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Left-wing Radicalism in the United States: A Foreign Creed?

“We must dig our trenches, and win or die”: Voltairine de Cleyre’s Transnational Anarchism

Rita Filanti


Voltairine de Cleyre (1866-1912) était une poétesse, traductrice, rédactrice et oratrice sophistiquée, qui travailla dans plusieurs langues pour concevoir un idiome américain pouvant exprimer la pensée et l’action anarchistes. Loin d’être un « poison étranger importé aux États-Unis depuis une Europe décadente par des paranoïaques criminels », ses compagnons et elle considéraient l’anarchisme comme un héritage direct de la tradition littéraire américaine, issu de « la souche et du sol indigènes » (Havel). Dans sa pratique d’enseignante parmi les travailleurs immigrés à Philadelphie et à Chicago, de traductrice du français et du yiddish, et de responsable de la publication des mémoires de prison d’Alexander Berkman, elle rejeta l’identification entre une nation et une langue. Au lieu de cela, son anarchisme fut intrinsèquement traductionnel et son idée de la nation multiethnique, apolitique et polyglotte. De Cleyre voulut croiser les idées anarchistes émanant de l’étranger et la face rebelle de l’esprit national des États-Unis. Ainsi, pour elle, la nation et le transnationalisme ne s’excluaient pas l’une l’autre, mais étaient complémentaires et mutuellement imbriqués. Par ses écrits et surtout par sa pratique, elle mit en œuvre un anarchisme transnational inclusif, non coercitif, égalitaire et sans frontières, et elle lutta en faveur d’une nation cosmopolite dans laquelle aucun être humain ni aucune langue ne seraient jamais étrangers.

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My dying thoughts are on the vision of a free world, without poverty and its pain, ever ascending to sublimer knowledge.
Voltairine de Cleyre

  • 1 On de Cleyre’s virtual exclusion from the canon and her radical feminism see Eugenia C. DeLamotte’s (...)

1Despite being one of the most gifted and versatile writers in the American anarchist movement, Voltairine de Cleyre (1866-1912) is little known today, as the meagre bibliography dedicated to her demonstrates. This is partly due to the difficulty of accessing primary source materials (as documentation is divided among archives in various libraries on two continents), but also to her radical positions, which went side by side with what has been defined as a “sectarian temperament” and an uncompromising, almost “fanatical code of behavior” (Avrich, 1978 11, 90). The discrimination against women still prevailing even within the nineteenth-century anarchist movement, regardless of their contribution to the debate on the so called “Woman question,” may have been another factor.1 Finally, the branding of anarchism as un-American and embedded in violence has made de Cleyre’s work and literary talent hard to appreciate. Her writing moves across languages and genres with rare agility, making it arduous for scholars from either side of the Atlantic to keep track of her endeavors.

2In this article I will focus on the transnational nature of de Cleyre’s anarchism, and argue for the substantial continuity between her philosophy and the principles upon which the American nation was founded. In holding to the ideals of liberty and equality stated in the Declaration of Independence and stressing the symbolic value of those principles for the cohesion of the country, de Cleyre and her comrades saw themselves as the most strenuous defenders of the 1776 Revolution, not its opponents. De Cleyre believed, as an American, that “if there were any way to remedy the question of poverty the Constitution must necessarily afford the means to do it” (“Why I Am an Anarchist” in Presley and Sartwell 57). Drawing on Mona Baker’s theory of narrativity as construction rather than representation of reality, and of translation as a form of knowledge production, I will argue for the American rootedness of de Cleyre’s transnational anarchism. Her greatest contribution was to expand anarchism from the field of politics and economics to “the realms of art, literature, education, sex relations and personal morality” (“The Making of an Anarchist” in de Cleyre, 2016 162). Through a meticulous work on the word and a constant awareness of the manipulative use of it by the state and church, she anticipated contemporary discourse on language, power, and oppression.

  • 2 Her poem “The Gods and the People,” for example, was specifically composed for the 1890 Convention (...)

3The transnationalism of de Cleyre, through her direct involvement in foreign language propaganda, editing, and translation, was incongruous with the monolingual patriotism hailed by the nascent American nation-state. Her work, however, was transnational because it was translational, and her transnationalism was never at odds with the anarchist idea of the nation. Rather, anarchism insisted on a distinction between the nation and the state, as the juxtaposition of the two terms was less obvious then than it is nowadays (Turcato 32). De Cleyre’s role as an “intermediary” between immigrant anarchists in Philadelphia, New York, and Chicago, the international radical community overseas, and native movements of protest in the United States made her a threat to the American establishment. The circumstances of her birthplace, upbringing, and education demonstrated that the illusion of anarchism as alien to the United States and illegally imported by seditious émigrés was false (Havel 5-6). In fact, de Cleyre searched for the roots of anarchist ideals not just in the work of fellow activists of both American and European descent, but mostly in the writings of Emerson, Thoreau, Hawthorne, and Whitman. It was in such monuments of the national literature that she found inspiration for her own dissent, and she ardently celebrated them as champions of revolt. The supposed homogeneity of the newly-born American literature was just a construction that ignored the contribution of indigenous, African-American, and immigrant writers, a way to identify that selfsame literature with the recently founded state. Its origins, however, were steeped in multilingualism and translation just like those of any other national literature. De Cleyre was able to pursue a revolutionary, anti-statist agenda, while at the same time drawing from the most rebellious energies of the national mind. She never contented herself solely with being an activist, but conceived of her lecturing, writing, and translating as literary achievements, always stressing the role of art and beauty for the future emancipation of humanity. In her view, there was no difference between delivering a speech and reciting a poem. Her talks were lyrical and her poetry militant.2

4The transnational turn in anarchist and syndicalist studies has opened new perspectives in the history of radical movements in the North and South Americas and in Europe. It has also raised, however, a number of challenges to the scholar, who is now aware of the limitations of an exclusively national approach (Di Paola 245; Anderson, 2005 1-8). The necessity to overcome national borders and linguistic constraints when studying the cosmopolitan networks that anarchist activists established within immigrant communities at home and across the Atlantic is today a truism. A transnational approach, however, also reveals epistemological, methodological, and terminological frailties. To begin with, the use of the word “transnational” sounds “off-key” (Craib 141), in that it brings the concept of nation back into the discussion of a social movement whose core feature was indeed a critique of the state. Many efforts have been made to clarify and expand the meaning of the term, particularly in relation to other similar adjectives, such as international, post-national, cross-national, and the like, whose shortcomings are equally evident. The question is how to get rid of the nation-state theoretical frame to discuss classical anarchism (1860s to 1945) while utilizing the same terminology. If the advocates of anarchism propounded a stateless, anti-hierarchical, diasporic, decentralized world, can we even get close to that world while using the categories of traditional historiography? Although I am aware of the contradictions inherent in the term and the scholarly debate around it in connection with the history of anarchism, I will still use the adjective “transnational” to define Voltairine de Cleyre’s cosmopolitan and multilingual activities, as it is precisely the semantic opacity of the term that I find challenging.

