Emma Goldman life and biography

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Emma Goldman biography

Date of birth : 1869-06-27
Date of death : 1940-05-14
Birthplace : Kovno, Lithuania
Nationality : American
Category : Politics
Last modified : 2010-07-16
Credited as : Political activist, writer,

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Emma Goldman, born June 27, 1869 in Kovno, Lithuania - died May 14, 1940 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada was an American political activist and writer.


Although thousands of pages of biographical material have been written on early twentieth century political activist and writer Emma Goldman, the infamous anarchist's own publications provide forthright insight into her personality, convictions, and turbulent public and personal life. A Lithuanian immigrant who became one of the most vilified women in America for her progressive opinions, Goldman lived during an era of significant international social and political flux before she died during World War II. Born in 1869 in what was then part of the Russian empire, Goldman escaped an arranged marriage by emigrating to the United States with her sister at the age of twenty.

As she recounts in her 1931 autobiography Living My Life, the conditions Goldman encountered working in garment factories during her first few years in New England, combined with a pronounced rebellious streak, excited her interest in anarchist politics. She was especially fond of the ideas of Johann Most, one of the nineteenth century's foremost names in the anarchist movement. The young woman was also moved by the executions of eight Chicago anarchists convicted of throwing a bomb into a crowd of police in an 1886 labor-related incident known as the Haymarket Riot. After her marriage to another worker failed, Goldman moved to New York City in 1889 in order to pursue further her political ambitions.

In New York City Goldman met Alexander Berkman, or "Sasha," who was to become her partner for several years and a lifelong friend. Again she worked in factories while occupying her spare time with union organizing, writing, and making speeches, and becoming involved with a variety of radical causes with Berkman; the two also owned an ice cream parlor for a time. During a particularly acrimonious steelworkers strike that took place in Pittsburgh in 1892, Berkman attempted to assassinate the chair of the company, magnate Henry Clay Frick. As Goldman recounts in Living My Life, Frick survived, but Berkman was sentenced to twenty-two years in prison, and served fourteen. The particulars of this incident "she tells with a frankness and wealth of detail which reveal both the idealism and futility of [these]. . .passionate young revolutionists," noted founder of the American Civil Liberties Union Roger L. Baldwin in a review of Goldman's autobiography for New York Herald Tribune Books. Later, when Most--Goldman and Berkman's former mentor--denounced the assassination attempt in a public speech, Goldman stood up in the crowd and lashed him with a whip across the face.

The Frick experience and the public vilification she suffered for her part in it strengthened Goldman's resolve to fight against injustice, as she recounts in Living My Life. Scorn from the press, which called her "Red Emma," did little to quell her convictions, her personal belief that the status quo could be altered to bring a more equitable standard of living to the poor and oppressed. She carried on the spirit of Berkman's work during his prison term. "All the later events with which anarchists were identified," wrote Baldwin of Living My Life in the New York Herald Tribune Books review, its author "illumines with detail and comment and revelations which appear in these pages for the first time. She spares nobody, herself least of all." When Goldman gave a speech to the unemployed in New York City in 1893, telling them that if faced with starvation, perhaps they should consider resorting to violence to survive, she was arrested and sentenced to one year in jail. In prison she worked as a nurse and upon her release decided to study the field further. To do this she went to Austria in conjunction with a general lecture tour of Europe, and trained for a time at a hospital in Vienna.

During Goldman's year abroad in 1895 she was exposed to a variety of new artistic and literary movements that were being grouped around the term "modern," and was particularly entranced by the plays of modern dramatists like George Bernard Shaw and Henrik Ibsen. Goldman journeyed to Europe again in 1899, and upon returning to New York City began work as a nurse while continuing her political activism and lectures. She also tried her hand at committing some of her ideas onto paper, with the resulting debut volume Anarchism and Other Essays, a collection of short pieces on a variety of radical topics that appeared in 1910. Writing of women's inequality, Goldman opined in one passage that "the misfortune of woman is not that she is unable to do the work of a man, but that she is wasting her life force to outdo him, with a tradition of centuries which has left her physically incapable of keeping pace with him. . . . Her development, her freedom, her independence, must come from and through herself. First, by asserting herself as a personality, and not as a sex commodity. Second, by refusing the right to anyone over her body; by refusing to bear children unless she wants them."

