Steamed clams for dinner and a marion berry cobbler for dessert. Sideways rain and a cozy fire in the hotel room. Hot tubs, a movie, and a book. A view of waves pounding, the tide coming in, and a jigsaw puzzle on the table.
For a short two days we are doing what winter vacationers do on the Oregon coast every year, plus enjoying this year’s speciality: Santorum jokes.
Vacations are about getting away, but like all our Oregon trips, this one is the yearly homecoming. Our household has Oregon roots on both sides, so our trips fall under the heading of our travel corridors: back and forth, once a year, Portland/Salem/the coast to Madison/Chicago/the Midwest. But on this trip out the book I have before me takes me back the way I came, back to the places where a lot of it started for me, namely Detroit and Chicago.
I found this volume in the anarchism section at Powell’s in Portland. I was about to pass on it because $40 is a lot to pay for an old book that has seen better days.
The spine is damaged and the copyright page is torn. The corners are turned and overall, despite its lasting beauty and impressive durability–appreciate the lettering on the cover: gilded and feathered elegance in anarchism!–it is a book that clearly has been through many hands. (I wish I could perform a Josh MacPhee-style interpretation of the cover, but I cannot find later editions against which to compare.) But this isn’t just any title or any volume. This is a book of writings by Albert Parsons (aka husband of Lucy Parsons), one of the Haymarket martyrs and an anarchist printer, published posthumously. I cannot say for sure if it is a first edition, but it is copyright dated 1887 with no other dates, and the book has the look, feel, and construction of an object 125 years old. So, really, it would have been difficult to forgo even without this clincher: upon examination I noticed that it bears a stamp from the Wayne State University Libraries.
Therefore it is entirely conceivable that this very object passed through the hands of the Detroit anarchists who made up the radical world that influenced a good number of us young people back in the 1980s in the suburbs of Oakland County. Maybe the Detroit printer Fredy Perlman, who helped to usher into the English-speaking world the theories of Debord and the Situationists, held this very book in his hands. Maybe the activist lawyer Kenneth Cockrel, who did so much work for the League of Revolutionary Black Workers and who had earned a degree in political science from Wayne State, had racked up overdue fines on this book. Mine is not as good a story as my bibliophile friend Kevin Connolly’s tale for the ages, but in terms of a single book tracing a personal and social history generations after its publication, and the possiblities of connections we can now dream about, it is the best I have had.
But what does the journey of this volume say about the corridors of time and space that a strain of radicalism may travel? The book took shape in the cell of a wrongly condemned anarchist in the Cook County Jail,
became a published reality shortly after the state-sanctioned murder of the author, landed for who knows how many years in the collection at Wayne State, which for many decades was one of the most accessible of America’s public urban universities. And then the book was returned to commercial circulation via Powell’s Books. Between those steps there were undoubtedly other stops—circulation through private collections, sales and re-sales, years on the shelves belonging to now unknown shops, libraries, owners, or borrowers--maybe in Michigan, maybe in Oregon, and who knows where else. In early 2012 it comes into my hands, slightly callused from guitar and presswork but mostly soft like an intellectual’s, suffering invisibly from carpal tunnel, to take back to the Midwest. Is it the completion of a circle or just another returned book in the great cosmic radical library?
Given the battles being fought in Wisconsin, the Rahm Emanuel mayoral disaster unfolding in Chicago, and the ongoing contested destruction and reconstruction of Detroit, it feels good to be returning home with a book that others used in their midwestern-global struggles from earlier times. Maybe the timing puts a digestible veneer on my hydrocarbon privileges. If it were only about collecting this would be just another instance of radical nostalgia. To safeguard against that, who, in my turn, can I influence? Anybody out there want to borrow this book?