Prison Memoirs

In his Introduction to the Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist, by Alexander Berkman, Mr. Hapgood says that he wishes that everybody in the world would read this book, and adds, with characteristic optimism, that the general and careful reading of it would definitely add to true civilization. Unquestionably many people will read it; but they will do so, I fear, because human beings relish the sufferings of their fellows and find fascination in watching the turns of pain. Of the broad nobility that breathes from it, of the lessons it should teach, how much will they see who spend their days in rehearsing ceremonies designed to blind themselves and in erecting institutions designed to blind their brothers?

If it serves to overcome in even a few people the prejudices they cherish it will do so not because of a careful reading or an open mind on their part, but because of the extraordinary literary power with which Mr. Berkman has presented his story. At the very beginning of the book one feels a movement, a rustle of spiritual and physical events that portends catastrophe. But in the great tragedies of literature and of life the essence of catastrophe lies in the fact that the spirit of the hero, in the final isolation of his material defeat, rises the nobler, unconquered still. So here, after the climactic deed has been accomplished, the protagonist maintains his attitude through all the years of suffering, accepts the catastrophe as a challenge and overcomes it. If the author had been free to use his imagination only he could not have ordered the events to bring out more skilfully the spiritual significance of his deed.

These larger movements to which I have just referred, the movements of mind and emotion and spirit, are patterned with details of pathos and horror. Indeed, I know of few passages in literature more pathetic than that in which Mr. Berkman relates his meeting in jail with the Homestead striker. No one around has understood his motives; they have thought that he was concealing them or was crazy. But here at last is the man who can understand, one of the very men for whom the young Anarchist offered his life. So he explains to him. The striker says: Some business misunderstanding, eh?

Equally pathetic, though in a different way, are the incidents connected with the story of young Russell, whose character is the basis of some of the most beautiful passages in the book. Indeed, the characterization throughout is, if we judge from a literary view-point, the most remarkable thing about these remarkable Memoirs. No one who has met Russell, Wingie, Felipe, or the rest of the people portrayed will be likely to forget them. Something has been done to them that makes them more living than living beings; an imagination has touched them and bared them to our sight. I do not mean that they have been falsified by the author, or even added to; rather, that having been understood by that sort of an imagination that can put itself to the full in the places of other people, they are presented to us with such details as will convey the significance of their traits, the reality of their characters.

But the most interesting of all the characters is that of the author himself. In portraying it the author has used a method very different from that employed for the other characters. Instead of presenting outward detail, the details of the action, he emphasizes the motives, emotional and mental states, analyzes them, and lets what I have called outward detail fall in by way of illustration. Thus the other characters serve as a background to the deepest interest of the book, the reasons and motives of a human soul.

To follow out at length these reasons and motives is not the purpose of this review. I have merely sought to point out that here, from an Anarchist, is a book of rare power and beauty, majestic in its structure, filled with the truth of imagination and the truth of actuality, emphatic in its declarations and noble in its reach.

A Study in Revolutionary Syndicalism

The Labor Movement in France



With an introduction by Professor Franklin H. Giddings

Price $1.60, including postage.