Discovering the Region: Texts
17. Anna Louise Strong, I Change Worlds: The Remaking of an American
Anna Louise Strong, I Change Worlds: The Remaking of an American (New York: H. Holt and Company, 1935), 47-57.
Chapter V, "I Lose 'My America'"
It was not I who found the class struggle at last, but the class struggle which found me—as it found steadily during the first fifteen years of our century more and more Americans, who saw their country change from a land of “free and equal” colonists on an advancing frontier to the greatest imperial power on earth. What the Spanish War began the World War accomplished: America became the world’s banker, and ceased to be the world’s pioneer!
Gone were the days when a round copper cent for licorice drops was counted a childhood treat, when laborers got a dollar a day and hoped to be millionaires, when energetic millions of earth’s dispossessed flooded through Ellis Island to be welcomed, exploited and Americanized in the melting pot of the world. Earth’s most efficient industries rushed into being, based on great natural riches and created by the mixing genius of energetic sons from all the tribes of earth. Increasing goods piled up, creating new problems. The ideals of youth shifted from the frontiersman to the great industrialist, last of all to the supersalesman. More and more products on the one hand, fewer jobs on the other.
The fight for the treasure trove of forests and mines swiftly created alignments among the pioneer folk. Not the class lines which had barred me from the socialist fold, but a fight between the “people” and the “interests” who robbed them. Great titans, railway kings and lumber barons seized public wealth, and common citizens found their rights too circumscribed. We ordinary folk of Seattle, striving for parks, playgrounds, swimming resorts to make our city fir for Americans to live in, found the shores of our lakes and of Puget Sound held on perpetual franchise by the twin railroads of Jim Hill. Our new struggling industries, fighting to compete with other
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towns, were strangled by the high rates which the Seattle Electric, our hated local “octopus,” charged for light and power.
Similar fights marked the entire life of the developing American West. The popular novels of the period reflected these struggles. The hero was some valiant independent whose energetic daring used every legal, and sometimes a few illegal, means to overcome the octopus—the powerful villain financed from New York. The hero always won, but whether he later himself became an octopus, the story didn’t tell; it ended discreetly, as the sex fiction of the time also did, at the alter.
I came to Seattle during the early years of the World War, while the peoples of Europe writhed in the agony of new forms of death, and America stood aloof. My father had gone there earlier, during my last year of graduate work in Chicago; my mother was long since dead. I had been organizing Child Welfare Exhibits around the country for years. But the exhibits were becoming standardized under the U. S. Children’s Bureau and the Russell Sage Foundation, which told the folk of the provinces what to believe. The thrill of feeling a whole community come into organized life was gone. I ran one last exhibit of the U. S. Children’s Bureau at the Panama Pacific Exposition in San Francisco in 1915, organized an “exhibit-investigation” of “Children’s Interests” in Portland, Oregon, where children displayed toys, pets and hobbies, and then refused to return to the deadening life of Washington, D. C.
On the Pacific Coast to which my job had taken me, I had found a new solace for human isolation—the companionship of the hills. Long hikes on Tamalpais from San Francisco were followed in Portland by trips with the Mazamas, a mountaineering organization which conquered the tangled jungles of western forests and climbed the glaciers of Mt. Hood. This new-found wilderness became for me a passion; I began to seek more and more difficult climbs, new peaks to conquer. I organized in November the first winter climb of Mt. Hood, in which we four participants were all but swept away in an unexpected blizzard. All night under a starless sky we felt our
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way downward while storm clouds darkened the upper air and swept the peak which we had quitted just in time.
On our return to Portland less venturesome members of the Mazamas berated us for the foolhardy risking of lives. “If there had been a scientific end to be gained! What did you go for? Just a record!” I retorted that we had at least found out whether the upper slopes were snow or ice in winter, which had not been known before. But this was not the reason that had driven me. How could I explain that ecstasy that arose out of physical pain and exhaustion which the human will subdued, that new mysticism of the adventurer, conquering the unconquerable forces of desolate nature. The expanding social life which I had felt in Child Welfare Exhibits, and which I had called “making God,” and later a “part of socialism,” had died inexplicably and left me again in isolation. Now I embraced isolation and called it freedom, as my forefathers did through a long line of pioneers. I loved these savage wastes which the strength of my youth could conquer, and from which I wrung far vistas of binding beauty; the knowledge that advantage age or weakness must in the end betray me to a death on some cliff or glacier only added to the fascination of these dark gods of nature. For the next five years this was my new form of opium.
Love of the western mountains added to a belated sense of duty to my father made me decide to settle in Seattle. I had saved adequate funds from several years of exhibits, where my intention of independence kept me living on about one-half my very adequate salary. I had the confident belief of the unbeaten pioneer that I could always find myself a job if I should need one. Meantime I would keep house for my father and take part in Seattle’s growing life.
