Love, Anarchy, and Emma Goldman

I finally finished reading Love, Anarchy, and Emma Goldman, Candace Falk‘s biography of the great anarchist and pioneering feminist. Based not so much on Goldman’s works (which speak for themselves, in my opinion, including the photographs you always see of her where she looks so strong and lucid) but on her personal life, it tells her life’s story using her ten year relationship with “king of the hobos” Ben Reitman at its crux and fulcrum, the man whose personality enabled her tours and book sales and pamphleteering, yet caused her endless sorrow and loneliness that haunted her almost until her death.

There are so many lessons to learn from Emma Goldman, and it’s easy, especially after reading this book, to focus on the sad things. The fact is, Goldman died with little fanfare, her gravestone not even accurately depicting her age, and all her utopian visions drowned in a sea of Stalinism in Russia, Franco fascism in Spain, and indifference in the United States. And her greatest love affair made her feel a failure not only because Ben could not fulfill her, but because it made her question her beliefs in the free love that she advocated.

Yet what fills me with hope for myself is that her supposed “failures” in her personal life, which in many ways she sacrificed so that she could devote herself to the greater good of her causes, have in time shown themselves to perhaps be her greatest legacy. After all, she is the anarchist who decided that the personal WAS political, her greatest quote perhaps being “If I can’t dance, it’s not my revolution!” She was a great enthusiast for the arts, for music, and for poetry, buddy buddied with Stanislavsky and bohemian types in Chicago and New York, and encouraged the sexual expression of love without risk of guilt or pregnancy. She made a best friend out of a former lover (Alexander Berkman), and showed men and women everywhere that love could be expressed outside of marriage, and that sex could be expressed outside of commitment (though perhaps commitments were preferable to random shacking up) and outside of the need for God. Even family took on a new connotation, as Emma found herself in many different living arrangements in her life, including living with former lovers and their current beaus, quite difficult even for people in this day and age.

She was also able to make lemons out of lemonade in so many circumstances. One classic example from this book is that during her deportation alongside Berkman from the U.S. to Russia, she and he were able to organize a strike amongst the passengers to enable better bread-baking during the voyage! When the least adversity strikes me, I tend to wallow in the solace of my girlfriend, booze, and an episode of Mystery Science Theater, but she was at her most productive and inspired when things were at their bleakest in her personal life.

I guess it’s good to know that one’s heroes had doubts and loneliness and failures as well (that’s perhaps why Thomas Pynchon published Slow Learner). I’m still a bit bummed out after reading this, but Goldman continues to be a hero and inspiration to me, and the fact that she had loneliness and doubts only makes her achievements that more compelling.


Oklahoman by birth. Angeleno by fate. I've been in half a dozen bands and own 25 cubic feet of old records. Thank God for Ikea shelves.

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