Book Review: Prison Blossoms: Anarchist Voices from the American Past

Reviewed: Prison Blossoms: Anarchist Voices from the American Past, by Alexander Berkman, Henry Bauer, and Carl Nold. Edited by Mariam Brody and Bonnie Buettner. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011.

While imprisoned for the attempted assassination of the industrialist Henry Clay Frick, three anarchists — Alexander Berkman, Henry Bauer, and Carl Nold — published a sort of underground magazine, by and for the men with whom they were jailed. Titled Prison Blossoms these ad hoc pamphlets discussed politics, prison conditions, and the experience of incarceration.

The very existence of these magazines is remarkable.  The manuscripts were handwritten in German and English, and folded into 3×5 inch booklets. Readers included jailed strikers, the prison librarian, a lawyer, professional gamblers, and con artists — some of whom later contributed their own essays.  As many as 60 issues appeared altogether, with Berkman, Nold, and Bauer taking turns with the editor’s responsibilities.  Most of the surviving issues were written between 1893 and 1897 in Western Pennsylvania Penitentiary, and were mailed out by a guard whom the editors had bribed.

In Prison Blossoms: Anarchist Voices from the American Past, Miriam Brody and Bonnie Buettner have assembled the surviving texts and translated them to English where necessary.

The collected edition has obvious value for the historian, as it provides a wealth of detail on American prison life at the end of the nineteenth century.  In it one can find portraits of guards and trustees, descriptions of the abuse the prisoners suffered, and a long list of incidents documenting the persistence of corporal punishment after reforms prohibiting it.  In addition, Carl Nold recorded some conversations between inmates, and contributed several pages of poetry.  (It is a shame, however, that the pen and ink drawings used to illustrate the original magazines are not reproduced here.)

Likewise, the book provides a first-person perspective on one of the debates then gripping anarchism — the controversy over assassination, terrorism, and “propaganda by the deed.”  One of the strategy’s practitioners, Alexander Berkman, offers a justification of political violence, and his convicted (though likely innocent) co-conspirators provide both practical and philosophical defenses of Berkman and his act.  We also receive, from all three, accounts of the specific events that drove Berkman to shoot Frick — the conditions of the workers at Homestead, their strike, and its suppression — and accounts of the arrests and trials that followed his attempt.

The authors also offer some careful and astute reflections on their present circumstances — of life in the prison, the psychological effects of incarceration, its depressing and demoralizing influence on the prisoners, and its social consequences.

Though useful to one researching the period, none of the arguments found here are really particularly surprising.  On the whole, the social and political picture created by Prison Blossoms is already familiar from other sources.  However, the book is not only interesting for historical, but also for psychological, reasons.  Its real virtue may lie less in what it tells us about the nineteenth-century prison, or about the early anarchist movement, and more with the portrait it offers of these men who found themselves thrust together, more or less arbitrarily, at just that moment in history.  The ideas of the authors and the observations they make, and — more importantly — the standpoint from which they make them, the language of their arguments, and what is metaphorically referred to as their voice, help us to form, not only a notion of the place they occupy in history, but of the type of men that we might find there.

Of the three principle authors, it is Alexander Berkman whose personality comes across most clearly.  And, somewhat startlingly, the Berkman of Prison Blossoms is not the patient, thoughtful, sympathetic author of The ABC of Anarchism.  That man had not yet come into being.  What we find here, instead, is the younger version — the self-righteous, arrogant, single-minded boy who longed to commit a great act, and perhaps be martyred in the process:  “And as to myself,” he writes, “I was, I must say, but too willing to sacrifice my liberty, even my life, for the benefit of the cause — to hasten the approach of the social revolution, to serve as the dead timber under the feet of humanity, marching onward” (84).

The documents collected here largely confirm Berkman’s self portrait in his later book, Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist.  The older Berkman looked back on his younger self with a sort of bemused pity.  While still as radical as he ever was, he came to see the faults of his youth all too plainly, and the picture he presented was that of a naive purism.  That comes across clearly in Prison Blossoms as well, but without the self-critical parody and ironic distance of the later work.  Here the younger Berkman speaks for himself, as himself.  Strangely, he does not sound like a free-spirited youth, or like a flinty terrorist gunman, but like a country preacher addressing a Puritan congregation.

It is frankly shocking, for instance, to hear Berkman — an anarchist, an atheist, a lover of freedom, and also, the lover and lifelong confidant to Emma Goldman — moralizing at length against the prevalent sins of the prisoners: “morbid imagination, perverted desires,” “vice and immorality,” “moral and erotic degeneracy,” “Onanism and Insanity,” “Homosexuality in all its forms”(171-3).   Most of a chapter is spent considering this purported corruption, documenting and classifying its specimens, discerning their causes and likely effects, but never quite managing a scientific detachment.

Berkman’s sexual attitudes later changed, largely because of what he experienced in prison.  He describes that change quite movingly in his Prison Memoirs, but his essays here stand on the opposite side of that intellectual and emotional divide.  It is interesting to see the two impulses — scientific observation and moral prejudice — clashing within him, competing for space on the page.  And, perhaps more interesting still, when the change of attitude finally came, it was not a victory of the scientific outlook, but of sympathy, of identification with his fellow prisoners, and finally, of love for another man.

The thing that is lacking most in the young Berkman is not intelligence, and certainly not conviction, but sympathy.  For he did not enter prison seeing its inmates as his natural allies.  “They are not my world. . . .  I cannot be friends with them: they do not belong to the People, to whose service my life is consecrated.”  He saw them instead as “Unfortunates, indeed; yet parasites upon the producers.” He concludes, rather coldly, “By virtue of my principles, rather than their deserts, I must give them my intellectual sympathy; they touch no chord in my heart.”  (Prison Memoirs 139-40).

He was too tactful, of course, to say as much in the pages of Prison Blossoms, but perhaps something of the attitude supplied the motive for the newsletter.  Berkman, driven by his sense of duty, wanted to educate his fellow prisoners.  He wanted to tell them the truth about anarchism, the state, and the class war.  He tried to do so, along with Nold and Bauer, in the essays written for their magazine.  But the other prisoners, also, educated Berkman.  They could not understand his politics; even the imprisoned strikers thought his attempt on Frick was foolish.  But he, slowly, came to understand their lives, their motives, the sad misfortunes that led them into prison.  And he came to see them as creatures like himself, unhappy, unlucky, fallible, and in their own way, decent.

Some of this new mood comes across in the excerpts from Berkman’s prison diary, included here as an appendix. He writes, as he prepares to be transferred, just before his final release: “Solidarity of the prisoners . . .  [They] give me nearly half of their milk to strengthen me for Workhouse . . . feel happy and strong in body and spirit.”  The next day, he added: “Made rounds of South Block bidding all the boys goodbye.  How sad it was to hear the dear fellows say — ‘3 years,’ ‘5 years,’ etc. . .” (223).

Prison Blossoms is not a masterpiece of anarchist philosophy.  But it is an interesting addition to the canon of prison literature.  And like the best of such literature, it provides us another perspective — a view from the inside, as it were — both of the carceral institution, and of the lives of some few of the countless individuals who have suffered there.


Kristian Williams is the author of Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America and American Methods: Torture and the Logic of Domination (both from South End Press).  He is presently at work on a book about Oscar Wilde and anarchism.

Also Cited

Alexander Berkman, Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist (New York: New York Review Books, 1999).