Thursday, January 9, 2014

The Radical Life and Tragic Decline of Warren Starr Van Valkenburgh

Image of front page of the anarchist newspaper Road to Freedom while under the editorship of Warren Starr Van Valkenburgh. 

Schenectady’s association with radical politics in the first quarter of the twentieth century is perhaps most associated with George Lunn, Schenectady’s first and only Socialist mayor. Another of Schenectady’s radicals of the period, Warren Starr Van Valkenburgh, is much less well known. A Socialist-turned-anarchist, critic of Lunn, and friend of the famous anarchist Emma Goldman, Van Valkenburgh experienced his political awakening in Schenectady and brought his perspective about local events to a broader audience through articles in Goldman’s magazine, Mother Earth. After relocating to the New York City area, Van Valkenburgh achieved some prominence as the editor of Road to Freedom, the most prominent anarchist periodical of the 1920s. However, the last ten years of Van Valkenburgh’s life were a struggle, marred by spotty employment and heavy drinking. This article serves as but a scant sketch of the life of a man whose personal history intersected with the history of Schenectady for about a decade.

Warren Starr Van Valkenburgh was born in 1884 in Albany. Van Valkenburgh first appears in the 1909 city directory, living at 10 Duane Avenue and working for General Electric as a bookkeeper. By 1914 he and his wife had moved to Scotia, where the couple and their two children would live until the family relocated to Staten Island around 1918.

The 1910s were a dynamic time in Schenectady. Between 1900 and 1920, the city’s population nearly tripled, as workers flocked to Schenectady to work at G.E. and the American Locomotive Company. The voices of reformers, suffragists, labor organizers, and Socialists were growing in volume and in number throughout the decade. Van Valkenburgh became involved with the Socialist Party soon after moving to the city. On September 19, 1912, he wrote a letter officially resigning from the party in favor of anarchism. He served as secretary of the Economic Club (soon renamed the Sociology Club), a group organized to study and debate social problems, from 1914 to 1918. One of his associates in the Sociology Club, Shankar Gokhale, was also active with Van Valkenburgh in co-founding the Schenectady Free Thought Society, an organization formed for the study and discussion of religious thought, in 1915.

Downtown Schenectady in 1910. This view shows State Street from Centre Street (now Broadway) looking toward Jay Street. Image from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection. 

Although Van Valkenburgh was somewhat politically active locally, his connections outside of Schenectady proved to be of more consequence in his life. Around 1912, he began corresponding with Emma Goldman, the anarchist orator who was branded “the most hated woman in America” after being accused of complicity in the assassination of President McKinley in 1901. Van Valkenburgh would become one of Goldman’s lifelong friends and correspondents and, in later years, helped to raise funds to support her financially while she wrote her memoirs. He also organized three speaking engagements for her in Schenectady in the early part of 1915.

Goldman’s local lectures provided a focus for Van Valkenburgh’s criticisms of Mayor George Lunn in what would be his first article for Mother Earth. In addition to anarchist luminaries such as Peter Kropotkin and Lucy Parsons, Mother Earth featured articles by Margaret Sanger, Leo Tolstoy, Margaret Anderson, and Helen Keller, and featured cover art by Man Ray and Robert Minor. Its subscribers numbered about 10,000. Van Valkenburgh’s article, “Schenectady Socialism,” appeared in the May 1915 issue. In it, he charged that The Citizen’s refusal to accept a paid advertisement for one of Goldman’s lectures, the paper’s insinuation that Goldman’s lectures were organized by the Democrats, and Lunn’s refusal to debate Goldman on the grounds that “debates settle nothing” -- while he engaged in a series of debates with other politicians -- amounted to hypocrisy on Lunn’s part. “There was a time when I believed Dr. Lunn as a sincere man,” he wrote. “Now I know he is an unscrupulous charlatan ... As a politician he can operate the steam roller with the dexterity of Elihu Root ... If he believes in a free press, as he says he does, it is in the other fellow’s paper, not his own. It would be a treat to hear him wax warm in his verbosity if only he could be induced to take as his theme some Sunday night, ‘Why I preach one thing and practice another.’” Van Valkenburgh closed by stating his hope that Schenectadians would soon realize that the city was the victim of “too much Socialist politics and too little social conscience.”

