Joseph Kucera , “Voltairine de Cleyre” (1913)

Voltairine de Cleyre

(A Character Sketch)

To meet an Intellectual face to face; to shake hands with the individual who champions our unpopular cause in poems, in prose and from the platform; to come in physical contact, through this handshake, with a person whom I admire from the distance; to see her really alive, and to see if she really corresponds with the picture I painted of her in my mind—that was the wish of many an Anarchist in regard to Voltairine de Cleyre.

But as a rule he was disappointed when he met her. Disappointed, because in her presence he was not overcome by dizziness which takes hold of simple people when they meet their mental superiors. Strange, maybe, to many. To those who knew her, it was herself—a plain individual, never assuming the air of intellectuality in order to make others feel inferior in her presence.

If anyone ever got hurt by her superiority, it was only when he provoked her to an argument, and he himself was not well posted on the subject, and even in such cases she was gentle, for at heart she never rejoiced over a defeat of her antagonist. It was only her logical, analytical mind that helped her to win an argument and get the satisfaction of victory.

Unlike many other intellectuals in the movement, she preferred to associate with simple people, with active comrades, whose hearts are still beating for the Anarchist idea. Company of affected cranks she detested. She had little use for people of high-sounding theories—she expected more. It was activity she was seeking in preference to theories. No matter how simple your idea, no matter how you set out to realize it, if only you were enough devoted to it, and willing to spend your time and energy for its realization, that sufficed to make her your friend.

And there was hardly anyone who met her personally who would not desire to be called one of her friends. Therefore it was not hard for her to arouse comrades to activity, to make them take up a cause where others had dropped it, as was excellently demonstrated in the case of the Mexican Revolution.

It was her personality, not her mentality, that attracted comrades to her, the most and finally made devotion of the attraction.

From her mother’s side a descendant of the Puritans, she was pure at heart, open in her actions, religiously devoted to her conviction. Through her father, from her French ancestors, she inherited the revolutionary spirit. What a rare combination in an individual! Toward the downtrodden, sentimental to tears; and against the oppressors, a revolutionist without mercy—a terrorist. Many may call this a paradox. To me it seems only natural that sentimental natures hate their social antagonists as much as they love their own class.

Had Voltairine de Cleyre been strong physically, she would not have died the poor death she did, she would have died on the battlefield—be it in the free speech fight in San Diego, against Madero in Mexico, or in some militant strike of the I. W. W., for it was her sincere desire at all times to fight, actually, not only in words, for the oppressed against the oppressor. As she was, she had to confine herself to writing or lecturing, and that she did with devotion.

Once a subject suggested itself to her mind, it anchored there well. Then she nursed it in her logical brain, fed it with new suggestions, researched over it, added to it and deduced from it until she had it so complete in her mind that she could sit down and put it on paper as fast as if she were reading it. But still to her the work was not done yet. It had to be beautiful—improved, polished—she herself had to reflect on it, always trying to be better than life and circumstances permitted. Thus can be seen in the first copy of her manuscripts continuous changes of words and sentences—not for the sake of improving the thought, but for the sake of the sound or linguistic beauty. When she had improved the first copy to her satisfaction, then she made a second copy in her clear and beautiful handwriting, and the article or pamphlet was ready for print. But even then, if the manuscript did not go to the printer immediately, she kept on improving it, while time and conditions were suggesting new ideas to her, so that her work really never was done. Therein also is reflected her idea of life: Always try to do better even under adverse circumstances.

For a subject she did not go to the intellectuals, who teach one mostly only the technicalities of expression—which she did not need. To her the subjects suggested themselves, from discussions with simple people, from their lives, from their activity in the labor movement. Being of a powerful intellect herself, she did not need intellectuals for her work any more than a man of phantasy needs to gaze at the wooden figures on the stage.

To all these working people who gathered around her devotedly, she was an inspiration, directly and indirectly a teacher, morally and mentally. So strong was her moral influence on her associates that hardly any individual, after spending a few hours in her company, would not have felt something revolting in himself—something that knocked at his heart and worked in his brain with the desire to do better than he had done so far in his life.

One of her strongest characteristics was independence. While always readily aiding others, she herself refused aid from anyone, be it financially or any other way, because of her dislike to be under obligations. She would rather starve her way through than sell her independence.

Although writing was her favorite way of expression, she did not confine her activity to pen and paper. She did not mount Parnassus to be admired and petted and finally spoiled, as has happened to many an able comrade. Modest by nature, she found great pleasure in mingling with comrades of whom the world at large had never heard, in spite of their being the silent workers without whom no movement could exist—no money for propaganda could be raised, With these she used to participate in active work,-raising defense funds, arranging meetings, organizing free speech fights, starting libraries and debating clubs, and all the multiple forms of propaganda which rarely are appreciated and never bring returns in the shape of name and fame. She could not resist participating in all this detail work. She was driven to it by the unquenchable thirst for the realization of her ideal, which was part of her life, and if she did not lay her hand to work instinctively, it was easy for her to call for assistance to what we term “free will,” which she possessed in a strong degree.

It is a popular belief that great people have many enemies. This did not apply to Voltairine de Cleyre. Everyone who knew her admired her, loved her. If she had any enemies at all, they were only those representing the class of oppressors. Still she suffered, like all sensitive people, imbued with knowledge and strongly feeling the social injustice, do suffer. As a rule such people turn to pessimism. That she was spared. Her darkest moments, which most of her friends termed pessimistic, were rather the result of melancholia, by which she was affected from her youth and was getting longer spells of the older she grew. Thus she traveled a thorny path all life,—in spite of meeting love wherever she went among her comrades,— suffered the most part of the forty-six years of her existence, and died after nine weeks of horrible suffering.

Joseph Kucera.

Joseph Kucera , “Voltairine de Cleyre,” Why? 1 no. 8 (August, 1913): 10-12.

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Independent scholar, translator and archivist.