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  • A Response to Shelley Streeby
  • Kathryn J. Oberdeck (bio)

In her essay on labor, memory, and the boundaries of print culture, Shelley Streeby remarks provocatively on the possibilities and perils of print culture as a conduit for radicals aiming to remake in the future the labor struggles and revolutions that were repressed in the past. As the connections she draws from Haymarket back to the Civil War (and past that, the US–Mexico war) and forward to the Mexican Revolution insightfully suggest, these revolutionary reconstructions often reproduced the limits of the very battles their memory-makers evoked. This was especially true with respect to racial lines that fractured but also challenged labor radicalism domestically and transnationally in the late nineteenth century. When wage slavery was compared to chattel slavery or Mexican peonage by labor activists and radicals, the point was as often to lay claim to the upper rungs of a popular social Darwinian racial hierarchy as it was to level those categories in the name of an interracial, international solidarity of labor. Having plumbed with great nuance in her American Sensations: Class, Empire, and the Production of Popular Culture (2002) the complex class, racial, gendered, and urban dimensions making for such fractures in literary constructions of mid-century US– Mexican hostilities, Streeby shows us here how that colonial imaginary reverberated within the early twentieth-century revolutionary visions of even the most ardently internationalist labor radicals.

If race and its constructs are at the center of the project of remaking the Haymarket anarchists' revolution in Mexico, the print culture Streeby sees fracturing around this center is perplexingly wide-ranging and bounded. Here I am interested in the [End Page 434] boundaries that historians, with Streeby, at once share with and perhaps impose upon the print cultures she reconstructs. As they focused on Mexican Revolutionaries, her Haymarket memorialists seemed especially ardent to reach, make, perhaps call into being a public that might galvanize itself into a movement poised to avenge martyrs like the Haymarket anarchists through a new revolution aimed at multiple economic oppressions. To conjure this public they tried to provide new recruits with histories and traditions; to publicize and disseminate the texts that articulated those traditions and connected them to current struggles that the mainstream, capitalist press might appropriate for different purposes; and to witness and document the assemblies of the public-cum-movement generated through print in order to introduce it to new recruits and thwart efforts to repress and deny its existence (all achingly apposite these days).

As Streeby observes, this last battle was a mammoth one which the radical memory-makers she describes won only sporadically. As a consequence, historians of their efforts and the movement they tried to generate depend upon the records they left in print, and thereby share, in a shadow form, the limits they discovered in print culture as a vehicle for their movement. Conscious that the historical trajectory of revolutionary struggle—as they perceived it proceeding from the Civil War through the era of industrial wars—had to be reforged so that the generation witnessing land wars in Mexico could appreciate their revolutionary heritage, Haymarket memorialists like Lucy Parsons or Voltairine de Cleyre battled against tremendous government and corporate forces determined to prevent such political castings. The successes of these forces, though not monolithic, were sufficient to silence those lectures and speeches not memorialized in print, and with them the publics and movements they generated. Noting these limits, Streeby challenges us to conceive such publics independent of the printed record, a challenge her print memorialists likely pondered themselves.

However, Streeby's essay also suggests to me that, in the process of reconstructing such publics historically, we may be limited by our own imaginations of their contours. In this respect I was surprised that, in a paper devoted to the boundaries of radical print culture in the US during the first decades of the twentieth century, there was no mention whatever of the Appeal to Reason, a Socialist print venue that in many ways both defined and defied those boundaries. The print culture Streeby invokes, and which thus defines the publics we can see its practitioners calling into action, is restricted largely...


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pp. 434-437
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