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Edwin Markham's Life and Career--A Concise Overview


William R. Nash

Markham was born Charles Edwin Anson Markham in Oregon City in the Oregon Territory, the son of Samuel Barzillai Markham and Elizabeth Winchell, a rancher. Shortly after Markham’s birth, his parents divorced, and he remained with his mother. In 1856 they moved to a ranch near Suisun, California, where Markham learned to do manual labor and from which his siblings gradually departed to escape their mother's oppressive presence. Markham himself ran away briefly in 1867, returning only when his mother agreed to help subsidize his education. He studied at California College in Vacaville, receiving teacher's certification, and subsequently at both San Jose Normal School and Christian College in Santa Rosa.

Markham began teaching in 1872 in Los Berros, California; in 1874 he moved to Coloma, where he was a popular and prominent figure. There he entered the first of his three marriages, wedding Annie Cox in 1875. They relocated to Placerville, California, where Markham was employed as a school administrator. At about the same time, Markham fell under the influence of Thomas Lake Harris, whom Joseph Slade describes as "a poet, spiritualist, socialist, and charlatan." Markham’s interest in Harris's esoteric ideas shaped much of his intellectual and artistic development, and even in his earliest published poetry, which appeared in 1880, one can see the imprint of Harris's ideology.

Markham's first marriage failed in 1884, probably largely owing to his affair with Elizabeth Senter; Senter died in 1885, leaving Markham alone again. He soon entered another relationship, this time with Caroline Bailey, whom he subsequently married under duress in 1887. She moved out when Markham's mother joined their household, and she died in 1893. In Oakland in 1898 Markham married his third and final wife, Anna Catherine Murphy, with whom he had a son. Anna was Markham's "collaborator and editor" until her death in 1938.

Throughout the 1880s and 1890s Markham continued his teaching career and worked hard to establish himself as an important poetic voice. He published several individual poems and sought the insight of established literary figures such as Hamlin Garland and Ambrose Bierce regarding what direction he should take with his verse. Garland encouraged him to emphasize the realistic, while Bierce praised him for his idealism. Ultimately, however, Markham turned to his mystic beliefs and his interest in the difficulties of poor working people and crafted the poem that made him famous: "The Man with the Hoe."

"The Man with the Hoe" was a strong commentary on America's working class and their tribulations. Inspired by French artist François Millet's 1862 woodcut, also titled The Man with the Hoe, Markham's poem was first published in the San Francisco Examiner on 15 January 1899. The work vividly describes the oppressed day laborer and sends a challenge to the larger society as well:

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?

The poem was well received and spread almost immediately across the country. In line with the broad reform movements of its day, "The Man with the Hoe" sparked a great deal of controversy. Critic Edward B. Payne (1899) noted that the poem

appears to have everywhere stimulated thought upon social problems, and to have called out vigorous and diversified expressions of opinions all along the line of its course.... Clergy made the poem their text; platform orators dilated upon it; college professors lectured upon it; debating societies discussed it; schools took it up for study in their literary courses; and it was the subject of conversation in social circles and on the streets.

The success of "The Man with the Hoe," which was reprinted literally thousands of times in dozens of languages before Markham's death, paved the way for Markham's advancement and also became the title work of his first book of poetry, The Man with the Hoe and Other Poems (1899). Not all of the poetry in the volume is radical; indeed, Markham also turned to romantic treatments of much more common poetic subjects, as "A Prayer."

Teach me, Father, how to go
Softly as the grasses grow;
Hush my soul to meet the shock
Of the wild world as a rock;
But my spirit, propt with power,
Make as simple as a flower.
Let the dry heart fill its cup,
Like a poppy looking up;
Let life lightly wear her crown,
Like a poppy looking down,
When its heart is filled with dew,
And its life begins anew.

Definitely influenced by Markham's mysticism, the poem resonates much more with contemporary American verse and does not sound the strong call to reform of the volume's title piece; nevertheless, both critics and the general public were favorably impressed.

