June 3, 2010

On the Bending Cross

Eugene Victor Debs is a personal hero of mine. I first learned about him and his work not in a scholastic setting, but in the pages of the late Howard Zinn’s _People’s History_. I was excited to take on a full-length biography of the man. For _The Bending Cross_, Haymarket has repackaged a biography from 1947 and placed new front material in the book. The text and the critical approach as a result are somewhat dated.

Textually,If you can get past the no-longer-P.C. references to African Americans as ‘negroes,’ you should be fine as a reader. Critically however, I have a feeling that desire to round off the edges of Comrade Debs might have made the author wear rose-colored glasses. I never met Eugene Debs, so I cannot verify the characterization of the man, but the Debs that we read about the pages of Ginger’s biography is so nice and so aloof that I honestly would not believe him as a character in a fictional work.

In fact, the Debs of _The Bending Cross_ did remind me of a fictional character. I kept thinking of Aleksey Fyodorovich Karamazov in Doestoevski’s novel. Alyosha comes across as fake in the sense that Debs is too fake. They’re both written to clearly as allegorical Christ figures. Ginger makes this comparison explicit as he begins his long march to the end (399). The lack of explicit criticism has the opposite effect of what I think the author hoped to effect. Debs has no depth in his own biography and comes across as a figure in a moral allegory. The moral allegory is not, but the real world is, and Debs was an imperfect inhabitant of that world. He claims so even in the pages of the biography, but there it seems a false modesty.

This lament is not a call for my heroes to have flaws. Debs did, and we’re given only an attempt at an honest assessment in the last two pages of the book. He drank too much, held aloof from his wife, and maybe took advantage of his brother. The human flaws are what gave him his humanity and are what gives us hope. If you want to learn more about a great under-looked hero of humanity, read this book. Debs’ life is an example for all of us, only know we all have flaws.