Another of Van Valkenburgh’s articles, in the November 1915 issue of Mother Earth, discussed a strike at General Electric for an eight-hour workday. By the evening of the second day of the strike, 12,000 workers were participating. “The most illustrious feature, aside from the unity of the strikers, was the total absence of violence,” wrote Van Valkenburgh. “The parade of more than twelve thousand men, women and girls, peacefully walking into a struck factory for their pay without a policeman in sight was a wonderfully majestic spectacle.”  The latter half of the article stressed the importance of including office workers in the future of labor organizing, a view perhaps influenced by Van Valkenburgh’s own position as a bookkeeper. In the end, the workers returned to their jobs after five weeks, not having won their demands. Despite this loss, Van Valkenburgh stated that the result of the strike should not discourage the workers, citing their courage in taking on G.E. as “ample proof that they will not long remain in servitude without protest.” Alongside this championing of the striking workers, Van Valkenburgh could not resist taking some digs at Lunn, implying that the support voiced for the strike in the pages of The Citizen was a cynical ploy to secure votes for Lunn that fall: “for his paper to do anything else,” he wrote, “would eventuate in political suicide, and the crafty Dr. Lunn has no such good intentions.”

Aside from the articles written with a local focus, Van Valkenburgh wrote many other short pieces on a variety of topics during his time in Schenectady, including militarism, the execution of labor activist Joseph Hillstrom, and a championing of the birth control movement as led by Margaret Sanger. In addition to writing articles for Mother Earth, he also contributed to The Blast, edited by Alexander Berkman, Revolt and Road to Freedom, both edited by Hippolyte Havel, and Instead of a Magazine, edited by Herman Kuehn.

Around 1918, Van Valkenburgh moved to the New York City area, where he would live for the remainder of his life. He was hired to work in advertising for the Elliott-Fisher Company, a manufacturer of typewriters. In 1927 he was fired from his position following his active and public involvement on behalf of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, two Italian immigrant anarchists accused of murder in one of America’s most notorious trials. Van Valkenburgh’s statements about the case made the New York papers, and he was convinced that this was the reason for his termination. Following his dismissal, he found it very difficult to find lasting employment and was convinced that he had been blacklisted. In late 1934, he wrote to anarchist printer Joseph Ishill: “Since that fateful year [1927] I have held about six jobs at different times, from each of which I was removed either because of some indescretion [sic] regarding my opinions ... or because of some reason which the boss was ‘not at liberty to divulge.’ That infamous black-list ... does, in fact, exist ... In the last 7 years, I have possibly worked three.” He had tried to salvage his professional career by assuming a pseudonym, Walter Starrett, for his political writing and activity after he was fired.

Van Valkenburgh’s compatriots in New York City remembered him as a fiery speaker with a sharp tongue. Jack Frager recalled him as “an acid critic of his opponents [who] refused to show tact or pull punches.” Franz Fleigler characterized Van Valkenburgh as having “the native flavor of American sharpness and a good manner of talking and making sense at the same time.” Louis Slater recalled him being knocked off of the speaker’s platform in Union Square by his Communist opponents. A 1931 New York Times article describes a rally where Van Valkenburgh drew boos for comparing the United States favorably to the Soviet Union, saying that politicians “are all alike, whether in New York, Centralia, or Moscow, and you can’t hold a protest meeting in Moscow, but in capitalist America you can at least speak.” When booed, he retorted, “The truth hurts, doesn’t it?” and characterized those heckling him as “the children of Jesuits in Moscow.”

Along with his speeches, Van Valkenburgh’s friends in New York also remembered his heavy drinking following his dismissal from Elliott-Fisher. “He drank very heavily,” Sarah Taback remembered. “One day while walking to a meeting I saw him lying in the gutter on 14th Street, drunk and dirty and mumbling to himself.” Arnold Leonard Ross recalled that Van Valkenburgh “never got over” his firing. “He took to drink and fell heavily into debt and finally separated from his wife.” After Road to Freedom ceased publication in 1932, Van Valkenburgh became less prominent in anarchist circles, although during the last years of his life he remained active, bringing speakers to New York City and editing the periodical Spanish Revolution in support of the anarchists during the Spanish Civil War. He died on May 22, 1938, at the age of 53. Following his death, Challenge: A Libertarian Weekly remembered him as “a man who willingly gave up position, career and personal security out of devotion to an Ideal.”

No comments:

Post a Comment