Protest literature

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Protest literature

Protest literature

The literature of empire owes much of its potency and initiative to protesters of tyranny, a fitting description of the Russian-American immigrant author Mary Antin, German theologian DIETRICH BONHOEFFER, anti-Nazi polemist SIGRID UNDSET, Martinican dramatist Aime Cesaire, Cuban libertarian JOSE MARTI, and antistate Russian poet YEVGENY YEVTUSHENKO. In the eras of Asian despotism, protest required subtle phrasing, for example, the esoteric musings of the fourth-century Chinese poet TAO QIAN, a court expatriate during the Eastern Jin dynasty. In the 20-book MANYOSHU (Ten Thousand Leaves, ca. 759), the oldest imperial verse collection from Japan's Nara Empire, YAMANOUE NO OKURA created a two-part peasant dialogue. Composed around 732, the elegies “A Question by a Poor Villager” and “A Reply by a Man in Destitute Poverty” lament hard times that reduce villagers to cold hearths and illness for young and old. Stalking the poor are hunger, epidemic plague, and the imperial tax collector. The indirect denunciation typifies Japanese protest writings, which made their case without vilifying Emperor Shomu, whom patriots revered like a deity.

A fervent anti-British propagandist, playwright, and chronicler of the Massachusetts Colony, Mercy Otis Warren (1728-1814) ridiculed King George Ill’s representatives with allegorical SATIRE. Homeschooled with her brother James in Latin, French, and English classics, she later studied the collapse of the Roman Empire in the first volume of the English writer Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776) and observed the ongoing efforts of the British and French to exploit the New World. In 1754, she wed a merchant (who later become a politician) and settled on a farm along the Eel River at Plymouth to raise their five sons. After launching a popular salon, she joined the colonial independence movement; networked with other revolutionary wives, including Abigail Adams and Martha Washington; and debated politics with prominent patriots such as Samuel Adams, John Hancock, Patrick Henry, and Thomas Jefferson. Anonymously, she produced pamphlets that circulated beyond America to Great Britain and Europe.

In two plays, serialized in the Boston Gazette and the Massachusetts Spy, Warren used her pen as a liberating force. Her paired tragedies, The Adulateur (1772) and The Defeat (1773), mimicked Governor Thomas Hutchinson in the pomposity and short-sightedness of the fictional Rapatio, governor of Servia. A year later, The Blockheads: or, The Affrighted Officers, a Farce (1774), mocked royal appointees, naming them Dapper, Dupe, Meagre, Paunch, Puff, Shallow, Simple, and Surly. Shortly before the battle of Lexington, fought on April 19, 1775, Warren published The Group, a salute to the Boston Tea Party that ridiculed the Crown for its inept administration of the colonies through royal stamp agents. The prologue anticipates the triumph of rebels to “dash the proud Gamester from his gilded car,” a gibe at King George and his entourage, whom she lumps into the company of “court sycophants, hungry harpies, and unprincipled danglers” from “blunderland” poised over Massachusetts like biblical locusts (Warren 1775, 1).

In postcolonial Massachusetts, the playwright altered her anti-British agitation to demands for civil rights and women’s equality, the subject of her farce The Motley Assembly (1779) and a treatise, Observations on the New Constitution, and on the Federal and State Conventions (1788). She honored her hero, President Washington, as the dedicatee of Poems, Dramatic and Miscellaneous (1790). Among the plays in the collection, she included The Sack of Rome (1790) and The Ladies of Castile (1790), the latter set during the rule of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and issued at the urging of Abigail Adams. Warren’s preface salutes “principles that instigated their patriots, and glories in the characters of their heroes, whose valour completed a revolution that will be the wonder of ages” (Warren 1790, 100). In composing the three-volume History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution (1805), she gloated over the global effects of the revolt in neighboring states, “not as an object of curiosity, but with views and expectations that might give a new face to the political and commercial systems of a considerable part of the European world” (Warren 1805, 171). She saw King George’s profligacy and the support of God as the opposing powers that led to the patriots’ victory at the battle of Lexington. Alluding to the writings of Gibbon and the Italian political theorist NICCOLO MACHIAVELLI, she belittled the British political effort to forestall the mustering of the Continental Army and the “dismemberment of the empire” (282).

