Voltairine de Cleyre, “Dyer D. Lum” (1893)



DYER D. LUM, poet, philosopher and revolutionist, whose portrait appears as the frontispiece of this number of the Magazine, was born at Geneva, N. Y., February I5, 1839. In these days when the cry of “foreigner” is hurled at every one who dares to form a conception of society without government, it is perhaps worth while to trace the descent of a man so prominent in the extreme radical movement.

In the year 1732 Samuel Lum came to this country from Scotland. Daniel Dyer Lum, or, as he afterwards wrote it, Dyer Daniel, was the direct descendant in the fifth generation of this rugged Scotch character, which, developed more fully under the rugged New England environment, seems to have been transmitted tolerably intact to Daniel Ludlow Lum, Dyer’s father. A man of strict integrity, mercilessly religious, thoroughly believing in the old school and quite as thoroughly living up to it, the subject of our sketch was early disciplined with a liberal application of the rod, “that being,” as his son now remarks, “where father and his father disagreed in his younger days.” On the maternal side he is again the descendant of an old colonial family, viz., that of Benjamin and Sarah Tappan, well known in Revolutionary history, and, as I find among some curious reflections of his upon heredity, “noted for devotion to the Reformation from the days of Queen Elizabeth, and in their coat-of-arms indicating descent from a Crusader.” He adds: “My great-grandfather, in this town [Northampton], was one of the ‘Minute Men’ enrolled in the Massachusetts army, and carried his gun—between prayers.”

The Tappans were all brainy people, one of them having founded the New York Journal of Commerce, another having been United States Senator, a third a prominent antislavery advocate.

Sarah Patterson Tappan, widow of Daniel L. Lum, is still living at Geneva, N. Y., though nearly ninety years of age. She inherited the brilliant faculties of the Tappans, the keen analytical and logical mind, together with that wit and sarcasm which so often point the shafts of her son’s writings. To her Mr. Lum always credited his abilities; and while speaking of his father with the utmost respect, evidently lacked towards him that affiliation of spirit plainly felt for his mother, notwithstanding their wide differences of opinion. For she, too, is eminently orthodox, and the Lum household was one in which the “Lord’s day” was kept with “becoming reverence.”

It wants the inimitable drollery of his voice and gesture, but I cannot forbear repeating one of Mr. Lum’s stories illustrative of the effect of this stern piety upon him and his brother William, long since dead. The family frequently received ministers as guests, and upon one occasion, two or three of them being present, they decided to examine William in his catechism. Dyer was in the adjoining room, his ear glued to the keyhole. The minister, with much professional dignity, put the question : “What is the chief end of Man?” William should have answered: “The chief end of Man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” Instead, however, he repeated in a high, rapid, nasal sing-song: “ The—chief—end—of—Man—is—to—glorify—God—and—endure—Him—forever.” Whereupon there was a smothered snickering at the keyhole, the minister wiped his spectacles, the boy was dismissed, and as our subject completes it: “Didn’t Bill and I hug each other!” On another occasion, he observed, his belief in the reality of Jehovah suffered an irreparable shock. Having played ball on Sunday and lost the ball over the fence, he climbed after it, and on returning tore his trousers. “I knew what that meant” he says, “and involuntarily exclaimed, ‘Damn it.’ Immediately I scrooged down, shutting my eyes and shrinking up as small as possible in expectation of a wrathful thunderbolt from heaven. None coming, after a few seconds I ventured to unclose one eye, then the other. No lightning. I opened them wide and looked around. The sky was just as blue, the trees were just as green, the birds sang as sweetly as ever. I drew in a long breath, eyed upwards and said, slowly and deliberately, ‘Damn it.’ No result. ‘Damn it, damn it, damn, damn, da-a-a-mn—’ Still the sky was blue. I looked at the trousers, shook my head and got down off that fence without a spark of faith in me.” I may as well add here that he never acquired any afterwards, in the common meaning of the word; and although he respected the beliefs of the humblest and most ignorant, often censuring those freethinkers who wish simply to destroy people’s religion, so far as he himself was concerned Jehovah was never anything but a jest. He had so much contempt for theology that he could never regard it seriously. To him the attempt to prove that the Bible is not the inspired word of God, was equivalent to proving that the moon is not made of green cheese; he considered the question disposed of two hundred years ago, and fit only for the comic cartoons of Heston. Of his philosophic views I shall speak later.

