Recently I got a message, because I’ve changed my last name to Cleyre, saying (roughly), “Hey, I notice you like Voltairine and so do I. What do you recommend by her and what stands out to you about her?”
I was about to answer when it struck me…how many damn times have I been asked this? Seriously, over the course of the past 7 years (since I discovered de Cleyre in 2010) I’ve gotten this question numerous times.
Not that it’s been burdensome or mysterious.
I love Voltairine de Cleyre and I’ve never been silent about that. On the contrary I’ve been heavily vocal about it over the past 7 years.
I’ve also explained it by just simply republishing her work and letting it speak for itself. I’ve also helped published whole collections of her work online that previously were not available otherwise. And with those I was also trying to let the work speak for itself.
But I suppose it’s time to just answer the damn question.
First things first, story time!
Discovering de Cleyre
I can’t really talk about why de Cleyre means so much to me (second question first!) without talking about how I discovered her work to begin with. It started when I went to Colby-Sawyer College in 2010. I was looking in their library for whatever books on anarchism they had and it was a rather pitiful collection, naturally.
But they had a collection of writings by Emma Goldman, an introduction to anarchism by Colin Ward and a book called Exquisite Rebel (edited by Sharon Presley and Cirspin Sartwell) which was a collection of writings (and some introductions by Presley and Sartwell) by an anarchist named Voltairine de Cleyre. I had never heard of her before (or if I had it wasn’t very much) and was very interested in reading her work.
For the life of me, I can’t remember which book I picked first but I suspect it was the de Cleyre book. I believe I picked up Goldman’s compilation and then Ward’s introduction, but funnily enough I read way more de Cleyre before I ever did Goldman, which I’m sure is not true for many of my fellow anarchists.
And also funnily enough I hardly remember what I read of Goldman (or Ward for that matter) but de Cleyre stays with me till this day. When discussions about how great Goldman is inevitably happen amongst my anarchist friends, I’m often left mumbling something about how de Cleyre is clearly superior, at least in her style if nothing else.
Part of de Cleyre’s memorability is because de Cleyre’s writings came to me in an impressionable time. I was still forming my ideas on anarchism and what I liked and what I didn’t. I was still trying to figure out what I liked as a writer and what I didn’t and de Cleyre contributed immensely to both of these soul searching (so to speak) processes.
It’s actually an inner struggle I’m still dealing with, 6 years later.
Her writings immediately caught my eye as imaginative beyond belief. They were immaculate and beautiful, the way she would express the most poignant of humanity’s struggles with such clarity, focus and tailor made beauty, seemed incomprehensible and comparable to me.
Take, for example, this passage from The Dominant Idea:
Last summer I trained some morning-glory vines up over a second story balcony; and every day they blew and curled in the wind, their white, purple-dashed faces winking at the sun, radiant with climbing life. Higher every day the green heads crept, carrying their train of spreading fans waving before the sun-seeking blossoms.
Then all at once some mischance happened, some cut worm or some mischievous child tore one vine off below, the finest and most ambitious one, of course. In a few hours the leaves hung limp, the sappy stem wilted and began to wither; in a day it was dead, — all but the top which still clung longingly to its support, with bright head lifted. I mourned a little for the buds that could never open now, and tied that proud vine whose work in the world was lost.
But the next night there was a storm, a heavy, driving storm, with beating rain and blinding lightning. I rose to watch the flashes, and lo! the wonder of the world! In the blackness of the mid-NIGHT, in the fury of wind and rain, the dead vine had flowered. Five white, moon-faced blossoms blew gaily round the skeleton vine, shining back triumphant at the red lightning. I gazed at them in dumb wonder.
Dear, dead vine, whose will had been so strong to bloom, that in the hour of its sudden cut-off from the feeding earth, it sent the last sap to its blossoms; and, not waiting for the morning, brought them forth in storm and flash, as white night-glories, which should have been the children of the sun.
In the daylight we all came to look at the wonder, marveling much, and saying, “Surely these must be the last.” But every day for three days the dead vine bloomed; and even a week after, when every leaf was dry and brown, and so thin you could see through it, one last bud, dwarfed, weak, a very baby of a blossom, but still white and delicate, with five purple flecks, like those on the live vine beside it, opened and waved at the stars, and waited for the early sun.
Over death and decay the Dominant Idea smiled: the vine was in the world to bloom, to bear white trumpet blossoms dashed with purple; and it held its will beyond death.
This short meditation on life, death and perseverance is just one small part of this fantastic essay and an infinitesimal part of de Cleyre’s overall bibliography and her use of gorgeous imagery to prove a larger and important theoretical point.
