I happen to be afflicted with anarchist history. Wherever I go, whomever I speak to, I gravitate into a conversation about some dead anarchist that I recently discovered. I've been reaching these dead people out for over ten years now, and so my mind is densely populated with radical personalities of another age.
Some people ask me how the family life of this obscure anarchist, or the day-job of that, both of whose names never appear even in the indexes of published anarchist histories, mean anything at all to me. A few of the many reasons come quickly to mind.
When we meet some regular person, who holds mainstream opinions about politics and social affairs, they will have no trouble giving a list of ten or twenty reasons why they believe there should be a government, or why some people should be left to play on vast private properties while others die on the sidewalk. The arguments might be drawn from many sources, but very often an anecdote will emerge from the life-story of some dead president, from the battle memoir of some famous general. The impressive presentation will derive from events and stories that took place long before the birth of the person arguing for government and the rule of law. Too often the anarchist is left without enough examples to offer in return. However, this is not because examples of heroic anarchists and a world of true stories from anarchist lives do not exist.
I happen to believe that there are no ghosts who wander the Earth, nor any parallel world where dead people hang around forever, spending their afterlife but never writing any new books. The fact remains that the dead exist, and play a prominent role within the psychology of the living. They no longer exist, but we constantly think about them.
One obstacle standing in the way of cultivating a broader anarchist historical base is in academia. For every professional historian of the movement who are genuine investigators scouring the earth for primary sources and previously unexamined anarchist lives, there are another ten who are busy writing the 40th re-hash of Emma Goldman's memoirs. I have focused mainly on anarchist events at Philadelphia, and so I make a point of reading new essays on that city's shining star, Voltairine de Cleyre. Even the better of these essays in recent years lack evidence of much new research, nor, in most cases, a re-examination of the same documents that informed Paul Avrich's 1978 biography. I've looked at her life to the point where I can tell which archives the writer has or has not personally visited. It is for this reason that I am more than delighted by the new investigations of the Southern anarchist Ross Winn by Sean and Ally.
I find that the best way to look into anarchist history is in one's home town. This is where to find the sources that are available only if the researcher comes in person. It is the place where we're most likely to locate the living descendants of the dead comrades we have fallen in love with. The historical volumes we find in the stacks at the university library should provide only the starting-place for the research we do. Otherwise, we can only hope to make a few fresh comments on what's already there. This is the task of many university professors now writing about anarchism: to write very impressive term papers.
We shade-tree historians*, who do this only for the love of our subject, and who almost never get paid even a little for our historical research, must look into entirely new topics in order to have the motivation needed to keep us on the job long enough to get results. We are possessed by the hunt. We check and re-check the mailbox for copies of a death record or a century-old university alumnus file. We look forward to our next ten-hour session in the newspaper room of a library, searching through roll after roll of microfilm for a few column-inches about the comrades who walked the same street as we do now; who fought against earlier forms of the same regional injustices as we face today. We look for the anarchist soul-mates who spoke our language, and with the same accent.
I met Shaun and Ally in a bowling alley full of anarchists. They were from Nashville, so I told them what I could about Ross Winn. I only had some of his articles, his obituary, and some letters pertaining to his death. I told them that there would certainly be more to find, and that he was well worth the research, if someone took the time to find it. Had they been from Northern California, I'd have told them the Viroqua Daniels story. Had they been from Cincinnati, it would have been David Edelstadt; from Denver, Giuseppe Alia; from Western Pennsylvania, Louis Goaziou; from St. Louis, John Beverly Robinson. It's fairly endless. Had they been from Chicago or New York, it might have been like at a football match, with remarks like "our dead anarchists were just as cool as yours, you know!" One can get the impression from what's already been written that the whole U.S. movement lived and died in those two cities, but of course it didn't.
Shaun and Ally did what I always hope that my listeners will do, but almost never do. They caught the fever. They went to the library, found a few tidbits, and went away psyched, and thirsty for more. Now, after much time-consuming, original field research, they have found Ross Winn's grave site, his family tree, his photograph, and a few of his living descendants. They continue the search and will gather more. Before now, Winn was a name familiar only to those who had read quite a few texts on anarchism in North America in his time, but little more than a name. Now the man has a face, a family, a personality, and the testimony of his lifelong sacrifice and dedication to the cause.
Now, the memory of Ross Winn and his long, painful struggle will be ready in the minds of southern anarchists. When the legitimacy of the idea is ridiculed, Ross is there to lend a hand, almost as though he were personally present as a ghost, chiming in with his old-time wisdom, when an anarchist in Tennessee is explaining to their neighbor how things can be done with no Company town, no Church, and no Government. Ross is alive again in our hearts, and so we are stronger.
Read on, anarchist. Be infected with this delicious sickness. Take it home and spread it to all the other anarchists in your neighborhood. I look forward to seeing you sometime, on the library steps or in a quiet cemetery. Let's have a picnic and swap stories of our wonderful dead.
*shade-tree historians: It's an expression I picked up in the mountains, where some friends live, in Virginia. They say "shade tree mechanics" which is a guy who just has a sense of how the car works, and he hangs a hoist from the tree branch to pull out the motor. I've used it for quite a while, without really thinking about it. I guess the American ear catches it as "one of those southern expressions".
This is the introduction to a zine called Ross Winn: Digging up a Tennessee Anarchist. The story on the front comes from there, too, Copies are available (three dollars) from: firstname.lastname@example.org see also: www.thefirebrand.org/winn
From: Ross Winn: Digging up a Tennessee Anarchist.