Lilian Hiller Udell, “An American Anarchist” (1914)

An American Anarchist

Selected Works of Voltairine de Cleyre.
[Mother Earth Publishing Association, New York.]

Into every generation are born certain personalities that have the gift of attracting vast multitudes within their orbit, dominating them, animating them with a single purpose, directing them to a common goal. There are other personalities more richly gifted, of more extended vision, who nevertheless live and die unknown to the greater number of their contemporaries. Aristocrats of the mind, these latter disdain to practice the arts by which popularity is gained and held. They attract, but do not seek to dominate. They persuade, but never command. Their passion is without hysteria; their moral indignation is without personal rancor. They cherish ideals, but harbor no illusions. They will gladly surrender life itself for an idea, but they will not shriek for it. Our popular leaders are not seldom led by those who seem to follow. These others advance alone. If they are followed it is without their solicitation. To say that the individualist writer and lecturer whose collected writings are now before us was such a personality may seem exaggerated praise. If so, I have no apology to offer. I only ask that, until you have read the lectures, poems, stories, and sketches which this book contains you will suspend judgment.

Voltairine de Cleyre belonged to the school of thinkers that has suffered most from the misrepresentations and misunderstanding of the unthinking crowd; the school which numbers among its adherents men like Stirner, Ibsen, and, in some aspects of his teaching, Nietzsche; the school

that sees hope of social regeneration only in the sovereignty of the individual and the total abolition of the state. She belonged to it because she was at once logician and poet, with a temperament abnormally rebellious against tyranny and an imagination abnormally responsive to every form of suffering.

It has often been remarked that anarchism takes root most readily in those minds that have endured most oppression. Thus Russia, the home of absolute political despotism, is also the birthplace of Bakunin, Hertzen, Kropotkin, and Tolstoy. In America, where what Mencken calls “the new puritanism” operates more oppressively than political government, it is in behalf of sex freedom that most frequent and vehement protest is heard.

In the case of Voltairine de Cleyre this reaction declared itself neither because of political nor of sexual restraint. It came about in the realm of religion. It began from the moment when, at the age of twelve, the sensitive gifted girl was placed in the hands of a Roman Catholic sisterhood, presumably that her education might be safe. For four years the young Voltairine lived at the convent of Our Lady of Lake Huron at Sarnia, Ontario, heartsick with loneliness, writhing under the padded yoke of conventual discipline, gathering within her soul that flame which was never destined to be quenched save in death. Out of that experience she came with a mind wholly emancipated from the dogmas of religion. Not long afterward she entered upon what promised to be a brilliant career as a secularist lecturer.

That a nature like hers would long confine itself to labor in the barren field of theological controversy was not to have been expected. She was too vital, too human. It is possible that the delicacy of her own health intensified her sense of the world pain. Her sympathies are not alone of the intellect but of the nerves. One feels the nerve torture of an imaginative and poetic invalid in her confession of the reasons which had drawn her to adopt the anarchist propaganda. She pictures herself as standing upon a mighty hill from which she writes:

I saw the roofs of the workshops of the little world. I saw the machines, the things that men had made to ease their burden, the wonderful things, the iron genii, I saw them set their iron teeth in the living flesh of the men who made them; I saw the maimed and crumpled stumps of men go limping away into the night that engulfs the poor, perhaps to be thrown up in the flotsam and jetsam of beggary for a time, perhaps to suicide in some dim corner where the black surge throws its slime. I saw the rose fire of the furnace shining on the blanched face of the man who tended it, and knew surely, as I knew anything in life, that never would a free man feed his blood to the fire like that.

I saw swart bodies, all mangled and crushed, borne from the mouths of the mines to be stowed away in a grave hardly less narrow and dark than that in which the living form had crouched ten, twelve, fourteen hours a day; and I knew that in order that I might be warm—I and you, and those others who never do any dirty work— those men had slaved away in those black graves and been crushed to death at last.

I saw beside city streets great heaps of horrible colored earth, and down at the bottom of the trench from which it was thrown, so far down that nothing else was visible, bright gleaming eyes, like a wild animal hunted into its hole. And I knew that free men never chose to labor there, with pick and shovel, in that foul, sewage-soaked earth, in that narrow trench, in that deadly sewer gas ten, eight, even six hours a day. Only slaves would do it.

I saw deep down in the hull of the ocean liner the men who shoveled the coal—burned and seared like paper before the grate; and I knew that “the record” of the beautiful monster, and the pleasure of the ladies who laughed on the deck, were paid for with those withered bodies and souls. I saw the scavenger carts go up and down, drawn by sad brutes and driven by sadder ones; for never a man, a man in full possession of his selfhood, would freely choose to spend all his days in the nauseating stench that forces him to swill alcohol to neutralize it. And I saw in the lead works how men were poisoned, and in the sugar refineries how they went insane; and in the factories how they lost their decency; and in the stores how they learned to lie; and I knew it was slavery made them do all this.

And against such slavery this young Amazon of the spirit (for at this time, 1887, she was only twenty-one) declared a life-long warfare. In so doing she separated herself from those who would otherwise have been her natural allies and cut off those opportunities for worldly success which must in the ordinary course of things have come to her.

Finding the cause of economic slavery not in capitalism, as do the socialists, but in the government of man by man through which capitalism is made possible, she was isolated still further from her contemporaries. Hence the obscurity in which her life was passed. Hence the fact that until her death in 1912 she lived quietly, teaching English to the newly-arrived immigrant, scattering about her the treasure of a richly-stored mind as freely as the south wind scatters the perfume it has gathered from the garden in its path. If she had lived nearer to the plane of the generally accepted culture Voltairine de Cleyre might have gained a recognized place among the foremost women of her time.

As it was she gave us in her lectures, now for the first time offered to the public, the most comprehensive exposition of philosophical anarchism that has appeared since the days of Proudhon and Stirner.

Lilian Hiller Udell.


Lilian Hiller Udell, “An American Anarchist,” The Little Review 1 no. 7 (October, 1914): 42-44.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2233 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.