EMMA GOLDMAN: An Intimate Life by Alice Wexler
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EMMA GOLDMAN: An Intimate Life

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Though limited by humdrum writing and an occasional formulaic interpretation, this is a sensible, careful attempt to reconcile anarchist Emma Goldman's heroic image and private agonies--by contrast with Candace Falk's obtuse, cut-out Love, Anarchy and Emma Goldman, above (source, however, of information on the Ben Reitman affair). Noting that Goldman (b. 1869) dismissed her upbringing as inconsequential, calling herself a born rebel, Wexler describes the conditions of Jewish life in Czarist Russia, the economic and emotional tensions within Goldman's petit bourgeois family, her conflicted relationship with her violent, abusive father--all of which contributed to a feeling of deprivation, and a taste for battle. . . which would find an outlet in radical politics (aboil in 1880s St. Petersburg), but also color her personal life. (Some of Wexler's explanations verge on YA tutelage--but as the book advances into American currents-of-thought, native and immigrant, anarchist and socialist and progressive, terrorist and anti-terrorist, her backgrounding becomes integral.) At 16, Goldman escaped with an older sister to Rochester; on her parents' arrival, she married hastily and unsatisfactorily; then, fired by the Haymarket case, she escaped permanently into the anarchist movement. Why anarchism, not socialism? The Russian Nihilists, and now the Haymarket martyrs; the color and drama, which socialism lacked; ""the absolute freedom of the individual""--and equality of the sexes. If the book has little narrative energy (no set-piece scenes, no emotional crests), it compensates with intellectual acuity--the wellsprings, and shadings, of Goldman's commitment to sexual liberation; her allegiance to extreme, Nietzschean individualism (at the expense of support for labor, of belief in the masses). And, once Goldman has entered the movement, allied herself with Alexander Berkman, taken on the role of platform propagandist, and become embroiled in controversy (Berkman's attempted, Homestead-strike assassination of Henry Clay Frick; ""anarchist"" Leon Czolgosz's assassination of McKinley; her own imprisonments), Wexler stringently examines her positions and motivations. She sees the Reitman liaison, similarly, as double-edged: tormented and manipulative, draining and energizing. Wexler is also, most welcomely, selective: where today's biographies run to mastodon compilations of minutiae, she compresses years, focuses on key episodes and aspects, concludes with Goldman and Berkman's 1919 deportation to the USSR (she would live until 1940)--leaving the reader satisfied but not sated. As for Goldman, she's undiminished for having lived precariously, for being less a model than a mesmerizing, catalyzing force.

Pub Date: Oct. 23rd, 1984
Publisher: Pantheon