• My friend Marty Goodman of the Riazanov Digital Library Project just came across this cubist-influenced drawing in charcoal of Debs shortly after his death in the Workers (Communist) Party’s monthly literary-artistic magazine, The New Masses. The artist, Hugo Gellert (1892-1985), was a Hungarian-American radical who spent his entire life drawing left wing political themes.
Gellert is a museum-famous sort of guy. The original copy of that drawing would probably be worth a couple thousand bucks.
• This Debs Project is a marathon, I don’t see how it can be conceived any other way. Four thick volumes in four years and will take a pattern of constant, steady, protracted work to get finished.
Unfortunately, not every week of “real life” has as much free time as the next. Last week and this are the two most pressing weeks of the year in terms of the Real Life work schedule. Last week I more or less kicked butt, despite it all. This week not so much.
I’m not worried about it. There are times to sprint and times to lay back and conserve energy. I’ve just been laying back this week.
• I think I remember the first time I ever heard of Eugene V. Debs. When I was in third grade or thereabouts my parents subscribed to a set of US history encyclopedias for kids. It was a chronological set with red-white-and-blue bindings and there were a ton of books in the series, like 18 or something. My recollection is that they came by mail every month. Each had color paintings on nearly every page of assassinations and wars and depressions and elections and all kinds of historical crap that was semi-exciting to nerd kids like me.
Anyway, one of the articles was about this man who ran for President in 1920 while he was in prison named Eugene Debs. I remember that he was painted wearing grey prison garb. That had to be my first introduction to him — it certainly wouldn’t have been through my parents, who were barely political Republicans.
I’d really like to find a set of those books, they must have been fairly cheap and mass produced, but damned if I can remember the title or the publisher.
• My first baby steps towards being radicalized myself came in 5th grade. It must have been 1970-71, middle of the Viet Nam war, and I had a long-haired (!!!) male (!!!) rookie teacher named Robert Conove. His actual old family name was Konokowsky or something like that, he told us; he always wore a little gold star of David on a chain around his neck. There weren’t a lot of Jews in Eureka, California, and he was the Ambassador.
All the college-track kids were intentionally stuffed in the combined 5th and 6th grade class of mean old Mrs. Schwartz, who taught about prepositions and participles and whose breath smelled like rancid tobacco. The future cheerleader girls and football boys, waitresses and construction dudes, millworkers and housewives, were all channeled into Mr. Conove’s class.
I was a new transfer from a different elementary school across town and that’s where I landed, too. Maybe they flipped a coin.
• Conove was a freethinker, for sure. He played guitar and we sang songs and tapped along with woodblocks and bongos and tamborines. He brought in wood and nails and hammers and helped some of the boys build a big wooden structure right in the middle of the high-ceilinged classroom. We all did our own thing, maaaan. The boys spent a lot of time playing cards in class in small groups. I suppose there was some vague math rationale for the green light on card playing. Who knows, maybe it even proved to be a valuable career skill for one or two of my classmates…
We had learned cursive writing in 4th grade; Conove (never a “Mr.” Conove, he was “Conove” to the boys at least) told us to use whatever was more comfortable to us. I went back to printing and other than my 6th grade year from hell never really used cursive writing again.
The grouchy old principal —
I don’t recall her name, maybe it was Mrs. Maxon or something like that Mrs. Jordan — absolutely hated this new upstart Conove. It was absolutely transparently obvious to all the kids. And the same thing must have been absolutely transparently uncomfortably obvious to him. Building a structure in class?!? Singing all the time?!? Kids playing cards?!?! Come on… Pure scorn and contempt whenever she was in proximity.
• Standardized testing happened and I must have aced something; all of the sudden I was being pulled out of class for a couple hours a week to participate in the “MGM” program — “Mentally Gifted Minors,” I think was the acronym of the day. It was a crock. Everyone was supposed to take part in self-directed smart kid activities. Purportedly educational games with terrible gameplay, a shelf full of boring books, I can’t even remember the other crap. It was as useless in the big picture of life as playing poker with my friends in Conove’s class would have been. And far less fun.
I do remember one thing that I did though: a special report to the class on marijuana. I chose the topic and it was pretty much the same principle as an independent study class in college or a masters thesis or a four volume set of books compiling the writings of Eugene V. Debs: pick your topic, do your work, meet the deadline, report to the class. My takeaway, derived from whatever books a fifth grade student could get from an elementary school library and a medium-sized blue collar county library circa 1970: marijuana was not a drug that lead to overdose deaths, nor was it physiologically addictive like heroin. Any other deductions I made I don’t recall, I’m sure some were juvenile and stupid, but I know those two were my major conclusions.
• I think I was the only person in Conove’s class that got pulled out for “MGM” stuff. Maybe there was a girl that went with me, I don’t remember exactly. And then the next year, lo and behold, I was the only one from Conove’s class that got put in with mean old Mrs. Schwartz in her combined 5th and 6th grade class, where I was brutalized for being a year behind where I should have been in English and science and math and for not using cursive writing like I was supposed to.
