Light and Shadows in the Life of an Avant-Guard
LIGHT AND SHADOWS IN THE LIFE OF AN AVANT-GUARD
By Emma Goldman.
AFTER the joyous ring in my last report my friends will think the tone of this epistle rather depressed, and yet my tour continues good, with a few trifling disappointments unavoidable in the work of an avant-guard.
If one has not known the sensation of passing through the rich, fragrant scenery of California and then through the deserts of Nevada, he will not appreciate my state of mind when I suddenly woke up in Hannibal, Mo. A stretch of mud along the Mississippi.
What a curious imagination must have been his, who named that dead, barren town Hannibal. There is not enough energy or spirit there to fight a chicken, let alone to deserve the name of an historic warrior. Yet this dull, gray speck of earth has a ray of gold to give it color and relieve the eye from its monotony—Comrade A. H. Garner.
Since Ibsen gave the world the giant figure of Dr. Stockmann, we have learned to appreciate the true hero in him who can stand alone, maintaining a truth against all odds. But Stockmann was never so alone as our brave comrade in Hannibal. Stockmann had the woman of his love, who, while she could not understand his spirit, yet went with him. He had his children, his Petra, herself a rebel and fighter. Last, but not least, he had Hausten, the weather-worn and rugged friend, who betrayed him not. But what must be the fortitude and courage of a man who really stands all alone in a community of densest ignorance and darkness.
Six years Comrade Garner has lived in Hannibal, an open and avowed Anarchist, holding his banner high against all odds. Verily, his is a greater heroism than that of martyrs who died for the truth.
The very idea of a meeting in that city seemed ridiculous. But who could refuse the genuine enthusiasm and zeal which prompted our comrade to shun no expense and labor to get me there?
The meeting was a fizzle, of course; still, I should not have missed the experience for anything. To know that in this great land there is one American Anarchist brave enough to defy a whole community, is an inspiration worth even the trip to Hannibal.
The patron saint of the avant-guard dwells in the lower regions. The saint of St. Louis has not yet been admitted there. That may account for his grace with the fairies. Certainly none but kind fairies could arrange a visit so cloudless and smooth as mine has been in St. Louis.
"Social functions" are rather a novelty in the life of the avant-guard; but the dear captain who steered the forlorn ship through the shoals of a middle-class luncheon and of a would-be bohemian dinner, was the brilliant editor of the St. Louis Mirror. His suave, jovial, kindly spirit could smuggle the most dangerous contraband into the enemy's camp. No wonder Emma Goldman, the fire spitter, was dined and watered by so many "nice people." Surely, people who let others work must be nice. As for themselves? Oh, they have a greater mission. That's why they came to hear how the Anarchist proposes to manage society, where a "thrifty, saving man would not be safe from his shiftless brother, if there be no law to stay him."
Such was the gist of the hundred and one questions hurled at the sinful head of the avant-guard. A luncheon served on idle questions, plenty of water and little spirit. The inspiring element was Billy Reedy, sparkling wine after a prayer meeting.
My second "debut" was at the Artists' Guild, a society composed of "respectable bohemians"—a bohemianism that compares favorably with Jack London's exploits in the East End of London as portrayed in his "Children of the Abyss." "He stood in the bread line, waited hours to be given a chance to shovel coals, had himself locked up in the workhouse," in the blissful consciousness that he can at any time go back to his lodgings, take a bath, change his linen, and eat a hearty dinner. Poverty under such circumstances is not so bad, after all.
No doubt there are among the Guilders a few who know the stress and agony of a real bohemian life; but the majority of the people who were present took their bohernianism as the flavor of life without which a middle class existence must be barren indeed.
It was, however, to the former that I addressed my remarks on "Art in relation to Life." To the few who are themselves that part of humanity who eke out a drab existence, to whom art must remain terra incognita, so long as life is forbidden them.
Life in all its variety of color, in all its fulness and wealth is art, the highest art. He who does not help to bring about such a life is not an artist, no matter if he can paint sunsets or compose nocturnes. All the truly great artists of the world have realized that: Millet, in taking the struggle of his people for his themes; Meunier, in showing the world the power of labor; Rodin, in representing the pathos and tragedy of blighted youth; Charpentier, in singing love unchained and unfettered, in Louise. Artists, the world over, have gone to the life of the people, have become one with their struggles, their hopes and dreams. Only in America the artists are commodities like everything else that has been debased by money. Is not the Artists' Guild thriving on the patronage of those whose art criterion is the dollar ?
