Sasha and Emma: The Anarchist Odyssey of Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman

This tale of friends, lovers and fighters for political change has epic sweep, says Robin Feuer Miller

November 8, 2012

This riveting book has a backstory that dovetails intriguingly with its narrative. The late historian Paul Avrich asked his daughter Karen to complete his project on the lifelong love and friendship between Emma Goldman and Alexander (Sasha) Berkman, who served 14 years in a Pennsylvania prison for his attempt in 1892 to assassinate Henry Clay Frick, the ruthless industrialist and art collector. To some extent, all scholarly writing is infused with the autobiographical and the deeply personal. For six years after her father’s death Karen retraced his steps, working with the materials he had gathered, observing that “It was a curious, and curiously fulfilling, way for me to experience my father’s life work after his death”. A grieving child can find solace in editing, reshaping and reading a parent’s words. Think of Mary Shelley, the daughter of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, sitting on her mother’s grave while reading her works. However isolated we feel, we live in continuing dialogue with those with whom we are closest, whether they are living or dead. The resulting palimpsest of these multiple conversations forms the fabric of each individual human life.

Such is the tender frame for the dual biography - the entwined stories - of the perpetrator of the “first terrorist act in America” and the eloquent woman radical, both Russian-born immigrants who arrived in the US as teenagers and who were deported to Russia in 1919 after the Russian Revolution. Berkman, an anarchist to the core, would remain a man without a country whereas Goldman became increasingly passionate about the US and even after her deportation considered it home.

Sasha and Emma joins a number of other recent dual biographies, including those on Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, Leo and Sophia Tolstoy, Eleanor and Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Bill and Hillary Clinton. It is compelling to read about one life as counterpoint, irritant and inspiration to another, and to trace the meanderings of love and friendship over a lifetime. This dialogic form - understanding one life in terms of another - offers a robust and vibrant way to read about the lives of others. Along the way, two stories become one.

Both Berkman and Goldman, the authors observe, were “scarred by childhoods in autocratic Russia, where dissent was possible only through rebellion…As angry young immigrants in America they were confounded by the rosy promises - and crushed by the perceived lapses of democracy - in the New World…They became warriors in what Berkman considered the first American age of terror”, even as they believed in a glorious future. But over time, “it was not their hostile pursuits but their energetic and eloquent commentary…that made a lasting impact on contemporary America”. Words matter, and eloquent words matter even more. Their lives bear testimony to that fact.

Like Lenin, as teenagers both Berkman and Goldman were transported by Nikolay Chernyshevsky’s 1863 novel What Is to Be Done?, whose hero, Rakhmetov - a “new man” without a personal life to distract or soften him - still inspires revolutionaries today. Berkman was also inspired by the nihilist Sergey Nechaev and the anarchist Peter Kropotkin - the one preaching ruthless violence in his 1869 Catechism of a Revolutionary, the other a humane, ethical anarchist. Goldman’s literary tastes were broader, and later in the US and England she was to lecture on literature and modern drama.

The story of Berkman and Goldman cries out to be a screenplay. The narrative is dramatic - complete with fleeting affairs and enduring ménages à trois imitating Chernyshevsky’s novel. Most unforgettable is Berkman’s attempt to assassinate Frick, followed by his dramatic trial and imprisonment. Goldman and his friends plotted to have him dig his way out by tunnelling into a safe house. The plot nearly succeeded - it was foiled only when the concealed entrance to the tunnel in the prison yard was blocked by a load of bricks that happened to be dumped there.

Berkman’s and Goldman’s political lives in America were shaped by the 1886 Chicago Haymarket Affair, in which a bomb was thrown at police during a labour demonstration, leading ultimately to the execution of four anarchists and the suicide of a fifth condemned man. Berkman wrote: “My vision of America as the land of freedom and promise soon became dead ashes. I realized that political freedom without economic equality was an empty sound…I became an Anarchist and decided to devote my life and energy to the cause of the Chicago martyrs.”

