Voltairine de Cleyre, “The Old Shoemaker” (1896), with note and response

The Old Shoemaker

He had lived a long time there, in the house at the end of the alley, and no one had ever known that he was a great man. He was lean and palsied, and had a crooked back; his beard was grey and ragged, and his eyebrows came too far forward; there were seams and flaps in the empty, yellow old skin, and he gasped horribly when he breathed, taking hold of the lintel of the door to steady himself when he stepped out on the broken bricks of the alley. He lived with a frightful old woman who scrubbed the floors of the rag-shop, and drank beer, and growled at the children who poked fun at her. He had lived with her eighteen years, she said, stroking the furry little kitten that curled up in her neck as if she had been beautiful.

Eighteen years they had been drinking and quarreling together—and suffering. She had seen the flesh sucking away from the bones, and the skin falling in upon them, and the long, lean fingers growing more lean and trembling, as they crooked round his shoemaking tools.

It was very strange she had not grown thin; the beer had bloated her, and rolls of weak, shaking flesh lapped over the ridges of her uncouth figure. Her pale, lack-lustre blue eyes wandered aimlessly about as she talked: No—he had never told her, not even in their quarrels, not even when they were drunken together, of the great Visitor who had come up the little alley, yesterday, walking so stately over the sun-beaten bricks, taking no note of the others, and coming in at the door without asking. She had not expected such an one; how could she? But the Old Shoemaker had shown no surprise at the Mighty One. He smiled and set down the teacup he was holding, and entered into communion with the Stranger. He noticed no others, but continued to smile; and the infinite dignity of the Unknown fell upon him, and covered the wasted old limbs and the hard, wizened face, so that all we who entered, bowed, and went out, and did not speak.

But we understood, for the Mighty One gave understanding without words. We had been in the presence of Freedom! We had stood at the foot of Tabor, and seen this worn, old, world-soiled soul lose all its dross and commonplace, and pass upward smiling, to the Transfiguration. In the hands of the Mighty One the crust had crumbled, and dropped away in impalpable powder. Souls should be mixed of it no more. Only that which passed upward, the fine white playing flame, the heart of the long, life-long watches of patience, should rekindle there in the perennial ascension of the great Soul of Man.

Voltairine de Cleyre, “The Old Shoemaker,” The Open Court 9 no 38 (Whole no. 421; September 19, 1895): 4642.


The authoress of the article, “The Old Shoemaker,” does not offer us a piece of sentimental imagination, but a description of a real event of her life. In an accompanying letter she writes as follows:

“A man is just dead,—a nobody.—a poor, old, miserable shoemaker,—not a good man nor a bad man; only seventy-five years of hard old suffering clay, with but one virtue, uncomplaining patience, and with all the vices of the squalid poor. I did not know him, only he was my neighbor. But his death is the most pathetic thing—the hard, old, silent death—with no one in the room.

“I have written some lines, out of the gladness and the pathos in me; it is a sermon for us, for us only, who believe that out of the body of pain the painless life welcomes the immortal good, and the rest—passes to soul-ashes. I have written though I know you are crowded with work. It seems to me you will care to read what I have written, though it is of the lives I know you do not know—lives out of your sphere, out of your sight altogether. Yet these are they to whom the new gospel of immortality best applies, for what hope is there in the old for these sad ironies of existence, within whom there dwells so little of the divine spirit—so much of that which must die utterly—for the race-hope!”

“Notes,” The Open Court 9 no 38 (Whole no. 421; September 19, 1895): 4646.



To the Editor of The Open Court:

In your paper of September 19 is a noticeable article. “The Old Shoemaker,” by Miss Voltairine de Cleyre.

It was the descriptive part which first struck me, wonderfully realistic, a most striking picture, reminding me of Maupassant. But with the description of the old shoemaker the truth ends—the real.

Who is the great Visitor?—Death? Why could not the “frightful old woman” have expected such a One? On the contrary, she must have expected him every day.

And what was the dignity of the Unknown? There is no dignity in Death; there is dignity only in Life.

What Miss de Cleyre calls dignity, is fear,—the old spiritualism. The old shoemaker looks alive, but is dead. Where has be gone? Where will he go?—To “Freedom.” Freedom of the body;—“the soiled soul loses its dross and commonplace, and passes upward smiling to the Transfiguration.”

How does it pass? If free why does it go to be transfigured?

