Sharon Rudahl, A Dangerous Woman: The Graphic Biography of Emma Goldman (New York: New Press, 2007)
Historians have long been possessed by the notion of a usable past. In its simplest form, this tack has the historian cull from the past stories of human virtue—courage, loyalty, or kindness. At a higher level, historians draw parallels between past and present, looking to the lessons and thought of the past to guide inhabitants of the present through our sundry quandaries. Finally, historians may search for a usable, if not applicable, past by looking critically at earlier periods in order to explain the origins and limits of the present. It is to Sharon Rudahl’s credit that her graphic biography of Emma Goldman, A Dangerous Woman, operates on all of these levels.
Beginning with Goldman’s girlhood experiences in the Pale of Settlement, Rudahl captures the formation of a young radical through her everyday experiences as a working-class, Jewish woman and interactions with radical politics and literature. From Russia, Goldman arrived in America just before the Haymarket Riots, witnessing the inhuman conditions for immigrant workers, anti-labor violence and the crushing force of patriarchy as domestic practice and state policy. At the same time, she was exposed to, and soon became a major force in, the exciting world of immigrant radicalism. Thus began a half-century of anarchist activism, as Goldman traveled across the United States on speaking tours, breathed in the bohemian airs of New York and Paris, faced the First Red Scare, returned to revolutionary Russia (only to face disappointment in the ostensible achievements of Marxism-Leninism) and lived out the last two decades of her life in exile from both her native and adopted homelands. Into her sixties, the life-long activist took up the anti-fascist cause in Spain, one of her last stands.
Other reviewers have criticized A Dangerous Woman for not being more discriminating and attempting to tell Goldman’s life in every important detail. And I understand this evaluation, as too often the pages seem over-packed and the frames text-heavy. But, this style, as I imagine is its intent, communicates the urgency and energy of Goldman’s being, as she continually took up new causes, encountered novel ideas and shaped so many major events of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. The problem is not that Rudahl was too shy when it came to excising moments from Goldman’s biography, but rather that she attempted to pack such an expansive life and vision into so few pages. (In this, I can’t help but wonder if the fault is hers, or if the blame falls on the shoulders of the publishing industry’s reluctance to accept and finance larger graphic novel projects.) For ultimately, the story unraveled by Rudahl is not merely a telling of Goldman’s life; cloaked in the presentation of the biography of an outspoken woman, one discerns the resurrection of the importance of anarcho-syndicalism in the period between Haymarket and the Spanish Civil War, an interpretation hinted at in Alice Wexler’s preface.
Contrary to the teleological vision of E.H. Carr (see the first part of this series) which envisioned a trajectory from idealism to scientific socialism from the early Nineteenth Century until the Bolshevik Revolution, Rudahl’s biography reminds us of an important passing remark in Eric Hobsbawm’s Age of Extremes:
Before 1914 anarchism had been far more of a driving ideology of revolutionary activists than Marxism over large parts of the world. Marx, outside Eastern Europe, was seen rather as the guru of mass parties whose inevitable, but not explosive, advance to victory he had demonstrated. By the 1930s anarchism had ceased to exist as a significant political force outside Spain, even in Latin America, where the black-and-red had traditionally inspired more militants that the red flag.I take Rudahl’s penchant to relate so much of the history of Goldman’s life and world, not as a mark of her shortcomings as a biographer, but rather as evidence of her impulse to excavate the expansive worlds of bohemianism and anarchism in the period before the First World War and its lingering life and eventual death in the interwar period. These terrains are giftedly illuminated in A Dangerous Woman. Rather than wallowing in Carr’s rigid track of history or Stoppard’s doldrums of liberalism, we are drawn into the everyday world of activism and a life of political options outside of the Cold War epistemology of Wilson vs. Lenin. For bringing this history to light in graphic form, Rudahl is to be congratulated. I can only hope that she continues to combine her political commitments and artistic talents in future graphic histories, continuing the elaboration of this lost world.