While gaining public recognition, Berkman and Goldman laboured as garment workers and in a photography studio. Eventually they ran a successful luncheonette in Worcester, Massachusetts featuring “Arctic cold ice-cream”, but they abandoned it during “the Homestead Affair”. That episode - a lockout in 1892 at steel mills in Homestead, Pennsylvania run by Henry Frick that led to a pitched battle between the mill owners’ hated Pinkerton guards and steel workers - is an astonishing moment in US history. This book’s minute-by-minute account of Berkman’s decision to assassinate Frick is pure cinema. Berkman describes his sensation of shame while staring at Frick’s bloody face and his fury at his own sentiments; the wounded Frick nobly resists an offer to have Berkman killed on the spot, saying “Leave him to the Law”. Later that night, a police inspector tries to prod Berkman into naming his accomplices by saying that “your friend Rakhmetov” has already spilled the beans. Berkman chuckles, because that was the alias from Chernyshevsky’s novel that he had chosen for himself.

The dramatic tension mounts through Berkman’s attempted prison escape, Goldman’s affair with Ben Reitman, “the King of the Hobos”, the 1901 assassination of President McKinley and our protagonists’ suspected association with his killer Leon Czolgosz (who proclaimed “I am an anarchist, a disciple of Emma Goldman. Her words set me on fire”). The Russian Revolution, the Sacco and Vanzetti case and other dramatic events then take centre stage. In 1919 Berkman and Goldman, along with 247 fellow radicals (including two other women) deemed dangerous, were deported on the USS Buford. J. Edgar Hoover saw them off at dawn. The last stage of their journey featured Berkman wading through deep snow at the Finnish-Russian border to announce the arrival of their sealed trainload of revolutionaries. But Goldman and Berkman quickly became aghast at what they witnessed in Russia, and after the Krondstat Rebellion was quashed in March 1921, their disillusionment was complete: “The Revolution is dead; its spirit cries in the wilderness. High time the truth about the Bolsheviki were told.”

They would spend their final years in England and Europe. Goldman also lived for a time in Canada, and was permitted just one visit to the US. Eleanor Roosevelt was a fan of her autobiography, and Goldman and Berkman mingled with a wide array of intellectuals and writers. But in 1936 Berkman, then living in France and gravely ill, attempted suicide. Goldman rushed to his side hours before he died. She would write: “I do believe Sasha never got over his failure to end Frick’s life. Once more he drew a pistol, as he had done forty-four years before. This time he turned it on himself.”

Goldman died in 1940 in Toronto. Her former lover Reitman lamented, “Emma came back to America today in a baggage car. She gave 50 years of her precious life trying to make America a better place…And the only way she could get back…was in a steel casket.”

The Authors

Historian Paul Avrich, who spent most of his career at Queens College, City University of New York, “was a kind and brilliant man and a formidable scholar, with the ear of a linguist, the mind of a detective and the soul of a philosopher. He was interested in everyone and everything, avidly quizzing each person who crossed his path. He fancied himself a bit of an ascetic (like Sasha), but possessed a true joie de vivre (like Emma),” says his daughter, journalist Karen Avrich.

She took on Sasha and Emma before her father died in 2006, drawing on his “masses of letters, general outlines, evocative photographs, descriptions of key incidents and marvellous interviews he conducted with people who knew Sasha and Emma personally”.

Asked if she or her father shared the subjects’ radical views, she observes: “He took care to stress that he was a scholar rather than an activist, but he had deep sympathy for the anarchists and their wistful dreams. I was exposed early on to unconventional thought, and so have retained a slight personal detachment from the political universe - quite useful, as I live with Mark Halperin, a journalist who covers US politics without bias.”

She adds: “My father had a particular attachment to Sasha, sparked in part by his extensive interviews with anarchist warhorses who even in very old age recalled him with affection and awe.

“I found both Sasha and Emma beguiling characters - idealistic, witty and appealing despite their maddening choices, violent actions and severe rhetoric. Their passion for the anarchist movement, for the rights of the oppressed and for each other, is an irresistible human story.”

Sasha and Emma: The Anarchist Odyssey of Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman

By Paul Avrich and Karen Avrich

Harvard University Press

528pp, £25.95

ISBN 9780674065987 and 9780674067677 (e-book)

Published 29 November 2012

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