Monday, March 25, 2013

Emma Goldman Returns to America by Paul & Karen Avrich

Much as Goldman enjoyed living in St. Tropez, she yearned to return to the United States, the country in which she had first become an anarchist. The months she spent in Canada, so close to her former home, only sharpened her longing. She often expressed this desire to her comrades, and viewed the United States as the ripest earth in which to plant her anarchist ideas. “Oh, Sasha dearest, if only I could be in America now,” she wrote Alexander Berkman in 1932. “For another five years intense activity I would gladly give the balance of years still left to me.”

To Emma, America was “the land of the Walt Whitmans, the Lloyd Garrisons, the Thoreaus, the Wendell Phillips, the country of Young Americans of life and thought, or of art and letters; the America of the new generation knocking at the door, of men and women of ideals, with aspirations for a better day; the America of social rebellion and spiritual promise, of the glorious “undesireables” against whom all the exile, expropriation and deportation laws were aimed. It was to THAT America,” she declared passionately, “that I am proud to belong.”

Over an extended period she pursued her quest to return, seeking the help of powerful friends, including American Civil Liberties Union founder Roger Baldwin.

The authority to grant permission for an anarchist deportee to reenter the country rested with the secretary of labor, Francis Perkins, and on December 27, 1933, Baldwin informed Emma that he had opened channels with Colonel Daniel W. MacCormack, the commissioner general of the Immigration and Naturalization Service. “One will do whatever he directs, because he is really speaking for Miss Perkins and the President. As a matter of fact,” Baldwin added, “I happen to know that Mrs. Roosevelt read your book [Living My Life] with great interest. She spoke highly of it to a friend of mine.”

Emma wanted Sasha to apply for a visa and come with her, but he would have none of it.  He did not share her confidence that America now would be more open to her ideas.  Berkman never felt the pure, sentimental tug of a homeland or missed his adopted nation – he cared about his anarchist creed, not any one country. His experience in Russia and his passport problems in Europe had only made him more hostile to government bureaucracy.  Moreover, a significant portion of his years in America had been spent suffering in prison, the resulting trauma a lifelong burden whereas Emma, despite dealing with persecution and frustrating obstacles, had enjoyed decades of lectures and laurels, travels and revelry, comforts and kindnesses.

Roger Baldwin was aided in his efforts on Goldman’s behalf by a “committee,” said Emma proudly, “consisting of the best known people in art, letters and the liberal movement,” including Sherwood Anderson, John Dewey, Sinclair Lewis, Margaret Sanger, and John Hayes Holmes. It was organized by activist Mabel Carver Crouch.

The group directed a flurry of letters to Secretary Perkins pleading for Emma’s homecoming. “I am very sure, Miss Perkins,” said Sherwood Anderson, “we both look upon her as a great old warrior and I hope there will be some way – without too much noise – of letting her come back into America. Educational reformer Dorothy Canfield Fisher noted that Goldman wanted to return “for the purpose of giving some public lectures.  The cause of freedom of speech could not be, I feel, better served than by allowing this serious woman to address American audiences,” she said.  Eugene O’Neil assured Perkins that “Miss Goldman has the admiration and respect of many of the leading citizens in this country, and thousands would welcome her re-entry to this country.”

Along with this glittering deluge of entreaties, Baldwin negotiated the delicate details of the agreement. The government issued a rigid requirement that Goldman offer no lecture or remarks of a political nature though the parameters of this directive were hazy.  In fact, Emma had always been one if not the  most exciting and accomplished public speakers of her age. Her standard repertoire included speeches on drama, the arts, and her autobiography; also anarchism, Communism, and lately, conditions in Germany, the rise of Nazism, the threat of Adolf Hitler, and fascism in Europe.  Even her tamest topics could veer into the controversial, and whether Living My Life should be characterized as literature or politics was a matter of some debate.

Baldwin advised Emma to engage A.L. Ross to argue on her behalf and Ross went to Washington D.C., to handle the legal aspects while Baldwin dealt directly with the administration.  Shortly thereafter, Ross cabled Goldman with the good news. Her application had been approved; she would be allowed to remain in the country for ninety days, beginning February 1, 1934.

Emma’s return was met with curiosity but little outcry; President Roosevelt’s America was a rather different place from the country from which Emma was deported in 1919.  Lecture agencies immediately offered to represent her, and a number of groups signed up to hear her speak.  Many in the public now regarded her as a bold woman with a complicated past, rather than a chilling specter of chaos. Even so, nor everyone was pleased with “Red Emma’s” reappearance.  Editorials objecting to the visit ran in newspapers around the country, and some irate citizens took pains to make their sentiments known.