  • 3 De Cleyre herself discussed the issue of American vs. European anarchism in “The Economic Phase of (...)

5“Transnational” is a spatial category which defines geographical as well as political relations. In my perspective, however, the relations established by anarchist activists towards the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries were mostly translational, in that they did away with the rhetorical identification of one nation with one language, to promote, at least ideally, more diversified, polyglot, and centrifugal modes of communication. If monolingualism is an artificial construct which can only articulate itself through the exclusion of other co-existing languages (Boggs 7; Anderson, 2016 43), it was the translating activity indefatigably carried out by these radicals that challenged the construction of the nation-state, thus inscribing it in a more permeable transatlantic discourse. Recent studies have discarded the view according to which anarchism radiated from Europe to North America, and have emphasized the fact that most immigrants radicalized only after experiencing the harsh conditions of work in the new continent (Zimmer 2). The distinction between a US domestic tradition of individualist anarchism and a more combative anarchism imported by political refugees from Europe is, therefore, inaccurate in that it does not account for the mutual exchange and reciprocal cross-pollination which became possible through translation.3 Accordingly, translation becomes my privileged approach to anarchism, as it is not the final product that matters, but the translating process itself. In constantly requiring a bi- or multi-lingual readerly, speakerly, and authorial capacity, translation, as enacted by many classical anarchists of both continents, was never a domesticating practice that aimed to assimilate the other to the same or to draw the periphery closer to a center. Rather, translation was a defamiliarizing practice in which cultural, geographic, and linguistic distance was constantly eroded. By this token, translation will emerge as the anarchistic practice par excellence.

6When I think of translation as a methodology to address transnational anarchism, specifically Voltairine de Cleyre’s, I do not simply refer to translation proper, i.e., the linguistic transfer of a text, usually from the original language into one’s mother tongue (a practice which de Cleyre, together with many of her fellow comrades, performed abundantly as part of their commitment to the cause), but to a broader concept which is bi- and multi-directional, and may include seemingly different language-based activities, such as teaching and learning languages, proofreading, editing, lecturing, and writing. As most anarchist contemporaries of de Cleyre were involved in some or all of these intellectual endeavors, I will demonstrate how they conceived of their efforts as freed from hierarchical status and egalitarian in purpose, and how they attempted to create around themselves an imagined community based on cooperative exchange, mutual aid, and voluntary contribution according to one’s own abilities.

  • 4 Besides essays and translations, she wrote numerous poems, sketches, and short stories. She also co (...)

7Different from other speakers in the movement, de Cleyre never improvised her lectures and always wrote them in advance, working tirelessly on every single word before delivering them in public and finally publishing them. “I’m not an orator, and I have a good deal of contempt for extemporaneous speaking, as a rule. It’s so disjointed and loaded with repetition. So I usually write my stuff” (de Cleyre, 1906c). This habit testifies to the importance she attached to language in general, particularly written language, and to the literary ambition inherent in her work.4 Despite her virulent critique of the state as an oppressive institution to be rid of, de Cleyre was proud of the American literary tradition and found in American vernacular a powerful medium of expression for her own creative writing. In the course of this article, it will become clear how an idea of nationhood does not necessarily clash with anarchism, provided that a coincidence between state and nation is rejected, and that a nonpolitical, multiethnic, and plurilingual notion of the latter is affirmed (Turcato 26, 30).

8Starting from de Cleyre’s early conversion to anarchism, I will introduce her definition of “direct action” in relation to the birth of the American nation before examining the role of teaching English to Jewish immigrants in Philadelphia. Her translations of Jean Grave’s and Francisco Ferrer’s most influential works will also be analyzed as part of her commitment to the anarchist cause. I will then stress the significance of editing Alexander Berkman’s Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist (1912), and conclude with a discussion of the interconnectedness between anarchism, multilingualism, American literature, and translation. In the course of this article, I will constantly refer to de Cleyre’s writings to argue for the transnationalism of her thought and practice, while also highlighting its continuity with the American literary tradition.

From Freethought to “Anarchism without Adjectives”

9In this section I will outline Voltairine de Cleyre’s early conversion to anarchism and show how she viewed it as intertwined with the national literary canon. In denouncing contemporary scholars for falsifying history, she demonstrates how competing narratives can coexist and how different proponents, while agreeing on specific events taking place, may completely disagree on their consequences and ultimate meaning. Born in Michigan in 1866, from a descendant of the Puritans and a French immigrant, de Cleyre inherited abolitionist beliefs from her mother, and from her father a revolutionary spirit, a keen intellect, and a sincere passion for languages. Educated in a public school in Michigan and then in a convent in Ontario, she graduated with a gold medal in 1883. Although some contemporaries tried to ascribe her biting attacks on the church to her experience as a youth in Catholic schools, de Cleyre adamantly dismissed this view: “As to the responsibility for my opinions, neither institution [church or school] is responsible, for I received the usual dose of patriotism in the one and of hell-fire threats in the other. That I am an independent thinker is due to neither, but to the experience of life and natural bent of mind” (de Cleyre, 1910b).

  • 5 After the bombing at Haymarket Square on 4 May 1886, eight people were arrested, six of whom had no (...)

10Two events in de Cleyre’s life marked a significant turning point in the evolution of her thought: the Haymarket affair and trial (1886-1887)5, which converted her from libertarian ideas and freethought to anarchism, and her first tour of England in 1897, where she met Spanish exiles just released from the Montjuïc fortress in Barcelona (Anderson, 2005 169-195). Both events shattered the notions of pacifism and non-resistance which had nourished her juvenile intolerance for authority and violence. Rooted in the American radical tradition represented by Paine, Emerson, and Thoreau, such notions depended on a belief “in the essential justice of the American law and trial by jury” (“The Making of an Anarchist” in de Cleyre, 2016 156). After Haymarket, however, she became disillusioned with the integrity of the American judiciary system and came to abhor any form of punishment and detention. A few years later, seeing the unequivocal signs of torture on the bodies of the Montjuïc prisoners in London only reinforced such disbelief:

Their nails were torn out, their heads compressed in metal caps, the most sensitive portions of the body twisted between guitar strings, their flesh burned with red hot irons […]. This is no horrible imagination. I who write have myself shaken some of those scarred hands. Indiscriminately four hundred people of all sorts of beliefs […] had been cast into dungeons and tortured in the infamous “zero.” Is it a wonder that most of them came out Anarchists? […] So tyranny defeats itself, and the exile becomes the seed-sower of the revolution. (“The Making of an Anarchist” in de Cleyre, 2016 161)

  • 6 Although these immigrants’ ability to speak foreign languages and intermingle has recently been rec (...)
  • 7 While in England, she stayed with John Turner and met the entire Freedom group, including Peter Kro (...)

