Debs and the Historians: 1907 — From Long Speeches to Long Articles (19-11)

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Life changed for the 52-year old Eugene Victor Debs in 1907.

He changed occupations.

He changed living arrangements with his wife.

Some might say it was a midlife crisis.

The year 1906 had been a whirlwind of speaking engagements, starting in January and running though Election Day in November with scarcely a pause. As we have seen, Debs made extensive trips in the year to Michigan; North Carolina, New York, and Pennsylvania; perhaps Canada; Minnesota and Iowa; all over the Midwest and South throughout the hot summer dashing around the Chautauqua circuit; Pennsylvania; and Colorado. (See: Debs on the Road in 1906, Blog 19-10)

It was an exhausting ordeal.

But as the days grew shorter and winter approached, his friends still sat in Boise beneath the hangman’s noose. Moreover, the new industrial union in which he had invested his hopes and dreams (and for which he had severed longtime friendships) had effectively blown itself up amidst factional backstabbing and delusions of grandeur and petty greed.

On November 5, Debs delivered a final election-eve speech in Denver to conclude his tour of the state of Colorado in support of the Socialist Party’s Haywood For Governor campaign. And then he shut down his public speaking.

He shut it down cold.

It was time to do something else.

•          •          •          •          •

showyourhand

Debs’s first 1907 piece in the Appeal to Reason was a short teaser plugging the forthcoming “Kidnapping Anniversary Edition” of Feb. 16 — an issue which presold more than 2 million copies.

That’s one possible reading, to be sure, and odds are it is the right one. Debs did, after all, indicate in an open letter to readers of the Appeal to Reason published on January 5, 1907 that

During the past year or more my work, especially in the field, has been carried forward under great difficulties, and very much of it has been wholly unsatisfactory to myself, and probably equally so to others. (fn. “A Personal Word from Debs” in Appeal to Reason, whole no. 579 (Jan. 5, 1907), p. 4.)

Debs was not a happy guy.

Alternatively, we know that Debs went to Cincinnati to consult a specialist about his throat in January 1907.(fn. “Debs on Deck” in Appeal to Reason, whole no. 581, Extra edition (Jan. 19, 1907), p. 1.)  The necessity of speaking for two hours a night to large crowds without amplification for 100 or more appearances a year inevitably does exact a toll. The human organism has not evolved for that particular activity. Although he is never specific on the medical point, Debs specifically indicates in a published January 22 letter to Appeal editor Fred Warren:

My case is obstinate, yields slowly, account of long neglect. It is painful and trying, but I am hopeful of outcome and shall leave here on earliest train. The doctor thinks I may leave in a day or two, but he himself cannot tell from day to day the effect of the operation. (fn. “A Note from Comrade Debs” in Appeal to Reason, whole no. 583 (Feb. 2, 1907), p. 1.)

Note the word: operation. Whatever the cause, depression or incapacitating anxiety attack or enforced shutdown after surgery, I contend that Debs did not make a single public speech from the November 5, 1906 address in Denver through the entire first quarter of 1907.

“Paid orator” was no longer his occupation — he was from early 1907 “Eugene V. Debs, Staff Correspondent” of the Appeal to Reason. (fn. See, for example: “Kidnapping Case in Congress: Appeal Succeeds in Placing Facts of Moyer-Haywood Case on Record in Washington” in Appeal to Reason, whole no. 588 (March 9, 1907), p. 1.)

•          •          •          •          •

Here’s an interesting tidbit.

Debs was, in fact, on the hook to give one speech during the first quarter of 1907: set to deliver the keynote to a mass public meeting for the Moyer-Haywood-Pettibone defense. The event had been planned a month in advance by the energetic socialist local in neighboring Pittsburg, Kansas — a few short miles up the road from Debs’s new adopted home of Girard.

The meeting was promoted as such in the local press.

Debs cancelled at the last minute.

He had to rush home to Terre Haute.

His wife was sick and he had to leave, he said.

This seems most unlikely.

•          •          •          •          •

As a paid writer, Debs’s articles began to get longer. Usually one who called a piece quits after 1200 or 1500 words, Debs now began to write commentary that topped the 4,000 word mark — as long as the very longest pieces written during his 14 year association with Locomotive Firemen’s Magazine.

This change was immediate and obvious.

From very long speeches, Debs turned to very long newspaper articles. Not every piece stretched out so long, to be sure, but several did and they took up huge chunks of real estate in the layout of the four-page long Appeal.

•          •          •          •          •

That’s the beginning of this little chapter of Debs’s life from my reading of the primary sources. I’m curious to see how Debs’s most important biographers handled what I see as his Big Change of 1907.

