Mr. Debs, My Darling | The Nation


Mr. Debs, My Darling

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

A banker's Olympic became more and more despotic over Aesop's frog empire. One might no longer croak except to vote for King Log or--falling storks--for Grover Cleveland, and even then could not be sure where King Banker lurked behind.
   (Henry Adams)

About the Author

John Leonard
John Leonard, the TV critic for New York magazine, a commentator on CBS Sunday Morning and book critic for The Nation...

Also by the Author

Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, blasphemes not only Islam and Hinduism, but Thatcherism and the advertising industry. He's unkind, too, to V.S. Naipaul. For this they want to kill him?

John Leonard, former literary editor of The Nation, died November 6 at 69. From the archives, his iconic piece on Toni Morrison's Nobel Prize win, in his honor.

High finance ain't burglary, an' it ain't obtaining money by false pretenses, an' it ain't manslaughter. It's what ye might call a judicious selection fr'm th' best features ov them ar-rts.
   (Finley Peter Dunne)

He wants stagnation, degradation, slavery. He demands that his word shall be supreme--that when he takes snuff, his serfs shall sneeze.
   (Eugene V. Debs)

Although an amazing number of footloose utopians ended up in Young's Midwest, they came from all over elsewhere--refugee radicals from the failed revolutions of 1848 in France, Italy, Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire; Chartists from England; famine-fleeing Irish; gold rushers, communards and religious dissidents; Mormons and Icarians, Perfectionists and Saint-Simonians, Millerites and Brisbaneites. And while they'd move on to experiment in alternative modalities in such dreamscapes as Carthage, Oneida, Nauvoo, New Helvetia, Harmony, Nashoba and Zoar, at least half seemed to have stopped at one time or another at the Shakespeare Hotel in New York, where anarchist-utopians sat down to dine on a roast pig with red flags stuck into it, or talked reform theory with Robert Owen himself at Clinton Hall, where Walt Whitman found them to laugh at--even if Walt also saw "a vision, however far off, of the relation existing between all men as members of one great family; the duty and pleasure of loving and helping one the other; the dwelling together of the nations in peace, as being of the same flesh and blood and bone and bound together by the ties of a common brotherhood."

You may experience Walt's mixed feelings yourself, a smile and a tear, on reading about the "opium-drenched nineteenth-century psychology of madness and death and dreams, dreams of awakening again, dying again but to live"; bird tongues, worker bees and swan brotherhoods; angel-infested Swedenborg and Ludwig Börne, the revolutionary in a butterfly net; sacred scrolls, flying capes and Egyptian mummies; a Sun Woman, a red dragon and the Book of Revelation; the sacrifice of little red shoes to a god of snow. But if we believe Marguerite Young, the same people also brought us, if not women's suffrage and the abolition of slavery, then at least a League of the Just, an International Workingmen's Association, singing societies, health and death insurance (and building and loan funds) for wage laborers, the Knights of Labor and maybe even Wobblies.

And it's wonderful, however casually, to meet these people--like Father Rapp, who may have inadvertently killed his own son by gelding him "for the crime of having placed his seed in woman's body." Or Frances Wright, a ward of Jeremy Bentham's, a friend to Shelley and Lafayette, who looked like Minerva with her raggedy chestnut curls, icicle-cold blue eyes and "sharp features stained almost black by the burning light of the sun"; who started her own Greek city-state, on a plantation on the Fox River in Tennessee, to educate slaves into "the hardships of freedom"; and who would then remove herself and her fortune to the West Indies and a second commune she ruled like an empress "before whom they wafted their purple plumes like fans with which to shoo away the sand flies from her ever-twitching face where the waves of the sea swept in and the waves of the sea swept out."