She thus became a self-professed anarchist, heartily embracing what had already been labelled as a foreign ideology, a revolutionary un-American stance which clashed with the values of triumphant Americanism. Although de Cleyre was not particularly impressed by London, which she described to her mother as “an abominably dirty place […] too slow all together” (de Cleyre, 1897), many European refugees were attracted to it and made it their elective home between the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Populated by exiles who had found asylum there after being extradited or having escaped from less liberal countries, London was the capital of the greatest empire in the world, a linguistic melting pot, and a cosmopolitan center of anarchist and syndicalist politics (Levy 13-16).6 The trip to London, which de Cleyre had wanted to take for a long time, was a transformative experience that put her in direct contact with leading figures of transnational anarchism.7

  • 8 Before de Cleyre appropriated it, the notion of an “anarquismo sin adjetivos” had been theorized by (...)

11After visiting London, she deepened her aversion for all punitive measures, whose only result was, in her words, to break down body and spirit, degrade humanity to the point of insanity, and, even worse, incite more violence (Avrich, 1978 146). She thus conflated all forms of incarceration, be they literal or symbolic, physical or spiritual, and rejected all means of control enforced by the government to limit the freedom of the individual. The non-violent libertarian individualist strand in her philosophy matured into a more complex understanding of an anarchism “without adjectives,”8 which would later lead her to support social revolution and direct action. Even so, she remained a non-resister at heart, believing until her untimely death, in 1912, that it was easier to conquer war by peace than force (“The Making of an Anarchist” in de Cleyre, 2016 163). It was only through a peaceful strategy that, in her vision, a real solution to inequality could eventually emerge. (Marshall 392-393) The branding of anti-political resistance as disorderly and violent is therefore inaccurate from an anarchist point of view, as it rather involves an exercise of freedom, social self-determination, and individual responsibility.

12In her discussion of direct action, de Cleyre demonstrated her usual attention to language and its misuse in common parlance. At the opening of her essay of the same title (1912), she argues that the phrase has acquired a circumscribed meaning not originally intended in the words themselves. The prejudice produced is not uncommon:

Over and over again, names, phrases, mottoes, watchwords, have been turned inside out, and upside down, and hindside before, and sideways, by occurrences out of control of those who used the expressions in their proper sense […]. I rather think this will be the case with the present misconception of the term Direct Action, which [has] suddenly acquired in the popular mind the interpretation, “Forcible Attacks on Life and Property.” (“Direct Action” in de Cleyre, 2016 220-221)

To de Cleyre, however, any person who thought “he had a right to assert, and went boldly and asserted it, himself, or jointly with others that shared his convictions, was a direct actionist” (221). She provides examples, from recent American history, of direct action enacted by individuals or co-operatively, either by a peaceful plan or otherwise. She includes among them the Salvation Army, which, in her narrative, had to vindicate its right to speak, assemble, and pray before their persecutors finally left them alone. She does not deny that direct action can imply violence, but she also underlines the fact that real non-resistants believe in direct action only, because its opposite, political action, is exclusively based on coercion. With remarkable rhetorical skill, she re-writes American colonial history from an anarchist perspective, going through the period preceding the Revolution up to the Civil War, the anti-slavery movement, and the underground railroad, to demonstrate that “direct action has always been used, and has the historical sanction of the very people now reprobating it” (225; emphasis in original). In so doing, she feels in complete unison with writers such as “our own Hawthorne,” who,

in his preface to the “Scarlet Letter,” and still more in the “Marble Faun,” depicts the vacuity of a life sucking a parasitic existence through government organization, and asserts over and over that the only strength is in him or her—and it is noteworthy that the strongest is in “her”—who resolutely chooses and treads an unbeaten path. (“Anarchism in Literature” in de Cleyre, 2016 150-151)

Throughout her essays, she denounces the hypocrisy of contemporary politicians, economists, and historians, thus fully re-inscribing anarchism within the core of the American tradition.

13A somewhat similar process was also enacted by some Italian anarchists, notably Errico Malatesta, in connection with the creation of the national state. As Turcato demonstrates, Malatesta argued for the continuity of anarchism and the Italian Risorgimento, identifying in such icons of national unity as Mazzini and Garibaldi the forerunners of the anarchist movement (Turcato 38). In so doing, Turcato further problematizes the notions of anarchism and national identity, suggesting that the two terms may not be in contradiction with each other but only “a seeming oxymoron” (25). Both Malatesta’s and de Cleyre’s historical accounts show that narratives do not simply represent reality, but constitute it, and that narrativity plays a key role in naturalizing and promoting what may look like benign, uncontestable facts. To acknowledge the constructed nature of narratives implies accepting the potential existence—and worth—of multiple truths and recognizing that knowledge is always politically and socially produced (Baker 17-19).

Teaching English in Philadelphia: Transnationalism in Practice

14The transnationalism of Voltairine de Cleyre is well exemplified in her lifelong commitment to teaching English to immigrants for a living, while at the same time learning their language(s). In so doing, she both introduced them to the English language and gave value to the language they spoke, blurring the boundaries between “native” and “foreigner” as well as between teacher and pupil. In her view, a pedagogical process was always bi-directional, translational, and horizontal, as she never conceived of it as a top-down motion. From 1889 to 1910, de Cleyre thus lived in Philadelphia and supported herself by instructing the Russian-Jewish immigrant community in their adopted language, while also translating and publishing essays, short stories, and poems. The years she spent in close contact with the Philadelphia ghetto proved taxing and seriously damaged her health, as she earned barely enough to survive.

  • 9 “To lecture for money for comrades I neither could nor would; to lecture to the general public on t (...)

15De Cleyre was not an “anarchist by trade”: she refused to receive compensation for her lectures, even if they cost her much labor, and rejected the curious notion that anarchists do not work (“The Making of an Anarchist” in de Cleyre, 2016 158).9 On the contrary, she observed, anarchists were nearly always poor and had little opportunity to find their true vocation: “Thus I, who in freedom would have selected otherwise, am a teacher of language [...] and a teacher of working men and women I have remained” (158-159). From her correspondence with Alexander Berkman it emerges that her true vocation was to be a full-time writer: “I, too, want to write a book—have for a long time: what I do is to me worthless; that book is my life work, my own chosen work: yet my days go and it is not done. But some day my chance will come” (de Cleyre, 1906b)

  • 10 Her translations from Yiddish of Libin and Peretz appeared in the early issues of Emma Goldman’s Mo (...)

16While teaching English to the Yiddish-speaking factory workers of Philadelphia, however, she came to love her students and learn their language well enough to be able to translate their revolutionary pamphlets for American anarchist journals.10 It was not only her need to make a living for herself, therefore, but also her wish to take part in the propaganda of “our common cause” which made her a teacher and learner of languages all her life.

