A well-timed life of Eugene V. Debs

September 05, 1999|By Larry Williams | Larry Williams,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"Harp Song for a Radical: The Life and Times of Eugene Victor Debs," by Margeurite Young. Knopf. 656 pages. $35.

Eugene Debs is a mythic labor leader and populist who's life story seems worth a good telling just now. With organized labor in decline and many of the liberal social and political ideas Debs championed under assault, a serious book analyzing his appeal to another generation of Americans would be welcome as the last Labor Day of the century is marked.

This richly detailed and passionately written new biography of Debs from novelist Marguerite Young is a serious effort but it does not provide the comprehensive reporting, clear narrative and analytical perspective needed to produce that useful end. Debs' life held enough drama and excitement for a dozen novels and Young, a gifted writer whose poetically powerful 1965 novel "Miss MacIntosh, My Darling" won wide acclaim, clearly felt its epic power.

Frontier child of immigrant parents, teen-aged railway fireman, journalist, union organizer, homespun scholar, reluctant labor warrior, socialist idealist, founder of the International Workers of the World, pacifist, presidential candidate, prisoner of conscience, Debs captured the public imagination a hundred years ago as a man who championed the interests of ordinary workers in a world dominated by powerful business interests.

"While there is a lower class I am in it, while there is a criminal element I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free," said Debs. He built a great railway workers' organization -- the 150,000-member American Railway Union -- and saw it smashed in a 1894 strike where his union boycotted trains carrying Pullman sleeping cars.

The alleged threat to delivery of the U.S. Mail in that confrontation led to intervention by President Grover Cleveland, the deaths of more than two dozen union members and the jailing of Debs and other union leaders. The showdown was a landmark victory for business and conservatives, who demonized Debs. To them he represented the "social pestilence brought here from abroad by the criminals and outcasts of European slums," in the words of a newspaper (Washington Post) editorial of the day.

The right of American workers to strike was thrown into question by the Pullman conflict until the labor wars of the 1930s, by which time Debs, who died in 1926, was viewed as a martyr and a visionary by another generation of union leaders and liberals who took the lead in shaping American life for much of the 20th century. Young, who was moved to begin work on the book during the tumultuous Vietnam War protests of the 1960s, clearly appreciated the relevance of Debs' struggles to more recent social conflicts.

He was sentenced to 10 years in jail in 1918 for opposing the government's prosecution of pacifists during World War I and while in prison received nearly a million votes as the Socialist Party candidate for president in the 1920 election.

In jail he told his followers: "There are no bars and no walls for a man who in his heart is free, and there is no freedom for the man who in his heart is a slave."

Young, who died in 1995, did not fall short for lack for effort, scholarship or passion. Her monumental 600-page study reflects extraordinary erudition. Her knowledge of life in America during the last half of the 19th century appears encyclopedic. Her hot prose reflects the intensity of her commitment to Debs' ideas and her conviction of his importance to his generation and to ours.

She spins interesting tales about Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, about the Mormons and wilderness utopias, about Mary Todd Lincoln and private detective Alan Pinkerton, who helped to break the Pullman strike, and dozens of other peripheral characters who strike her fancy. And she offers sweetly told stories about Debs' life growing up in the rural Midwest, reading Victor Hugo working as a railway fireman, discovering life as editor of the Locomotive Firemen's Magazine and leading his union with vision and generosity.

But the book -- framed over the final 25 years of Young's life and published posthumously with editing by Charles Ruas -- lacks the discipline and perspective that would have made it more useful and accessible.

Large portions of Debs' event-filled life are not covered, the narrative is ragged and critical analysis of Debs' actions and motivations seems almost totally missing.

In the end, this book is too florid, too passionate and too uncontrolled to be truly artful.

More reporting and a more neutral analytical approach might have produced a more coherent and useful portrait of a man whose complexities defied cliche and whose leadership challenges modern political morality.

Larry Williams is projects editor of the Washington bureau of Knight Ridder Newspapers. He served as managing editor of the Akron Beacon-Journal and business editor and labor reporter at the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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