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:
When…it became apparent that Brigham Young was preparing to leave, for he and his Mormon followers had gathered the last crop of the pale winter wheat and had not sown another crop, and all that they had built up together had been lost by forced sale or had been abandoned when there was no buyer at any price for the beehive that could not be transported by wagon so that the beehive people would have to produce another hive in which to spin the honey of the sun—they knew not where—he who was preparing with the majority of his followers to cross the Mississippi in this darkest time of the year had heard from one of his disciples that it did seem a pity they should have to leave the beautiful and not quite completed edifice which was the temple to the moon and the sun, had answered that yes, it was beautiful. “But we have the satisfaction of taking the substance with us, leaving behind us only the shadow.”
The trouble with Marguerite Young’s long, entertaining romp through Mormon history is that it has nothing to do with what appears to be her book’s theme; that is, that the gentle utopianism of the 1840s spawned the violent confrontation between labor and capital after the Civil War. She simply can’t resist stopping everything to tell a good story, regardless of its pertinence. As a result, you gradually become so engrossed in her stories that you cease caring about her argument, or whether she is even making an argument.
We read of Heinrich Heine dreaming about his dead father, and rushing to kiss his hand, only to find that the fingers he kissed were dry twigs and his father himself a leafless tree covered with frost. What this has to do with utopianism and radicalism is hard to see, but the poetry of it is lovely. Here is some arresting and irrelevant gossip about the Russian tsar Paul I. He was rumored to have come to the family dinner table wearing the imperial crown of the Romanovs. And when he “spoke of chopping off a row of heads as lightly as if they were the plumes of dandelions,” he seemed to have his children in mind. As tidbits like this roll forth, it is tempting simply to relax, enjoy the landscape, and let Young’s thesis take care of itself. In any case, it is never very persuasive.
When her story shifts from the 1840 utopians to the conspicuous consumers of the Gilded Age, a more plausible explanation emerges for the outburst of radicalism that would affect American politics far into the present century. It is this: “The moneyed interests”—Justice Holmes’s delicate term for capitalists who had triumphed in the Civil War—behaved with such selfishness, such arrogance, such brutality, and such contempt for the new industrial workforce that uprisings were inevitable. When they occurred, workers invariably found their causes crushed by the new monarchs of coal, steel, rails, and oil working in alliance with every arm of government. The president might order the army to intervene in a strike. Restoring order was the usual justification, but the order to be restored was always the order of “the moneyed interests.”
Governors provided National Guard units for strikebreaking duty, sometimes only after the struck company agreed to pay the bill. Courts genially issued orders for workers to stop misbehaving and genially fined or imprisoned those who didn’t obey. Even God was on the side of big money. The Reverend Henry Ward Beecher told his well-heeled flock: “God has intended the great to be great and the little to be little. No equalization process can ever take place until men are made equal as productive forces. It is a wild vision, not a practicable theory.”
Big money’s arrogance was eloquently expressed in Henry C. Frick’s comment after the bloody crushing of the Homestead steel strike in 1892: “We had to teach our employees a lesson and we taught them one they will never forget.” The judge advocate of the Colorado National Guard, called to break up a mining strike in 1902, dismissed questions about the constitutionality of his mission: “To hell with the Constitution; we are not following the Constitution!” When the union filed habeas corpus pleas for release of its members, the commander of the Guard units said, “Habeas corpus be damned, we’ll give ’em post mortems!”
This was the time of Vernon Louis Parrington’s “great barbecue,” when sympathetic politicians parceled out the nation’s wealth in a “splendid feast…Gargantuan in its rough plenty.” Rich and poor did not fare equally well at the table, however. The Homestead Act, to be sure, gave the homesteader 160 acres of land at $1.25 per acre, but the Union Pacific land grant gave its promoters an entire empire for nothing.
In the decades that followed, Parrington wrote, “there was to be no bargaining with corporations for the use of what the public gave; they took what they wanted and no impertinent questions were asked.”
In The Rise of American Civiliza-tion, their classic 1927 survey of American history, Charles and Mary Beard treat the excesses of the age as a historical inevitability. The pattern of rich businessmen overpowering agricultural societies could be traced from the most ancient of times up through the imperial Romans to the triumph of the French and English business class over their landed aristocracies. Where Young sees a villainous industrial despotism in the new age, the Beards see a familiar story of
aggressive men, akin in spirit to military captains of the past, working their way up from the ranks, exploiting natural resources without restraint, waging economic war on one another, entering into combinations, making immense fortunes, and then, like successful feudal chieftains or medieval merchants, branching out as patrons of learning, divinity, and charity.