But it wasn’t just de Cleyre’s prose but her passion. Her passion for anarchism was absolutely contagious. The way she describes anarchism is perhaps one of my favorite passages about anarchism written anywhere. It’s written like a poet and, I suppose, being a poet myself, I’m biased on this matter, but I think it’s worth highlighting as well:
Ah, once to stand unflinchingly on the brink of that dark gulf of passions and desires, once at last to send a bold, straight-driven gaze down into the volcanic Me, once, and in that once, and in that once forever, to throw off the command to cover and flee from the knowledge of that abyss, – nay, to dare it to hiss and seethe if it will, and make us writhe and shiver with its force!
Once and forever to realize that one is not a bundle of well-regulated little reasons bound up in the front room of the brain to be sermonized and held in order with copy-book maxims or moved and stopped by a syllogism, but a bottomless, bottomless depth of all strange sensations, a rocking sea of feeling where ever sweep strong storms of unaccountable hate and rage, invisible contortions of disappointment, low ebbs of meanness, quakings and shudderings of love that drives to madness and will not be controlled, hungerings and meanings and sobbing that smite upon the inner ear, now first bent to listen, as if all the sadness of the sea and the wailing of the great pine forests of the North had met to weep together there in that silence audible to you alone.
To look down into that, to know the blackness, the midnight, the dead ages in oneself, to feel the jungle and the beast within, – and the swamp and the slime, and the desolate desert of the heart’s despair – to see, to know, to feel to the uttermost, – and then to look at one’s fellow, sitting across from one in the street-car, so decorous, so well got up, so nicely combed and brushed and oiled and to wonder what lies beneath that commonplace exterior, – to picture the cavern in him which somewhere far below has a narrow gallery running into your own – to imagine the pain that racks him to the finger-tips perhaps while he wears that placid ironed-shirt-front countenance – to conceive how he too shudders at himself and writhes and flees from the lava of his heart and aches in his prison-house not daring to see himself – to draw back respectfully from the Self-gate of the plainest, most unpromising creature, even from the most debased criminal, because one knows the nonentity and the criminal in oneself – to spare all condemnation (how much more trial and sentence) because one knows the stuff of which man is made and recoils at nothing since all is in himself, – this is what Anarchism may mean to you. It means that to me.
And then, to turn cloudward, starward, skyward, and let the dreams rush over one – no longer awed by outside powers of any order – recognizing nothing superior to oneself – painting, painting endless pictures, creating unheard symphonies that sing dream sounds to you alone, extending sympathies to the dumb brutes as equal brothers, kissing the flowers as one did when a child, letting oneself go free, go free beyond the bounds of what fear and custom call the “possible,” – this too Anarchism may mean to you, if you dare to apply it so.
And if you do some day, – if sitting at your work-bench, you see a vision of surpassing glory, some picture of that golden time when there shall be no prisons on the earth, nor hunger, nor houselessness, nor accusation, nor judgment, and hearts open as printed leaves, and candid as fearlessness, if then you look across at your lowbrowed neighbor, who sweats and smells and curses at his toil, – remember that as you do not know his depth neither do you know his height. He too might dream if the yoke of custom and law and dogma were broken from him.
Even now you know not what blind, bound, motionless chrysalis is working there to prepare its winged thing.
Anarchism means freedom to the soul as to the body, – in every aspiration, every growth.
It was these passages and many more that convinced me of the importance of her work. It was her passion, her cadence (so to speak) and her life that further captured my attention and adoration. The way de Cleyre lived her life, while not perfect, was saintly or priestly in a way (which is why she is sometimes called the “Priestess of Pity and Vengeance”) and admirable in how she dealt with the world around her.
Particularly how she dealt with Herman Helcher, a former student who ran up to de Cleyre and shot her point blank over a perceived slight against him that she had in fact not committed:
But as she recovered, she flatly refused to identify or accuse Herman as her attacker.
She took it a major step further by leading a fund raising campaign and hiring two lawyers to defend Herman.
Not to mention de Cleyre also took the time to write a letter to her comrades so that they might help Helcher.
de Cleyre did not leave a perfect life, of course. She was often in poverty, had a fairly miserable love life by all accounts and was periodically ignored or discounted by the larger anarchist scene. Though thankfully this has changed (and for the better) as of recently thanks to the work of folks like Presley and Sartwell.
Not to mention the work of the folks at AK Press and their VDC Reader (which this article’s title is a riff on). Also worth mentioning is Gates of Freedom by the late and great Eugenia C. DeLamotte and the (soon to be not out of print?) wonderful biography by Paul Avrich.
The recently re-published collection of de Cleyre’s Selected Works by AK is great too.
So okay, this probably more than answers the second question…and if it doesn’t, I could keep going, but that seems unnecessary for general purposes. If you need more reasons why de Cleyre is so important to me then here’s the quick 101:
- Voltairine (much like Karl Hess) was under-appreciated in her time and continues to be under-appreciated, thus motivating me to speak more about her than others.
