The largely forgotten Edwin Markham (1852-1940) was a popular American literary figure during the first half of the twentieth century whose works championed progressive social beliefs and preached spirituality, love and social reform. At a time when the American labor scene was defined by laissez-faire capitalism and labor laws were virtually non-existent, he was regarded as the poet laureate of the American labor movement and hailed with names such as the “Bard of Labor”; “the Poet of the Muckrakers”; and “democracy’s greatest poet.”
In 1922, his Lincoln, the Man of the People was selected to be presented at the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial, and President Taft invited him to personally read the poem during the proceedings. Many critics consider it to be the greatest poem ever written about the beloved and immortal president. But it was his blockbuster poem, The Man with the Hoe, that had catapulted him into the public eye, made him a national celebrity, and established him as one of America’s greatest modern poets.
First presented at a public poetry reading in 1898, The Man with the Hoe was based upon a painting of the same name – L’homme à la Houe in French – by French artist Jean-Francois Millet, which was seen as a social protest against the plight of the stooping peasant. Markham’s poem, however, went further, becoming the paradigm of the misery of oppressed labor throughout history.
Through a series of articles he wrote from 1906 to 1907 for Cosmopolitan Magazine, Markham brought particular attention to the heartbreaking stories of children in textile mills, mines and factories. Elected president of the Child Labor Federation, his efforts to raise public awareness about child poverty and slave labor culminated with his seminal publication on the subject, Children in Bondage (1911), which is credited by many critics with influencing the federal government’s attempts to regulate child labor practices.
Originally published in the January 15, 1899, San Francisco Examiner Sunday supplement, reprinted in newspapers across the United States and translated into 37 languages, The Man with the Hoe raised the issue of labor exploitation and improving working-class conditions in the national consciousness and became the subject of broad national debate. The poem received equal measures of high praise and harsh condemnation, the latter including one robber baron who asked if the entire country was going to turn socialist because of one poem. Markham, who never responded to any specific criticism, commented only:
During all my early manhood I was a workingman under hard and incorrigible conditions. The smack of the soil and the whir of the forge are in my blood. I know every coign and cranny of ranch and range. The breaking of the ground with the plow, the sowing and harrowing of the seed, the watching of the skies for omens of the weather, the heading and threshing of the wheat, the piling of the hay-mows – I know all these things . . . [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 back and shrunken up by the special privileges conferred upon the few . . . It is not the poverty of the hoeman that I deplore, but the impossibility of escape from its killing frost.
Born in Oregon City in the Oregon Territory, Markham grew up poor and, as he described above, performed hard labor on his family’s isolated ranch in central California before overcoming his divorced mother’s objection to his pursuing an education, studying literature at California College, and earning a teacher’s certificate there (1870). He went on to teach in California for several years, became superintendent of schools of El Dorado County (1879), and went on to serve as principal of the Tompkins Observation School in Oakland (1890). In 1876, he abandoned the Methodist faith of his childhood and became a follower of the spiritualist and utopian socialist Thomas Lake Harris, a major influence on his life and writing who promoted social harmony and universal charity as prime directives.
Markham’s career as a poet started slowly; he began writing poetry in 1872 but did not sell his first poem until eight years later. After his successes, he was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters (1908), and, on the occasion of his 80th birthday in 1932, a celebration was held at Carnegie Hall where he was honored by, among others, President Hoover and representatives of 35 nations. In his obituary after his death by a stroke at age 88, the New York Times heralded him as “the dean of American Poets.”
Markham exhibited great sympathy, even love, for the Jewish people, both in America and worldwide, which often manifested itself in his work. For example, in an October 6, 1930, release, “Allied Jewish Campaign Provides Inspiration for Poem by Edwin Markham,” the Jewish Telegraphic Agency discussed Markham’s endorsement of the $6,000,000 Allied Jewish Campaign conducted on behalf of the Joint Distribution Committee and the Jewish Agency for Palestine. Markham wrote a beautiful and inspirational poem for the Campaign, Bread and Home (1930), in which he passionately called upon American Jews to help their starving co-religionists in Eastern Europe and further urged them to support the building of the Jewish homeland in Eretz Yisrael:
Out of Eurasia comes a cry
from hungering people like to die.