Certainly they are better company than such villains as Allan Pinkerton, the son of a Glasgow blacksmith, who grew up to be a Chartist agitator until an informer ratted out his cause in the strike of 1839, after which he shipped off and sold out to the New World, becoming the boss of a whole army of professional informers (and therefore his own class enemy). Or Dr. Richard Jordan Gatling, whose crank-operated grim reaper would be used by federal troops at Homestead and by mercenary hirelings of the owners against striking miners at Coeur d'Alene and Cripple Creek. Or Gen. George Armstrong Custer, whose slaughter of Chief Black Kettle's Cheyennes at Sand Creek prefigured the massacre of even more "reds" on strike in the tent city of Ludlow. And this is not to mention Hayes and Harrison, Gould and Harriman, Fisk and Frick. Or Woodrow Wilson, who let Debs rot in prison for opposing the war Wilson had promised not to get us into.

Best of all is Wilhelm Weitling, about whom we hear at length: the wandering tailor from the cathedral town of Magdeburg; the red-capped Roman Catholic "worker Christ" who did time in prison in 1843 for mocking God and Switzerland; the visionary who believed that coins should be stamped with the emblems of labor (hammer, anvil, chisel, saw) instead of the heads of kings; the "future revolutionary anarchic socialistic communitarian" whose first book, Wounds and Balsam, was all poems; the player, in exile in Belgium, of card games with Marx and Engels, neither of which "Brussels sprouts" had ever dug a ditch, plowed a field or sewn a suit; the Johnny Appleseed of social gospels in New York, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, St. Louis and New Orleans, seeking with a bag of foolscap pamphlets to bring the nation "from woe to weal"; the inventor of a universal language, a perfect lathe and a gizmo for punching buttonholes whose patent was filched by Singer Sewing Machine; and the godfather, at the confluence of the Volga and Turkey rivers in territorial Iowa, of the failed utopia of Kolonie Kommunia.

Weitling, a one-man band of Accordion Crimes, is clearly meant by Young to stand for all the idealism and disappointment of the entire tribe of splendid nomadic cranks --their stubborn selflessness and equally obstinate self-delusion, their gypsy flair and magpie looniness. (Today they'd have a Web site, if not a militia.) Weitling, for example, once had a run-in with Heine, who wrote Marx a letter about him, which small-craft-warning Karl had to take seriously because, after all, Heinrich had saved his daughter Jenny from choking on a fish bone by slapping her upside down, although whether this happened before Heine's proposal to bring God to trial at the bar of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, or after the poet began to identify with Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom, isn't clear from Young's text, which has already taken flight again to inform us that Engels, when a young poet in Germany, had translated Shelley's "Queen Mab" from English "into the language of grunting, groaning hogs."

To all these Johnny Appleseeds, America seemed a Magic Slate on which to scribble their new, improved social contracts. That they were doomed from the get-go Young will blame oddly on our Civil War. Through the prism of draft riots she sees that war as entirely economic--vampire capitalism fang-deep at the throat of the working classes; Darwinian industrialism, red in tooth and beastly claw, ravishing American Innocence--and a terrible victory for "the great plutocrats" of rails, iron, steel, lead, coal, coke and oil "who were like the toad dreaming of being the largest toad in the world, larger than all the other toads combined." Young is thus obliged to picture Reconstruction as a carpetbagging shuck, and to abuse radical Republicans (who borrowed more than she cares to credit from the same European ideologies as her lovable utopians) as "Lords of Grab and Graft": "the vindictives, the Jacobeans." It's the same bumptious reading of our history that we got in the triumphalist textbooks of the fifties. Can you imagine? The mint juleps of the Old South couldn't vote, but their butler could! Somebody someday will rewrite Reconstruction in light of what's recently happened in South Africa--redistributing power without redistributing wealth. (And by "Jacobean" does she really mean seventeenth-century England and the revenge plays of Webster, Middleton and Tourneur? Or is she thinking instead of "Jacobins" and the French Terror? Help!)

On this crucial score, Harp Song is downright reactionary.

  • Share
  • Decrease text size Increase text size

Before commenting, please read our Community Guidelines.