Some Reminiscences of Ernest Crosby
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SOME REMINISCENCES OF ERNEST CROSBY
By Leonard D. Abbott.
IT seems appropriate that I should get a request from “Mother Earth” for an article on Ernest Crosby, for my first vivid memory of Crosby has to do with his fellowship with Anarchists. One afternoon—it is eight years ago now—he wrote me that he was “going up to Justus Schwab, the Anarchist, to have an interview with Emma Goldman. They want me to help secure the pardon of a Homestead rioter,” he said, “and perhaps you would like to meet them.” I knew Crosby very slightly at the time, but was eager to know him better, and I accepted his invitation with alacrity. I remember, as though it were yesterday, our walk together through the darkening streets of the East Side. Our objective point was Schwab’s saloon on First Street, and when we entered, Schwab was standing behind the counter dispensing liquor to his guests. I thought he looked more like a poet than a saloon-keeper, and I liked his fine blonde head and blue eyes, from the first. Emma Goldman was there, too; and it turned out that the “Homestead rioter” mentioned in Crosby’s letter was no other than Alexander Berkman, at that time confined in prison. We had a lengthy conference about Berkman’s case, and Crosby promised to do everything in his power to secure the prisoner’s release. He took this attitude not merely because he thought Berkman had been too severely punished, but because, as he explained to me, he did not believe in prisons. The next day he wrote a letter in Berkman’s behalf to Andrew Carnegie. It brought no tangible results. Berkman had to serve out his term. But the incident was typical, and that is why it is worth recounting here. Crosby was forever the knight-errant, championing the cause of those who could not help themselves. Whether it was Berkman in jail in 1898, or John Turner held at Ellis Island in 1904, he was always ready with his service, always brave and fearless, always loyal to the uttermost truth.
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I remember another occasion when Crosby came into dramatic contact with the Anarchists. He had been invited to address an East Side Anarchist Club, and he chose to discuss the question of “Force or Non-Resistance” as a working policy in life. The little hall was packed, and some of the ablest Anarchist thinkers were there. I have never heard Crosby speak better, and the burden of his message was this: “Anarchism is a noble ideal, and it will conquer. But it must be won by love, not by force.” The debate that followed his speech was tense and prolonged. I do not think he won many converts to his point of view. Almost all who participated in the discussion took the position that force was regrettable, but probably inevitable.
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By reason of its contrasts and its apparent paradoxes, Crosby’s career was in some ways the most remarkable, the most romantic, that I have ever known. He came of conservative environment, and married a very wealthy woman. During the greater part of his life his ideals were merely conventional. He was thirty-eight years old when the great change fell upon him that revolutionized his whole nature. He was living in Alexandria, in Egypt at the time, and he was getting $10,000 a year as a Judge of the International Court there. The whole story of the inner change through which he passed may never be known. But he has told me that quite suddenly, quite definitely, one day, a radiant vision, an entirely new thought of life, came to him. He had been unhappy and in great spiritual travail. The heartless and luxurious life around him, a growing sense of the hideous injustice involved in Egypt’s slavery to the Powers, a growing disinclination to sit in “judgment” upon any man—above all, a chance book of Leo Tolstoy that had fallen into his hands—all these things had paved the way for a kind of spiritual re-birth. He threw up his position at Alexandria, made a pilgrimage to Tolstoy in Russia, and then came back to the United States to devote his life to a crusade in behalf of ideals. Tolstoy was always his master. It was Tolstoy who told him of Henry George, and through George’s influence he became an ardent Single-Taxer. The third great influence in his life was Walt Whitman.
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Crosby was more of an Anarchist than a Socialist, and his differentiation between the two philosophies was not a slight thing. It was a point to which he recurred again and again. He made a careful and detailed study of the Socialist position, but came out of his investigation apparently more hostile to Socialism than when he started At the conference in the Stokes mansion at Noroton last year, he sided with the Individualists rather than with the Socialists, and when Jack London was last in New York, Crosby took strongly anti-Socialist ground in arguing with him. The last communication that Crosby ever sent me was an article supporting Lafcadio Hearn’s theory that Socialism’ is a “reversion” to outgrown social forms. The article closes: “All praise to the Socialists for their condemnation of current injustice 1 But when they ascribe it to individualism they make a mistaken diagnosis. It is the denial of true individualism by monopoly and prejudice that lies at the root of our social ills, and the remedy lies in making the individual still more master of himself and not in enslaving him to an organization raised to life from prehistoric tombs.” I tried constantly to argue Crosby out of this attitude, urging upon him the claims of a libertarian Socialism. He said that he liked the spirit of many Socialists, but that he regarded the Socialism of Marx, in its world-sense, as a menace to human growth and liberty. Taking up the point at length in one of his letters, he wrote to me: “A Socialist state would require an angelic spirit in all its members, and that we shall not have for centuries. Meanwhile, the securing of justice seems to me a big enough field for political work, while outside of politics we can all do what we can to foment the co-operative spirit . The temptation to join a great world-movement is immense, but I cannot do it, just as I cannot join the Roman Catholic Church, because its dogmas are contradicted by my reason. I am consoled by the fact that others see things the same way. Tolstoy for instance, and I am sure Whitman would have joined no party, nor do Carpenter’s Essays seem to point that way either. It would be a delight to me to ‘pitch into’ something, and I know that I am not without talents in that line, for I was a very fair Republican politician in my time, but conscience prevents.” Yet, in spite of these words, I claim for Crosby a fellowship in that larger Socialism which embraces such men as William Morris, Edward Carpenter, Eugene Debs, George Herron and Maxim Gorky. Morris’s portrait hung on the wall of his study. He wrote a little book interpreting Carpenter to Americans. He knew and loved Debs and Herron. And he visited Gorky both in Staten Island and the Adirondacks.
