HARP SONG FOR A RADICAL
The Life and Times of
Eugene Victor Debs
By Marguerite Young
Edited by Charles Ruas
Knopf. 599 pp. $35
Reviewed by Steven Moore
It is difficult to decide who is the more remarkable character in this new book: Eugene V. Debs -- founder of the Socialist Party in America, five-time presidential candidate, and a legendary orator -- or his biographer, Marguerite Young, author of the legendary novel Miss MacIntosh, My Darling, a first-rate historian of 19th-century America and a prose stylist of the highest order. This book is a match made in heaven: the story of an extraordinary man told by an extraordinary woman.
Young, who died in 1995 before quite completing the book, was interested in Debs because of the part he played in the history of American utopianism. Young's first prose book, Angel in the Forest: A Fairy Tale of Two Utopias (1945), examined the failed attempts by George Rapp and Robert Owen to establish utopian communities in her home state of Indiana. In a sense, Harp Song for a Radical picks up where the earlier book left off, tracing the utopian impulse through other communal experiments by Fourierists, Saint-Simonians, Millerites, Mormons and other groups. Young shows how a yearning for utopia, fermented by theories of socialism and communism imported from Europe, set the scene for the trade-union movements after the Civil War, a scene in which Debs was a major player.
However, the emphasis here is less on Debs's life than on his times. After some introductory chapters on Debs (and his poet companion James Whitcomb Riley -- both were Hoosiers), Young takes us to Europe and back to find the origins of anti-capitalist thought and utopian alternatives. Everyone from Karl Marx to Alexander I of Russia appears for a few revealing chapters, including Heinrich Heine, Charles Dickens, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Dred Scott, John Brown, Brigham Young (from whom the author was descended), virtually every president from Andrew Jackson through Woodrow Wilson, most of the generals in the Civil War, and many forgotten foot soldiers in the war against capitalism, such as Wilhelm Weitling, a German tailor who receives almost as much space as Debs does.
The background material on Europe and the early communal experiments in America leads in to that crucial period after the Civil War when robber barons and carpetbaggers, war profiteers and predatory tycoons, promulgated a cutthroat capitalism that reduced the average American worker to the level of a Russian serf, a time when starving strikers in the East were massacred with the same fury as Native Americans out West. The Civil War between the North and South was followed by a civil war between the rich and the poor that could have ended America's great experiment in democracy, Young argues, had not Debs and others like him created trade unions to hold despotic capitalists in check.
Young's narrative method is episodic and anecdotal, and her style nothing less than epic. This is not a conventional biography but a "harp song," an epic ideally chanted with harp accompaniment (as were The Iliad and Beowulf). Young saw the quest for utopia as a grand tale, like the wanderings of Ulysses, and used a magniloquent prose style to give her theme epic grandeur. Her specialty was what she called the "dragnet" sentence: a long, paratactic sentence that would cast its net into a sea of facts and fancies, ideas and characters, and drag them into unexpected relationships. (There's one in Miss MacIntosh that's two pages long.) A typical sentence:
"Wilhelm Weitling had sought refuge here as an exile in 1848 but had returned to Europe sub rosa when the revolutionary forces were about to boil over in France and Germany and Austria and inundate the Old World, and then had returned to the harbor city in the New World in 1849 in flight from the failure of the revolution, in which the red caps storming the barricades had been mowed down by the military representatives of international capitalistic interests whose kingdoms knew no boundary lines but those between rich and poor, and the cobblestone streets were turned into seas of blood, red as the red roses in that June, which was the month of brides, dead brides, dead bridegrooms."
From factual opening to fanciful closing, this sentence form is used throughout Harp Song; some readers will find it wearying, but others will be enthralled by Young's poetic eye (note how the red caps lead to red roses, which in turn echo "sub rosa" from the beginning of the sentence) and her emphasis on the personal, even domestic side of historical events.
My only complaint about this fabulous book is its length: no, not the usual one that it's too long but that it's not long enough. Five years ago both Young and editor Charles Ruas described Harp Song as a work of three volumes, each 800 pages long, yet what we have here is a single volume of 600 pages, without an editorial word about the second two volumes. In a cursory discussion of the surviving manuscript (in an otherwise useful introduction), Ruas says that Young didn't quite finish the book, but he doesn't point out that the present book contains only about half of what Young did finish. In 1995 Young, unhappy with Knopf's plans to abridge the work, offered it to a small press willing to publish the complete manuscript, but Knopf insisted on keeping the work, then sat on it for four more years. There will be an even longer wait until somebody brings out an unabridged edition. (For more on this and related matters, visit Constance Eichenlaub's Young website: http://faculty.washington.edu/connieei/YoungWeb.htm.) As the sour critical reaction to Ellison's Juneteenth and Hemingway's True at First Light indicates, this hasn't been a good year for posthumously published books.
The curtailed length and steep price aside, this is as grand a book as you're likely to come across, a classic that deserves to win every book prize this year and to be cherished in years to come as a magnificent testimony to the American spirit. Neither unions nor utopias are what they once promised to be: Some unions have become as greedy and corrupt as the robber barons they originally opposed, and most utopias -- with the possible exception of some hippie communes -- are formed nowadays by either religious nuts or militant "patriots." While Young at times displays a Puckish bemusement at mortals with their utopian schemes -- the word "utopia," after all, means "no such place" -- her sympathy for the downtrodden and persecuted is admirable, and the biblical cadences with which she tells their tale remind us why so many people did, once upon a time, look to the United States as the Promised Land.
Steven Moore is the author of many books and essays on modern literature.