In critical assessments of Anarchism and Other Essays, both Goldman's contemporaries and later scholars praised the power of her convictions evident in her words. In The Bookman, reformist writer Hutchins Hapgood wrote shortly after its publication that Anarchism and Other Essays "will help the public to understand a group of serious-minded and morally strenuous individuals, and also to feel the spirit that underlies the most radical tendencies of the great labour movement of our day." In conclusion, Hapgood asserted that "the literature of anarchism is slight and inadequate. It is difficult to appreciate what anarchists are like through their written words. But to their written words this volume of Emma Goldman's is an important contribution."

Goldman also began writing on a more full-time scale when she founded the radical journal Mother Earth. She later turned over the editorship of it to Berkman, now released from prison, and with him at its helm Goldman was free to pursue other areas of interest--especially a love of drama. In 1914 Goldman's treatise on modern theater, The Social Significance of Modern Drama, appeared in print. In it, she examines the works of playwrights like Shaw and Ibsen, as well as that of August Strindberg and Leo Tolstoy. Such dramatists, she wrote in the introduction, "represent the social iconoclasts of our time. They know that society has gone beyond the stage of patching up, and that man must throw off the dead weight of the past, with all its ghosts and spooks, if he is to go foot free to meet the future."

In The Social Significance of Modern Drama, Goldman held that modern drama presented everyday themes to which intellectuals and proletariat alike could relate, such as family conflicts, economic hardships, and anti-authoritarian youth. Plays like this, she believed, had the true power to awaken social consciousness. Such "creative work," Goldman noted in her introduction, "which with true perception portrays social wrongs earnestly and boldly, may be a greater menace to our social fabric and a more powerful inspiration than the wildest harangue of the soapbox orator." Van Wyck Brooks, discussing The Social Significance of Modern Drama in The Confident Years: 1885-1915, called it "the first book of the kind to appear in English." Contrastingly, Goldman's posthumous biographer, Richard Drinnon, faulted Goldman's tome for the author's lack of literary knowledge, "which would have enabled her to ferret out subtle and implicit meanings," as he noted in Rebel in Paradise: A Biography of Emma Goldman. Structuring the book from a political standpoint, Drinnon declared, "in the end . . . amounted to little more than homily-hunting."

Goldman again ran afoul of U.S. authorities in 1917 when she was charged for trying to obstruct the draft effort when the country was mobilizing for entry into World War I. She served two years in prison and was then deported, along with Berkman, to Russia in 1919. Yet this was seen by the pair as a welcome opportunity to observe firsthand, and perhaps even participate in, a full-scale socialist revolution. Upon arriving, Goldman was invited by Bolshevik leaders to travel across the country to collect memorabilia for the Museum of the Revolution. In this capacity she encountered many surprises that dismayed her, and she wrote of them in two books: My Disillusionment in Russia, published in 1923, and its companion volume, My Further Disillusionment in Russia, which appeared the next year. Both tomes were published together in 1925 as My Disillusionment in Russia. To Goldman the Bolshevik Revolution had lost sight of its original goal, to unchain the Russian people, both peasants and proletariat, from the abominable living conditions engendered by capitalism, the monarchy, and vestiges of a medieval feudal system. In trying to create a new society the Bolsheviks made enemies, eventually becoming so enmeshed in maintaining power that within a few years the original revolutionary goals had been forgotten and by 1919 civil liberties were almost nonexistent. As Goldman lamented in My Disillusionment in Russia, "I saw before me the Bolshevik State, formidable, crushing every constructive revolutionary effort, suppressing, debasing, and disintegrating everything. Unable and unwilling to become a cog in that sinister machine, and aware that I could be of no practical use to Russia and her people, I decided to leave the country."

