Dream delivers us to dream, and there is no end to illusion. Life is a train of moods like a string of beads, and, as we pass through them, they prove to be many-colored lenses which paint the world their own hue, and each shows only what lies in its focus”–Emerson (from Experience)
Your goodness must have some edge to it–else it is none (Emerson)
We have the benefit of our flaws–Proust (maybe)…quote (inexact)
“There will come a time when it isn’t ‘They’re spying on me through my phone’ anymore. Eventually, it will be ‘My phone is spying on me.’” ― Philip K. Dick
There’s a difference between knowing the path and walking the path”–Morpheus from The Matrix
“Can’t stay wrapped in what you come from,” from a story by Maurice Carlos Ruffin
“The Ghetto” (1919), by Lola Ridge,
an early 20th century radical anarchist poet, is a twenty-page,
Modernist poem depicting the daily life and struggles of immigrant Jews,
especially women, at the turn of the 20th century in New York City. Around
2 million Eastern European Jews arrived in New York City between 1881 and 1922
through Ellis Island, many of whom found work in sweatshops in the garment
industry. Overall, “The Ghetto,” celebrates the lives and political struggles
of these immigrants living in poverty. Although Ridge was not a Jewish
immigrant herself, she rented a room in an apartment on Hester Street living
with a Jewish family and thus became acquainted with this community. “The
Ghetto” concerns itself with the intersection of early 20th century
exploitative labor practices, the developing liberatory politics of the labor
movement, poverty, race and religion. The speaker of “The Ghetto,” is one who can
never fully position herself within the “cramped ova,” of the ghetto. As Nancy
Berke asserts, she acts much, “like a director opening a film.” When Ridge
attempts to penetrate this community, she is often rebuffed by the very characters
she creates. This paper investigates whether Ridge’s psychologically distant
depiction of this community has anything to do with her own subject position as
a woman, politically engaged anarchist, Anglo immigrant and non-Jew. What does
it mean to write about and aestheticize a community that is culturally alien
from one’s own and how have the politics around these writing practices changed
in the last century? This paper looks to revisit Ridge’s poem by examining the
ethics of writing about communities of otherness, and seeks to find which
practices verge on objectification and if so, how? By comparing Ridge’s
depiction of Jewish life to Jewish to a Jewish poet, Morris Rosenfeld, who wrote
about the immigrant experience and labor around this time, I would like to
think about these differences and investigate issues of cultural
representation, identification and appropriation.
thing that I want to do is to take a look at the superficial stereotypes that
are employed and will be immediately recognizable in “The Ghetto.” The first stereotype, one that is used transhistorically when
it comes to immigrants in the United States—that that their bodies are not
defined as singular. Instead, they are seen as one mass of people. It is
important to note that when “The Ghetto” was written in 1919, the racial
categorization of Jews was in flux and confused. Early 20th century
immigrants were organized and oppressed by elaborate ethnic hierarchies in their
slow process of assimilation into the dominate culture. The Jews who settled
around Hester Street in Manhattan were largely Eastern European Jews of Ashkanazi
decent and would have looked fairly white in terms of skin tone, but they were
not necessarily seen by others as such. “The Ghetto,” begins with a panoramic
look at Hester Street where Jewish bodies “dangle from fire escapes,” the faces
of the immigrants are “herring-yellow / spotted as with mold.” The word
“yellow” here feels important when looking at race. And here I’m going to
provide a little bit of history to give you an idea about the slippery
categories of race and ethnicity at this time in order for dominant groups in
America to stay in power: “In 1909 George Shishim
(an immigrant from Syria) acting in his capacity as a policeman in Venice,
California arrested the son of a prominent lawyer for disturbing the peace.
This incident started the legal fight for Shishim’s eligibility to citizenship.
The arrested man claimed Shishim had no right to arrest him because Shishim was
not and could not become an American citizen, because he was not of the “white”
race. Having been born in Lebanon, part of Asia, Shishim was considered of
Chinese-Mongolian ancestry.” When a Los Angeles court
determined he was a white man, the LA Times reported it made every
feature of his dark, swarthy countenance radiate with pleasure and hope.”
To continue how immigrants are
depicted in “The Ghetto,” Ridge likens Hester Street to a river “with its hot
tide of flesh / that ever thickens.” The bodies move in “heavy surges,” that
are “clavering like surf.” She also describes the bodies as, “litter from the
East.” The word “litter,” here is interesting for its double meaning. From the
outset of the poem, it’s the mass of people that is important and distinct. As
the poem moves to the apartment where Ridge has rented a room, she focuses in
on more detailed descriptions of her characters including Sodos and his
daughter Sadie, with whom she lives. Sadie works in a factory by day and goes
to protest meeting at night, something that Ridge admires (recall that Ridge
herself is an anarchist and activist) as she describes Sadie as a “fiery atom.”
