A brief biography of Lola Ridge, New Zealand anarchist and poet by Mark Derby.
Her published collections of poetry included defending Tom Mooney, Sacco & Vanzetti, and recalling the death of Frank Little. She was a close friend of Emma Goldman and other well-known anarchists, and also of the leading US writers of the 20s and 30s, including William Carlos Williams, Kenneth Rexroth and Marianne Moore. Unlike many of the leftwing writers of her time she had authentic experience of working-class life, most of it gained in mining towns on the west coast of New Zealand. Above all, she showed through her life a commitment to combining avant-garde creative work with political action.
In a poem about her childhood in Ireland and New Zealand, the anarchist poet Lola Ridge wrote:
When you tell mama
You are going to do something great
She looks at you
As though you were a window
She were trying to see through,
And say she hopes you will be good
Instead of great.
Her mother’s hopes would be disappointed. Lola Ridge was never very good, but in certain ways she achieved greatness. Her published collections of poetry won the most prized literary awards in the US. She was a close friend of Emma Goldman and other well-known anarchists, and also of the leading US writers of the 20s and 30s, including William Carlos Williams, Kenneth Rexroth and Marianne Moore. Unlike many of the leftwing writers of her time she had authentic experience of working-class life, most of it gained in mining towns on the west coast of New Zealand. Above all, she showed through her life a commitment to combining avant-garde creative work with political action.
Born in Dublin in 1873, Lola Ridge’s father was a medical student and after his early death she arrived in New Zealand at the age of five. Her mother Emma had relatives on the West Coast and in 1880 she married a goldminer in Hokitika. Her daughter’s dedication to writing emerged early and Lola’s first poem was published in a Canterbury newspaper when she was just 19. Later work appeared in other New Zealand papers and magazines and in the Australian Bulletin. When she was 22, Lola also married a miner, Peter Webster, a partner in a gold-sluicing operation in the small settlement of Kaniere, near Hokitika. The marriage was not a happy one. Webster seems to have been a heavy drinker and at the age of 30 Lola divorced him and moved with her mother and three-year-old son to Sydney, where she studied painting and continued to publish her poems and short stories. When her mother died a few years later, Lola and her son moved again, this time to the US. She settled in New York’s Greenwich Village and became active in the anarchist movement. In 1909 her poem ‘The Martyrs of Hell’ appeared on the cover of Mother Earth, the anarchist monthly edited by Emma Goldman.
Ridge spent the rest of her life in the US, becoming a celebrated figure in New York’s radical literary scene. To support her writing she initially worked as a factory worker and artists’ model. Soon she became organiser for a radical educational movement, the Ferrer Association, established by followers of the Spanish anarchist Francisco Ferrer. An early advocate of education as a liberatory activity, Ferrer was executed in 1909 during a purge against anarchist activity in Catalonia. Through the Association Ridge met David Lawson, a young Scottish-born engineer and fellow anarchist. They lived together for almost ten years before marrying.
The couple became a focus of the revolutionary social protest in the period around and after World War One. Their “large, barely furnished, windswept, cold water loft… in downtown Manhattan” became a meeting point for New York’s radical intelligentsia and Ridge gave a party there every time she sold a poem or an article. Her first collection of poems, The Ghetto, appeared in 1918 and described the life of the working-class Jewish immigrants she saw around her on New York’s East Side. Two years later another sequence of poems, Sun-up, drew on her unconventional Irish and Antipodean childhood. Together these books established her name for socially engaged free verse.
While her writing was widely admired, Lola Ridge’s astonishingly intense personality and revolutionary zeal contributed to her reputation. People “felt the necessity of either defending or abusing her whenever her name came up”. She was an early advocate of women’s rights, gay rights and of blacks, Jews and other immigrant groups, and she used her poetry to advocate publicly on behalf of the issues she felt most passionately.
Firehead, published in 1929, is a long poetic allegory on the execution of the Italian anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti, perhaps the worst miscarriage of justice in US history. The two men were charged with a bank robbery in which two guards were killed, convicted in a ludicrous trial and sentenced to death. A worldwide campaign and a full confession by the real robber failed to prevent this sentence being carried out. On the night before the execution in December 1927, Ridge was part of a large group of people holding a vigil outside Charleston Prison in Boston. Mounted police charged the protestors to move them back from the road. According to an eyewitness:
“One tall, thin figure of a woman stepped out alone, a good distance into the empty square, and when the police came down at her and the horses’ hooves beat over her head, she did not move, but stood up with her shoulders slightly bowed, entirely still. The charge was repeated again and again, but she was not to be driven away. A man near me said in horror, suddenly recognising her, ‘That’s Lola Ridge.’”
