Paul Avrich’s An American Anarchist: The Life of Voltairine de Cleyre | A Review

  • Posted on: 3 November 2018
  • By: thecollective

From San Diego Free Press By Mel Freilicher

The self-professed group of anarchists who comprise AK Press, a worker-run collective which publishes and distributes radical books, visual and audio media, has done a great service by reissuing Paul Avrich’s fascinating study of an American original. As Robert Helms suggests in his instructive Foreword outlining Avrich’s own background and achievements as the premier scholar of American anarchism until his death in 2006, this author “succeeded in rescuing this brilliant and compelling person from near non-existence.”

Avrich himself accounts for the relative lack of scholarly attention paid to de Cleyre, partly due to her early death in 1912 at age 45: missing WW1, the Russian Revolution, and the Spanish Civil War. A significant and popular orator, voluminous author of poetry and essays in many left-wing periodicals, and “the apostle of anarchism to the Jewish immigrants of the Philadelphia ghetto” (she learned to read and some extent to speak, write and translate the Yiddish language), Voltairine nevertheless avoided the limelight—“shrank from notoriety.” Though well known among American anarchists, she played a minor role in the international movement, traveling only twice to Europe, where she was befriended by Peter Kropotkin, and Louise Michel.

Born the year after the Civil War ended, Voltairine grew up in a small Michigan town. Both her parents were from rebellious families. Her father, Hector de Claire, named his daughter after Voltaire (she later changed the spelling of her last name). Having left his socialist family in France at age 18 for the U.S., Hector, along with his brother, fought for the North in the Civil War, for which they received American citizenship. Harriet de Claire was of old New England Puritan stock; her father had been an abolitionist in upper New York State.

From both parents, Voltairine inherited “a strong will, a stubborn nature, and keen intellect.” But little else. The family was impoverished, and her formal education stopped at 17, after more than 3 years in a Catholic convent which she described as the darkest and saddest of her life—a term of “incarceration.” At crippling expense to her freethinking father he, nevertheless, felt this was the best education available; one, which he wrote to his wife, would cure Voltai (as the family called her) of “laziness, a love of idleness, also love of trash such as Story Books.”

During the next few years, Voltairine threw her energies into the free thought movement, and remained a lifelong secularist and anti-Catholic: in growing demand as a lecturer, she also continued to write for many free thought periodicals long after atheism as her primary ideological commitment was replaced by anarchism—in itself composed of a striking variety of individuals and groups, communists and syndicalists, pacifists and revolutionaries, idealists, and adventurers. Both the anarchist and free thought movements shared a common anti-authoritarian viewpoint, their radicalism stretching back to Thomas Paine and Robert Owen.

Like many radicals of her era, her conversion was chiefly caused by the infamous execution of four anarchists framed for the bombing at the Haymarket Square mass protest: the day before, police had fired into a crowd of strikers at the McCormick Reaper Works, killing several men. Demonstrably, none of the 8 accused anarchists were responsible; 6 of them weren’t even present at the Square.

Voltairine was 19 at the time. Several years later, she moved to Philadelphia where she lived the greater part of her adult life. Several young Jewish anarchist immigrants, cigar and textile workers, asked for help with their English, and she began tutoring them after they came home from the factory. Her increasing clientele provided a meager income, augmented by lessons on piano, and on occasion, in French and mathematics (all thanks to her convent education).

Throughout these years, de Cleyre lived and worked mostly with Jews. She had hundreds of Jewish comrades, hundreds of Jewish pupils, at least two Jewish lovers, and spent her last two years in Chicago living with a Jewish couple.

Her 1903 essay, “The Making of an Anarchist,” a panegyric on Jews, states: “I have myself seen such genuine heroism in the cause of education…as would pass the limits of belief to the ordinary mind. Cold, starvation, self-isolation, all endured for years in order to obtain the means for study; and worse than all, exhaustion of body even to emaciation…Yet so fervent is the social imagination of the young that most of them find time besides to visit the various clubs and societies where radical thought is discussed, and sooner or later to ally themselves” with one or more of them.

Voltairine could be describing herself here. Indeed, a near starvation diet was considered to be a factor in her early death. Self-sacrifice and asceticism are salient traits in what Avrich reiterates was a largely joyless life. “Not that she was incapable of happiness,” he writes in his Introduction. “In her youth, her letters sparked with gaiety, and she was in general more animated and cheerful than she is sometimes depicted…Yet humor was not one of her notable attributes. For her life was touched by sadness, at times outright calamity, to allow more than temporary relief from her melancholy.”

