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Mr. Debs, My Darling | The Nation

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Mr. Debs, My Darling

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While there is a lower class I am in it, while there is a criminal element I am of it, and while there is a soul in prison I am not free.
   (Eugene V. Debs)

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...

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There was a time in my life, before I became a Socialist, when I permitted myself to be elected to a state legislature, and I have been trying to live it down. I am as much ashamed of that as I am of having gone to jail.
   (Eugene V. Debs)

But how do the Appleseeds connect to Debs? As near as I can tell, his father, Daniel "Dandy Lion" Debs, may have stopped at the Shakespeare Hotel on his way from Alsace-Lorraine, where he was disinherited for marrying a girl who worked in his father's factory, to Terre Haute, Indiana, where he would lay tracks for the Vandalia railroad until he and Daisy could open their own grocery store, in whose back room Eugene Victor (for the author of The Wandering Jew, Eugène Sue, and the author of Les Misérables, Victor Hugo) was born on November 5, 1855. Otherwise, the only connection is the dead baby daughter Daniel and Daisy left behind in Brooklyn, "with the white rose under her chin and white hood and white shroud in her little white coffin" in the very same Green-Wood Cemetery "where one day the socialist tailor Weitling would be buried."

This is a mighty stretch. Certainly Daniel didn't bring up his first son on Swedenborg, Joseph Smith, El Dorado or lost Atlantis. He read to him instead from the French poets, and quoted a lot of Rousseau and Voltaire. Nor would the heroes of Eugene's boyhood be Icarians or Brisbaneites. They included, rather, Tom Paine and Thomas Jefferson, John Brown and Dred Scott. His own reading, after McGuffey's little redbacked readers, on which Young does a terrific riff, ranged from Goethe, Hugo, Racine and La Fontaine, to Dante, Shakespeare, Shelley and Burns, plus Balzac, Dumas and Dickens, not to neglect Gogol and Cervantes, at least until his first sabbatical in prison, where he was notorious for reading Marx. And we should not omit his mother's influence, perhaps decisive: "When [he] heard the whistle of the night express, the train became a living thing to him. Daisy told the little boy that the sparks of fire flying upward out of the engineer's caboose were the golden bees flying out of a beehive."

What will follow, among dilations and digressions on Lew Wallace, John Wilkes Booth, John Peter Altgeld and Robert Ingersoll, is mythic Debs, full of birdsong: The inspector of ties, bolts and nuts "walking the rails with his eyes downward and often kneeling, crawling to repair a broken rail or lift a dead or wooden dog." The high school dropout paintshop apprentice graduating to locomotive fireman, a "stoker of coal, a lightning slinger." The student in telegraphy and bookkeeping, the schmoozer in St. Louis pigs'-feet bars, the orator at rallies of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen, the editor of The Locomotive Firemen's Magazine, the city clerk who refused to fine "street girls," the state legislator who introduced hopeless bills on behalf of workmen's compensation and women's suffrage; and the relentless labor organizer who crisscrossed the continent to rouse his indentured rabble against the toads and Pinkertons.

About the pseudonymous correspondence from the field to his Locomotive Firemen's Magazine, on crimes and atrocities in the class war, on lost limbs and lost lives, there was a peculiar modernist/futurist poetry that Young revels in--horror stories posted from Total Wreck, Link-Block, Eccentric Scoop, Plug and Foam, Gravity, Third Rail, Smoke Stack and Headlight. Or from Tired Tool, Loose Bolt, Arctic Blast, Loose Screw, Broken Wheel and Screech Owl. There is a poetry as well about the names of the union lodges Debs helped to organize, like Orphan's Hope, Arbitration, Stone Ballast, White Breast, Deep Water, Tried and True, Friendship and Covenant. For that matter, Haymarket and Homestead sound pretty, too.

When, in 1885, he married Katherine "Ducky" Metzel--described by his loyal younger brother, Theodore, as "a self-adorning clotheshorse"--the railroad brotherhoods would send them as wedding gifts a very long bed, a Turkish ruby upholstered divan, Oriental rugs, a Persian jar for preserving rose petals, a mother-of-pearl hanging lamp with pale-violet glass prisms, a leather rocking chair and a French rococo clock. None of this made up for the fact that Kate's "tipped womb" meant there would never be children. Instead, on the mantle or looking down at the desk, glowered busts of Rousseau and Voltaire, of Hugo and Keats, of Ingersoll and Dickens.

Have I mentioned the digression on Martin Chuzzlewit? There's another on George Eliot. And a third, using up Harp Song's last thirty pages, on Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Vissarion Belinsky and Whistler's Bible-toting mother in czarist Russia.

By stopping short of the Pullman strike, Young manages not to mention that Debs would love a woman other than his wife for the last quarter of his life, and to avoid all that tiresomely difficult nitty-gritty involving Morris Hillquit, Victor Berger, Daniel DeLeon and the factional fighting that bled the left of its energy to stave off Gompers and that cannibalizing "partnership" by which Big Business succeeded in merging with, gobbling up and downsizing Big Labor, unto a modern era where a union leader is as easily and cheaply bought as a public intellectual. We are left with lurid images of the mock-execution of a Russian novelist and the very real lynching of the Molly Maguires, at which girls looked on in their summer dresses.

This, maybe, is where I ought to talk about the footnotes. There aren't any. Or complain about a woozy impressionism that leaves us uncertain throughout what really happened and what just makes a good story. But it seems to me that we've been Dutched for years, by biographies in which Freud is a character telling us what to think, or Joseph Campbell, or Jesus Christ, or Karl Marx, and sometimes even malice and envy. Or tote up the discrepancies between Young's Gene and Nick Salvatore's. But neither ever really explains why Debs--a close chum of all the merchant princelings in Babbitt-boostered Terre Haute, who found him jobs, gave him loans and helped elect him to any office he sought--decided to be radical instead of rich.

And isn't that the cautionary point? Once upon a leaky time a young man rejected the fluid logic of upward mobility to money-grubbing career goals, stretch-limo perks and a golden handshake unto golf and coronaries. Once upon the nineteenth century, even before French existential humanism, a self-taught white male intellectual thought against his own privilege, which, after all, is what reading should encourage anyone to do deep down in those library worlds that imagine the strangely other and heretofore inarticulate, and chose to enlist on the side of the serfs--and why, back then, was that? Instead of now, when the equally privileged are rather to be found, in their media pillboxes and Beltway blisterpacks, with their Gatling guns, stiffing a Susan Faludi?

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