Touching on two essays: “A Menace to Liberty” by Emma Goldman and “Woman and the Creative Will” by Lola Ridge
[a repost from our 2017 Advent Calendar on the occasion of the paperback release of Anything That Burns You: a Portrait of Lola Ridge, Radical Poet]
Cover design by Lola Ridge for Patriotism: A Menace to Liberty by Emma Goldman, 1908.
This summer I was rounding the corner in the Museum of Modern Art, sixth floor, new acquisitions, where I beheld—the only word for the shock of seeing it—a fifteen foot magic marker copy of poet Lola Ridge's only extant work of visual art, “A Menace to Liberty.” Artist Andrea Bowers, also a women's rights activist, labeled it “cover art for Emma Goldman's Mother Earth magazine, 1911” but since I had recently published Anything That Burns You: A Portrait of Lola Ridge, Radical Poet, I knew from Goldman's letters that Ridge was the unacknowledged artist, and that it was published three years earlier.
Executed in the realistic lithographic style of the turn-of-the-century, “A Menace to Liberty” depicts “Patriotism,” a woman in armor pinioning a prostrate female “Liberty,” not the most feminist of images. In the essay that follows it, “Patriotism: A Menace to Liberty,” Emma Goldman argues that the more patriotic the country, the more military is engaged to guard that country, which results in less liberty. Although America was then in relative peace, having only recently fought the Spanish American War, she said capitalism had trebled the manufacture of weaponry, which resulted in seriously depleting human and natural resources, a claim later supported by historians. In comparison, our relative peace has had undeclared wars in Vietnam, the Gulf, Iraq and Afghanistan, with increased military spending ratcheting up accordingly. Goldman did not overlook the irony that “the very soldiers sent to liberate Cuba were ordered to shoot Cuban workingmen during the great cigarmakers' strike, which took place shortly after the war,” an incident highlighting the true nature of patriotism used in service of a military guided by capitalism. She quotes Tolstoy, that patriotism justifies “the training of wholesale murderers.” These days self-described “patriots” arm themselves to the teeth, citing their rights under the second amendment, and with increasing regularity, murder those who threaten them. She also quotes Samuel Johnson: “Patriotism is the last resort of scoundrels,” asserting that these “scoundrels,” wealthy capitalists, usually have little need for patriotism because they are cosmopolitan; they live and work at home in the world rather than the nation. Despite Trump's slogan America First, he invests in U.S. companies that outsource their jobs, and has partnerships operating in at least twenty foreign countries, a debt of over a hundred million dollars to German banks, not to mention revenues from his overseas golf courses and hotels – and links to military spending that line his own pockets. According to Goldman, patriotism assumes that “our globe is divided into little spots, each one surrounded by a iron gate.” Eight years after the publication of her essay, America slammed its gate shut when the Espionage Act was passed specifically to deport her.
A radical, according to H.L. Mencken, “is not a bad citizen turning to crime but a good citizen driven to despair.” Lola Ridge arrived in the U.S. in 1908 as an immigrant from New Zealand. She immediately sought out Goldman who recognized her passion for radical politics and her talent for art. They worked together for four years, Goldman publishing Ridge's poetry and the lithograph, and Ridge organizing. Eventually Ridge split from Goldman—”she could brook no independence of action in any associate”—a force inimical to women seeking their own identities, like birth control advocate Margaret Sanger, another of her acolytes.
In 1919 Ridge read an essay entitled “Woman and the Creative Will” to a large crowd in Chicago. It concerned women's creativity and how it was equal to men's. “Woman is not and never has been man’s natural inferior,” she wrote, ten years before Virginia Woolf published “A Room of One's Own.” According to Ridge, no woman had ever been as great an artist as a man, although many had tried. There had never been adequate training of women, nor opportunities for them to support a career in art, and finally, men, blinded by the precepts of gender and difference, were never be able to recognize greatness in a female artist. When women realized “that art must transcend fear, and that thought is a spiritual substance to be molded like clay—they too will be the masters of dreams.” Ridge pressed her premise to its logical conclusion: unless mankind made a determined effort “not merely toward reorganization and reform, but toward the construction of a completely new social and economic fabric,” it would self-destruct.
Ridge's branch of anarchy, Kropotkin's, advocated freedom in all things. Modernism has its roots in anarchy, a movement espousing total freedom from formal precepts and proscribed subjects. On the other hand, the root of patriotism, patros, means father in Greek. Goldman's essay reminds us that dominance by the fatherland comes at a price; Ridge's essay says that the price is half of humanity's creative subjugation. If one were to conflate Goldman's essay with Ridge's via her lithograph, the image might be interpreted as one woman, pressured by the absent man—military might, The Hulk—funded by the fatherland who promises to protect women if they would only recognize that they have no liberty at all, let alone artistic. If women were allowed to be creative, goes the corollary, patriotism would wither away and democracy flourish, with every artist allowed a voice in its making.