On the strength of his first book, Markham received a request to write a poem commemorating Abraham Lincoln's birthday in 1900. He first read "Lincoln, the Man of the People" in New York before the celebration, and once again the newspapers picked it up and spread it across the nation. The poem was again well received, both in print and when Markham read it at the birthday ceremonies; he read it publicly again in 1922 at the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial. "Lincoln" did much to further strengthen Markham's growing reputation; Jack London compared Markham's poem favorably with Whitman’s "O Captain, My Captain" and suggested that in the future, Markham's would be the poetic name most closely associated with the fallen leader's legacy.

In 1901 Markham published his second volume, Lincoln and Other Poems. After that first burst of creative output, Markham's productivity slowed dramatically. His third volume of poetry, The Shoes of Happiness, did not appear until 1915; his fourth, The Gates of Paradise, appeared in 1920, and his final book, New Poems: Eighty Songs at Eighty, was published in 1932. Between publications, Markham lectured and wrote in other genres, including essays and nonfiction prose. He also gave much of his time to organizations such as the Poetry Society of America, which he established in 1910. Throughout Markham's later life, many readers viewed him as an important voice in American poetry, a position signified by honors such as his election in 1908 to the National Institute of Arts and Letters. Despite his numerous accolades, however, none of his later books achieved the success of the first two.

The change in Markham’s literary significance has been tied to the development of modernist poetry and his steadfast refusal to change to meet the increasing demands arising with the appearance of poets such as Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, and William Carlos Williams. Their emphasis on changes in literary forms and their movement away from social commentary and political topics made much of what distinguished Markham's verse dated. He gradually fell from critical favor, and his reputation never fully recovered.

Nevertheless, despite the critics' increasing disenchantment with him, Markham remained an important public figure, traveling across the nation and receiving warm praise nearly everywhere he went. At his home on Staten Island, his birthday was a local school holiday, and children marked the event by covering his lawn with flowers. The crowning glory came on Markham’s eightieth birthday, when a number of prominent citizens, including President Herbert Hoover, honored his accomplishments at a party in Carnegie Hall and named him one of the most important artists of his age. In 1936 Markham suffered a debilitating stroke from which he never fully recovered; he died at his home on Staten Island, New York.

In his day Markham managed to fuse art and social commentary in a manner that guaranteed him a place among the most famous artists of the late nineteenth century. His reputation has faded because of the somewhat dated nature of his verse; nevertheless, he remains a notable figure for his contributions to American poetry. His work stands as an example of what American critics and readers valued near the turn of the century. His poetry offers insight into an important phase in the development of American letters.

The most comprehensive collection of Markham's papers is the Markham Archives of Horrmann Library, at Wagner College, New York City, which includes all of Markham's library and correspondence as well as numerous unpublished manuscripts and other important resources. A number of doctoral dissertations have been done on Markham; the most helpful is Joseph W. Slade, "Edwin Markham: A Critical Biography" (Ph.D. diss., New York Univ., 1971); Slade also wrote the entry on Markham for the Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 54, which is noteworthy for its comprehensiveness. Other useful sources include Louis Filler, The Unknown Edwin Markham: His Mystery and Its Significance (1966) and "Edwin Markham, Poetry, and What Have You," Antioch Review 23, no. 4 (1963-1964): 447-59. Contemporary criticism of Markham's work is interesting and useful, particularly Edward B. Payne "The ‘Hoe Man’ on Trial," Arena 22, no. 1 (1899): 17-24, and Leonard D. Abbott, "Edwin Markham: Laureate of Labor," Comrade 1, no. 4 (1902): 74-75. For more recent criticism, see William R. Nash, "Edwin Markham," in Whitman’s and Dickinson's Contemporaries: An Anthology of Their Verse (1996). An obituary is in the New York Times, 8 Mar. 1940.

From American National Biography. Copyright İ 1999 by Oxford UP.


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