Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Radical Electrician, the Socialist Shoemaker, and Esperanto

So, who's the ignoramus?
There seems to be little press attention on the arrest of John A. Bienjavsky, or indeed little attention to Mr. Bienjavsky at all. The Butte Daily Bulletin reported on February 14, 1920 that Mr. Bienjavsky had been arrested in Seattle by the “radical squad,” and that he was in possession of “a trunk load of books on electricity and radio energy, a dictionary in three languages, a collection of essays in English, Russian and Japanese, and much radical literature.” (Although the Daily Bulletin simply marks the arrest as “Wednesday,” which would imply the prior Wednesday, February 11, the Seattle Times reported on the arrest on January 29, a Thursday. Mr. Bienjavsky was arrested on Wednesday, January 28, 1920.)

Mr. Bienjavsky worked as a wireman (that is, an electrician) for the Tacoma line of the Tacoma Railway and Power Company which explains the books on electricity and radio, but maybe the not the “radical literature.” The Daily Bulletin reported that Mr. Bienjavsky was “thought to have been a university professor.” He was born in Russia in 1875, making him forty-four at the time of his arrest. The Daily Bulletin was a socialist newspaper; its masthead bore the words “We Preach the Class Struggle in the Interests of the Works as a Class.”[1]

The shoemaker was Clinton L. Williams, of Butte, Montana. He was somewhat older than Mr. Bienjavsky, as he had been born in New York in 1859. He seems to have married a widow in about 1900 and worked in Denver, Colorado as an optician. In 1910, he, his wife, and their two sons lived in South Dakota. He was operating a farm. In 1920, he’s a shoemaker in Butte, Montana. He’s living alone, and the entry for marital status has the race of an “M,” and below that it probably says “Separ.” In 1930, he’s married, but lists 40 as the age of his first marriage (which puts that first marriage in about 1899 or 1900).

Mr. Williams was also active in the Esperanto movement from about 1916 onward. It was through the Esperanto movement that the electrician and the shoemaker connected. The January 1916 Amerika Esperantisto has this to say about Mr. Williams’s group:
Butte, Mont. En la urbo Butte, oni trovas la “Silver Bow Esperanta Rondo” fondita de S-ro C. L. Williams, kaj atestita de E.A.N.A. Ili presigis kaj disdonas flugfoliojn proagandajn laŭ la stilo de “ekspozicia flugfolio” kaj entuziasme propagandas la afteron.

[Butte, Mont. In the town of Butte, one find the “Silver Bow Esperanto Circle” founded by Mr. C. L. Williams, and certified by EANA. They print and distribute propaganda flyers in the style of “exposition flyers” and enthusiastically promote the affair.]
The group also used the purely Esperanto name “Arĝentarka Esperanta Rondo,” and they met at Mr. Williams’s home, 311 E. Mercury Street, Butte, Montana at 8 p.m. Fridays, although he was listed as secretary of the organization. While I was able to find plenty about Mr. Williams, he was one of the few sources on Mr. Bienjavsky. He wrote a letter in support of Mr. Bienjavsky, which was published in the February 18, 1920 Butte Daily Bulletin.
Editor Bulletin:
Butte, Montana, Feb. 14.—In today’s issue of the Bulletin I notice from a clipping from The Forge of Seattle that—John A. Bienjavsky has been arrested. The article states that he only speaks English, Russian, French, Japanese and a few other languages.

J. A. Bienjavsky has been one of my correspondents in Esperanto continuously since the spring of 1916; and although I have never met him, you see that I must be somewhat acquainted with him.

He translated Maxim Gorky’s “One of the Kings of a Republic”[2] from the Russian into Esperanto and sent the translation to me to read with the request that I retranslate it into English and publish it. I could not spare time to do so.

When he writes me a letter it contains from 10 to 35 pages in a section, and often with a second section following. Every word that his letters contain are either of history or philosophy. He is a thorough student; and did he possess a typewriter instead of a pen, his letters would be more pleasing than any of the books one can obtain at the public libraries.
I remember a witticism by George Bernard Shaw from his days working at a newspaper. He noted that letters from madmen always exceeded four pages, though he was unwilling to assume that anyone who wrote a letter of more than four pages was mad. Clearly if Mr. Bienjavsky were alive today, he’s be keeping a blog.
Besides the language above cited he is s student of Sanskrit, Bengalese, Syrian, Turkish, Chinese and Esperanto, the language that should unite the world in one common speech. He does not claim to understand German however, he has often quoted the sayings of the German philosophers to me, and always in the language in which they wrote them, but followed with an Esperanto translation.[3]
By “one common speech,” if following the ideals of the Esperanto movement, Mr. Williams means as an auxiliary to existing languages, not their replacement. That way, the English speaker and the French speaker communicate with each other in Esperanto, but in their native tongues with those who share it.
The electrical books found in his trunk belong to his work, for he is an electrician.
No mystery there.
And he is a radical; too radical to be a political socialist, too radical for an I. W. W., too radical for either the Communist or the Communist Labor party, too radical for an American Bolshevik or an Anarchist.[4]