I hope that the few who are still artists in the making (I have met a few at the dinner), will learn to appreciate their real sphere, the true relation between art and life.
My meetings in St. Louis were well attended, especially the Ferrer lecture. Genuine enthusiasm and interest in the life and works of that great man are manifested at every meeting dedicated to him.
The lecture on "The Drama" was very much apropos in St. Louis, owing to the frantic efforts of some ministers to "purify the stage." Christian purity, a deceased lady, clothed in hypocritical rags. Altogether St. Louis proved both interesting and profitable, thanks to Wm. Marion Reedy's good graces in fairyland. But I must also not forget the untiring devotion of Ada and Ben Capes, two staunch friends and comrades.
Springfield, Ill., is the seat of law-manufacture and the scene of one of the most brutal race feuds in recent years. How stupid to carry an idea of liberty and brotherhood there! But this, too, is the privilege of the avant-guard, to do stupid things sometimes.
The Chief of Police, who attempted to stop the meetings, may have been prompted by good motives. Why throw pearls before swine? Law-making and man-hunting are not likely to develop a better human breed. As to the foreign element, it is too exploited and worn-out to go to meetings or pay admission. I never wished more to be able to stay over Sunday and have free meetings, since "them ignorant foreigners" are the only material worth while in Springfield.
Detroit, Mich., was conquered after all. Alas, it was not the spirit of Robert Reitzel that helped. Of that there is no more. An erstwhile lickspittle of Reitzel, who in a foolish moment was induced to join the committee for free speech, took to his heels when he learned that we actually came to test the situation. Another whose claim to radicalism consists of silly stunts, was still more "liberal" : he kept in the background. Only one remained true to the spirit of Der arme Teufel—Conrad Pfeifer; but even he was worried lest the "mighty be offended."
The saviors of free speech in Detroit were, as usual, the single taxers, urged on by Mr. Ingram, the most spirited of them all.
Ridicule is a tremendous weapon against authority; thus Tsar Croul of Detroit may have come down from his throne for fear of appearing ridiculous. At any rate, our meetings did take place. Yet not without great loss of time and considerable expense. However, it was worth it all, not merely because of the material and moral success, but for the sake of our comrades there.
Carolus Nold, the erstwhile stormer, wastes his life in the mental atrophy of German Vereinsmeierei (club life). Too bad for the boy who could still do much in a healthier atmosphere. My visit to Detroit bears me out. Carl became rejuvenated. He threw himself with the old fire in the work, as in the days when his spirit was as young as his years.
Dear old, romantic Emma Clausen, now Dr. Clausen, s'il I'ous plait, needs but half a chance; her spirit is ever ready to break the bars of convention. What a pity a woman like Emma must live in Detroit. Such a rich nature, such abilities, withering in the desert of philistinism. Life to-day is indeed a terrible mess.
Ann Arbor! Brain producer of Michigan, hide thy face in shame!
Five hundred university rowdies in a hall, whistling, howling, pushing, yelling like escaped lunatics. How infinitely superior is the roughest element of workers, longshoremen, sailors, miners, street-cleaners. I have addressed them all, been with them all. Men with not enough knowledge to write their name, men who have been hardened and brutalized by drudgery and poverty. Yet all of them are as boarding-school girls in behavior and demeanor compared with the university rowdies of Ann Arbor, who packed the hall to create a riot. That the latter was averted is altogether due to my recollection of Ibsen's estimate of mob psychology, so wonderfully expressed in the lines of Dr. Stockmann: "Not two decent stones in the whole lot, the rest are pebbles. And yet they stood down there and yelled and swore they'd slay me-—but for deeds, for deeds, there is not much for that in this town."
These pampered parasites, not one of them with enough backbone to fight a flea; yet there they were yelling and screaming in true American democratic fashion.
My subject being Anarchism, I needed no better argument against government than that living mass nurtured and bred on law and authority, yet the first to break not only man-made law, but every human law of tolerance, kindness, and respect for the rights of others. These famous American chevaliers, who revere woman so much that their wild pushing and shoving practically endangered the lives of the women present, these defenders of property rights, who demolished everything in the hall, fell over each other to steal literature, and forced their way into the hall, although an admission was charged. The quality of these would-be students certainly speaks poorly for the professors. A course on behavior and decency would not be amiss at the University of Ann Arbor.
