"Married to Public Life":
The Conflicted Courtship of Emma Goldman
and American Popular Culture

Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-present), Spring 2010, Volume 9, Issue 1


Esther Post
Carleton University, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

At the tender age of twenty-two, a petite, attractive, and relatively unknown female anarchist performed a theatrical display of political radicalism that both shocked and enthralled the American public. At a May Day celebration in Union Square in 1892, Russian-Jewish immigrant Emma Goldman enacted a sensational disruption of the gathering that became front-page news for days following the event. Members of the Central Labor Union who had organized the mass demonstration wanted the focus of the celebration to remain solely upon the workers and trade unions, and vowing to “let politics alone,” refused to let any anarchists speak (“Anarchists in Charge”). But politics interrupted loudly when Emma Goldman climbed on top of a wagon and, shouting in German, quickly attracted a large audience of curious spectators. Desperate to silence the audacious “agitator in skirts” and to disperse the large crowd that had gathered around her, labor and union officials hitched a horse to the wagon and whipped the horse into action (“Berkman’s"). Goldman, however, was far from discouraged, and she could be heard, according to two popular New York newspapers, wailing, squeaking, and shrieking long after the wagon was out of sight.

This dramatic and highly publicized event marked Goldman's entrance onto the stage of popular culture in America, where she continued to “shriek” and “wail” her anarchist theories and visions right up until her death in 1940, maintaining an iconic cultural position long after her deportation in 1919. As evidenced by the plethora of posters, buttons, and slogans related to Goldman that continue to be produced today, as well as her frequent appearances as a fictional character in postmodern novels, plays, and operas, she clearly remains an important figure in popular culture. Her notorious acts of political radicalism certainly helped to secure her prominent cultural status, especially among later generations of political dissidents, including (second-wave) feminists, gays and lesbians, environmentalists, and anti-war and peace activists. Yet her politics alone do not justify her cultural iconicity, for while Goldman’s name and reputation may widely be known, those of her anarchist comrades, whose words and actions were equally infamous, are not. A variety of factors, which will be explored in the following pages, contributed to Goldman’s important cultural standing, but chief among them were Goldman’s own strategic efforts to situate both herself, as an individual personality, and her politics within popular and public cultures of American modernity. Examining her conflicting and contradictory responses to modern popular culture, I argue that contrary to Goldman’s own assertions, she made the success of her anarchist propaganda dependent, in large part, upon her deliberate attempts to create for herself and her radical politics an iconic position within modern American popular culture.

Despite her overtly negative and even hostile attitudes towards the American masses, which she disparagingly referred to as the “dumb multitude,” Goldman clearly recognized the subversive political potentials of popular culture and vowed to bring her anarchism “closer to the heart of American life” (Living 524). The “heart of American life,” as Goldman saw it, was found to be beating loudly within the broad range of public and widely disseminated forms of modern cultural expression, and particularly within the most popular forms of early twentieth-century print and entertainment cultures. She etched out for herself and her anarchist politics a highly visible position in modern popular culture not only through her well-attended and highly publicized lectures and speeches but also through some of the most popular expressive forms of modern print culture, including daily and weekly newspapers and magazines of the mainstream popular press. Using a multiplicity of popular writing genres, such as personal essays, political essays, journalistic interviews, autobiographies, political tracts and travel journals, Goldman sought and loudly demanded the attention of the American public. She proved difficult to ignore not only because of her nearly constant presence upon the pages of modern print cultures, but also on account of her consistent and theatrical appearances in the most public urban spaces of modern popular culture. A master of public relations, Goldman, with the help of her public-relations manager and lover Ben Reitman, deftly manipulated the machinery of modern popular culture through outrageous publicity stunts and strategies of advertising that directly appealed to the masses of modern America and ensured her status as an iconic public figure of modern popular culture.