- Her work is important because it can help bridge ideological gaps between individualist anarchism and more socialist forms of anarchism (c.f. The Individualist and the Communist: A Dialogue, Anarchism, Anarchism and American Traditions).
- The way she lived her life is admirable and in particular we could all learn from her in matters of justice. Her priestly ways (living on small means with common garb) is perhaps not for everyone but reflects her dedication to her ideas that is worth broadly emanating if nothing else.
- Her poetry and sketches are particularly fine works of art that deserve to be highlighted. Voltairine was seemingly a natural poet (she wrote her first poem at age 6, c.f. Avrich p. 25-26) and writer at a young age and she only got better.
There’s more, there’s always more, but let’s get to the first question.
So You’re Going to Read Voltairine, eh?
Maybe you don’t give a rat’s ass (please don’t, that’s gross) about why I love de Clerye and you’ve really just clicked on the link to get to the section that’ll give you the goods on where to start.
Well seems rude, but okay.
- For a full understanding of de Cleyre’s theory and how it beautifully intersects, I recommend (ironically) one of her first works, The Economic Tendency of Freethought. I think this is a wonderful place to start if you just want to understand the bare-bones of what de Cleyre tended to believe throughout her life. It combines the best elements of her freethought, her anarchism and her feminism in one essay.
- If you want to get the best handle on de Cleyre’s feminism I recommend Sex Slavery which is a powerful indictment of patriarchal relations in society. The Gates of Freedom is also highly underrated and Those Who Marry Do Ill is a solid choice as well.
- For de Cleyre’s freethought The Economic Tendency is still likely your best choice as it’s where she states most of her beliefs. Oddly, after this essay de Cleyre never focuses on it within the form of an essay, at least not at the same level of concern and depth she does there. Other than that I would recommend her poetry from Selected Works which includes The Burial of My Past Self, The Christian’s Plea and The Freethinker’s Plea.
- Studying de Cleyre’s anarchism is slightly difficult and it’s debatable what sort of anarchist de Cleyre even was (that’s for another time) but leaving this contentious topic aside I’m most likely to recommend Anarchism which I think captured de Cleyre at her most intellectually charitable and challenging. The Making of an Anarchist may be a good second option. I recommend these as opposed to Why I am an Anarchist or Anarchism and American Traditions, both of which I find slightly too partisan (to say nothing of The Individualist and the Communist).
- de Cleyre also dabbled in philosophy and perhaps her best work was The Dominant Idea as well as Crime and Punishment, both of which asked many tough questions about human “nature” and our desire to act in bad faith or to desire punishment of others. The Dominant Idea is also perhaps one of my favorite overall works by de Cleyre, if you were curious.
- If you need some tactics/strategy in your life Direct Action is definitely the way to go. It’s a great historical read on what direct has been constituted by and why it’s worth considering in the anarchist toolbox. If that doesn’t do it for you, check out A Study of the General Strike in Philadelphia for de Cleyre using a case study in her advocacy of direct action.
- Want to read some of de Cleyre’s poetry? Oh hell yeah, I got some recommendations. Ave et Vale is a wonderful poem if you’re about to ring in a New Year and it’s a really powerful piece about social change and oppression no matter what. Life or Death (also see here for an excellent audio rendition I helped coordinate) is an excellent poem about choosing to live and it’s helped me choose to live more than once. The Hurricane is a beautiful poem about the potential of social change. There’s many poems (also check out her Selected Works) to recommend but those three are great places to start and some of my favorites.
- Wanna get really nerdy and read some of her sketches? Hell yes I’ve got some recommendations for you! A Rocket of Iron is a beautiful but haunting sketch on oppression and the individual. The Heart of Angiolillo is a beautiful anti-romantic feminist sketch that is as poignant as it is tragic. Great for the “woke” male-feminists in your life. To Strive and Fail / Sorrows of the Body are best read in tandem about the horrors of work. Honestly, most of de Cleyre’s sketches are a bit of a downer, so make sure you’re in the right head-space for that. They’re beautiful but often in a very sad way.
- And if you want to read some things written about de Cleyre…well gosh, we’re getting meta, aren’t we? In any case, there’s the classic done by Emma Goldman which is mostly solid (though contains a few minor errors here and there that’s been commented on by Presley and others and which Goldman herself apologized for). There’s Hippolye Havel’s introduction in de Cleyre’s Selected Works as well as Leonard Abbott’s tribute to de Cleyre. I also found a review by Abbott of Selected Works that is worth taking a look at and has some parts I found moving.
- And heck, if you want to see de Cleyre herself (or as close as you’re going to get), as Abbott remarks, she’s buried near the Haymarket Martyrs in Waldheim Cemetery.
I think that’s about all I can (or need to) recommend and say about Voltairine, but I’m sure I could say more.
After all, there’s always more to say about Voltairine.
Well, for me.
‘Cause I’m a giant nerd.