Saturday, March 29, 2008

Minnesota History Center

Clara and I spent the early afternoon today in St. Paul at the Minnesota History Center museum. Foolishly, I forgot to bring my camera to capture the perfect picture postcard images of the State Capitol and the Cathedral, both of which are seen to great advantage from the history center grounds. There is still a small exhibit in the museum marking the centennial (2005) of the capitol building, but what engaged our attention for most of our time in the museum was the wonderful Open House exhibit. The exhibit (which was curated by the husband of a college friend of mine) reconstructs in marvelous detail the history of a single house in St. Paul from its building in 1888 to the present day, telling the stories of the many families and individuals who lived in the house over the years. The house was built by a German immigrant who became a successful pharmacist in St. Paul, and over the years it was subdivided to create apartments for working-class families. That one house was a remarkable melting pot; over the years it housed Italian immigrant families, African-Americans, Native Americans, and, recently, Hmong immigrants. It was fascinating.

Emma Goldman

We also spent some time in an exhibit on loan from the International Spy Museum in Washington D.C. (according to Clara, a must-see museum on a trip to the nation's capital). The exhibit was on the history of terrorism in America. Included among the terrorists was Emma Goldman. Goldman's autobiography, Living My Life, is one of the two best autobiographies I've ever read (the other is Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth).* I once had the ambition of writing a play about Emma Goldman's prison term in the state penitentiary in Missouri. Her prison term overlapped that of Socialist leader Kate Richards O'Hare. Here's the pitch:

The Missouri State Penitentiary, 1918. Emma Goldman and Socialist leader Kate Richards O’Hare are both serving time for violating the Espionage Act. Goldman was pulled out of the offices of her anarchist newspaper, Mother Earth, in New York, and charged with inciting resistance to the draft. O’Hare was leading an antiwar rally in South Dakota. She told the women in the audience that they were no more than brood sows, raising their sons for slaughter.

Kate Richards O’Hare is a serious, matronly woman, with an air, some people think, of self-importance. She believes in political action, and in the power of her own influence. On one occasion, she appeals to the warden for better sanitary conditions in the ward. Syphilis is rampant among the imprisoned prostitutes, and all the women are compelled to bathe in the same tub of water. She also reads poetry with a young Italian immigrant, a teenage anarchist named Ella Antolini, and encourages her to write her memoirs. But for the most part she stands aloof and studies her fellow inmates; after she is released, she will write an important book about prison reform. When the opportunity arises, she takes charge. She complains about the lack of light and air in the ward, and when the guards drag her from her cell, she smashes the painted-over workroom window with her book of poetry.

Goldman finds O’Hare somewhat cold, her political ideology dangerously misguided. O’Hare abhors violence, believes in political structure and incremental change, and can’t understand the anarchists’ apparent belief that something beautiful can blossom out of violence. Socialists and anarchists have little in common. Socialists would simply set up a different state, a new bureaucracy to replace the old. Anarchists would sweep everything away. But in prison, the two women become friends. Ideology doesn’t matter in the face of their common suffering.

The women in the cell block share whatever food was sent to them in private packages from the outside. At night, they tie bits of bread to the end of long pieces of string and lower them down, through the gaps in the barred walkways outside their cells, to the cells below. Bread passes from cell to cell.

The play opens with bread being lowered through the darkness to the stage.

That's as far as I got with my great historical drama, which was to be called Dangerous Women. I did spend a lot of time researching the character of Ella Antolini, who was arrested for transporting dynamite for her anarchist boyfriend. You want to help me write this thing, Brendon?

*Goldman's friend and fellow anarchist Alexander Berkman wrote a memoir, Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist (1912), which has long been languishing near the bottom of my "to be read" list. Berkman was sent to prison for attempting to assassinate Andrew Carnegie's business associate Henry Clay Frick.


Bleeet said...


This sounds awesome... a philosophical, thinking play. The challenge for such work is to put in a plot line that ties the Big Ideas together in a way that grabs the audience.

"The Crucible", "Inherit the Wind", "A Streetcar Named Desire" all do that so well. Take big ideas and make them active on the stage.

Yes, I'd be honored to help.

Bybee said...

Cool play-in-waiting! I just finished a graphic biography of Emma Goldman, plus Missouri is my home state.

Jim H. said...

I was hoping that Henry Clay Frick would turn out to be the father of Ford Frick, but the only bio I could find that mentions Henry's children does not list Ford Frick among them. Too bad. I was all prepared to write a clever entry that would link your terrific historical essay with the start of the baseball season.

Oh, well.

New Poem: "Phrasebook"

My poem " Phrasebook " has been published online in Ergon: Greek/American Arts and Letters .