Goldman penned My Disillusionment in Russia after spending two years in Russia, and the publication of the dual volumes was greeted with cheers by conservative elements who had dismissed the Bolshevik Revolution--and derision by Goldman's fellow radicals, some of who had difficulty in believing that what they had so fervently supported was now going awry. When the newspaper articles that were the origin of Goldman's book first ran, the American writer and liberal Upton Sinclair wrote in the journal Appeal to Reason, "I wonder how Emma Goldman will manage to stomach the chorus of applause which rises from the capitalist press of the United States as it reads her daily series of articles." Dorothy Brewster, writing in The Nation, drew a parallel between Goldman's experiences as a Jewish Lithuanian youth in both Russia and in bordering Prussia, a German land that harbored a deep resentment toward its giant easterly neighbor. Brewster wondered if Goldman's German schooling had not instilled in her a prejudice toward Russians that surfaced between the lines of her book.

Rebecca West was one of the few prominent liberals to defend Goldman and her opinions, pointing out in an introduction to Goldman's memoir of revolutionary Russia that "it cannot be doubted that all her temperamental bias was towards approval of the Bolshevist Government, and that only contact with an extremely unpleasing reality would have disenchanted her." The noted journalist and literary critic H. L. Mencken, a long-time supporter of the anarchist, critiqued My Disillusionment in Russia and remarked, "Goldman is too indignant when she discovers that the chief Bolsheviks, like all the rest of us, are animated by intelligent self-interest--that when there is starving to be done they prefer to let the muzhiks do it." Yet Mencken urged readers to experience her writings firsthand: "They reveal a woman of wide and deep culture, a graceful and urbane writer, an idealist of a rare and often singularly winning sort."

In her preface to My Disillusionment in Russia, Goldman admitted that "friends whose opinion I value have been good enough to suggest that my quarrel with the Bolsheviki is due to my social philosophy rather than to the failure of the Bolshevik regime. As an Anarchist, they claim, I would naturally insist on the importance of the individual and of personal liberty, but in the revolutionary period both must be subordinated to the good of the whole." Countering this, Goldman asserted that she considered anarchism to be a constructive force--not a destructive one as the Bolshevik methods seemed to be. During the rest of the 1920s, Goldman continued with her lecture tours and activism in Europe since she was forbidden to enter U.S. borders. She lived for a time in France and later England, marrying a Welsh coal miner to gain citizenship. When the Spanish Civil War broke out, pitting fascist forces against liberal elements, Goldman took up the cause by working in Spain and raising money through lecture tours elsewhere. Mencken even used his clout to have U. S. authorities grant her a ninety-day visa so she could tour the United States to raise money. Yet Goldman's health was beginning to fail, and a few years later, in 1940, she died at the age of seventy in Toronto, Canada, after complications from a stroke. Her body was permitted re-entry one final time, this time for burial in a Chicago cemetery near the tombs of the eight Haymarket anarchists executed in the 1880s.

Several volumes of Goldman's collected writings, including papers and correspondence, have appeared posthumously in the decades since her death. One such work is Nowhere at Home: Letters from Exile of Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, published in 1975. The work reproduces the correspondence between the former lovers and committed radicals over a two-decade period, from 1919 to 1939. It was an era between world wars when anarchism, the movement to which Goldman and Berkman had been so long committed, had fallen out of favor with liberals; at the same time, its antithesis, fascism, was the political force behind several new players on the world stage, most notably, Germany, Italy, and Spain. In later letters, Goldman and Berkman discuss international events and the failure of their ideals, with Goldman declaring "that hardly anything has come of our years of effort." Berkman concedes that "there is either something wrong with our ideas (maybe they don't fit life) or with our mode of propaganda for the last forty years." The scholar Eva S. Balogh, examining Nowhere at Home for the Yale Review, called the work "engrossing reading. It is a document of human hopes and disappointments and a tribute to two lonely persons' struggle against injustice, oppression, and corruption."

In 1983 a collection of letters Goldman wrote from Spain during its Civil War were published under the title Vision on Fire: Emma Goldman on the Spanish Revolution, edited by David Porter. In her correspondence, she chronicles the actions of the militant rebels as well as the truly cooperative spirit of revolutionary ideals she found among the people. To Goldman, the isolationist 1930s, during which countries like the U.S. were loathe to become embroiled in conflicts on foreign soil, were in part responsible for the victory of the fascist forces in Spain. San Francisco Review of Books critic Michael Kimmel, while faulting Porter's introductions to each missive, called Vision on Fire "valuable for what it tells us about. . .Goldman and about Spain."

