Cover image for Harp song for a radical : the life and times of Eugene Victor Debs
Harp song for a radical : the life and times of Eugene Victor Debs
Young, Marguerite, 1908-1995.
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Alfred A. Knopf : Distributed by Random House, 1999.
Physical Description:
xix, 599 pages ; 25 cm
General Note:
Includes index.
Added Author:
Format :


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Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
HX84.D3 Y68 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks
HX84.D3 Y68 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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An extraordinary literary accomplishment, thirty-five years in the making, from the greatly admired author of Miss Macintosh, My Darling ("A work of stunning magnitude and beauty" --New York Times Book Review): a  biography of Eugene Victor Debs, the country's first great labor leader.          To set the stage for her protagonist, in whose struggles she saw acted out all of the conflicted forces that shaped industrial America, and to trace the roots of the American labor and socialist movements, the author opens up a sweep of history and an epic cast of characters. Here are Generals Sheridan and Custer, heroes of the Civil War, fighting the Indians in the West and the workers in the mines, the factories, and on the railroads . . . Alan Pinkerton, the radical weaver from Scotland who came to the New World and created an agency dedicated to destroying labor organizations. Presidents Lincoln, Grant, Cleveland, and Wilson appear. We see the dreamers, the reformers, the crusaders, among them Susan B. Anthony and  Sojourner Truth. Here are Henry James Sr., who educated his children according to the tenets of Fourier;  James Whitcomb Riley, author of "Little Orphan Annie"; James McNeill Whistler, whose father built a railroad for the czar of Russia; Samuel Gompers, head of the Federation of Labor; the governor of Illinois . . . who refused to call in the army to break the Pullman Strike, or the "Debs Strike" as it came to be called. Men and women, high and low, are caught by the author in the struggle to maintain ideals, in the fight for the rights and dignity of the individual that forged the American identity and ever afterward characterized the American culture.          Marguerite Young takes us into the world of the men who led the American multitudes west before the Civil War--and shows how these pioneers were influenced by the French Revolution's Saint-Simon and Fourier, and then by the German idealists Heinrich Heine, Karl Marx, and Wilhelm Weitling who visited secular and religious settlements across the United States.          All these threads come together in the life and personality of Eugene Debs: his childhood in Terre Haute, Indiana, in the pastoral America that faded into a distant golden memory after the Civil War, when the town became a center of transportation for industrial expansion. We see Debs finding employment in the railroad yards, becoming caught up in the plight of his fellow workers, editing the union paper, traveling across the country, gathering the knowledge and acquiring the consciousness that inspired him to espouse collective action on behalf of labor, to found the Industrial Workers of the World, and to run as the Socialist candidate for president of the United States five times--three times from prison. We see the fierce struggle between the classes--and Debs in the thick of the fight--as the American promise opens up for the men and women in the factories, in the mills, in the stockyards. We see Debs the worker becoming a political leader, becoming a reformer, becoming the voice of the workingman, becoming the founder of American Socialism. Debs, reviled and loved, Debs with the look of a plain man, an austere country doctor, becoming a mythic hero of the age. A mesmerizing dual portrait of a man and a century.

Reviews 4

Booklist Review

Young's only novel, Miss Macintosh, My Darling (1965), was a classic; but she also published two books of poetry and a nonfiction epic, Angel in the Forest (1994 reprint). For 25 years, she worked on this Debs biography, which is also a narrative of the world that shaped him: the industrial forces pushing Americans from farm to city; and the long thread of utopianism, which led some Americans West while it led others to seek a better world. This is not the biography to recommend to students seeking a quick recap of the facts of Deb's life; it's too discursive, too multilayered to meet their needs. Fans of Young, fans of Debs, and readers curious about utopianism--a key issue, after all, in Toni Morrison's Paradise and in J. Anthony Lukas' Big Troubleare most likely to relish Young's posthumously published biography. --Mary Carroll