Having acquired a common school education he learned the trade of bookbinding. While working in Syracuse and scarcely twenty years of age, he married Miss Julia Etta Wedge, a lady still younger than himself. The marriage was a happy one, and although in his last years Mr. Lum was by a long chain of circumstances compelled to live away from his home, he never ceased to regard it with the tenderest feelings, mentioning it, indeed, with that same touch of mournfulness with which an exile speaks of his beloved country. He had two children, a son and daughter, both of whom survive him.

When the war broke out D. D. Lum enlisted as a volunteer in the 125th New York Infantry. While in that regiment he was taken by the rebels and sent to Libby Prison, whence he escaped only to be recaptured. Eventually he was exchanged and enlisted in the 14th New York Cavalry, Co. H, serving from February 28. I863, to April 24, 1865, when he was finally discharged on tender of resignation. During that time he was promoted from Sergeant to Sergeant-Major, transferred to Field Staff, promoted to Adjutant, and commissioned Captain in October. 1864. In this last grade, however, he was never mustered, fighting having practically ceased; to use his own comic expression: “Just as I got promoted the darned war stopped.”

However differently he came to regard the war at a later period of life, there is no doubt he then believed himself to be fighting for the right, embodied in the mandates of the United States Government, and symbolized by the United States flag. He saw a political question only; and. indeed, still young as he was, and living in the storm of close physical action rather than in the wide mental vistas of his after years, it was simply impossible he should view the gigantic struggle in the sixties as he did in the eighties. I doubt even whether the keen acumen of the later thinker could have discovered in those vague, formless but immense shadows projected upon the canvas of destiny, grimed and reddened and blackened in the blood of their bitter birth, the outlines of those tremendous industrial powers which to-day whirl conscious beings in the inexorable unconscious maelstrom of economic development. He did see this in afterlife; he did see the whole struggle of North and South as the immense crash of two opposing economic systems, in which dear labor, represented in Slavery, was crushed by cheap labor represented in Wagery. This was his view in the perspective of twenty years. Then, however, he threw himself with all the vim and zest of his nature into the excitement of army life, having the clean con~ science of one who believes he “hath his quarrel just.” Certain elements in him responded to the surroundings, and as the reader will see in the following extract from a private letter to the writer, dated September, 1889, he indeed “felt at home.”

“There are places within me scarcely known to myself—great, deep, murky pools, bottomless as hell, that no finite plummet-line may sound; undiscovered, or rather unexplored, islands, of which the inner eye occasionally gets fugitive glimpses peering up through the mist, luring one on as a desert mirage often does other fools. I often muse to myself whether I have (and all other semiconscious egos) a double personality, not of the alternating Jekyll-Hyde description, but both ever present and warring. One is lax, scornful, lazy, slow to stir up, quiet, and all other possible adjectives, which after all only qualify comfortable mediocrity. The other wild, of the Viking, Son-of-Odin kind. Often I have walked in the roaring storm, wet through; or in the army sat under a tree in a genuine Southern storm and watched the lightning’s illumination and deep thunder roll, and stood up exultant, for ‘I’ felt at home, could grasp the spirit of it, and felt as some old Norse forefather may have thought at times. It was said in the army I was brave, for I jumped from private to captain in three leaps, but it was nothing of the kind. My other nature got control and enjoyed it with keener relish than milksop civilization can understand.”

Another phase of his character enabled him to enjoy not only the grand and terrible side of war, but to make light of its hardships. This was a supreme sense of the ludicrous. He found time to laugh in the midst of an action, and even the dirt and hunger of Libby Prison afforded him amusement. He was that rare paradox, a pessimist with a perpetual joke in his mouth.

After the close of the war he returned to his trade, working in various New England towns till finally purchasing a home at Northampton. Mass. Here began his evolution as a social thinker and writer. He became one of the regular correspondents of the Irish World, then the most radical journal of its kind in America, and was a member of that caustic coterie whose give-and-take made the spice of its columns. In 1876 he was nominated on the Greenback ticket for Lieutenant-Governor of Massachusetts, with Wendell Phillips for Governor. The following year came the Pittsburg riots, which Lum regarded as the beginning of a definite labor movement. Quoting his own words: “Before that a few of us used to get together in a room up in Massachusetts and talk, and imagine we were making a movement. But the first manifestation from labor itself was the riots.” This speech is characteristic. Throughout his life as a labor leader he held firmly to Proudhon’s enunciation, that “human judgments are always true at the time they are pronounced.” One of his favorite sayings was: “Man is ever wiser than men.”

