Don't pick up this fascinating, deeply eccentric book expecting to find a conventional biography of Eugene V. Debs (1855-1926). The fiery American labor leader who founded the Socialist Party of America is not so much the subject as the central figure in a group portrait of utopian dreamers--including Karl Marx, Brigham Young, abolitionist Wendell Phillips, poet James Whitcomb Riley, and detective-agency founder Allan Pinkerton--from the time of the French Revolution through the dawn of the 20th century. Author Marguerite Young is a legendary Greenwich Village bohemian who died in 1995. She devoted the last 25 years of her life to this volume, which was intended as a recapitulation of the issues that had engaged Debs--justice for workers, peace for everyone, racial equality--and continued to galvanize America in the 1960s and beyond. Young doesn't provide a lot of straight factual information about Debs's life, but takes instead a snapshot of his soul as it was formed by reading and experience. The narrative closes (sort of) with the national railroad strike of 1877, a bitter defeat for labor that turned railroad worker and union activist Debs toward greater radicalism. Though not a work for the traditionally minded, Young's genre-bending book will thrill students of American social and socialist history. --Wendy Smith
From Publishers Weekly
Edited by Charles Ruas and published posthumously (Young died in 1995), this biography of the celebrated labor leader Debs (1855-1926) is a prodigious effortAbut hardly a traditional biography. It's much more concerned with the times than with the life of Debs. Thus, Debs's historical achievementsAleading railway strikes, establishing the Socialist Party, running for president between 1900 and 1912, getting imprisoned for opposing U.S. entry into WWIAare virtually absent from the book. Instead, Young (author of the novel Miss Macintosh, My Darling) painstakingly constructs a vast tapestry that periodically invokes Debs (notably his parentage, Midwestern youth and editorship of the Locomotive Firemen's Magazine) while dwellingAin exuberant prose so purple it often clots the narrative flowAon elements of his era. For the first third of the book, the most prominent character is the obscure German utopian Wilhelm Weitling; Young also leads readers on excursions with Heinrich Heine, Karl Marx and the Mormons. A more familiar cast animates the rest of the book, which features long passages on Susan B. Anthony, Mary Todd Lincoln and anti-labor private detective Allan Pinkerton. Some shorter set piecesAe.g., on the physician who developed the Gatling gun or the cultural assumptions behind the McGuffey readerAdistill Young's epic erudition in more manageable form. 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 disciplined portrait of Debs nor insightful historical synthesis is among its accomplishments. Photos not seen by PW. (Aug.) Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.
Looking at the other customer reviews for this unusual book, I doubt that the reviewers either read the introduction or that they actually read more than a few pages. This is not a conventional biography. Nor is it a completed, polished work. Marguerite Young died when her biography of Debs was incomplete and very much a work in progress. Had she lived to complete it, it would have been a fuller picture of his life. But her idiosyncratic approach would still have colored every page. It is also helpful to understand that in writing one of her previous books--"Angel in the Forest"--Young started out writing a lengthy poem, then converted it into a prose work. (The Debs book is in some ways reminiscent of Stephen Vincent Benet's "John Brown's Body," only Young employed blank verse.)The Debs book has been described as Whitmanesque, and it is reminiscent of both the poetry and prose of that pillar of American literature. As both a poet and prose writer, Young takes a lyrical, almost stream of consciousness approach in this book. (Her work has also been likened to James Joyce's--a comparison she apparently disliked, though it strikes me as appropriate.) Those who criticize the book for its rambling style seem to miss this point.Others have suggested that the book might better be entitled "The Times and Life of Eugene Victor Debs." In her unconventional approach, Young does seem to focus more on a history of the times in which Debs lived than on the man himself. The book pays particular attention to the socioeconomic and political developments which shaped the industrial revolution in this country, particularly the American labor movement.Read more ›
I actually liked this book; this is apparently a minority view. I too was expecting a biography of Debs and got a more general history of 19th Century America and the Labor Movement (among many other things).
However, once I made the commitment to read it (I had just started a job with quite a bit of down time), I loved it. It was obviously the product of an enormous amount of work, both research and writing. It reads like a long love poem to the people and organizations who struggled to give us what we now consider an entitlement - weekends off, the minimum wage, basic safety and health regulations on the job, etc.
It also gave me a good introduction, which I found fascinating, to the various communes, cults and socio/religious/political movements that sprung up like weeds in the 19th Century.
This is a heartfelt tribute to a bygone era well worth reading.
However, if you want a biography of Debs, read something else after you read "Harp Song."
Even if we accept that Young wanted to paint a poetic portrait of "the times" rather than provide a traditional biography of Debs, this book is a painful failure. Painful, because she meant so well and worked so hard. A failure, because the work is clearly incomplete and just as clearly, nearly unedited. A single sentence may go on for thirty lines or more, and abruptly lurch among as many as six individuals and four decades. Her lapses into lyricism leave the reader puzzled as to whether she is writing about something that *did* happen, or something that she imagined could, should, or might have happened. The prose obfuscates events, rather than illuminating them. The tone is unrelentingly melodramatic; her admiration for Debs and other utopians is more than balanced by the bitterness she brings to every page regarding the forces which opposed her heroes. I am uncomfortable criticizing what was an earnest labor of love lasting, according to various reviewers, 10, 15, or 25 years at the end of Young's life. The preface states that at one point, all the drafts were damaged and scrambled together. Well, it shows, and an editor who truly wanted to honor Young's work would not have let it be published as is; and someone who wanted to honor Debs would not have described or marketed this poetic history of the times as if it were a factual history of his life.
Seriously, pick up a copy. You'll have so much fun. Open the book to any random page and start reading; if the sentence you stumble upon has fewer than a hundred words, you take a drink. You will stay sober for a long, long time.
I have honestly had a room full of people in hysterics as I recited from this book. Bizarre does not even begin to approach the writing and the decision to publish.