Lola Ridge: Biography
Although Lola Ridge is relatively unknown to contemporary readers, she was a well-known poet and advocate of immigrants and the working class during the first half of the twentieth century. She wrote five books of poetry, edited for avant-garde magazines Others and Broom, and from 1908 through 1937 published at least sixty-one poems in magazines such as Poetry, New Republic, and The Saturday Review of Literature. Her first book, The Ghetto and Other Poems, was well received, and her poems appeared in anthologies edited by the respected William Rose Benét and Louis Untermeyer. Her obituary in The Publishers' Weekly characterized her as "one of America's leading poets," and that in the Wilson Library Bulletin stated that she was "one of the most completely sensitive of American poets" and "For her long poem called The Ghetto she was considered the 'discovery' of the year 1918."
Ridge eminently qualifies as "a poet of the people" because she was an immigrant who grew up in economically poor but ethnically diverse circumstances. Rose Emily Ridge, who preferred to be called Lola, was born in Dublin, Ireland on December 12, 1873, and with her mother, later lived in New Zealand and Australia where she spent her formative years. William Drake reports that after they resettled, her mother remarried, this time to an impassioned Scottish miner who recited Shakespeare and became violent when he was inebriated. According to Ridge, the family lived in a "three-roomed shack," the furniture of which her stepfather destroyed during his occasional "raging drunken sprees." In 1895, while living in New Zealand, Ridge married a manager of a gold mine, and after this relationship proved unsatisfactory, she immigrated to the United States when she was thirty-four and eventually settled in New York City (The First Wave 187-89). Ridge supported herself by working as a model, an illustrator, and a factory worker, and she attended political meetings of the Ferrer Association where she met her second husband, David Lawson, whom she married in 1919.
Ridge rejected the notion that women could not fully participate in politics. In "Woman and the Creative Will" (1919), she argues for women's creativity by rejecting arguments of biological essentialism and then exposing how socially constructed gender roles hinder female development. Ridge's poetry and political activities testify to the actualizing of female potential. Her first long poem, "The Ghetto," was originally published in The New Republic in 1918 and later reprinted in The Ghetto and Other Poems that same year. "The Ghetto," "Manhattan Lights," and "Labor" are a trilogy of long poems in this volume that champion immigrants by countering "American" prejudice and garnering support for these victims of industrial development. As David M. Fine argues in The City, The Immigrant and American Fiction, 1880-1920, immigrants from Southeastern Europe (i.e., Russians, Polish, Hungarians, and Italians) were the targets of American xenophobia because they were viewed as racially and culturally inferior to their predecessors from northern and western Europe and as mercenaries who "had no desire to become good citizens" (1). "The Ghetto" is a tour de force about identity that counters these stereotypes by portraying the Jewish community of Hester Street (New York City) that is in transition largely due to intergenerational conflicts and changing gender roles. This community is not a monolithic one amenable to simple categories, but a congerie of groups with different agendas and responses to their American surroundings. As Ridge captures this fluidity, she avoids the pratfalls of portraying marginal people--using unfavorable ethnic stereotypes or absorbing "the outsider" into structures of the dominant group. She eliminates the meddling Jewish mother and greedy sweater or middle man who exploited other Jews, and she shows that Jewish identity is a range of Jewish identities consistent with American mores or a common human nature. Therefore, Ridge enables her characters to retain their strains of "Jewishness" while embracing America and gaining the respect of "Americans" who would wall them out.
The female gender role is a case in point. In rejecting domesticity, some women embrace a more flexible role predating Jewish immigration to the United States. Thus, Sadie reads political works and then, as a self-reliant political activist, speaks in public and fires up the crowd. Her independence is echoed by the unconventional Sarah who, in her non-working hours, learns English and claims a privilege of traditional Jewish males by educating herself. As these women establish their identities within a more flexible Jewish tradition, their actions are consistent with an American, female self-determination registered in the suffrage movement. Hence, an evolving female gender role within Jewish culture counters anti-semitism by establishing a common ground between Jews and Americans, but without compromising Jewish identity. Ridge also destabilizes ethnic prejudice with characters who draw readers into their cultural space. For example, poem III focuses on a Jewish girl who is so frightened by a parade on Hester Street that she seeks protection in the darkness. Although the narrator attempts to assuage her fear, she fails because the child cannot differentiate the parade from a pogrom, an organized massacre, that she has experienced. The narrator's continuing concern for the child plays on the readers' sympathy so that they can move beyond the distinction of we are Americans and they are Jews. Readers grasp the child's difference, her ethnicity, and a human characteristic, a sameness, that ties her to non-Jewish children--fear. By grasping this point, they can cease seeing immigrants as outsiders on American soil. The two concluding poems of "The Ghetto" emphasize this shared humanity as spirited immigrants dream of broadly defined actions ("Wars, arts, discoveries, rebellions, travails, immolations, cataclysms, hates . . .") experience specific ones (e.g., being lovers), and manifesting the life force that is in all human beings through their daily actions (e.g., laughing or arguing in a meeting).