Think about it: all my friends, every single one, moved in a group together to another fun class en route to becoming the cheerleader girls and football boys, waitresses and construction dudes, millworkers and housewives that the system had already decided they would be; all Mrs. Schwartz’s 5th graders were promoted to her loving care for 6th grade. Plus me. I had an epically lousy time playing catchup on all the academic stuff that we were supposed to be learning in 5th grade when we were singing songs and playing cards instead.
So I had to make an entirely new set of friends — future doctors and lawyers and teachers and scientists, or so the system projected they would be.
Then the next year all the sixth graders from both classes went away to Catherine L. Zane Junior High School and we met a whole new group of kids from the other elementary schools on our side of town. I drew four cards on that 6th grade crew. I might have even thrown them all in and drawn five. Fifth graders aren’t big on the intricacies of bluffing.
I went on to become a shoe salesman like my old man. I sure showed them.
• By the way, I can’t tell you what a participle is today, but I can play poker and I do remember the tune of Donovan’s “Isle of Islay” — a song that Conove taught us that we learned phonetically as “Oh-eh-lay.”
“How high the gulls fly, oh-eh-laaaaaay…”
It’s a pretty tune with idyllic lyrics that are a little bit sad.
• Fifth grade definitely marked the first baby steps in my being radicalized. Once Conove heard me talking about “hippies,” which were a thing in 1971. I was just aping my parents, as children inevitably do, no memory whatsoever in what context I used the term. But young, long-haired Mr. Conove overheard me and got right in my face about it: “What do you mean a ‘hippie’? What’s a ‘hippie’?!?”
“You know, the people with long hair and big shaggy beards who don’t take baths…”
That was inadequate for him. He kept after me and after me and after me: every answer I gave, he had a retort: “Is it just a hair style? Can’t a person with short hair be a hippie, too?”
“I suppose so…”
“So it’s not about hair at all… How about if a person with long hair takes baths and is clean?” And so on and so forth. “Isn’t it more about what people think?”
Maybe it was a five minute interaction, tops, but the effect was really quite profound. Big life lessons: don’t be so quick to judge by outward appearances, a person’s internal thinking is what is important. Don’t be quick to repeat everything you hear at home — think for yourself. Don’t talk about what you don’t take the time to understand — or if you do, get ready to take on somebody who understands better and knows more than you do.
• Another memory from that year: once I mouthed off to Conove about something or other and he cuffed me in the ear pretty hard. My ear rang like a bomb had gone off in it. I couldn’t hear at all from it for a minute or two. I cried.
In retrospect, it could have been a career-ender for him given his political position with the administration if the boss had found out. Years later I figured that out and I was very glad that I never told anyone about the incident. What he did wasn’t right, but my getting him fired for a momentary stumble like that would have been worse.
Robert Conove was my best elementary school teacher, and also my worst. I’m thankful for him.
• Another thing that started to radicalize me was the televised lottery for conscription to Vietnam. The draft was on TV and when my birthday was pulled my mother told me I would have had to go to Vietnam that year.
That made an impression. It was even clear to little kids in conservative mill towns on the North Coast of California that Vietnam was a complete bloodbath and catastrophe. And I would have had to go be part of that, if I were just a few years older.
That’ll make you think, even if you’re just a little kid.
Later on, when it was time for me to register for the draft to reinforce the dubious masculinity of a Baptist Sunday School teacher-slash-small town peanut farmer who was in ten feet over his head as President of the United States, I didn’t. But that’s another story for another week when I’m just laying back.
• Nothing really Debs-related, directly or tangentially, this week. I did get a really nice inscribed and signed copy of an old Communist Party book from 1934, written by Grace Hutchins, the lesbian partner of Anna Rochester. Title is Women Who Work, and it is well-written, red-hot feminist blast from the Depression 1930s, produced under the auspices of the CPUSA’s statistical bureau, the “Labor Research Association.”
Really pretty paper-over-hardcover boards and as clean and square a copy of this uncommon 80+ year old title as one is ever going to find.
While this book comes almost a generation after him and them, Debs and the Socialists were very good on women’s issues during the Suffrage era and there were female party leaders even before women had the right to vote in the country. They aren’t often given the credit they deserve for being out front on a key issue of the era and helping in some small measure to lead the way.
I notice now that Grace Hutchins doesn’t have a Wikipedia page yet. I’ve got the 2013 biography by Julia Allen, Passionate Commitments: The Lives of Anna Rochester and Grace Hutchins, I should take it upon myself to get that done.
• “Is a Wrong Done to One the Concern of All?” — July 1890 article — 1,550 words
• “Agitation and Agitators” — August 1890 article — 1,175 words
• “Strike” — August 1890 article — 1,100 words
• “Supreme Council Declines Aid to NY Central Strike” — August 1890 interview — 750 words
• “Strike on the New York Central” — September 1890 article — 3,050 words
• “Promiscuous Striking” — September 1890 article — 1,060 words
• “The Reason Why” — September 1890 article — 1,210 words
• “The Machine and the Man” — October 1890 article — 1,200 words
….Word count = 434,780 words in the can + 11,095 this week = 445,875 words
• 8 more Saturdays to go until the July 1 target for the end of output of editable text. There are still 148 article pdfs remaining to be processed (or rejected at second reading).