The Yale series of interpretive biographies of Jewish lives includes some figures known for their Jewish identity — Rashi, Solomon— but others not primarily identified as Jewish — Bob Dylan, Bernard Berenson, and now, Emma Goldman. These are not designed as traditional, in-depth biographies, but as meditations on the importance of the subject in the eyes of an author with a significant point of view. Many readers, particularly leftist-feminists who were active in the Sixties, will be eager, now that some of the dust of that era has settled, to know Gornick’s ‘take’ on Goldman. In Gornick’s eyes, Goldman was the quintessential American anarchist; unfettered personal freedom was her lifelong ideal. Two big challenges for Goldman came from her sense that Marxism seemed to elevate ‘ends’ above ‘means,’ when the two, for Goldman, were completely interrelated, much like the conflict between Goldman’s theories of sexual radicalism and the realities of her own heart. By sketching out the often-neglected trajectory of Goldman after her deportation to the Soviet Union — her disillusioned wanderings through Europe with lifelong friend Sasha Berkman, her solidarity with the Spanish anarchists, and then her final phase with Canadian anarchists — Gornick offers a surprisingly nuanced account of Goldman’s political dilemmas. While some readers may find the details of Goldman’s sex life — her penchant for younger men, her flagrant eroticism, her raging jealousies — memorable, what’s truly haunting is the way Gornick shows us a woman ahead of her times — maybe even ahead of our times. Bibliography, index.
Bettina Berch, author of the recent biography, From Hester Street to Hollywood: The Life and Work of Anzia Yezierska, teaches part-time at the Borough of Manhattan Community College.