Edwin Markham: Man Who Irked Ambrose Bierce


by Don Swaim
It never took much to get under the skin of Ambrose Bierce. A word, a comment, a misplaced idea — even by old friends — could lead Bierce to angrily sever a relationship. So it happened with the California poet Edwin Markham — although the breach between the two was more or less repaired later in their lives. Markham forgave more easily than Bierce.
   Bierce never denied Markham’s accomplishments as a poet, but in terms of politics and philosophy, the two men were far apart, and Markham committed the unforgiveable sin of writing a poem the sentiments of which Bierce profoundly, no, rabidly, disapproved.    Markham’s poetic achievements are now mostly overlooked, but in his day he was widely praised, his four books of poetry republished over many editions. At the peak of his fame, Markham read his celebrated poem, “Lincoln a Man of the People,” during the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington in 1922. On the occasion of his eightieth birthday at New York’s Carnegie Hall in 1932, Markham was venerated by President Herbert Hoover along with visitors from thirty-five foreign countries. Schools throughout the nation, five in California alone, were named after Markham.
   It is certain that, in his lifetime, Edwin Markham never thought about zombies, yet a fanciful re-reading of some of his poetry might lead to the conclusion that Markham had anticipated the zombie craze, which has infiltrated the popular culture, (some examples below), while Bierce’s own legacy as a writer of horror and the supernatural remains lofty to this day.

The Markham poem that set Bierce off was “The Man with the Hoe,” [read in its entirety here] originally published by the San Francisco Examiner, Bierce’s own newspaper. How this happened is set forth below, but, first, the events leading up to the contretemps.
   Markham, born in Oregon in 1852 — ten years after Bierce’s own birth — had become a school teacher and administrator in Oakland, California, and was part of a Western artistic circle that included Bierce, Hamlin Garland, George Sterling, Joaquin Miller, Jack London, and others. All along, Markham had been writing poetry, publishing his first in 1880, and was encouraged by Bierce who saw himself as the arbiter of all things literary in California.
   From the beginning, Markham was in awe of Bierce, saying of the older writer: “His is a composite mind — a blending of Hafiz the Persian, Swift, Poe, Thoreau, with sometimes the gleam of the Galilean.” Markham clipped Bierce’s columns from the newspaper, pasting them into a scrapbook. After he at last met his hero, Markham gushed, “I found Mr. Bierce one of the most gentle and delightful of men...a philosopher with a childlike and winged spirit and heart...a man judicious and fearless, who is clearing the air like a thunderbolt.”

Edwin Markham

Bierce also admired Markham, particularly his poem, “The Wharf of Dreams.” Bierce’s first major biographer, Carey McWilliams, said the poem was Bierce’s favorite sonnet:

Strange wares are handled on the wharves of sleep:
Shadows of shadows pass, and many a light
Flashes a signal fire across the night;
Barges depart whose voiceless steersmen keep
Their way without a star upon the deep...

What happened that led such mutual admiration to crumble? Bierce would be described today as a libertarian, the struggles of the poor of little interest to him. But inside Markham’s chest beat the heart of a man with a profound social conscience. Jesse Sidney Goldstein, in an essay published in Modern Language Notes in 1943, put it this way:

Artistically, he [Markham] was ultra-conservative; intellectually, he was a firebrand. This dualism he maintained even in the metropolis, where he found it possible, aside from his school duties, to speak at socialistic gatherings on the one hand, and polish his well-turned, delicate verses on the other.

Bierce, of course, had no patience with so-called socialistic notions, although what was considered as socialism then is commonly accepted in America today as the byproduct of a humane, progressive society: Social Security, for example, or Medicare, even food stamps. Bierce’s long-running feud with Jack London, an ardent socialist, was ended only by a mutual admiration for alcoholic spirits. In The Wasp in 1884, Bierce wrote:

Let Socialists make the laws today and they would break them tomorrow. No sooner do the poor become rich than they harden their hearts to the miseries of the poor. In so far as it proposes to correct the evils of unequal fortune, Socialism aims to repeal the laws of nature.

At a New Year’s eve party at the home of Carroll Carrington [another Bierce protégé] on the last day of 1898, Markham read his newly-conceived poem, “The Man with the Hoe,” inspired by Jean-Francois Millet’s painting of a world-wearied laborer standing, hunched, in a barren field. For Markham, the man in the painting symbolized the suffering of the oppressed workingman throughout history.

Bowed by the weight of centuries he leans
Upon his hoe and gazes on the ground,
The emptiness of ages in his face,
And on his back the burden of the world.

As he recounted later, Markham said that after he read his poem at the party, there was no applause whatsoever. In fact, there were two minutes of utter silence. Then the literary editor of the San Francisco Examiner, Bailey Millard, who was in the crowd, asked to see the typewritten poem. He read it twice, then announced, “That poem will go down the ages.”
   Millard paid Markham forty dollars and published “The Man with the Hoe” as a four-page Sunday supplement to the newspaper on January 15, 1899. The poem caused a sensation at a time when unfettered nineteenth-century laissez faire capitalism prevailed, labor laws were virtually non-existent, and the gulf between rich and poor was even more extreme than it is today. It was also a period in America when poetry was taken seriously and shared.