In those twelve years that I have lived and loved and worked with foreign Jews I have taught over a thousand, and found them, as a rule, the brightest, the most persistent and sacrificing students, and in youth dreamers of social ideals. While the “intelligent American” has been cursing him as the “ignorant foreigner,” while the short-sighted workingman has been making life for the “sheeny” as intolerable as possible, silent and patient the despised man has worked his way against it all. (“The Making of an Anarchist” in de Cleyre, 2016 159)

As Zimmer’s detailed account of the Yiddish-speaking anarchist community in New York at the turn of the century reveals, American Jews were “rooted cosmopolitans” whose sphere of activity rarely extended beyond the ghetto (9). The idea that an interethnic and interracial solidarity truly existed was, in most cases, purely rhetorical. That de Cleyre mingled with the most derelict Jewish immigrants in Philadelphia, extending her sympathy and establishing connections within the linguistically diverse anarchist network, testifies to the transnationality of her effort. Even among the Jewish radicals in America, the idea persisted that Yiddish was not a language fit for serious literature but merely a “jargon.” The geographic and linguistic insularity of their settlements was therefore at odds with the Yiddish community’s cosmopolitanism (Zimmer 22, 47-48)

17In learning Yiddish, a language that Goldman never fully mastered and Berkman only came to acquire after migrating to America, de Cleyre demonstrated her anti-hierarchical, non-classist, and diasporic interest in languages, literatures, and cultures. In so doing, she anticipated a new trend in bilingual pedagogy known today as translanguaging, which is based on the idea that instructors be co-learners in the teaching process and that students be allowed to use their minority language in the classroom (García and Wei). By enabling her students to develop an independent voice in the dominant American language, while at the same time legitimizing their exilic native tongue, she promoted a co-operative approach to learning based on equality and solidarity. It is unfortunate, however, that de Cleyre never fully recognized the import of her teaching English to immigrants as itself a form of direct action. Education, especially the education of the poor and marginalized, was certainly not a minor concern in de Cleyre’s philosophy, as some of her essays and translations demonstrate.

Translating Jean Grave and Francisco Ferrer: Anarchism in Action

  • 11 In a telling letter to her mother she discusses the importance of reading the Bible in the original (...)

18Translation played a central role in anarchist propaganda at the turn of the twentieth century, and most activists on both sides of the Atlantic were involved in translating from and into different languages throughout their lifetimes. Translation also favored the reciprocal cross-pollination of national literatures in that most anarchists formulated both their works and aesthetic theories as instruments of social revolution, turning poetry and art into ideological weapons. These activists, Voltairine de Cleyre among them, viewed the poetic word as a space for direct action as well as a powerful tool for combat. They established systems of distribution and correspondence which required constant translation (Ordóñez 81-82). To de Cleyre, translation was not simply a means to circulate the ideas of fellow comrades and participate in the ongoing international debate on anarchism, but also a privileged vehicle for her own creative writing. Her profound interest in the theory and practice of translation demonstrates an uncommon attention to the syntax, lexicon, and phonetics of language(s) as well as its social and political function. Language and translation thus become the core elements of her own aesthetics.11

19De Cleyre’s major accomplishment as a translator is the American version of Jean Grave’s La société mourante et l’anarchie (1893), first published in San Francisco in 1899, with the title Moribund Society and Anarchy. While in London, in 1897, she had met a group of French anarchists, including Grave himself, most of whom had moved to England after the suppression of the Paris Commune in 1871. She agreed to translate the notorious book for which the author had stood trial and been sentenced to two years in prison.

  • 12 The French edition having been suppressed, de Cleyre worked on the Pouget edition, ostensibly publi (...)
  • 13 As she later confided to Will and Maggie Duff, Grave’s book was in fact “an awful jumble, and repet (...)

20A shoemaker by trade, Grave (1854-1939) had been attracted to communist anarchism since 1879. Imprisoned under the lois scélérates, he was released in 1895 and resumed his militancy as the editor of Les Temps nouveaux, whose circulation in France and abroad, at the time he met de Cleyre, reached into the millions (Falk, vol. 1 532). The principal object of the volume is, as de Cleyre puts it in her preface to the translation, that of “furnishing an inclusive criticism of the institutions of our moribund society and the necessity of its speedy dissolution” (Grave, 1899 i).12 However, her position regarding the future of society and “as to what means follow from the principles” is quite different from Grave’s, as he believes in Communism while she does not. Despite these disagreements, she assures her American readers that she has “adhered as strictly as possible to the text, being unwilling to make either additions or subtractions, though it has sometimes seemed to me that Mr. Grave is unnecessarily diffuse” (ii).13 She also admits, however, having miscalculated the relevance to the American audience of Grave’s chapter XIII on “Militarism,” and having realized only later how apropos it was in the wake of the Spanish-American War, when “our workingmen are seizing the opportunity to barter their ‘free citizenship in the greatest country on earth’ for the abject service of man-killing” (ii).

  • 14 For example, she intervenes on Lombroso and the “Physiognomy of the Chicago Anarchists” (59, footno (...)

21De Cleyre did not merely translate Grave’s work into English, she engaged in conversation with the author and their intended readers, thus participating in a transnational discourse on the practicability of anarchism. Translation is never neutral nor a by-product of a supposedly superior original, but part and parcel of the very process that makes the production of knowledge possible (Baker 6). Besides writing the preface, de Cleyre also enriched the paratext of the American version with a number of translator’s notes. Some clarify the linguistic choices she has made to adapt the text to the American context, thus negotiating transcultural differences (Grave, 1899 90, 120); others provide explanations for sources and events referred to in the original which might not be as familiar to the American public as they were to their fellow readers across the Atlantic (91). Other times she comments on Grave’s statements, expresses her doubts, and makes additions or even corrections, so that her contribution becomes more editorial than translational in purpose.14 Unsurprisingly, the translator’s intervention is more conspicuous in chapter XIII, an indictment of the brutalization perpetrated by the French military system on its soldiers, and of the vanity of the military virtues and patriotism inculcated in the barracks.

  • 15 She literally translates the French adage “Passe-moi la casse, je te passerai le séné” (Grave, 1893 (...)

22As noted in recent scholarship in gender and translation studies, prefacing and annotating have long been a common feminist practice, in that they foreground female subjectivity and make the feminine visible in language (Simon). Traditionally a trope of what women do when they enter the public sphere, translation has mostly been received as a typically gendered activity and a sign of woman’s exclusion from logocentric society (von Flotow 12). The paratext, therefore, is the privileged space for women translators to reclaim a voice in a patriarchal structure that has too often silenced them. Not only does de Cleyre’s voice resonate within the translated text, but it also becomes distinctly audible in the preface and footnotes, as she disputes some of the author’s statements, corrects inaccuracies, or playfully translates the tongue of “the nation of cooks” into “our ruder Anglo-Saxon” (Grave, 1899 120).15 The fact that she shows no sign of modesty or subservience towards the author—and why would she?—but establishes a dialogical and equal relation with him is a practical demonstration of her abhorrence for any kind of hierarchy or chauvinism, be it in the military or the publishing industry. From her work, it emerges that she conceived of translation as a plural enterprise to which all subjects involved (including the anonymous proofreader, who also adds a few editorial footnotes) are equally entitled to contribute. Translation was therefore the most anarchistic of de Cleyre’s activities, as it is precisely via translation that she realized those ideals of a co-operative, anti-authoritarian, non-sexist society for which she was fighting. At the time when she translated Grave, legislation on copyright and intellectual property was just starting to set limits to the free circulation of cultural capital; anarchist activists acted in complete disavowal of geographical, political, and linguistic barriers, constantly trespassing those same borders that they perceived as arbitrary, artificial, and ultimately non-existent. Unfortunately, de Cleyre’s translation of Louise Michel’s autobiographical work on the Paris Commune, which she enthusiastically undertook towards the end of her life, was never completed. The intellectual and spiritual sisterhood between these two anarchist feminist women from the opposite sides of the Atlantic has often been highlighted and would certainly deserve more in-depth analysis.