All roads in Europe hear their moans;
all roads in Asia know their groans.
Old fathers totter as they creep;
old mothers sob out of their sleep.
and little children wonder why
they are so early doomed to die.
Yet ages ago this people spread
for starved humanity a bread.
The bread of the spirit from their hands
went out to feed all hungry lands
It was Heaven’s gift, it was earth’s joy,
a bread that time cannot destroy.
Now for the bread of the body they cry,
who heard the thunders of Sinai.
Now they hunger and cry aloud.
this people once so nobly proud.
So this is the hour to stretch our hands
to those who cry from other lands.
This is the hour when we have chance
to join Love’s high divine romance,
to harken to their mighty need,
and turn religion into deed.
O comrades, only as we give
will our own souls stand up and live.
This cry for bread, this dying wail
God’s wrath will reach us if we fail!
Yes, there is tragic need for bread,
but there’s still greater need ahead.
All Jews were once in brother-bands:
now they are scattered in all lands;
and many are homesick as they roam,
and long to find their ancient home.
A Voice is crying to women and men:
“Back to the Homeland once again.
Back to old roads the Prophets trod,
who felt the heartbeats of their G-d.
Who cried to earth their mighty themes
And gave to men their noblest dreams.”
Yes, back to the Homeland is the cry
now growing louder in every sky.
The footsteps left in Palestine
have made her deathless and divine.
Out of her mystery of old
the thunders of the Prophets rolled.
The rage of Amos against the wrongs,
the harp of David’s tender songs,
The wail of Job’s impassioned cry
against the injustice of the sky,
Isaiah’s thunder against the lust
of cities doomed to death and dust.
In his high reprimands were heard
the trumpets of the Judgment Word.
These memories will draw Israel back
From the world’s poverty and rack
Back to the land where once the Law
was wrapped in mystery and awe.
Back to their Palestine, where men
must build their greatness once again
The land where they must mold a State,
a shelter from appalling fate.
Free men must rise at last to build
the Brotherhood that G-d has willed . . .
In Dreyfus, Markham wrote in strong support of the wrongfully charged Jewish officer, urging faith that G-d would protect Alfred Dreyfus withstand the antisemitic allegations against him:
A MAN stood stained! France was one Alp of hate,
pressing upon him with its iron weight.
In all the circle of the ancient sun,
there was no voice to speak for him – not one.
In all the world of men there was no sound
but of a sword flung broken to the ground . . . .
Take heart, O world of sorrow, and be strong:
there is One greater than the whole world’s wrong,
Be hushed before the high, benignant Power
that goes untarrying to the reckoning hour.
O men that forge the fetter, it is vain;
there is a Still Hand stronger than your chain,
‘Tis no avail to bargain, sneer, and nod,
and shrug the shoulder for reply to G-d.
Markham was among the signers of an open letter condemning antisemitism published in the January 17, 1921, New York Times, which was also signed by presidents Woodrow Wilson, William Taft, and Theodore Roosevelt:
The undersigned, citizens of Gentile birth and Christian faith, view with profound regret and disapproval the appearance in this country of what is apparently an organized campaign of anti-Semitism conducted in close conformity to and cooperation with similar campaigns in Europe . . .
The loyalty and patriotism of our fellow citizens of the Jewish faith is equal to that of any part of our people, and require no defense at our hands. From the foundation of our republic down to the World War, men and women of Jewish ancestry and faith have taken an honorable part in building up this great nation and maintaining its prestige and honor among the nations of the world . . . We believe it should not be left to men and women of Jewish faith to fight this evil, but that it is a very special sense of duty of citizens who are not Jews . . .
Markham’s edited works included several collections of British and American poetry. An accomplished and popular lecturer, he also wrote essays, popular articles that discussed his own compositional approaches, and introductions to the works of others. Among the latter, his subjects included John Keats, John Greenleaf Whittier, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Felix N. Gerson.
