JEWISH CURRENTS, Autumn, 2013, pp. 68-70
Emma Goldman's "Morose Moon"
Alexander Berkman's Passionate Anarchism
by Leonard Lehrman
[This is the article the writer submitted. A slightly abridged version, without the passages in brackets, but with photos, was printed by the magazine, and posted online Dec. 25, 2013 at http://jewishcurrents.org/emma-goldman-23913].
DISCUSSED IN THIS ESSAY
Sasha and Emma: The Anarchist Odyssey of Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman
by Paul Avrich and Karen Avrich, Harvard University Press, 2012, 528 pages
A brilliant writer and analyst trying to rally public opinion against the misuse of executive power and the senseless brutalities of war, he deliberately broke the law, was convicted under the 1917 Espionage Act, and suffered prison and exile from the United States in a Russia that tolerated him only warily. Bradley Manning? Edward Snowden? No, Alexander Berkman (November 21st, 1870--June 28th, 1936), born Ovsei Osipovich Berkman to a fairly well-off Jewish family in Vilna (now Vilnius), then part of Russia. (He took the name Alexander-diminutive: "Sasha"--after moving to St. Petersburg.)
After the deaths of his parents. and the exile to Siberia of his beloved maternal uncle Maxim Natanson, who was implicated in the assassination of Tsar Alexander II, Berkman emigrated to New York City in 1888. There, first as a follower of the charismatic German anarchist Johann Most, then in consort with his cousin Modest (Modska) Aronstam and their mutual lover, Emma Goldman, he became a leading member of the anarchist movement. He edited Mother Earth (founded by Goldman) and then The Blast, until his Dec. 21st, 1919 deportation with Goldman to Russia. At the sedition trial that preceded their deportation, he trenchantly asked: "Are you going to suppress free speech and liberty in this country, and still pretend that you love liberty so much that you will fight for it five thousand miles away?"
Disilluisioned after two years in Soviet Russia, especially after the government's slaughter of the rebellious sailors at Kronstadt, Goldman and Berkman emigrated a second time in 1921. His The Bolshevik Myth appeared in 1925, and while living in France, he wrote the classic Now and After: The ABC of Communist Anarchism. Suffering from prostate cancer, he committed suicide in 1936. He was buried in Nice under the name Schmidt-Bergmann (one of his numerous aliases). A decade ago, Helene Williams and I found the handwritten record in a cemetery archive there, but the grave itself had been reused, along with so many, over time.
Berkman's most famous act, at 21, was his attempt on July 23, 1892 to assassinate the steel magnate Henry Clay Frick, for his role in the deaths of strikers in Homestead, Pennsylvania, outside Pittsburgh. Frick had locked the workers out of their steel mill jobs and imported 300 Pinkerton guards, who upon arrival were involved in a shoot-out with the strikers. There was quite a lot of popular sentiment against Frick, and against the Pinkertons; earlier that month, a Socialist Labor party mass meeting had adopted a resolution that Frick and Robert & William Pinkerton "be executed as murderers." [See Richard Drinnon, Rebel in Paradise.] To his great disappointment, however, Berkman's "propaganda of the deed," as he called his attack, which wounded but did not kill Frick, was not well received by the workers, who lost the public's support, prompting the collapse of their union by November.
Berkman received the maximum sentence for attempted murder, twenty-two years of imprisonment. He served fourteen, then another two for his anti-war efforts during World War I for a total of sixteen years, much of the time in solitary confinement. His 1912 Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist is a classic must-read for anyone interested in the subject (it can be read online at theanarchistlibrary.org/library/alexander-berkman-prison-memoirs-of-an-anarchist.) Berkman's attack on Frick also became the central focus of Living My Life, Emma Goldman's 1931s autobiography (the title was suggested by Sasha), in which Emma finally acknowledged her complicity in the assassination attempt, along with [that of] Sasha's cousin, whom both of them called "Fedya." (The name came from a character who ran off with a band of gypsies in The Living Corpse by Leo Tolstoy.)
In July, 1992, admirers of Alexander Berkman honored him in Pittsburgh on the centennial of his action. Asside from that, there has been no work of art or literature devoted entirely to him. He is, of course, featured in numerous works about Goldman, including Carol Bolt's 1974 play Red Emma and Gary Kulesha's 1996 opera based on it; Howard Zinn's play Emma (1976, revised 1987) and a 2005 opera of the same name by Elaine Fine [b. 1959] based directly on it; a 2012 rock opera, Love & Emma Goldman, by Sarah-Jane Moody and Jeremy Bleich [premiered in Santa Fe, May 2012 - with a multi-racial cast of 5 (including Emma, Sasha, and Fedya)]; and my own 1987 E.G.: A Musical Portrait of Emma Goldman [inspired (and encouraged) by Zinn], written with Karen Ruoff Kramer (viewable in its entirety on YouTube from links at tinyurl.com/LJL-EG [including the April 1987 production that inspired the first Jewish Currents article on the subject, by Carol Jochnowitz: "JEWISH WOMEN NOW: Red Emma, Red Rosa," September 1987 41:8 (452) pp26-27 - posted at http://tinyurl.com/LJL-JC8 - and the Jewish Currents Concert performance of Dec. 6, 1987. (A truncated version, Emma and Sasha, was part of the July 23, 1992 Pittsburgh event.])