Publisher's Weekly Review

Edited by Charles Ruas and published posthumously (Young died in 1995), this biography of the celebrated labor leader Debs (1855-1926) is a prodigious effortÄbut hardly a traditional biography. It's much more concerned with the times than with the life of Debs. Thus, Debs's historical achievementsÄleading railway strikes, establishing the Socialist Party, running for president between 1900 and 1912, getting imprisoned for opposing U.S. entry into WWIÄare virtually absent from the book. Instead, Young (author of the novel Miss Macintosh, My Darling) painstakingly constructs a vast tapestry that periodically invokes Debs (notably his parentage, Midwestern youth and editorship of the Locomotive Firemen's Magazine) while dwellingÄin exuberant prose so purple it often clots the narrative flowÄon elements of his era. For the first third of the book, the most prominent character is the obscure German utopian Wilhelm Weitling; Young also leads readers on excursions with Heinrich Heine, Karl Marx and the Mormons. A more familiar cast animates the rest of the book, which features long passages on Susan B. Anthony, Mary Todd Lincoln and anti-labor private detective Allan Pinkerton. Some shorter set piecesÄe.g., on the physician who developed the Gatling gun or the cultural assumptions behind the McGuffey readerÄdistill Young's epic erudition in more manageable form. Written with a sense of rhapsodic mission, these teeming pages offer many informative passages, moments of poetic juxtaposition and unrestrained bursts of language, but neither a disciplined portrait of Debs nor insightful historical synthesis is among its accomplishments. Photos not seen by PW. (Aug.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

This huge biography by poet/novelist Young, now deceased, was 25 years in the making. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

A most unusual biographical treatment of the life of American socialist leader Eugene Victor Debs, this is the posthumously published work of a Greenwich Village poet, novelist, and radical. The book, more than 20 years in the making, is organized in two massive sections. Part 1, "Prelude in a Golden Key," provides a colorful 178-page introduction to the 19th-century American utopian spirit, ranging from Hoosier poet James Whitcomb Riley to the Mormons, and dwelling much on the career of the forgotten socialist propagandist Wilhelm Weitling. The second part of the book, "Harp Song for a Radical," provides a sprawling, imaginative account of Debs's life in the years before the 1894 Pullman strike. This section moves back and forth in time and wanders into myriad topics from the Molly Maguire controversy to the writings of Fyodor Dostoyevsky. In places a beautiful work of literature, this unconventional book well illustrates the American origins of the radical spirit for which Debs is remembered, but most historians are likely to find it unwieldy and incomplete as a biography. General readers; graduates, faculty. J. A. McCartin; Georgetown University



