Cover image for Revolutionary lives : Anna Strunsky & William English Walling
Revolutionary lives : Anna Strunsky & William English Walling
Boylan, James R.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Amherst : University of Massachusetts Press, [1998]

Physical Description:
vi, 334 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm
Reading Level:
1320 Lexile.
Format :


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HX84.W26 B69 1998 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Drawing on archival sources and family materials, James Boylan here provides portraits of two striking figures in early-20th-century history. The volume contributes to an understanding of pre-war socialism by tracing the interplay between private and public lives.

Reviews 1

Choice Review

Born to wealth and prominence in Kentucky, Walling wrote extensively about socialism, played a role in recruiting W.E.B. Du Bois to the NAACP, and publicly criticized peace efforts during WW I. But his quixotic temperament, demonstrated by a tendency to jump from one cause to another and to shift positions on socialism, limited his impact. Strunsky, a Russian-Jewish immigrant whose family achieved success in the US, gained celebrity status through a friendship with Jack London that involved literary collaboration and eventually a public scandal. Beyond that, she was a procrastinator who had trouble finishing writing projects. The Walling-Strunsky marriage was a curiosity by itself. She complained about Walling's indifference and having to sacrifice her socialist interests to care for their children, while he took lengthy winter vacations with his parents and downplayed her child-raising skills. Nevertheless, their union yielded seven pregnancies and lasted 26 years until he obtained a Mexican divorce in 1932. The book is carefully researched, well written, even interesting, although Boylan's year-by-year account of their lives, particularly in the first half of the book, is overdone. At best, however, Boylan's subjects were secondary figures who existed only on the periphery of important events and people. J. P. Rodechko Wilkes University