Sadie’s hair is “wet-black,” and her face is “too white.” Interestingly, it’s
not that Sadie’s skin is white, but rather that the dust from the machines that
she works on as well as her fatigue that makes her white which is an
interesting link between capitalist labor and whiteness. In the next section of
the poem, Ridge describes two more young women who work in the garment
industry. One of them named Sarah, Ridge describes as “swarthy,” with an “olive
throat.” One can’t help but link the word “swarthy,” here with the derogatory
way in which “swarthy,” is used to describe Shishim’s
skin in the LA Times.
“The Ghetto,” are most noticeably written about as an undifferentiated mass. Most
of them are “sturdy,” except one girl, who Ridge says “stands apart.” The
little girl has braids that are “shiny as a blackbird’s,” and her eyes have the
“glow of darkened lights.” When Ridge offers the little girl an orange, which would
seem to be a universal gesture of goodwill, the little girl doesn’t seem to
understand. Then, when Ridge takes the girl’s hand and puts the orange in it, she
describes the girl’s hand as “as stiff as a doll’s,” and that the child runs
off in a “white panic.” This interaction between the speaker and the little
girl sheds some light on how Ridge both feels and is seen as an outsider within
this community. The little girl speaks no English, only speaks Yiddish, and
Ridge confesses that she doesn’t understand what the child is saying. These are
the kinds of textual clues that tell us that perhaps Ridge is not particularly
welcome in these Jewish cultural spaces. In her paper, “Ethnicity, Class and
Gender in Lola Ridge’s “The Ghetto,” Helen Berke, sees Ridge as a “keen and
admiring observer,” who takes snapshots of Jewish life with her poem, but what
I would add to that “The Ghetto,” also document’s Ridge’s outsider status. If
we take a close look at the Jewish characters Ridge creates in the poem, it doesn’t
appear that Ridge has any substantial interaction with them, instead choosing
to paint pictures of this community from the outside. Why doesn’t she have an
emotional attachment to the people she writes about? As a poet with radical
leftist politics, perhaps she felt that she needed to depict her subjects with
objectivity and remove. Perhaps she was using the Jewish immigrants to make
larger political points about human dignity and labor and she felt like the
individuals didn’t matter as much as the greater political message. After all,
the poem, ends with a kind of abstract affirmation to life: “LIFE!
/ Startling, vigorous life, /
That squirms under my touch, / And baffles me when I try to examine it, / Or
hurls me back without apology. /Leaving my ego ruffled and preening itself.”
Even in this affirmation, she acknowledges the difficulty in rendering city
life which “squirms” under her touch.
What becomes important, though, is
that Ridge, unlike many of her contemporaries writing about the immigrant experience,
used Modernist poetic techniques (disjunction, collage, lack of a cohesive
rhyme scheme) and published in avant-garde literary journals like Others, Broom and Poetry. Ridge’s
sophisticated aesthetic sensibilities allowed her entrance into literary spaces
that she would otherwise not have been able to access. Her poems were deeply
political and certainly more leftist and overtly political than the other poems
published in Broom, for example. But
Ridge, much like Claude McKay, also published her poems in explicitly political
Socialist and Communist magazines including her friend Emma Goldman’s Mother Earth. In a review of “The Ghetto
and Other Poems,” in the New Republic,
where Ridge had published work, Ridge is criticized for her poetry not being
lyric enough, “hovering between poetry and prose.” In this review, which
appears to be one of the only contemporaneous reviews of Ridge’s work, the
question of representation and appropriation is taken up. The writer claims
that Ridge’s “The Ghetto,” is “beyond a doubt the most vivid and sensitive and
lovely embodiment that exists in American literature of the many-sided
transplantation of Jewish city dwellers which vulgarity dismisses with a laugh
or a jeer. The fact that Miss. Ridge is not a Jewess, is herself alien and
transplanted, does not disqualify her work. On the contrary, she is disengaged
so that she can move from reality to reality with a purse sense of the food
that immerses her.” Even in this review, Ridge’s disengagement is seen as a way
to bolster her credibility in authentically depicting her subject.
This might be a good time to turn our attention to the poet Morris Rosenfeld. Born in 1862
in Poland, Rosenfeld immigrated to New York in 1886 and worked in sweatshops. He
wrote in Yiddish, which was the language used in the home and on the streets
for many Jewish immigrants of Ashkenazi descent. The choice to write in Yiddish
was an important one because it was a way to stay connected to the old world.