Twice in his life Eugene Victor Debs took the long leap to the Ultima Thule of prison, passing beyond the realm of the acceptable into the nonacceptable, from respectability into the criminal community of the monster who was an enemy to the people. Twice on his way to the socialist state that should have its genesis in the utopias which this world should be when it was transformed from the present irrational to the rational state by man's brotherhood to man in a universal sense and without limit of creative possibilities here upon this earth and not upon some other star beyond time, beyond space, Debs was cast into a prison cell by those who had on their side the pomp and power and glory of immediate circumstance. Twice a prisoner repudiated by the great plutocrats who were like the toad dreaming of being the largest toad in the world, larger than all the other toads combined, he who had had no inherent instinct for martyrdom had welcomed this fate of incarceration by the masters of rails and iron and steel and lead and coal and coke and oil, whose desire was to stamp down the least evidence of the independence of the human spirit. He would come to the apparent end of his career as a visionary labor agitator and eclectic Socialist, as much subjected to reproach as if he were a fiend--this Abel who would be branded Cain by the murderers of workingmen, by the ravagers of their widows, children, and old mothers and fathers, if there were any who had survived the depredations of industrialism in the age of the ever-accelerating machine. Capitalism was an institution as sacred as if it had been handed down by God to man, probably along about the time of the eviction of Adam and Eve and the fencing of the Garden of Eden. Debs would end his career in the twentieth century as a voice of Socialist war protest, possibly even of an essential pacifism crying aloud in the wilderness of war, this World War which was to end all wars forever throughout the world, according to the then president, Woodrow Wilson, who believed that in order to have universal peace the way must be prepared by universal war and so threw Debs into the burning ash heap with the dead souls of America. Debs was just one of the jackass Socialists who would not keep their mouths shut. He was a man of complex character but of simple honesty whose right hand knew what his left hand did. He has been called Debs the Unpurchasable by those who knew him best, as by those who did not know him. Few in this nation have elicited so wide, so deep, a love. A Socialist of the native grain, he was an American folk hero who, both stalwart and fragile, would outlive in moral legend and human consciousness and conscience all the members of the megalomaniacal power structure who defamed him and would have blasted him to eternity and a step beyond if they could have. But he was a stubborn fellow who took the incalculable risks that many others, including former Socialists, avoided for the sake of immediate survival and possibly also for the pecuniary rewards which were given to some of them for upholding the war, which was supposed to spread democracy to the rest of the world. According to the Reverend Norman Thomas, who would preach Debs's funeral sermon from the front porch of his home at Terre Haute, Indiana, Debs was one of the world's darlings in the Emersonian sense--that is to say, the Transcendental sense. Surely there were many men and women as well as children to whom he had been and would remain the saint of an enlightened labor movement as of that all-inclusive socialism, which he piloted through the raging storms of modern industrial wars and which he did not abandon during the World War, as did many others, because they lacked the abiding sense of the true cooperative brotherhood of workers in all countries and all spheres of life and death. They would agree with Norman Thomas's evaluation that nothing constituted so black a page in American history as President Wilson's failure to intervene in behalf of the many conscientious objectors who were thrown into prison under the Espionage Act. The absolute vindictiveness of President Wilson's treatment of conscientious objectors, including those who, often dwelling apart from the world, usually under the leadership of some bearded patriarchs, had refused to answer the call of the greater power who was not God, had baffled not only Norman Thomas but many apologists for wood-headed Woody Wilson. The conscience was not corporate but was individual, and no state had the right to ask a man to cede his conscience to it as to a higher power. Also, pacifists and war objectors who were not members of religious bodies had the right to express themselves, even as did any lone individual. It had seemed to Norman Thomas and to others in many walks of life that those who had disputed the rigid Wilson's paradoxical and often self-contradictory justification of the war had sinned against the Holy Ghost. Or possibly it was as if by his harshness toward them Wilson could silence his secret and lingering doubts, which neither his eloquence nor the applause of the multitudes could wholly stifle. Thomas observed: "He who dared to proclaim abroad America's faith in freedom of speech and opinion used none of his great power and greater influence to modify the cruelty of our Espionage Law or the preposterous rigors of its enforcement. . . ." Indeed, it may be that Wilson wanted Debs, with his smashed utopian dreams, to suffer as he suffered in what seemed an increasingly doomed search for his version of utopia. As his face twitched, as he staggered onward, he perhaps wanted Debs's face to twitch and wanted him to reel, stagger, faint, fall upon the road to universal peace and justice. The man whom the self-righteous Wilson had consigned to a prison sentence had been four times a candidate for president of the United States under the Socialist banner. And, indeed, through all his political life--which was a life of failure to reach that high office where he could never have been called chief executive, for with his election the United States would have ceased to be a capitalistic country, would have gone out of business, as some of his enemies thought--there had been thousands upon thousands of his disciples who believed that there would come some time, some blessed March 4, when they would follow the inaugural parade and Debs's carriage into the White House, as would be recalled by Norman Thomas. Debs would run for president from the Atlanta Penitentiary in 1920, winning in his district hands down, as he--old and puny gentleman who might never live to be released--would laughingly remark, the tears running down his cheeks. The fact that the votes of his fellow convicts could not be counted did not rob them of their value to him but were rather to be remembered by him as the most precious straws that had been cast. The departed Debs had had that