How is the crust crumbled to an “impalpable powder”? The body is no powder. It is not even dead; it is alive, full of the activities of innumerable organisms. What is the “white, fine, playing flame” which passed upward? There was no such thing. There was no passing upward. The weight of the old shoemaker‘s body would hold it down.

A drunken old shoemaker was dead. There was no dignity in it, no freedom in it, no transfiguration in it. As the shoemaker was poor and miserable, drunken and quarrelsome, it was a good thing for him to die.

What does the “heart of the long, life long watches of patience” mean? What was the patience, and what was the heart of it?

What is the “perennial ascension of the great Soul of Man”? What is a soul any how?

The fact is such writing has no real meaning, but through its vagueness appeals to the love of mysticism in the common mind.

It helps this out by the use of capitals—“Mighty One”—“Stranger”—“Face”—“Visitor.” These acting on the imagination through their size, have an awing effect upon the ordinary mind—simply the effect of a Big Name.

Such writing aims to obscure the truth and to continue beliefs which are no longer beliefs to intelligent persons, because they are incompatible with the observations of real knowledge—these beliefs which make the old-time nurse look to see the spirit ascend on the last expiration of the dying person.

Why all this effort in The Open Court to dress up Death in cast off clothing,—to make it figure as the passage to Transfiguration—Freedom—Purity, and so on? Really it is an admission that spiritualism is a necessity to human happiness, even endurance of life.

Nonsense. While we live,—we live. Death ends all to us. This rubbish about souls passing into Freedom or into the Soul of Man is no consolation.

The consolation in Death is that we are Not.

We do not regret Life because we do not know Life any more. We are done—gone away—blown out like a flame.

But Life remains. Those who live,—enjoy, hope, strive, love,—live. Let the living turn away from the dead as having longer personality; turn away to the Living.

The picture of the “Old Shoemaker” is a vivid piece of writing; it has a dramatic interest; but no spiritual interest, no moralising interest; no pathos, but the pathos of disgusting human nature.

No transfiguring Visitor in capitals came to him at all; but the same death that comes to every organic being. No transfiguring Visitor—but the police, the commissioner of the poor, the Potter’s Field, naturally dispose of the body. It is perhaps an example of what G. Ferrero calls “Arrested Mentation” when an otherwise intelligent writer tries to make out that in such an ending death brought—Death—an ennobling change to the worn out human brute.

“The soiled soul passes up smiling to the Transfiguration.” The fact is the smile was probably a relaxation of the muscles at the moment he ceased to feel pain, dispelling the habitual scowl his features must have worn, as he is said to have “gasped horribly when he breathed.”

No fine writing can make death an agreeable thing. All of us would prefer continuing existence indefinitely if we could. But we cannot. Reason then urges us to make an examination of death as it is, and to familiarise our minds to it so as not to have it give us unnecessary anxiety. We must learn not to shrink from death. If dismissing reason,—in other words reality, we choose to believe in Transfigurations into the Soul of God. or the Perennial Soul of Man, very well. But otherwise, as Dr. D. G. Brinton declares, “every one ought to be familiarised with the sight of blood, the pangs of disease, and the solemn act of dying. Death and Pain should not be concealed; they are the greatest of all educators, for they alone teach us the highest value of Life.”

Live as long as you can. Avoid Death. For there is no Transfiguration with a big T after that. And if you go into the “Perennial Soul of Man,” depend upon it, it will be before Death, not after.

Since writing the enclosed I have read in the same number Miss de Cleyre’s explanation of her article, and though it extenuates her intention to write the old spiritualism, it is otherwise as great nonsense as the article itself—what does “the painless life welcomes the animated good” mean?

J. W. Gaskine.

[The Open Court does not admit that spiritism is a necessity, but it advocates the spirituality of man’s soul which in spite of death is preserved from generation to generation. Death is in itself nothing but the ceasing of the life-activities in an organism; and being the close of a life, wiping away much of that which should be discarded forever, but often leaving untouched the better part of our aspirations, who will deny its pathetic solemnity? Death does not end all to us as Mr. Gaskine declares; for “man passes away” (as goes the Buddhist saying) “according to his deeds,” which implies that as a man acted during his life-time so his soul will continue as a living and efficient factor in the further development of life upon earth—Ed.]

J. W. Gaskine, “The Old Shoemaker,” The Open Court 10 no 2 (Whole no. 437; January 9, 1896): 4773.

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Independent scholar, translator and archivist.