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David R. Weimer
For the present, I wish only to illustrate what may be done in
the reconstruction of labor history by using kinds of materials and of interpretation not
ordinarily treated as relevant to this pursuit, and by setting forth the worker’s
attitudes toward something quite inadequately described in existing studies—the
worker, himself, as a human being. Our microcosm will be the American Federation of Labor
from its origins in 1881 to World War I, in the green years when trade-union leaders began
seriously to challenge the narrow business ideals that had made employers temporarily
Two poems by the minor American poet Edwin Markham (1857-1940) can help bring us to the
mind and imagination of the AFL leadership. One of the poems, "The Man under the
Stone," appeared at the top of the first page in the official AFL monthly magazine,
the American Federationist, for July 1899. The full text is as follows:
When I see a workingman with mouths to feed,
Up, day after day, in the dark, before the dawn,
And coming home, night after night, through
Swinging forward like some fierce, silent animal,
I see a man doomed to roll a huge stone up an
He strains it onward inch by stubborn inch,
Crouched always in the shadow of the rock….
See where he crouches, twisted, cramped, misshapen!
He lifts for their life;
The veins knot and darken—
Blood surges into his face.
Now he loses—now he wins—
Now he loses—loses—(God of my soul!)
He digs his feet into the earth—
There’s a moment of terrified effort…
Will the huge stone break his hold,
And crush him as it plunges to the gulf?
The silent struggle goes on and on,
Like two contending in a dream.
The overt conflict is simply enough conceived in this melodrama. The
worker—appropriately not a union man but a "workingman"—is described
as a beast whose existence is one of perpetual physical labor. His toil and even his
appearance call to mind "some fierce, silent animal," not a man. He has a
family, but the members exist only as "mouths to feed." Unselfish as he is,
slaving "for their life," his progress is nevertheless uncertain. For the AFL
unionist, the major conflict in the poem would not have been between the man and the stone
(an analogy unlikely to convince anyone); it would have been the one suggested by the
imagery, between an animal and a human life.
Markham’s more famous poem, "The Man with the Hoe" (also published in 1899),
deals with the same theme. Here is the opening stanza, which more than the rest of the
poem recalls the Millet painting upon which it was based:
Bowed by the weight of centuries he leans
Upon his hoe and gazes on the ground,
The emptiness of ages in his face,
And on his back the burden of the world.
Who made him dead to rapture and despair,
A thing that grieves not and that never hopes,
Stolid and stunned, a brother to the ox?
Who loosened and let down this brutal jaw?
Whose was the hand that slanted back this brow?
Whose breath blew out the light within this brain?
Both poems depict the same kind of figure—more animal than human, the victim of a
lasting struggle for biological survival. In both, the tone is a mingled pity and despair.
Although "The Man with the Hoe" was not reprinted in AFL publications, it
had, in the opinion of Henry Nash Smith, a "sensational vogue" around the turn
of the century. In his words, the poem "assimilated the American farmer to the
downtrodden and brutalized peasant of Europe," but this agrarian reference did not
seem to lessen its appeal to urban workers and others engaged in labor-union activity. It
was, for example, a favorite poem of Eugene Debs, who was "excited" by the
humanitarian implications of its portrayal of the oppressed worker. President Samuel
Gompers (1850 – 1924) of the American Federation of Labor was strongly enough impressed by
the dark image of the man with the hoe to comment upon it in his formal report at a
national AFL convention. "Due to the bona fide labor movement of the
world," Gompers declared to the assembled delegates in 1905, "we are
living in the time when there is disappearing, and soon will be eliminated, the last
vestige of that type ‘the man with the hoe’ and taking his place is the
intelligent worker, standing erect, looking his fellow man in the face, demanding
for himself, and according to all, the full rights of disenthralled manhood" (italics
added). The man with the hoe was, in short, a counter-image to that of the trade unionist.
A French landscape painter and a popular American poet had provided a name and a concrete
focus for this theme which ran through the speeches and writings of AFL spokesmen in the
late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. "There is no shape more terrible than
this"—here, in Markham’s words, was the union leaders’ conception of the
exploited worker down the ages. This "thing" symbolized for them the sort of
creature that wageworkers, but for the trade union, might have been. Gompers’ speech to
the convention merely furnishes an explicit statement of this imaginative idea.
from Studies in American Culture: Dominant Ideas and Images. Ed. Joseph J.