Chapter One "Miss Annie" The San Francisco of a hundred years ago--"The City That Was," as Will Irwin named it after its destruction in 1906--spawned an energetic, informal, sometimes amateur artistic-literary-journalistic culture. Less daunting than the more commercial New York, it offered aspirants easy access and ready encouragement. It did not matter a great deal if one had not yet achieved much; nobody had. What mattered was one's ability to create and play a congenial role.     The representative institution, if it can be called an institution, was "the Crowd," a floating alliance of the left and the literary that gathered at the restaurants on the old Montgomery Block and later spread out to scenic Piedmont, overlooking the bay from behind Oakland, and southward to Carmel, "the seacoast of Bohemia."     This Bohemia was peopled with vivid if evanescent figures: Gelett Burgess, an outcast from academic life, founder of a short-lived magazine of aesthetics called The Lark , author of a quatrain called "The Purple Cow," a work he had already come to rue. Arnold Genthe, portrait and documentary photographer. Xavier Martinez ("Marty"), painter of Aztec heritage and Parisian airs, dressed always in corduroys and flowing red ties, creator of the famous frieze of black cats at Coppa's, the Crowd's hangout. George Sterling, a minor poet whose darker side caused the suicide of two women associated with him; ultimately, he killed himself as well.     A warm, striking, voluble, attractively disheveled young woman can be glimpsed in the Crowd-holding forth at Coppa's; turning out reviews for the latest little literary periodical; showing up to hear, and to be seen hearing, such visiting celebrities as William Butler Yeats; performing in amateur theatricals at the outpost in Carmel. Activist, intellectual, writer-in-gestation, she played these roles so grandly that the reverberations were still inspiring literary excesses years later: "Anna Strunsky! It is fifteen years since that dark, flashing, warmly radiant girl leaned across a table in Coppa's old restaurant, or darted up the stairs to Martinez' attic studio, but the fragrance of her memory still hangs over tales of old San Francisco. No one who met Anna Strunsky ever forgets her, they say."     She first won celebrity in 1896, when William Randolph Hearst's San Francisco Examiner dubbed her the "Girl Socialist of San Francisco." The fascinated reporter found in her face the "beauty of intelligence" rather than prettiness and noted her "pleading, sorrowful voice." He referred to her as Russian by birth but clearly identified her as Jewish with references to "Oriental" aspects of her appearance. He also recorded that she had difficulty answering questions from the floor. From that time forward, the press found her, as her friend Jack London pointed out, "exceptionally good copy."     Yet to a degree the bohemianism was a facade and the flamboyant Anna Strunsky who appeared in the Hearst newspapers was in part a reportorial concoction. Sexual overtones always lingered between the lines, yet Anna Strunsky remained part of a conventional immigrant family that had striven to make itself part of the American middle class, and she remained determinedly Victorian in her personal conduct. Moreover, behind the apparent self-confidence lay not only uncertainty about her own abilities but a lingering conviction that she was surrounded by and destined for death. In her later years, Anna Strunsky rarely mentioned in writing the first nine years of her life, in Russia. As a woman of forty, she offered a fragment: The only recollection of Russia for me [was] of a long village street and barefoot children and rambling hovels. I remembered myself a little child standing in a patch of sunlight and poking my fingers into a wall and finding it soft as sand. I dug and dug and let the fine red dust slip into my fist and laughed to think I had the stuff of which houses were made,--weak, powdery stuff, unstable as water. The only trace of Russia that she bore as an adult was a faint accent that enriched her expressive and precise English.     Her early years, before California, must be inferred from family tradition and fragile newspaper clippings. The Strunsky family came from a rural place, Babinots, in western Russia, within the czarist pale of Jewish settlement. Her father, Elias Strunsky, was a worldly Jew and businessman who had learned Russian. Her mother, Anna Horowitz, came from a religious family that arranged her first marriage, to a young seminary student with acne. Rather than consummate the marriage, the sixteen-year-old bride took refuge with her parents, who bought her a divorce. After nine months, she was permitted to marry Elias.     In the mid-1880s, Elias Strunsky, inspired to look toward America by reading Tocqueville in Russian translation, decided to emigrate. He took his five children and pregnant wife out through Germany, thence to England. A family story says that because Anna was small at nine her parents misstated her age to get a cheaper ticket, hence much subsequent confusion over her real birthdate, which was March 21, 1877. Family tradition also says that they crossed the Atlantic on the Egypt , which sailed from Liverpool on September 8, 1886, and entered New York harbor eleven days later, sailing past the Statue of Liberty, just rising on her pedestal.     The Strunskys came to America carrying little beyond the family featherbeds and copperware. Like other hundreds of thousands, they made their first home on New York's Lower East Side, crowded into a tenement on Madison Street with the toilet in the backyard. The three boys, ranging in age roughly from ten to fifteen, worked at home sewing shirts, while their father delivered them to the sweater, the wholesaler. They found larger quarters a few blocks away on Cherry Street, probably on the "Penitentiary Row" described sourly by the reporter Jacob A. Riis, then collecting material for How the Other Half Lives : "It has become peopled wholly with Hebrews, the overflow from Jewtown adjoining, pedlars and tailors, all of them."     