Anarchy Is Not Dead: “A Mask of Anarchy”

[23 October 2013]

By Nora Robertson

When paging through A Mask of Anarchy, I found myself feeling torn. This book makes it clear that something as compelling as anarchy and revolution is not dead, but the reading sure goes down a little bitterly at times. There’s a clumsiness to the images, which at times slump into illustration, and the text of “The Mask of Anarchy” (or sometimes “The Masque of Anarchy”) is not as electrifying to a modern reader as it once was. On the other hand, I was sucked into the quick pacing of two interlocked lives, the radical poet Percy Shelley and a twentieth century labor organizer from the Lower Eastside garment district, Pauline Newman. Both instigators, neither compliant. One a poor Jewish immigrant who went to work in a hat factory when she was ten, the other the dispossessed son of a very rich man. English scholar Michael Demson is an expert on Shelley’s effect on Newman, and he intertwines their two stories together here. The faster I swiped through the pages, the more these two were inextricably bound together by the ripple effects of Shelley’s work.

Shelley is a little known revolutionary. He’s more commonly taught in universities as a Romantic poet, nothing too anarchist to look at there. But the truth is Shelly’s writings were deeply subversive and had him on the run from the police all the time. Sometimes from his father, who wanted to know how fast Shelley was borrowing on his inheritance. One of the naughtier impulses in this book is to show us the real Shelley, almost like an expose of a well-known literary statesman, and Demson is exactly the man to show us this. An abandoned wife, bigamy, seducing a teenage girl, Shelley’s cemetery shenanigans—Demson does not hold back as he lays out the sordidness of a poet made in the classic iconoclastic model, a true visionary, a man who lived to defy everything including conventional morality. Demson’s Shelley would have been right at home with Kerouac or Neil Cassady.

This sense of living outside the limits became almost unsympathetic to me, much as I am excited by a provocateur, when viewing it alongside Newman’s early life.  She fled progroms in Lithuania in steerage and spent the rest of her childhood mostly in dingy sweatshops—but she learned to read in English anyway and soon encounters Shelley’s work at a local socialist’s club. It’s a story that has the peculiarly American pleasure of watching a woman lift herself up through her own grit. Her early radicalism started with organizing rent strikes, and there’s a nice historicism Demson adds in the New York Times article naming Newman a new Joan of Arc, the scene all gritty drawings of the protest.  The women around her stand rows deep in the streets, rallying to Newman, to some deep intuition she possessed to speak out.

Where the ping-pong between Shelley and Newman really picks up force is when Shelley steals his second wife Mary and her sister Claire away in the middle of the night from their father, the noted political writer William Godwin. The three are soon holed up in Lord Byron’s house by a Swiss lake, Claire getting knocked up by Bryon. The Shelleys then move to Italy where Shelley writes “The Mask of Anarchy” in response to unprovoked police brutality at the Peterloo demonstration. Newman, meanwhile, is giving speeches against the famous Triangle Factory fire—a protest that sparked massive workplace reforms—and rising to union organizer for the International League of Women Garment Workers. 

Mary Shelley is also of course the author of Frankenstein and grew up discussing politics. She was Shelley’s intellectual equal, and it is to her Demson gives the role of narrator. This choice felt bittersweet to me because despite her intellect, Mary Shelley is blown around by Shelley’s peripathetic life, fully consumed by the insurgent fire of his poetry, which he believed to be “the very image of life expressed in its eternal truth.” This certainly proved true for Newman, who used his words as a battering ram against the factory owners.

Given the urgency of what this book takes on, it’s disappointing how crude the drawings become at time. I was surprised because I really loved Harvey Pekar’s The Beats: A Graphic History, and apparently Summer McClinton worked with Pekar on that project.  None of that fine photographic focus can be seen here.  Thick, heavy crosshatching seems to allude to lithographic technique without its delicacy.  Similarly, the quasi-gothic typography used for Shelley’s poems, two of which are included in their full glory, seems to be meant to evoke an eighteenth century handbill but instead comes across like a cheap children’s fairytale book.  Something else that adds to that children’s book feel is that often the images add little if anything to the storytelling.

However, there is some value to this impulse towards illustration when it comes to the text of the two Shelley poems they take on, “The Devil’s Walk” and “Masks of Anarchy.” The illustration does provide access to the poems.  A lot of the debate in Shelley’s text between Christianity and rationality is hard to keep interested in because of the religious language, though this argument continues to rage in American politics.  Even Shelley’s take on anarchy requires some context.  Anarchy is not much addressed in American society today, except as a fringe movement, separatist, teen punks with an A in a circle in white-out on their hoodies.  Anarchy most purely means the rule of people by themselves without any oversight by business or government.  It works most obviously in small communities where people are part of a cycle of generosity and accountability with each other. 

The story has a truly human heart, both valves pumping furiously. In its bivalve core, it’s about all of us, our quality of life, our ability to stand up to power and what helps us to get there. Whatever you may think of the recent Occupy movement, issues of corporate responsibility and the proper limitations and responsibilities of government are very much still with us.  What anarchy can mean for a huge globalized nation is up for debate, but what this book does accomplish is to raise the question, through Newman’s example, of how those ideas can be applied to the concept of labor struggle in a corporate context we are all too familiar with today.  A gripping look at two people’s struggle to overturn the abuse of working people by the wealthiest among us, A Mask of Anarchy appeals to the revolutionary spirit in all of us.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/176013-anarchy-is-not-dead-a-mask-of-anarchy/