We Called Each Other Comrade: Charles H. Kerr & Company, Radical Publishers

We Called Each Other Comrade: Charles H. Kerr & Company, Radical Publishers

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Featuring a new foreword and comprehensive bibliography of all titles published by Charles H. Kerr Publishing Company, this updated record chronicles the history of the most significant translator, publisher, and distributor of left-wing literature in the United States history. These pioneers of the publishing world fought battles in court and presented unpopular ideas so that great new literary, scientific, and historical thought could be expressed and propagated. The Charles H. Kerr Publishing Company was one of the forefathers of this type of publishing house, and this book demonstrates the great works they produced ties into many of the great aspects of social movements from the 20th century up through the present day.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781604864267
Publisher: PM Press
Publication date: 07/01/2011
Edition description: Second edition
Pages: 342
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Allen Ruff is a historian and author of Save Me, Julie Kogon. Paul Buhle is a retired senior lecturer of history and American civilization at Brown University, a distinguished lecturer at the Organization of American Historians and American Studies Association, the founder of Radical America magazine and founder and former director of the Oral History of the American Left archive at New York University. He is also the 2010 recipient of the Will Eisner Award for The Art of Harvey Kurtzman. They both live in Madison, Wisconsin.

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We Called Each Other Comrade

Charles H. Kerr & Company, Radical Publishers

By Allen Ruff

PM Press

Copyright © 2011 PM Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60486-572-1


Charles H. Kerr: Early Years, Early Influences

In the prime of his life during the decade preceding World War I, Charles H. Kerr moved into the left wing of the socialist movement in the United States and aligned himself with the most radical, militant, class-conscious elements of the cause. Solidly middle class in background, highly educated and well situated, and in some ways destined for a position of comfort, a place in society regularly bestowed upon one of his background and credentials, Kerr nevertheless had long since turned toward radicalism. He had thrown in his lot with the socially disenfranchised and economically hard-pressed and sacrificed virtually everything he had to a cause that promised little in immediate return — nothing, certainly, in material terms. What caused this son of the middle class to reject that birthright of relative comfort, privilege, and prestige that could have easily been his? What compelled him to take a class stand in some ways antithetical to his own immediate interest?

Although the origins of the publisher's class-conscious radicalism lay shrouded in the past, the roots of his particular radical trajectory tapped into a longer dissenting tradition anchored deeply in the social and intellectual subsoil of nineteenth-century American culture. His early environment was certainly a key factor, and Kerr's parents also played an important role. The moral and social perspectives and the dedication to service of both Alexander and Katharine Kerr had an inestimable effect on their son.

Alexander Kerr was born at Fetter Angus near Aberdeen, Scotland, in August 1828, the son of George and Helen Legge Kerr. The third of five children, he sailed with his family from Aberdeen to Quebec in April 1835. The immigrant family first settled in Comwell, Ontario, where George Ken-carried on his tailor's trade alongside his elder brother James, an earlier émigré. In 1838 they moved by way of the Great Lakes water route to Illinois. After landing at Chicago, they made their way to Joliet, where they remained another three years. Finally, in 1841, George Kerr purchased a farm near Rockford where he and his wife spent the rest of their lives.

Alexander Kerr attended the district schools around Rockford during the winter and helped on the family farm during the summer months. In 1851 he enrolled at the Rockford Scientific and Classical Institute in preparation for Beloit College, which he entered the following year as a sophomore. Following his graduation from Beloit with highest honors in 1855, he moved to Georgia, where he taught Latin and mathematics at several small private academies.

During the Christmas holidays of 1856, Kerr returned to Rockford to marry his college sweetheart, Katharine Fuller Brown. Kate, as she was more affectionately known, was the daughter of a graduate of Amherst College, the Congregational minister Hope Brown. Born in Shirley, Massachusetts, on August 23,1832, her formal education began at the Ipswich Academy at Ipswich, New Hampshire. The Brown family moved to Napierville (now Naperville), Illinois, in 1845. While serving as minister at the First Congregational Church at Napierville, Reverend Brown became affiliated with the Rockford Female Seminary, the "sister school" of nearby Beloit College, and Kate Brown enrolled there.

