Copyright © 2001,  1999 by Michael Segers
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Harp Song at the Crossroads of America



Some years ago, after I drove to Colorado and back one summer, I told friends that my idea of the geography of the forty-eight contiguous states had always been wrong. The country, I had learned, is made up of the enormous state of Kansas, surrounded by the other forty-seven tiny states clustered around it. You have to have driven alone across Kansas, east to west and north to south, in the summer in a car without air-conditioning to understand what I am saying.

My old writing teacher, Marguerite Young, would have corrected me. No, Michael, she would have said, the true center and microcosm of America is her home state, Indiana the home state of all Hoosiers, and the history of the Hoosiers is the history of America, just as the history of Americans is the history of all humanity. Young spent the last twenty-five years of her life working on a biography of Hoosier and American and human labor leader, Eugene Victor Debs. For her, his life was a starting point for a reflection on life and labor and love in Indiana and the rest of America from the Civil War through World War I, roughly, the life span of Debs (1855-1926). Finally, four years after her death in 1995, her Harp Song for a Radical: The Life and Times of Eugene Victor Debs has been published, edited by her friend Charles Ruas (New York: Alfred A. Knopf).

I dislike reviews of biographies that end up being reviews of the subject rather than of the book itself; in the case of Debs, I might need at least to comment on the man himself. I’ve had three intelligent, well-read people remark that they have no idea who this Debs was, Debs, who—often compared to Jesus Christ and Abraham Lincoln, and named for two French novelists—enjoyed almost three years of Southern hospitality as a prisoner in the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary. From his cell, he conducted a presidential campaign that won 3.5% of the votes. One of the advantages of writing for the Internet is that I don’t have to give you any more background on Debs, except to refer you to Debsweb2.

Young’s book might be better subtitled The Times and Life of… because Debs disappears for pages as Young digresses like a wild-eyed newbie surfing her way across a web of politics, literature, and life itself for the first time. The most charming, most memorable aspect of this book is the incredible links that Young makes, often with no reference to Debs, who is left, meekly holding his hat in the margins while someone else takes center page for a hundred pages—as with Allan Pinkerton, the fiercely anti-labor founder of the detective agency. Just as several short novels have been identified within the sprawling text of Young’s one novel, Miss Macintosh, My Darling, so can several mini-biographies be found within the work currently under consideration. In a few pages on Lincoln, we learn that the Great Emancipator received a note of congratulations from Karl Marx. Later, we learn that Mrs. Lincoln’s life was once saved by the actress and friend of Oscar Wilde, Sarah Berhardt. Gee, from Marx to Wilde by way of the Lincolns… not to mention Bernhardt’s cool pants-suits (which Young does not mention), a century ahead of her time….

There is no way a reviewer can do justice to the God’s plenty and then some, the Whitman-ly, ungodly excesses of Young’s celebration of a radicalism as indigenous as such collective efforts as barn-raisings and quilting bees, as American as pies made with apples from the trees of the starry-eyed Swedenborgian star child John Chapman, died (not nee) Johnny Appleseed, who believed there exists a biblical injunction against grafting trees and so relied upon the unquilted bees to raise up a not God-forbidden plenty upon his apple trees so that writers such as I would not be left swinging upon fruitless, birdless boughs, although he himself is one of the few major birds of a different nineteenth century American feather not trapped in the strings of the revolutionary harp that Young plucks. If you can get through that sentence without getting weak in the eyes, you are ready for the nearly six hundred purple pages of Young’s final magnum.

And an intoxicating vintage it is. One suspects that even the author herself sometimes staggered. She was writing history and biography, but she was writing them as imaginative fiction. The maddening William Weitling flits like a bird that has eaten too much fermented fruit out and in the first couple hundred pages or so of the book—the first third of the book, which takes place before the birth of Eugene Victor Debs. Getting Debs and his bride to New York City, Young remarks that they arrived in New York City before the Statue of Liberty did (although after we get several pages about the wedding presents). Taking liberties that an orthodox historian would not, she leaves the newlyweds to enjoy their honeymoon while she spends several pages getting Lady Liberty into the harbor. Yet, Edward Bellamy, author of the novel Looking Backward, which was influential on the thought of Debs and probably every other radical of his time, is apparently not worth a line in the index. Young is artistically weaving anecdotes and stories, not hammering out an intellectual analysis of ideas. She is, after all, the writer who told me—when I was young and trying to write in New York City—that a young writer in New York should read the sensationalistic Daily News rather than the stodgy but authoritarian Times.

Once you accept that, then you can have a lot of fun with this book, and for me, the element of fun, of whimsy, is as much an attraction of the writings of Young as of the writings of James Joyce. That nearly blind Irishman once slapped a pretentious American intellectual on the back after the young man had relieved himself of a particularly portentous reading of a passage from one of Joyce’s works, and said, "But, man, isn’t it funny?" (A daisy to Marguerite Young, who would not, I know, appreciate a reference to Joyce in an article about her.)

