By Peter Linebaugh
December 16th, 2022
One evening in May of last year I was walking with some friends along Washington Square, the central piazza of San Francisco’s North Beach, when ahead sitting comfortably on a park bench was a fit, white-haired gentle man as relaxed as if for all the world a) he was rooted there and b) that he was knowing something, a secret. And so it was. Joe Matthews joined us for dinner at the corner of the square (in the same building was it?) where the Gruppo Anarchico Volontá used to meet back in the day. Its story is recounted in Joe’s novel, The Blast.
It’s a hard-boiled story, a yarn worthy of Dashiell Hammet or Chester Himes. Its prose is as down and savvy as Rachel Kushner or Jonah Raskin, as brilliantly local as Rebecca Solnit or Chris Carlsson. Like any hard-boiled American story this is a story of class struggle, no holds barred. The blast in question was a bomb exploded at the San Francisco Preparedness Parade of 1916. The bombers had met here at this restaurant.
Alexander Berkman came to SF in January 1916 after finishing a fourteen year bid in the state penitentiary for having attempted to assassinate Henry Clay Frick of Carnegie Steel in 1892. Politicos justified it as propaganda-by-the-deed while anarchist political science deemed it an attentat. As soon as he arrived free in San Francisco, Berkman began publishing the semi-monthly magazine, The Blast, from which Matthews takes his title.
It’s first issue said, “To destroy the Old and the False is the most vital work. We emphasize it: to blast the bulwarks of slavery and oppression is of primal necessity. It is the beginning of really lasting construction.” In June 1917 eighteen months later it was shut down with concluding words, “Conscription is the abdication of your rights as a citizen. Conscription is the cemetery where every vestige of your liberty is to be buried. Registration is its undertaker.” Between these dates ten people were killed and forty wounded in the San Francisco Preparedness Day bombing for which two labor leaders were found guilty, Tom Mooney sentenced to death and Warren Billings sentenced to life behind bars. This is the central event of the novel.
America went to war joining the world contest of empires by empires for empire. Eventually seventeen million people died world-wide in that imperialist slaughter including more than a hundred thousand Americans. Just as Berkman’s semi-monthly, The Blast, had opposed the war and defended the injustices against Moony and Billings who were innocent of the bombing, so Joe Matthew’s novel with the same name, The Blast, tells a story of the Preparedness Day bombing in San Francisco. Was it hatched at the restaurant where we so pleasantly were dining?
The novel is thus set in the belly of the beast to use José Marti’s expression in fighting for Cuban independence. Against the militarist beast of US imperialism is set another political landscape, Mexico, a landscape of revolutionary hope. The Mexico of Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata are present in the novel in the same sense as the “territory” is present in Huckleberry Finn, a place where the Irish American Huck might light out to, where empire does not yet prevail.
It is no longer difficult to understand how Mexico was the realistic center for a new humanity since published in the same year as Joe Matthew’s The Blast is a magnificent book radiant with the freedom story, Arise!, by Christina Heatherton, whose subtitle helps provide its the historical theme, Global Radicalism in the Era of the Mexican Revolution. Her book, like his, is a story of those who make the world, the working class. Brilliant conceits structure Arise!: making a flag, making a map, making a university, making a living, making a dress, making history, and making love. The Blast takes a closer look at the bourgeoisie, those making trouble.
The novel’s first words are “Those hands.” Kate Carey is the widow to a veteran of the American war in the Philippines, who died owing to “Disordered Action of the Heart,” as the army doctors put it. He was a surgeon. She thinks about his hands as she runs her fingers across the velvet upholstery in her first-class railway carriage carrying her from Boston to San Francisco.
The Blast is teeming with hands. “Workers of the hand or the brain” is how the first socialist International put it. Here are lumber and wood workers of the Mission, the porters with their handcarts, the Sicilians in their felucca fishing boats, the white flat caps of the longshoremen, the drivers and conductors of the trolley cars, the thick forearms of the iron molders, the jitney drivers, the sailors, the communal truck farmers, the super-exploited women of the canneries, the Irish rail workers, the gentle touch of the physician and the fighting fists of the boxer. Needless to say the working men and women in this book are much more than hands for the bosses.