Founded in 1847 to send "cultivated Christian Women [out] in the various fields of usefulness," the Rockford school developed under the disciplining guidance of Anna Peck Sill, an eastern-bred evangelical "possessed of a most passionate earnestness for Christianity in general, for the development of Christian missionaries in particular." Under Sill's tutelage, the curriculum and daily regimen combined "to inspire a missionary spirit of self-denying benevolence toward all, but toward the ignorant and the sinful." The purpose of life, as laid out by the moral and spiritual architects of the seminary, was giving oneself for the good of others.

Katharine Brown came away deeply imbued with that ethic of self-sacrifice and service. After graduation in 1855, she remained at the seminary, where she worked as an instructor for the next year and a half. She had met Alexander Kerr while she was still a student at Rockford, and the two became engaged in April 1855. The bride and groom journeyed back southward to Georgia after their wedding on New Years Day 1857.

Kerr resumed his teaching and became professor of mathematics at Brownwood Institute, a boys' school near LaGrange, Georgia, in 1858. Following a stay at Brownwood, he became principal of another private school nearby. There was much more to Kate and Alexander Kerr's life than the teaching of math and Latin to the white sons of Georgia, however. Unbeknown to local authorities, the young couple was committed to the abolitionist cause. They circulated antislavery tracts and conducted a clandestine school for slaves in their spare time.

Charles Hope Kerr was born in LaGrange on April 23,1860. Within a year of his arrival, animosities between the North and South flared into open conflict at Fort Sumter. Fearful that Alexander Kerr might be forced to serve in Confederate army and concerned as well for their safety and that of their young son, the Kerrs fled northward after the first battle of Bull Run in July 1861. Passing through Confederate lines by using stops along the Underground Railroad and staying with sympathetic abolitionist colleagues, the Kerr family made its way back to Rockford.

Resettled in northern Illinois, Alexander Kerr became superintendent of schools for Winnebago County in 1862 to fill out the term of his brother James, who had enlisted in the Union cause. In February 1863 the family moved to Beloit, where Kerr took on the task of reorganizing that city's school system. He became president of the Wisconsin Teacher's Association in 1868. In recognition of his work as a state educator, the Board of Regents of what was then the State University of Wisconsin at Madison in 1871 elected him to fill a newly established chair in Greek. The Kerrs moved to the Wisconsin capital that year and took up residence in a large, comfortable lake-front house on Langdon Street, a thoroughfare of "quiet charm" with an "atmosphere of calm and unhasting serenity" close to campus. It was there that they raised their two sons, Charles and his younger brother James.

Home of the university and the state legislature, late-nineteenth-century Madison provided an exceptional intellectual environment for one as well situated as the young Kerr. The city had already become a midwestern oasis for a broad array of innovative, progressive educators. Comfortable in their new surroundings, both Alexander and Kate Kerr became active in local social, cultural, political, and religious circles not long after their arrival. They joined Madison's First Congregational Church in September 1871, where Alexander Kerr became a deacon in 1874. That same year, Katharine Kerr took up a position as secretary and treasurer of the church-related Women's Missionary Society, which supplied aid to the poor and sick at home and abroad.

The active couple also joined the Madison Literary Club, where they exchanged liberal views on literature, art, and culture with such local notables as the Unitarian ministers H. M. Simmons and J. M. Crooker and the founder of the modem history department at the university, William F. Allen — all figures whose work their son would later publish. Alexander Kerr also joined the Madison Board of Education while continuing to devote a good deal of energy to the State Federation of Teachers and its publication, the Wisconsin Journal of Education. He became a lecturer for the newly implemented university extension system and delivered talks on modern Greece and Greek poetry during visits to communities in Wisconsin and northern Illinois. While maintaining his full quota of academic duties he also found time to coauthor an edition of the Gospel of Matthew in Greek and translate the Bacchae of Euripides and a multivolume edition of Plato's Republic. Kerr was a cosmopolitan man who constantly looked to Europe as a seat of classical learning and innovation, and he used his summer breaks to travel abroad and study in Athens, Berlin, London, and Paris.

