Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 536
Charles Edwin Anson Markham was born in Oregon City, Oregon Territory, where he spent his earliest years. His parents’ separation ended his time there. His mother moved with him, in 1856, to a farm in Suisun, in central California. Markham would recall his days as a shepherd boy in poems, including “On the Suisun Hills.” His mother proved unsupportive of Markham’s interest in literature and education, however, provoking him to run away from home for two months in 1867. Afterward, she relented and allowed him to attend Vacaville College. Later he studied at California State Normal School, San Jose, and was graduated in 1872. He taught in Los Berros, California, and later in Oakland, California, where he became headmaster of the University Observation School.
During this period, Markham gave up the Methodist faith of his upbringing and embraced the teachings of Thomas Lake Harris, a socialist and spiritualist-poet who had moved to Santa Rosa in 1875. While embarking on his teaching career, Markham was beginning work on his poetry, which he started publishing in 1880. His works soon appeared in such major national magazines as Harper’s and Scribner’s. During this period, he also cultivated friendships with literary figures including Hamlin Garland and Ambrose Bierce.
Early in January, 1899, one of Markham’s poems that appeared in the San Francisco Examiner attracted widespread notice and subsequently was reprinted in newspapers across the country and abroad. “The Man with the Hoe” was a meditation on the painting of the same name by French artist Jean-François Millet. A call for compassion for downtrodden and exploited workers, the poem helped give focus to a national discussion concerning the treatment of laborers and raised Markham to a level of public authority and prestige that remained his for the remainder of his life.
Doubleday & McClure of New York published Markham’s first collection that same year. Entitled The Man with the Hoe, and Other Poems, the volume featured Millet’s painting as a frontispiece and was dedicated to Markham’s literary friend Edmund Clarence Stedman, who had been among the first to recognize Markham’s talents. After the book’s publication, Markham worked as a lecturer and editor in New York and New Jersey. “The Man with the Hoe” would continue to attract admirers and would come to be considered the most financially remunerative poem in American publishing history, earning him some $250,000 over the course of three decades.
Markham would never see another success, either in terms of financial reward or public acclaim, to equal that of “The Man with the Hoe.” He did enjoy several moments in the limelight thereafter because of other poems, however, with the most prominent instance arising from his poem, “Lincoln, the Man of the People,” written for the Lincoln birthday dinner of the Republican Club of New York City on February 12, 1900. In 1922, Chief Justice William Howard Taft chose to include it in the dedication ceremony for the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., with Markham himself reading.
A gala celebration took place at Carnegie Hall on the occasion of Markham’s eightieth birthday. That dozens of nations sent representatives to the event reflected the fact that Markham had fulfilled his promise as a poet of international stature.
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