Voltairine de Cleyre, “C. L. James” (1911)

It is nearly eighteen years ago, back in the fall of 1893, that for the brief space of a half an hour I sat in the company of C. L. James. It happened so: it was the year of the world’s fair at Chicago, and everybody with an “ism,” orthodox or heterodox, was foregathering with his fellows in belief, in convention assembled. We the Anarchists also wanted a convention, and prepared to hold one; but the Chief of Police, hearing thereof, notified Will Holmes that no convention would be allowed unless his men were present at all our proceedings; as to public meetings, the Chief saw to it that we got no halls.

In this aggravating state of affairs, Honoré J. Jaxon, former secretary of Louis Riel in the uprising of the Northwest, took it into his strategic head to play a trick on the city administration. He had a room in the Chicago Times Building, owned by Carter Harrison, then Mayor of Chicago and father of the present Mayor. To this room he invited us to hold our deliberations; and there for ten days we came and went, under the noses of the Times reporters, perfectly sure that even if they did suspect who we were, they dared not speak, for fear of the laugh of the six opposition papers would have on the administration.

It was in that room—that quaint, obscure room, with its Indian teepee put up within the walls, and with a bench-seat running round within its octagonal outline, after the manner of an Indian council—that I saw C. L. James the one time in my life. And of that meeting I retain a very clear impression, for though he said almost nothing, his personality was not one easily forgotten. There was nothing imposing in his figure, which was quite ordinary; but his clear, restless dark eyes, set in a skin tinted with morning, glittered intensely upon everything, and compelled notice; one might have thought them coals of life. Although he must then have been not over forty-seven, and looked even younger, his hair was snowy, and fell like a mane; its color had already grown old and died, while yet the luxuriance of youth thickened it.

He did not attend our meetings; had merely come in, in the interim, while most of the comrades were absent; and indeed appeared nervous and anxious to get away. I have always been under the impression that while his spirit was extremely daring, able to seize the uttermost significance of the awakenings of revolt, he personally shrank from the unpleasantness of active struggle with the powers that be.

His disposition seems to have been a naturally retiring one, no doubt accentuated by the long period (almost half a century) spent chiefly in the labors of a devoted scholar in a small western city.

This quiet, rather shrinking habit is difficult for those who knew him through his controversial writings in the Alarm, Lucifer, and Free Society to realize. For these created a totally different impression. It took a very sturdy opponent not to feel that he had been flattened out under a load of learning, rather arrogantly precipitated upon him. A frequent comment among the readers of these articles was, “James is a walking ’cyclopedia.” And such he really was; for it seems that he read everything, and forgot nothing.

Although I personally greatly enjoyed his style, so rich in literary allusion and historic illustration (what wonder! history descended in him so to speak!), I often regretted that these very things made him unintelligible to those whom he would probably have most wished to enlighten; so that they case aside his work unread, while the main thoughts were the very things they were seeking to know, and would have found, had they been dressed in simpler language.

Among these coruscations of sparks flashed out from his luminous brain, I remember one more far-flashing than all the others: The Monster-Slayer. Old readers of Free Society will recollect it. By a singular laugh of the goods this article, which was a sort of commemoration article of Bresci’s deed in slaying the king of Italy in July 1900, a year before, had been delayed in publication till the first of September; on the sixth of September, the “Monster-Slayer” once more fulfilled his immemorial mission. I have never known how Comrade James appreciated this juxtaposition of the judgment of Destiny with his interpretation thereof; but he was certainly gifted with too keen a power of grasping the coincidences of Mind and Circumstance, not to hear the blow of September 6 like a clapping of ghostly applause; he might have smiled, reading his own article, as though it were a re-evocation of the Monster-Slayer. There was poetry in it.

It is with satisfaction, mixed with keen regret, that I learn his book, The Vindication of Anarchism, is soon to be published; regret because he did not live to see it, but died “on the eve,” so to say; satisfaction, which partakes of a little personal joy, because it was a request of mine which originally prompted the writing of the Vindication.

In the year 1900, I chanced to see in some Socialist paper an outline for a reading course for Socialists laid out by the well-learned Isador Ladoff. Feeling the inadequacy of my own knowledge, and the importance of self-educational work in our own groups as no less than that of public propaganda, my mind seized upon Ladoff’s idea, and I turned to Comrade James as being, since the death of Dyer D. Lum, the one most capable of outlining such a course of reading for Anarchists. He promptly acceded to my request, and the outline of the course ran through Free Society, and was of much service in directing our reading for a time. The opening lines of the Vindication explain that the book has been developed along the line laid out in those twelve lessons.

I hope that the perservering efforts of Mr. A. Isaak, Jr., as well as the persistently held hope and effort of our long-devoted comrade Natasha Notkin, to put this publication within the reach of those wishing to avail themselves of the great fund of information contained therein, may soon be crowned with success. That will be the most grateful of monuments to our great thinker who has gone.

Voltairine de Cleyre, “C. L. James,” Mother Earth 6, no. 5 (July 1911): 142-144.

About Shawn P. Wilbur 2703 Articles
Independent scholar, translator and archivist.