A Swiss Rebel

A contemporary of Warren, Mme de Stael (Anne- Louise-Germaine Necker, baronne de Stael, 1766-1817), a French-Swiss intellectual and libertarian debater, examined the effect of Napoleon Bonaparte’s territorial exploitation on women and families. In her childhood, she encountered at her mother’s Paris salon the elite thinkers of her day, and she would later meet the German poets JOHANN WOLFGANG VON GOETHE and Friedrich von Schiller, the romantic poet Lord Byron, and the ethnographers JACOB and WILHELM GRIMM. At age 20, she married a Swedish ambassador and increased her political influence until the French Revolution forced her from Paris. In 1792, her egalitarianism sparked the first of three banishments for denouncing Napoleon’s empire.

In October 1789, de Stael praised the French women and children who shouldered farm tools to launch the Women’s March to Versailles in search of bread. The author’s pamphleteering vindicated Marie Antoinette following the August 1793 trial that charged the French queen with capital crimes. Napoleon censored Stael’s perceptive treatise De I’Allemagne (On Germany, 1810) for accusing his followers of fanaticism. He exiled her once more along with two of her friends, limiting ports of embarkation to four southern routes to forestall her possible complicity with the English. After the British triumph over Napoleon at Waterloo, Belgium, on June 18, 1815, and the restoration of Louis XVIII to the French throne, Stael returned from exile, during which she had resided in Germany, Scandinavia, Russia, and Poland.

Stael recuperated from a stroke while crusading for the abolition of slavery and for the French republic in a best-selling chronicle, Considerations sur la revolution franqaise (Considerations on the Principal Events of the French Revolution, 1818). In an attack on militarism, she charged that “the victorious flags of the army covered the crimes of those who governed” (Stael 1818, 125). With a bold aphorism, she declared that slaughter was not the same as national destruction. In the posthumously published Dix annees dexil (Ten Years’ Exile, 1820), she summarized the pettiness of the Bonapartists. Chapter 18 mocks Napoleon’s self-crowning and charges that “Terror, which formed the background of the picture, prevented the grotesque of the front from being laughed at as it deserved to be” (Stael 2007, 83). In her estimation, citizens made the new emperor a butt of humor for his lack of culture and for his inability to conduct administrative business with the rest of Europe. In book 2, she enjoys the irony of encountering the French army on June 22, 1812, on its doomed invasion of Russia.

Conflict and Art

The decline of the Hapsburg Empire sent central European writers and artists fleeing over the eastern borders to the ethnic purity of Russia. In Prague, Czechoslovakia, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926), a contemporary of the Czech writer Franz Kafka and idol of the Russian novelist BORIS PASTERNAK, feared the nihilism generated by Friedrich Nietzsche’s “God is dead” theory. During the decline of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Rilke separated himself from the ruling German minority and wrote protests against the ominous expansionism of German politicians and the greed of Austrian capitalists. Through criticism and poetry, he rejected his Germanic ethnicity, developed bilingualism in German and Czech, and wrote in admiration of the folklore of Bohemia, the western half of today’s Czech Republic. Preferring the simplicity of peasants over the arrogance and faux sophistication of German cosmopolites, he rejected imitation of the West to express his ethnic roots. He accused Czechs, Slavs, and Yiddish speakers of losing spontaneous styles of speech and native idioms by emulating the rigid verse forms and politically correct prose of England, France, and Germany.