A slow and worthwhile but frustrating journey it is that this book, twenty-five years in the writing, takes us on, through fewer years in the life of its main character. By the end of this book, Debs has scarcely earned such attention. It was not until the Pullman strike, almost twenty years after the end of Young’s history, that Debs gained national prominence.

But, we get Mormons and Marxists; we get the gossip on Hayes and Cleveland (and we remember now that they were presidents of the United States). James Whitcomb Riley tips his hat to Susan B. Anthony, who pulls her skirts aside as Jesse James passes, with nary a footnote in sight. And what did Whistler’s mom do when she wasn’t posing for her son? Marguerite Young might undo the damage your coach did—after he got stuck with the after-lunch American history classes during the regular teacher’s pregnancy leave—with his tests consisting of fifty-true/false-questions. American History meets the Jerry Springer show, and American History can be fun.

Still, as a student, friend, and admirer of Marguerite Young, I have to say this book is not for everyone. Young’s method of composition, perhaps dictated by financial necessity (since I doubt she often supported herself with her writing), stretching out over decades, always seems to me more like a hobby than a consistent act of literary creation. Instead of collecting colorful stamps, she collects colorful words. Consider, for example, her reference to "what might have been called a kind of hiatus, a breakage or cleft or caesura or fissure in memory." Sometimes, with a confusion of "hang/hung" or an impossible degree of comparison, "most perfect," we wonder if we are in the presence of a poet or of someone less careful about her use of words. Perfection, like pregnancy, is not a matter of degree: one is perfect or pregnant, or one is not, although I can imagine my old teacher snorting "How limiting!" from her coffee shop stool as she recounts how she made herself appear pregnant by stuffing her purse under her dress when Greenwich Village’s women were terrorized by attacks on the street, until she learned that the serial attacker singled out—pregnant women!

And then, she pops up with "hogopolis," and we can forgive her a whole linguistic sin-opolis. Almost. Young had a pantheistic philosophy, a mysticism that nowadays seems hardly appropriate for a chronicler of the American labor movement. Words in her prose have a fluidity that often reaches that of poetry. But they can drag along as tiresome as in this passage about General Benjamin Harrison who, while fishing, was chosen by the Republicans, who "landed their hook on him to inform him that he was the big fish whom they wished to lift out of clear waters and put into muddy waters as their candidate for governor." Of Indiana, natch!

But, if you can read the way Young wrote, slowly, leisurely, not the way a harried Internet columnist must read and write, then this is a book for you. If you can find just the right setting, although perhaps our most recent impeachment is a few months too far in the past, Young’s citation of Andrew Johnson can be worth the price of the book. "Damn the presidency," she quotes him. "It is not worthy of the aspirations of a man who desires to do right."

Perhaps that is the antique, antic charm of this book, like the yellowed but unseen photographs not illustrating it, since the publisher (who originally announced twenty-five illustrations) has traded them off for a few more pages of text. How long has it been since someone valued doing right above being powerful or being president? Can we recapture the sense of adventure and excitement that the labor movement once had? Organized labor is at least as big a yawner for today’s young or Young utopians (endangered species alert) as the presidency.

Yesterday, bogged down in thoughts of this biography and this review (don’t drive under the influence of Marguerite Young), I had to stop my car at a busy intersection behind a sport utility vehicle which sported an Indiana license plate. When I saw its motto—"Crossroads of America"—my belief in kind angels if not in humankind was restored. Marguerite Young stands forever at the intersection of Possibility and Place, plucking her truthful lyre, perhaps her skirt raised to reveal a bit of red-stockinged leg. Bearing like twin heavy banners the names of Eugene Sue and Victor Hugo, Debs, truly feeling the pain of red and yellow, black and white, of those shoeless ones who have in acts of sabotage thrown their shoes ("sabots") into the machinery as well as of the Peronist shirtless ones, reins in his white horse and scoops her up while blue-collared-or-winged angels step out of the forests to sing their wordless approval, and I have gotten through this article (not review) of a book that I do not much admire by a teacher and friend whom I, nonetheless, do.

Since this piece begins and ends with driving, keep your tires dry, your tank full of gas, and if you are lacking noble thoughts, Marguerite Young and Eugene Victor Debs have plenty to spare. The best way to get to the Indiana in your mind is at Tim Whitehouse’s incredible Indiana page, every bit as good as his Georgia page to which I have linked in previous columns.  To find out where Debs and other well-known figures from Indiana lie beyond the harassment of Pinkerton’s worst, go to "The Political Graveyard." You can find out what is happening among Hoosiers today by reading Indiana’s online newspapers, from the great Australian Online Newspaper site to which I often refer.

The life and writings of Marguerite Young are well-chronicled in a splendid website. The brave publisher who is keeping her works in print also maintains an online presence. You can also read a remembrance of Marguerite Young as friend, teacher, and writer.

Keep your feet dry, and your heart full of thoughts of the great ones like Eugene V. Debs and Marguerite Young who have gone before us, and consider for a moment what we can leave for those who come after us.


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