Although "The Ghetto" persuades in favor of new immigrants, it has even greater social significance by preparing readers to grasp the ill effects of capitalistic industrialization on this group. Because immigrants comprised large numbers of the urban poor and the labor class, they experienced the squalor of rapid urban development and horrendous working conditions in low paying jobs. "Manhattan Lights" is a transitional poem that exposes some of these conditions, and its criticism, which is more muted than that in "Labor," prepares for the vitriol in that later poem. "Manhattan Lights" focuses on the socio-economic gap between the wealthy and poor classes, and it portends the future of admirable immigrants if this inequity is not eliminated. Both classes are delineated through the metaphor of light and then by stereotypes of superficial upper class people insulated from the urban poor. The wealthy class celebrates at a gathering or its finely dressed women display their conspicuous consumption by walking in public places and then departing in limousines. The less fortunate, however, live in parks and wrap themselves in newspaper to keep warm, and if they live in tenements, they remain poor and the women are trapped because romantic love results in unwanted pregnancies ensuring the perpetuation of poverty.
"Labor," in turn, argues that high art and transcendental religion, by embracing aesthetics and ignoring social issues, are complicit in sustaining a social and economic hierarchy. Ridge also revisions this nexus by creating a working class community that has the support of liberty, art, and religion even when labor uses violence and destruction to accomplish its goals. In "Dedication," the Statue of Liberty is a metaphorical maternal figure who claims these people as her children, pledges them her strength and hope, and vows to fight with them. "The Song of Iron" conflates art and religion by putting poetry at the service of a deified labor and by portraying the poet as metaphorically melded into an object used to manufacture iron or as God's faithful handmaiden, the Virgin Mary. Thus "Labor" probes the cultural underpinnings of an American class structure and provides for the necessity of using violence, if economic change is not forthcoming.
The success of "The Ghetto" and The Ghetto and Other Poems launched Ridge's career. She also wrote Sun-up and Other Poems (1920), which includes her childhood reflections, and a volume of political and personal poetry, Red Flag (1927). As an activist, Ridge was arrested for protesting the execution of anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti in 1927. In 1932 Ridge used her poetry to support labor leader, Tom Mooney, who, along with Warren Billings, had been framed for a 1916 bombing that killed ten people during the Preparedness Day Parade in San Francisco. Because Mooney and Billings were sentenced to life in prison, Ridge published "Stone Face" in the Nation and thereby joined other leftists in supporting them well into the 1930s. Although Ridge was in poor health, she continued writing, and in her later works, Firehead (1929) and Dance of Fire (1935), became more philosophical.
Compared to her earlier works which contain poems of varying length (some of them very short), Firehead is a prose poem of over two-hundred pages in which lines sprawl across and down pages in their entirety. Firehead, a radical retelling of Jesus' crucifixion, is divided into nine sections portraying this event from the perspective of different characters: Jesus; his disciples Peter, John and Judas; Mary the mother of Jesus and Mary Magdalene the harlot; the disciple Thaddeus and his parents Myrenne and Sargon; and Tiro, the craftsman. Ridge uses these multi-perspectives to reveal the inner lives of characters who are often fraught with problems and to explore a paradox about power. Power can manifest as misdirected energy which throws a human life out of balance (e.g., Judas' despair and insanity and Mary Magdalene's promiscuity), and it can also correct or rechannel itself in meaningful ways (e.g., Jesus' kiss represented by light forgives Judas, and his resurrection permutes Magdalene's sex drive so that she bears his "child"--the good news of his resurrection). Throughout Firehead, power (fire) is represented by symbols appropriate to the various characters (e.g., moonlight is conflated with silver for Judas and light represents Magdalene's sexual potency). Dance of Fire consists of six sections, the most important being "Via Ignis." This sonnet sequence consists of twenty-eight poems, and although it suffers from stilted and archaic language, it is still a commendable exploration of the life force. The poems concern the nature of the life force (usually symbolized by fire and occasionally water), the human experience of this power, and the impossibility of extricating manifestations of the life force from good and evil.
Before her death on May 19, 1941, Ridge produced a respectable volume of work, much of it well written, and her reviewers' comments established that she was a poet who could not be ignored. As an important figure in American literary history, she demonstrates that women poets actively participated in shaping modern America and that their concerns included, but went beyond, gender issues.
By Donna M. Allego. Information about Ridge's early life and the analysis of "The Ghetto," "Manhattan Lights," and "Labor" are excerpted from Donna M. Allego. The Construction and Role of Community in Political Long Poems by Twentieth-Century American Women Poets. Diss. Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, 1997. Ann Arbor: UMI, 1997.
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