Adolf Wolff: To Esther

TO ESTHER
My little daughter, my masterpiece,
Child in body, mind and spirit, beautiful,
Child so much a child.
When you have blossomed into womanhood,
May you be a Judith decapitating a Holofernes,
A Joan of Arc leading a people to victory,
A Louise Michel fighting on the barricades,
A Voltairine de Cleyre singing the songs of revolt,
An Emma Goldman preaching the gospel of rebellion.
I dedicate you,
Fruit of my blood, child of my soul,
I dedicate you to the cause of emancipation,
I dedicate you to the cause of truth and justice,
I dedicate you to the Social Revolution.
May your life and your death be the scourge of tyrants
And the inspiration of those who fight for human
freedom.

This poem was taken from Adolf Wolff’s collection, Songs of Rebellion, Songs of Life, Songs of Love (1914). A self-described “poet, sculptor and revolutionist, but mostly revolutionist,” Adolf Wolff came to the United States as a child from Belgium. History, however, hasn’t been especially kind to either his art or his politics and he’s been reduced to near-total obscurity today.

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Coal  Miner on Strike, 1931; The Lynch Law, 1931; Negro, n.d. Hermitage Museum

There’s very little one can find about Wolff in the scholarly record at all. In fact, I only encountered his poem a few months ago while reading Paul Avrich’s biography of Voltairine de Cleyre. As Avrich and Francis Naumann write in a piece specifically about Wolff:

[T]he artistic accomplishments of Adolf Wolff have been almost totally forgotten. His name has fallen into obscurity, and goes unrecorded in even the most thorough histories and lexicons of American sculpture.

In any case, Wolff seems to have been very active in the radical politics that thrived in New York at the turn of the century. Nearly all the figures in that world were recent immigrants from Europe (Wolff included) disillusioned with the dire conditions of urban industrial capitalism and animated by left-wing politics in the heady days just before the Russian Revolution. To be an anarchist, Wolff said, was:

to be a human being without prejudice, without superstition, without fear, even in the face of death, and to love truth and justice, and to speak it out irrespective of consequences, to have law and order within, not without, to require no government except that of one’s conscience, and to be so strongly individual as to embrace with one’s own mind the well-being of the entire human collectivity.

This element of Wolff’s life is usually purged from any dicussion of his artwork—itself a rare occurence. When one of his sculptures appeared on the Antique Roadshow back in 2010, for example, an appraiser euphemistically described Wolff’s politics:

[H]e was also very involved in politics. A lot of artists were. … [H]e was, you know, embroiled with some very interesting characters and very interesting times.

Very interesting characters and times indeed! Though he knew them personally, Wolff would have been just young enough to regard the anarchist iconoclasts Emma Goldman and Voltairine de Cleyre probably more with reverence and awe than any kinship grounded in equality. After all, “Red Emma” was one of the most notorious radicals in the country for at least the two decades prior to her expulsion in the Red Scare of 1919. She was a larger-than-life figure and de Cleyre had already died at a relatively young age (in 1912) by the time Wolff’s poem was published.

Wolff taught art to children at the Modern School—an institution established by followers of the radical educator Francisco Ferrer (who was himself executed by the Spanish state in 1909)—and was arrested several times for his participation in left-wing demonstrations. His own daughter (for whom the poem was written) reportedly appealed to him at one such demonstration: “Please, papa, mamma wants you to smile and not be so angry.”

Wolff’s poem nicely captures his admiration of radical women. It attempts to draw a clear political lineage from the deuterocanonical Book of Judith—whose eponymous heroine assassinates a tyrannical general—and Joan of Arc to modern political radicals like Louise Michel—a prominent figure in the Paris Commune—as well as the two aforementioned American anarchists.

It’s obviously not a great poem, but I think it has a certain charm. It distills the hopes and dreams that attend the arrival of any newborn child and fuses them with high-minded political goals. Considering Wolff’s later tranformation, during WWI, from radical to “upright American citizen,” it also bears an ironic nostalgia for idealism abandoned. 

Sources:

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The Morning Telegraph, January 31, 1915

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