The last child, Morris, was born on Cherry Street. The three older brothers continued to make shirts, assisted by young radical exiles whose political expertise exceeded their sewing skills; Albert, the oldest brother, had to redo socialist needlework late at night. Not surprisingly, the brothers became so interested in socialism that their Uncle Isadore warned their father to keep an eye on them.     About 1888, the family left the Lower East Side for a marginally easier life at 326 East Thirty-ninth Street. The older brothers went to work at a nearby steam-operated shirt factory. One day their mother decided to take the boys a hot lunch, but in the factory she almost fainted in the noise and heat. Back home, she cried and demanded that her husband go back into business on his own and let the children resume their education. Albert entered the family business with his father-first wholesale groceries, then liquor--while Hyman and Max went to school, as did Anna, her sister, Rose, six years younger, and the youngest, Morris.     Anna took easily to American education. By the time she was fifteen, six years in America, she was perceived as the brightest student at P.S. 49 and was rewarded with a short feature and a crude line portrait, drawn from a photograph, in the New York Herald . Her teachers praised "Miss Annie" for her scholarship, her fluency in languages, her writing (she had already been published in a magazine), and her sweet temper. Her mother recalled: "My two small daughters were pretty and intelligent and had good brains.... When I used to go upstairs and look at them and think that they will have a college education and will have professions, one can imagine how I felt as a mother."     Elias Strunsky left New York for his health in 1893 and started a new liquor business in San Francisco. He sent for his family and moved them into a big house at 901 Golden Gate Avenue. It was a warm, bookish, and loquacious household. Himself a mediator rather than a combatant, Elias Strunsky always insisted on providing food and wine for an evening of argument. The Strunskys welcomed a flow of participants in the world at large, among whom the anarchist Emma Goldman was the most celebrated. Anna recalled: "The memory of the men and women that came and went throughout the years is perhaps the most romantic and the most precious memory of my life. This was my best school and from these personalities I got more than I ever got out of books or halls of learning. Here were truly formative forces--meeting people in intellectual councils; budding genius, refugees, revolutionists; broken lives and strong lives, all made welcome, all met with reverence and with warmth."     With such models before her, Anna was bound to become politically active herself, nor could there be doubt as to her commitment. The exiles who visited the Strunskys were messengers of the revolutionary socialism that they hoped one day to carry home to Russia. Many of them had found an American base in the Socialist Labor Party, tiny in membership but a rallying point of radicalism in America. Its leading figure was Daniel DeLeon, who ran a weekly called The People . DeLeon laid out an almost Calvinist kind of Marxism, demanding that its readers ignore all interim betterment in favor of the ultimate goal of pure socialism. The party was less forbidding in its local branches, and the San Francisco branch was notable for its advocacy of women's rights. Anna's emerging identities--Russian immigrant, woman-to-be, aspiring intellectual--all impelled her toward the party.     Characteristically, she made an instant and wholehearted choice. Still "hardly more than a child," perhaps sixteen, Anna joined the "American branch"--the term used to distinguish a nonimmigrant local--of San Francisco's Socialist Labor Party. Her father, who had inspired her interest in politics, disagreed with her decision and they clashed--"not because he grudged me to a great cause, but because he felt there was something amiss with the cause with which I had become infatuated." Despite her father's doubts, socialism proved an enduring commitment. In a time when fewer than ten thousand women a year entered American higher education, the two Strunsky sisters went to college. Anna finished Lowell High School in San Francisco and in 1896, at the age of nineteen, went to study thirty miles to the south at the handsome new sandstone quadrangle of the university named for Leland Stanford Jr., late son of the railroad magnate. She listed her "proposed calling" as writer and lecturer. Even with the minimal tuition, the burden on her family of living expenses, residence fees, and books must have been substantial, but was borne without complaint.     Stanford, under the presidency of the ambitious ichthyologist David Starr Jordan, was part of a new wave of universities, Johns Hopkins and Chicago among them, that were nurturing the reformers-to-be of the Progressive Era. Anna Strunsky took a class from one such reformer-teacher, the economist and sociologist Edward A. Ross. Ross remembered years later that she had been his student, but if he noted her at the time he must have regarded her coldly, for he was convinced that people of origins such as Anna Strunsky's threatened to drag America down into a genetic hell. Eventually, Ross was fired after he called publicly for shooting at any ship bearing Japanese toward California.     Stanford in 1896 was a rough Arcadia, set in the unmarred fields and hills beyond the lights of San Francisco. When William James came to lecture in 1898, he described the hills as "bathed in ether, milk and sunshine." Anna recalled that she impressed the eminent psychologist by arguing in a seminar that conversion from faith to free thought could be a religious experience; afterward, he asked for a copy of her paper, but she never sent it.     