Throughout her writings, Goldman consistently presents her unwillingness to be associated with popular culture; nevertheless, she found herself performing a noticeably visible role upon the popular cultural stage, thanks in part to extensive coverage of both public and private aspects of her life in daily and weekly newspapers. As historian Larzer Ziff asserts, the last decade of the nineteenth century witnessed a profound change in cultural interests, so that the focus of the popular press shifted from coverage of public events to coverage of public personalities (148). Goldman was not immune to the glare of the public spotlight, and from her earliest public appearances in the 1890s, the modern press responded to her with considerable attention and enthusiasm. She first came to the attention of the mainstream popular press in 1893, after being charged and later sentenced to one year in prison for allegedly encouraging unemployed workers to “take bread” by force if necessary. Goldman had already attracted some notoriety through her assumed involvement in Alexander Berkman’s attempted assassination, one year earlier, of American industrialist Henry Clay Frick, who had brought in a large group of armed guards to suppress a worker’s strike at his steel plant in Homestead, Pennsylvania. His assassination attempt resulted in a fourteen-year prison sentence for Berkman, and an apparent early death sentence for anarchism in modern America, for the extensive and sensationalist reports about his crime and his trial consistently represented both the anarchist and anarchism as dangerous threats to American culture. Despite admitting in her autobiography that she did indeed play a role in the planning of Berkman’s crime, Goldman escaped prosecution, but just a mere year later, she would not be so lucky. In the months leading up to and following her conviction for incitement to riot, daily and weekly newspapers across the country drew widespread attention to Goldman through sensationalist accounts of both her trial and her anarchist ideologies. Building upon rapidly growing popular fears about political and cultural “others,” the mainstream press dubbed her “The Queen of the Anarchists,” and made “Red Emma,” “the most dangerous woman in the world,” into a popular household name. President Theodore Rooselt even declared Goldman to be “public enemy number one” in his description of her as “the most dangerous anarchist in America.”

Popular journalists certainly were guilty of perpetuating the anarchist-as-terrorist myth and feeding into – if not creating – social anxieties related to the changing ethnic and political landscapes of American culture. But they also responded and contributed to the developing culture of the modern celebrity, and helped to establish Goldman’s status as a modern celebrity by offering appealing personal representations of her that piqued the curiosities and attracted the attention of the American public. One of the first positive representations of Goldman in the mainstream popular press appeared in a front-page article in the New York World in September 1893. Popular journalist Nellie Bly was granted the first extensive interview with Goldman just one month before she was sentenced to prison. Unlike other sensationalist accounts of Goldman, Bly’s article offers a sympathetic and intriguing portrait of the anarchist and her ideologies, and characterizes her as a young, attractive, feminine, gentle, intelligent and passionate thinker. Goldman’s self-representation during the interview was obviously motivated by her own interests, and she clearly helped shape the positive framework in which Bly portrays her. But by focusing upon Goldman’s personality and depicting her as a “modern Joan of Arc,” Bly broadened the terrain of Goldman’s public appeal and helped to create an iconic space for her within modern celebrity culture (qtd. in Falk 160).

Goldman’s iconic cultural status was also established through her theatrical representations of her self and her personality during her public lectures, which were often viewed by both the modern press and the American public not as political events, but rather as popular entertainment. As modernist historian Christine Stansell asserts, public speeches and lecture tours constituted a “major form of popular entertainment in an age when the movies had yet to take hold” (121). Her disdain for mass culture notwithstanding, Goldman enthusiastically displayed herself within this popular cultural sphere for nearly two decades. Drawing audiences of between 50,000 to 75,000 people each year, her cross-country lecture tours also attracted the attention of popular journalists and cartoonists, who simultaneously represented her as a dangerous political radical and as an entertainer for the masses. She is indirectly characterized as a popular entertainer in an article from The Providence Evening Bulletin, which offers the following description of the setting of her 1897 anarchist lecture in Providence, Rhode Island: “There were rival attractions on Olneyville Square last night. There were the gospel wagon, a gentleman who sold everything from a shoestring to a complete shaving outfit and threw in a ventriloquist entertainment free of charge, a series of pictures and advertisements thrown on a screen, and finally Emma Goldman, whose Anarchist beliefs are too well known to need much further description” (qtd. in Falk 282). She is directly represented as a popular entertainer in an interview that appeared in the San Francisco Call in April of 1898 in which she is aligned with two of the most popular modern female performers: “You should hear her talk [….] You can better afford to miss hearing [Nellie] Melba or even [Sarah] Bernhardt than listening to this genuine creature. She is San Francisco's sensation, as she was that of New York and Chicago, and […] there is nothing so thrilling as listening to Emma Goldman.” This oft-cited comparison of Goldman to a world-renowned opera singer and famous stage actress, in its complete neglect of her anarchist politics, enabled her to reach popular audiences that had no interest in her anarchism, and helped to solidify her reputation as a popular entertainer and modern celebrity.