“I believe her to be a grave menace to this country,” wrote Murray Miller to Eleanor Roosevelt. “The assassin of President McKinley said it was her influence which induced him to commit that atrocious crime. I am afraid that she may have designs upon the life of our beloved President Roosevelt. He is accomplishing so much wonderful work that anarchists do not want this country to regain its former prosperity. It would be her first thought, I suggest, to remove him, or have it done.”

“Thank you very much for your solicitude and interest in the President,” replied Mrs. Roosevelt. “He is very carefully protected and, in any case, Emma Goldman is now a very old woman. I really think that this country can stand the shock of her presence for ninety days. I appreciate your writing, however, and hope you have not been unduly alarmed.”

When the day came, Emma took the train from Toronto to Niagara Falls and continued on to Rochester where she was reunited with her extended family of siblings and their children, and greeted by crowds of friends, admirers, reporters and photographers.  Whereas once” ‘Red Emma’ was a name to frighten little children,” said one reporter, now she looked “like a motherly housewife or perhaps the president of the library committee of the local women’s club.”

Her modest appearance aside, Goldman was blunt as ever. “My views have not changed,” she announced in Rochester. “I am still an anarchist. I am the same. The world has changed – that’s why I haven’t had to.  Everyone is an anarchist who loves liberty and hates oppression.  But not everyone wants it for the other fellow. That is my task; I want to extend it to the other fellow.” Emma flatly denied that while on tour she would avoid topics of politics or the economy – “I promised nothing” – and pronounced herself free of resentment for all that had befallen her.  “I believe in the principle of letting people think for themselves,” she explained, “so why should I be bitter?” “ The fires have cooled somewhat in the years, wrote one reporter, “but they still burn.”

Goldman’s first major public appearance was on February 11 in Manhattan, hosted by pastor John Haynes Holmes. According to the New York Times, “2000 persons stormed the Community Church services in the Town Hall in the hope of hearing her old fiery oratory.  They heard instead a calmly delivered eulogy of the Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin .  .  . Only once, when she denounced Hitler, did her voice ring with the indignation that formerly provoked her sympathizers and opponents to stormy demonstrations.” Except for this outburst, Goldman came across as a “mild gray-haired woman” in a black dress and red and gold shawl.

As far as Arthur Ross was concerned, however, Emma had pushed the boundaries of her visa agreement. “I personally vouched that Emma would make no political speeches and then the first thing she did was make a political speech! It was about Kropotkin and it was quite an occasion .  .  . Town Hall was packed., and people were hanging from the chandeliers. I thought the upper gallery would collapse, it was so heavy with people.”

Emma spent a good deal of time in Chicago where she found time for romance when she met Frank Heiner, a sociologist at the University of Chicago.  Heiner was in his mid-thirties, and had been blind since the age of three months. He was a knowledgeable anarchist scholar, as well as a skilled writer and speaker. He also had a wife and two children but for Emma this was not a deterrent.

“Heiner is the greatest event in the last seventeen years,” she confided to Sasha, “He combines all that I had longed for and dreamed about all my life and never achieved.” Her bliss, however, was bittersweet. “Here, I had longed for so many years for fulfillment of love with someone who would share my ideas and ideals, blend harmoniously with my tastes and desire,” she said six months after meeting him. “And now at sixty-five when all this riches is laid at my feet, it is only for a fleeting moment.”

After the pair consummated their relationship, they exchanged heated love letters. “Oh, my Frank, if only I could make you understand how completely you have fulfilled me,” Emma wrote. “No, not only physically, but intellectually, and spiritually as well. Frank, my Frank I long for you with every fiber of my being.”  Emma, in turn, was Heiner’s “Goddess.” “I could not love you more. You are my true love, my own supreme, complete love, the love of my life.” He told her.

Emma was thrilled to be back on American soil, delighted to reconnect with her old friends and revisit her favorite haunts. Although she took issue with the president’s policies – neither she nor Sasha had any faith in the New Deal – the nation’s energy excited her. “True, America remains naïve, childish in many respects in comparison to the sophistication of Europe,” she said to Sasha. “But I prefer its naivety, there is youth in it, there is still the spirit of adventure, there is something refreshing and stimulating in the air.”

