Alexander Berkman’s Prison Memoirs annotated: an interview

An annotated edition of Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist has just been published by AK Press. Jessica Moran and Barry Pateman who edited it are both part of the Kate Sharpley Library team. We took the chance to ask them a few questions:

KSL: Prison Memoirs is a classic, and much reprinted. You’ve annotated the text to help readers understand ‘the radical world that Berkman inhabited’. What else did you hope this edition would do?

[JM] I don’t think Prison Memoirs has been out of print in the almost 105 years since its original publication in 1912. It’s a classic for a reason, there is so much going on in the book, and each reading brings new elements to light. So partly we just wanted people to read it and with the footnotes give readers some help in bringing the book to life. Because the book is now over a hundred years old, many of the contemporary references, are references that a reader then would have understood without any trouble, but 100 years on they may need a little explanation. But also we wanted to highlight for the reader how the radical tradition Berkman was part of and educated himself in, also shaped him, and gave him the strength to survive prison. The other thing we wanted to do is counter some of the idea that this memoir is the complete factual truth, we wanted to tell some of the stories behind the story Berkman told.

[BP] Yes. We felt it was important to explore the radical milieu that Berkman was part of but also, and this may seem contradictory, we wanted to encourage people to understand that Prison Memoirs isn’t necessarily the truth about Berkman or his time in prison. He, himself, was very clear that book was a Memoir and Not an Autobiography. It’s understandable really. He had blanked out some of his prison experiences. Years of solitary had left him unsure about the chronology of events (and if they ever happened!!) and I think he felt that a more creative approach (the invention of characters, the crunching of various events into one incident etc) would allow him to convey the reality of his experiences in a more evocative and harrowing way. Time and again we see people quoting Prison Memoirs or Living My Life as fact. That’s an approach we might want to ponder on.

KSL: It’s clear from the diary that you print as appendix that writing Prison Memoirs cost Berkman two years of huge effort. Can you outline how the idea to write it arose, and what Berkman wanted it to achieve?

[BP] Berkman had been toying with some memoir of his time in prison from early on in his incarceration. The prison journal Zuchthausblüthen (Prison Blossoms) that he created with Carl Nold and Henry Bauer contains the odd piece of autobiography and the plan was to create a book from this. Apparently quite a lot of this material was lost for one reason and another. Once out of prison Berkman never found writing particularly easy, especially when writing about his time in the Western Penitentiary. He was helped and encouraged by Emma Goldman and Voltairine de Cleyre in the creation of Prison Memoirs —de Cleyre especially offered help with Berkman’s English and his sense of narrative and structure with regard to the book—but often he didn’t want to go back there in his head. He wanted to forget rather than remember. It’s actually quite hard to know what Berkman wanted to achieve with his book. His letters and diaries are frustratingly short on that type of information. I think we can presume he wanted to achieve three things. Firstly he wanted to deal with the memories and emotions that haunted him. Secondly he wanted to portray the horror and the ineffectiveness of prison experience. All the casual everyday cruelties, all the constant indignities easily destroyed the human spirit. No one deserved to be put through that, no matter what their crime. Even the worst criminal had sparks of humanity that needed to be respected and saved. They were victims, themselves, of an unforgiving economic and cultural system. Thirdly, and perhaps more implicit, was a critique on the narrowness of anarchist discourse. Simply put what did it have to say to these men living in constant degradation? Throughout his life Berkman struggled with the nature of anarchist propaganda and who it should be aimed at. It shaped his approach not just in Prison Memoirs, but in all his writing and editorial efforts, including Mother Earth, and especially The Blast, but also in Now and Then: The ABC of Communist Anarchism, etc. All that began during his prison experience.

KSL: It’s now over a hundred years since Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist was published. You don’t shy away from talking about some of the tensions it highlights in the anarchist movement of the time, such as that between Berkman and Emma Goldman about who anarchists should be talking to. Do you think there’s anything here for anarchists of today beyond a warning that the ‘good old days’ weren’t all that different from now?

[JM] Hmm, well I suppose you can say that it’s clear there has never been a consensus about the one correct way to “do anarchism” or be an anarchist. Clearly Berkman and Goldman discussed and argued about these ideas for much of their lives. I think that one of the things we may lose sight of when looking back is that what they were arguing about wasn’t necessarily the correct way to be an anarchist, or have the correct values, but rather what was the most effective way to bring about anarchy or build the anarchist movement. Neither ever doubted the other’s anarchism, but they often disagreed about who was the best audience for their message, who to aim their propaganda toward, and how to build and grow their movement. Certainly that is something for us to keep in mind; the point is to effectively grow an anarchist movement.

KSL: Berkman is traumatised, but not broken or ‘reformed’ by his time inside. I want to ask one of those impossible ‘What if’ questions: If he’d been sentenced to seven years rather than 22, how do you think his life would have been different? Would his name be just a historical footnote like his comrades Henry Bauer and Carl Nold, for example?

[JM] Ah, that is impossible! One can’t really guess. Though it seems to me (knowing how his life did turn out) that seven years in prison rather than fourteen probably wouldn’t have dramatically changed who he became. Berkman was a man committed to his political beliefs. While he paints himself as a naïve fanatic during his youth, I have to think that the sensitivity he had to the humanity, the pain and suffering of his fellow prisoners, and his commitment to anarchism would have been there regardless. I think two things that the twenty-two year sentence did do to him were to one make him believe that he would or should die in prison, but then when that wasn’t possible, much of that time was given over to the exploring the world through reading, and that reading and study helped him develop into the person he was.

KSL: Finally, it seems to me that producing this edition was an epic process. How long did it take, and what were the hardest and most satisfying things about it?

[JM] I don’t want to think about how long it took! Certainly from AK Press originally suggesting the project, it has been a few long years, with plenty of other projects happening in the meantime. But we spent a solid year working on the footnotes. The hardest thing was probably figuring out how to get the right effect with our notes. We wanted the notes to act as sign posts for the reader, helping them understand the text without overloading them with more information than necessary, or telling readers what to think or how to interpret passages or events. The art of the footnote can often be much more complex than it looks on the surface. It’s pleasing that we were able to include Berkman’s diary. The International Institute for Social History digitized Berkman’s papers, including his diary a few years ago, and once we realized we had access to it, it seemed necessary to include. There is so much within it about how Berkman wrote and created Prison Memoirs, but also about his life, his activities, and his comrades during that period. While it is quite a private and unfinished piece of writing, it’s just such a rich resource, especially for those of us who have long thought that Berkman’s contribution to anarchism has been under-valued. It’s satisfying to have the diary transcribed, annotated, and available to readers.

[BP] Too long. The hardest thing was to do justice to Berkman. You come away from the book realizing what a staunch character the man was. If we can share our appreciation of him and introduce him to new people then I’ll be satisfied.

Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist by Alexander Berkman, annotated and introduced by Jessica Moran and Barry Pateman. Published by AK Press, January 2017. ISBN 9781849352529