comic sense which must sustain a larger tragic sense than most people know, especially if they confine themselves to personal or egocentric horizons shutting out history as a thing of no concern to them. He had come up the hard way, from locomotive fireman on the train that was this world speeding through darkness with no headlight but that which was given by man's humanitarian consciousness, and he had clung to no desire for an easy way. He had had, moreover, no capacity to acknowledge failure and defeat. That was what he had said when he was in the prime of his manhood and in the heart of the industrial conflict. But when he was old, he had experienced in the darkness of the prison cell, where he wore a convict's garb, the sense of despair that had always been the twin of hope. Hope and despair were two of the most famous twins of the nineteenth century. According to Horace Traubel, Walt Whitman's secretary and literary executor and thus a living conduit to Debs's great love for the author of Leaves of Grass , Debs had ten hopes to your one hope and ten loves to your one love. When Debs spoke a harsh word, it was with tears. He was a great lover, indeed, with a miraculously magnetic personality--a magnetic hand which seemed charged with energy pulsing, drawing toward it all weaker creatures--but he was also the great hater of that injustice which was created by man and not by God, was not given in the nature of things. He was an Aesopian fabulist in the realm of socialism, one who had employed in his most ordinary and extraordinary discourse the time-worn, often antique coins of speech that were current in his day and by which he had hoped to speak directly to the hearts of all the orphans in this orphaned world and make himself understood in an intuitive sense, as might not have been the case if he had relied upon arid abstractions. An early commentator believed that Marx's philosophy might have done better sledding in America if it had not been called dialectical materialism and thus not alienated from the beginning those who were in love with the spiritual values in this most materialistic nation. Some were of the opinion that Marx's surely not soporific philosophy would have done better if the most unread red book in America had not been called red, thus evoking the memory of the red man who had been slaughtered as the colonialists, wave after wave, expanded their domain from the East to the West--only utopians usually regretting this slaughter, which amounted to the all-but-total extermination of the red people. A socialist by instinct who had yearned for the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen, the union for which, under the aegis of the Knights of Labor, Debs had worked with passionate devotion as an organizer, so that it might become, with his assistance in the founding of new chapters and the drawing up of new charters, the continental brotherhood reaching from sea to shining sea and even into the Canadian wilds--and who then, having been dissatisfied by a union of the skilled, by whom he had felt restricted as if in chains, had begun to enlarge the ideal of union into the American Railway Union, that of the unskilled, which he hoped would grow into a union of all workers in universal brotherhood, irrespective of race, color, or creed, excluding not even the least paint scraper or wheel wiper who was scraped of his paint and wiped by wheels of locomotives passing over him until he was a handful of dust. He was never the abstract theoretician, although certainly he had thumbed through the pages of Marx at the time of his transmutation from labor unionism to socialism in the evening of the nineteenth century and the dawn of the twentieth century, when it would seem that he had no future in the real world if such there ever was, that he was the lost leader of only the lost battalions, that he was the Roland who would raise up only the dead with his winding horn. He would be looked back upon by some modern Marxist dialectical materialists as if he had been a wandering spirit, the old grandfather of Dickens's The Old Curiosity Shop or even the golden-haired Little Nell of socialism or even the Tiny Tim, something of another era like an old rag doll thrown upon an ash heap and left to burn, although crying with a human cry, which should be heard upon the farthest stars. Once when Debs was running for president on the Socialist ticket and was asked by a flock of baying, barking newspaper hounds on the steps outside his hotel in Chicago what he thought of the restriction against Chinese immigration to the American shores, he had answered briefly, consulting his watch as if he had not a moment to spare, "The souls of Chinese children are yellow butterflies. Good afternoon, gentlemen"--then had turned and walked rapidly away without having given any but this surely not world-shaking news from which to provide a sensational headline. Among the many statements that Debs made regarding childhood and one that was the brief summary of many such remarks throughout the years was that in which he compared children with flowers. It was an archetypal image of death and resurrection. He was a big rough flower himself with something of Buddha in his nature, something of Oriental serenity about him, Carl Sandburg would observe of him when he was an old, thin-boned gentleman sunning in his garden without a hair upon his head and none could have dreamed that he was so near his death. Debs had said, "The sweetest, tenderest, most pregnant words uttered by the proletaire of Galilee were: 'Suffer little children and forbid them not to come unto me, for of such is the kingdom of heaven. . . .' Childhood! What a holy theme! Flowers they are, with souls in them, and if on this earth man has a sacred charge, a holy obligation, it is to these tender buds and blossoms of humanity." Debs was of the belief that socialism had been sleeping in the womb of time long before it was born. The shape of future things had been implicit long before they had appeared, as no reform that was simply spontaneous and without preparation could be more than transient. No doubt the peace-seeking President Wilson whose somewhat ambivalent policy of Preparedness was leading step by step to war--and indeed, America was already in the war except for the technical fact that the pro-war fever was not yet at the boiling point at which the president could safely ask for a declaration of war and believe that all the people would follow him over the brink into the bottomless abyss--was disturbed but not surprised when the terrifyingly incandescent bomb was thrown upon the San Francisco Preparedness Day parade, wounding many people and killing some, including those who dissolved into bloody foam. To the somewhat isolated Californians who had not been greatly impressed by the sinking of the Cunard liner Lusitania in the North Sea off the coast of Ireland