Swans Commentary » swans.com July 1, 2013  



Pauline And Percy
An Astonishing Story


by Gilles d'Aymery


Book Review



Masks of Anarchy: The Story of a Radical Poem from Percy Shelley to the Triangle Factory Fire, by Michael Demson, illustrated by Summer McClinton, foreword by Paul Buhle; Verso Books, July 2013, ISBN-13: 978-1-78168-098-8, paperback, 128 pages.


"Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number—
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which, in sleep had fallen on you—
Ye are many—they are few."

—Percy B. Shelley (1792-1822), (Masks of Anarchy).


(Swans - July 1, 2013)   Lampedusa, Palermo, in Sicily, the "ghetto" in Apulia, also known as "New Mogadishu," 15 km from Foggia... They come from Liberia, Guinea, Sudan, Tunisia, Libya, and many other poor countries south of the Mediterranean. Many die during the perilous 70-mile sea journey as they are smuggled from North Africa to Lampedusa. They are called migrants, poverty immigrants, or "refugees." They become slave workers in farming and construction, living in slums, until the economy turns sour. Then, they are provided with a three-month permit to travel within the European Union. They move from one country to another -- France, Germany, etc. -- and eventually get deported back to Italy. They have no union to help them. Governments' coffers are empty. Nationalist and populist parties, which are on the ascendance all over Europe, use them as scapegoats for all the ills the continent is facing. They are the modern wretched of the world. They can be found everywhere. In the USA, they too are now dark skinned and come from the south. Ofttimes it's forgotten that nation builders were first and foremost migrants, willing to risk their lives to advance their well being and that of their neighbors and fellows. Freedom certainly they wanted, but freedom of want, freedom of poverty and misery, freedom of slavery...a perpetual search for equality and justice. America, in her early days, epitomized a nation of migrants -- mostly white European migrants...or black slaves.

In the new era of industrialism in the 18th and 19th centuries the country needed laborers, as many and as cheaply as possible. It opened the gates to immigration. Europe was war ravaged, economically devastated, and politically ossified, with growing revolutionary movements violently repressed. America had become the last best hope for the poor and disenfranchised. Masses emigrated from myriad countries over decades, reaching Coney Island, forgetting their old life, if not their culture, and starting from scratch. However, once left to their own, they naturally tended to gather among their own -- hence the Irish, German, Italian, Jewish American, etc. In doing so they quickly learned the advantages of being united -- quite a few were politically educated -- as it did not take long for them to figure out that the bosses controlled the law, the constables, the army, and the politicians. They were pawns, free to be used and abused. They organized. Against exploitation and violence they reciprocated with solidarity, love...and poetry.

In Masks of Anarchy, Michael Demson offers a stunning yet nuanced story about one of the most romantic radical poems written in the early 19th century by Percy Shelley and the inspiration the poem had almost a century later on a labor organizer named Pauline Newman. In collaboration with talented illustrator Summer McClinton this short graphic novel reaches deep within one's sense of humanness.

An assistant professor of English literature at Sam Houston State University in Texas, Michael Demson specializes in English romanticism. He wrote his dissertation on Shelley and learned about Newman through the work of Howard Zinn. Summer McClinton is well acquainted with Paul Buhle, with whom she worked on The Beats: A Graphic History. Pauline Newman was a Lithuanian Jew who immigrated to the U.S. when she was about 10. She was given her American name and forgot forever her birth one. Paul Buhle may be the non-Jewish foremost expert in early Jewish-American history and a huge promoter and supporter of comic art. This is a small world, indeed. Paul contributed the foreword to the book and much advice and encouragement to the author.

But the author must be highly commended. Only a sensitive, perhaps a true romantic, could put the story of Pauline and Percy together. A young poet who had been shunned by his peers in England for not championing the status quo of the elite, who was a rebel and a renegade, advocating justice and non-violence, eventually forced to migrate to Italy, drowning in Sardinia before his 30th birthday with John Keats's poems still hanging in his pocket. A young woman who learned to read Yiddish and Hebrew in The Forward, struggled and suffered in the garment industry, but never lost hope of betterment. She was a woman, an icon in the labor movement, an avowed same-sex companion, a life-long socialist, who eventually reached the highest echelon of political society with Percy's verses in her mind.

Michael Demson has weaved an extraordinary humane story. Of one who can write in his acknowledgments: "Whatever is good in the book I owe to others, whatever its faults, they are mine entirely," it can only be said:

A book to read—an author to reckon—an inspiration to follow.


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published July 1, 2013