He trusted the human race as well in its blind upheavals of rage as in its days of placid toil. He laughed at those who imagine they can make plans whereby humanity must proceed. And while so gentle that he could not bear to see a dumb animal suffer, and often stepped aside that he might not crush a wayside flower, he wasted no regret upon the judgments of Man; never said, “Thus and thus only would I have the sea.”

Passing through the whole gamut of political evolution, he became a revolutionist as a matter of cold logic. His principles were in no wise, as ignorant people are wont to suppose, the result of hasty, violent, or uncontrolled passion. They were deep-seated, calm convictions, based upon a thorough study of natural and social evolution. He studied Man as he studied plants; and came to the conclusion that until the race recognizes itself as a unit, every individual fraction of which is under equal obligation to respect the social compact, until men cease to exploit each other and unite to exploit nature, there will be resistance on the part of those exploited, which will express itself, peaceably or violently, in either case justifiably. Thus he became a revolutionary individualist anarchist.

Previous to the great wave of strikes in 1886, and while employed as clerk of a standing committee in Washington, he met Albert Parsons. The two were appointed by Congress to investigate the labor troubles, and in the process of investigation traveled as far west as San Francisco. Returning, Lum stopped several weeks in Utah, gathering material for two pamphlets on the Mormon question, which had a wide circulation. When Parsons was imprisoned, Lum gave up his business (a bookbindery at Port Jervis, N. Y.), went to Chicago, and in the teeth of the “White Terror,” continued the Alarm, Parsons’ paper. Notwithstanding his daring utterances, and the unremitting surveillance of police and detectives, he was never arrested, and published the paper as long as financially able; $1,500.00 of his own money were freely given, and had he possessed more it would have gone the same way. He never regretted it, and but few people ever knew that he gave it, so unostentatious was his character. At that time, when he was reduced to his last dollar, a great leading daily offered him $1,000.00 a year to betray the secrets of the labor meetings. It was the pigmy and the giant; but the pigmy was Honor, and its scorn was great as the greatest.

After the execution he resumed the publication of the paper in New York, though in a much reduced form. It failed, however, for lack of support, many of its communistic contributors not liking his individualistic editorials.

Since his death, a certain journalist has said he became a communist. This is unqualifiedly false. To the last he trusted in individual liberty and the right of property, holding that all communism must lead to authority.

After the failure of the Alarm he continued to write articles, pamphlets and poems, all of which show the scholar and thinker, sometimes that rare dreamer whom so few knew. His longer works were unfortunately in a heavy style, repelling to the ordinary reader; but many short stories and essays in a lighter vein, signed variously “Jex,” “ XXX,” “Uncle Dan,” etc., found their way through the general labor press. Among his last pamphlets were a “History of the Eight-Hour Movement,” “Economics of Anarchy,” and the “Philosophy of Trades Unions.”

His poems are all marked with his philosophy, a profound and sombre pessimism—a strange product of early Buddhist studies and later delving in Schopenhauen and Von Hartmann. He regarded individual consciousness as a mere fleck of upthrown foam upon the wave-crest of unconscious progress; individual happiness, therefore, a thing unworthy consideration as a measure of action, and individual obliteration the ideal of attainment. This is shown in several poems entitled “Nirvana,” “Life and Death,” “Whip-poor-Will,” and others. These ideas fostered in him a naturally strong dislike to anything like self-seeking. Considering himself nothing and his cause all, his whole effort was to do the work and let who might get the credit. To that he was absolutely indifferent; and many a better known name has been affixed to articles from his pen, when in truth the persons who got the credit were incapable of writing them.

Though hating controversy for its own sake, he would occasionally engage in it when a great principle was at stake. And then, woe to his antagonist! He kept up a guerilla warfare, coming from all quarters at unexpected times, and never squaring down to a regular line of discussion. To use a Pennsylvanianism: They never knew “where he was at!” They generally found where he had been about a week afterwards.

His last days were spent in Brooklyn. His lifeless body was found in a hotel in New York on the sixth of April last; passed away in sleep.

The body of him rots underground; but the soul of him, justice, tenderness, generosity, strength, daring, incorruptibility, these live on, more active and more inspiring since he has lived.

Voltairine de Cleyre, “Dyer D. Lum,” The Freethinkers’ Magazine 11 no. 8 (August, (E. M.) 293 (1893)): 497-501.

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Independent scholar, translator and archivist.