  • 16 The translator’s name does not appear in the journal, nor on the pamphlet. As she wrote to Berkman, (...)

23Another influential work de Cleyre translated into American English is Francisco Ferrer y Guardia’s La escuela moderna (1908), first published in Mother Earth with the title “The Modern School” in November 1909, and later issued as a pamphlet the same year.16 A Spanish educator and free-thinker, Ferrer had been involved in conspiratorial activities as a youth, before spending sixteen years in exile in France (from 1885 to 1900). Upon returning to Barcelona in 1901, he founded the first “modern school.” Inspired by the pedagogical theories of Rousseau, Pestalozzi, Kropotkin, and Tolstoy, he believed in shifting the educational focus from instruction to the process of learning, and prioritizing children’s rights by removing any form of authoritarianism, coercion, evaluation, and punishment. To Ferrer, education by state or church was equally noxious, as both institutions perpetuated their own privileges instead of promoting the emancipation of the child (and humanity) from servitude, superstition, and prejudice (Avrich, 1980 8).

24The execution of Ferrer in the Montjuïc fortress on 13 October 1909, under the accusation of engineering the Catalonian insurrection against the Moroccan War, triggered a wave of indignation around the world, as the Spanish pedagogue, who had by then become a non-resistant and a pacifist, was widely believed to be innocent and a victim of a show trial. Demonstrations spread across three continents and a protest movement propagating his ideas sprouted in the United States and Europe, where a number of Modern Schools were started. On the first anniversary of Ferrer’s death, de Cleyre addressed a memorial meeting in his honor in upstate New York, and then published two essays “Francisco Ferrer” (1910) and “Modern Educational Reform” (1910), both dedicated to the Spanish libertarian teacher.

  • 17 Among the books Ferrer had translated into Spanish for use in his schools is Jean Grave’s Les Avent (...)

25Education was a major concern in de Cleyre’s theoretical thinking as well as her professional practice. Like Ferrer, she was a secularist and believed that public schools only taught how to rely on “the barbaric relics of a dead time,” forcing obedience on the child instead of encouraging their assertive spirit (“Francisco Ferrer” in de Cleyre, 2016 309, 312). She agreed that educational enlightenment should precede political transformation and that a reform of the school system should include training the body as well as the mind, direct contact with nature, the abolition of any form of tyranny or rigid discipline, but most of all the eradication of that “revolting patriotism […] whereby children learn to be proud of their country, not for its contribution to the general enlightenment of humanity, but for its crimes against humanity” (“Modern Educational Reform” in de Cleyre, 2016 338). A similar attack on history writing, especially of the kind contained in public school textbooks, also appears in other essays, where she again reclaims a “fundamental likeness between the Revolutionary Republicans and the Anarchists” (“Anarchism and American Traditions” in de Cleyre, 2016 121), and maintains that the excision of direct action from historical accounts is but a counterfeit. Ferrer too criticized the textbooks in use in Spanish schools and founded his own radical publishing house, which printed educational materials and anarchist books alongside literary translations, while also funding anarchist undertakings in France and Spain.17 Both Ferrer and de Cleyre thus worked for the creation, in their respective native countries, of alternative narratives that competed with hegemonic historiography in an attempt to subvert and replace it. For this purpose, they drew on and translated a number of works, both theoretical and poetic, by fellow activists from around the world, thus contributing not only to the free circulation of ideas, but also the enrichment of their own national literatures. As will become apparent by the end of this essay, while national literatures claim their rootedness in national languages, as if an indissoluble connection existed between the two, they take constant nourishment from translation and multilingualism.

  • 18 De Cleyre began to study Spanish in the last years of her life, as she became more involved in the (...)
  • 19 Even McCabe’s translation was in fact incomplete: “Except that I have omitted papers incorporated b (...)
  • 20 “So far, I am sorry to say, I have not succeeded in getting copies of [Ferrer’s] manuals; the Spani (...)

26Although de Cleyre finally became quite critical of the Modern School experiments in New York and Chicago (Avrich, 1978 222), the translation of Ferrer’s essay in the immediate aftermath of his death remains a major contribution to the dissemination in the United States of his ideas on rationalist education. De Cleyre only translated one essay, Chapter IX, “La renovación de la escuela,” from Ferrer’s much longer collection and did it from a French version, not from the original Spanish.18 The first complete translation of Ferrer’s work from Spanish into English only appeared in London in 1913, with the title The Origin and Ideals of the Modern School, the work of Joseph McCabe, a former Franciscan monk later converted to atheism, who also contributed an introduction, a few footnotes, and an epilogue.19 Although widely practiced in the past, indirect and abridged translations have long been disparaged and considered only a vicarious, second-hand praxis. More recently, however, a niche subfield in translation studies is reconsidering indirect translation as a more complex intertextual phenomenon, which can throw light on the cross-cultural exchanges between center and periphery, thus helping redefine geopolitical categories (Rosa et al. 113). Indirect translation research stresses the tripartite nature of many translation processes, thereby challenging the “exclusive, binary and unidirectional relationship between source text and target text” that characterizes the standard Western model of translation (Delabastita 239). Accordingly, both de Cleyre’s and McCabe’s versions contributed to the reverberating effect initiated by Ferrer’s death that prompted the diffusion of his practice around the world. As Avrich aptly clarifies, Ferrer’s idea of an escuela moderna was not even “original” to start with, as he had drawn extensively on both precursors and contemporaries for his pedagogy before implanting it in Barcelona (1980 7). Though respected within the anarchist and freethought movements, Ferrer was neither a theorist nor a charismatic orator (1980 19), and it was the international outcry following his execution that made the transatlantic transfer of his thought possible. Through indirect and/or abridged translation, Modern Schools and Ferrer Associations proliferated, thus virtually annulling the geographical, linguistic, and cultural distance between Europe and the United States. The “translation” of Ferrer’s libertarian education into the Americas and back thus appears less linear and more circular, to the point that even notions of original and derivative lose their teleological connotation. Given the censorial fury with which the Spanish government soon suppressed the Barcelona publishing house, it is even possible that none of Ferrer’s publications would have survived were it not for the clandestine circulation of their partial, abridged, and indirect translations.20

Editing Alexander Berkman’s Prison Memoirs: Towards a Transnational Literature

27Voltairine de Cleyre’s lifelong commitment to disseminating anarchist ideas from around the world and her dedication to translation and literature are well exemplified by the role she played in the completion of Alexander Berkman’s Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist. First published by Mother Earth Publishing Association in 1912, the memoir was written upon her warm encouragement and thoroughly edited by her. De Cleyre spent long hours corresponding with the author, dutifully answering his linguistic queries and correcting the proofs of what is considered a masterpiece of anarchist, and transnational, literature (Avrich, 1978 199). Her contribution to Berkman’s vivid account of his prison life, however, has yet to be fully acknowledged (Avrich and Avrich 207-209).