His method of instruction was occasionally criticized, however. Several students found him too easygoing, and he was known to have dismissed an entire class when one student took out a watch and yawned. Yet Edward Birge, the university's president, testified to the fact that "Kerr gave himself to his teaching with singular devotion," and his colleagues often spoke favorably of him as well. For several years during the 1880s Kerr conducted a class in reading the Greek version of the Gospels after Sunday morning services at the First Congregational.

Young Charles Kerr was evidently much closer to his mother than his father. Although Katharine Kerr's actual influence on her eldest son is difficult to assess, fragmentary evidence strongly suggests that she played a central role in imparting a degree of social consciousness, moral concern, and ethical duty. A biographical fragment published in 1880 described her as a "lady of unusual culture who found preeminent delight in the moral and scholastic training of her sons." She was well known and respected throughout the Madison area, and when she died in July 1890 the city's Wisconsin State Journal printed a full-column obituary tribute written by one of her close associates: "From early girlhood, through college years, as a teacher and through all the cares of home and social life, she was a student, keeping up Greek, Latin, German and French with keen pleasure, and loving knowledge for its own sake but far more for the help it enabled her to give to others. She was always imparting. When we heard of some sad accident, some dying child, some wayward girl just on the verge of ruin and thought What can we do,' we said, 'we will go to Mrs. Kerr and we never went in vain.'"

A founding member of the Madison Benevolent Society, Katharine Kerr "maintained a comprehending sympathy for the lowly and the unfortunate": "For years the dwellers on 'the worst street' in town knew her as their frequent visitor and best friend. [Their children] were in her sewing class, work for the older ones was found in good families, letters were written. All were watched over and befriended in delicate, sensible ways. All who came in contact with her felt her sincere and kindly interest."

A resolution passed by the board of directors of the Benevolent Society following her death noted that the organization had "suffered an irreparable loss" and that Madison's poor had "lost an active and faithful friend, whose memory they will long cherish and revere." She also clearly left an indelible impression on her son, who by 1890 was a budding activist and publisher in Chicago.

Social consciousness and commitment aside, Katharine and Alexander Kerr passed on other qualities to their son: their own training, with its emphasis on education in the classics, and also their deep interest in foreign languages and literature. Alexander Kerr also contributed certain qualities or attributes later evident in the son. As M. S. Slaughter, the elder Kerr's colleague on the faculty at Wisconsin, described him, "Gifted with a fine sense of humor, he was always good company, and a good story, especially a Scotch anecdote, brief and to the point, was sure to enliven any chance meeting with him. His most marked characteristic was a sort of Scotch persistency and he rarely gave up a scheme without accomplishing his end. He was a very kind-spirited man and preferred to be at peace with all men, but he did not mind a fight if it was necessary."

The younger Kerr also maintained "a sort of Scotch persistency" and rarely gave up a scheme before attaining at least some of the goals he had set out to accomplish. Also kind-spirited, the son would also prefer peace but never shied from a struggle when it was necessary. Significantly, the younger Kerr always maintained a cordial relationship with his father. No major breach or chasm ever developed between the liberal, middle-class academic and his left-leaning socialist son, and their relationship remained amicable. Alexander Kerr contributed varied sums of money to the often beleaguered Kerr Company over the span of several decades. In return, out of devotion, gratuity, and respect, Kerr the younger published his father's translations of Greek classics. (One edition of his translation of Plato's Republic appeared in 1918, a year before the elder Kerr died.)