In fact, this poem was a source text for Franz Kafka’s Amerika, which shows
that there were strong literary connections between the old and new world. But
because Morris wrote in Yiddish, his poetry was not able to readily cross into
the more fashionable world of modernist poetics though he became very popular
as a kind of “poet of the people,” and when he died in 1923, over 10,000 people
attended his funeral. The following is an expert of a poem that details his
experiences in the factory:
The Sweatshop (excerpt)
machines are so wildly noisy
the shop that I often forget who I am.
get lost in the frightful tumult —
self is destroyed, I become a machine.
work and work and work endlessly —
create and create and create
For whom? I don’t know and I don’t ask.
business has a machine thinking?
have no feelings, no thoughts, no understanding.
bitter, bloody work suppresses
noblest, most beautiful, best, richest,
and highest things that life possesses.
minutes, and hours go by —
days and nights sail past quickly.
run the machine as if I wanted to overtake them —
race mindlessly, endlessly.
clock in the shop never rests —
shows everything, strikes constantly, wakes us constantly.
once explained it to me:
its showing and waking lies understanding.”
But I seem to remember something, as if from a
clock awakens life and understanding in me,
something else — I forget what.
ask! I don’t know, I don’t know! I’m a machine!
Now compare Rosenfeld’s poem to Lola Ridge’s character Sadie,
a character she creates in “The Ghetto” as representative of the sweatshop
Sadie dresses in black.
She has black-wet hair full of cold lights
And a fine-drawn face, too white.
All day the power machines
Drone in her ears…
All day the fine dust flies
Till throats are parched and itch
And the heat – like a kept corpse –
Fouls to the last corner.
Then – when needles move more slowly on the cloth
And sweaty fingers slacken
And hair falls in damp wisps over the eyes –
Sped by some power
quivers like a rod…
A thin black piston flying,
with her machine.
Both poets confront the dehumanizing effects of manual,
low-wage labor and in both poems the human becomes “one” with the machine. In
Morris’s poem, there is a first-hand account of the self which is fractured and
destroyed through this unpleasant process. He says that this “bitter, bloody work
suppresses The noblest, most beautiful, best, richest, Deepest, and highest
things that life possesses.” There’s simply no time to think for “What
business does a machine have thinking?”: “I have no feelings, no thoughts no
understanding.” The irony of course is that the poem itself does have a very
clear understanding of what happens to a person when working tirelessly in a
sweatshop—he can’t seem to hold a train of thought. The clock, fundamental in
the dehumanization process, “strikes constantly,” but also “awakens life and understanding
in me” (another irony) /And something else — I forget what. / Don’t ask! I
don’t know, I don’t know! I’m a machine!”
Sadie, in Ridge’s poem is also at one with her
machine. Ridge says that she is, “Sped by some power within, /Sadie quivers
like a rod…/ A thin black piston flying, / One with her machine.” Ridge is
basically saying the same thing about the machine and the human becoming one,
but Sadie is turned into a heroine, rather than a martyr. Sadie, unlike
Rosenfeld, goes home to read at night: “her lit eyes kindling the mob.”
Those books that have most unset thought,
New-poured and malleable,
To which her thought
Leaps fusing at white heat,
Or spits her fire out in some dim manger of a hall,
Or at a protest meeting on the Square,
Her lit eyes kindling the mob…
Or dances madly at a festival.
Each dawn finds her a little whiter,
Though up and keyed to the long day,
Alert, yet weary… like a bird
That all night long has beat about a light.
Both of these poems gave me a lot to think about in terms of authenticity, how immigrants have been utilized in art to make political claims and how these depictions may vary depending on who is doing the writing. If a poem is aesthetically “good,” or “avant-garde” (which is true in Ridge’s case, are questions of authenticity overlooked? In other words, if her portrayal had been less poetically interesting, would she have even been able to publish her work in these fashionable magazines. Rosenfeld seemed to have a much harder time publishing his work and was seen more as a proletarian poet. Is this because he was writing in Yiddish, or is there something else going on? After all, at some point, he was translated into English, but most people that I talk to have not heard of him. But also, Ridge, who has seen a revival in recent years, brings to light not only the plight of Jewish immigrant workers, but specifically women, whom she sees as fierce, political and hardworking, which adds to the feminist canon of radical poems dealing with labor, certainly something that should be celebrated.
*This talk doesn’t include a Works Cited page yet, but will. Thanks so much to Ben Friedlander for introducing me to Rosenfeld’s work. This paper was presented at the 2020 Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture. The other panelists were Lindsay Lerman and JP Garcia.