In the American Grain

Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist

by Nick Salvatore
University of Illinois Press, 437 pp., $24.95

One reason Marxist historical writing often—not, of course, always—turns out to be dry and pedantic is that the Marxist mind finds itself drawn, with an almost punitive willfulness, to such abstractions as “social forces,” “political positions,” and “relations of production.” Before these formidable categories, the actual figures of history tend to fade.

Eugene Debs
Eugene Debs; drawing by David Levine

As if by way of correction, there has recently emerged a group of historians—under the influence of Herbert Gutman, himself influenced by E.P. Thompson—who retain a Marxist flavor but also try to present the history of American labor and radicalism as something richer than a mere unfolding of economic forces and political ideologies. With a glance now and then at psychology, these historians concentrate on the growth of semiautonomous communities and “political cultures,” each of which, in our spacious country, takes shape through abiding by its own peculiar norms. The American socialist experience is thereby seen not just as an endless beating of factional “wings” but as a complex and impassioned enterprise.

At its best, as in Nick Salvatore’s recent biography of Eugene Debs, this school of historians has written strong works that recreate neglected portions of the American past. At its less-than-best, as, say, in Mari Jo Buhle’s recent Women and American Socialism, 1870-1920, it has given us a mixture of firstrate research, bad prose, and a leftish sentimentalism that would make the experience of “community” central to the radical past—as if what matters is not whether socialist movements achieved, or should have achieved, their proclaimed ends but whether they gave a “meaningful experience” to their members.

Nick Salvatore’s biography is very solid work. He really knows the inner world of Debsian socialism, and he is shrewd in relating Debs’s public presence to his personal life. There is little jargon in the book, and the prose is often alive—for example in his account of the bitter defeat of Debs’s American Railway Union in the Pullman strike of 1894. Salvatore offers more information about Debs’s early years as a trade unionist than even fervent admirers are likely to want, but they can skip some of it.

Earlier biographies of Debs have tended to hagiography, but Salvatore, while deeply admiring, avoids this trap. Tracing Debs’s career in forming the American Socialist party—he was its presidential candidate five times after 1900—Salvatore shows Debs to have been a troubled man, and troubled in ways that seem special to his historical moment. Marriage to a snobbish, ambitious woman not really in sympathy with Debs’s outlook; a close dependence on an adoring brother, who cared for Debs with slavish faithfulness; a rhythm of exhausting, almost orgiastic speaking tours followed by weeks of collapse in bed; a Victorian-style love affair, sweetly hopeless, with intervening visits to brothels during the lecture trips—the mixture of puritan asceticism and Midwestern roughhouse is sympathetically portrayed by Salvatore. He refrains, one is glad to note, from pasting a psychiatric label on…

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