For one thing they are cooks meeting at the Barleycorn Vegetarian Café and for another they are brains knowing another world is possible. They also meet in the shadow of the cathedral hovering over Washington Square like an omen of death as I felt when we dined in the restaurant there last May. They argued in an on-going disputa. Some from Turin, others from Genoa, our protagonist, Blue Cavanaugh, from Sicily, and a fierce conflict about how to cook, even whether to cook clams with parmesan cheese. With garlic, fresh linguini, parsley, and deep green olive oil at hand they also continued the discussion of strategy and tactics of the class war. Multiple positions or tendencies were present from the Wobblies to the anarcho-syndicalists, from activists in craft unions to hard-core antiorganizzatori.
They were experienced meeting as men and women in fights for birth control, against police repression, for free speech, as well as for “pork chops” as the Wobblies might say, more wages and fewer hours. Nor did these workers overlook ‘the good old wooden shoe,’ the sabots, which gives us ‘sabotage,’ as only a few years earlier the power lines of Pacific Gas and Electric were dynamited. These discussions provide the cultural and ideological landscape every bit as important as the streets, squares, and neighborhoods of the city.
While ideas are present, this is not a novel of ideas. It is an historical novel which portrays plenty of real characters besides Mooney and Billings. There is the English feminist Emmeline Pankhurst, the San Francisco art patron Alma Spreckels, Luigi Galleani, the anarchist of direct action, and Woodrow Wilson’s Secretary of State, Robert Lansing, founder of the Bureau of Secret Intelligence. The fictional characters are entirely plausible as lives affected by trauma, romance, disappointment, and dreams. They are subject to forces outside their control.
Kate Carey arrives in Oakland and is spotted by Blue Cavanaugh on the ferry to San Francisco. Wary words are exchanged. On a stair case or the sidewalk they will seem to be always coming and going and never quite hitting it off or crossing their class divisions. Her purpose on behalf of the State Department is to assess San Francisco’s preparedness for war; his is to return home to the North Beach having fought (he’s a prize-fighter) and bummed his way across the country. He lost his brother in the Philippines. He’s also a skilled demolitionist (his drunken father’s trade) as well as a class conscious feminist having worked in Dublin with the transport unions and then in London with the East End feminists where his skills with explosives excited possibilities.
Kate has a child, a daughter named Maggie, who’s a painter and finds work in a dance hall on the infamous Barbary Coast. These are three characters introduced in the first chapter. We follow them with mounting interest in the next thirty chapters. Will Blue and Kate find romance? Will Kate find Maggie and re-unite? These characters all suffer a loneliness from deep hurt. It’s a hurt of imperialism, perhaps what Alice and Staughton Lynd call “a moral injury.” What it is and how it arose is only gradually revealed. It can shatter a person. And it did too, to the father of Maggie, the former husband of Kate who was consequently widowed.
The secret and full diagnosis of the “Disordered Action of the Heart,” is rendered by a former teacher in the Philippines, Macario Bonifacio, called the Professor. This is how empire appears in this novel: not only as terrorist incident in San Francisco against war but as hope among liberation fighters in Mexico, or it appears as torture in the Philippines where truth is told and secrets revealed. The truth teller in San Francisco is Elijah, an Afro-American sparring partner of Blue. These are figures in an anti-imperialist coalition, a many-headed hydra you might say, of indigenous revolutionaries from settler colonial regimes with descendants of racial slavery, allied against empire in truth if not yet with power “to blast the bulwarks of slavery and oppression.”
So in conclusion, let us have a merry, merry … Liberation, and offer gifts, Arise! and The Blast.
Peter Linebaugh is the author of The London Hanged, The Many-Headed Hydra: the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (with Marcus Rediker) and Magna Carta Manifesto. Linebaugh’s latest book is Red Round Globe Hot Burning. He can be reached at: [email protected]