The 1931 autobiography Living My Life remains a favorite among scholars of Goldman. When writing it in the mid-1920s, she had asked friends and comrades to gather up the correspondence she had sent them over the decades, and utilized her own words as source material. The work "remains the most vibrant of her books," wrote Paul Berman in a 1975 article for the New Republic. "The force of her rebelliousness comes through--never cranky, sometimes arrogant and florid, but powerfully felt and perfectly fitted to her libertarian ideal." Novelist Waldo Frank, writing for the New Republic upon publication of Living My Life in a set of two volumes in 1931, saw a fitting parallel in structuring it this way. The first tome could "be called the premise of anarchism: there are really born in the world persons instinctively good, whom the complex tissue of laws tortures and maims," Frank contended. "Volume Two is the conclusion of anarchism: the fate of such persons in the real world that persists."


Born June 27, 1869, in Kovno, Lithuania; emigrated to the United States, December, 1885; died of complications from a stroke, May 14, 1940, in Toronto, Ontario, Canada; buried in Chicago, IL; daughter of Abraham (a theater manager and grocery store owner) and Taube Goldman; married Jacob Kershner (a factory worker), February 1887 (divorced; remarried; separated); married James Colton (a miner), c. mid-1920s. Education: Studied nursing and midwifery in Vienna, Austria, c. late-1890s. Politics: Anarchist.


Political activist and writer. Worked in a glove factory in St. Petersburg, Russia, and in clothing factories in Rochester, NY, and New Haven, CT, 1885-89; became involved in anarchist activities in the New York area, 1889; worked in a series of factories in New York City; proprietor (with Alexander Berkman) of an ice cream shop in New England, early 1890s; sentenced to and served one year in prison for advocating violence among the working classes; nurse and midwife, c. 1891-1919; Mother Earth magazine, New York City, founder, 1906, and editor, 1906-17; worked as a full-time lecturer and activist in the U.S. for a variety of causes, including free speech and women's reproductive rights, until 1917; sentenced to and served two years in prison for obstructing operation of the Conscription Act, 1917; deported to Russia, 1919; raised money for the Loyalist cause in the Spanish Civil War, late 1930s.


* Anarchism and Other Essays (essays; with a biographic sketch by Hippolyte Havel), Mother Earth Publishing (New York, NY), 1910, revised edition, 1911, revised edition, 1917; 1910 edition reprinted by Kennikat Press (Port Washington, NY), 1969; 1917 edition reprinted with an introduction by Richard Drinnon, Dover Publications (New York, NY), 1969.

* The Social Significance of Modern Drama (criticism), R. G. Badger (Boston), 1914; reprinted with an introduction by Harry G. Carlson and preface by Erica Munk, Applause Theater Book Publishers (New York), 1987.

* My Disillusionment in Russia (memoirs), Doubleday (Garden City, NY), 1923.

* My Further Disillusionment in Russia (memoirs), Doubleday, 1924, reprinted with first volume with an introduction by Rebecca West as My Disillusionment in Russia, C. W. Daniel (London), 1925, reprinted with introduction by West and biographical sketch by Frank Harris, Crowell (New York, NY), 1970.

* Living My Life (autobiography), Knopf (New York, NY), 1931 reprinted, G. M. Smith (Salt Lake City, UT), 1982.

* The Traffic in Women and Other Essays on Feminism, with a biographical sketch by Alix Kates Shulman, Times Change Press (New York, NY), 1971.

* Red Emma Speaks: Selected Writings and Speeches (essays, lectures; compiled and edited by Alix Kates Shulman), Vintage Books (New York), 1972, reprinted as Red Emma Speaks: An Emma Goldman Reader, Random House (New York, NY), 1983; 3rd edition, Humanity Books (Amherst, NY), 1998.

* The Psychology of Political Violence, Gordon Press (New York, NY), 1974.

* Nowhere at Home: Letters from Exile of Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman (letters), edited by Richard and Anna Maria Drinnon, Schocken Books (New York, NY), 1975.

* A Woman without a Country, Cienfuegos Press (Sanday, Scotland), 1979.

* Vision on Fire: Emma Goldman on the Spanish Revolution, edited and with an introduction by David Porter, Commonground Press (New York, NY), 1983.

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