November 14, 2007


Debs with attorney and socialist William A. Cunnea. Credit: Chicago Daily News negatives collection, DN-0003451. Courtesy of the Chicago Historical Society, by way of the Library of Congress.

Welcome to Eugene Debs week at Goat Rope. A few years back I had the chance to portray the union and Socialist leader for a WV Humanities Council program and found him to be a fascinating person.

One challenge of portraying a historical character is just getting the outline of their life in mind. Then comes familiarizing yourself with the person’s speeches or writings and trying to use as many of them as possible in the presentations.

Then comes the challenge of trying to get inside their head.

In the case of Eugene, it wasn’t that hard. He was no Hamlet—what you saw was what you got: sentimental, gregarious, idealistic. Pretty much the polar opposite of El Cabrero.

The son of immigrant parents who established a small grocery, Debs grew up in a close knit, loving family. Reading was a central activity. The works of Rousseau, Voltaire, and Goethe were favorites. Debs was named for two of his father’s favorite authors, Eugene Sue and Victor Hugo.

Hugo’s Les Miserables was probably Debs’ favorite book. He read it over and over—whereas I’d bet serious money he never made it all the way through volume I of Marx’s Das Kapital. He probably cried like a baby at each Les Mis re-reading. One can only imagine him at the musical. (He WOULD hear the people sing.)

Debs dropped out of school at age 14 to work for the railroads. His first job consisted of scraping rust and grease of rail cars, for which he was paid around $.50 per day. After a while, he worked his way up to painting. His “big break” came when he got a chance to work as a locomotive fireman, a dangerous and exhausting job that he enjoyed.

Trains have always been pretty cool, but they were the bomb in the late 1800s, an equivalent of fast cars, jets, rockets and the internet today. It was his first contact with the life of the working class and it made a huge impression.

When depression hit in the early 1870s, he returned to Terra Haute and worked as a clerk for a grocery firm, which was quite a step down. But like many Americans of that century, and like the young Lincoln, he set upon the task of self improvement. He took night classes and joined the Occidental Literary Society, where he made his first efforts at public speaking.

In the mid-1870s, Debs became a charter member and recording secretary of the Terra Haute local of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen, which at the time was more of a fraternal and insurance society than a union. Its motto was Benevolence, Sobriety, Industry.

A key belief seemed to be that if working people conducted themselves with dignity and diligence, their employers would recognize this and reward them accordingly--a theory that would prove naive in the age of trusts and robber barons.

Still, Debs would stay with the BLF for nearly 20 years, eventually rising to prominence within its ranks.

There was nothing in his early life that would indicate the making of a radical. If anything, here was another prairie success story in the making. But life had other plans, about which more tomorrow.

HEALTH CARE MESS. Yesterday's USA Today had an interesting item on the decline of employer-provided health insurance.

OUCH. Here's an item from the UK Guardian about the pain of globalization (they spelled it with an s).

HEADING SOUTH. More than one third of Americans are downwardly mobile these days.

HEADING NORTH. On the other hand, AP estimates the costs of current wars at $1.6 trillion.



Anonymous said...

Just an "aside" question:
My dad's family had a few members who worked on the railroad; did John or Lettie? I don't recall any.....

El Cabrero said...

John was a miner, then a baker, then got killed at Carbide. I think some of his or her people worked on the railroad, including someone named Jim who used to live in Florida.

Anonymous said...

I know less about that side of the family than I do dad's actually, and don't know why. I did remember John's work history. Wonder if Lettie got any benefit from Carbide back in '47, or if she just got SS benefits. I doubt if mom knows anything about that.

El Cabrero said...

I think Carbide actually did provide at least some support to Lettie. Ask Jean about Uncle Jim who used to live in Florida. He was one of the railroad dudes.