Voltairine de Cleyre
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VOLTAIRINE DE CLEYRE
By Sadakichi Hartmann
THE first and only time I heard Voltairine de Cleyre lecture was at Walker’s N. Y. Liberal Club, way back in 1894. The topic was “Mary Wollstonecraft, the Apostle of Equal Rights.” The even delivery, the subdued enthusiasm of her voice, the abundance of information, thought and argument, and the logical sequence of the same made a deep impression upon me. I was at that time a lecture fan, and able to make comparisons of her straightforward method with the performances of other public speakers. She had nothing of the pompous, climax-building elocutionary oratory of an Ingersoll or Talmadge, nor did she command the resistless onward rush of words of Bishop Brooks or the magnetism of Emma Goldman’s sledgehammer style, as little was she versed in the conversational patter of contemporary speakers, the conversational lisp of a Hubbard of the acrobatic trickeries and thespian roar of a Billie Sunday. Voltairine’s lecture I have always classified among the rarest and most exceptional platform achievements, with Murdoch’s talk on Hamlet, Walt Whitman’s Lincoln lecture at the Philadelphia Chestnut Theatre, and one of Rev. Bartol’s sermons (on the Oliver Wendell Holmes order) on Yacht-Racing, in which he compared life, and the endeavors of individuals, to a never-ending race.
Voltairine in her estimate of the English reformer revealed her own personality. Like Mary Imley-Godwin, she was a woman of the mental type with a mission to perform, a clear and sound thinker, sincere to austerity and emotional only as far as it did not interfere with her mental sympathies, frugal and precise in her conduct of life, but lofty and independent in spirit.
These characteristics are reflected in her writings. Her essays on Anarchism, its scope, dominant idea, aims and activities, her analytical reviews of the Paris Commune and Mexican Revolution, her criticisms of economic disorder and injustice, and her appeals for development, reform, individualization by revolt are well balanced and well expressed emanations of a positive mind. It is all cold reasoning, the result of reflection and study. There are occasional flashes of poetic transport, impetuous images, and sudden outbursts of indignation, a flow of vehement words, still they are controlled by mental calculation. Her style lacks color and relief, and impassioned imagination. Nobody regretted that more deeply than herself. But her atavistic premises, her parentage, education, and the frugal environment which she created for herself, drew a harsh boundary line around her resolves and impulses towards self expression. She did not exactly inherit a New England conscience, though something almost equally destructive, the deplorable faculty for self-tormentation, a process of the mind that wavers in constant anguish between the rights of the body and the tyrannical dictates of the spirit, which she succeeded in voicing with some eloquence in her short sketch, “The Sorrows of the Body.” It is her nearest approach to genuine literature. In most of her stories and poems the natural expression of her heart’s emotions seem to be adultered by revolutionary didacticism. Not that the idea of the beautiful is wanting but it is entangled and crushed by ethical pursuits and wrangles. The technical charm of literature, the beauty of a sentence, the rhythm, sound and color of a combination of words, did not play an important part in her literary mechanism, and what is poetry without it!
This duality in her nature also guided her selection of subjects: Betrayed, the Suicide’s Defense, Cry of the Unfit, Feast of Vultures, Bastard Born are not particularly cheerful or favorable themes for poetic exploitation. Propaganda poetry always smacks of dogmaticism, unless it is attempted by a great poet who can dissolve the incongruities of reform ideas into their elemental constituents, so that they appeal not only to the devotees of a special creed but to all liberal minds. I do not object to her cries of pity and vengeance, merely to her lamentations and sentimentalities. Why a bastard should be clothed in scarlet of shame is beyond my comprehension. A bastard instead of whining at his mother’s grave should be proud to be a child of passion (why otherwise the preachings of free love!) and act accordingly in the selection of his own progeny. An the child murderess in Betrayed, why this pitiable self accusation! If there were no “crime and punishment,” would she not justify the deed before her own conscience. But then the act itself could not happen. True, but why expound despair, utter soul collapse, and hope for pardon beyond—no matter how realistically accurate for that particular type of a girl—as the result of an action which in itself is, if not right, at least exculpable. It is one of the instances where Voltairine’s acquired theories clash with her inborn sensitiveness. Her poems are frequently punctured in that manner. Perhaps they were merely “stations” of development, forerunners to her bitter pleas “Sex Slavery” and “Modern Educational Reform.”
