Zinnes, Harriet. “Miss MacIntosh, Mythic and Real.” Prairie Schooner, vol. 39, no. 4, 1965, pp. 361–63. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/40628547.
Harp Song for a Radical: The Life and Times of Eugene Victor Debs
Marguerite Young. 1999. NY:Alfred A. Knopf Publisher, 578 pages, 25 photos, $35. Edited and with an introduction by Charles Ruas.
Review in Publishers Weekly , 5 July, 1999, 48-49.
“Edited by Charles Ruas and published posthumously (Young died in 1995), this biography of the celebrated labor leader Debs (1855-1926) is a prodigious effort–but hardly a traditional biography. It’s much more concerned with the times than with the life of Debs. Thus, Debs’s historical achievements–leading railway strikes, establishing the Socialist Party, running for president between 1900 and 1912, getting imprisoned for opposing U.S. entry into WWI–are virtually absent from the book. Instead, Young…painstakingly constructs a vast tapestry that periodically invokes Debs (notably his parentage, Midwestern youth and editorship of the Locomotive Firemen’s Magazine) while dwelling–in exuberant prose so purple it often clots the narrative flow–on elements of his era….Written with a sense of rhapsodic mission, these teeming pages offer many informative passages, moments of poetic juxtaposition and unrestrained bursts of language, but neither a discplined portrait of Debs nor insightful historical synthesis is among its accomplishments.”
Review in Civilization, August/September 1999, 91.
“Eulogizing Eugene” by Kai Bird.
“Young’s style is nonlinear, subjective, and psychological, and as a biographer I found myself longing for a more traditional narrative. But that was not the author’s purpose. Instead, drawing on her skills as a poet and novelist, Young wanted her readers to enter into Debs’s head and share his utopian dream.
Young’s words are hurled at the page Jackson Pollock-style, evoking images of late-19th-century America. Debs appears all over this stunning canvas–but so, too, do mini-portraits of Walt Whitman, Abraham Lincoln, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Victor Hugo, Brigham Young, and a host of other seekers of utopia. It is a veritable collage of tumbling images, rich but chaotic and often unfathomable.
Young’s epic Harp Song celebrates the life of an American prophet. She reminds us that, however quixotic his battles against the capitalist robber barons of the early industrial age, Debs’s transcendental, Emersonian populist decency lives on, buried deep in the American psyche. If Marguerite Young were still among us, sitting in her long crimson dress with its gold-embroidered vest at a Bleecker Street cafe, smoking her Lucky Strikes, she would optimistically insist that the coming millennium will bring a better world. Perhaps.”
”Every man has his natural place,” Jean-Paul Sartre wrote in his memoir ”The Words.” ”It is not pride or worth that settles its height: childhood decides everything.” The Indiana-born writer Marguerite Young, who died four years ago at the age of 87, spent most of her adult life in Greenwich Village, where she was often seen in the company of Truman Capote, Carson McCullers and Dylan Thomas. But when Young sat at her typewriter in her apartment on Bleecker Street, she revisited her ”natural place” — her native Indiana, whose capital, Indianapolis, she remembered as ”the Athens of the West.”
In 1945, a year after settling in New York, Young published ”Angel in the Forest,” a lyrical paean to the Christian socialist communities of New Harmony, Ind. Two decades later, she set off tremors in the literary world with ”Miss MacIntosh, My Darling,” a modernist prose experiment of nearly 1,200 pages. The ”Infinite Jest” of 1965, the novel is Vera Cartwheel’s feverish remembrance of her earthy Midwestern nursemaid, Miss MacIntosh. Writing in these pages, William Goyen pronounced it ”a work of stunning magnitude and beauty,” and declared that Young’s ”arrival must be proclaimed.”
Yet hardly had Young arrived when she disappeared into her next project: a biography of the Indiana-born Socialist labor leader Eugene V. Debs. The book consumed the remainder of her life. At the time of her death, the manuscript ran well over 2,000 pages, and Young had barely reached the strike Debs led in 1894 against the Pullman Car Company. (Debs lived another 32 years.) ”Harp Song for a Radical” has been published at a more manageable 599 pages — a rather extreme pruning, and one that raises questions about its resemblance to the original. Still, the editor, Charles Ruas, has respected the voraciously expansive nature of Young’s writing instead of zeroing in on a central narrative.
In fact, Debs scarcely appears in the first 150 pages, which are a tribute to the European visionaries of the 19th century who landed in America with little more than ”utopian scrolls and perhaps an angel’s foot or an angel’s spare wing.” Afterward, Young uses Debs mainly as a springboard to discuss figures like Abraham Lincoln, Alan Pinkerton, the Molly Maguires and Jesse James. She thinks it immensely significant, for instance, that Lincoln’s son became a lawyer for Pullman, Debs’s foe, and that Pinkerton, the detective whose name was synonymous with antilabor espionage, was a teen-age labor agitator in Glasgow. Such details add little to our understanding of Debs, apart from imbuing his life with an aura of destiny.
