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Only in America

Eugene Debs is the radical of Marguerite Young’s title, but the special pleasures of her book flow from its vast and bizarre cast of supporting characters. Debs has barely been introduced before we are whisked off to Europe to meet the German poet Heinrich Heine, Karl Marx, and assorted utopian mystics. At book’s end, 580 pages later, we are in Russia with Fyodor Dostoevsky, whose death sentence has been commuted at the last possible moment.

Along the way the widow Mary Todd Lincoln, crossing the Atlantic, is saved by Sarah Bernhardt from a bad fall; the angel Moroni directs Joseph Smith to the gold tablets that will become the Mormon Bible. Mark Twain tries to read it and pronounces it “chloroform in print.” We are introduced to Susan Anthony’s mother, “poor creature,” exhausted by child-bearing, who “wished many times to die as she saw [her husband] approach with the love light burning in his eyes.”

Edward A. Hannegan, an Indiana politician, becomes ambassador to Prussia, bows “to kiss the blushing hand of the fair queen,” thus rousing her jealous husband to such “absolute rage and horror” that he sends Hannegan back to the Wabash, “his whole life wrecked.” Hannegan decides to seek the presidency so he can get revenge by making war on Prussia, only to wreck his life again by murdering his brother-in-law in a drunken rage. Tears splash down the “granite cheeks” of Woodrow Wilson when he hears that James Whitcomb Riley, author of Little Orphant Annie, is dead.

Just when it seems that the book will cram in everybody but Uncle Tom Cobbleigh and Whistler’s mother, who should appear on page 546 but “a stiffly corseted…Bible thumper of an evangelical reformist spirit”? That’s right: it’s Whistler’s mother handing out religious tracts in Russia. Accompanying Whistler’s father on a railroad-building job for the tsar, she is trying to save the Russian Orthodox soul by distributing printed matter with “Simple Simon Bible truth, American style, the text in Russian so simple that not only a Russian serf but a Russian muley cow might understand” it.

People who love stories ought to be delighted with this book. If you are a crusty stick-in-the-mud about historical precision, you are more likely to ask, “What kind of book is this anyhow?” It isn’t what now passes for biography, which usually means every inconsequential fact a writer can find to inflate a fifty-page life into a six-hundred-page doorstop. Nor is it history in the sense that finicky historians think of history.

Here’s the kind of book it is:

On page 391, Ohio’s distinguished political family, the Harrisons, who gave us “Old Tippecanoe” and President Benjamin too, are burying old Congressman John Scott Harrison when they notice that the grave of his recently interred young nephew looks “as if it had been trampled over by a drove of long-snouted hogs.” Suspicion points to agents of a “capitalism extended beyond normal procedures”; to wit, a grave robber, some “resurrectionist” employed to provide educational materials for a medical school.

While searching for the [dead nephew] at the Cincinnati Me-dical College, which had a back alley where mysterious wagons were known to slide down a coal chute bags which were not bags of coal, General Ben Harrison’s brother John and a constable had drawn up a windlass from the bottom of a shaft…not the body of the young man who was their quarry but, as had been seen by the policeman when he lifted the mask from his face, an old man. It was the body of the former congressman who had been drawn up and whose startled son had stared into his face with the cry—“My God! My father!”

Where do all these stories come from? It is impossible to tell. The book hasn’t a single footnote. While the stories are fascinating—those tears splashing down Wilson’s granite cheeks!—one inevitably wonders about their provenance. How did Young know how Susan Anthony’s mother felt when her husband approached in amorous fettle? Is there a memoir? An old letter perhaps? This is not a book for those needing facts they can take into court.

Fussy English majors will also fret. Young’s sentences meander on for 150, 200, 250 words while tenses shift quixotically and pronouns wander around with no antecedents. Now and then the reader becomes lost inside a mammoth sentence that has no verb to reveal what it intended to say when it embarked on its journey. Here and there, other sentences must be reread, then reread again to make them give up their message.

There are metaphors galore, not all of them felicitous. Thus: The Ohio River “moved as slowly as a flight of pregnant, large-bellied mares with a tossing foam of curls as it neighed with inflated nostrils between the Ohio and Kentucky shores.” And, after the death of Karl Marx’s son Edgar, “there never would be another son who was the fruit of Mrs. Marx’s loins…. Over the door to Mrs. Marx’s womb a funeral wreath of pale winter leaves with black and red ribbons might just as well have been laid.”