  • 21 See John William Ward’s essay, originally appeared in 1970 in The New York Review of Books and repr (...)

28The complex question of whether the violence that characterized American history since its inception was just a mad aberration, a sick outgrowth, or rather an intrinsic part of its noblest ideals is key to Berkman’s Prison Memoirs.21 Released in 1906 after serving fourteen years for trying to assassinate Henry Clay Frick of the Carnegie Steel Company at the age of 22, Berkman was a Russian immigrant born into a prosperous Jewish family and passionately devoted to the cause of social justice. De Cleyre and Berkman started corresponding in 1893, while he was still in jail, and her “discursive epistles of great charm and rebellious thought” lent “color to his existence” (Berkman, 1912 353). After release, Berkman suffered from severe depression and the extensive correspondence with de Cleyre helped him recover. What he found inspirational, most of all, was her suggestion to:

find out what others have said, before you start in; and strike out an independent line. On no account write like anybody else. […] Read so you’ll know what not to write. […] Yes: make a point of explaining in your book whether what part insanity plays in producing a criminal (if it does) and what phases and percentage of insanity results from prison “discipline”. (de Cleyre, 1906a)

29They also discussed whether the book should be written in autobiographical form or as a combination of sketch and biography, with Berkman as storyteller in the background. De Cleyre thought that he might “not be able to handle the novel style, though I may be wrong in my estimate” (de Cleyre, 1910a), and suggested that if the book was meant to be sold as political propaganda, the autobiographical form would be more apt, but if the author aimed at an artistic product, no matter whether it sold or not, then the second form was preferable. These suggestions were probably decisive also in the choice of the title:

The Autobiography of an Anarchist is a good title, but not for my book. I am opposed to autobiographies; they should not be published till at least 25 years after the author’s death. Otherwise they can be neither consciously or unconsciously sincere. And besides, I’m not intending an autobiogr. I’m writing of my prison life, with only an occasional look backward to illumine my prison life […] the title should be comprehensive, not misleading.” (Berkman, 1911)

Whatever he decided to do, de Cleyre’s only reminder was: “Dare: write things that others have been afraid to write” (de Cleyre, 1910a). And so he did, as Prison Memoirs is a powerful indictment of the American penal system, containing moving descriptions of the degradation induced by confinement, physical and spiritual isolation enforced on both inmates and wardens, but also the unembarrassed encounter with homosexuality and love. The book is experimental in form as it is narrated in a continuous present tense, although written years after the experience, so that the narrative actualizes the condition of incarceration and the human effort to survive it, while captivating the reader with its simple declarative style.

30In their letters, de Cleyre and Berkman reveal a kinship of spirit, not only because of their recurrent disillusionment with anarchism, determination to earn a living and not be parasites of the movement, or inner identification with the proletarians, but mostly due to their shared sense of despair, that “bitter rage against life,” “this fiendish thing which brings millions of little creatures forth mercilessly, only to hunger, pain, madness” (de Cleyre, 1906b). In order to write his book, Berkman needed to plunge himself into darkness and recreate the prison atmosphere. But such an effort caused physical and intellectual agony:

And not merely the brutality of the officers I want to portray, but the unspeakable injustice, uselessness + evil of the whole System of Punishment, of the Idea, indeed. […] [The book] presses for expression. It rages, + it is perhaps because of that very rage that I can’t work. I must put my soul house in order, as it were. (Berkman, 1910)

31In her letters, as the language teacher she is, de Cleyre provides grammatical explanations on how to use: comparatives; relative pronouns (“Rule: In Non-restrictive relative clauses use who or which instead of that”); the simple past vs. the present perfect tense (“really the most difficult thing in the whole grammar for a foreigner, and one of the hardest to explain”); punctuation (“Rule: When a subject has two predicates […] separately modified, they must be separated by a comma”); plurals (“Miasma is singular; plural miasmata”); capital letters; prepositions; vocatives; etc. (de Cleyre, 1912b). She sometimes returns to her “old boy” his pages red-lettered and apologizes for that, but other times suggests substantial cuts and/or rewritings, objects to his jokes which she does not appreciate, recommends adding chapters (such as the concluding Part IV “The Resurrection,” after Part III “The Workhouse,” to indicate the author’s return to the world and readjustment to life). She also advises him to “write straight ahead,” not to “turn [his] sentences back to end,” and to “keep away from two words: ‘eagerly’ and ‘yearn.’ You ‘yearned’ so many times in that book, that the reader feels like saying, ‘Is he yearning again?’” (de Cleyre, 1912c). What may seem in Berkman’s book as naïve, direct, and apparently artless style—possibly due to his writing in English instead of his native Russian tongue, as Ward suggests (in Berkman, 1999 xiii)—is more likely the result of a deliberate literary choice and de Cleyre’s impeccable and generous editing.

32De Cleyre died in terrible pain only a few months after writing the above-cited lines and was unable to see the publication of Berkman’s book. It was in partial acknowledgement of her contribution and as a post-mortem restitution that Berkman, together with other comrades, collected the money, edited, and finally published with Mother Earth Publishing Association, in 1914, The Selected Works of Voltairine de Cleyre, the very book she had wanted to write all her life, but had never been able to.

Conclusion: Anarchism and the Transnationalization of American Literature

33Through the translations of Grave’s and Ferrer’s works, the editing of Berkman’s memoir, and her own writing, Voltairine de Cleyre gave new impetus to the spread of anarchist ideals in the United States. In so doing, she broadened the social and aesthetic spectrum of American literature, while reigniting the most combative energies from the revolutionary past into what she saw as the country’s quiescent—if not moribund—present. To do so, she drew upon the founding myths of freedom, self-determination, and equality as narrated by its literary icons, and overcame those same linguistic and cultural barriers that she perceived not as obstacles to human understanding, but as thresholds to a more humane society.