In an era of material ambition, the poet searched fruitlessly for contentment and was a crusader against Eurocentrism, which he called a “kingdom of decay.” In “Mir zur Feier” (“To Celebrate Myself,” 1899), Rilke pictured himself as an unconventional youth strolling the paths of Bohemia’s past (Rilke 1987, xii). He called for a cultural revival of Czech art based on Pan-Slavism, a movement seeking Eastern European unity. His stories, odes, and sonnets exalted the biblical prodigal son from Jesus’s parable in Luke 15:11-32, the wanderer in search of a homecoming and forgiveness for profligacy. Rilke found grace, authenticity, and hope in the harmony of rural Bohemia, where nature blessed the farm laborers who laughed, sang, and danced to the fiddle music of their ancestors.

With the collection Larenopfer (Offerings to the Lares, 1895), Rilke looked back on the daily devotions of Romans to their ancestral gods rather than to the trumped-up emperors—Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, Hadrian, Commodus, Constantine, and Julius—who made themselves gods through public acts of self- deification. The verse portrait “Land and Folk” insists that forest, field, orchard, and pasture enrich Bohemians as God intended. Rilke called the country lifestyle “Volksweise” (the folk way) and exalted folk celebrations as “Freiheisklange” (sounds of freedom). He repudiated the glory of the standard HERO warrior in a popular work, Die Weise von Liebe und Tod des Cornets Christoph Rilke (The Day of the Love and Death of Cornet Christophe Rilke, 1899), a stylized dreamscape that contrasts carnal love with the bleakness of soldiery. In his mystic dreams in Das Stundenbuch (The Book of Hours, 1903), an idealization of Czech nationhood, Rilke yearned for a sublime empire devoid of pomposity and social differences.

A Radical in America and Russia

At the beginning of the 20th century, Emma Goldman (1869-1940) a labor agitator, lecturer, and memoirist, impressed audiences with her fiery egalitarianism and antiwar efforts. A Jew born in Kovno, Lithuania, she came of age in czarist Russia when persecution, military impressment, and pogroms endangered lives. After arriving in Rochester, New York, in 1885 with a sewing machine under her arm, she worked in the garment district and supported pacifists. Goldman developed an anarchistic philosophy and served 12 months at Blackwell’s Island penitentiary for rioting. In Harlem in 1906, she founded Mother Earth, a periodical that featured the feminist and radical thoughts of the journalist Louise Bryant, orator Voltairine De Cleyre, uto- pist Charlotte Perkins Gilman, reproductive rights activist Margaret Sanger, and radical English novelist Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792).

Goldman anthologized a series of platform lectures in Anarchism and Other Essays (1910). In “Patriotism,” she declares the true nationalists to be the working class, whether they be rebels against Porfirio Diaz in Mexico, Czar Nicholas II in Russia, or the American imperialists in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. In her essay “Francisco Ferrer,” she salutes the Spanish republican rebel for struggling against the dual evils of imperialism and Catholicism. Of the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05, she asserts financial motives as the true call to combat: “We see again that back of the fierce Moloch of war stands the still fiercer god of Commercialism” (Goldman 1910, 140). She supports her charge against the czar with accusations of profiteering on investments in the Korean war industry. Further denunciation of Russian despotism in the speech “Woman Suffrage” pictures Finland as a subjugated state.

On December 21, 1919, at 6:00 A.M., U.S. authorities deported Goldman under military guard aboard the steamer Buford to Finland and by rail to Russia. The twofold charge against her consisted of promoting birth control and abetting World War I era draft resistance. At first, she rallied to the singing of the “Internationale,” the international Communist Party anthem and exulted, “All my life Russia’s heroic struggle for freedom was as a beacon to me” (Goldman 1923, 3). Her exuberant prose honored the dubinushka (peasant), “the modern Samson, who with a sweep of his mighty arm had pulled down the pillars of decaying society” (4). Aghast at the persecution of workers in Petrograd (present-day St. Petersburg), she departed within two years to Sweden and Germany. Goldman’s polemic My Disillusionment in Russia (1923) vented anger at the Bolshevists’ collusion with imperialist Germany, political harassment, socialized industry and state monopolies, surveillance, and forced labor. In a sequel, My Further Disillusionment in Russia (1924), she found Jews in Kiev and Odessa still suffering from starvation and pogroms. Among the beggars at rail stations, she deplored the sight of “emaciated and ragged children, pleading for a crust of bread at the car windows” (Goldman 1924, 2). Her writings told the free world of manhunts for anarchists under the dictator Vladimir Lenin and of the stifling of dissidents and their imprisonment in foul lockups such as the concentration camp at Ryazan southeast of Moscow, where inmates battled filth, bedbugs, and lice.

