Little is now known about Almeda Sperry; the Boston University library which holds her letters furnishes no biographical information. What is known of Sperry comes from an examination of her letters by the present author, and by Alix Kates Shulman, who discovered them while researching the life of Emma Goldman.
Sperry's letters indicate that she was born on July 13, 1879, and so was thirtythree when she wrote, in 1912, from New Kensington, Pennsylvania, where she was then living.
Sperry told Goldman that she worked to get the streets paved, to have lectures on sex delivered to students at a nearby school, and to establish a socialist reading room.
By 1912, she had become an anarchist, had been involved in union organizing, and occasionally wrote for radical newspapers. As a child, her parents beat her to force her to go to church, which made her hate that institution and all religious hypocrisy.
At the time of these letters she had a drinking problem, and she called herself an alcoholic.
She was full of contradictions, some of which, along with poverty, may have led to the physical ills of which she often complains. She had been a prostitute at the age of twenty-one, and continued occasionally to sell herself "for mercenary reasons"--an act which she calls "most horrible" and "appalling." At the same time she was pained by her friend Florence's "vulgar" language and tried to reform her; her husband Fred's "Iacivious" taunts, she says, "Iacerate" her "sou!." She was an eloquent and angry feminist, seeing men as sex-obsessed poseurs; at the same time she was emotionally tied to her husband Fred.
Sperry was not afraid to express her passionate love for Emma Goldman, and seems to have suffered little or no guilt over her clearly erotic fantasies about her friend.
These letters suggest that some kind of active sexual relationship did occur between the two women. There is also no doubt about the character and intensity of Sperry's feelings, so strongly and unambiguously expressed. The letters indicate that Goldman returned Sperry's affection, though with less passion and desperate need than Sperry felt.
In one undated, and atypically puritanical statement, Sperry tells Goldman:
- Never mind about not feeling as I do. I find restraint to be purifying. Realization is hell for it is satisfying and degenerating.
In another undated letter Sperry writes to Goldman:
- God how I dream of you! You say that you would like to have me near you always if you were a man, or if you felt as I do. Dearest, I would not if I could. I would soon die.... the thought of distance adds to my terrible pain--so pleasurable. I want no calm friendships. The thoughts of annihilation used to appeal to me. Today they do not. ...
The letters do suggest that Goldman in her personal relations with Sperry had come close to that tabooed homosexual activity which she early and publicly defended in lectures, to the chagrin of even her unconventional anarchist comrades. The writings of Goldman, Alexander Berkman, and Almeda Sperry suggest that at least some American anarchists were, at an early date, more than usually tolerant and open-minded about homosexuality.
Sperry's letters to Goldman refer unself-consciously to Sperry's sexual attraction to both women and men; some letters simultaneously express sexual longing for Goldman and for a specific male. Both Sperry and Goldman attempted to live out in their own lives the kind of nonpossessive, nonmonogamous relations that their anarchist ideals led them to uphold in theory. This was difficult for Sperry: these letters show her struggling with intense jealousy-at Goldman's devotion to the anarchist cause, which Sperry experienced as a personal rival for Goldman's time and affections.
In these letters, Sperry writes with a directness, simplicity, and depth of feeling which at times transforms these documents into a kind of prose poetry, allowing us to enter readily into the intimate life of this vitally alive, struggling woman. If in reading these private letters we sometimes feel intruders, we should remember that Emma Goldman saved this correspondence, at some point returned it to Sperry, who herself preserved it. In one undated letter, Sperry tells Goldman:
- I have shown you the secret places of my soul thinking if I did so without any reservation that it would help the cause along. I would not care if you told my story to the public or even use my name from the platform.
Sperry, one would think, would approve the present use of her letters, even quite enjoy it.
Writing in 1912, Sperry imbued her letters with a spirited, personal, deeply felt socialist-anarchist-feminist consciousness, which gives this correspondence a lively, contemporary sound. As Sperry said of herself, "I aint dead yet and I aint done for, either."