Much of this biography fills in these sad details. Abruptly abandoned by her first love after several months, “her pain and disillusionment were shattering.” A few years later, Voltairine cut off the long hair which streamed down to her feet, and began to dress more plainly. Subsequent love affairs were never satisfactory. At one point, she and a man whom she’d put through medical school quarreled so bitterly they both took poison afterwards. Toward the end of her life, in ill health—compounded by being shot in 3 places by a former, disgruntled student—she again tried suicide, with an overdose of morphine.

Voltairine’s deepest bond was with Dyer Lum for 5 years, an accomplished writer and theoretician 27 years her senior, whom she called “her teacher, her confidante and comrade.” They were at least intermittent lovers, but always lived apart. Also a native American with ancestral roots in puritanism and abolitionism, Lum had joined the Union army, and escaped twice from Confederate prisons. “Under Lum’s tutelage, her mind developed, her outlook broadened her understanding of anarchism matured and ultimately crystallized into a coherent philosophy.”

Unlike Voltairine, Lum believed in anarchism by action. His failure to carry out a planned terrorist attack to avenge the Haymarket martyrs was one factor which led to his depression, and ultimate suicide by poison. Voltairine’s own attitude toward violence distinctly shifted after President McKinley was assassinated by a self-proclaimed anarchist, Leon Czolgosz, in 1901.

Having been sharply critical of McKinley’s expansionist policies in the Caribbean and the Pacific, de Cleyre regretted Czolgosz’ actions mainly because of the repression that inevitably followed. In Emma Goldman’s important publication, Mother Earth, Voltairine wrote, “The hells of capitalism create the desperate; the desperate act—desperately!” The wonder, therefore, is not that there should be some who strike back, but that there are not more.

Avrich illuminates the fundamental contrast of de Cleyre and Goldman who had much in common but were antithetical temperamentally. Comrades at first, Goldman was scheduled to speak in Philadelphia in 1883, but was arrested when she stepped on the platform. Voltairine, ill at the time from what had been diagnosed as “catarrh” since childhood, rose to deliver a rousing protest against the suppression of free speech. Having visited Emma when she was imprisoned on Blackwell’s Island, Voltairine participated in fundraising efforts on her behalf.

But in 1892, when Goldman’s lover, Alexander Berkman, shot Henry Frick, Andrew Carnegie’s right hand man and chief strike breaker, Voltairine was still in the camp which repudiated such actions. Although Emma continued to publish Voltairine in Mother Earth (including a posthumous issue devoted to her works), the rift between them never really healed.

Their oratorical styles are contrasted here: Emma was flamboyant and dramatic, de Cleyre “a more versatile craftsman” whose speeches were carefully written and read aloud: “I have not a tongue of fire as Emma Goldman has,” she once said. “I cannot ‘stir the people’: I must speak in my own cold, calculated way.”

Voltairine “was a true believer, a puritan who resented Emma Goldman’s ‘bourgeois extravagance,’” criticizing her tendency to stay in expensive hotels and eat expensive meals. Goldman replied, “I did not believe that a Cause which stood for a beautiful ideal, for anarchism, for release from convention and prejudice, should demand the denial of life and joy.”

Quite revealing are their different approaches to the celebration of Peter Kropotkin’s 70th birthday for which Mother Earth announced a special issue. Despite her admiration of the man, Voltairine wrote a friend, “About Kropotkin’s birthday, I really can’t enthuse. But I suppose that’s what our dilettantes have to have: birthdays, parties, concerts–anything lackadaisical and safe!”

During the spring of 1911, Voltairine’s despairing spirits were lifted by the swelling revolution in Mexico, which she enthusiastically supported in writing and speeches, especially the revolt in Baja California and the revolutionary communes which were established in Mexicali and Tijuana, taking for their theoretical basis Kropotkin’s Conquest of Bread.

Voltairine de Cleyre died soon afterwards, and was buried in Chicago beside the Haymarket martyrs. For the next few years, memorials were held in multiple cities. Avrich ends his study by quoting Will Duff’s tribute in a Glasgow ceremony: “Voltairine, I am pleased to have been your friend and comrade, for you were one of the bravest, truest, and sweetest women that ever lived. You need no stone nor funeral bell; you are tombed in the true hearts that loved you well.”


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