Academic journal article Americana : The Journal of American Popular Culture, 1900 to Present; Hollywood

The Despotism of the Popular: Anarchy and Leon Czolgosz at the Turn of the Century

Academic journal article Americana : The Journal of American Popular Culture, 1900 to Present; Hollywood

The Despotism of the Popular: Anarchy and Leon Czolgosz at the Turn of the Century

Article excerpt

On September 4, 1901, President McKinley's train entered the outskirts of Buffalo. It was filled with a cross section of the respectable elements in turn of the century America-the President, senators, military personnel, ex-Rough Riders, industrialists, physicians-all weary from touring with the chief executive. At one of the suburban stations, an Artillery Captain named Leonard Wisser waited to touch off a twenty-one cannon, presidential salute as the train passed by. Unfortunately, he commanded a green gun crew. As the train neared the station, it slowed down in deference to the waving crowd, but at that moment all on board heard a tremendous explosion which blew all of the windows to pieces. The gun crew had placed the cannons too close to the cars. Immediately after the blast, however, a shout was heard from the people at the station, "Anarchists! Anarchists! They've wrecked the Train!", and responding automatically, the crowd was transformed into a mob, surrounding a "dark, swarthy" man who stood near the tracks. Fears were allayed and the mob dispersed when a well-dressed gentleman informed the throng that the whole ordeal had been caused not by "dynamite," but by an overzealous cannon crew.

Several days later, McKinley would, in fact, be killed by an anarchist. But the incident presents us with a dense network of contradictions and anxieties in U.S. popular culture at the turn of the century. A sudden, unexplained shock is automatically registered by the crowd as the machinations of "anarchy," represented by the mysterious figure of the "anarchist." The latter is immediately understood by the crowd as an ethnic other, lingering amongst them yet separate from them, wielding the characteristic weapon of the saboteur-dynamite. As significantly, the crowd ironically turns into an anarchistic mass in order to arrest its fears, only to be averted from its task by the voice of respectability and wealth. This same pattern would be repeated following the assassination of McKinley by Leon Czolgosz a few days later, but on a national scale.

What the media coverage surrounding both the assassination and this small incident reveal is the focus of this essay. Within a context of imperialist war, the second wave of European immigration, and the long dreaded class conflicts attending the closing of the frontier in 1890, the signifiers "anarchist" and "anarchy" functioned to embody a wide range of anxieties in public discourse. As Amy Kaplan has noted, "Anarchy is conjured by imperial culture as a haunting specter that must be subdued and controlled, and at the same time, it is a figure of empire's undoing" (13). At the time of the McKinley assassination, furthermore, the figures of "anarchy" and "anarchist" bore a complex relationship to notions of the lynch mob and the vigilante, the supposed inverses to anarchy which the anarchist threatened to unleash. Yet the lynch mob was a mob nonetheless, dialectically related to the anarchist, and bore an uncanny, menacing similarity to its opposite in the minds of the guardians of order. To be sure, the anarchist movement in the United States has always been quite small. In a tradition that arguably dates back to the American Revolution, American anarchism has been marked by individualist and collectivist strains; all of these strands, however, posited both the state and capitalism as insidious forms of centralized authority to be replaced (violently or not) by de-centered, localist networks of mutual aid. At the time of the McKinley assassination, anarchism was concentrated in the industrial centers of the Northeast and Midwest, and was primarily a movement of working-class, European immigrants. Given the small size of the actual anarchist movement in the U.S., we might ask why "the anarchist" was such a powerful figure in the turn of the century imagination. For although the movement was small, talk of anarchy and anarchists was everywhere. In a context of imperialism and "trusts," what fears does this figure embody? …

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