Kwiat and Mary C. Turpie. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P. Copyright ? 1960 by the
University of Minnesota.
Paul Lauter and Ann Fitzgerald
Markham’s "The Man with a Hoe" was undoubtedly, with Longfellow’s
"Hiawatha," Lowell’s "Old Ironsides," Whittier’s
"Snowbound," and Emerson’s "Concord Hymn," among the most popular of
nineteenth-century poems. In the days and weeks after it first appeared on January 15,
1899, in the San Francisco Examiner, Markham’s poem was republished in over
10,000 newspapers and magazines, and translated into more than forty languages. But unlike
those earlier popular successes, Markham’s poem was, in its time, a controversial work: it
was both proclaimed and denounced as advocating socialism. There were those who saw it as
articulating the grievances of farmers and workers against the excessive power of banks,
railroads, and capitalists. Others took it to express a "radical" solution to
the troubles of an America that had just moved from being a majority rural to a majority
urban nation, a country within which disparities of wealth were rapidly widening, a
populace wherein the presumably inarticulate voice of the worker and the immigrant were
little heard. But there were also those who perceived it as a dangerous call to unneeded
and unwanted reforms. Markham himself saw it as "a poem of hope." Written after
seeing Jean-Fran?ois Millet’s famous painting, the poem for Markham was an effort to
capture what the painter had seized upon. Millet, Markham wrote, "had swept his
canvas bare of everything that was merely pretty, and projected this startling figure
before us in all its rugged and savage reality. . . . I saw in it the symbol of betrayed
Read today, it is hard to understand just why the poem hit such sensitive nerves. In
its elaborate language, learned metaphors, and narrowly reformist ideology, it seems, as
it is, the expression of middle-class fear as well as middle-class desire for top-down
solutions to prevailing social problems. However that might have been, the poem and its
promotion by the Hearst newspapers in which it was first published established Markham’s
career. From that point until almost the end of his life, he became a fixture of poetry
societies and reading circuits, as well as of the periodicals that spoke to, or at least
helped create, mass culture. Few personalities of the time were as widely known as
Markham, and few profited so systematically as he from celebrity.
He had been born in the Oregon Territory to an extremely demanding mother, who moved to
California with her youngest children when Edwin was four. There he was educated, learned
to work a ranch, attended California College in Vacaville and San Jose Normal School, and
taught and administered a number of schools. He also entered into a series of disastrous
marriages and liaisons and in the 1880s began to earn money by writing poetry, published
at first in local newspapers, then in nationally circulated magazines including The
Century and Scribner’s. He also for a period came under the influence of the
leader, Thomas Lake Harris, of a utopian colony of the sort rather too often charged
against California. The efforts of the Brotherhood of the New Life to reconcile vague
ideals of equality, religious aspirations, and social reform would brand Markham’s
poetry–widely popular in its time but increasingly marginal in the formally experimental
and intellectually ambiguous world of the inter-war period. A philosophy that claimed
"two things–reverence for women and consecration to Social Solidarity" as the
hope for political progress could not withstand the onslaught of modernism. Thus, while he
may have been the most well known poet of his period among ordinary people, his reputation
among critics and other writers declined to almost vanishing. "The Man with a
Hoe" and, perhaps, his "Lincoln, the Man of the People" are of all his
verse alone read today.
from Literature, Class, and Culture: An Anthology. Ed. Paul Lauter and Ann
Fitzgerald. Copyright ? 2001 by Addison Wesley Longman, Inc.
Markham’s "The Man With the Hoe" is the one American poem of protest against
abusive working conditions almost universally remembered, remembered not only by
literature professors but also, for many years, by the general public. For decades every
high school student read it and some still do. It was first published in the San Francisco
Examiner in January 1899 and soon reprinted in newspaper after newspaper across
the country. It was one of several protest poems Markham published and not the only one to
receive wide circulation, but its status is nonetheless exceptional. It was eventually
translated into forty languages and became one of the anthems of the American labor
movement, though in some ways, as I shall show, an atypical one. It also provoked a
genuine national debate about its meaning and implications, one of the few times in our
history a poem was the subject of such wide discussion and controversy over its proper
interpretation. It was admired, attacked, imitated, and satirized repeatedly; it was
reprinted in numerous special editions and pamphlets, though apparently there were no
successful takers for railroad magnate Collis Huntington’s pledge of a $5,000 reward for a
poem refuting "The Man With the Hoe" with equal vigor. People argued over its
meaning with a dedication usually reserved for specialists. And it is, as it happens,
unquestionably the perfect poem to have played the role it played in American culture then
and since. One reader wrote to the Examiner (March 11, 1899) worried that the
poem’s depressing depiction of rural working conditions would lead to "thousands of
misguided country youth flocking to our cities," while another a week earlier had
castigated it as "the dreamy note of the inaccurate thinker stirred to sentimental
sorrow by the appearance of wrong, too careless or unable to distinguish aright the cause
of the trouble."
