Emma Goldman: Revolution as a Way of Life
by Vivian Gornick
Emma Goldman is the story of a modern radical who took seriously the idea that inner liberation is the first business of social revolution. Her politics, from beginning to end, was based on resistance to that which thwarted the free development of the inner self.
The right to stay alive in one’s senses, to enjoy freedom of thought and speech, to reject the arbitrary use of power—these were key demands in the many public protest movements she helped mount.
Gornick's biography describes Goldman's fierce commitment to public protest movements. Anarchist par excellence, Goldman is one of the memorable political figures of our time, not because of her gift for theory or analysis or even strategy, but because some extraordinary force of life in her burned, without rest or respite, on behalf of human integrity—and she was able to make the thousands of people who, for decades on end, flocked to her lectures, feel intimately connected to the pain inherent in the abuse of that integrity. To hear Emma describe, in language as magnetic as it was illuminating, what the boot felt like on the neck, was to experience the mythic quality of organized oppression. As the women and men in her audience listened to her, the homeliness of their own small lives became invested with a sense of drama that acted as a catalyst for the wild, vagrant hope that things need not always be as they were. All you had to do, she promised, was resist. In time, she herself would become a world-famous symbol for the spirit of resistance to the power of institutional authority over the lone individual.
In Emma Goldman, Vivian Gornick draws a surpassingly intimate and insightful portrait of a woman of heroic proportions whose performance on the stage of history did what Tolstoy said a work of art should do: it made people love life more.
"[Gornick] has breathed new life into one of the liveliest figures of modern history—not a rebel without a cause but a rebel with many causes.”
-- Boston Globe
"An intense, engrossing essay written with an allusive, sinuous style."Fred Siegel, Wall Street Journal
"Gornick's arresting portrait...is less a political history and more an illumination of 'the existential drive behind radical politics'...Gornick sees Goldman's lifelong commitment to anarchism as doing 'what Tolstoy said a work of art should do: It made people love life more'; this generous book does the same." --New Yorker
“Vivian Gornick has a gripping new entry in Yale’s Jewish Lives series...She has breathed new life into one of the liveliest figures of modern history—not a rebel without a cause but a rebel with many causes.”--David Shribman, Boston Globe
"Concise but elegant." --Russell Baker, New York Review of Books
"[Goldman's] own erotic life was often, well, pathetic...As throughout the book, Gornick’s writing on, and insight into, this aspect of Goldman’s life is absolutely stunning... I believe Emma Goldman to be the most beautifully written biography (of any length) that I’ve ever read."-- Lambda Literary Review
"Aptly condenses the life story of the fiery radical and presents a vivid snapshot of Gilded Age liberal activism.... Gornick lucidly presents her subject’s significance within a fascinating historical moment." Kirkus Review
"With wit and insight, Gornick urges readers to feel what Goldman felt, to ponder what made her kick against conditions that her contemporaries meekly accepted, and to ask whether things are so different today." Publishers Weekly
"Gornick offers a surprisingly nuanced account of Goldman’s political dilemmas...What’s truly haunting is the way Gornick shows us a woman ahead of her times—maybe even ahead of our times." --Bettina Berch, Jewish Book Council
"A ferocious, high-strung and enlightening biography....This slender volume, out from Yale University Press as part of their Jewish Lives series, can now be counted among the indispensable guides to Goldman’s life." --Virginia Heffernan, Moment
See Goldman interviewed in US a newsreel after a 15 year exile:
For a wealth of information about Goldman and to follow her cross country tour, browse an issue of her magazine and more, See PBS’s American Experience CLICK HERE
Reading Guide Questions for Emma Goldman: Revolution as a Way of Life
- We usually use the term "refusenik" in relation to Jews persecuted by the Soviet government for applying to emigrate in the 1960s-1980s, but Gornick writes, "Emma Goldman was a born refusenik." What does she mean by this?
- It was during her first speaking tour that Goldman experienced "the moment when Emma Goldman began to create ‘Emma Goldman.'" Why was her developing a dramatic persona for herself so essential to her mission? What were the ramifications of this throughout her life?
- How does the quote, "If I can't dance, I'm not coming to your revolution" sum up Goldman's brand of anarchism.
- The author writes, "For the press, Emma was never just a political speaker, she was always a ‘rabid female agitator.'" To what extent do you think Goldman's gender helped or hindered her?
- Around the time that Goldman began lecturing on "Misconceptions of Free Love," Gornick writes that "she had begun her lifelong romance with the power of sexual infatuation." Taking into account the kinds of erotic relationships she had with men throughout her life, what was the gap between theory and practice in terms of Goldman's espousing the virtues of free love?
- Although Goldman had been sexually intimate with Alexander (Sasha) Berkman only briefly in their youth, he "was the vital connection in her life." Describe Goldman and Berkman's relationship. On what was it based? Compare and contrast Goldman's relationship with Berkman to her relationship with other men in her life.
- The biographer notes that "Emma Goldman was not a feminist; she was a sexual radical, which made her a supporter of birth control a defender of sex without marriage but not a proponent of women's rights as that term is generally understood." Explain Goldman's differences with the feminists of her day, and if you think she would have been more in sync with the feminist/women's liberation movement of the 1970's, say why.
- Goldman viewed American capitalism as "slavery, pure and simple." Yet, we learn that Goldman was "grief stricken" at having been exiled from the United States. Why was exile from this country so traumatic for her? What was it that attached her to America?
- "It wasn't that Emma ever forgot she was a Jew or ever wished herself not a Jew…But devotion to Jewishness as an identity had never been compelling for her; that devotion was bound up with ritual beliefs that from earliest youth she had been unable to subscribe to." Given this, can Goldman be a Jewish role model for Jews today? If so,why?
- Gornick concludes her biography of Emma Goldman by saying that, although "The personal is the political" was coined several decades after her death, it is "the phrase that most deserves to be associated —in fear, hope, and excitement—with the legacy of Emma Goldman." Why?