Harp Song for a Radical: The Life and Times of Eugene Victor Debs

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Alfred Knopf, 1999 - Biography & Autobiography - 599 pages
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An extraordinary literary accomplishment, thirty-five years in the making, from the greatly admired author of Miss Macintosh, My Darling ("A work of stunning magnitude and beauty" --"New York Times Book Review): a biography of Eugene Victor Debs, the country's first great labor leader.
To set the stage for her protagonist, in whose struggles she saw acted out all of the conflicted forces that shaped industrial America, and to trace the roots of the American labor and socialist movements, the author opens up a sweep of history and an epic cast of characters. Here are Generals Sheridan and Custer, heroes of the Civil War, fighting the Indians in the West and the workers in the mines, the factories, and on the railroads . . . Alan Pinkerton, the radical weaver from Scotland who came to the New World and created an agency dedicated to destroying labor organizations. Presidents Lincoln, Grant, Cleveland, and Wilson appear. We see the dreamers, the reformers, the crusaders, among them Susan B. Anthony and Sojourner Truth. Here are Henry James Sr., who educated his children according to the tenets of Fourier; James Whitcomb Riley, author of "Little Orphan Annie"; James McNeill Whistler, whose father built a railroad for the czar of Russia; Samuel Gompers, head of the Federation of Labor; the governor of Illinois . . . who refused to call in the army to break the Pullman Strike, or the "Debs Strike" as it came to be called. Men and women, high and low, are caught by the author in the struggle to maintain ideals, in the fight for the rights and dignity of the individual that forged the American identity and ever afterward characterized the American culture.
Marguerite Young takesus into the world of the men who led the American multitudes west before the Civil War--and shows how these pioneers were influenced by the French Revolution's Saint-Simon and Fourier, and then by the German idealists Heinrich Heine, Karl Marx, and Wilhelm Weitling who visited secular and religious settlements across the United States.
All these threads come together in the life and personality of Eugene Debs: his childhood in Terre Haute, Indiana, in the pastoral America that faded into a distant golden memory after the Civil War, when the town became a center of transportation for industrial expansion. We see Debs finding employment in the railroad yards, becoming caught up in the plight of his fellow workers, editing the union paper, traveling across the country, gathering the knowledge and acquiring the consciousness that inspired him to espouse collective action on behalf of labor, to found the Industrial Workers of the World, and to run as the Socialist candidate for president of the United States five times--three times from prison.
We see the fierce struggle between the classes--and Debs in the thick of the fight--as the American promise opens up for the men and women in the factories, in the mills, in the stockyards. We see Debs the worker becoming a political leader, becoming a reformer, becoming the voice of the workingman, becoming the founder of American Socialism. Debs, reviled and loved, Debs with the look of a plain man, an austere country doctor, becoming a mythic hero of the age.
A mesmerizing dual portrait of a man and a century.

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Harp song for a radical: the life and times of Eugene Victor Debs

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This huge biography by poet/novelist Young, now deceased, was 25 years in the making. Read full review

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About the author (1999)

Marguerite Young was the author of one novel, Miss MacIntosh, My Darling; two books of poetry, Prismatic Ground and Moderate Fable; and the nonfiction epic Angel in the Forest: A Fairy Tale of Two Utopias. She taught creative writing at Indiana, Columbia, Fairleigh Dickinson, and Fordham Universities, the University of Iowa, and the New School for Social Research. She was born in 1908 in Indiana, lived in New York City for forty-seven years, and, during the last two years of her life, returned to Indianapolis. Harp Song for a Radical began as an essay on Debs and Indiana, and became for Marguerite Young a life-long work. She died before finishing her final editing of the book--a task completed by her friend of many years, Charles Ruas.

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