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On Edwin Markham's "The Man with a Hoe"

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 strong.

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
    the dusk,
Swinging forward like some fierce, silent animal,
I see a man doomed to roll a huge stone up an
    endless steep.
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.

Melissa Dabakis

In 1899, Edwin Markham brought attention to Millet’s painting, Man with a Hoe of 1860-2 — a graphic representation of the effects of a lifetime of ceaseless labor by publishing a controversial poem of the same name San Francisco Examiner. In this poem, Markham had originally equated the French peasant with the American farm laborer in a plea for agrarian reform. Although Markham intended his poem solely as a commentary upon the hardships of farm life, it had an explosive affect upon its public. To many, the phrase "man with a hoe" assumed a much broader meaning, serving as a code for rural degradation and industrial unrest. Much discussion regarding the poem ensued in the popular press; the Oakland Tribune even sponsored a "Hoe-Man Symposium" that same year. Using the poem as a call for social reform, socialists, clerics, and teachers who participated in the symposium argued that the factory system, inequities in distribution and production, competition, and technology – the whole gamut of industrial woes – had created acclimate in which the "hoe-man" flourished.

In focusing upon Millet’s Man with a Hoe, Markham challenged the efficacy of republican agrarian myths -- often embodied in the image of the sturdy, independent, and proud yeoman farmer. In contrast, this painting presented a bent and broken peasant, wizened beyond his years, who toiled at the seemingly impossible task of cultivating a rocky wasteland stretching to the picture’s horizon. Markham wrote the opening stanza of the poem upon seeing Millet’s world-famous painting.

Bowed by the weight of centuries he leans
Upon the 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?

Such powerful language angered those Americans who still believed in the nobility of rural work and the sacredness of the land. In response to those who resisted the call to agrarian reform, Markham adopted the view of social reformers, arguing that his poem not only embraced agrarian labor, but also indicted the evils of the industrial system. He wrote in 1900:

I soon realized that Millet puts before us no chance toiler, no mere man of the fields. No, this stunned and stolid peasant is the type of industrial oppression in all lands and in all labors. He might be a man with a needle in a New York sweat shop, a man with a pick in a West Virginia coal mine….

The hoeman is the symbol of betrayed humanity, the toiler ground down through ages of oppression, through ages of social injustice. He is the man pushed away from the land by those who fail to use the land, till at last he has become a serf, with no mind in his muscle, and no heart in his handiwork….

In the hoeman we see the slow, sure, awful degradation of man through endless, hopeless and joyless labor. Did I say labor? No—drudgery.

Indeed, this poem represented a form of literary dissent – a protest against the changing conditions of labor in rural and urban America. As demonstrated by the powerful public response to both Markham’s poem and Millet’s painting, the representation of the worker, both literary and visual, served as a lightening rod in the struggle over social change. By the 1880s, the worker had assumed a variety of social guises: serving the ends of reform as the hapless victim of industrial oppression and bolstering the forces of the status quo as the demonized agent of anarchy and violent change.

From Visualizing Labor in American Sculpture. Ó 1999 Cambridge UP.

 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-François 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 humanity."

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.

Cary Nelson

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 François 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 politicians.

"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 warrant.

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-siècle 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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