The distinguished Queens College history professor, Paul Avrich (1931-2006), attending a performance of E.G. in 1987, told me he was working on something no one else had done: a monograph on Alexander Berkman. He also provided me with dozens of photographs we used in most of the 46 subsequent performances in five countries. [Next summer, Canada is to be the sixth.] Avrich's writings, based on his extensive research and interviews with anarchists -- many of whom trusted him and no one else with their first-hand recollections -- included The Russian Anarchists (1967); Kronstadt, 1921 (1970); Russian Rebels, 1600-1800 (1972); The Anarchists in the Russian Revolution (1973); The Modern School Movement: Anarchism and Education in the United States (1980); The Haymarket Tragedy (1984); Anarchist Portraits (1988); Sacco and Vanzetti: The Anarchist Background (1991); and Anarchist Voices: An Oral History of Anarchism in America (1995).
Candace Falk, Director of the Emma Goldman Papers Project at Berkeley[, which has been working diligently for decades, making her writings (published and unpublished, government surveillance, trial transcripts, clippings and over 40,000 extant letters) available to the public], observed to me that Paul Avrich was the only individual scholar who purchased their 20,000-document microfilm edition for his own research. Sadly, however, he did not get to complete his Berkman monograph, which on his deathbed he entrusted to his daughter Karen, a New York writer and editor. In an email to me this year, she described "seven years immersed in Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman-reading all of their available works and letters, scanning thousands of newspaper and journal articles, studying my father's interviews, traveling across North America and Europe (to Chicago, San Francisco, Paris and St. Cloud, London, Amsterdam, Toronto, among other places), constructing and writing" the book, Sasha and Emma.
[At our May 1, 2007 performance of E.G. at the Living Theatre, Long Island peace activist/feminist Susan Blake, who had run our slide projector (with Carol Jochnowitz running lights), voiced a concern regarding "the emphasis on Emma Goldman's life in the perspective of, and I'm afraid a little bit (in the show) in the shadow of, the men in her life." Voicing a similar concern to Karen,] I asked her whether publishing her father's book on Berkman as a joint biography of Berkman and Goldman might have resulted in denying him the complete limelight he deserved. "To me," she replied [(as indeed I could have, to Susan Blake's question)]: Sasha['s] and Emma's passion and friendship, their ideological and biographical similarities, their divergent yet intersecting paths, their unusual love and deep mutual respect, led organically to equal consideration in this biography." On page 3 of the book, she refers to Emma as "the blazing sun to Sasha's morose moon"[---notwithstanding the fact that he and she (especially she) had numerous other lovers].
[In any case, Karen Avrich has, in the words of NY Times Book Review Editor Elsa Dixler, "done her father proud."] "Paul would be very pleased," with his daughter's work Candace Falk wrote to me. Indeed there is much invaluable material in the new book [by the father/daughter team of Paul & Karen Avrich, absorbingly presented], including information on and photos never published before of the young Modska Aronstam, who changed his name to Modest Stein as he pursued a career as a commercial artist, and later helped support both Emma and Sasha, while remaining in the background. Unanswered questions still remain, of course, about topics such as Haymarket and Sacco-Vanzetti, on which Paul Avrich had copious notes and was one of the world's leading scholars. Hopefully Karen Avrich and other scholars will be able to have more to say on them after further study. [They, like Emma, are certainly worthy of attention. And so is Sasha.]
Leonard Lehrman is the composer of ten operas, six musicals, and 196 other works, to date. His anti-war feminist Khanike opera, Hannah[, the subject of his first Jewish Currents article, in April 1981], will receive its U.S. premiere Dec. 23rd, 2014 at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, where he will be offering the first course in Jewish Opera. The New Improved SUPERSPY!: The S-e-c-r-e-t Musical, which he wrote with Joel Shatzky [whom he met at a Jewish Currents dinner], will premiere at PeaceSmiths in Amityville, NY Feb. 7, 2014.
Correction: The New Improved SUPERSPY!: The S-e-c-r-e-t Musical will premiere Fri., Feb. 7, 2014 at 8pm not at PeaceSmiths but at Medicine Show Theatre, 549 West 52 St. in Manhattan, with subsequent performances there Sat. Feb. 15 at 3pm and Sun. Feb. 23 at 3pm.