Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist by Alexander Berkman, annotated and introduced by Jessica Moran and Barry Pateman [Book review]

Review of the annotated and expanded edition of Berkman's classic Prison Memoirs, which came out in 2017.

Submitted by Kate Sharpley on April 4, 2017

Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist is a classic for good reason: the drama of the story drives it along. Berkman’s mission to assassinate Frick is interspersed with effective flashbacks showing his development to that point. In the prison there’s plenty of conflict which makes you wonder: how can he survive 22 years? Can the prisoners expose their mistreatment and the scams of the management? Will the escape plan work? I loved the cover: a piano with a pick and shovel leaning against it as a nod the outside comrades who dug a tunnel for him, covered by Vella Kinsella ‘tinkling the ivories’. There’s also the odd bit of unintentional comedy, like Berkman’s puzzlement when he first comes across prison slang: ‘I should “keep my lamps lit.” What lamps? There are none in the cell; where am I to get them? And what “screws” must I watch? And the “stools,”—I have only a chair here. Why should I watch it? Perhaps it’s to be used as a weapon.’ [p112]

Adding to the drama is Berkman’s internal conflict and growth. At the start, schooled in the Russian revolutionary tradition, he’s very serious and self-denying. He’s happy to lay down his life for The People, but people as individuals disappoint him. Even the imprisoned strikers don’t measure up to his heroic expectations. Yet Berkman follows the advice of ex-soldier ‘Wingie’ to ‘get acquainted’ [p125] and comes to understand, value and even love his fellow prisoners. This doesn’t just happen by simple observation. Berkman’s anarchist comrades Carl Nold and Henry Bauer are in the same prison for the first five years of his time. Rigorously kept apart, they communicate with the help of fellow prisoners like Horsethief Bob. Then they make and circulate an illegal newsletter; first in German and then an English one with an expanded set of reader-contributors. Berkman recalls the effect of these growing connections: ‘There is Evans, the aged burglar, smiling furtively at me from the line. Far in the distance seems the day when I read his marginal note upon a magazine article I sent him, concerning the stupendous cost of crime. I had felt quite piqued at the flippancy of his comment, “We come high, but they must have us.” With the severe intellectuality of revolutionary tradition, I thought of him and his kind as inevitable fungus growths, the rotten fruit of a decaying society. […] But the threads of comradeship have slowly been woven by common misery.’ [p351]

Moran and Pateman both spent years at the Emma Goldman Papers Project and have written on American anarchists, so if you wanted anyone to work on a book by Berkman, it would be these two. The footnotes give you as much helpful context as they can, without claiming no-one will ever find anything else to say, nor ‘telling readers what to think or how to interpret passages or events.’ [1] As well as the footnotes, this edition contains the diary Berkman kept while writing Prison memoirs. It shows how hard it was to write, and also how he struggled after his release: ‘much of Berkman’s future life would be a struggle between who he was, or wanted to be, and what the Western State Penitentiary had done to him.’ [p2] The diary also lays bare his relationship with Rebecca (Becky) Edelsohn, which was non-exclusive, painful and complicated. This would also be invisible without their editorial work: Edelsohn appears only as ‘Alice’ and ‘Tess’ at the end of Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist [p437 and p448]. And that would be less visible if it wasn’t for the quality of John Barker’s indexing.

Most importantly, as their introduction makes clear, Moran and Pateman know better than treat the memoirs as simple autobiography. Berkman himself in his diary says ‘it would require half a dozen volumes to give all the incidents etc—even only the typical ones—of a life of 14 years. I must therefore select, combine types & incidents into typical representation.’ [p479] And Berkman aims not just to recount what happened: ‘His use of dialogue ensures that ideas and information are conveyed to us without didacticism. Some of these characters did exist, and it’s quite likely that others—George and Boston Red for instance—didn’t. Of course people who were like them, did. It is unlikely, however, that they had these conversations with Berkman at one time as presented in the book, or even at all. It might be better to see them as characters providing us with information and attitudes that Berkman picked up and came to terms with over his fourteen-year sentence.’ [p9]

I was struck by the importance of imagination in Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist. Prison is not what he expects it to be: ‘I thought I would be sitting on the floor in a gruesome, black hole, with my hands and feet chained to the wall; and the worms would crawl over me, and slowly devour my face and my eyes, and I so helpless, chained to the wall.’ [p110] Then he dreams of a magic ring that ‘dissolved the prison walls’ [p114]; and later imagines himself escaping as a letter: ‘all the while the real “me” is snugly lying here in the green box, peeping through the keyhole, on the watch for the postman.’ [p135] I don’t think this is just the inevitable response to the dullness of prison life. Perhaps imagination is central to his personal growth as well as his survival. Berkman never surrenders; he always sees himself as ‘an Anarchist in the hands of the enemy’ [p441]. Yet he doesn’t decide that victory will come if the anarchist movement is more fierce or more cunning. Berkman’s achievement is to know that it has to be more human – we need not only persistence but also ‘hearts that grow not cold’ [p373].

This edition of Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist is a must-read for anyone interested in anarchism or anarchist history. Beyond that, I think there might be some productive digging to be done on how the stories that we tell ourselves – or that we get told – affect our lives and our world. As Moran and Pateman say, after release Berkman would ‘make his own script.’ [p11] Not matter how long ago the opening of those prison doors seems, that makes Berkman’s struggles not just interesting but also inspiring.


1, from Jessica Moran and Barry Pateman ‘Alexander Berkman’s Prison Memoirs annotated: an interview’ in KSL: Bulletin of the Kate Sharpley Library No. 89, January 2017, p.2.

Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist by Alexander Berkman, annotated and introduced by Jessica Moran and Barry Pateman.

AK Press and the Kate Sharpley Library, 2017. ISBN 9781849352529