San Francisco Examiner, January 15, 1899

Markham later wrote:

Letters began to pour into the newspapers — some attacking the poem, others defending it. It was attacked from all points of view — theological, biological, geological, chronological, anthropological, zoological, phrenological. Thousands of men, ranging all the way from professors to plowmen, gave vent to their pent-up feelings in voluminous letters.

William Jennings Bryan called it a “sermon addressed to the human heart.” Railroad robber baron Collis P. Huntington asked, “Is America going to turn to Socialism over one poem?”

Among those who weighed in was Ambrose Bierce. He was furious, calling “The Man with the Hoe,” “seepage from the barnyard.” He saw the verse as incendiary. In the Examiner on January 22, 1899, he wrote:

My chief objection relates to the sentiment of the piece...the thought is that of the Sandlot... The notion that the sorrows of the humble are due to the selfishness of the great is “natural,” and can be made poetical, but it is silly. As a literary composition it has not the vitality of a sick fish.

Bierce would not let it go, particularly as “The Man with the Hoe” continued to gain notoriety. On February 12 in the Examiner, Bierce condemned Markham of holding “peasant philosophies of the workshop and the field.” And in a personal letter to Markham dated March 14, 1899, Bierce accused the poet of:

...preaching a doctrine of hate, which has successfully appealed to the worst side of human nature. I don’t think you quite knew that you were doing so; but you know how, and I hope you will no longer dwell in the tents of the demagogue, nor preach vague dreams to the cranks of that association - what’s its name?

In the Examiner on June 4, he again denounced Markham as a demagogue, and called him:

...a “labor leader” spreading that gospel of hate known as “industrial brotherhood,” a “walking delegate” diligently inciting a strike against God and clamoring for repeal of the laws of nature... He appears at meetings of cranks...convened to shriek against the creed of law and order.... When not waving the red flag and beating the big drum I presume he is resting the flexors of tongue and arm.

In letters to friends, Bierce complained that Markham had taken to cant and snivel, was an unsaddled Pegasus who straddled the flying jackass of the sandlot, who followed the Boer War with an attitude pro-British, anti-Dutch, and semi-decent. He claimed that Markham’s lucid intervals were all too rare. In a letter to the poet George Sterling dated December 16, 1901, Bierce warned Sterling not to follow in Markham’s footsteps:

If you do I shall have to part company with you, as I have done with him and at least one of his betters, for I draw the line at demagogues and anarchists, however gifted and however beloved.

In a letter to Sterling dated May 6, 1906, Bierce [who by this time had moved to Washington while Markham had moved to New York City] wrote: “I never see Markham, and he has lost his interest to me since he has made a whore of his Muse for the wage of the demagogue. As a poet he was great; as a ‘labor leader’ and ‘walking delegate’ he disgusts.”

How did Markham respond? He didn’t. If he felt even slightly apologetic for his blockbuster poem he never expressed it, and he refused to answer his old mentor in the sort of intemperate language that came so easily to Bierce. The harshest word Markham ever said of Bierce was that he was an autocrat, which was more of an observation than a criticism. Instead, Markham himself reflected on his masterpiece this way:

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.

Markham saw his hoeman as:

...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.

Millet sketch for The Man with the Hoe

Bierce became more insular as he aged, but not so Markham, who spoke against injustice and made child labor a personal crusade, lashing out against what he branded as a moral crime in a book entitled Children of Bondage published in 1914.

Bierce never escaped from his nasty practice of writing off former friends. In fact, he did just that to his older brother, Albert. But all was not lost between Bierce and Markham. When a woman named Cora E. Case claimed that Markham had stolen “The Man with the Hoe” from her, Bierce was among the first to go to Markham’s defense. [Joaquin Miller is quoted in The Literary Digest, November 18, 1899, as saying that Chase’s poem was but a little dell, while Markham’s was the whole Yosemite, the thunder, the might, the majesty.] In 1906, Bierce and Markham dined together in Atlantic City, an indication that things between the two had improved. And when a prospectus was published in 1909 for Bierce’s projected Collected Works, Markham graciously contributed a blurb.
   In their dispute over the fundamental role of society, who was right: Bierce or Markham? Today, none but the most entrenched conservative would believe that the poor, the sick, the infirm, and the elderly should be allowed to suffer and die without the compassion and support, no matter how modest, of a wealthy, post-industrial nation that has in its collective grasp the ability to alleviate the suffering of its people.
   The lives of Bierce and Markham ended in radically different ways. Bierce mysteriously vanished in Mexico in 1914. Markham died from the effects of a stroke at his home on Staten Island in 1940. He was eighty-seven.
   Markham proves to be a very good poet. I had read only “The Man with the Hoe” (in high school because Markham was still being taught then), so I wasn’t completely familiar with his other work. It is clean and spare, and most of it rhymes putting him at odds with such “modern” poets as Pound and Eliot. Nevertheless, little of his work is sappy in that ornate, dated Victorian style that even Bierce sometimes fell prey to.

