Rev­o­lu­tion­ary who fanned fe­male fer­vour

The Jewish Chronicle - - Arts & Entertainment - RE­VIEWED BY JEN­NIFER LIP­MAN

by Vi­vian Gor­nick, Yale Univer­sity Press, £18.99

With Oc­cupy pro­test­ers and tent cities hav­ing spread around the world i n re­cent times, it is an in­ter­est­ing mo­ment to con­sider the ef­forts of a prior gen­er­a­tion of dream­ers: the anar­chists of the late 19th and early 20th cen­turies.

From New York to Vi­enna, groups of an­gry, rad­i­cal and of­ten im­pov­er­ished in­tel­lec­tu­als met in cafés and sa­lons to dis­cuss how to throw off the chains of cap­i­tal­ism and cap­i­tal­ist so­ci­ety and to rail against the in­jus­tices of those who con­trolled them.

Among the many, one woman made a par­tic­u­lar im­pres­sion. Emma Gold­man, a pas­sion­ate an­ar­chist from her youth, be­came some­thing of a celebrity through her public speeches and writ­ings, cast by en­thralled jour­nal­ists as a wild and wicked woman as well as a cham­pion of the weak and vul­ner­a­ble.

Gold­man, as Vi­vian Gor­nick ex­plains in her fas­ci­nat­ing bi­og­ra­phy, was all those things and more. Her life was full of con­tra­dic­tions. She ad­vo­cated sex­ual free­dom but was un­speak­ably jealous when her lovers strayed; she re­jected her Jewish up­bring­ing but al­most ex­clu­sively as­so­ci­ated with oth­ers of the same back­ground; ack­ground; she wished for the coll - lapse of the United States gov­ern­ment but was per­versely at­tached to her adop­tive coun­try.

Most strik­ingly, she was a ve­he­ment in­di­vid­u­al­ist fight­ing along­side those who ad­vanced a col­lec­tivist t vi­sion of so­ci­ety.

Gor­nick’s book takes es us through Gold­man’s ’s life, from a bleak child­dhood in Rus­sia in the he 1870s to the false dawn of her ar­rival in the United States, where she was dis­traught to find a life of servi­tude in fac­to­ries await­ing her.

We fol­low her ar­rival in the heady cir­cles of anar­chism and learn how she went from an ini­tial strug­gle to prove her­self as a young woman in a male-dom­i­nated world to find her­self be­ing dis­cussed in the same bracket as thinkers like Bakunin — and re­viled in the press for be­ing a wom woman with a brain.

Go Gor­nick chron­i­cles Gold Gold­man’s af­fairs, her spel spells in prison and her even­tual ex­ile to R Rus­sia soon af­ter the es­tab­lish­ment of com­mu­nism — an ex­pe­ri­ence that tu turned her into an ea early and vo­cif­ero ous op­po­nent of M Marx­ism at a time w when his be­liefs w were gospel to the ma­jor­ity of rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies.

Much of the con­tent is not new — Gold­man was a pro­lific writer and re­mains a prom­i­nent fig­ure in Amer­i­can his­tory — but Gor­nick weaves it to­gether in an ac­ces­si­ble and en­gag­ing way.

The book is repet­i­tive at times but Gor­nick is adept at fo­cus­ing upon the hopes, dreams and idio­syn­cra­sies of one in­di­vid­ual as a way of ex­plor­ing the story of a group who truly be­lieved they could change the world. As an ex­plo­ration of fem­i­nism and rad­i­cal pol­i­tics, it’s a must-read.

It is not al­ways a flat­ter­ing por­trait. Gold­man is painted as self-ob­sessed, ab­surd and even de­luded — and Vi­vian Gor­nick makes clear that his­tory has dis­proved many of her the­o­ries.

But there is no doubt that Gold­man’s work pro­vided suc­cour for a later wave of youth­ful rad­i­cals and rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies — that of the 1960s. And with rev­o­lu­tion in the air once again, this is a timely and valu­able con­tri­bu­tion. Jen­nifer Lip­man is the deputy Com­ment ed­i­tor of the JC

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