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…

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