What’s this silliness about Markham and zombies? It was unlikely the poet was thinking of zombies when he wrote the following lines in the late nineteenth century. In fact, the concept of zombies wasn’t fully developed then (if at all). But in light of today’s zombie fad, the three poems below might be construed as such. If not, so be it.

Zombies in Popular Culture

Wail of the Wandering Dead

Death, too, is a chimera and betrays,
And yet they promised we should enter rest;
Death is as empty as the cup of days,
And bitter milk is in her wintry breast.

There is no worth in any world to come,
Nor any in the world we left behind;
And what remains of all our masterdom?
Only a cry out of the crumbling mind.

We played all comers at the old Gray Inn,
But played the King of Players to our cost.
We played Him fair and had no chance to win:
The dice of God were loaded and we lost.

We wander, wander, and the nights come down
With starless darkness and the rush of rains;
We drift as phantoms by the songless town,
We drift as litter on the windy lanes.

Hope is the fading vision of the heart,
A mocking spirit throwing up wild hands.
She led us on with music at the start,
To leave us at dead fountains in the sands.

Now all our days are but a cry for sleep,
For we are weary of the petty strife.
Is there not somewhere in the endless deep
A place where we can lose the feel of life?

Where we can be as senseless as the dust
The night wind blows about a dried-up well?
Where there is no more labor, no more lust,
Nor any flesh to feel the Tooth of Hell?

Our feet are ever sliding, and we seem
As old and weary as the pyramids.
Come, God of Ages, and dispel the dream,
Fold the worn hands and close the sinking lids.

There is no new road for the dead to take:
Wild hearts are we among the worlds astray
Wild hearts are we that cannot wholly break,
But linger on though life has gone away.

We are the sons of Misery and Eld:
Come, tender Death, with all your hushing wings,
And let our broken spirits be dispelled
Let dead men sink into the dusk of things.

A Meeting

Softly she came one twilight from the dead,
And in the passionate silence of her look
Was more than man has writ in any book:
And now my thoughts are restless, and a dread
Calls them to the Dim Land discomforted;
For down the leafy ways her white feet took,
Lightly the newly broken roses shook
Was it the wind disturbed each rosy head?

God! was it joy or sorrow in her face
That quiet face? Had it grown old or young!
Was it sweet memory or sad that stung
Her voiceless soul to wander from its place?
What do the dead find in the Silence grace?
Or endless grief for which there is no tongue?

The Flying Mist

I watch afar the moving Mystery,
The wool-shod, formless terror of the sea —
The Mystery whose lightest touch can change
The world God made to phantasy, death-strange.
Under its spell all things grow old and gray
As they will be beyond the Judgment Day.
All voices, at the lifting of some hand.
Seem calling to us from another land.
Is it the still Power of the Sepulcher
That makes all things the wraiths of things that were?

It touches, one by one, the wayside posts,
And they are gone, a line of hurrying ghosts.
It creeps upon the towns with stealthy feet,
And men are phantoms on a phantom street.
It strikes the towers and they are shafts of air,
Above the spectres passing in the square.
The city turns to ashes, spire by spire;
The mountains perish with their peaks afire.
The fading city and the falling sky
Are swallowed in one doom without a cry.

It tracks the traveler fleeing with the gale,
Fleeing toward home and friends without avail;
It springs upon him and he is a ghost,
A blurred shape moving on a soundless coast.
God! it pursues my love along the stream.
Swirls round her and she is forever dream.
What Hate has touched the universe with eld.
And left me only in a world dispelled?


Among the Sources:

Bierce, Ambrose. A Much Misunderstood Man: Selected Letters of Ambrose Bierce. S.T. Joshi, David Schulz, eds. Columbus, 2003.
Fatout, Paul. Ambrose Bierce: The Devil’s Lexicographer, Norman, OK, 1951.
Goldstein, Jesse Sidney. “Ambrose Bierce and the Man with the Hoe,” Modern Language Notes, 1943.
Markham, Edwin. The Man with the Hoe and Other Poems. Garden City, 1921.
______________. “Markham’s Reflections on Writing ‘A Man with the Hoe.’” Modern American Poetry. University of Illinois, Urbana. www.english.illinois.edu.
McWilliams, Carey. Ambrose Bierce: A Biography. New York, 1929.
Slade, Joseph W. III. “Edwin Markham [1852-1940]” Modern American Poetry. University of Illinois, Urbana. www.english.illinois.edu.

© 2011 Don Swaim

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