An earlier poem, Frank Little at Calvary, describes the death of the part-Native American labour organiser Frank Little, a member of the Industrial Workers of the World, or ‘Wobblies’, during World War One. Both Ridge and Little had protested vehemently against the war and the repressions that accompanied it. Little said that the war “will mean the end of free speech, free press, free assembly, everything we ever fought for”. In June 1917, 200 miners at a copper mine in Butte, Montana burned to death below ground because the mining company ignored safety regulations. Two months later Frank Little arrived to organise a union of the surviving workers. He was tortured, castrated and lynched by hired thugs in the pay of the Anaconda Copper Co.
Ridge’s poem imagines Little in his final moments, tied to a railway trestle and awaiting death:
Then all that he had spoken against
And struck against and thrust against
Over the frail barricade of his life
Rushed between him and the stars.
During the same hysterical wartime repression another labour activist, the San Francisco watersider Tom Mooney, was charged with a terrorist bombing which killed ten people during a military parade. Mooney had earlier warned that agents provocateurs might disrupt the parade to smear the labour movement. He was convicted on the basis of paid perjury and faked evidence and sentenced to death, later commuted to life imprisonment. The long campaign for his release made Mooney perhaps the most famous political prisoner in the US. As one part of his extraordinarily creative defence campaign, during the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics six young people entered the stadium with Free Tom Mooney signs pinned to their tracksuits, and ran around the track shouting this slogan until they were arrested.
In the late 1920s, when Mooney had been in San Quentin prison for over ten years, Lola Ridge wrote a poem about him titled Stone Face. It was printed on a poster alongside a photo of a haggard Mooney behind bars and in prison clothing. This was distributed throughout the US and elsewhere, selling hundreds of thousands of copies at 15 cents each or ten for a dollar. “This poster travelled across America as a popular form of political protest, affixed onto facades of buildings and steel girders of bridges. It decorated union halls and night school classrooms; all in hopes of raising money on Mooney’s behalf.” It is perhaps the most widely distributed poem by any New Zealander, and eventually achieved its objective. In the relatively liberal atmosphere of the Roosevelt era, Mooney was given a full pardon and released from jail – after serving 23 years.
Lola Ridge was described by her friend and editor as “The frailest of humans physically and the poorest financially”. She was seldom in good health and died of TB in 1941, aged 67. Her New York Times obituary described her as one of America’s ‘leading contemporary poets’. Her reputation is now being revived in the US and a number of her poems are back in print, but she is barely known in the country where she grew up.
* Adapted from the paper 'Where the Light of their Glory Leads - the international context of the Blackball strike', given at the centenary conference of the 1908 Blackball Strike, Blackball, 23 March 2008 by Mark Derby.
1. L. Ridge, Sun-up and other poems (BW Huebsch, 1920) p. 21
2. Information on LR’s early life is taken primarily from a 2006 paper by Michelle Leggott, ‘The First Life: A Chronology of Lola Ridge’s
Australasian Years’, available online at www.nzepc.auckland.ac.nz/features/bluff06/leggott.asp
3. H. Gregory, cited in P. Quatermain, Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 54, (Thomson-Gale, 1980) p. 355
4. K. Boyle, cited in ibid, p. 354
5. K. A. Porter, cited in N. Berke, ‘Politics and pain in Lola Ridge’s poetry’ in Women Poets on the Left, (University Press of Florida, 2001), p. 55
6. Cited in Ralph Chaplin, Wobbly: The Rough-and-Tumble Story of an American Radical (University of Chicago Press, 1948), p. 196 In June 1917,
7. L. Ridge, ‘Frank Little at Calvary’, in The Ghetto and Other Poems (BW Huebsch, 1918), p. 56
8. N. Berke, ‘Politics and pain in Lola Ridge’s poetry’ in Women Poets on the Left, (University Press of Florida, 2001), p. 61
9. A. Kreymborg, cited in P. Quatermain, Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 54, (Thomson-Gale, 1980) p.354
10. Cited in Berke, p. 83