Instructors and students were thrown together in democratic closeness, and Anna formed strong friendships among the faculty. Her correspondence with Melville Best Anderson, a professor of literature, lasted decades. But her first confidante was a history teacher, Mary Sheldon Barnes; she remembered "how tenderly and greatly Mrs. Barnes loved me, how when I was a mere child, a mere crude little laggard, she ennobled my days and fired my heart." Her intense attachment to Mrs. Barnes is clear in a letter she wrote to "Madonna Marie" at the start of her sophomore year: I thank you, I thank you, friend, sweetheart, mother! I shall thank you forever for discovering your soul to me so that I may love you.... Do you know that you save me from being a coward? Many a night have I looked up at the stars only to be paralyzed with the vastness and grandeur of it all--a kind of shrinking before immensity, a fear of life, a painful wonder at the meaning of it; a realizing what supreme living is, and, finally, a death-bringing conviction that strength was not given me to meet the Universe! But always have I felt that hand in hand with another I might be a force such as has never been. Mary Sheldon Barnes died as Anna was starting her junior year; for years afterward, Anna planned a memorial monograph but she did not write it.     Grief may have affected Anna's academic work in the fall of 1898, but her transcript reveals trouble developing earlier. An English major, she did well enough in literature courses, but in ethics and sociology (perhaps Ross's course) she earned only Stanford's "conditioned" grade--neither pass nor fail, and sometimes remediable; and she failed zoology. Although she recalled later only that she had a "condition" in history and an unfinished Shakespeare paper, in fact the record of the fall semester of her junior year reveals full-blown collapse: only one course, history of the French Revolution, passed; three "conditions"; and three grades marked "def," perhaps for "deferred." A note is appended: "Suspended from Univ. Dec 27 98 (Scholarship Com.)."     Probably there was more to her downfall than grades. Anna later hinted in a letter to her New York confidante, Dr. Katherine Maryson (whom she called "Katia") of deeper controversy: "Did I ever tell you how they tortured me at Stanford? ... All my Stanford memories are poisoned, every step there is inquisitorial." A year after her suspension, her new friend Jack London wrote to her that she had nothing to be ashamed of in her failure to be "an intellectual machine." But he went on to suggest more: "Believe me, I do know the suffering entailed, and I do also know that I have not the moral bravery to face the music as you are doing."     In her memoirs, Emma Goldman wrote that Anna had been suspended "because she had received a male visitor in her room instead of in her parlour." But it may be that Emma Goldman was trying too hard to cast Anna in her own nonconformist image, for in a later edition she retracted the whole story, no doubt at Anna's prompting. It is true enough that Stanford, while paying lip service to student independence and individual responsibility, remained rigid in matters of "good morals and decency"; it also seems probable, however, that if Anna had other than academic troubles they were more likely political than moral.     Even as an undergraduate, Anna had become a formidable platform presence. She was chosen for the Stanford team in the important debate against Berkeley. (This may have been the occasion of a family telegram to her: "Congratulations [to] you, Stanford has chosen the best. Your People.") She also placed her talents at the disposal of the Socialist Labor Party, and probably gave it too much time, considering her academic difficulties. Much later, she recalled, "I did endless drudgery like being secretary of the Central Committee for 2 1/2 years, and on other committees to which I gave my precious time--time for which my soul and my young fiery senses had other uses altogether."     A surviving paper, "Specialization of Vocation under Capitalism," reveals the socialist Anna Strunsky at twenty, just before her sophomore year at Stanford. Delivered to the Bay Area's Karl Marx Club in August 1897, the lecture already contains her characteristic blend of slightly ostentatious learning and fervent emotion. More substantially, she enunciated a standard for her own life-to-be, no doubt with little inkling of how hard it would be for her to meet it: "Goethe called the matter of personal relations `the little world' and the question of work `the larger world,' and he claimed that the little world is the heart of the larger world, for indeed the two problems are most closely interrelated. In order to live highly in either it is necessary to live highly in both."     The Stanford records do not make clear what happened to her academically after her suspension in December 1898. The best guess is that she continued in an unmatriculated status to finish the uncompleted work in her junior courses, for she maintained a Stanford address through the following year. And the resumption of study is suggested in a later diary entry: "I who was tost out of here, whose life was embittered coming back." For a time, she was registered as a nondegree student at the University of California, Berkeley. No record survives of further completed academic work at either place.     Despite the turbulence, Stanford did its work, authenticating Anna as an intellectual, a relatively elevated status in loosely drawn San Francisco circles. She now moved capaciously and comfortably in its Anglo-American literary culture, less a foreigner than a slightly exotic Californian-American. She spoke and wrote fluently, if elaborately, and was seen to be a rising literary and political presence.     Yet her private meditations show that she did not truly believe herself flashing, or warmly radiant. An Anna Strunsky not seen in public felt herself gripped by uncertainty, ignorant rather than cultured, doubtful of her ability to undertake and complete her "work," and obsessed with death. "Death, love, work," she wrote on the first page of her first notebook. "Death called me `Love,'" she wrote in a poem she had worked on since she was at Stanford, "And kissed my lips & hair." Even before real death began pay to its calls, she was prepared with an obsessive sense of mortality-or morbidity. Copyright (c) 1998 The University of Massachusetts Press. All rights reserved.

