldman speak on the philosophy of Atheism. Single-handed he pitted his determination against the frock-coated variety of will power and won to the tune of bravos which must echo in his ears for many a day to come.

Miss Goldman’s entry in convention’s stronghold was a thing to warm the heart of an Esquimau. Cheer after cheer went up as she picked her way past the dense crowd which tested the hall’s capacity. Many were her friends but not all. There was more than goodly showing of the type which waits for the placard of approval to be hoisted before it gives vent to expression.

A minister was to have presided but he was sick or away or busy or something so a member of the newspaper fraternity officiated in his stead. Miss Goldman made a laughing reference to her plight. She likened it to being between the devil and the deep sea—from the arms of the clergy to the tender mercies of the press. It was a touching reference and the audience appreciated the sally.

Miss Goldman said that while she was not officially connected with the Rationalist organization she felt that being an Anarchist qualified her to speak since the Anarchists respected no authority, be it from heaven, hell or the earth. She attacked all Gods declaring that the brand made no difference—they all stood for the same thing: the subjugation of the human mind to the idea of power. She answered Nietzsche’s query, “Is man only a blunder of God? Or is God only a blunder of man?” by saying that God was undoubtedly the “blunder.” She proved reliance on Gods to be a bigger blunder when she sighted the trenches of Europe, the shops, factories and prisons of this and other countries in proof of the impotency of cloud bosses.

Miss Goldman drew attention to the “industry” of religion which she said is a far more pernicious industry than even the making of munitions since its aim and accomplishment is to befog the human mind. She said man’s belief in an external power had kept him from discovering himself; and she recommended that he first destroy the phantoms of his own creation in order that he might build anew a civilization which would make this earth a fit habitation for mankind. Miss Goldman further recommended that heaven, by deed of gift, be presented to God and the angels; and that for good measure the priests, preachers, rabbis and other useless paraphernalia be thrown in. A rabbi sat on the platform when this resolution was submitted and if faces indicate anything, he didn’t at all take to the notion of being dispatched heavenward.

Miss Goldman concluded with a plea for the visible world as against the flatulent promises of a sphere beyond. She said that all the atheists wanted was the earth, the right to sow and reap the fruits of their toil without paying toll for the privilege of existence. She held all religions up as the mirrors of man’s imperfections and declared that only when man ceased to look for guidance from without would he find his salvation in the font which springs from within.

As the speaker left the platform the audience in a tempest of acclaim signified its unqualified accord with the spirit which whisks shams to the winds. The atmosphere of the Auditorium, ordinarily staid, of a sudden became transformed with the feeling and color which effervesce spontaneously wherever Life quickens. There was no mistaking the attitude of even those who had come to sneer. They plainly had remained to cheer.

As Miss Goldman made her way past the throng, the friend who walked with her could not help thinking: What if it did take twenty-five years? It was worth it.

David Leigh, “Emma Goldman in San Francisco,” Mother Earth 10, no. 8 (October 1915): 276-281.