The Seattle to which I came in the second year of the World War rated as a progressive city. The populace invariably voted against the “reactionary interests” who represented capital imported from New York. There were two organizations of business men. The Chamber of Commerce was composed of big business, the “interests,” by which we meant the great timber and power companies. There was also a cheerfully
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democratic Commercial Club, of the young and progressive business men. They organized excursions and beach parties and clam-bakes to get acquainted with the surrounding farmers; together with these farmers they demanded municipal ownership of docks, warehouses, power, street cars, in order that independent business and farming might thrive under the shelter of cheap and benevolent public utilities. They were supported in these demands by the equally progressive Central Labor Council, the delegate body representing the trade unions of the city, whose slogan was a city of high wages and sound homes.
In every hard election fight, when the populace was really aroused, it was certain to beat the interests. Other cities might settle down under corrupt government, but not we. Political candidates always refused endorsement from the Chamber of Commerce and from its spokesman the Seattle Times; to accept financial contributions from the interests was a sure path to defeat. The population of young business men and respectable American skilled workers achieved one venture of municipal ownership after another; City Light was successfully competing with the power trust, the municipally owned docks were out-distancing in spectacular size the privately owned docks. Seattle was becoming a paradise of public ownership, visited by delegations from other cities.
Yet somehow, in spite of all the progressive victories, the Seattle Electric, alias the power trust, still flourished, and was even making money. One began to hear that Seattle Electric cheerfully left to City Light the costly task of lighting the far-flung homes of citizens, scattered over a hundred square miles of hills, which publicly owned City Light could not refuse; while Seattle Electric took the juicy central industries, selling them power at a price mutually agreeable. The big municipal docks had to handle farmers’ perishable products at cost and insure them against waste, while the private docks picked the profitable customers. When after repeated fights the progressives won the city street cars, the price in city bonds paid for the old street railways gave the former owners more than they could have hoped to make by retaining the properties in
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the rapidly dawning era of motor cars and busses. But still the progressive citizens of Seattle kept struggling, saying that “eternal vigilance is the price of liberty,” and hoping that by everlasting attention they could find public servants who for a few thousand dollars in salary would be as clever as private firms that had millions at stake. We found a few such public servants, but not enough to matter.
The progressive forces asked me to run for the School Board; for many years they had wished to have a woman on that board, which had been for two decades a self-perpetuating committee of bankers and business men. The chief plank in our platform was the wider use of school building for all sorts of public meetings, a demand close to the heart of all small clubs, societies, cooperative organizations, liberal and radical associations, which wished a respectable and inexpensive place in which to meet.
Fresh from my work with the U. S. Children’s Bureau, with the degree of doctor of philosophy and two or three books to my credit, I was easily the most acceptable candidate in town. University clubs supported “a really educated woman against those self-made men of business.” Labor organizations supported “schools run by teachers and mothers, instead of by capitalists.” I was not a little helped by the wide popularity of my father. He had induced the Ministers’ Federation to exchange fraternal delegates with organized labor, and had supported certain local strikes. The school election was at that time a sleepy affair attended by a few citizens and usually controlled by the self-perpetuating board through their pressure on the teachers. I easily captured the election.
We progressives were elated; we had elected a woman to the School Board for the first time in twenty years; we had beaten the interests. The interests were indeed distinctly annoyed at our temerity in thrusting an unwanted newcomer into their well-oiled School Board; they remembered it against me for the future. But they were not seriously worried, for I was only one member in five. The others allowed me, as a courtesy to a new member, to put through in modified form a resolution for the wider use of school buildings by all sorts of citizens’
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meetings. Once by judicious use of publicity I succeeded in stopping the use of our high schools to recruit under-age volunteers for the war. Otherwise the machine rolled over me weekly, voting appropriations for matters about which I understood little. Questions of education they never dealt with; they referred them to the superintendent. The interest of the board members was in gas and heating contracts, new buildings for important new areas, the spending of public funds. I could not even know, after a year in which I sat at their meetings, whether there was any graft in their assignment of contacts. There need not have been; it was enough for them to determine the location of new public improvements; information like that was money. For me those sessions were the most completely boring hours of my existence, spent in long debate over various makes of electric switches or plumbing fixtures, with never a word on the aims or methods of education.