34De Cleyre searched for the origins of anarchism not in European radical thought, but in American colonial history. In her account, the American people had disavowed their desire for liberty and independence to the point that the United States had become the most “shamelessly corrupt” and “utterly venal” government on earth (“Anarchism and American Traditions” in de Cleyre, 2016 129). Absorbed as they are in “mere money-getting,” material ease had “long ago vanquished the spirit of ’76” and she looked back to the revolutionary pride, hoping to resurrect a time when “there shall be neither kings nor Americans—only Men” (127).

35Transcendentalist philosophers, on the other hand, had significantly contributed to framing a narrative which hailed the exceptionalism of American society. No wonder, then, if de Cleyre identifies in Emerson and Thoreau two of the greatest advocates of “the Anarchistic Ideal,” with the former’s emphasis on self-possession and the Ego, and the latter’s renunciation of luxury and glorification of silence, solitude, and simplicity (“Anarchism in Literature” in de Cleyre, 2016 145-146). American exceptionalism, however, was not able to live up to its own myth. One of the most powerful institutions for disseminating public narratives, literature plays a crucial role in generating “pseudo histories” that create or reinforce national mythologies (Baker 33). In stressing the essential self-restraint and self-reliance at the basis of American democracy, the Founding Fathers had been oblivious to the enormous psychic burden they were placing upon their sons and daughters. Even the rejection of violence as alien to the nation and intrinsically un-American was blind to the multiple forms of violence, both official and private, which had dominated American history since the beginning and exploded at the turn of the twentieth century. De Cleyre, like most of her fellow anarchist activists, did not become disillusioned with the nation’s self-professed righteousness until after the Haymarket trial dramatically exposed how much the economic success of the country depended on the exploitation of labor, repression of protest, and marginalization of the poor and immigrants. The insistence that all men are free and equal, besides, could not but lead to mass conformity and intolerance for dissent, perversely turning the freedom of the individual and the right to representation into the tyranny of the majority (Ward xxvii). Talking about representative democracy, which she phrases as “indirect action,” de Cleyre maintains that:

it destroys initiative, quenches the individual rebellious spirit, teaches people to rely on some one else to do for them what they should do for themselves […]; finally renders organic the anomalous idea that by massing supineness together until a majority is acquired, then through the peculiar magic of that majority, this supineness is to be transformed into energy. That is, […] people who have submitted to every injustice while waiting for the majority to grow, are going to become metamorphosed into human high-explosives by a mere process of packing! (“Direct Action” in de Cleyre, 2016 239-240)

De Cleyre’s passionate defense of the supremacy of the individual, her love for uncontaminated nature, her repulsion for any form of injustice, detention, and discrimination, and her sympathy for the poorest of the poor resound with a Whitmanian urgency, which leaves no room to doubt the Americanness of her outcry. It was precisely out of the language of the homegrown rebel that she found inspiration for her own iconoclastic voice. The poetry of Walt Whitman, the “all-inclusive Quaker, whose love knew no limits, who said to Society’s most utterly despised outcast, ‘Not until the sun excludes you, will I exclude you,’” sounds to de Cleyre “supremely Anarchist” (“Anarchism in Literature” in de Cleyre, 2016 152), just like Hester Prynne’s silent revolt against the cruelty of Puritan law and the hypocrisy of civic and religious leaders.

36In the present account, however, that quintessentially national literature seems, above all, transnational and translational. As is known, American literature became nationalized as monolingual only after it had to distinguish itself from other literatures. In so doing, it belied the profound relevance of multilingualism, and engagement with translation, which had informed it since the beginning (Boggs 31, 149). The fetishization of monolingualism and its equation with the nation, as if some organic connection between linguistic and national identity really existed, was necessary to generate a representative literature which would give currency to its myths. The notions of Manifest Destiny and vernacular nationalism, which lie at the heart of American exceptionalism, invoke alterity only to banish it. American anarchism, and de Cleyre’s in particular, look back to the unification of the country and its foundational narratives to conceive of the nation not as an alternative to transnationalism, but as complementary with and implicated in it. The result of multilingual fragmentation, national languages are but artificial constructs, requiring for their survival the constant erasure of the practice of translation. The presence of translation, however, resurfaces not only when different languages are involved, but also within the same language. De Cleyre’s commitment to the anarchist cause was inseparable from her translational practice and in unison with her ideal of American nationhood. Conceived of as all-inclusive, non-coercive, egalitarian, and borderless, hers was to be a cosmopolitan nation, one in which no human being and/or language would ever be foreign, where poverty and pain would be universally defeated, and everybody would have just what wild creatures have: “a broad waft of clean air, a day to lie on the grass at times, with nothing to do but slip the blades through my fingers, and look as long as I pleased at the whole blue arch” (“The Sorrows of the Body” in de Cleyre, 2016 451).

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AVRICH, Paul. The Haymarket Tragedy. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984.

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BERKMAN, Alexander. Diary entry, 4 November 1910. Berkman Archive, International Institute of Social History, Amsterdam.

BERKMAN, Alexander. Diary entry, 21 September 1911. Berkman Archive, International Institute of Social History, Amsterdam.

BERKMAN, Alexander. Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist. 1912. New York: The New York Review of Books, 1999.

BOGGS, Colleen G. Transnationalism and American Literature: Literary Translation 1773-1892. 2007. New York: Routledge, 2009.

BRAY, Mark, and Robert H. HAWORTH, eds. Anarchist Education and the Modern School: A Francisco Ferrer Reader. Translated from the Spanish by Mark Bray and Joseph McCabe. Oakland: PM Press, 2019.

CRAIB, Raymond. “Sedentary Anarchists.” Reassessing the Transnational Turn: Scales of Analysis in Anarchist and Syndicalist Studies. Eds. Constance Bantman and Bert Altena. Oakland: PM Press, 2017, p. 139-156.

DE CLEYRE, Voltairine. Letter to Harriet Elizabeth de Claire, Philadelphia, 23 January 1893. The Labadie Collection, University of Michigan.

DE CLEYRE, Voltairine. Letter to Harriet Elizabeth de Claire, London, 3 August 1897. The Labadie Collection, University of Michigan.

DE CLEYRE, Voltairine. Letter to Alexander Berkman, 10 July 1906. Berkman Archive, International Institute of Social History, Amsterdam.

DE CLEYRE, Voltairine. Letter to Alexander Berkman, 7 August 1906. Berkman Archive, International Institute of Social History, Amsterdam.

DE CLEYRE, Voltairine. Letter to Alexander Berkman, 14 August 1906. Berkman Archive, International Institute of Social History, Amsterdam.

DE CLEYRE, Voltairine. Letter to Alexander Berkman, 24 June 1910. Berkman Archive, International Institute of Social History, Amsterdam.

DE CLEYRE, Voltairine. Letter to the editor of Buffalo Express, 22 October 1910. The Labadie Collection, University of Michigan.

DE CLEYRE, Voltairine. “The Economic Phase of Anarchism.” Unpublished manuscript, 1912. The Labadie Collection, University of Michigan.

DE CLEYRE, Voltairine. Letter to Alexander Berkman, 1912, n.d. Berkman Archive, International Institute of Social History, Amsterdam.

