Thursday, 15 January 2015

Beautiful, Radiant Things: Emma Goldman and American Anarchist Autobiography

Happy New Year, and welcome back to the postgraduate run blog for the Andrew Hook Centre for American Studies at the University of Glasgow. Yesterday, 15th January 2015, the Centre was pleased to welcome Dr. Michael Collins (University of Kent) to the seventh lecture of the Centre’s 2014-2015 seminar series. In what was an engaging and highly informative talk, Dr. Collins discussed ‘Beautiful, Radiant Things: Emma Goldman and American Anarchist Autobiography.’ This area of research developed out of a Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship Dr. Collins held at The University of Nottingham and concerns how realist fiction explores the effect of emergent theories of culture upon radical, transnational conceptions of class solidarity. Below is this listener’s brief summary of the lecture.

This 1886 engraving was the most widely reproduced image of the Haymarket affair. It inaccurately shows Fielden speaking, the bomb exploding, and the rioting beginning simultaneously

Dr. Collins began his lecture by discussing the so-called Haymarket affair, captured in the photograph above – which Dr. Collins displayed as he spoke. The Haymarket affair concerned a bombing that took place at a labor demonstration on Tuesday May 4, 1886, at Haymarket Square in the US city of Chicago. It began as a peaceful rally in support of workers striking for an eight-hour day and in reaction to the killing of several workers the previous day by the police. An unknown person threw a dynamite bomb at police as they acted to disperse the public meeting. The bomb blast and ensuing gunfire resulted in the deaths of seven police officers and at least four civilians; scores of others were wounded.

Over the next few weeks, the authorities rounded up and detained hundreds of the city’s anarchists. Eight men were put on trial for murder, the most prominent of whom were Albert Parsons and August Spies (pronounced ‘Spees’!!). Parsons led the city’s English-speaking anarchists, and Spies the German-speaking ones. These ‘Chicago Eight’ anarchists were eventually convicted of conspiracy and here is where Dr. Collins focused his attention, particularly with regard to how Gilded Age writers interpreted, reported, and disseminated news of the event. Or more generally, with this event in mind how the artist might seek to represent anarchism.

Notable figures such as William Morris, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, and Friedrich Engels all signed petitions on behalf of the condemned anarchists, but the Ohio born author William Dean Howells was virtually the only American writer to do so. The newspapers mocked him for doing so – over one of his letters, the Chicago Tribune printed the snide headline ‘MR. HOWELLS IS DISTRESSED’ – and called the anarchists Europe’s ‘scum and offal.’ After a number of the conspirators were hanged, Howells began to work on his book ‘A Hazard of New Fortunes’ – in which he effectively pours his disillusionment and anger at the event and its outcome. Here Dr. Collins is able to show how Howells challenged the paradigm of realist novels of the time, and was able to demonstrate how social logics were built atop of fundamental flaws. Refusing to engage with the Haymarket affair in his novel, Howells uses other devices to effectively render his criticism of the event in the abstract, and thus by extent, that of the state. Dr. Collins was able to really get to the crux of Howells’ intentions here, and it proved to be a very interesting segment of the lecture.

Discussing the ideas behind, and the difficulty of ensuring/translating political representation to notions of anarchism, Dr. Collins moved on to show the importance of aestheticism and style for these writers. Indeed, in what proved to be one of the most illuminating and interesting aspects of the discussion, Dr. Collins highlighted the importance of this with regard to August Spies – one of the alleged conspirators of the Haymarket affair. Spies was the first speaker at the Haymarket rally and left before its fiery conclusion. He was convicted with the other seven accused, and hanged in 1887. His final words inspired unionists and anarchists alike: ‘The day will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you are throttling today.’

As Dr. Collins highlighted, in his autobiography, Spies effectively subverts many of the common Gilded Age narrative styles – playing around with notions of birthplace etc., and using irony to parody realism. Spies chops and changes through styles, and both punctures the dominant narrative of the time and showcases his own intellect in the process. Often called ‘a somber narcissist well pleased with his own learning’, Dr. Collins points out that Spies’ works are an important starting point for considering anarchism in the Gilded Age.

Indeed, Spies’ works and ideas influenced Emma Goldman. Like Spies, Goldman believed in the idea that through anarchism you could rebuild the semblance of the state without much of the institutions/structures capitalism necessitated. According to Goldman:

Anarchism, then, really stands for the liberation of the human mind from the dominion of religion; the liberation of the human body from the dominion of property; liberation from the shackles and restraint of government. Anarchism stands for a social order based on the free grouping of individuals for the purpose of producing real social wealth; an order that will guarantee to every human being free access to the earth and full enjoyment of the necessities of life, according to individual desires, tastes, and inclinations (Goldman, Anarchism and Other Essays, p. 62).

Dr. Collins produced a really insightful talk that got plenty of us in the audience thinking about the relationship between history, culture, aestheticism, ethnography, theory, critical thinking, and more generally American Studies. Informative and engaging, Dr. Collins upcoming book (currently in print with Michigan Press) will undoubtedly be the same.

By Joe Ryan-Hume
PGR at The University of Glasgow

The Centre’s seminar series will continue with Dr. Jay Sexton (Oxford University): ‘The Most Important U.S. Company that you have never heard of.’ It will be held on Wednesday 28th January 2015 in Room 208, 2 University Gardens, at 5.15pm. All very welcome!

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