Young’s view is not so measured. She insists repeatedly that the most important result of the Civil War was to split the country into two houses: “the house of the few rich and the house of the many poor with the abyss widening between them.” She is fond of hissing villains and has a long list of them. The abuse with which she heaps them, if sometimes unfair, expresses a loathing so passionate that it is exhilarating to read in these days of bland and bloodless political writing. What we have here is good old-fashioned radical bile directed at what Harry Truman used to call “the special interests.” Nowadays, when political discourse is limited to exalting material excess and the acquisitive instinct, it is as startling as a cold shower in January.
Young’s roll of villains is not limited to the usual suspects like Frick, Gould, Pullman, Fisk, Harriman, and Presidents Hayes, Harrison, and Cleveland. Among its surprises we find John Hay, for instance, once Lincoln’s secretary. She despises him for, among other things, living on Euclid Avenue in Cleveland. It was a street populated with
American despots who lived in an atmosphere of Medici magnificence, the coal and iron and steel and oil barons… [who] were undergoing or had already undergone the aurification which permitted them to wield unholy powers over the lives and deaths of poor men, but which did not arouse the outraged moral disapproval of Old Dirty Socks Abe Lincoln’s former secretary….
There are eighty words still to come in this sentence, but no clue whether “Old Dirty Socks” is Hay or Lincoln.
She is merciless on Lincoln’s son Robert, partly because she thinks he treated his widowed mother badly, partly because of legal services he performed for George Pullman, the sleeping-car tycoon. “The Prince of Nails,” as she calls the Emancipator’s son, “would drive the nails into his possibly mad and possibly sane mother’s already broken heart and would be the lawyer for…the despot Pullman and would drive the nails into Debs’s heart and crucify his labor union as surely as if he were nailing it up on a mound of burning cinders in a railroad yard.”
It is Allan Pinkerton, however, who fascinates her. She spends eighty or ninety pages on Pinkerton, his sons, the Pinkerton detective James McParlan, and the Molly Maguires who terrorized the Pennsylvania anthracite fields. McParlan made the legal case that finally sent thirty men to the gallows. Whether they were the men who had actually committed the specific crimes attributed to the Molly Maguires was not entirely certain, but the court was not so interested in certainty as it was in crushing a threat to the safety and success of the mine owners.
This is a terrible and gripping story, and Young tells it well. Pinkerton, who created a private police force to serve American industry, had been a radical Chartist agitator in Scotland and fled Glasgow with a price on his head. In Chicago he underwent transformation from refugee political radical to America’s most effective, most feared, and most hated “detective.” An “antilabor detective,” Young calls him, not unjustly.
The Molly Maguires were a secretive, closed society of Irish immigrants who, as Young tells it, had come to Pennsylvania’s anthracite region before the Civil War “in search of survival.” They had been embittered by the Civil War draft law, she writes, when they were “dragged from the coal pits and tied hand and foot, slung like corpses over horses or tied by ropes and dragged along the ground to the draft headquarters for shipment to the southern battlefields.”
Most Irish immigrants of their time had fled to America to escape starvation and the tyranny of absentee English landlords. They had no enthusiasm for being pressed into the Union Army to face death for a cause that was utterly meaningless to them. It was especially galling to learn that people with money could buy their way out of the war by paying substitutes to fill their uniforms. To a newly arrived immigrant it looked like a war in which the stay-at-home rich profited from the death of the poor.
And so the Irish miners in Pennsylvania after the war lacked a sense of piety toward American justice. These were men whose people for generations had waged a silent guerrilla warfare against English landlords, and they brought this history with them to Pennsylvania. When wages fell as coal profits rose, sullen resentment developed into an outraged sense of injustice, then into fury, then into acts of desperation. Murders and violent assaults began to occur.
Suspicion fell on the secretive Molly Maguires. The mine owners retained Pinkerton; Pinkerton’s man McParlan infiltrated the Irish community and came out with evidence to take to court. Convictions came easily. Twenty men were hanged after the first trial, ten more during the next two years. Thanks to Pinkerton and McParlan, the mine owners had brought the ultimate peace to the anthracite fields.
Young’s account of all this concedes that the Molly Maguires engaged in “the assassination of repressive railroad barons and railroad owners and coal-mine barons and their sycophantic bosses.” But had McParlan’s detective work uncovered the real killers? She gives an emphatic no. The men the state hanged were “sacrificial scapegoats” and their execution “the archetypal crime of capital against labor,” she asserts without, alas, citing evidence.
In Young’s turmoil of expressionistic history, we often lose sight of Eugene Debs. His parents were Alsatian French. His father, well educated and fond of literature, named him Eugene Victor after his favorite writers, the novelists Eugène Sue and Victor Hugo.