by the German U-boat with the loss of a thousand lives, the reality of the war had been brought home in such a memorable way that some wild people of unalterably radical views would always entertain the thought that the poisoned fruit had been dropped at the instigation of the warmongers themselves. This carnage had occurred on a vast scale on July 22, 1916, and it would be marked upon the calendar of the nation's grief. The throwing of the bomb would be traced by deliberate and intricate logic, founded upon the shakiest premises, to five well-known labor agitators, among them two of the most famous scapegoats of that guilt-ridden time: Thomas Jeremiah Mooney and Warren Knox Billings. Tom Mooney had been with Debs on the Red Special in his 1908 presidential campaign against the two Bills, Bryan and Taft, and like Carl Sandburg, who would go over to Woodrow Wilson when he was promising peace by way of war but who would later regret this defection, had been for a time a Socialist fellow traveler and reporter spreading red like paint upon red barns. Mooney's father had been a Hoosier coal miner and one of the first organizers of the Knights of Labor and had participated in the strike against the coal-mining barons in the little town of Washington, David County, Indiana, where he had been shot in the leg by a hireling thug and, tearing the smoking pistol from his hand, had shot him in the chest, acting in self-defense against a strike-breaker; then, with his wife, who was a migrant from the auld sod and three little children of whom the oldest was Tom, had crawled away on his ever-bleeding leg and had hidden out several nights and days in the fields and woods until told by a fellow striker that it was safe to return--that he had killed no one--that the wound in the chest had been superficial. When Tom was ten years old, his father had died of coal-dust-shrouded lungs, although his widow had attributed the mortality of this crippled Knight of Labor to the corrosive wound that had been given to him by the labor scab during the strike. Actually, miner's pneumonia was caused by the negligence of the coal barons, who preferred to attribute this to one of the many which were acts of God. Upon the shoulders of this apple-headed, red-cheeked little boy had fallen the responsibility of helping to support his widowed mother and the little children for whom she could not have earned enough wages for bread when she became a sorter of rags in a paper mill at Holyoke, Massachusetts. He once remarked, "I suppose the urge to serve the labor movement was born in me." He had become her helper as a ragpicker in the paper mill by day, a laundry worker at night at his mother's side before becoming an iron molder apprentice, a ladler of iron in its liquid state giving off showers of sparks from the long-handled spoon which he would carry before him, his body naked from the waistline up lest any shirt he wore might catch a flying spark and turn him into a ball of fire. He had become a member of the International Molders' Union, a brotherhood in which he would keep his membership through all the years of his life. Formerly an iron molder for the Gould Coupler Works in Depew, New York, he had managed to save fare for third-class passage from the New World to the Old World, where with a Baedeker in his grimy hands from which all the waters of the Tiber could not wash off the dust of the mills, even as his face glistened with the marks of iron and steel and glass particles, he had made a tour of European countries, mainly the art galleries. He had been standing before a Rembrandt in the museum at Rotterdam when a well-dressed, well-heeled American who had recently attended the International Socialist Convention at Stuttgart had offered to him the glad hand of fellowship and had suggested that he consider how the workers of Europe lived or did not live. Those who lived under the ground in Europe had more in common with those who lived under the ground in America than with those who lived above the ground in any country. The America to which Mooney had returned was going through a dollar crisis so chronic that for the poor folks it was as permanent a state as if it had been the collapse of a dying father's lungs. The impatient young man, it was said of him, had a tendency that he would never lose--and that was to see all things as black and white, good and evil, right and wrong--and his were swift judgments, choices between two alternatives in which he was always right by being left. When this son of the fallen Knight of Labor with the barrel chest and the shock of wild black Irish hair and the preternaturally red apple cheeks had made his presence known to Debs on the Red Special and had asked him what he should do for the advance of socialism, the presidential candidate running against the two slow-moving Bills--William Jennings Bryan and William Howard Taft--Debs had advised, perhaps sensing something hawklike in the man's bright eyes, "Go and read more books." He should study to improve himself for service to the poor of earth. So had he done in his own essentially materialistic way and not only had become increasingly involved in industrial unionism but had lent all his strength to opposition to the war preparedness movement, which would permit the American plutocrats to snatch babies from their cradles in order to send them to distant wars and would bring in scabs to run their mines and mills when the doughboys were shipped to foreign battlefronts. The reason they were called doughboys, according to one comic explanation which had a grain of tragic truth in it, was that they were the flour, the very flower, of American manhood. Colonel George Harvey, who spent his time pinpricking Wilson, believed that Newton D. Baker should not be secretary of war. What was required for that bloody office was not a man named Baker--it was a man named Butcher. No one knew or would ever know who had brought sudden midnight to so many lives of innocents at the early afternoon parade. Some enthusiasts, even should Mooney and the others who were picked up be found innocent, had wanted them to hang, much as if they because of being associates with radicals should suffer the same fate as in the long ago had been the fate of the Haymarket victims whose crime had been engagement in freedom of speech. Mooney was to spend more than two decades on death row waiting for the executioner whose coming was continually deferred because of the uncertainty as to his guilt and the obvious perjury of some of the witnesses and the almost familiar pattern of the frame-up, which had official sanction by some of the ruling powers, and the continual loudmouthed intervention by men and women of ethical conscience in his behalf. Excerpted from Harp Song for a Radical: The Life and Times of Eugene Victor Debs by Marguerite Young All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.