Mr. Debs, My Darling | The Nation


Mr. Debs, My Darling

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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.

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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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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.

A sermon, then--on Wealth and Want, on toads and firebirds--in passionate paratactic "dragnet" sentences that swoon on, sometimes, almost, forever, as in (hold your breath)--

In the time of the mystical pre-Marxist utopias springing up with the help of angel apple pickers in the case of the Shakers, for whom the golden apples of paradise were shaken from the trees and the angels had even pinned notes upon the apple boughs--the tutelary visit of the Angel Gabriel to Father Rapp on the banks of the Wabash and the repetition of that visit in Economy near Pittsburgh--even the attribution to the secular Robert Owen of the characteristics of an angelic guide who would pilot all mankind from the old immoral world to a new moral world--the presumption of Swedenborgian transcendentalists as to the sacredness of mankind in a state of socialism, whether Owenite or Fourierite or a duke's mixture of both--the many-branching legend of the discovery of the lost Canadian bible which showed the transformation of an angel into a postman carrying in his bag along a New York country road Joseph Smith's Book of Mormon or the angel in Illinois who, twenty feet high, a prehistoric Indian mound builder, had come up like smoke from a hole in the ground to give to Joseph Smith his tutelary advice--this continent had been swept over by so many wild waves of cooperative communal spiritualism that for a time it had almost become a communal nation and, although the passion for spiritual regeneration by brotherhood had undergone some degenerative influences during the Civil War, still might have reacted favorably to Marx's most mystifying dialectical materialism if only it had been called dialectical spiritualism and thus had not alienated so many people by its suggestion that unrefined, coarse worldly goods like corn and coal and oil were its chief concern.

On the one hand, it's nice to see someone standing up for utopian communities, which have taken their lumps in American literature, from Nathaniel Hawthorne making fun of Brook Farm in The Blithedale Romance to Mary McCarthy making fun of Dwight Macdonald and Philip Rahv in The Oasis. On the other, since we obviously very much need it, there is a superb biography of Debs to consult instead, Nick Salvatore's 1983 Bancroft Prize-winning Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist, which never even mentions Owen, Rapp, Fourier, Joseph Smith, James Whitcomb Riley or the Angel Gabriel.

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