When Ridge died in 1941, the New York Times deemed her “one of our most important poets.” The Ghetto and Other Poems, her first and most famous book, concerns the trials and triumphs of immigrant Jews on the Lower East Side, and was published in 1918 to great acclaim. Although she was not Jewish, she understood the political situation of immigrants, who are often the most patriotic of citizens—until they are disillusioned. “To The American People,” the title of her first poem, contains the lines: “On my board are bitter apples/And honey served on thorns.” Four more very successful books followed, including one entitled Red Flag, and they included writing about executions, incarceration, labor leaders, and lynchings. Ridge worked hard to turn these subjects into artful poetry, negotiating complex social realities. Her “Lullaby,” written after the terrible incidents of the 1917 East St. Louis riots, indicts while it mocks.
Rock-a-by baby, woolly and brown...
(There’s a shout at the door an’ a big red light...)
Lil’ coon baby, mammy is down...
Han’s that hold yuh are steady an’ white...
Look piccaninny—such a gran’ blaze
Lickin’ up the roof an’ the sticks of home—
Ever see the like in all yo’ days!
—Cain’t yuh sleep, mah bit-of-honey-comb?
Rock-a-by baby, up to the sky!
Look at the cherries driftin’ by—
Bright red cherries spilled on the groun’—
Piping-hot cherries at nuthin’ a poun’!
Hush, mah lil’ black-bug—doan yuh weep.
Daddy’s run away an’ mammy’s in a heap
By her own fron’ door in the blazin’ heat
Outah the shacks like warts on the street...
An’ the singin’ flame an’ the gleeful crowd
Circlin’ aroun’... won’t mammy be proud!
With a stone at her hade an’ a stone on her heart,
An’ her mouth like a red plum, broken apart...
See where the blue an’ khaki prance,
Adding brave colors to the dance
About the big bonfire white folks make—
Such gran’ doin’s fo’ a lil’ coon’s sake!
Hear all the eagah feet runnin’ in town—
See all the willin’ han’s reach outah night—
Han’s that are wonderful, steady an’ white!
To toss up a lil’ babe, blinkin’ an’ brown...
Rock-a-by baby—higher an’ higher!
Mammy is sleepin’ an’ daddy’s run lame...
(Soun’ may yuh sleep in yo’ cradle o’ fire!)
Rock-a-by baby, hushed in the flame...
(An incident of the East St. Louis Race Riots, when some white women flung a living colored baby into the heart of a blazing fire.)How was Ridge erased from literary history? Influential essays by John Crowe Ransom and Allen Tate in the 30s rebuked successful women-as-poets, asserting they were anti-intellectual by nature. Around the same time patriotism began to justify the next World War, until any critical political writing was suspect, and poets reverted to writing formal poems about sunsets. Literary freedoms had to go: experimentation, leftist politics, and feminism. This backlash left poems serious about politics or experiment by either sex in the dustbin. It took another fifty years for the confessional, the beat, and the radical to shake off such repudiation.
A year after Ridge's speech, she received a grant from a radical philanthropist to expand it into a book with chapters on Woman’s Creative Past, The Nature of Aesthetic Emotion, Man’s Conception of Womanhood as the Rib, Puritanism and Art, The Bisexual Nature of Genius, The Inner Room, Sex Antagonism, Motherhood and the Creative Will, and Woman’s Future in Creative Art. Nine years later, Viking, her publisher, told her no one would read such a book, and turned it down.
I tried to secure proper recognition for her original lithograph as appropriated by Bowers. The artist did not respond to my several requests. In an online interview she said that “famous artists would design some of the [Mother Earth] covers” but she didn't bother to find out which famous artist designed the cover she copied, much less read the essay that the image illustrates – or she wouldn't have said that “patriotism silences dissent.” She missed the point: that militarism arises out of excess nationalism. I was less surprised by the silence of corporate MoMA. A corporate body, like a nation, is seldom moved to correction.
Terese Svoboda is the author of Anything That Burns You: A Portrait of Lola Ridge, Radical Poet (2015) that was just issued in paperback; Professor Harriman's Steam Air-Ship (2016), her 7th book of poetry; and a chapbook from Swan's Island Press called The Maine in Spain forthcoming in 2018.