The poem is an explicit response to an oil painting by the French artist Jean Fran?ois
Millet (1814-1875), one of several paintings on contemporary agricultural working-class
subjects Millet produced at the middle of the 19th century. It depicts a rough-shod farmer
or agricultural worker, probably exhausted and certainly leaning forward on his hoe in a
flat scrub landscape as yet untamed and unplowed. Just when Markham first saw the painting
or a reproduction of it is unclear; he gave conflicting accounts during the course of his
life. In any case, in one of the many ironies surrounding this text and its dissemination
and reception, it is worth noting that the painting was first brought to San Francisco,
across the bay from Markham’s Oakland, California, home, in 1891, by Mrs. William H.
Crocker, the wife of the heir to a fortune amassed by one of California’s railroad barons.
Charles Crocker had been inspired virtually to enslave Chinese laborers to help build the
transcontinental railroad. Millet’s painting had provoked something of scandal when it was
first exhibited in Paris; the artist was accused of being both an anarchist and a
socialist. But within a few decades its sentiments seemed acceptable to a wealthy San
Francisco patron of the arts. She presumably did not see her family’s economic history
reflected in the overburdened laborer who fills the central third of the canvas.
While the painting was the decisive stimulus for the poem, Markham also clearly had in
mind the great American labor struggles of the preceding decades, notably the coal strikes
of the 1860s and 70s, the rail strikes of the 1870s, 80s, and 90s, and such historic
events as the Haymarket massacre of 1886 and the Homestead, Pennsylvania, strike of steel
and iron workers in 1892. Markham had himself been a farm laborer and had herded sheep as
a young boy, so he also had some direct knowledge of the sort of work he was describing.
The poem is effective in marshalling moral outrage and linking it to literariness on
workers’ behalf. Its indictment of the ravages wrought by those in power was decisive for
its time, in part because Markham treated exploitation as a violation of God’s will. The
poem is equally successful at issuing a broad revolutionary warning to capitalists and
"The Man With the Hoe" also crystallizes a hundred years of American labor
protest poetry and song and finally takes much of its message to a broad national
audience. Markham no doubt knew some of that tradition, at least John Greenleaf Whittier’s
1850 Songs of Labor and Other Poems if perhaps not more ephemeral texts like John
McIlvaine’s 1799 broadside poem "Address to the Journeymen Cordwainers L.B. of
Philadelphia": "Cordwainers! Arouse! The time has come / When our rights should
be fully protected." But the tradition in America had long been persistently dual:
professional writers taking up labor issues and agitating in verse for decent wages and
working conditions and working people themselves producing their own rousing songs and
poems. Philip Foner’s marvelous 1975 American Labor Songs of the Nineteenth Century
is the most comprehensive collection. The painting that inspired Markham is partly
ambiguous: we cannot really know whether Millet’s man with the hoe is too crushed to speak
or has just stepped forward to tell us his story.
For Markham the question is settled. "Stolid and stunned, a brother to the
ox," the laborer does not utter a word. His presence is riveting but altogether
determined by his victimhood. He has no culture of his own. We see "the emptiness of
ages in his face." The laborer’s imaged form speaks volumes, but he himself is mute.
Despite the fact that the subaltern in this case had repeatedly spoken, Markham
retroactively declares him unable to speak. The history of indigenous labor protest and
song is forgotten and Markham instead speaks on behalf of mute suffering. It is the poem’s
address that raises the possibility "this dumb Terror shall reply to God, / After the
silence of the centuries." The relentless othering of the worker persists
throughout the poem despite Markham’s evident outrage at his exploitation. It is that
consistent othering of the worker——"Who loosened and let down this brutal
jaw? . . . Whose breath blew out the light within this brain"——that made
the poem widely acceptable at the time and earned it partial acceptance within the
dominant culture’s literary canon for so long. As a mute object of sympathy, the worker
has no role in establishing the meaning of his suffering.
