An American Anarchist: The Life of Voltairine de Cleyre

book cover So I lied. Less than twelve hours after saying I’d likely not post here for a bit I finished another Paul Avrich book and can’t help myself. [apologies for the not-great book cover. There wasn’t a good one online so I took a photo at 11 at night]

I’d never even heard of Voltairine before reading Avrich’s duel Berkman-Goldman biography a bit back (though to be honest, I knew nothing about Berkman and Goldman before stumbling upon their biography either) but there were a few quotes attributed to her that peaked my interest. I could tell Avrich had something of a special interest in her and so I was not at all surprised to find this biography.

As a biography this is a solid B. Part of the problem throughout Avrich’s work is that, being one of the only historians to look at anarchy in the United States, he no doubt felt compelled to do too much at once. Write a biography of one person but at the same time give an overview of Anarchism, and create mini-bios of as many other people as possible (more than is necessary to our understanding of Voltai). And perhaps this is just a product of coming at the book with unrealistic expectations, but I was also hoping the book would talk more in-depth about her actual views. That is, more than just a line or two about her views on education, prison reform, sex, etc., I wanted depth and nuance. A mini-treatise! Avrich’s research was exhaustive and impressive, and he cites to a ton of lectures she gave over the course of her too-short life. But then fails to tell us much of anything about her positions. He’s such a tease!

That all said, I learned a great deal about her and there’s no doubt Avrich’s work here has, as another reviewer said, “rescued de Cleyre from undeserved oblivion.”  L. Glen Seretan Review, 1979. Absolutely worth reading — I only wish it were twice as long!

Below are some of my notes, in case they’re of use: 

  • People worth looking up
    • Lucy Parsons (p.90)
    • Natasha Notkin (98)
    • Mary Hansen (98)
    • Jacob Coxey – “industrial army” – marched to DC to demand relief from unemployment. (100)
    • Max Nettlau – anarchist historian (109)
    • Elisee Reclus (157)
    • Mary Wollstonecraft – Voltai’s feminist hero. Mentions idea of room of one’s own and issues with opposite-sex romantic relations and power. (158; 161)
    • Kropotkin –  esp. Fields, Factories, and Workshops, influenced her views on the possible compatibility of technology, innovation, and labor. (167-68)
    • Catherine Breshkovskaya – Socialist revolutionary from Russia. (187). “Unless the material conditions for equality exist, it is worse than mockery to pronounce men equal”. (186)
    • Relationship between anarchists & libertarians with socialists like Debs and London. (203)
    • Flores Magon
    • American libertarian and anarchist thinkers she IDs
      • Paine, Jefferson, Emerson, Thoreau
  • Ideas, Orgs, etc.
    • Alternative living arrangements
      • Stelton Colony (82)
      • Sunrise Colony in Michigan (82)
      • Mohegan colonies (104)
      • Flores Magon’s Mexican revolution and corresponding experimentation with communal living in places like Tijuana. (226)
    • Ladies Liberal League and the Radical Library (97)
    • Marriage and Children – seemed to think it might be morally wrong to have children. (160)
    • Property
      • not an advocate of communal property originally and definitely not a Communist. (105; 144) (contrast with Emma Goldman)
      • in 1890s moved to a Dyer Lum-Proudhon type mutualism.
      • strongly opposed to commercialism. Had a sort of Jeffersonian agrarian fantasy
    • Philosophy
      • anti-materialist conception of history. Like Berkman “the idea is the thing”
      • Dominant Idea Theory – thought was about consumerism. (162)
      • Anarchy has different threads
        • (1) Individualism vs. (2) Collectivist (subcategories include: mutualism, socialist/Marxist, communist)
        • (1) US native (I take him to mean not native but simply not first generation) vs. (2) immigrant. (155)
      • what draws some anarchists and libertarians to Buddhism? Here Avrich talks about Lum, who was her most stable mentor and lover, being involved in it. (56)
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