Emma Goldman’s BookshelfFrom the Collections: The Library | Women in American History
To understand the people who've profoundly impacted history, we're exploring the books that profoundly impacted them. Here, Candace Falk, founding director of the Emma Goldman Papers research project at the University of California, Berkeley, tells us about the anarchist thinker's interest in edgy literature, passion for European plays, and deep study of the writers who shaped the U.S. Constitution.
By Candace Falk as told to Cori Brosnahan
You might be surprised to know that a lot of what influenced Emma was literature. When she was young in Russia, she read this novel by Chernyshevsky called What Is to Be Done? — Lenin actually took that title for a pamphlet he wrote later. But Chernyshevsky’s novel was about cooperative living, about people who lived together who weren’t married, who shared their money, who had interchangeable partners within their household. And this was an inspiration to Emma as a vision of another way to live. That Chernyshevsky novel was high on the list of the things she read and cared about.
Then, when she came to the U.S., she just read endlessly. At first in Russian, German, and Yiddish, and progressively more in English. She was so interested in being modern, being cutting edge. She was always going on to the next thing. There were some novels like Comrade Yetta that she liked because it was about a Jewish immigrant who came to New York. Emma identified with the immigrant experience. She never denied her Jewish roots, and actually attributed her perseverance to the perseverance of her people. But I do think she had a little bit of an aversion to all who only stuck to their own culture.
Various people who worked with her — anarchists from Austria, Germany, or Russia — gave her lists of books to read. Beauty and elegance and language were all part of what an anarchist needed to know. She read writers like Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Turgenev. She took on Emil Zola, Olive Schreiner, and Frank Harris. She read Galsworthy, George Sand, George Eliot, and D.H. Lawrence. Theodore Dreiser was important. So was Mark Twain — she appreciated him as an American humorist, with an edge.
She was close to Jack London. She really liked his stories, and admired his accessibility and commitment social justice. She even asked him to write the introduction for Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist by Alexander Berkman, her “chum of a lifetime.” London wrote an interesting introduction, but in the end, Goldman and Berkman rejected it because it kind of dissed anarchism and held up socialism as the real thing.
Of course, she was completely entranced with the theater (as a lecturer, she was quite theatrical herself). She read Ibsen and Strindberg. She loved George Bernard Shaw, who wrote Mrs. Warren’s Profession to show the economic realities that foster prostitution. Gerhart Hauptmann was also one of her heroes. He wrote the play Lonely Lives. It acknowledges the inner struggle of the person who has a vision of a better life but has to live in the world in which they exist. There’s this gap, this loneliness of being in-between and often misunderstood. Emma identified with that.
In French drama, one of the plays she liked was about Chanticleer. Chanticleer is a rooster who suddenly finds out that he’s not the one who makes the sun rise — but still has to prepare the people to meet it. I think Emma identified with that, too. The sun of anarchy was not going to rise during her lifetime, but she took it as her task to prepare people with an image of what it might look like.
Emma wanted to introduce people — in the United States, especially — to European theater, which had a stronger connection to political critique. She wrote a book called The Social Significance of the Modern Drama, which included dramatists from Scandinavia, Germany, France, England, Ireland, and Russia. She believed that the theater shouldn’t be only for the rich and the privileged. She once gave a drama lecture in a mineshaft.
She had many friends who were writers. She was very influenced in an interesting way by Margaret Anderson, an avant-garde lesbian writer, who was the editor of a literary magazine called The Little Review. Anderson took chances when she published James Joyce, Ezra Pound, William Butler Yeats, and Djuna Barnes, most of whom were considered offbeat and controversial at the time.
Emma gravitated toward edgier stuff, too. There was one novel she really liked called Three Weeks that was very out there in terms of sexuality and was banned. Emma’s magazine, Mother Earth, was a conduit for people to order hard-to-find books, including some that were banned. And there was a Mother Earth bookshop in Greenwich Village that eventually had to close because it was also a great place for government surveillance agents to catch and arrest young men who had not registered for the draft.
In terms of theory, she had a patchwork of influences. That was one of the most interesting things about her — how she would take a little bit from this person and a little bit from that person. She wasn’t a dogmatic follower of anybody, but she liked to popularize their ideas and weave them into a new fabric of her own.
From Mikhail Bakunin, she took the spirit of revolt and a strong atheist streak and ideas of anarchist collectivism. But she distanced herself from Bakunin’s economic theories in favor of Peter Kropotkin’s. She was actually very close to Kropotkin. He emphasized the right of individuals to the resources necessary to meet their basic needs — giving what one could, but taking only what one needed from the shared accumulation of wealth.
She incorporated ideas on insurrectionism from Errico Malatesta and the early Johann Most. To her, individual acts of political violence were an inevitable response to the state’s use of violence to maintain its power. What can I say? She came from Russia, where that actually did change things, and it took a while to figure out what would work here and what wouldn’t.
She also read Friedrich Engels’ The Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State. A lot of the anarchists read that. They shared the perception that marriage was an economic arrangement and the primary foundation for the concept and practice of private property.
Early American thinkers influenced her as well. She read Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine with great interest. Goldman shared their concern for protecting individual freedom and their worries about the tyranny of too much government. She incorporated ideas of civil disobedience from Thoreau, and found kindred spirits in American rebels like Wendell Phillips, and the more militant John Brown. Most of all, she celebrated the unharnessed spirit through the writings of Walt Whitman.
She lectured on Nietzsche — his theories about the centrality of individual will outside of conventional morality. She also read Freud. His assertion about the centrality of sexuality had a big impact on her. Although for Freud a lot of creativity came from a suppression of sexual urges, and for Goldman creativity came from expressing your sexual urges.
There are some people who think that she didn’t have any ideas of her own, who think she wasn’t an original thinker. That makes me upset. What they don’t get is — first of all, what’s original? If anybody could be called original, it was her. Second of all, she took it as her mission to educate people about ideas that would move them forward. She didn’t tout herself as a theorist in the way others did. She really was a public intellectual in the best sense — and reading both informed and expanded the breadth of her life and her work.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Published February 2018.