Although their direct influence remains difficult to gauge, several other Madisonians played a significant role in shaping Kerr's intellectual and social development. The young man entered the University of Wisconsin in 1877, where he excelled in romance languages and majored in French. He received consistently high grades in Greek, Latin, French, and English literature. In his junior year, Kerr studied American history with his former Latin instructor, William Francis Allen, a figure typical of that liberal milieu of socially engaged intellectuals. Best remembered as the father of a modern history department at Wisconsin and as the mentor of frontier historian Frederick Jackson Turner, Allen was the leading lay figure in the Unitarian movement of Madison. A cofounder of the city's First Unitarian Society in 1878, he also was a member of the Free Religious Association, the radical offshoot of post-Civil War Unitarianism. He readily publicized the advanced positions of radical free religion while maintaining his formal Unitarian affiliation. With the aid of Jenkin Lloyd Jones, then missionary secretary of the Western Unitarian Conference (WUC) at Janesville, Allen secured the ministerial services of the Rev. Henry Martin Simmons for Madison's First Unitarian in 1879. It was people like Professor Allen and Reverend Simmons who created the bridge that eventually carried Charles Kerr to the center of midwestern Unitarian activity in Chicago.

Born in September 1830 and the descendant of several prominent Unitarian ministers, Allen acquired an early interest in the study of history. He matriculated at Harvard University and graduated in 1851. He decided against entering the ministry, in part because of the conservative Unitarian hostility toward the radicalism of Theodore Parker. Sailing for Europe in September 1854, he matriculated at the universities of Berlin and Góttingen, where he studied Roman and Greek history and romance languages and came into contact with the latest developments in German historical research and Idealist philosophy. He returned to Boston in June 1856. Under the employ of the Freedmen's Aid Commission, Allen went south in November 1863 to work with former slaves on St. Helena Island, one of the sea islands of South Carolina. At war's end he became chair of the Department of Ancient Languages at Antioch College before accepting the position as chair of ancient languages and history at Wisconsin in 1867. An American pioneer in the dissemination of the new European methods of historical research, Allen fostered the original research and open inquiry that gave rise to the influential Department of History at the university. Socially active, Allen sat on the board of the Madison Benevolent Society alongside Katharine Brown Kerr. Always receptive to new ideas, he readily embraced the most advanced religious and secular thought of the era. He played a key role as a leading Unitarian lay figure and president of the Wisconsin Unitarian Conference and headed the Madison chapter of the Free Religious Association, that radical offshoot of postbellum Unitarian thought.

Allen assisted in the recruitment of Henry Martyn Simmons to head the First Unitarian Society. Simmons was also typical of Madison's advanced liberal milieu, and his tenure as minister in Madison spanned the period when Charles Kerr studied at the state university. Simmons helped found Unity, the Chicago-based Unitarian weekly that Kerr eventually came to publish, and was a close associate of Jenkin Lloyd Jones.

Born in 1841, Simmons grew up in New York state. He graduated from Hamilton College in 1864 and entered Auburn Theological Seminary to prepare for the Presbyterian ministry. Unable to ascribe to the literal terms of the Westminster Confession, he was denied ordination and shortly thereafter moved toward Unitarianism. He initially accepted a call to a Unitarian church at Kenosha, Wisconsin, but moved to Madison at the behest of Allen and Jones and assumed leadership of the newly reorganized First Unitarian in 1879. Simmons was fluent in Latin, French, and German and well-versed in Greek drama, history, and philosophy. He was equally well-read in English and American literature. He maintained an avid interest in the natural sciences and has been described as an excellent botanist who also studied astronomy, geology, and biology "with great zest." He was clearly one of that generation of Unitarian clergy who readily synthesized theology with the latest disclosures of evolution. In social terms, Simmons viewed evolutionary thought as a summons to "upward living" and often spoke out on political and economic matters from his Madison pulpit.


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Table of Contents

Foreword Paul Buhle ix

Bibliography of Kerr titles published since 1983 xiv

Acknowledgments xix

Introduction xxi

1 Early Years, Early Influences Charles H. Kerr 1

2 Kerr's Early Chicago Years 12

3 The Kerr Company's Beginnings 22

4 Unity Years 43

5 From Unitarian to Populist and Beyond 56

6 The First Socialist Phase, 1899-1908 82

7 The Move Leftward, 1908-11 111

8 The In-house Battle, 1911-13 138

9 The International Socialist Review, 1908-18 160

10 The War Years and After 176

Conclusion 201

Epilogue 205

Notes 211

Bibliography 287

Index 301

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