• I don’t have anything either profound or whimsical to impart this week. There really has been no time for essay writing — I was pushing really hard to get the backlog of pdfs of Debs articles to be processed down to zero. I fell a little bit short of that ambitious goal but I have managed to have left myself just a piddly four inch tap-in putt for par, so I’m feeling pretty good about the week despite it all.
I even took a little time to spin a reel of microfilm, making sure that there wasn’t any important Debs correspondence that had been inadvertently left on the table by Bob Constantine, the historian who sifted and sorted the Debs mail basket in assembling an outstanding three volume collection, Letters of Eugene V. Debs (University of Illinois Press, 1990). It turns out he didn’t — exactly the sort of high quality, thorough scholarship that I was expecting of him.
Ah, Bob Constantine…
• Bob Constantine died last month —on May 25, 2017, to be mathematically precise — my father’s 80th birthday. Bob was 93 years old at the time of his death in Austin, Texas. Bob was one of the three Debs scholars I most wanted to meet. My ongoing efforts to track him down — and I did try — ultimately failed. That’s a bummer.
J. Robert Constantine was a professor of American History at Indiana State University until his retirement in 1989. He was largely responsible for launching the Eugene V. Debs Foundation, which converted Debs’s old house on the ISU campus in Terre Haute into a museum and which handled the operation of that facility. He was the secretary of the Debs Foundation from 1962 to 1983 and the organizer of twenty annual fundraising banquets for that group.
The survival of the Debs House will be Constantine’s essential contribution in the eyes of many people. For me, however, the landmark will be bigger than a house with a porch —it will be the outstanding work turned in with the Papers of Eugene V. Debs microfilm and the three hardcover volumes of Letters of Eugene V. Debs that are his legacy. It is very difficult, nay, downright impossible to imagine David and me doing what we are doing on this book project without Bob Constantine having blazed the trail first by accumulating sources and leaving a guidebook to what he found.
I remain intellectually in his debt.
Although I was never able to personally say it: Thank you, Bob.
• I’ve got something north of 5,000 pamphlets and small format magazines in my library — it’s a pretty big stack of stuff. I file by date of publication and it takes a while to work through the boxes; I rarely work the stuff that is later than 1938 or so. I did manage to pay my annual visit to some of the later boxes this week, however, so my “new” acquisitions of the week are actually things that I’ve had around that I managed to forget — these both from 1955, the 100th anniversary of Gene Debs’ birth.
The first of these is a thin Communist Party paperback book, The Heritage of Gene Debs, a selection of Debs’s writings with a “critical introduction” by Alexander Trachtenberg, the founder of the CP’s publishing house, International Publishers.
The 1955 book is actually an abridged version of a work first issued more than a quarter century earlier as part of International’s “Voices of Revolt” series. The original 95-page book was released as Speeches of Eugene V. Debs. The whole Voices of Revolt series is pretty scarce, I think I’ve only got 6 out of 10 titles issued — all of which were produced in one format using inexpensive paper-wrapped hardcover boards. Bear in mind I’m a serious book collector that has spent time looking.
The original edition included all or part of 37 works by Debs, along with Trachty’s 20 page biographical essay, dated October 1, 1928. The 1955 version features an essay of similar length, but starting from the first line and carrying over all the way to the last, content has been tweaked for political effect. I’m sure one could make a somewhat entertaining day out of tracking the textual differences between the two editions, those both microscopic or substantive.
Compare and contrast the two books’ conclusions, if you will. First, here is the 1928 version, from the rip-roaring r-r-r-revolutionary “Third Period”:
Debs was a revolutionist and, with all his shortcomings, he generally eschewed any other but the revolutionary path. As such he is remembered by the present generation of American revolutionists, who will keep his memory green so that it may be passed on to future generations. Eugene Victor Debs, better known to all who worked with him as Gene Debs, belongs to the revolutionary traditions of the American working class.
