A Dangerous Woman: The Graphic Biography of Emma Goldman

Article excerpt

A Dangerous Woman: The Graphic Biography of Emma Goldman, by Sharon Rudahl. New York: The New Press, 2007. 128 pp. $17.95.

Underground comic artist and radical activist Sharon Rudahl undertakes an ambitious project - to recount the incredible story one of America's most ubiquitous political subversives - in her recent graphic novel, A Dangerous Woman: The Graphic Biography of Emma Goldman. Although one may be skeptical of a comic biography, Rudahl presents a tremendously well researched and captivating story of a true Jewish- American visionary. While she acknowledges taking some "minor" creative (and expeditious) liberties with dialogue, her work is strictly based on primary sources and extensive scholarship on Emma Goldman's life. Though not without drawbacks, the author's illustrations generally complement the text, bringing Goldman vividly to life as the tenacious activist committed to fighting oppression and as a common woman - one who experiences love, dejection, and great human struggle.

Rudahl begins by positioning readers in Czarist Russia, the backdrop of absolutism that informs Goldman's life story. Born into a Jewish family in 1869, young Emma, in Rudahl's portrayal, witnesses daily the scores of angry Russian peasants with pitchforks that "routinely bully and torment the Jews" (p. 1). Her home is hardly a refuge from external subjugation: Goldman, her mother, and her sisters are subject to the commands of her misogynistic, austere Jewish father who "rules over his own humble kingdom" (p. 2). Rudahl's brief introduction to the story underscores the way Goldman's Russian-Jewish background underlies her profound empathy for all others who experience oppression.

"Terrible Child," the first chapter in A Dangerous Woman, is perhaps the most emotionally evocative, a depiction of life unimaginably toilsome, especially to the twenty-first century American reader. Rudahl principally focuses on the Goldman family politics, offering a poignant human portrait of young Emma in stark contrast to the biography's title. In her surprisingly detailed account Rudahl illustrates how Emma's repressive family life - a cruel father, an unloving preoccupied mother, and an uncle who pockets money intended for Emma's education - become catalysts for the young woman's rebellious spirit. Nevertheless, the author's portrayal here does falter slightly, as she attempts to condense the struggle of Jews in Russia, a paramount element of Goldman's personal history, into large blocks of text rather than expounding through more detailed illustration.

Rudahl concludes the chapter of Old World life with young Emma's desire for freedom, a life unhindered by class, religion, and gender in America: "I want to know life! I want to study medicine. I want to travel" (p. 12). What the author emphasizes, however, is an experience defined by shock, dejection, and disappointment. Goldman discovers that the idyllic America of her imagination conceals oppression no less gruesome than the strife from which she escapes in Russia. Rudahl's drawings effectively recreate the crowded squalor of tenement housing and the mounting tensions between factory workers and tyrannical bosses confronting immigrants. Freshly arrived from the throes of violent pogroms against Jews, Goldman is outraged to hear of an incident in Chicago where several strikers, accused of throwing a bomb at police, were jailed, tortured, and executed without any substantial evidence of complicity in the crime. Rudahl portrays this infamous Haymarket Square strike as the radicalizing epiphany that launches Goldman into a lifetime of activism.

The graphic medium proves surprisingly congenial for presenting the trajectory of Goldman's astounding political career, which includes hundreds of speeches, prolific publication, numerous jail sentences, and eventual deportation. Rudahl does an admirable job of capturing the spirit and the heroism that gains "Red Emma" such infectious popularity (and revilement) worldwide. …