Table of Contents

Introduction "This Aspiring and Questing World"p. 1
1 Miss Annie""p. 5
2 Comrades!""p. 12
3 Dane Kempton""p. 18
4 Sahib is Dead""p. 22
5 Girl Away from Home""p. 27
How My Life Spirals!p. 33
Breathless from the Racep. 40
Part 2 English: Searching for A Calling, 1817-1905p. 45
8 Gentleman of the Higher Type""p. 47
9 My Life Among the Lowly""p. 55
10 Some Public Attention""p. 60
11 More Red and Yellow""p. 65
12 Dined and Wined""p. 70
Part 3 Converging on the Revolution, 1905-1906p. 77
13 Geneva is Your Fate""p. 79
14 The Rush of Literary Spirits to the Scene""p. 86
15 Grateful to Fate""p. 92
16 Ojective Journalist""p. 98
17 Surprised and Anxious""p. 103
18 Never to Have a Home""p. 107
19 A Regular Paris Day""p. 112
Part 4

p. 117

20 Something Has Happened to My Freedom""p. 119
21 Scorns the Name of a Wife""p. 124
22 Where Do You Hide Your Revolvers and Dynamite?""p. 130
24 Simply a Socialistic Pronouncement""p. 144
Part 5 Springfield and After, 1908-1911p. 149
25 Springfield Had No Shame""p. 151

p. 155

27 Inexperienced and Impractical""p. 161
28 Sociology, Not Love""p. 165
Part 6 At the Apex of Socialism, 1911-1914p. 181
31 The Writer is Sometimes Wrong""p. 183
32 The Publicist, as Opposed to the Mere Journalist""p. 188
33 Honeycombed with Socialists""p. 194
Part 7

p. 207

35 The World is at War with Itself""p. 209
36 We Talk of War Day and Night""p. 216
37 Face to Face with the Opposition""p. 221
39 Chemistry of the 'Inside'""p. 231
40 To Fight Treason""p. 235
41 Such a Shifting and Shaking Down""p. 242
42 First Year of the New World""p. 246
43 My Aid Has Been Repeatedly Sought""p. 251
Part 8 Divergence, 1920-1964p. 257
44 Seeing Yourself in My Place""p. 259
45 A State of Coma""p. 263
46 Do Not Be Afraid to Die Away from Home""p. 267
47 Poor, Dear English""p. 269
48 Dreams Assail Me""p. 271
Acknowledgmentsp. 275
Notesp. 277