Professor Michael Demson on the Real-World Impact of Shelley's Writing. A Summary by Jonathan Kerr.


Michael Demson, “‘Let a great Assembly be’: Percy Shelley’s ‘The Mask of Anarchy,’” published in The European Romantic Review, Volume 22, Number 5, p. 641-665

a précis by Jonathan Kerr.

In “‘Let a great Assembly be,'” Michael Demson unearths powerful evidence for the real-world impact of Shelley’s writing. Many literary scholars throughout history have dismissed Shelley’s politics as naïve, out-of-touch, or disingenuous, a kind of adolescent posturing. By contrast, Demson not only reasserts Shelley’s deep commitment to radical causes; he also demonstrates that Shelley’s political poetry had concrete social impact in the decades and centuries following the poet’s death. Far from an elite writer speaking only to learned readers, Shelley used his poetry to expose and redress problems afflicting everyday people—and this effort paid off.

The International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU), whose labour activism was influenced by Shelley's writing.

The International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU), whose labour activism was influenced by Shelley's writing.

            Demson makes his case by investigating the role Shelley’s writing played in America’s early twentieth-century unions, and New York’s International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) in particular. Shelley’s poetry, Demson argues, gave American workers a kind of writing that helped them to understand the political and economic forces to which they were subjected. “The Mask of Anarchy” was especially important in this context: written in easy-to-understand language, this poem attacks the power imbalances that helped to keep the powerful empowered and the poor disenfranchised. The conditions that made this sort of thing possible when Shelley lived—corrupt legal systems, unequal access to education, and working conditions that kept labourers underpaid and vulnerable—remained largely unchanged a century later in America. This is why, Demson alleges, a poem like “The Mask of Anarchy” could act as such a catalyzing force for New York’s industrial workers. In Demson’s words, “the language of ‘The Mask of Anarchy’ became the common tongue among workers, not only articulating their miserable conditions in a manner that brought them together, but also providing the terms of and for their protest” (651). As Demson suggests here, a poem like “The Mask of Anarchy” not only offered common people a language for understanding their problems, but also helped workers to build a sense of community from culture and shared political goals.

Pauline Newman (), whose labour activism was influenced by "The Mask of Anarchy."

Pauline Newman (), whose labour activism was influenced by "The Mask of Anarchy."

            No figure in New York’s labour movement was more influential than Pauline Newman (1887-1986) for organizing workers and forcing workplace reform. At the same time, no writer was more important to Newman’s efforts than Percy Shelley. Newman, born in modern-day Lithuania to Jewish parents, fought anti-Semitic and misogynistic laws in her home country and America to win herself an education; following the Newmans’ move to New York City’s Lower East Side, she worked at several factories in order to help her family stay afloat; in fact, Newman was just nine years old when she took her first job. This experience gave her a first-hand understanding of the dismal conditions afflicting lower-class workers. As she worked long hours in New York’s factory grind, Newman taught herself English and quickly became interested in Socialism. While still in her early twenties, Newman rose to prominence as an organizer for the ILGWU, helping to lead the cause toward unionization in America’s blue-collar industries. It was around this time that Newman also became introduced to Shelley’s writing by an English professor at New York’s City College.

            As Demson shows, Newman believed that true change for workers required not only new laws and systems of regulation, but education and literacy: these were the tools required for achieving a cultural (and not merely legislative) sea change. Newman helped to organize union reading groups that brought workers (and particularly female workers) together. Shelley was an especially popular author for these reading groups. This is because poems like “The Mask of Anarchy” addressed the major problems affecting labourers in Shelley’s time and in Newman’s: low pay, dangerous working conditions, and degrading treatment by employers. But by bringing people together through culture, Demson argues, Shelley also inspired class pride and even helped to build bridges between New York’s immigrant populations.

            Pauline Newman was not the only influential unionist who championed Shelley. Demson points out that Shelley’s writings were also extremely popular subjects of study at the Workers’ University, an institution founded in 1918 by the ILGWU. Demson writes that “Shelley’s poetry was taught at the… Workers’ University to hundreds of laborers as the first poet in history to voice their struggles” (646). This helped to build the growing image of Shelley as a poet of the people, and his writings increasingly acted as a source of education, community-building, and protest for workers across America. Shelley’s influence on these circles of labour organizers and reformers leads Demson to a powerful conclusion: “‘The Mask of Anarchy’ played a very real role to bring about substantive change in the… realities of countless laborers in a time of political crisis” (646).

Cell from Michael Demson's, Masks of Anarchy

            Demson argues that Shelley was not writing primary for the downtrodden of his own time: rather, “Shelley may have conceived of the reception of ‘The Mask of Anarchy,’ and his commitment to reform, in a larger… historical framework” (644)—that is to say, when Shelley wrote, he may have had in mind future communities of readers, taking up his revolutionary call generations after his own death. Shelley’s readers in the workers’ unions and universities explored by Demson answered such a call. As they did so, they confirmed Shelley’s view that the truth of a work like “The Mask of Anarchy” means that its power will be felt not only in its own time, but in the decades and centuries after.

Want more? In Masks of Anarchy, a graphic novel published by Verso Books, Demson gives us a fictionalized account of how Shelley’s great poem inspired reformers and changed history. You can find it at local book stores everywhere; you can also find more about Demson’s novel here.

Jonathan Kerr has recently obtained his PhD in English from the University of Toronto. His research explores changing ideas about nature and human nature in the writings of Shelley and his contemporaries. He is currently at Mount Alison University on a post doc.