In this intriguing three-page July 10, 1933, document, Markham executes an agreement to create, and permit the publication of, “one poem for Jew in America” by Gerson and, after discussing financial remuneration arrangements, he agrees with the publisher’s requirement that:
The substance of the monograph should state your viewpoint of the effect of the Hitler attitude – of the injustice and inhumanity of that attitude. You feel that the American Hebrew People are calling upon you to use your pen to help to crush this gross intolerance. You have already said that it is absurd to condemn any people wholesale. There are noble spirits in all races – and the History of the Jewish race shows that it has been a ground out of which has risen some of the greatest geniuses and humanitarians of the planet.
Even Jesus rose out of the Hebrew race. He came charged with the passion of the ancient prophets. Had there been no Jewish race there had been no Jesus of Nazareth.
Gerson (1862-1945) served as the Chicago manager of The American Israelite in Cincinnati before going to Philadelphia, where he edited and owned the Jewish Exponent. He also wrote Israel and His Book, which was published in the American Jewish Yearbook 5674 (1914). His magnificent poem, Jew in America (1917), describes the centuries-old wandering of the Jews through alien lands while remaining ever-faithful to their G-d. Exhibiting particular antipathy for Russia, whose name “embitters history,” he sings of the promise that America, “ministering friends in a new-born light,” holds for the Jews:
WING thee, my song, and in majestic flight
grace with fair melody the words I write;
That they, in some not too unworthy strain,
with pride and plaint, of glory tell and pain;
Say in what early dawn of history
high fate enmeshed our footsteps – made us be
The burdened bearers of a word sublime –
the portent and the amulet of time.
For that far vale, the cradle and the grave –
here we behold God and the world He gave –
We have come hither for that high word’s sake,
bound each to each with bonds that naught could break.
The golden thread along the paths we trod
gleamed bright from daily contact with our G-d.
Through labyrinthine gloom of age on age
we knew its radiance as our heritage –
And though in strange, far lands enforced to roam,
the broad earth held for us no alien home.
Spain saw us – Holland – and th’ intrepid crew
of the famed caravel whose captain knew.
Where sky and ocean melted in the west
anew world waited for his wondrous quest.
A new world – with great portals far outflung
holding a hope more sweet than time had sung,
to which the Jew, of life’s high quest a part,
a pilgrim came, the Torah in his heart.
Of his endeavor, how he thrived and came
to give new glory to his ancient name
And wore as diadem the thread of gold,
on many a page the chronicler has told.
A land of promise, and fulfillment too;
where on a sudden olden dreams came true.
Man was man’s equal – unto every race
the path was levelled to the highest place.
Here grew we part of an ennobled state,
gave and won honor, sat among the great,
and saw unfolding to our ’raptured view
the day long prayed for by the patient Jew . . .
Russia, thy name embitters history,
and in the ages that are yet to be,
A symbol thou for all the world holds worst –
abhorred of heaven, by mankind accursed.
Prophetic made by frenzy of our grief,
by miseries that mount beyond belief,
we thee consign to be the scorn of time,
shackled forever to earth’s blackest crime.
The long forefinger of the future years
shall point thee out the fountain-head of tears;
nor ocean’s waters may efface the stain
branded in blood on thee – the brand of Cain!
Fain turns my song unto some fairer note –
we guard a promise voiced in days remote,
the words of prophets, and our deathless hope,
that in dark hours when we despairing grope.
In ever clearer accents shall be heard:
no tyrant’s perfidy may kill G-d’s word.
Still trembling, in the valley, in the gloom,
about us frowning rocks strange shapes assume;
but unto faith that fears nor wreck nor storm
there dawns a golden day that shall transform.
These spectres of a long and cruel night
to ministering friends in new-born light,
when tried by travail and by fire and rod
we shall emerge, unchanged, to face our G-d.
I have found no evidence that Markham ever went on to write a monograph on Jew in America, but I believe that Gerson’s poem stands as a work of high art that should be read and treasured by American Jews.