HEAVEN KNOWS what the neighbors thought. In the old photograph Eugene V. Debs sits on the porch of his Terre Haute, Indiana, home in September 1925, the year before his death. In his Sunday suit, he looks the picture of bourgeois rectitude. Wife Kate appears long-suffering; does she know Gene is having a love affair with Mabel Curry across town? For now they are just another older "Ter Hut" couple posing for a formal portrait; maybe too they are on the porch this summer evening to catch the breeze at sunset. All is not what it seems, however. Debs has been released from a federal penitentiary after serving three years of a 10-year sentence for sedition--pardoned by President Warren Harding. He is really a preacher, a Protestant prophet, whether of a golden age that existed in the past, or of the classless society to come, he has never really been altogether sure. This five-time presidential candidate of the Socialist Party--he received almost a million votes in the last election--does not have long to live. His party is in ruins, torn in half by disputes between a reformist right and a Bolshevik-admiring left. His impassioned biblical oratory that once swayed vast crowds no longer appeals to modern taste and he is tired, so tired. Only Debs' hands, large and strong, seem to bespeak a moral purpose. When he dies in 1926, at age 70, his body will lie in state in the auditorium of Terre Haute's Labor Temple and thousands of workers and their families will file by the bier paying final homage to the local man who tried to teach them, in the words of one, how "to raise their eyes to the sun."
This sober, well-researched life of Debs, by Professor Nick Salvatore of Cornell's School of Industrial and Labor Relations, will be the standard biography for many years to come. If it is somewhat dully written, the story is all there. Debs' vision of America was that of pre-industrial Terre Haute: he had seen the past and it worked. His mistake was the failure, early on, to forge an alliance with the nascent union movement. In 1885 he thought the Knights of Labor were too radical. Later he viewed the American Federation of Labor as a competitor. When he finally awakened to the possibilities of a socialist labor alliance, he embraced the dynamite-toting hotheads of the International Workers of the World. It was too late. When Debs went to jail in 1919, a martyr to postwar red-baiting, he was transported all the way there over the rails by union labor.