If not for a few students who were our hosts at a fraternity dinner and those that felt deeply the disgraceful conduct of their colleagues at the meeting, one might despair of a country whose intellectual training creates such a breed. As it is, the maniacs at my meeting may
represent but a small part of that student body. Let us hope so, at least.
The encouraging feature of the Ann Arbor experience was furnished by a group of Socialists, also students, their instructor, Wm. Boehn, and his wife, Maud Thompson.
How wonderful is the spirit of solidarity, if it can sweep away all theoretic differences in a moment of need. Stauncher friends it has never been my fortune to meet, at such a critical moment. Dear Maud Thompson. I never shall forget her terror-stricken face, when I made my way through that mad mob. Terror-stricken, not out of anxiety for herself, but for me, in that awful, trying hour at the meeting. And Wm. Boehn, no longer the cold theoretician of "scientific Socialism," as he was during luncheon, when Dr. Reitman and I were his guests, but all aglow with comradely love and sympathy, ready to fight, if necessary, for one who was but a stranger to him. And Lee White, too, stood his ground to the very end, although he was in no small danger to be swept away by those Ann Arbor maniacs. Yes, when theoretic barriers and differences are swept away, comradeship can assert itself to the fullest.
In Buffalo, N. Y., happened the miracle of all miracles. Anarchism has been heard there again. Two meetings, and "without an order of the court." Our friends will recollect the reply given to Fred Schulder when he tried to make my speaking possible. Poor Chief Regan, it must have outraged his sensitive soul, when Emma Goldman could lecture in Buffalo, after he had decreed that it must not be.
Here we found ourselves in a house divided against itself. Chief Regan using every open and underhanded way to stop the meeting; the Mayor, through his secretary, adhering to non-interference. That Secretary! What peculiar human compounds America does create. Liberal, radical, non-believer, yet bound to the spook of a New England conscience. Dreamer of great dreams, but doer of small things. A politician and opportunist, afraid of public opinion, yet recklessly waving the public aside. Certainly he had nothing to gain and much to lose in taking sides for free speech for Emma Goldman. But he stood his ground with puritan tenacity.
After the Ferrer lecture the Chief was even more frantic. His beloved holy Mary was attacked, the Catholic Church. The Mayor would listen to no entreaties. What difference which of the religious impostors is in the seat of heaven. As a last resort Catholic priests were sent to the hall keeper. ,
Two hours before the meeting our hall was refused. But Ben Reitman quickly found another hall, and the second meeting, too, was thus saved. The third had to be abandoned, all halls, barns, and stables being taken for that night. The fourth and fifth meetings were the least eventful, poor Regan having grown weary of the wild chase.
Our victory in Buffalo will be appreciated only by those who know that during the last nine years not a known Anarchist was allowed to speak in that city. During nine years Anarchism was vilified and Anarchists held up as the blackest criminals, yet not a word could be raised in protest. During nine years the memory of Czolgosz was besmirched as that of a traitor, liar, and informer. Yet no one dared to cry out against that outrage, to show that it was the police and the press who were the liars and informers, and not that boy. That I should have been able to speak in Buffalo makes the victory even greater. What if it cost us no end of anxiety; what if Reitman was made ill from the strain; what of the money even that the Buffalo campaign consumed? It was worth it all.
The most tangible result, however, is the formation of a free speech league, which will never again submit to the censorship of the last nine years.
Rochester, N. Y., the city of my inauguration into the beauties of American factory life; the place where I first learned the brazeness of American liberty. Rochester where I was made to suffer the narrow American provincialism, with its busy-body guardianship of every soul unlike its own. Here, too, it was that I understood the mockery of the legalized sanctity of the home. Rochester also, where I first beheld the light of liberty, of independence. We held three meetings. Although arranged in one day and in a wretched hall, the English meetings were exceptionally good. During my visit, I heard and met for the first time one other American contradiction—
Brand Whitlock, the Mayor of Toledo.
How strange that the author of that terrible arraignment of government, "The Turn of the Balance," a truly human document, should himself participate in the exercise of authority. 'How strange that this poet and dreamer should be a party to the ugliness of politics and political life. Yet is not all life strange? And is not the life of the avant-guard strangest of all?
Hope and joy, pain and despair! The sublime and the ridiculous, separated by one step.