Goldman’s association with such modern cultures of performance and entertainment certainly succeeded in attracting popular attention, yet it also elicited critical responses from some of her closest political allies. Ed Brady, a fellow anarchist who was also Goldman’s lover, struggled to understand her seemingly insatiable “craving for applause and glory and the limelight” (Goldman, Living 183). Brady proved unwilling or perhaps unable to support Goldman’s devoted attention to and performances within modern popular culture, and their relationship ended after Brady accused Goldman of being “married to public life” (Goldman, Living 207). Other American anarchists, including Alexander Berkman, Harry Kelly, and Voltairine de Cleyre also criticized Goldman’s insistent self-dramatization and self-publicity within seemingly apolitical public cultures, and questioned whether or not her participation within modern popular culture helped or hindered the ultimate goals of anarchism. Fellow American anarchist Harry Kelly summed up the feelings of many of Goldman’s political allies, including Alexander Berkman and Voltairine de Cleyre, in his critical pronouncement that Goldman was “too concerned with culture” (qtd. in Wexler 201). De Cleyre also made many public and critical statements concerning Goldman’s attention to “respectable audiences, respectable neighborhoods, respectable people” (qtd. in Stansell 141-2).

Goldman responds to such personal criticism throughout her writings, providing pronounced, if inconsistent statements concerning her cultural role as a popular public figure, as well as her conflicted relationship with modern American popular culture. In a 1911 letter to Theodore Dreiser, for example, she repeatedly laments the loss of her privacy, particularly throughout her autobiographies and personal correspondence, and reveals her continuous struggles with her new identity as “more of a public than private person.” Especially during the times of her greatest popularity, Goldman writes frequently about the “painful task of always having to be before the public” (Living 534). Alongside this acute awareness of her highly visible role of popular public figure, however, stand Goldman's strong objections to Brady’s claim that she was “married to public life.” In “Letters from a Tour,” she directly addresses the allegations and accusations presented by her critics and, claiming that she desires neither fame nor notoriety, repudiates what she describes as the “unfair motivations” Brady and other critics attribute to her (qtd. in Falk 301).

Goldman's writings are replete with strong denials of any affinity for either her public role or the popular cultural stage upon which it was performed. Though her reputation in America was clearly dependent upon her participation within modern cultures of popular entertainment, she consistently presents her cultural elitism through her celebration of modernist “high culture” and her denigration of the popular. Her lectures and critical writings on the modern drama and modern art simultaneously promote high culture and scorn what she describes as the “vulgarities” of modern popular cultural forms and the “inertia, the cravenness, the utter submission” of popular cultural audiences (Anarchism 72, 71). Goldman is especially critical of modern entertainment cultures and particularly Broadway plays and vaudeville. Her elitist cultural attitudes are tellingly revealed during a conversation with two popular actors, Julia Marlow Sothern and Gustave Frohman, which she relates in her autobiography: “Frohman was sure [that the modern drama] did not interest the theatre-going public, and I argued that New York had also another public, more intelligent and appreciative than the one in the habit of flocking to Broadway” (Living 534).

While she praises the audiences of “high intellectual order” that attended modern dramatic productions and her own lectures on the modern drama, which, as Suzanne Clark notes, were certainly dramatic productions in their own right, she dismisses and denounces both the audiences and techniques of vaudeville, one of the most popular forms of modern performance and entertainment at the time (Goldman, Living 981; Clark 63). In 1913, following a series of lectures on the modern drama at New York's Berkeley Theatre, Goldman was approached by a representative of Oscar Hammerstein, who after witnessing her oratorical performances, offered her the outrageous salary of one thousand dollars per week to appear on the vaudeville stage twice weekly. Intrigued by the proposition, which seemed the solution to her financial problems, Goldman initially welcomed the idea and the “advantages of reaching large audiences” (Living 527). But, as she reveals in her autobiography, her response quickly and dramatically changed during what was to be her first performance:

We went back-stage, where he introduced me to some of the performers. It was a motley crowd of dancers, acrobats, and men with trained dogs. “I'll have to sandwich you in,” the manager said. He was not sure whether I was to come on before the high kicker or after the trained dogs. At any rate I could not have more than ten minutes. From behind the curtain I watched the pitiful efforts to amuse the public, the horrible contortions of the dancer, whose flabby body was laced into youthful appearance, the cracked voice of the singer, the cheap jokes of the funny man, and the coarse hilarity of the crowd. Then I fled. I knew that I could not stand up in such an atmosphere to plead my ideas, not for all the money in the world. (Living 526)

Such a horrified reaction to what she describes as the “vulgar” and “ignorant” performers and audiences of popular culture is also presented throughout her controversial 1911 essay, “Minorities Versus Majorities,” in which she lashes out against the demands of popular culture. Her essay offers the following description of popular mass audiences: “[They] care little for ideas or integrity. What [they] crave is display. It matters not whether that be a dog show, a prize fight, [a] lynching […], the marriage […] of an heiress, or the acrobatic stunts of an ex-president” (Anarchism 74). Refusing to perform the role of the “modern clown,” Goldman also refused, at least rhetorically, to answer the modern public's call for display, and promised that she would not allow her political work to be turned “into a circus for the amusement of the public” (Living 164). Nevertheless, she admits in her autobiography that she indeed found herself playing the role of the “clown” in the “circus” of modern American popular culture (53). She also characterized modern political cultures as “circuses,” as evidenced by the title of an unpublished 1908 lecture, “The Political Circus and its Clowns.”

