April 5-15, 2012

Character bio — Emma Goldman

Portrait of Emma Goldman, 1911. T. Kajiwara, photographer.

When I was in college (back more years than I am going to admit) I had a Women Who Dared calendar (surprise, surprise!). The highlighted figure for the month of January was none other than Emma Goldman and the image was the one at left from the Library of Congress.

When Jeff told me about the selection of Ragtime for this year’s season, I went back in my old “keepsake” boxes and actually found the Emma Goldman page from that very calendar emblazoned with this quote from the feminist, anarchist, social agitator:

True [human] liberation, individual and collective, lies in our emancipation from authority and from the belief in it.

Obviously Goldman, who J. Edgar Hoover called “the most dangerous woman in America,” made a deep impression on me.

Frontispiece and title page from "Anarchism and other essays" with bust portrait of Emma Goldman, 1910.

Goldman connects A Doll’s House and Ragtime.
While preparing for A Doll’s House in the fall, Goldman also appeared in my research. A prolific writer on multiple topics, in 1914 Goldman published a collection of essays, “The Social Significance of Modern Drama,” in which she explored the works written by a new wave of playwrights from Scandinavia (Ibsen and Strindberg) Germany (Hauptmann and Wedekind), France (Maeterlinck and Rostand) England (Shaw and Galsworthy),  Ireland (Yeats) and Russia (Chekhov and Gorki). Goldman saw these new dramaturgies as emblematic of new social dynamics and histories being written across Europe and Russia.

Her essay on A Doll’s House, perhaps unsurprisingly, focused on Nora’s emerging consciousness about the inequality at the heart of what she believed to be a “happy” marriage. And it is in this essay where we can see another connection between Goldman and Ragtime beyond her appearance as a historical character. Goldman writes,

Down deep in the consciousness of Nora there evidently slumbers personality and character, which could come into full bloom only through a great miracle–not the kind Nora hopes for, but a miracle just the same.  […]

For forty-eight hours Nora battles for her ideal, never doubting Torvald for a moment. Indeed, so absolutely sure is she of her strong oak, her lord, her god, that she would rather kill herself than have him take the blame for her act. The end comes, and with it the doll’s house tumbles down, and Nora discards her doll’s dress–she sheds her skin, as it were. Torvald Helmer proves himself a petty Philistine, a bully and a coward, as so many good husbands when they throw off their respectable cloak. […]

When Nora closes behind her the door of her doll’s house, she opens wide the gate of life for woman, and proclaims the revolutionary message that only perfect freedom and communion make a true bond between man and woman, meeting in the open, without lies, without shame, free from the bondage of duty.

Goldman’s writing confirmed the feeling I had as soon as I saw these two shows on our season. I couldn’t help but think of Mother’s character arc as a continuation of Nora’s (even the “events” of each piece are only twenty-five years apart). Each woman performs her given domestic role with skill and happiness until a crisis (for Nora, the revelation of her past forgery and illegal borrowing; for Mother, the adoption of Sarah and her child into the house in New Rochelle) exposes the illusion upon which their domestic harmony is built.

Goldman as constructed by Ragtime
In Ragtime, Goldman rounds out the trio of white principal female characters, each who follows a profoundly different path. If I may borrow a couple of religious references, Evelyn Nesbit is “Eve,” temptress, instrument of man’s undoing; Goldman is “Judith,” firebrand, instrument of righteous violence. In between these two extremes resides Mother, who starts the play as the embodiment of Victorian womanhood and who ends the play transformed by both personal experience and the sweep of social changes that marked the early twentieth century. Interesting to note that her marriage to Tateh marks the kind of “true” marriage of equals that Goldman describes at the conclusion of her Doll’s House essay.

Ragtime presents Goldman in the prime of her early career. By 1906 she had been jailed three times and conducted two national lecture tours, always speaking on worker’s rights never too far from collective (sometimes violent) action against industries from garment to steel, from lumber to railroad. Goldman gave her first Union Square speech in 1893 after the stock market crash and bank panic. She led a march of over a thousand strong to the square and urged them to take bread if they were hungry (many labor wages had been frozen due to the economic crisis). She was arrested, tried, and convicted of inciting a riot and served her first prison sentence (one year on Blackwell’s Island).

1901 mug shot of Goldman who was implicated in the assassination of President McKinley.

Early Life
Goldman was born in June 1869 in Kovno, Lithuania a province of czarist Russia. After the assassination of Czar Alexander II, “Jewish radicals” are implicated in the death and Russia begins a campaign of pogroms against Jewish homes and businesses. In December 1885, Goldman immigrates to the US, fleeing the oppressive and anti-Semitic Russain regime and her authoritative father. Within a year, she finds work in a garment factory in upstate New York and marries a US citizen thus gaining her own citizenship. But Goldman is quickly disillusioned with what she saw as the plutocracy (see these graphics of contemporary plutocracy courtesy of Mother Jones) at work behind the scenes in a democratic America.

When a group of anarchists were arrested for their alleged involvement in the 1886 Haymarket bombing, which left 8 Chicago policemen dead, the subsequent trial and execution of four of the men illustrated the power of the state to seize, charge, and condemn supposed “terrorists” in the name of public safety.  In 1889, Goldman leaves her job and her husband, moves to New York City and embraces anarchism as the most aggressive and demonstrative response to governmental power which itself “rest(s) on violence.” She writes for an anarchist newspaper and begins giving public speeches on workers’ rights, particularly the demand for an 8-hour work day (in contrast to the 11 and 14 hour days that were typical for adult and child factory workers at that time). All of this activity takes place before Ellis Island opens as an immigration depot in 1892.

And there were 94 years to go …

Between 1890 and her 1919 deportation, Goldman was jailed multiple times for political agitation related to labor rights, immigrant rights, and women’s rights (particularly the right to birth control and sexual freedom). She wrote pamphlets and books on an array of topics from legal history to political philosophy, sociological theory to cultural criticism.

In her autobiography, Living My Life, she described her feelings as she was sent away from America in an ironic reversal of the journey she undertook to get to America:

“the Russia of the past rose before me and I saw the revolutionary martyrs being driven into exile. But no, it was New York, it was America, the land of liberty! [..] It was America […] repeating the terrible scenes of tsarist Russia!” (pg. 11)

In progressive circles, she is remembered as a tireless advocate for women and workers. In conservative circles, she is remembered as an unrepentant and violent anarchist committed to undermining free-market capitalism.

As a testament to Goldman’s enduring connection to those who protest (peacefully and forcefully) against unfettered capitalist systems and the imbalanced political influence enjoyed by the very wealthy, the Emma Goldman Papers merged an image of Goldman at a early twentieth-century rally with those participating in Occupy Wall Street protests for their 2011 holiday card.

2011 Holiday Card of the Emma Goldman Papers site housed at the Berkeley Digital Libraries
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