Defects and eccentricities are normal in an unfinished manuscript, and Marguerite Young’s book is clearly unfinished. When she died in 1995, she hadn’t yet done the polishing, revising, and rewriting required for a finished manuscript. More seriously, although the life of Eugene Victor Debs was to be at the center of things, her narrative had not reached his mature years. In this period Debs led labor in some of its most passionate struggles with industry, formed an American Socialist Party and the International Workers of the World, went to prison as a war resister, and twice received a surprisingly big vote while running for president, once while serving time in a federal penitentiary. In these years he became a saintly figure for many who felt helpless against American capitalism at its most ruthless. Lacking the story of this period, Young’s book doesn’t end; it comes to a shuddering halt.

It is sobering to ponder how long it might have taken her to bring it to a graceful conclusion, for speedy composition was not her way. She wrote books of poetry and a study of American utopias but her only novel, Miss MacIntosh, My Darling, took twenty years to write. Nearly 1,200 pages long, it runs to some 675,000 words and was published in 1965.* At her death thirty years later she had still not published again.

Unfinished though her Harp Song is, and often quirky, its aim is heroic. Young was trying to produce a sort of unified-field theory of nineteenth-century political history. She seems to believe that the radical political movements that aroused laborers and farmers after the Civil War flowed from the same utopian impulse that brought dreamers bearing “strange faiths” from Europe in the pre-war years. Twenty years before the Civil War, utopianism had spread from the Atlantic ports of entry deep into the Middle West. Believers in salvation through celi-bacy mingled with political theorists dreaming of “a universal Jesusville made of socialists only.” There were Saint-Simonians, Millerites, Shakers, and Rappites. Young describes a New York swarming in the 1840s with

radicals of every breed who seemed permanently amazed by the utopian prospects that seemed to be opening in this millennial land…. There were utopian philosophers of every kind mixing with clowns, politicians, confidence men…. There were scriptural communists with secular dreams prompted by mystical origins as there were followers of Robert Owen, Charles Fourier, Etienne Cabet of the Icarians, Brisbaneites, Perfectionists who were believers in society’s reform, whether immediate, as if by sudden transfiguration, or remote.

Young Walt Whitman, covering a convention of radical dreamers for the Brooklyn Eagle, couldn’t decide whether to dismiss it as “humbug” or “commend it as containing the germ of a bold though fruitless inquiry into the wrongs and evils of the world.” Since God had not seen fit to make the world pure and perfect, Whitman thought it unlikely that Robert Owen could do so. Later, though, Whitman thought again. Perhaps he had seen

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… bound together by the ties of a common brotherhood.

Fascinated by the utopians and their communities, Young celebrates several of the more obscure at great length. We learn more than many may care to know, for instance, about the German “socialist utopian peddler” Wilhelm Weitling and his Iowa commune, Kolonie Kommunia. It failed quickly. Most utopias did. Then, as now, most Americans were more interested in making money than in the unlikely probability of earthly paradise. Sometimes public indifference turned to outright violence, as when Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, was lynched in Illinois in what amounted to a conspiracy of the best people to get the Mormons out of town.

Yet Mormonism produced the only utopian success. Whether modern Utah is an earthly paradise may be debatable, but Young includes Mormon doctrine in her catalog of utopian dreams. Not reluctant to offend present-day Mormons, she treats the story of the Church’s origin as a crackpot tale probably rooted in hoax. Telling the familiar story of Joseph Smith, “the divinely inflated but secular many-colored utopian prophet,” being visited by the Angel Moroni, she reports that the Angel’s appearance occurred while Smith was “lying in his bed, perhaps under the spell of imbibing more of the blood-red wine than he should have imbibed.” Young’s retelling of the story goes like this:

The angel told of a hidden book, product of a religion long lost to earth, written in strange tongues on gold plates. Smith found the plates. They were taken to his father-in-law’s farmhouse, where Smith lived. Later, asked who had brought them, Smith said they had been hidden in a bag of wheat delivered by the mailman. “The angel Moroni in disguise,” Young suggests. The father-in-law, however, said the bag contained no wheat, nothing but clothing: shirts, pants, underwear.

Found with the “phenomenal, superphenomenal” plates of gold were two stones which Smith called Urim and Thummim. These he used as decoders—“spiritual spectacles”—to help him translate the ancient writing. Martin Harris, a well-to-do farmer, helped Smith with the translating and underwrote publication of what became the Book of Mormon. When questions arose about the authenticity of the gold plates, they conveniently disappeared. Martin Harris, saying his wife didn’t believe they existed, had nagged Smith to let him take them home to show her. Smith finally agreed, the plates went to Harris’s house, and Mrs. Harris lost them. If the explanation sounds ridiculous, Young clearly meant it to.

Her respect for Brigham Young, by contrast, produces some of her most lyrical writing. Here the Mormons are preparing to start their magnificent trek to the West:

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    It has just been reissued by Dalkey Archive Press.

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