Three Anarchistic Tales

[cross-posted at Liberty & Power]

For he, like a man or a star, lives in a universe
shut in by walls of the things he knows.

A late Christmas gift for you: three hauntingly beautiful and politically subversive early 20th-century tales – all searing indictments of the brutality of the state – have been posted in the Molinari Online Library: Voltairine de Cleyre’s fiction-disguised-as-memoir “The Chain Gang” (1907), Gertrude Nafe’s mordant fable “The Law and the Man Who Laughed” (1913), and Rose Wilder Lane’s journalism-disguised-as-fiction “A Bit of Gray in a Blue Sky” (1919). (This is, to the best of my knowledge, the first time that the Nafe and Lane pieces have been available online.)

chain gang De Cleyre and Lane were of course leading writers of the libertarian anarchist tradition (representing that tradition’s “socialist” and “capitalist” strands respectively, if it matters). I haven’t been able to learn much about Gertrude Nafe, except that she was an associate of Emma Goldman’s, that she was active in John Reed’s Communist Labor Party, that her short stories were well-regarded by the mainstream, and that she was dismissed from her post as a Denver schoolteacher for refusing to take an oath to “promote by precept and example obedience to laws and constituted authorities.” Specifically, I don’t know whether she was an anarchist; but “The Law and the Man Who Laughed” is certainly anarchist in spirit.

Despite its obvious antiracist intent, “The Chain Gang” is marred by some unconscious racism (beneath all her beautiful metaphors, de Cleyre is in effect characterising blacks – or black convicts, anyway – as congenitally ignorant but naturally musical, comparing them to idiots savants), but its haunting beauty survives this flaw.

“A Bit of Gray in a Blue Sky” isn’t explicitly an antiwar story, but it’s hard not to read it as one, or to see an analogy between the fate of Lane’s carrier pigeon and the fate of human beings dragged from their ordinary lives into the jaws of a war machine they know and care nothing about. (Incidentally, see the true story behind Lane’s account. Sadly, by the time “A Bit of Gray” was published, the pigeon had already died of its wounds.)

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