Meantime into the life of Seattle new forces were oozing, in the dank lowlands below Yesler Way where respectable people seldom went. Great lumber trusts, which had stolen or otherwise acquired hundreds of thousands of acres from the public domain surrounding Seattle, were stimulated by the war into extended logging operations. Lumberjacks, a rough and ready type of hard-fighting, hard-working, and hard-drinking labor, agitated and struggled with varying success for decent conditions in the woods. They drifted with winter into the cheap lodging houses near Seattle’s vice district, and became the natural prey of prostitutes, employment sharks, vote-seekers and agitators. They had a hall of their own, occasionally raided, where hoarse-voiced yells for justice alternated with social evenings. It was thus we respectable progressives of Seattle first saw the I.W.W., the Industrial Workers of the World.
These newcomers took little part in politics; they were nomad labor, deprived of lawful vote. If this floating population voted at all, it was at the behest and with the illegal sonnivance of politicians who paid for their ballots. As such they became a “menace to good citizens.” Yet they were true
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Americans, truer than most of the settled citizenry. They were direct inheritors of the fighting pioneer. Like him they were men of brawn and daring, proud of their strength to fell the forest, drive the new railroad, reclaim the trackless waste. They did these things no longer for their own homes on the frontier, but under orders of railroad and lumber kings. Into their ballads there crept the bitter irony of men who “build all the homes of the world, and never have home of their own.” They called their I.W.W. hall the “home of the homeless.” Yet even their hate for their exploiters had in it a touch of condescension, the disdain which men of the open air feel for the mean shrewdness of cities even when it bests them in their struggle. Their hero remained Paul Bunyan, the giant mythical logger, never the industrialist or banker, whom they disdained. They had none of the serf traditions of Europe, and none of the sense of class struggle as an ingrained law of developing society, which grew out of those serf traditions.
Yet they had class struggle, the struggle of men once free and expecting freedom, but now slowly, inexplicably, irretrievably enslaved. This struggle stalked with them into Seattle streets. It was no longer the slow, bargaining struggle of trade union business agents for a share in increasing profits through increasing wages; it was a stark, bloody fight for elementary human rights. It borrowed some of its thought and language from the workers’ struggle of all ages: vague theories of syndicalism, the word “international,” the “Workers of the World, Unite.” It borrowed fully as much from American pioneer traditions, their mood of grim jesting with hardship and death, their admiration for physical strength, their individualism, impatient of discipline, but capable of brave joint fighting, passionate and brief.
With these American traditions the I.W.W. often cut across class lines in the prewar West, and won adherents from the champions of democracy and free speech in all classes. In the smaller lumber towns the settled citizenry were chiefly dependents and hangers-on of lumber companies and therefore fought these industrial workers ruthlessly as class foes. But in larger commercial cities, like Seattle, there were many smaller business
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men who depended on the trade of the lumberjacks, and were themselves oppressed by big business. In such cities the fighting lumberjacks got a hearing. They carried on free speech fights, defying the lawless tactics of police by getting themselves arrested in such numbers that they flooded the local jails and broke the machinery of local courts with the number of cases. Such tactics brought grins of approval from large numbers of ordinary citizens who had not forgotten the courage and grimness of the pioneer.
The hunger of war-torn Europe for lumber and the rising costs of living increased the battle in the woods around Seattle. Suddenly we were startled by the “Everett massacre” in a neighboring port a score of miles away. The police of that city made a practice of expelling I.W.W.’s brutally; the workers retorted with a free speech fight; scores of I.W.W. members in nearby cities and lumber camps hastened to Everett to speak on her streets and be arrested. They were driven out by clubs and shotguns; they promptly announced a meeting in a prominent Everett square and since roads and railroads were patrolled by the Everett authorities, the workers charted the steamer Verona in Seattle, and went over en masse. They were met at the dock by armed men; some of the workers had arms. A clash ensued which left many dead on the decks of the Verona and on the docks. The Verona pulled out for Seattle where all its passengers were arrested and brought to trial.
The press of America took interest; I covered the trial for the New York Evening Post. I was not consciously taking sides in any struggle; I merely sent the news. The news, which still had power to horrify the average American believer in fair play, was that at every stage the Everett police and private lumber guards took the initiative in beating and shooting workers for speaking in their streets. The lumber guards on the dock had begun the shooting and continued firing as the Verona pulled away; yet none of them were arrested. The men on trial for murder were not individually shown to have even possessed a gun; it was enough that someone on their ship, a comrade or an agent provocateur, had fired. The New York Post printed my articles as a description of raw injustice on
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the Pacific Coast; Seattle progressives drew morals about the wickedness of the interests and were more determinedly progressive than ever.
Among the conservative members of the School Board I was already marked as a radical. My election to the board against the clique of business men, my article for the Post on the Everett trial, my increasing visits to the I.W.W. headquarters and championship of their leaders—were listed against me. We progressives resented the term “radical”; we were not digging anything up by the roots; we were merely continuing the good old American tradition of inevitable progress, a country getting better and better forever—a tradition which the interests had attacked.
