In 1910, Crystal Eastman was one of the most conspicuous progressive reformers in America. By the 1920s, her ardent suffragism, insistent anti-militarism, gregarious internationalism, and uncompromising feminism branded her "the most dangerous woman in America" and led to her exile in England. Yet a century later, her legacy in shaping several defining movements of the modern era--labor, feminism, free speech, peace--is unquestioned.
Aronson’s biography pays Crystal Eastman the enormous respect of presenting her as a woman of parts in whom we see fused the best of American leftism with the best of Christian compassion and the near best of modernist courage. For this, I applaud it. But I also must say that this is an academic biography, meaning the author feels obliged to provide extensive explanations of the social, political, and cultural atmosphere surrounding every move Eastman made. The issues, the organizations, the internecine clashes are all here in somewhat wearying detail. It’s not that it isn’t all interesting; it’s just that Eastman herself gets lost for pages (and pages!) at a time. Only rarely—and then mainly through her letters—do we glimpse the progress of her inner life, gain any insight into her conflicts, her blind spots, her fearsome drive. In short, only rarely do we feel her alive on the page. These objections notwithstanding, Aronson’s book is prodigiously researched, the writing easy on the eyes, and it deserves, without a doubt, a place on any shelf of biographies devoted to the stirring history of American radicalism.
... disentangling Crystal’s story from Max’s and centering her in a full biography does more than simply amplify a drowned-out voice. It forces us to confront how we understand leadership and legacy in progressive movements ... Such a broad outlook threatens to dissolve into a haze, but Aronson makes a strong case for stepping back and seeing it clearly, and for seeing Eastman herself as a pivotal rather than a peripheral figure in the history of the American left.