Debs has been the subject of several biographies, most recently Nick Salvatore’s meticulous 1982 account, ”Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist.” ”Harp Song” is less a biography than a novel of a lugubriously allegorical sort, steeped in religious imagery. The backdrop is America’s forgotten civil war — the war over the organization of work that erupted shortly after Reconstruction. Young openly declares her allegiance, characterizing Debs’s era as ”a period of cannibalism throughout the American nation when the rich industrialists and railroad lords ate the poor people.” The story has a fable-like simplicity, jumping didactically from the roundup of the Haymarket anarchists to the railway baron Jay Gould ”in his private Pullman palace car… equipped with rifles for shooting Indians, anarchists, tramps, strikers, buffalo herds, whatever moved.”
If class conflict is for Young a modern passion play, Debs is its Christ figure. The temptation to see him in mythic terms is understandable. The leader of the American Socialist Party, Debs was an unyielding critic of economic injustice, a precocious supporter of women’s rights and an outspoken opponent of racism. Born in 1855, he was named after Eug ne Sue and Victor Hugo by his Alsatian parents, who ran a grocery store in Terre Haute. A paint scraper on the railways at 14, he rose to prominence in the 1880’s as the leader of the American Railway Union.
A wiry, intense man whose powers of oratory went virtually unmatched in American life until Martin Luther King Jr., Debs ran for President on the Socialist ticket five times — once from prison, where he had been confined for opposing World War I. In 1912, he received nearly a million votes, 6 percent of those cast. In America as in Europe, Socialism seemed to represent one possible future, and Debs provided it with a human face. And a proudly American face it was: Debs invoked the Founding Fathers far more than he did Marx and Engels, and that was his appeal to the workers across the country who knew him as ”the Unpurchasable” — a title no labor leader has held since.
Young wonders mystically ”if there was such a thing as his awakening, if it had not been his from the day when he was born.” On the contrary: Debs was anything but a born radical. He embraced trade unionism gradually, and Socialism with even greater hesitation. As an organizer for the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen in the 1870’s, Debs preached Christian moral uplift and opposed strikes as a threat to labor-management harmony. Before declaring himself a Socialist in 1897, Debs went through various ideological incarnations, from Democratic Party politician to free-silver Populist.
Young also portrays Debs as an ideal husband, ”unable to understand . . . any man’s infidelity to his wife.” True, Debs was a man of nearly unbending political principle. While campaigning for President in 1900, he slept upright on long train trips rather than travel on a Pullman car. When he was freed from prison in 1922, he donated his release allowance of $5 to Sacco and Vanzetti’s defense team. The private Debs, however, was a morally troubled man, given to hard drinking and racked by depression. Miserable with his wife, Kate, a social climber who was no less miserable being married to a Socialist, he was a frequent visitor to the brothels of Terre Haute. Young praises Debs for refusing, in his years as a city councilman, to fine the town’s prostitutes: ”the poor Magdalenes of the streets — had not Christ associated with them?” Debs’s knowledge of les demoiselles de Terre Haute was, indeed, biblical, but not in the sense Young supposes.
Young is not the first writer to connect Debs to religious themes. Though not a believer, Debs was profoundly influenced by the symbolism of evangelical Protestantism. He often referred to the ”martyred Christ of the working class,” and described himself as having been ”baptized in Socialism.” What makes Young’s book an object of fascination is that it reads like a sermon — like an obsessive, oracular 19th-century text discovered in someone’s attic.
The true subject of ”Harp Song” is not so much Debs as the Midwest itself, a land haunted by the ”wanton slaughter of the feathered red men” and the death of the pre-Marxist utopias. For Young, the Midwest was a ”fanatic state of mind” extending to ”Xanadu, India, Byzantium, China, the Lost Atlantis, everywhere, 12 unseen moons shining over the planet Jupiter.” In ”Harp Song,” she does not reach Byzantium, much less Jupiter, but she gets close. This is not a book for those curious about the particulars of labor strife — the campaign for an eight-hour workday is not mentioned until page 475 — or about Debs’s legacy in our post-Socialist age. It is theology, not politics, that fires Young’s imagination. She is interested in Debs only insofar as he can be made to illustrate her idiosyncratic theology — her romance of the ”American millennial continent.”
Ultimately, Young’s portrait of Debs as regional prophet has the effect of diminishing his secular achievements. With the collapse of Socialism, his vision of Socialist democracy may strike some as no less dreamy than the failed utopian colonies of New Harmony. But Debs was far more than an Indiana dreamer. He was a Socialist of a deeply practical bent, who deplored the insurrectionary rhetoric of the Wobblies and helped build a Socialist Party. In his battles with Samuel Gompers, the head of the American Federation of Labor, Debs linked the struggle for industrial democracy to woman suffrage, civil rights and international peace. Toward the end of his life, he wrote: ”This is a predominantly business age, a commercial age . . . and in a larger sense a sordid age, but the moral and spiritual values of life are not wholly ignored by the people. . . . Some day we shall seek and find and enjoy the real riches of the race.” The man who uttered these words, which resonate in our own day, was a stalwart Hoosier, but he once made a nation tremble.