Towards the end of 1916 it became evident that strong forces were pushing America towards the battle trenches of Europe. Yet “our America’s” pioneer traditions were against “entangling alliances.” To supplement this negative aloofness we had a positive faith. Men of all nations and races, the best and most energetic, had come to our America seeking freedom. We must preserve freedom and democracy for the world. God, or Nature, or Fate had given to these seeking men of all races the last free lands on earth, the last frontier. Here were great riches, and a prosperous free people; unless WE could fight off oppressors, the world was doomed. Doomed to be gobbled up by the interests, who had already swallowed all of Europe and turned her into a hell, and who pushed on us from New York through the timber trusts and Seattle Electric. Meantime our fight was clear—keep America out of the war.
I threw myself into the Anti-Preparedness League, the Union Against Militarism, the Emergency Peace Federation—all that rapidly shifting galaxy of organizations with which pacifists, liberals, radicals and progressives fought America’s advance towards war. These organizations sprang up in the East, New York, Washington or Philadelphia, with varying and perhaps conflicting leadership: socialists, bourgeois, pacifists of all kinds. We of the Pacific provinces never distinguished between the different leaderships. We all met together—all who opposed war, and of these there was a goodly number—in
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regular luncheon meetings once a week in a cafeteria, and in occasional Sunday mass meetings enthusiastically attended. We accepted speakers, campaigns, pamphlets from any national society that chose to send them.
The only debate on method that occurred among us was whether we should raise the American flag above our mass meetings. There were a few socialists who argued against this “reverence for the flag,” and a few I.W.W.’s who openly flouted it as the “flag of the profiteers.” We told them they were too easily discouraged. The flag was our flag, which had been sought by the oppressed of the earth. The profiteers were trying to grab it; we must not let them. There were bad conditions in America, but these were temporary; there were bad men in America, but they must be overthrown; there were the interests in America, but they challenged the vigilant activity of all free citizens. “Our America” was a democratic republic, ruled by the will of its citizens, a land of free and equal people, the pioneer land of the world.
We won our point; we waved the flag at pacifist mass meetings. Our America would not enter the war; she stood for peace. Our America elected Wilson on the slogan “he kept us out of war.”
When after Wilson’s accession, the war pressed ever nearer, we decided to “strengthen the hands of the President” against it. We conducted informal plebiscites all over the country. I organized one in Seattle. We sent hundreds of people into the streets and markets and factories with questionnaires asking: “Are you irrevocably against participating in the European War under any conditions?” Ninety-five percent of them shouted “Yes.” I sent the daily report of these votes to Congress, keeping the wires hot with telegrams. Other cities were doing the same: we were informed of their struggle. We knew that Congress was informed.
Then this America whose populace protested was and whose profiteers desired it, left us and marched into the war with all of Europe. As the war approached, our local branch of the Anti-Preparedness Committee, the American Union against Militarism, the Emergency Peace Federation, dwindled; the
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respectable members were turning to war work. The presidents of women’s clubs were “swinging in behind the President”; the head of the Parent-Teachers organizations, who spoke so valiantly for peace in the mass meeting which featured the flag, found other duties now. The weekly cafeteria meetings grew smaller. After the actual declaration of war we held one meeting. I was still secretary of the organization and I glanced bitterly at the empty tables. “Only a handful of socialists and wobblies left,” I said. “All the people of prominence have deserted. Nobody left who can do anything.”
The meeting reorganized as the “Anti-Conscription League,” and voted to communicate with organizations of that name arising in the East. I asked them to elect another secretary. “Anti-conscription is a man’s fight,” I said. “My summer camps in the mountains are soon starting and I shall not be in town.”
I left in truth because my courage and my heart were broken. Nothing in my whole life, not even my mother’s death, so shook the foundations of my soul. The fight was lost, and forever! “Our America” was dead! The profiteers, the militarists, the “interests” had violated her and forced her to their bidding. I could not delude myself, as some did, that this was a “war to make the world safe for democracy”; I had seen democracy slain in the very declaration of war. The people wanted peace; the profiteers wanted war—and got it. There had been a deep mistake in the whole basis of my life. Where and how to begin again I had no notion.
I turned like a wounded beast to the hills for shelter. Like the pioneers of old I fled to the simpler wilderness from the problems of human society that I could not face. Week after week in the high slopes of Rainer I was busy with problems of pack-trains, commissary, cooking, hikes. Eight or ten hours a day I led parties on the glaciers. Few newspapers reached me; I did not read them. I shrank from every mention of the war. I drugged myself with forests, cliffs and glaciers. I exhausted myself with twenty-four-hour climbs. It was the end of youth, the end of belief, the end of “our America.” I could not face the ruins of my world.
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