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Socialism: Whitman and Emma Goldman

Whitman’s influence has been surprisingly far-reaching. He was the model for Bram Stoker’s Dracula1, his lifestyle was adopted by the Beat movement including Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac2, and many in the literary world consider him to be “America’s Poet” in the words of Ezra Pound3. However, his influence went beyond the world of literature and into the world of politics. Whitman’s egalitarian philosophy with respect to religion, sexuality, gender and race touched many a political activist, where equality for all is a commonality.

One such activist is the self-proclaimed atheist and anarchist Emma Goldman. Described during her life as “the most dangerous woman in America” by many4, she first came into contact with Whitman’s work while serving a year-long prison sentence for inciting a riot during a demonstration against unemployment in 18935. Among other American activist-writers such as Emerson and Thoreau, she read Whitman’s Leaves of Grass6. Other than this, however, she had absolutely no contact with Whitman. While they were contemporaries, Goldman was only in the United States for the last ten years of Whitman’s life.


She may have related to Whitman because of her similar views on certain issues. She shared the nearly unheard of view—even among anarchists—that homosexuals deserve the same rights as heterosexuals7, writing in numerous letters and speeches in the defense of gay rights. And, while Whitman was influenced by deism, he was skeptical of religious institutions and held no faith to be greater than any other; an atheist by declaration, I believe Goldman felt connected to Whitman’s sentiment regarding religion even as she vehemently denied the existence of G-d8.


But, that is essentially where the similarities end. While Whitman believed in a close relationship between poetry and society9, Goldman held a hypocritical view of activism in which violence that served her purposes was acceptable10 while even non-violent actions undertaken by those opposed to her were tyrannical and oppressive11. She helped conspire with her lover to murder the industrialist Henry Clay Frick, begging him to allow her to participate12; she also expressed approval of the ideals behind the assassination of President McKinley13. She organized strikes and demonstrations, often attempting to incite the participants to violence or disruptiveness14.


However, despite her wildly hypocritical views on appropriate tactics, she—like Whitman—had fairly far-reaching influence. Her work in women’s rights led to the creation of anarcha-feminism, which regards patriarchy as an establishment to be resisted. Goldman is often cited as the movement’s founder15. In the same light, her incessant championing of her ideals in the face of multiple arrests influenced the founder of the ACLU, Roger Baldwin16.


And so, while she did not have direct contact with Whitman, she may have felt that he was in league with her given his views on certain issues. Whitman has a way of conjuring his presence through the page, which Goldman may have sensed and used to bolster her belief that he would have supported her actions. Indeed, she included his poems in her self-published magazine, Mother Earth, and eventually wrote an essay on him in which she linked the deep meaning of his words to his homosexuality17. However, despite similar views on a limited number of topics, Whitman and Goldman could not be much more different in personality, tactics, and political views.


1Nuzum, Eric. The Dead Travel Fast: Stalking Vampires from Nosferatu to Count Chocula. Thomas Dunne Books, 2007: 141-147.

2Loving, Jerome. Walt Whitman: The Song of Himself. University of California Press, 1999: 181.

3Pound, Ezra. “Walt Whitman”, Whitman, Roy Harvey Pearce, ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1962: 8.

4Avrich, Paul. Anarchist Voices: An Oral History of Anarchism in America. AK Press, 2006: 45.

5Wexler, Alice. Emma Goldman: An Intimate Life. New York: Pantheon Books, 1984: 76.

6Ibid, 78-79.

7Katz, Jonathan. Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the U.S.A. New York: Penguin Books, 1992: 376-380.

8Goldman, Emma. “The Philosophy of Atheism”, Mother Earth. Self-Published, 1916.

9Reynolds, David S. Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography. New York: Vintage Books, 1995: 5.

10Goldman, Emma. Living My Life. 1931. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1970: 88.

11Goldman, Emma. Anarchism and Other Essays. 3rd ed. 1917. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1969: 79.

12Id., note 10

13Id., note 11

14Ibid., note 5, p. 91

15Marshall, Peter. Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism. London: HarperCollins, 1992: 409.

16Finan, Christopher M. From the Palmer Raids to the Patriot Act: A History of the Fight for Free Speech in America. Boston: Beacon Press, 2007: 18.

17Ibid., note 11 – I could not actually find the book or the essay, but I found a reference to it in this work

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