In poet James Whitcomb Riley’s elegy to his Terre Haute neighbor, one can sense the almost saintly gentleness of disposition about Eugene V. Debs that caused fellow Indiana native Marguerite Young to devote a quarter century of her intellectual life to understanding the constancy of his devotion to the cause of freedom for industrial workers. The railway unionist was a product of environmental factors that imbued in him a romantic spirit as well as a hatred of injustice. Riley wrote:
And there’s Gene Debs—a man at stands
And jes’ holds out in his two hands
As warm a heart as ever beat
Betwixt here and the Jedgement seat!
Marguerite Young, best known for her critically acclaimed novel Miss Macintosh, My Darling (1965), never completed her lengthy manuscript on Debs. That task fell to scholar Charles Ruas, who heralds Harp Song for a Radical in the tradition of Walt Whitman, blending “the lyric vision of poetry and the sweep of history to give us a life that is also the ballad of an age, and the story of a nation.” Subtle, dense, elliptical, and nonlinear, it is not an easy read. Part of the action, inexplicably, takes place in Russia, where the reader is introduced to novelist Fyodor Dostoevski facing execution for treason and artist James McNeill Whistler’s father helping the czar build a railroad while his wife (Whistler’s mother), certain that Orthodox Catholics were heretics, was surreptitiously distributing Bible tracts to Russian railway workers, who, the book asserts, used the pages to keep their feet warm. Young’s writing style resembles not only the rhythms of free verse poetry but also the complex structure (detractors might call it an absence of structure) of such abstruse psychological novels as James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) and Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851).
New Leader reviewer Gus Tyler compares the unorthodox biography’s didacticism to a folk ballad—literally a harp song—in which certain phrases and sentences are repeated mantra-like to reiterate themes and underline motifs. Tyler writes:
For ordinary mortals the style can be a stumper. Each sound echoes in the subsequent sounds and each thought gives birth to a brood of other relevant thoughts. No sentence is there merely to be read. All are full of innuendoes, implications, and insinuations that have to be tasted, tested and slowly savored, not quickly swallowed.
One reason not to swallow hastily all that meets the eye is that Young employs no footnotes, leaving one to wonder where historical facts have left off in favor of the artist’s imagination. Civilization reviewer Kai Bird compares the author’s method to abstract impressionist Jackson Pollock’s hurling paint onto a canvas, concluding that the result “is a veritable collage of tumbling images, rich but chaotic and often unfathomable.”
Despite the subtitle’s claim that Harp Song for a Radical is a “life and times,” the book covers just thirty of Debs’s seventy-one years and does not examine such crucial personal milestones as his role in founding the American Railway Union, the Socialist Party, or the Industrial Workers of the World. Except for fleeting glimpses of later years, Harp Song for a Radical ends in 1885 with the Locomotive Firemen’s Magazine editor’s marriage to Kate Metzel. The newlyweds spent their wedding night in Pittsburgh, described in Young’s typical sardonic stream-of- consciousness manner as
an industrial inferno of steel and fire and smoke . . . dominated by Carnegie and Frick and other czars for whom the workmen were ingots, steel sheets, and iron bars . . . [and] where the fires of hell had spouted in July 1877 from cars and locomotives stalled in the railroad yards during the strikes which would strip into ribbons the flesh of workers from their bones and which, as the local militia had refused to shoot their fellow-men and had fraternized with them, had been quelled by the federal troops sent in by the hymn-singing, Bible-thumping, dry-as-dust president Rutherford B. Hayes.
The third of six children born to hard-working grocery store owners who came from Colmar in Alsace, France, Debs was named in honor of social reformers Eugène Sue and Victor Hugo and grew up in a loving household where the principles of liberty, equality, and fraternity were cherished. His radicalization was in part an intellectual response to the unfair consequences of laissez-faire capitalism, but it was also an emotional reaction to witnessing firsthand wrenching scenes of poverty that mocked the American dream. As editor of Locomotive Firemen’s Magazine, he documented thousands of industrial accidents attributable to corporate greed and...
(The entire section is 1956 words.)