Wow, that’s impressive, squeezing the word “revolutionary” or “revolutionist” in there four times in a three sentence paragraph. Now let’s see how that same section was not-so-subtly morphed during the “We’re not actually Soviet spies and propagandists, honest, and we’re actually not scary at all, so please don’t throw us in jail” years of the 1950s:
Debs eschewed any other but the path of struggle both on the economic and political fields. As such, he is remembered by the present generation of true American fighters for democracy and Socialism, who keep his memory green so that it may be passed on to future generations. Eugene Victor Debs, better known to all those who worked with or followed him as Gene Debs, belongs to the revolutionary tradition of the American people and its working class.
Yeesh. In any event, the biography gets Debs from his “poor Alsatian parents” (actually petty bourgeois owners of a small grocery store, but details, details….) to the American Railway Union in a single paragraph, which is indicative of the depth of Trachty’s scholarship. In short, these books are curiosities and collectibles rather than serious contributions to mankind’s fund of knowledge.
Incidentally the herd was thinned from the 37 Debs works, full or partial, which saw print in 1928 to just 28 in the 1955 rendition. Doubtless this was done for space reasons, keeping the 1955 edition to 64 pages — a really “good” number for printers. I’d make a list of the deletions, but, meh, what’s the point?
• The final item this week, a 1955 pamphlet called A Tribute to a Great American: Eugene V. Debs (1855-1926) is exactly what it looks like: text of tepid testimonials delivered by political and trade union epigones at a memorial banquet hosted in Terre Haute by a joint session of the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen and its Ladies Auxiliary. Those speaking included the “sewer socialist” mayor of Milwaukee, Frank P. Zeidler; President of the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen, W.P. Kennedy; H.E. Gilbert, the venerable President of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and Enginemen; and Mary Gorman, Grand President of the Ladies Auxiliary to the B of RT.
Zeidler basked in Milwaukee’s tradition of electing Socialist mayors and credited Debs for inspiring Victor L. Berger to push for prototypical social legislation (lost and forgotten in Congress) that decades later culminated in social security and the welfare system — magical thinking crediting Debs for two issues about which he wrote and spoke little, if at all.
Kennedy’s more extensive speech was less embarrassing, enumerating Debs’ numerous contributions to the pioneer railway brotherhoods of his day, and declaring that “the idealistic dream of Gene Debs for labor unity 65 years ago is now coming into reality” in the form of the forthcoming merger of the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations.
Gilbert touted Debs as a B of LF founder and quotes his 1891 Locomotive Firemen’s Magazine journalism in an effort to reduce Debs’s life to little more than cheerleading for bigger paychecks for union workers — this being, after all, the only life principle that ever really mattered to labor bureaucrats of Gilbert’s ilk.
Gorman said nothing of importance whatsoever in her mercifully short remarks.
Again: an interesting collectible, with an impossibly high carbohydrate-to-protein ratio.
• “The Northern Pacific” — March 1894 article — 1,790 words
• “Government Control of Railroads and Employees” — May 1894 article — 1,400 words
• “Objectionable Bosses” — May 1894 article — 530 words
• “The Labor Problem” — May 1894 article — 1,250 words
• “Judge Caldwell and the Union Pacific Employees” — June 1894 article — 1,310 words
• “The Outlook of Labor” — June 1894 article — 1,520 words
• “The Right Sort of Talk” — June 1894 article — 1,350 words
• “The Union Pacific and the United States” — June 1894 article — 1,440 words
• “Conditions” — July 1894 article — 1,580 words
• “The Coal Miners’ Strike” — July 1894 article — 1,215 words
• “A Military Era” — August 1894 article — 1,300 words
• “Carnot” — August 1894 article — 1,460 words
• “Legislation” — August 1894 article — 965 words
• “Probabilities and Possibilities” — August 1894 article — 1,970 words
• “Populist Advice” — August 1894 speech excerpt — 260 words
….Word count = 579,445 words in the can + 19,340 this week = 598,785 words
• 1 more Saturday to go until the July 1 target for the end of output of editable text. There are still 4 article pdfs remaining to be processed (or rejected at second reading).
As always, the above material is either now up or will be up within the next week or so at the Eugene V. Debs Internet Archive on MIA, curated by David Walters.