The Ferrer School, established in 1911, became an important focus of cultural and social ferment in the years preceding the First World War. In New York City this was a period of extraordinary intellectual brilliance, in which many of the seminal ideas of the twentieth-century politics and art were being developed.
Visitors to the Center represented every shade of the radical spectrum, from pacifism to terrorism, from collectivism to individualism. Bill Shatoff exemplified the anarcho-syndicalist position. Having emigrated from Russia in 1907, when he was twenty, he was to return in 1917 to take part in the revolution. Emma Goldman notes, he “shared the life of the true proletarian and was always in the thick of the struggle for the betterment of the workers’ condition.” “Filled to the brim with the red blood of life,” one of the Center’s most dynamic personalities.
At the other end of the spectrum stood essayist Benjamin DeCasseres, part Nietzschean, part Stirnerite, all individualist, descendant of Spinoza and conjurer of the written word: “I am nihilist, anarch, Nazarene-Harlequin, inventor of masks, a vendor of poses, a fantastic who waltzes on the brink of cataclysmic mutations. My havens are horizons, a shooting star is my anchor; life is my death and the tomb is a dressing-room for my next transsubstantiation. Like the eagle’s eye, I have warred against the sun, and I have walked the Zodiaque with feet that spurned their candle-gleam, I am the anonymous tyranny of the Unknown, the Will-to-Sham, a giant of the unbegotten Light crucified here on the calvaries of apprehension.”
Another striking Ferrer Center personality is Sadakichi Hartmann. On one occasion, masquerading as a Japanese prince with an escort of costumed companions, he hoodwinked the City of New York into holding a parade down Broadway. The Road to Freedom, August 1925. “A grotesque etched in flesh by the drunken Goya of Heaven,” wrote Benjamin DeCasseres of Sadakichi. “A grinning, obscene gargoyle on the Temple of American Letters. Superman-bum. Half God, half hooligan; all artist. Anarch, sadist, Satyr. A fusion of Japanese and German, the ghastly experiment of an Occidental on the person of an Oriental. Sublime, ridiculous, impossible. A genius of the ateliers, picture studios, ginmills, and East Side lobscouse restaurants. A dancing dervish, with graceful, Gargantuan feet and a mouth like the Cloaca Maxima. A painter out of Hakusai, Manet, Whistler. Result: fantastic realism. A colossal ironiskt, a suave pessimist, a Dionysiac Wobbly. “
Besides being part of a sizable group of Ferrer Center habitues like Hippolyte Havel, John Weichel, Max Weber, Abraham Walkowitz, Samuel Halpert, William Zorach, Ben Benn, Adolf Wolff, Alfred Kryemborg, and Alfred Stieglitz both Sadakichi Hartmann and Benjamin DeCasseres wrote for Stieglitz’s Camera Work.
The Modern School might also be compared to the other New York centers of social, intellectual, and artistic revolt that flourished at the same time, mostly in Greenwich Village, America’s leading avant-garde citadel, to which Rebels from all over the country flocked with “a pathetic eagerness to participate in the celebrated joys of Bohemian life.” A better known if less exiting institution, for example, was the Rand School of Social Science, then on East 19th Street, “a center of socialistic light and learning,” with an even more comprehensive program of adult lectures and classes than its uptown anarchist counterpart. At the Hotel Brevoort gathered Emma Goldman, Alexander Berkman, Hippolyte Havel, Theodore Dreiser, and Benjamin DeCasseres, among others, to discuss social and literary topics.
There’s also a small mention of a printing teacher named Paul Scott, a former agitator and tramp, “who among thousand and other adventures,” Mike Gold tells us, “was once run out of Mexico with Benjamin DeCasseres for publishing a revolutionary labor paper Porfirio Diaz didn’t like.” (From letter to members and friends, 1935, Mohegan Archives.)
A small passage worth mentioning is about Eugene O’Neill’s relationship to anarchism. In 1907, a dropout from Princeton, O’Neill was introduced to Benjamin Tucker, America’s leading individualist anarchist, by Louis Holladay. O’Neill spent many hours in Tucker’s bookshop on Sixth Avenue, browsing in all shades of advanced thought, from Tolstoy and Kropotkin to Nietzsche and Shaw, not to mention the works of Tucker himself. On one visit he found Tucker in a state of excitement about Stirner’s Ego and His Own, which he had just published in its first English translation, and O’Neill was deeply impressed by this “variable brevity of destruction,” this “striking and dangerous book,” as James Gibbons Huneker called it. He also read Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra and later told Benjamin DeCasseres that it “has influenced me more than any book I’ve read.”