Let’s take a look, shall we?

•          •          •          •          •

• Stephen M. Reynold’s campaign bio, written as the introduction to the 1908 volume Debs: His Life, Writings, and Speeches, says nary a word about much of anything about events taking place after 1904, but as this short sketch was written in July 1908, very close to the events in question, it is not too much to give him a pass.

• David Karsner’s first dedicated biography of EVD, Debs: His Authorized Life and Letters (1919), a piece of poorly researched hagiography, asserts:

Between the years 1904-1908, and for some while after the latter year, Debs was contributing editor to the Appeal to Reason, when that freelance socialist weekly was published by the late J.A. Wayland, and edited by Fred Warren at Girard, Kansas. …Debs toured the country several times under various auspices of the labor movement. He was never too tired to respond to a pressing demand, and they were many, to stop off at a wayside town or village to address his comrades. Scores of times after filling strenuous speaking engagements he has sat up all night on trains so that he might stop off at some city or town along the route to visit a faithful follower whom he knew to be ill or in need. (p. 183)

A big zero, but coming from one who elsewhere in the book blithely asserts “Eugene’s parents were very poor” (p. 115), no particular surprise there either.

29-painter-thatmandebs-covesm• A more serious Debs biographer, Ball State history professor Floy Ruth Painter, in his slim 1929 volume, That Man Debs and His Life Work, fanned on the matter of a 1907 Debs life change completely:

It is likely that the agitation of the working men in behalf of justice for the IWW suspects [Haywood, Moyer, Pettibone] had its effect in securing a fair trial for them…. Debs gave time, thought, energy, and even sacrificed his reputation in the eyes of a great many people in this contest. His championship of the accused men had far-reaching effects for him. A born fighter and agitator, he gave himself unstintingly for the cause. Whether these particular men were worthy of his sacrifice is a question, but he was fighting for a principle. The press of the country attacked him bitterly, particularly for his “Rouse Ye Slaves” (sic.) appeal. (p. 93)

After which Painter jumps to 1908.

• McAlister Coleman in his Eugene V. Debs: A Man Unafraid (1930) is the first English-language historian cognizant that a change with Debs took place in 1907:

For Gene, 1907 was a comparatively placid year. He cut down his speaking engagements and went between Terre Haute and the Appeal office at Girard where he had a room in a boarding-house near the newspaper plant. Every detail of Haywood’s trial for the Steunenberg murder was wired to him by the Appeal correspondents in the courtroom… The acquittal of Haywood was celebrated in all the labor centers of the country. He was the hero of the hour. (pp. 241-242)

•          •          •          •          •

One of the two best Debs biographers, then PhD candidate Ray Ginger, in his completely unfootnoted (!!!) 1949 volume published by Rutgers University Press, The Bending Cross: A Biography of Eugene Victor Debs, is not only cognizant of the 1907 alteration of Debs’s professional status, but he goes so far as to answer one really big question — how much money was Debs paid to get him to change jobs?

gingerEarly in January of 1907, he wrote to J.A. Wayland that he intended to “come to Girard…and take a hand at helping you on the Appeal.” Debs said that only the force of public opinion could possibly save Moyer and Haywood….

By the end of January, 1907, Debs had arrived in Girard. When he walked into the office of the Appeal, his first words closed the deal: “I want to do something in this crisis. It must be something far-reaching. Only through the columns of the Appeal can I express myself as I will, and reach the audience that I must.” Fred Warren, known among the prairie socialists as The Fighting Editor, was receptive to this offer. Debs was promptly hired at a salary of a hundred dollars a week as a contributing editor.

Thus began one of the happiest partnerships in the history of the radical movement. Wayland, who was a few years older than Debs, had masterfully combined sound business management of the paper with its socialist purpose. When Wayland stepped aside in 1904, Warren continued and perfected these practices…. Here, indeed, was a socialist organ that could furnish Debs with an extensive audience. And the Appeal, for its part, was certain to benefit from Debs’ weekly articles and his lectures on its behalf.

As soon as he had worked out his arrangements with Fred Warren, Debs left Girard for another tour of the mining areas of the West. *  *  *

Debs thought it necessary to take steps to counteract the [anti-Haywood] publicity campaign, so he interrupted this tour and went to Washington, DC. After two weeks of intensive lobbying, he persuaded Senator Carmack of Tennessee to enter all records of the case into the Congressional Record…. (pp. 249-250)

Again: no footnotes. Zero. And that is such a pity…

Where did that $100 a week number come from? That’s $5200 a year — a fairly massive amount for the day (easily topping the posh $4,000 salary he earned in the early 1890s as Secretary-Treasurer and Editor for the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen). On the other hand, this was a figure quite conceivably on par with what Debs was already netting as a touring orator. That would seem to be a plausible salary, offsetting all or some substantial part of his opportunity cost with checks paid by a prosperous publication — but where does that precise figure come from exactly?