Despite her rhetorical refusals to play the role of the popular clown, Goldman and her long-time publicity manager Ben Reitman relied heavily upon the techniques of both the circus and vaudeville to attract and “warm up” audiences before her lectures. Directly soliciting the attention of the mainstream press, which had long been recognized as the “enemy” of anarchism, Reitman advertised Goldman’s lectures not as political speeches, but rather as entertaining spectacles, and supplemented such efforts at publicity with handbills, programs, and flyers. Immediately preceding Goldman’s lectures, Reitman would use his charismatic charm and skills of showmanship on the stage, encouraging audiences to “‘take a chance’ on anarchist pamphlets and ‘invest a nickel’ before the ‘big show’ began” (Stansell 137). Though Goldman professed her desire to “shrink from the vulgarity of being made a public show,” she and her publicity manager clearly made concerted efforts to publicize and situate both Goldman and her politics within modern cultures of the popular “public show” (Living 433). Indeed, though she clearly disavows popular culture and her public role throughout her writings, her repudiations are belied by her concerted efforts to reach out to the American masses through modern and highly effective strategies of mass marketing and self-promotion. Theatrically displaying herself in the unlikeliest of popular public spaces, including parks, elegant theatres, hotels, restaurants, dance halls, churches, synagogues, public libraries, Ivy League universities, and the shafts of a coal mine, Goldman courted and seduced a broad popular audience through intensive and impressive publicity campaigns. With the help of her skilful publicity managers, she meticulously planned every detail of her speeches, as well as the advertising and publicity campaigns that preceded them. Flyers, pamphlets, and the radical press had long been used by anarchists as a forum for their ideas; Goldman, however, refused to limit her ideas to radical audiences and instead appealed to the popular masses by advertising her lectures in the mainstream popular press. Though she repeatedly characterizes the daily press as an “enemy” of anarchism and the “hireling of capitalism,” she nevertheless made the mainstream press an integral part of her publicity strategies. In a letter to a comrade who was helping to organize a series of her lectures in Minneapolis, Goldman offers detailed instructions about how to promote her talks and identifies the modern popular press as “the most import part” of her publicity campaign (qtd. in Wexler 174).

The popular modern press clearly played a pivotal role in establishing Goldman’s cultural iconicity and her position as a modern celebrity; Goldman herself, however, actively courted celebrity and aggressively sought fame and popular attention. Despite her repeated denials that she was “married to public life,” Goldman indeed shared and arguably pursued an intimate, although conflicted relationship with the modern American public through the most popular cultural forms. While the modern public responded to Goldman with perhaps an equal mixture of revulsion and reverence, she in turn proved unable to reconcile her contradictory responses to the audiences and forms of popular culture. Though her writings present overwhelming evidence of her refusal to be associated with popular culture, her actions, particularly where her lectures are concerned, tell a different story. By presenting and performing her radical politics upon the unlikeliest of popular cultural stages, she was able to make anarchism palatable to even her staunchest critics and enemies, and succeeded, to a greater or lesser degree, in her quest to demonstrate the relevance of anarchism for all members of modern American society.

Works Cited

“Anarchists in Charge.” New York World 3 May 1892: 1.

“Berkman’s Career Here.” New York World 25 July 1892: 3.

Clark, Suzanne. Sentimental Modernism: Women Writers and the Revolution of the Word.
Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1991.

Falk, Candace, ed. Emma Goldman: A Documentary History of the American Years
Volume One – Made for America (1890-1901)
. Berkeley: U of California P, 2003.

Goldman, Emma. “Emma Goldman, Anarchist.” Interview. San Francisco Call.
27 April 27 1898: 16.

---. Anarchism and Other Essays. New York: Dover, 1911.

---. Living My Life. New York: Dover, 1931.

Stansell, Christine. American Moderns: Bohemian New York and the Creation of a New
. New York: Holt, 2000.

Wexler, Alice. Emma Goldman in America. New York: Beacon, 1986.

Ziff, Larzer. The American 1890s: Life and Times of a Lost Generation. New York:
Viking, 1966.

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