Debs was born in Terre Haute, Indiana, in 1855, where his parents ran a small grocery. He was bright in school but quit at age fourteen to work on the railroad. It was 1870, Grant was president, and the heroic age of the railroad had just begun. Debs never lost his love of it. He began as a helper in the paint shop, then became a locomotive fireman, working up in the cab with the engineer, feeding coal into the boiler. Could he truly have read Plato’s Republic while keeping a locomotive boiler fired? Young says he did.
Losing his job in the depression of the 1870s, he found work in St. Louis, where he was shocked to find that “the rich danced under twelve hundred tons of crystal chandeliers in halls of gold-framed mirrors and the poor lived in hog hovels.” Back in Indiana, he worked as a billing clerk in a grocery warehouse, but love of railroading drew him to the freight yards in his idle hours. There he fell in with Joshua Leach, who was recruiting members for the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen. Debs enlisted, impressed Leach, and at age twenty-three became editor of The Locomotive Firemen’s Magazine.
Railroading was dangerous work. Dreadful wrecks happened with appalling regularity. Railroad men were scalded to death by steam, crushed when locomotives fell through poorly built bridges, and mutilated when badly laid track flew apart and sent trains tumbling down embankments. Debs filled the magazine with stories of railroaders killed and crippled; he became interested in politics and discovered he had a talent for it. He made his first speech at age twenty-three. He was city clerk of Terre Haute before he was thirty and went on to serve a term in the state legislature. There, after his proposals for women’s suffrage and railroad safety legislation were overwhelmingly beaten, he concluded that no significant reforms could be achieved by conventional politics. Late in life, having gone twice to prison, he remarked that he had once “permitted myself to be elected to a state legislature” and was “as much ashamed of that as I am of having gone to jail.”
Young’s history doesn’t reach his mature years, in which he became a charismatic leader of the union movement, created the powerful American Railway Union, and saw it busted when he, foolishly perhaps, let it be drawn into the Pullman strike of 1894. With the help of President Cleveland, the railroad owners obtained a court injunction which essentially ordered the strike to cease. The ARU leaders voted to ignore the order. Debs was arrested, tried for contempt of court without a jury, convicted, and sentenced to six months in prison. His union was destroyed.
Seeing labor crushed by a government in alliance with business, Debs moved toward socialism, saying, “I am for Socialism because I am for humanity. We have been cursed with the reign of gold long enough.” As the presidential candidate of his new Social Democratic Party, Debs polled 96,000 votes in 1900. In 1904, his vote rose to 402,000. Socialism that year called for minimum wages, a maximum on work hours, women’s suffrage, and abolition of child labor. Though these issues have long since been appropriated by the major parties and enacted, they were the very essence of crackpot, possibly dangerous radicalism in 1904.
In 1912 Debs polled 901,000 votes, 6 percent of the national total in an election that also had William Howard Taft, Woodrow Wilson, and Theodore Roosevelt on the ballot.
Opposition to the first World War brought him afoul of Wilson, who had once been the champion of peace, but who by 1917 was in war mode, as modern political lingo might phrase it. Under Wilson’s stewardship, a patriotic hysteria was being created in support of a war to make the world safe for democracy. The Espionage Act was interpreted to mean that opposing the war was criminal, and Debs opposed it openly as an instrument that would enrich “the master class” at the expense of “the subject class.”
“The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles,” he said. “The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and all to lose.” He was promptly charged with violating the Espionage Act, sentenced to ten years in prison, and sent to the maximum security penitentiary in Atlanta. A sentence to Atlanta was hard time, and Debs served three years of it. By 1920 he was frail and ailing. Wilson’s attorney general, fearing it would embarrass the government if Debs died in prison, advised Wilson to set him free.
Debs seems to have had a remarkable sweetness of character that made people love him, but Wilson was not easily seduced. Wilson was a man of high principle. He rejected clemency, saying, “This man was a traitor to his country and will never be pardoned during my administration.” The sentence was commuted by Warren Harding in 1921 after his attorney general, Harry Daugherty, having interviewed Debs, told Clarence Darrow, “I never met a man I liked better.”
It is hard to explain the affection so many felt for Eugene Debs. Nowadays we take it for granted that a lovable politician is a fraudulent creation of public relations artists and ghost writers. Debs, though, was the genuine article. James Whitcomb Riley, the Hoosier Wordsworth, tried to explain it in verse:
And there’s Gene Debs—a man ‘at stands
And jes’ holds out in his two hands
As warm a heart as ever beat
Betwixt here and the Jedgement Seat!
In U.S.A., John Dos Passos etched a memorable portrait of Debs titled “Lover of Mankind”:
He was a tall shamblefooted man, had a sort of gusty rhetoric that
set on fire the railroad workers in their pine-boarded halls
made them want the world he wanted,
a world brothers might own
where everybody would split even…
October 7, 1999