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Student Activism in the 1930s
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SLID Essays (Summer, 1935)


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    Autobiography of Ernestine Friedl

    Cleveland, Western Reserve University

  1. From what I have gathered through conversation, I am probably one of the most bourgeois members of the summer school, greatly to my chagrin. I have never held what one would call a real job, and have been active in the radical movement only in its more superficial aspects.

  2. The most bourgeois thing about me is probably my family, into which I was born some twenty years ago, and about which I can do little at this stage of the game. My father came to this country as a very young man. His background was middle class. He had studied law in Europe, was also connected with the Hungarian Consular service. However, he decided to become a citizen, so left this position and went into business. He has been a businessman ever since, almost entirely in an executive capacity with several large corporations, and also in his own business. My mother was born in New York and has never had any occupation but that of housewife. Her parents are petit bourgeois, who have always managed to have some small business of their own, although they could never by any stretch of the imagination be called capitalists. My two sisters do secretarial work, my brother is a traveling salesman.

  3. Thus I am the only radical in the family, not only by conviction, but also by temperament. My father approves of Socialism in the abstract. And even votes for Thomas, but frankly cannot visualize his place in a cooperative commonwealth, it is very doubtful of its ultimate achievement. I am considered childish, headstrong, and impractical for my radical tendencies, but when it looked as if I night be expelled from college for my activities, my parents backed me up and didn't even suggest that I give in- so the problem of parental pressure is not an insurerable[?] one for me.

  4. So much for my family. As a matter of fact, their liberal tendencies in other directions besides politics were indirectly responsible for my conversion to the cause. This process began with my entrance into the Ethical Culture School, when I was nine years old. There I came under the influence of several liberal teachers (my friend and classmate Lionel Florent has mentioned some of them in his autobiography) who preached a sort of Utopian Socialism based on brotherly love, which, converted into practical terms, amounted to a belief in social ownership of public utilities. There was also a strong pacifistic sentiment which held a great appeal for me at the time. I also came under the influence of a remarkably brilliant and precocious boy who at the age of eleven was already reading, and understanding, the Communist Manifesto and other radical classics, and explaining them to me. From that time on I considered myself a Socialist, although I had only a smattering of theory to back up my emotional convictions.

  5. When I was fourteen my family moved to Cleveland, where I finished my preparatory schooling in the public high-school. This necessitated a definite social readjustment which I made not too quickly. From an isolated and exclusive group of intellectuals I was plunged into a group that comprised slices from all sections of the community. This at first served to make me class conscious in the wrong direction, but eventually proved a factor in driving me left. I came to realize that "the masses" were not two words on a printed page, but a very imminent reality.

  6. When I graduated from high school I entered the women's college of Western Reserve University in Cleveland. After my first year there, during which my chief activity consisted in writing a very bad novel, I was introduced to the work of the L.I.D. by friends (not in college). I joined at that time, and have been a member ever since. At that tine there was no separate student organization in Cleveland. The group with which I met was a hodge-podge of students, professors, businessmen, housewives, and sympathizers from various liberal organizations. During a whole year the only activity we engaged in was the support of the lecture series. Although various attempts at city and regional conferences were made, nothing ever grew out of them. After about a year and a half the group disintegrated completely, and while I retained my membership, I did nothing but read the pamphlets I received.

  7. Meanwhile I had become progressively more radical, mostly as a result of the general trend of the times, and through conversations with other people, as well as unorganized reading. I gradually came to understand my own position, and this past year, during an excellent course in Russian Ideology and the background and development of the revolutionary movement. During the past year I have gone rapidly left, so much so that I don t know quite where I belong at the moment—somewhere between the Socialist and Communist parties, I think.

  8. What hastened this procedure was a visit from Monroe Sweetland in March of this year, which resulted in our forming an L.I.D. chapter at college. I took almost all of the responsibility for this, and for our part in the Student Strike, which was our main activity of the season. It was while organizing and fighting in the strike that I realized definitely, once and for all, that the revolution had got me and wasn't likely to let go. Almost immediately after, I graduated from college and was free to plan for the future.

  9. Since I was twelve years old I have been writing. During the past couple of years I have realized that one of the many things wrong with my work was that it had absolutely no significance, in any real meaning of the word, for anyone but myself. At the same time I became greatly interested in the revolutionary theater, not only in writing for it, but in working in it in various other capacities. I realized, however, that I had neither the technical nor the ideological background to write really good radical plays. I took some courses in Play Production, Theatre Technique, Theories of Direction (including a study of the Russian theater. But I still had no concrete knowledge of the material with which the revolutionary theater works.

  10. This, perhaps, was what determined my coming to the summer school. I hoped to get some understanding of what the radical movement really means, especially in the labor field, and also of what the problems and needs of the radical theater groups and their audiences are.

  11. After summer school I hope to be able to get some kind of a job in New York, in order to be near the scene of theatrical action, and able to avail myself of some of the excellent courses given by the New Theater League and other groups, with some of which I might be able to work in the evenings. If I have to go back to Cleveland I shall work at something there, and concentrate on a group with which I am already affiliated, which is attempting to build a radical theatre.



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