Signs of Change (chosen by Tom Wright)
By sussexenglishencs, Jul 28 2016 07:09AM
In 2015, a peculiar rare book came up for auction in Stroud, Gloucestershire. It was inscribed by its author, carried signs of smoke damage, and was stamped as the former property of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Though seemingly nondescript, it was an item that told a fascinating international story.
The book was Signs of Change (1888) a collection of speeches on socialism and art and by the British writer and designer William Morris. It was a copy that he had presented in person to the American anarchist activist Lucy Parsons when they met in London in the year of its publication. As a gift it was very apt. It symbolised their shared anger at social injustice and their common calling as public speakers, and for the modern scholar, provides a window into the rich global culture that surrounded late nineteenth anarchist thought.
When Morris presented her with the book, Parsons was one the most notorious radicals in America. For over a decade she had been active in Chicago labour politics as a writer and an orator, often urging her audiences to use violence to resist their oppressors. In 1886 her husband Albert and four other men had been charged with inciting a riot in which six policemen died in a dynamite attack. Despite not having been present at the scene, Albert and three others were convicted and executed the following year. The incident became known internationally as the ‘Haymarket Affair’, after the square in which the deaths occurred, and Lucy Parsons became one of the chief commentators who would try to shape its historical meanings.
From the moment of Albert’s imprisonment, Lucy had begun to tour the US giving speeches proclaiming her husband’s innocence. Her arguments for free speech soon made her a first amendment cause celebre. By all accounts she was a remarkably powerful speaker, and her mixed black, Native American and Mexican heritage made her an exotic and glamorous figure to many audiences. Her fame was soon global. In 1888, she was invited to London by anarchist and socialist organisation, and spoke at various meetings and open air rallies, telling the story of Haymarket and the suppression of the American anarchist movement. At Speaker’s Corner and Victoria Park, she shared platforms with fellow anarchists such as the Russian Peter Kropotkin, and spoke at a meeting at Morris’s Hammersmith home, where she was presented with her inscribed copy of Signs of Change.
The gift reveals several key aspects of anarchist culture. It reminds us that this was an international movement, linking the Russian émigrés of London with the German and African-American radical ferment of Chicago. Parsons remains a cult figure of the American left, and a writer whose provocations against the excesses of the police resonate particularly strongly in 2016. But this copy of Signs of Change is a vivid reminder that she was also part of a broader culture and flow of ideas, linking the seemingly disparate strands of the medievalist anti-modernism of Morris with the futuristic industrial radicalism of Parson’s Chicago, or Kropotkin’s “propaganda of the deed” in Geneva and Moscow.
The book also testifies to how radicals of the time saw themselves as part of a broader cultural project of social education, attempting to teach broad publics about how power structures could be shaken off. The book was a tribute from one orator to another. The fact that it is a book of speeches reminds us that performance, oratory and street theatre were just as important as pamphlets and newspapers to the culture of fin de siècle anarchism. As Morris’s writings of the 1880s such as the novel A Dream of John Ball (1888), and his later masterpiece News from Nowhere (1890) reveal, he was fascinated with the potential of oratory as propaganda and the difficulties of public persuasion. In Parsons he found someone approaching ideas similar to his own from a divergent cultural and racial perspective, through language whose vehemence shook him. The gift of Signs of Change was potentially one way of urging a less ferocious but no less committed route to social progress.
But what is the story with the smoke damage? Why the FBI stamp, and how did the book get back to England? Only some of this is clear. In 1942, the 89 year-old Parsons died in a house fire in Chicago, and since the police still considered her ideas and words a threat, her belongings, books and papers were seized, and have been long thought destroyed. Their loss is one of the reasons that Parsons is not better known today. Yet the re-emergence of this book at auction in England tells us that her possessions were not destroyed. Clearly, some were eventually released and somehow found their way into the hands of British enthusiasts.
This book interests me because I am in the process of trying to write an account of this transnational flow of anarchist ideas and public speech during the 1880 and 1890s. To see what this context can tell us about both the intellectual and political life of late nineteenth-century, but also to relate it to contemporary global climates of radicalism. Objects like this are crucial in allowing scholars to make new connections and unravel forgotten histories. The inscription, smoke damage, posthumous confiscation and eventual resurfacing in the auctioneer’s marketplace all tell their own complex stories about the evolving relationship between culture and anarchy, performance, power and commerce.