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In one sense, Crosby was Socialistic rather than Anarchistic. He believed in the ballot. In his earlier poems, it is true, he contemptuously links the ballot-box with the musket, and for several years he refused to vote “on principle.” But during the last part of his life he took a lively interest in politics. He voted on several occasions and explained at length his reasons for so doing. These reasons disappointed many of his friends. Speaking for myself, I felt that Crosby’s acceptance of the ballot as an instrument for promoting social advance, was a step forward, but I heartily regretted that he chose to vote for men so infinitely inferior to himself as Alton B. Parker and William R. Hearst.
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Ernest Crosby was a man of amazingly large sympathies; he was as remarkable for his poise and tolerance as for his intensity. He was inspired by no hope of sudden or dramatic social change. “I do not look for anything special to happen,” he would say; “we must simply keep on working.” His own personal life was almost austere in its simplicity and loneliness, but his mind ranged over the whole field of life and thought . His vegetarianism was not a fad, but a deep-rooted conviction which he lived out at much personal inconvenience. His hatred of militarism was a passion with him. He was always interested in sex-problems, and followed the various sex-theories with keen interest. He read Lucifer every week, and wrote a letter to Moses Harman on his release from jail. He was on intimate terms with J. William Lloyd, of Westfield, New Jersey, and sympathized with Lloyd’s radical views. One day I lent him Edward Carpenter’s pamphlet on “Homogenic Love.” He returned it with the comment: “In the future I shall be more lenient to Carpenter’s homogeneous friends, but I am thankful I am not built that way.”
There was something almost tragic in Crosby’s isolation. A lesser man would have sought disciples. But he evidently felt, with Ibsen, that “he is strongest who stands alone.” I think of Crosby as I met him returning late one night from a meeting on Long Island, at which he had been the speaker. It had been a fiasco, with only a handful of people in attendance. This was exceptional, of course. Crosby often spoke to large audiences. But he knew all the bitterness—as well as the ecstacy—of the pioneer’s experience. He was a leader of forlorn hopes. The Anarchists could never entirely claim him; he voted, and he repudiated the use of force. The Socialists felt—and correctly—his instinctive antagonism to their philosophy. Even the Single-Taxers did not regard him as quite “sound” in the doctrine. The consequence was that he stood absolutely isolated. He had very few intimate friends. His home-life must have been unhappy. He lived at Rhinebeck-on-the-Hudson, in a palatial home surrounded by nine hundred acres. The property was vested in his wife’s name. I always felt that Crosby was a prisoner, waited upon by servants and lackeys. Once when he was driving me over his acres he said: “This ought not to belong to me: and yet what can one do? Would it accomplish any real, any enduring good to distribute it among the people here?” . He has confessed his embarrassment when called upon ‘by his conventional neighbors and associates—such men as John Jacob Astor, or Ex-Governor Levi Morton—to defend his theories. He felt it was useless to argue with these people. They were separated from him by chasms. He had quite definitely turned his back on the “respectable” classes. His sympathies were all with that nether world that struggles upward to the light. “I should like to live like Edward Carpenter,” he once said to me, “with farm-work in the country, and simple rooms in the city.” Yet to the end he remained enslaved by his possessions!
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No one who knew Crosby would doubt his absolute sincerity. The man was honest and pure to the very core. I never detected a false note in him, and I have seen him in all lands of situations. There was not the slightest trace of egotism in his nature. He was as humble as a little child. He shunned newspaper notoriety, and used to say, jokingly: “Whenever I do or say anything that I would like to get in the papers, they never report it; but when something comparatively unimportant happens to me, they write it up at great length!” He was sometimes bitterly attacked and shamefully misrepresented, but I never heard him say an unkind word of any living being. He was the soul of generosity, and gave away money to all kinds of causes, to all kinds of people.
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Crosby was a natural-born leader. With his magnetism, his magnificent presence, his great abilities, he could have worn the highest political honors. As is well known, he was at one time closely associated with Theodore Roosevelt in the New York State Legislature. He might have been mayor, or governor, or president. Instead, he chose to become an apostle of unpopular ideas, “despised and rejected of men.” And who can dare to say that he was ineffectual? Ideas are the most potent things in the world, and the seer and the teacher influence life at its very sources. A man of imagination and vision is untrue to his highest self if he abandons his dream to handle the machinery of worldly power and ambition. The greatest men that have ever lived have been the men who impressed the greatest ideas upon their generations. And Crosby’s ideas were world-encircling, world-inspiring, in their power and breadth.
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Ernest Crosby was a moral genius. There was much of the poet and artist in him, too. But, under all, one felt his moral intensity burning at white heat . He always seemed to me the very incarnation of that superb line of Whitman’s: “Moral conscientiousness, crystalline, without flaw, not godlike only, entirely human, awes and enchants forever!”
Leonard D. Abbott, “Some Reminiscences of Ernest Crosby,” Mother Earth 1, no. 12 (February 1907): 22-27.