Her short stories, mostly merely sketches, episodes, skeleton descriptions of heart rending incidents and conditions, are freer of contradictions, yet strangely weak in construction. There is no concentration and no climax without an anti-climax. It was just the motive—for instance, an existence of drudgery with the undercurrent of love as propelling force (as in “At the End of the Alley”), or the sentimental much ado about the death of a white rose in the hand of an amorous sailor in a house of prostitutes—which interested her and which she tried to make the most of, no matter at what sacrifice to the artistic make up of the story. For the sole guide on which she could rely was her logic, the capricious ways of the muses she failed to command and they indulged in strange antics whenever she allowed them free sway. But when she brushed aside the cobwebs that darkened her vision, and settled down to serious work, listening only to the dictates of her wonderful mind, it proved sufficient to produce, as in nearly all her essays, a solid piece of prose that for clearness and force ranks among the sanest and most instructive contributions to Anarchistic literature.
Although I came dozens of times to Philadelphia when she resided there, I met her but a few times. The atmosphere in which she lived was somehow too ascetic for me. How well I remember my first impression of her (not as a public speaker but as a woman in her home surroundings) with her bare feet, dressed in a white gown that bulged at the hips, with the background of a frugally furnished room, and red bricks outside, with young foreigners of limited mind (whom she instructed) passing to and fro, she appeared to me almost sexless, like some vestal virgin that worshipped something infinitely remote and pure. She had the kindness of writing me a flattering appreciation of my short stories, which I answered by pointing out some errors of construction in hers. Then we drifted apart. She apparently never forgave me for borrowing two dollars from her. Very likely, she had worked hard for it, and I needed it merely for the entertainment of some “beer’’ comrades and had forgotten all about it a few hours later. Voltairine was sorely deficient in humor, and she had no use for parlor, studio, or saloon anarchism. She did not even understand it except—theoretically. She admired Whitman for “making himself one with drunken revelers and the creatures of debauchery,” while she could stand only at the portals and look on in pity.
Despite the wealth of her emotions, limitless sympathies, and love for nature, her whole life seemed to center upon the exaltation over, what she so aptly called, the dominant idea. Like an anchorite she flayed her body to utter one more lucid and convincing argument in praise of direct action. She starved and endured, and worked indefatigably for the enlightenment of the masses. She was brave, far seeing, invincible, one of the staunchest, truest, never-tiring banner-bearers of Anarchism, the great cause that to so many means the solution of the most important problem of modern society, the problem of equal rights for all.
I wish I could feel once more the force of your personality, Voltairine de Cleyre! Now, as spring is coming, what else could we do but stroll among the foothills and watch the awakening of nature to new endeavors.
The hawthorns in the marshes are in full bloom, the seeds of the cottonwood trees drift across the roads like snow flurries, the snakes have shed their skins along the boulders, and there, in the damp shadows of the woods the frail Indian tobacco plants sprout forth, so ethereally white as if they were still dreaming beneath the soil. All these vagaries of vernal evolution would speak to you and you understandingly would speak to them, strange runes of the soul, and your appreciation would seem like poetry to me, poetry that lay dormant in you all the while and which by some cruel whim of fate you could express only so hesitatingly.
Alas, all we have left of your struggle is your book. It is a book that should be read by everyone who desires to come into contact with a strong and unusual personality. The dead are still living who can offer us such treasures as Voltairine de Cleyre has done in her Collected Works.
Sadakichi Hartmann, “Voltairine de Cleyre,” Mother Earth 10, no. 2 (April 1915): 92-96.