Moreover there is no evidence whatsoever that Debs shook hands with Wayland and Warren in Girard before racing off on a snap tour of the West. He was in Cincinnati at the throat specialist in the second half of January, we know that. The “Kidnapping Day” speaking event he ditched in Pittsburg, KS by suddenly running home to Terre Haute to ostensibly take care of his sick wife was slated for February 17, we know that, too.

Then we know he was in Washington, DC around the first of March — where he received immediate support from Sen. Carmack, melodramatic prose of Mr. Ginger aside.

There are a couple open weeks in the first half of February, but there is not a molecule of printed newsprint which has surfaced to date to indicate that he signed on with the Appeal as a writer and then rushed off — fresh off painful throat surgery — as a speaker. Did he touch base in Terre Haute and then scurry off across country on a tour of the Mountain West with no advance planning, one which left nary a trace of evidence in the (available currently digitized) contemporary press?

Probably not. The scenario makes no sense.

Let me say it again: this is a phantom “tour” — it probably never took place. Ray Ginger is probably wrong.

•          •          •          •          •

brommel-cover• Indiana State University speech professor Bernard J. Brommel published a book in 1978 that I include in the small set of serious historical biographies of Gene Debs. His Eugene V. Debs: Spokesman for Labor and Socialism, quaintly, was published in Chicago by the Charles H. Kerr Publishing Co., a 90-year old imprint coming out of a deep sleep under new ownership after nearly fading into oblivion as the publishing arm of the tiny Proletarian Party of America.

Characteristically frustrating, Brommel puts some really interesting facts into play while at the same time butchering some extremely basic details:

With the editor [of the Appeal], J.A. Wayland (sic.), [Debs] wrote a special edition at each crucial time during the trial in 1907….

With this new writing assignment, Debs left the IWW speaking platform in 1907 (sic.) and moved to Girard, Kansas, where Mr. Wayland privately published his paper. Katherine Debs decided to remain in Terre Haute, for she knew Eugene would continue to travel, and she had no intention of being left alone among strangers in a small Kansas town…. Since Katherine took pride in the big house and constantly cleaned and improved it, she preferred to remain in it and not close the house for an indefinite stay in Kansas. At this time she did help Theodore in the office and answered some correspondence. {highly dubious.} Debs hoped to be able to come home every month. Before leaving he canceled his engagements for the next year with Central Lyceum Bureau in Chicago, the Midland Lyceum Bureau in Des Moines, and the Columbian Lyceum Bureau in St. Paul. These engagements would have been most profitable and would have enabled Debs to accumulate some savings, but he chose otherwise. *  *  *

After Debs joined the Appeal staff, he continued to publish articles supporting the IWW in other journals. (sic!) Between newspaper assignments he went on long speaking tours for the organization. Katherine seldom saw Eugene during these years, for he had to spend his time between tours at his desk in Girard. Once a week Debs sent a note to his druggist brother-in-law asking him to send Katherine a box of chocolates…. Although separated, Debs remained devoted. Katherine preferred a quiet life and so he never insisted she join him. (pp. 86-87)

Really good stuff and really sloppy fact-checking at one time. Brommel’s book is sort of like a season of plate appearances by a big home run hitter who either launches the ball 450 feet over the fence or who strikes out. And there were a lot of strikeouts…

Naming the lyceum bureaus that were managing Debs’s (public, semi-generic) speaking tours? That’s good stuff. But he spoke for the last time under IWW auspices in September 1906, and his telling of the Gene-Kate relationship is wholly uncompelling.

Frustrating.

At least he used footnotes.

•          •          •          •          •

salvatore• For my money the best biography of EVD is that by Cornell professor Nick Salvatore, Eugene V. Debs: Citizen and Socialist, published by the University of Illinois Press in 1982. I don’t usually write in books, but I’ve marked up my first copy so severely with agreements and disagreements and asterisks to mark content that I had to buy another for my shelf. If my introductions are a dialog with any other historian, they are with Salvatore.

