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

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

Marguerite Young. Alfred A. Knopf, $35 (624pp) ISBN 978-0-679-42757-5

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 (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 dwelling--in exuberant prose so purple it often clots the narrative flow--on 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 pieces--e.g., on the physician who developed the Gatling gun or the cultural assumptions behind the McGuffey reader--distill 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.)