According to his opinion all these movements are the work of well-meaning radicals, all contain varying degrees of truth and error; but lacking that international solidarity which can only be the result of a thorough understand among all the producers of the world, the result of one common language that all the world might quickly learn.
Mr. Bienjavsky would have agreed with John M. Work on the need for Esperanto as the common language of the socialist movement. If you’re a socialist who doesn’t speak Esperanto, you’ve already failed in your mission. Mr. Williams uses this as a moment to promote Esperanto, slipping in one of his “flugfoliojn proagandajn” into his letter (which has a completely separate purpose in mind).
Just use your ingenuity on the following sentences in Esperanto and see if you can decipher their meaning in just a few minutes:

“Esperanto prezentas la solan prakitkan solvon de la demando de interncia lingvo. Intelligent persono lernas la lingvon rapide.”[5]

Not overyone can follow Bienjavsky and learn all the languages that he can read, write, and speak; but every “intelligent person” can easily learn a language that has as its roots from which its words are formed those latin roots that have already become international, that are used in all European languages with but a slight difference in pronunciation.[6]

A perfect understanding of each other’s speech and meaning is Bienjavsky’s “hobby.” So he is superlatively dangerous to the “powers of darkness,” to them “that love darkness rather than light;” for they must set race against race, nation against nation. Keep the craft unions quarreling in jurisdictional fights, keep the immigrants from different nations at loggerheads in America, keep up international strife in Europe and Asia, and capitalism has a new lease of life; let us all understand each other, and capitalism has already ceased to be.
It’s not just Mr. Bienjavsky who thinks that to be a real socialist (or communist, or whatever) you have to know Esperanto, for we have Mr. Williams enthusiastically coming to that point. While it might be tempting to blame an insidious conspiracy of the oppressor for why Esperanto failed to come into common use, we’re back to the territory of George Bernard Shaw and long letters. I’m cynical enough to think that widespread adoption of Esperanto might lead to more arguments in Esperanto, but probably not more peace. The unions squabbling over jurisdictions probably were squabbling in native English over which areas and which trades they could organize. Mr. Williams had one last request:
Seattle readers of the Bulletin: You are near him. Can you not help to set him at liberty? If he is deported we of Usono (The United States of North America) will be losers not only in the man deported; but it will be another victory of the burrowing moles of a capitalistic tyranny.
La Esperantisto,
311 E. Mercury street.

I suspect that I cannot find much more on Mr. Bienjavsky was because he probably was deported (the FBI did investigate him). Perhaps Mr. Williams should have put his request for action first, rather than hoping that a Seattle reader of a Montana newspaper might read through the whole thing and get to his plea for assistance for his friend. The Daily Bulletin headed the column with the words “An ‘Ignoramus,’” but it’s not clear if they were referring to Mr. Bienjavsky, Mr. Williams, or the writer or subject of the following letter.

  1. I am still amazed at just how widespread the socialist press was in the early twentieth century. This is the sort of thing that just gets swept under the rug in high-school history. For that matter, it’s clear that any historian studying the socialist movements of the turn of the twentieth century would be well advised to study Esperanto.  ↩
  2. Maxim Gorky’s literary career started in 1892 and continued until his death in 1936. Surely in 1920, his work would still have been in copyright, although I don’t know what the status of Russian works would have been in the United States. If Mr. Williams could have asserted copyright of an English translation (from the Esperanto) of Gorky’s work, it seems rather unfair to Mr. Gorky.  ↩
  3. If Mr. Bienjavsky didn’t speak German, how did he know he was quoting the right passage? For that matter, would Mr. Williams know if he got it wrong?  ↩
  4. No matter how far left you may be, Mr. Bienjavsky considers you a counter-revolutionary reactionary. You conservative, you.  ↩
  5. Did you try? I mean, I can translate it for you, but you should only read this to make certain you got your own attempt at translation right.  ↩
    Esperanto presents the only practical solution to the question of an international language. An intelligent person learns the language rapidly.
  6. While this describes certain words in Esperanto, not all words are formed that way. It’s true of the “international words” (typically from science), but plenty of Esperanto words aren’t from Latin at all.  ↩

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