Goldman demanded courage from journalists. In her autobiography, Living My Life (1931), she charged the world media with concealing from readers “the inhumanities committed by the Czar (Nicholas II)” (Goldman 1931, 70). She admired the Scottish dissident Tom Bell, who rebuked Nicholas on his arrival at Leith, near Edinburgh. As the entourage passed, the protester yelled, “Down with the Russian tyrant! To hell with all the empires!” (264). Her memoir exalts the revolution of 1905, when “The subdued social forces and the pent-up suffering of the people had broken and had at last found expression in the revolutionary tide that swept our beloved Matushka Rossiya (Mother Russia)” (372), an event that unified New York's East Side with radical glee. She wrote that President William McKinley was “the willing tool of Wall Street and of the new American imperialism that flowered under his administration” (309-310), a reference to the annexation of the Philippines. The charge implicates McKinley in an American effort to found its own empire.

In 1981, Maureen Stapleton projected Goldman's passion in Reds, a film that earned her an Oscar. Central to the historical scenario was Goldman's influence on the journalist John “Jack” Reed (1887-1920), played by Warren Beatty. Reed authored Ten Days That Shook the World (1919), an eyewitness account of the October Revolution of 1917 that precipitated the fall of the Romanovs and the rise of Soviet Russia. He spoke with an insider's understanding when he charged that “The corrupt reactionaries in control of the Tsar's Court deliberately undertook to wreck Russia in order to make a separate peace with Germany” (Reed 1919, viii). Reed's journalistic style describes socialist splinter groups and refutes global misinterpretations of motivations and actions. His eyewitness reportage incorporates dramatic confrontations of opposing groups, such as the sailors and Red Guards who overrun the Petrograd telephone office. They face down idealistic young operators, girls who romanticize the notion of “passing up cartridges and dressing the wounds of their dashing young defenders, the yunkers, many of them members of noble families, fighting to restore their beloved Tsar!” (197). Late in the night of November 18, 1917, the fractious party leaders reach a workable solution. They confirm that “the union of all the workers and all the exploited will consolidate the power conquered by them” (312). Reed concludes with a backward glance at what he saw as a just peace and the triumph of socialism.


Davies, Kate. Catharine Macauley and Mercy Otis

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Gender. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Fairweather, Maria. Madame de Stael. New York: Carroll and Graf, 2005.

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Mother Earth Publishing, 1910.

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----- . My Disillusionment in Russia. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1923.

----- . My Further Disillusionment in Russia. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1924.

Reed, John. Ten Days That Shook the World. New York: Boni and Liveright, 1919.

Rilke, Rainer Maria. Sonnets to Orpheus. Translated by David Young. Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1987.

Stael, Madame de. Considerations of the Principal Events of the French Revolution. Edited by Duke de Broglie and the Baron de Stael. London: Baldwin, Cradock & Joy, 1818.

----- . On Germany. Translated by John Murray. London: John Murray, 1813.

----- . Ten Years’ Exile. Edited by Auguste Louis de Stael. London: BiblioBazaar, 2007.

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Chicago: Northwestern University Press, 1997.

Warren, Mercy Otis. The Group. Boston: Edes and Gill, 1775.

----- . History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution. Boston: E. Larkin, 1805.

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