From a financial standpoint, Emma’s lecture tour was a failure. Some segments of the circuit were inefficiently managed, and while anarchist followers showed up with enthusiasm, many of her speeches drew small crowds and she had difficulty filling halls. However, Goldman was routinely observed by the authorities. One comrade who attended a speech near the end of her tour recalled that “reporters and detectives sat in the front row, writing down everything she said.” At times Emma was uncharacteristically circumspect with her words; during an April event in New York, she would allow that Roosevelt “has a very pleasant voice on the radio. Beyond that, I really wouldn’t want to say anything.” Hitler and Mussolini, meanwhile, were dismissed jointly as a “nuisance.”

But Bureau of Investigation Director J. Edgar Hoover considered the tone of her lectures grounds to prohibit future visits, and prospects for another returned seemed dim. A gloomy Berkman wrote to Pauline Turkel, “Emma’s tour was a disappointment in various ways, I believe, also financially.” To Pierre Ramus, he noted that she “even had to borrow money for her return ticket.”  Emma herself described the tour to W. S. Van Valkenburgh as “a complete flop.” Never-the-less, Goldman was gratified by the respectful reception she had received. Her life was deemed “amazing” by a host of journalists and elites, and she was recognized by some as a true admirer of the United States after years of being branded as a traitor.

At the end of April 1934, Goldman’s three months in America came to a close, and she departed with great reluctance. “The trip to the United States has revived my spirit more than my fifteen years in exile,” she wrote to Joseph Ishill before she left. “If ever I had any doubts about my having roots in America my short visit has dispelled them completely .  .  .I don’t know what it is in America, but I felt years younger and full of vigor and enthusiasm .  .  . I felt a changed woman from the moment I arrived in New York. And my departure will be more painful than it was when Sasha and I were deported.”

But the experience was well worth the heartache, and Emma was optimistic about the country’s future. “This is the age of youth. Youth now has the controls. Let’s see what youth can do. The old ones made a  mess of things.”


  1. H.L. Mencken attempted to recover Goldman’s papers, confiscated by the Department of Justice during its raids on Mother Earth and The Blast. His request was denied; he was informed that the entire collection, along with all of Berkman’s records, had been destroyed. Mencken also tried to help Emma in her early quest to return to America but he had no luck.

    Mencken and Goldman had a curious relationship. “Mencken is not at all like his writing,” Emma observed after they were introduced briefly in Paris. “He is a man of the world, jovial, very kind, and exceedingly mild . . . I liked him immensely.” Mencken, for his part, had from afar thought Goldman an impressive person, describing her in 1924 as “one of the most notable women now extant upon this planet . . . a woman of wide and deep culture, a graceful and urban writer, an idealist of rare and often singularly winning sort.” Less flatteringly, he called her a “monomaniac” and “a naïve believer in human perfectibility, and enthusiast carried far beyond common sense, a kind of mad mullah or whirling dervish.”

  2. Modest Stein, formerly Modska Aronstam, had not seen Sasha or Emma for fifteen years. He enjoyed a successful career as an artist, lived in an elegant apartment on Gramercy Park in N.Y.C., and had long since abandoned anarchism.. But he was rather lonely. His beloved wife had died, and his only child, Luba, was grown. In June 1929 he went to France to seek out his old friends, “the friends of his youth”. .. he traveled south to visit Emma in St. Tropez… shortly after returning top New York, Modest wrote to Emma reminding her that, despite his affection for her and Sasha, he preferred to keep a low profile and maintain his privacy.

    In November 1930 Stein received an invitation to Sasha’s sixtieth birthday party, to be held in N.Y.C., even though the guest of honor was barred from entering the United States. Stein declined to attend with a dismissive air, telling Sasha he had no interest in “all that after dinner drivel that is going to be perpetrated by all those bastards that like to hear themselves talk on the occasion of your entering your seventh decade. And to quote the invitation literally, it will be a treat as well as a tribute to a rare and beautiful soul! So your rare and beautiful soul will ascend heavenwards on the wings of cold storage chicken washed down by ‘bootleg’ gin; and the speeches of . . .numerous others, will be the sweet music speeding you on your way. I shall not attend but leave a vacant chair – a vacant chair in the midst of vacant minds!”
    Sasha was deeply hurt by Modska’s attitude, pronouncing their friendship at an end. . . Emma was saddened by the rupture. . . but Berkman was unyielding. Too many miles, long years and differing views had taken their toll on the cousins; the “Twins” for the time being were estranged once more.

    Stein supported Berkman financially for pretty much the rest of his life, however.