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Love, anarchy, and Emma Goldman.

Neither Alice Wexler's Emma Goldman: An Intimate Life nor Candace Falk's Love, Anarchy, and Emma Goldman strike me as an ideal way of bringing Red Emma back to life. Taken together they're fascinating, like views of a specimen through two different microscopes neither of which shows its subject whole. Falk views all action through a narrow lens: Goldman's ten-year relationship with Ben Reitman, the doctor and former hobo who became her manager and awakened her to "the sublime madness of sex." Wexler, on the other hand, focuses so closely on details--lists of contributors to Goldman's magazine, Mother Earth; notes on attendance figures at her numerous lectures; philosophical differences between Bakuninists and Kropotkinites--that the broader canvas grows fuzzy. Wexler also cuts her story off with Goldman's deportation, a decision that will thoroughly frustrate readers not planning to read two biographies. Despite its subtitle, Wexler's book is rather academic. It's a useful volume for readers already familiar with Goldman's work and the political context of anarchism, and it offers thoughtful psychological and historical commentary, but it annotates rather than illuminates.

Falk's biography, which seems to consist primarily of passionate, florid letters between Goldman and Reitman, is certainly intimate--and much livelier reading--but it turns that troubled relationship into the central fact of Goldman's story. Falk devotes only sixty of her 600 pages to Goldman's life before Ben--despite the fact that she was almost 39 when they met; had been an anarchist since she was 20; had helped her lover and lifelong comrade Alexander Berkman in his attempted assassination of industrialist Henry Clay Frick; had served a year in prison for telling unemployed workers, "If they do not give you work, demand bread. If they deny you both, take bread"; and had been accused of inspiring the assassination of President McKinley. Falk tells a different tale: "Oh, Ben, Ben, Ben!"

When Falk, with the help of her dog, Emma, discovered the Goldman/Reitman correspondence in a Chicago guitar shop nine years ago, she provided both biographers with a theme familiar to feminists: the tension between private and public, personal and political, love and work. While working on her massive, exuberant autobiography, Living My Life--still probably the best introduction to this melodramatic, self-important, oddly inspiring woman--goldman wrote Berkman:

I am writing about the life of Emma goldman, the public person, not the private individual. I naturally want to let people see what one can can do if imbued with an ideal, what one can endure and how one can overcome all difficulties and suffering in life. Will I be able to do that and yet give also the other side, the woman, the personality in quest for the unattainable in a personal sense? That's going to be the rub. But I mean to do it.

Her relationship with Reitman, a passion beyond "reason, intelligence, saneness, freedom, etc., etc.," often seemed overpowering to Goldman (at least on the evidence of what Wexler accurately calls her purple prose): "Hobo! Hobo! Hobo! What have you done to me? Why have you crept into my bones and blood? . . . Oh Ben, mean, cruel Ben. I am in agony. I do not want you to know how much I love you, know much I need you, how much I long for you. . . . You are mine, all mine. . . . Hobo I am raving. I am feverish. I am ill with anxiety. I don't think you love me." The letters to "Hobo" from "Mommy" were demanding, disappointed ecstatic and erotic; her "treasure-box" longed for his "While," longed to "give him the t-b, she is simply starved and will swallow him alive when she gets hold of him." It's easy to see Goldman the activist--the advocate of free love, "the greatest woman of her time"--and Goldman the love slave as contradictory figures. Falk speaks of "the disparity between her life and her ideals"; Wexler, who points out that Goldman's public persona was perhaps her most original creation," Adds, "To glimpse the 'all too human' (as Goldman described it) personality behind the heroic exterior is likely to be a disheartening experience." Goldman, who placed herself firmly within a heroic feminist tradition, wrote to Reitman:

Mary Wollstonecraft, the most daring woman of her time, freest and boldest exponent of liberty, of free love, the slave of her passion for Imlay. How could anyone forgive such weakness? Thus I reasoned many years ago. Today? Emma Goldman, the Wollstonecraft of the 20th century, even like her great sister is weak and dependent, clinging to the man, no matter how worthless and faithless he is. What an irony of fate.

To many Goldman admirers the publication of the Reitman correspondence will be disturbing, an unwelcome portrait of the anarchist with no clothes.

Maybe I'm just getting old--I haven't been able to find my dancing Emma T-shirt for years--but I can't seem to take any of this very seriously. For one thing, the contradictions aren't particularly sharp; no one's "heroic exterior" stands up to much scrutiny (and if it did, I think I'd find that experience disheartening). Goldman's defense of free love ("in freedom it gives itself unreservedly, abundantly, completely") meant love freely chosen, not love free of pain. Her essays on women's emancipation are often more sympathetic to men than to other feminists:

Indeed, if partial emancipation is to become a complete and true emancipation of woman, it will have to do away with the ridiculous notion that to be loved, to be sweetheart and mother, is synonymous with being slave or subordinate. It will have to do away with the absurd notion of the dualism of the sexes, or that man and woman represent two antagonistic worlds.

Her letters to newer loves (as she aged, the men in her life became younger) are not so different from the effusions to Ben: "Oh, Leon, Leon darling, do not fail me. . . . Let us drink the goblet to the last drop. Oh, Leon mine." And her life as a public figure seems remarkably consistent with her private passions. As Wexler points out, similar patterns recur in both realms: "Just as she dramatized her private life as if for public display, so too she brought to her politics an almost erotic intensity." When Goldman writes, "I have my one Great Love--my Ideal ot sustain me, nothing else matters," she is talking about anarchism, but when she says, "All my life, I have resisted it, fought it, defied it. All my life striven for the ideal, all my life," she is merely complaining about Reitman's promiscuity.

The real contradiction is between Goldman, the woman who would save the world, and Emma, who finds it hard to sympathize with her sister's grief over the death of her son. "After all he is but one of many who were sacrificed," she writes a friend. "There are greater tragedies than even David's death." She can hardly bring herself to write her sister: "When one lives in the universe, it is most difficult to speak the language of one limited part." Here may be Goldman's real loss, her real sacrifice to the public and heroic: not passion, despite her morose "conclusion that a personal love is not for one who dedicates himself to an ideal," but compassion. Yet in a sense it doesn't matter; we need our heroes and our legends. And we need them in the universe, shouting planets into stars.
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Author:Sternhell, Carol
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Nov 24, 1984
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