Review in The Washington Post, 26 September 1999.
“Fanfare for an Uncommon Man” by Stephen 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 heave: the story of an extraordinary man told by an extraordinary woman.
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.)…
My one 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 three-volume work of 800 pages each, 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 Young didn’t quite finish the book, but he doesn’t point out the present book contains only about half of what Young did finish….
Review in The New York Review of Books, 7 October 1999, 4-8.
Only in America by Russell Baker.
For a full development of Russell Baker’s review of Marguerite Young’s biography of Debs, see Chapter 3, “Only in America,” of Baker’s book Looking Back: Heroes, Rascals, and other Icons of the American Imagination, (NY: NYREV, Inc., 2002). It can be read in its entirety on GoogleBooks.
See John Leonard’s review of Harp Song for a Radical: The Life and Times of Eugene Victor Debs in The Nation, November 15, 1999: “Mr. Debs, My Darling”.
See Steven Shaviro’s Review of Harp Song for a Radical at http://www.dhalgren.com/Othertexts.html.
See Rick Levin’s Review of Harp Song for a Radical in The Stranger, January 20, 2000, “The Spinning Head of History: Marguerite Young’s Biography Sets Eugene Debs in Motion.”
Nathan “N.R.” Gaddis’s review of Harp Song for a Radical on goodreads, January 08, 2013.
Marguerite Young wrote a massive, unread novel published in 1965, Miss MacIntosh, My Darling. She spent seventeen years in its writing. Harp Song for a Radical: The Life and Times of Eugene Victor Debs, published in 1999, is her final work, twenty-five years in the writing. Her work also includes a study in american utopia, Angel in the Forest: A Fairy Tale of Two Utopias; a collection of poetry, The Collected Poems of Marguerite Young; and a collection of miscellany, Inviting the Muses: Stories, Essays, Reviews. She is, in our parlance, a BURIED author.
“Sing, sweet muse, of the unsung, the BURIED, the jailed; sing of habitual war called ‘civil’ and its profits, its profiteers and the american tradition of wage-slavery; sing of the gatling’d workers and their champion. Sing Dear Marguerite of Eugene Victor Debs.”
There is no deception, this book is a harp song. It would fit snuggly next to Vollmann’s Seven Dreams project, clocking in at number Eight because after the Red Man was exterminated our great forebears turned their weapons upon the wage-slave, the cog in the great capitalist locomotive who had no crust of bread for the mouths of his wife and his children if he was lucky enough to have survived long enough to have either. Once the profits of the american civil war had been made war had to be made upon the working class. There is no deception, this is a BIASED book, cut along the bias like cloth, following the narrative threads of history and taking sides as only a person of conscience can do. It is wrong to take profits off the backs and labors of the sweating wheel-wiper, fireman, engineer, conductor and not provide but a penny for his grave when the wheels of history slice him in twain. Biased because she has chosen the side of the righteous, the down-trodden, in the greatest of biblical traditions. The accumulation of profits at the cost of untold human life is evil. This tradition of justice is lost in our world of realpolitik=war.
Harp Song is not a biography of Eugene Victor Debs, may his name forever resound in the ear of the worker. This is not a novel about Eugene Victor Debs although it may be read as a novel for those of us who read novels. This is not a cultural history of the nineteenth century and its utopian and millennial hopes, even though it is that and a history of the function of war, its role in providing profits for those who need them most, the wealthy, the class who has more and to whom more will be given as it is taken from those who have less and who have nothing. This is a harp song. It is written for us who have been taught by war to again and again forget that we have not realized any kind of american dream but only an american nightmare, even if we ship most of our miserable wage-slavery off-shore and even if we make war at the doorsteps of homes in other countries from behind a video screen and even if citizens make the sound ‘freedom’ frequently. This harp song is that part of history-telling which the victors do not tell because the cause of Eugene Victor Debs has been defeated, the working class of the american continent has been duly constrained, spied upon under the rubric of ‘security’ in the parking lots of Target stores less the workers there might organize to further the cause of democracy in our great but failed american experiment. But the experiment is over and we have been convinced that our masters, our owners, our one percent, the capitalists are the virtuous. Some of us don’t believe that and will tell the story of our presidential candidate, Eugene Victor Debs, who ran for the presidency in the name of the workers of america (the only one, nearly, to have ever done so) and for that was jailed, his cell being his campaign headquarters. MLK gets a national holiday, but not Eugene Victor Debs, which means that much which MLK has done and said is by necessity forgotten. Our history writing overlords have not assimilated Eugene Victor Debs to their story because in his ancient american history still resides a possibility for our future.