Elevate Difference's Reviews > Emma Goldman: A Documentary History of the American Years, Volume One: Made for America, 1890-1901

Emma Goldman by Emma Goldman
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Jan 11, 2009

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Emma Goldman: A Documentary History of the American Years, Volume 1 is a thorough and well-organized compilation of the letters, essays, speeches, court transcripts, and media accounts of Emma Goldman from 1890 through 1901. The editors begin with an overall synopsis of what is covered in the documents, which is essentially an overview of Goldman’s life during the eleven years covered - including a great deal of background information about the anarchist movement through which Goldman worked. Following the synopsis are letters and assorted documents, in chronological order, and the end contains a glossary, of sorts, of important people, periodicals, and organizations, with brief summaries of each.

Because of the excellent job the editors do providing background information and explanations of the nuances of various social and political movements at play during the time period, the book is ideal even for a reader with no prior knowledge of Emma Goldman, the anarchist movement, or even late nineteenth century United States and European history. Through skilled footnoting and remarkably accessible prose, all of these things are explained in an orderly manner, leaving few questions in the reader’s mind about the events, while opening the door to an infinite number of ideological and philosophical questions.

Inevitably, since the book is covering the story of a woman, it has to include an in-depth analysis of her wardrobe, traditional feminine qualities, and personal style. Not to blame the editors – they simply provide and analyze information that was written about Goldman in the media. An interesting quote has Goldman complaining that the news media concentrated only on sensationalist news, making it difficult for anyone to really know what is going on in the world. Regrettably, if she came back to life today, she may scarcely notice that 100 years of alleged progress have come to pass.

Some of the most interesting documents are letters written to Goldman by her lover and comrade Alexander Berkman while he was in prison for the attempted assassination of Henry Frick. She spent a year in prison as well, for telling a crowd they were entitled to steal bread if they would otherwise starve. The book includes poignant essays that she subsequently published, shedding light on the prison system and holding herself up as proof that - even in “free” America - threats to the status quo were unwelcome and punished. Other documents in this book illustrate her radical views of what feminist motherhood might look like and her belief in free love without state or church intervention through the institution of marriage.

It’s difficult to condense a fascinating 617 page collection into a few paragraphs, but the overall relevance of a compilation of Goldman’s life work is invaluable for furthering political, social, and economic discourse - not because she provided real solutions to the timeless issues of class struggle and gender inequality, but because of the courage and tenacity with which she raised and confronted them.

Review by Staci Schoff
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