Mr. Debs, My Darling

Mr. Debs, My Darling

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 per


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: 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.

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)

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.

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)

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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