DE CLEYRE, Voltairine. Letter to Alexander Berkman, 8 March 1912. Berkman Archive, International Institute of Social History, Amsterdam.

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GRAVE, Jean. Moribund Society and Anarchy. Translated from the French by Voltairine de Cleyre. San Francisco: A. Isaak, 1899.

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1 On de Cleyre’s virtual exclusion from the canon and her radical feminism see Eugenia C. DeLamotte’s monograph, Gates of Freedom (2004). The first and, to this day, most complete biography of de Cleyre is still the work of Paul Avrich, who made documents from major archives available to readers while correcting many inaccuracies (1978). A few years later, Margaret Marsh included a chapter on de Cleyre in her Anarchist Women, 1870-1920 and was the first to stress de Cleyre’s contribution to feminist-anarchism. Catherine H. Palczewski and Wendy McElroy have also written extensively on de Cleyre and highlighted her relevance to contemporary feminist theory and women’s studies. “The project of exploring her place in American literary history, [however], has only just begun” (DeLamotte 3).

2 Her poem “The Gods and the People,” for example, was specifically composed for the 1890 Convention for Organization of the Woman’s National Liberal Union held in Washington, DC, and she recited it on the occasion as she shared the platform with other women activists and freethinkers. I thank my reviewers for pointing this out.

3 De Cleyre herself discussed the issue of American vs. European anarchism in “The Economic Phase of Anarchism,” an essay she was working on shortly before her death in 1912. “I find that most anarchists on this side of the Atlantic came into the anarchist movement by the door of economy, and for a long time […] economy absorbed their whole attention. Latterly, however, there has been a considerable widening of its scope or rather a widening of the understanding of its scope, which relegates economy to its proposition as a phase of anarchism. On the other side of the Atlantic however, in the proverbial ‘down where I come from,’ we got at anarchism from the political and social side, and under stress of its influence as well as that of our widely differing material conditions of forty years ago, we developed notions of anarchist economy quite different from those of European school” (de Cleyre, 1912a 1).

4 Besides essays and translations, she wrote numerous poems, sketches, and short stories. She also co-authored with Dyer D. Lum a social novel that she tried to publish for many years. The manuscript, unfortunately, is lost.

5 After the bombing at Haymarket Square on 4 May 1886, eight people were arrested, six of whom had not been present at the event. Four were executed, one committed suicide in prison, and three were pardoned several years later (Avrich, 1984).

6 Although these immigrants’ ability to speak foreign languages and intermingle has recently been reconsidered, it is undeniable that big cities like London became crucibles for radicals from around the world, and lively centers of intellectual and cultural exchange.

7 While in England, she stayed with John Turner and met the entire Freedom group, including Peter Kropotkin, Max Nettlau, and others. She thus began contributing a column, “American Notes”, to Freedom in London from November 1897 to January 1899 (Falk, vol. 1 528).

8 Before de Cleyre appropriated it, the notion of an “anarquismo sin adjetivos” had been theorized by the Spanish anarchists Ricardo Mella and Fernando Tarrida del Mármol, who, in so doing, wanted to overcome the differences between communists, collectivists, individualists, and mutualists, and find a common ground in the various strands of the international anarchist movement (Avrich, 1978 149; Anderson, 2005 171-172).

9 “To lecture for money for comrades I neither could nor would; to lecture to the general public on topics they would pay for I am not ‘business woman’ enough to undertake. It remains to earn my living—myself and partly my mother” (de Cleyre, 1906c).

10 Her translations from Yiddish of Libin and Peretz appeared in the early issues of Emma Goldman’s Mother Earth (Avrich, 1978 7-8).

11 In a telling letter to her mother she discusses the importance of reading the Bible in the original language, and claims that reading it in translation is “pretty near a sin” in that Hebrew, “like all primitive languages, is so full of symbolism, double and triple meanings, poetry whose beauty is turned into caricature by translation that so abstract a language as English cannot possibly express it” (de Cleyre, 1893).

12 The French edition having been suppressed, de Cleyre worked on the Pouget edition, ostensibly published in London, which contained an additional chapter.

13 As she later confided to Will and Maggie Duff, Grave’s book was in fact “an awful jumble, and repetitious ad nauseam,” and she regretted having accepted to translate it without reading it first (Avrich, 1978 122).

14 For example, she intervenes on Lombroso and the “Physiognomy of the Chicago Anarchists” (59, footnote), and comments on the Affaire Dreyfus (85, footnote).

15 She literally translates the French adage “Passe-moi la casse, je te passerai le séné” (Grave, 1893 133) in the body of the text (“Pass me the cinnamon and I will pass you the senna”), but then adds a footnote where she adapts it for her American readers: “You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” (Grave, 1899 120). The first translating mode is known as “foreignizing” in that it tries to approximate a foreign likeness. The intervention in the footnote, however, “domesticates” the adage, thus moving in the opposite direction. In so doing, de Cleyre demonstrates that the two strategies are not irreconcilable, that an understanding between different cultures is desirable and possible, and that no human language is ultimately “foreign.”

16 The translator’s name does not appear in the journal, nor on the pamphlet. As she wrote to Berkman, then editor of Mother Earth, he could do as he pleased since that was “a matter of indifference” to her (de Cleyre, 1910a).

17 Among the books Ferrer had translated into Spanish for use in his schools is Jean Grave’s Les Aventures de Nono (1901), a short poem in prose for the education of children (Bray and Haworth 94-95, 136-138).

18 De Cleyre began to study Spanish in the last years of her life, as she became more involved in the Mexican Revolution. She also planned to move to Mexico to live and work among the Yaqui Indians.

19 Even McCabe’s translation was in fact incomplete: “Except that I have omitted papers incorporated by Ferrer but not written by him, this is the only modification I have allowed myself.—J.M.” (Ferrer y Guardia, 1913 53, footnote 2). We owe to Mark Bray the first unabridged translation of Ferrer’s work from Spanish (2019). Bray supplemented McCabe’s abbreviated work with the missing parts, “modernized some of his language, and returned certain phrases to the original spirit of Ferrer’s revolutionary pedagogical vision” (Bray and Haworth x).

20 “So far, I am sorry to say, I have not succeeded in getting copies of [Ferrer’s] manuals; the Spanish government confiscated most of them, and has probably destroyed them. Still there are some uncaptured sets (one is already in the British Museum) and I make no doubt that within a year or so we shall have translations of most of them” (“Francisco Ferrer” in de Cleyre, 2016 314).

21 See John William Ward’s essay, originally appeared in 1970 in The New York Review of Books and reprinted in the 1999 edition of Berkman’s memoir.

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Rita Filanti, « “We must dig our trenches, and win or die”: Voltairine de Cleyre’s Transnational Anarchism »Transatlantica [En ligne], 2 | 2021, mis en ligne le 07 décembre 2021, consulté le 22 mars 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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