The impulse to dehumanize or infantilize victims, to deny the existence of their
alternative cultures, was hardly new. Americans had done it with Native Americans and with
their African American slaves. Nor was awareness of the risks of a racial othering and
dehumanization unknown. It is one of the themes of abolitionist poetry and it surfaces
again in turn-of-the-century poetry protesting the slaughter by American troops of the
people of the Philippines, poems contemporary with Markham’s. But the appeal of such power
relationships leads us repeatedly to reenact them. In Markham’s case, ironically, the
implicit reaffirmation of such hierarchies helped give the poem remarkable cultural
Given the poem’s huge and instant success it is not surprising that the Examiner
should want to commemorate its pride in being the first place to publish it. So that same
year (1899) the San Francisco paper reinvented the poem as an elaborately illustrated
supplement to its Sunday edition. It is by far the most memorable reprinting of "The
Man With the Hoe." Already oddly positioned within William Randolph Hearst’s
sometimes melodramatic newspaper, the poem has its inner tensions further exacerbated by
the Examiner’s richly contradictory fin-de-si?cle presentation. Notoriously
imperialist, the paper was also by turns sensationalist and antagonistic toward the barons
of monopoly capitalism. Markham, wholly in sympathy with the plight of exploited workers,
was nonetheless uneasy with organized labor and its aggressive and collective agency from
below. All this, curiously, is enhanced by the poem’s new incarnation.
The poem is printed on a large sheet of heavy paper about twenty-two inches wide. This
broadside in turn had a series of images printed on its reverse side before it was folded
in half so as to make the poem into a folder with a front and back cover. Unashamed of
stylistic contradiction or cheerfully eclectic, the accompanying images mix elements of a
Victorian scrap book with art nouveau and Edwardian book illustration. An oval portrait of
Markham, framed in laurel leaves, shares the cover with an engraving after the central
figure in Millet’s painting [Fig. 1]. On the back cover a skeletal grim reaper rides a
horse of the apocalypse down a road past poplar trees straining against the wind [Fig. 2].
Ringing the blade of his scythe is a crown that once perhaps sat on a head of state. Above
the image two lines heralding a future of radical change and retribution are quoted from
Markham: "When whirlwinds of rebellion shake the world? How will it be with Kingdoms
and with Kings."
Inside, the poem is presented in two floral frames on opposite sides of the sheet [Fig.
3]. On the lower left, a bat-winged figure, part satyr and part serpent, lies vanquished,
his ill-gotten crown beside him on the ground. To his left another snake, this one itself
satanically crowned, coils itself around the tripod of science and a book of the law,
showing us how culture can be allied with the forces of repression but also potentially
evoking a populist anti-intellectualism and values Hearst held in contempt. Above all
this, hovering in mid-air, is the agent of their undoing: a goddess of liberty wielding a
flaming sword and a wreath of laurel. On her shoulders an adoring eagle is perched to
serve as her wings. Below her the river of life, above her the clouds, sweep in harmonious
brush strokes toward a redeemed destiny.
Nowhere in the illustration are there factory owners or workers to be seen. The
illustration interprets the poem as a symbolic confrontation between abstract,
mythological forces. Human agency is imaged out of it. If this presentation underlines the
poem’s high cultural ambitions, then, it also underwrites its relevance to eternal values
rather than immediate (and potentially threatening) historical contexts. It is a version
of the poem, needless to say, that the English profession would find more suitable, a
properly transcendentalizing interpretation of the poem’s idealizations. In a way, it is
the version of the poem that generations of high school teachers have found fittingly
literary. Contemporary struggles, inequities at arm’s distance, are not the concern of
this sort of literariness, which awaits a paradise to be regained in the fullness of time
but accessible now in unsullied aestheticism.
The poem itself of course had other cultural effects. Despite its problematic
curtailment of workers’ agency, its condemnation of exploitation made it possible to
articulate it to labor reform movements. It was open to multiple interpretations, only one
of which is built into this illustrated version. Meanwhile, worker poets themselves would
have to write poems suggesting they take matters into their own hands.
Note: see Revolutionary Memory for the full set of illustrations.
Reprinted from Cary Nelson, Revolutionary Memory: Recovering the Poetry of the
American Left. Copyright 2001 by Routledge.
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