In offhand, birdsong passing, Marguerite Young observes: “As for the nineteenth century, it may be said that it was probably the leakiest century there ever was and so would remain.” By leaky perhaps she means wounded. Still, why the nineteenth and not, say, the fifteenth century? Weren’t there also lots of holes in the twelfth? Or maybe she means wordy, rhetorical, inflated, gaseous–like grand opera, Romantic poetry, psychoanalysis and such blimps of ink as Kapital, Les Misérables, Moby-Dick or Darwin. But Young won’t pause to parse. She’s as flighty as her “long-limbed seraphim.” She has been describing Mark Twain’s sojourn on the Great Salt Lake with Brigham Young. (Yes, Marguerite and Brigham were distantly related; Moroni is one of her angels.) She is about to visit the Mormon mikado’s thick-walled compound, Lion House, with its schoolroom, weaving chamber, soap shed, buttery, twenty-nine wives and 110 children. She will presently explain the Golden Bee Hive and then, having digressed to tell us exactly how Marx felt about the Manchester Mormons who used to blow their noisy trumpets through the window of his buddy Engels, lightfoot on to note that in 1844, the same year Joseph Smith was lynched, Marx and Engels published Dialectical Materialism, which would have been at least coincidental, if not interesting, had they ever written any such thing, which they didn’t.
Harp Song for a Radical–reverie, breviary, apostrophe, incantation, dirge–may be the leakiest book I’ve ever reviewed. Like an Old Norse burial mound, it is full of the bones of bygone utopians (Robert Owen, Etienne Cabet, Father Rapp). Like a Buddhist stupa, it honors left-wing secular saints (John Brown, Susan B. Anthony, Mother Jones, Haymarket martyrs, Molly Maguires). Like a Toltec stele, it speaks to savage gods (oil, steel, Gould, Pullman). Like an addendum to Dos Passos, it snapshoots oddballs and wild cards (Pinkerton and his spies, Gatling and his gun, Emma Lazarus, Jesse James, Whistler’s mother). If a surprising number of pages contemplate Heinrich Heine, the German poet with “cataracts like snowflakes blotting out the vision in his eyes,” many more are lavished on James Whitcomb Riley, the Hoosier poet Young had intended to write a biography of till she got sidetracked for twenty-eight years.
What it isn’t, really, is a biography of Debs, whom she calls “the Garrison and Wendell Phillips of the day’s abolitionists, the Charles Martel of wage slavery, the St. John crying in the wilderness, the preacher of the gospel of labor…a Wilberforce and Kossuth and a Mazzini and a Chrysostom compounded.” And not only because Harp Song stops short, before the 1894 Pullman strike, which almost destroyed Debs’s union, after which he would live another thirty-two years, found the American Socialist Party, run five times for President and lose the soul of organized labor to Samuel Gompers. (Young apparently intended three volumes, and by the time of her death in 1995 had completed more than twice as much manuscript as Knopf chooses to publish. There is, of course, a Web site devoted to these matters: faculty.washington.edu/connieei/youngweb.htm.) It also scants his early, serial suspicion of and opposition to boycotts, strikes, industrial unionism and insurrectionary violence. And it is disdainful of the ideology and party politics of anything that smacks of “scientific socialism.” It comes out instead for moonbeams. As in her Angel in the Forest: A Fairy Tale of Two Utopias (1945), the heart of the poet (Prismatic Ground) and novelist (Miss MacIntosh, My Darling) belongs to those dreamers for whom the New World was the “millennial continent.” More than history, Harp Song is theology and romance.