Flynn, The Rebel Girl. 

Elizabeth Curley Flynn’s section of The Rebel Girl looking at the First World War and its aftermath offers the chance to read a war autobiography resolutely unabashed in its emphasis – to portray the heroics and the suffering of America’s working class who fought for social rights and social improvements. What impresses me with Flynn’s writing in this book is her ability to bring me into a consciousness of forgetting that I’m reading one person’s wartime autobiography, and to instead read her words as the American story of the war culture – as an indisputable historical document. It is this ability to draw the reader into belief that I shall look at in the post.

What first strikes you when you open the book is the format and structure of the work thrust upon you through the contents page. Despite the work being an autobiography, with the exception of part one, the chapter sections do not follow Flynn’s own biography but the nation’s, and world’s, events. A few examples are ‘Three: The Lawrence Textile Strike’, Four: The Paterson Silk Strike’ and ‘Five: The IWW, 1912-1914’. These parts are subsequently split into incidents of the themes, again titled not with personal connection but through factual labeling – for instance sections from ‘six: World War I and its Aftermath’ include ‘Tom Tracy Acquitted’ and ‘When Americans First Heard of Lenin’. Note how it is not ‘When I first heard of Lenin’, but when Americans did. Despite the work being an autobiography described in her preface as being “the story of my life”, the contents layout and headings instead put the reader in the mindset of reading a book of history, not of personal reflection.

This sense of Flynn’s autobiography speaking of America and not of herself is continued in the content of the sections; they are what they say on the tin. For example the opening paragraph of ‘Came Armistice Day’ doesn’t at any stage reference her own reaction to Armistice, but instead looks at the world stage – more of a textbook account than a personal impression: “Royal dynasties had collapsed in Russia, Germany and Austria-Hungary. The Russian Socialist Revolution, with its slogan of ‘Peace and Bread’, hastened the general peace, although the Allies, including the United States, attempted by armed intervention to force the Russians to stay in the war.’ (241). With a heading of this nature in an autobiography I would expect to be confronted with a personal response of the event, a wave of emotions and maybe an account of what she did when hearing the news, but instead the reader is given historical background as would be the case in a history book.

When Flynn does write in reference to herself, she can be seen to do so to reinforce the facts of the situation as opposed to adding an emotional impression. For example in ‘Life Behind Bars’ Flynn looks at the conditions faced by prisoners convicted for acting for social justice and this section opens with her stating that “for many years I have been in contact with labor prisoners within the stone walls that do “a prison make” (252). Here she is staking her right to write on this subject with her having inside knowledge, and she reinforces this throughout the section with stories from her visits to prisons which back up her current point. However, personal experiences are not what make up the bulk of the section and once again it is events not from her own life which do, for example – “Race riots were fermented by the guards […] In Fort Leavenworth, vicious Southerners were encouraged to attack the comparatively few helpless Negroes. They broke arms, knocked out teeth, and left their victims beaten unconscious.” (253). Her own experiences of prison life referenced during the section can instead be seen as a way to validate and enhance the truth of what she is saying as she is stating her personal knowledge of the area – even though events written about like the quoted one here did not involve her. This can be seen linked to the ideas of narrative authority, a technique used in modernism and post-modernism particularly to manipulate the reader into a particular stance of feeling towards the depicted happenings.

Finally, Flynn can also be seen to use sources to validate her writing, collating the picture through quotes  and documents. By doing this she is providing evidence to support her work, again something more in line with a history book than a personal reflection. In ‘The War Year of 1918’, a three page entry, there are a total of seven different quoted sauces making up the section alongside Flynn’s own two voices present – the personal and the wider authoritative narrative voice of events and summaries. All in all this technique makes readers not question her perspective presented as she is reinforcing it with supporting quotes from significant political figures, like Eugene V. Debs; ‘the great Socialist orator and many times candidate for President’ and quotes from newspapers and from members of her social circle of friends and relatives.

In summary, Flynn uses a number of literary techniques to reinforce her autobiography’s authority to talk on the experience, and whilst the reader has to bare in mind that it is one woman’s autobiography, it is a fascinating voice of a period of history which can be both enjoyed and learned from. Though the lack of imagery, plot progression and personal experience do make it feel more of a lesson than a pleasurable read. 5/10

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