“Emma Goldman and the Tragedy of Modern Love” by Rochelle Gurstein, in Salmagundi (Summer–Fall 2002), Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, N.Y. 12866.
Anarchist Emma Goldman didn’t leave many of the great issues of her day untouched. She was an impassioned crusader for labor and revolution and an unabashed advocate of “free love” who wrote openly of her erotic yearnings and numerous love affairs. That openness was too much for the feminists of her day, but it was catnip to their successors in the 1960s and 1970s. To them, Goldman seemed a feminist foremother.
As feminist scholars began to delve into Goldman’s life (1869–1940), however, doubts soon set in, and the reasons are revealing, says Gurstein, the author of The Repeal of Reticence (1996). The change of heart began with a 1984 biography by leading Goldman authority Candace Falk, Love, Anarchy, and Emma Goldman. Drawing on a newly discovered trove of Goldman’s passionate man, Falk found a tumultuous “secret” life that was hard to square with the standards of late-20th-century feminism. The s rampant promiscuity and also seemed willing at times to abandon all of her political commitments for the sexual ecstasy she found in Reitman’s arms.
To latter-day feminists, this discovery was a terrible disappointment, revealing a woman who was willing to endure great humiliation and who expressed her love for Reitman in words that were dismayingly “romantic, almost melodramatic,” as Falk put it. But Gurstein argues that the modern feminist conviction that “the personal is political” leads these writers astray. They fail “to realize that the impassioned words that one utters to a lover in private to make a particular impression are an entirely different thing from a considered statement of one’s political commitment.” In fact, Goldman never did sacrifice her principles for Reitman: “She went to prison, was deported . . . spoke the truth about the brutality of Soviet Russia, and was a pariah among her former comrades for the rest of her life.”
The tormented love t have led biographers to ask what’s wrong with Emma Goldman, but what’s wrong with the ideal of free love.
For all of her outspokenness, Goldman never spoke publicly about her innermost agonies and yearnings. She retained, in other words, a sense of privacy and intimacy. That her private feelings now seem merely clichéd and incomprehensible to contemporary critics, Gurstein says, is a measure of how much our appreciation of the private and the intimate has shrunk.