Salvatore provides a long commentary on the relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Debs dropped into the narrative right around the 1907 mark, which I consider a direct hit on the battleship. A small snippet here:

Debs’s activities during 1907 suggest the nature of the relationship between him and Kate as each approached full middle age. A year not marked by a presidential campaign, the pattern is also typical of these years. Debs began 1907 recuperating from a severe “rheumatic attack,” which had prevented him from leaving immediately for Girard, Kansas, and the offices of the Appeal to Reason. After consulting a specialist in Cincinnati, however, Debs went to Girard without Kate and lived there through the spring, using that community as a home base for his travels. Sick and exhausted by early summer, he returned to Terre Haute and to his bed, where he stayed confined for more than six weeks…. *  *  *

For her part, Kate had long separated her life from his. Turning more inward, her concerns revolved around he family, especially her mother and nephew who lived with her. But her husband’s activities affected even this domain. Feeling awkward as the wife of a revolutionary socialist and isolated as an unaccompanied female in Terre Haute society, Kate withdrew even from her circle of friends and remained more and more within the confines of her own house. Never publicly critical, even in private she presented the best possible face…. *  *  *

Despite her assertions to the contrary, Eugene was not fond of “the home life,” at least as Kate understood it. Rather, when Debs apothesized the family, his personal reference point remained his parental family. In contrast, his relation with Kate was simply not that important. (pp. 213-215)

This is 100% on the money — with the provisos that elsewhere Debs intimates that the “rheumatic attack” was a chronic nerve problem in his lower back and that the specialist he saw in Cincinnati was related to another ailment, something wrong with his throat, a visit which resulted in some kind of surgery.

No matter, this is far and away the best treatment in print of EVD in 1907.

papers-guide• In the 1983 introduction to the large format paperback The Papers of Eugene V. Debs, 1834-1945: A Guide for the Microfilm Edition, J. Robert Constantine marks the move to the Appeal but seems to obviously undersell the magnitude of the new situation:

In 1907 he joined the editorial staff of the Appeal to Reason, which provided a regular forum for his attacks on capitalism and his defense of its victims — such as George Pettibone, William Haywood, and Charles Moyer in their trial for the murder of the governor of Idaho, a trial which ended with their acquittal.

Debs had become one of the most sought-after public speakers of the day, and he traveled across the nation to fill the speaking engagements whose fees accounted for a large part of his income. (p. 21)

Admittedly, a biographical sketch at the front of a register of film contents isn’t the place where one would expect detailed analysis of the import of a single year. One would have hoped for a little bit of expansion at the front of his three volume Letters of Eugene V. Debs (1990), but he used the same biographical sketch unchanged there.

•          •          •          •          •

Our takeaway: most historians have completely missed or undersold the 1907 interlude, which marked Debs’s move from full time professional touring orator to professional newspaper opinion writer.

In later years he would be a combination of these things.

_______________

† – The correct dates, assuming we accept the “contributing editor” phrasing, would be 1907 to 1913.

◊ – It’s not at all clear from this published letter, which lacks a salutation, that he was writing to Wayland. I believe it is more likely a letter to editor Fred Warren, with whom Debs maintained a series of correspondence over the next few weeks.

‡ – Actually Wayland was just one year older than Debs.

 

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The official deadline for Eugene V. Debs Selected Works: Volume 4 is October 15, 2019. I’m setting a soft deadline of August 1 to finish the document compilation phase of the project. This means there are now 15 more Saturdays after today to get the core content section of the book assembled, with a limit for publication of approximately 260,000 words.

  • “The Date Fixed” (April 6, 1907) — 424 words
  • “Haywood at the Bar” (April 13, 1907) — 636 words
  • “Roosevelt and His Regime” [expanded version] (April 15, 1907) — 4,888 words
  • “Calumny and Mendacity: Telegraphic Letter to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch” (April 24, 1907) — 858 words
  • “A Short History of the Appeal to Reason (April 27, 1907) — 2,358 words
  • “The Crimson Standard” (April 27, 1907) — 439 words
  • “Revolution: Written for May Day 1907” (April 27, 1907) — 880 words
  • “Who Are the Wolves?” (May 11, 1907) — 4,150 words

Word count: 137,188 in the can + 14,633 this week +/- amendments = 149,523 words total.

David Walters will be running all of this material up on Marxists Internet Archive in coming days.

To find it, please visit the Eugene V. Debs Internet Archive

 

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Here’s the microfilm that I’ve scanned this week, available for free download. Bear in mind that there is generally a short delay between completion of the scanning and its appearance on MIA. Thanks are due to David Walters for getting this material into an accessible format.

Chicago Daily Socialist — 1907 (Oct. – Dec.)

Lincoln [NE] Socialist-Labor — 1895

 

About carrite

Independent scholar from Corvallis, Oregon with a strong interest in early 20th century political history.
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1 Response to Debs and the Historians: 1907 — From Long Speeches to Long Articles (19-11)

  1. Pingback: The Haywood Trial of 1907, part 1 (19-14) | The Debs Project

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