Cary Nelson: On "The Man with a Hoe"

Markham's "The Man With the Hoe" is the one American poem of protest against abusive working conditions almost universally remembered, remembered not only by literature professors but also, for many years, by the general public. For decades every high school student read it and some still do. It was first published in the San Francisco Examiner in January 1899 and soon reprinted in newspaper after newspaper across the country. It was one of several protest poems Markham published and not the only one to receive wide circulation, but its status is nonetheless exceptional. It was eventually translated into forty languages and became one of the anthems of the American labor movement, though in some ways, as I shall show, an atypical one. It also provoked a genuine national debate about its meaning and implications, one of the few times in our history a poem was the subject of such wide discussion and controversy over its proper interpretation. It was admired, attacked, imitated, and satirized repeatedly; it was reprinted in numerous special editions and pamphlets, though apparently there were no successful takers for railroad magnate Collis Huntington's pledge of a $5,000 reward for a poem refuting "The Man With the Hoe" with equal vigor. People argued over its meaning with a dedication usually reserved for specialists. And it is, as it happens, unquestionably the perfect poem to have played the role it played in American culture then and since. One reader wrote to the Examiner (March 11, 1899) worried that the poem's depressing depiction of rural working conditions would lead to "thousands of misguided country youth flocking to our cities," while another a week earlier had castigated it as "the dreamy note of the inaccurate thinker stirred to sentimental sorrow by the appearance of wrong, too careless or unable to distinguish aright the cause of the trouble."

The poem is an explicit response to an oil painting by the French artist Jean François Millet (1814-1875), one of several paintings on contemporary agricultural working-class subjects Millet produced at the middle of the 19th century. It depicts a rough-shod farmer or agricultural worker, probably exhausted and certainly leaning forward on his hoe in a flat scrub landscape as yet untamed and unplowed. Just when Markham first saw the painting or a reproduction of it is unclear; he gave conflicting accounts during the course of his life. In any case, in one of the many ironies surrounding this text and its dissemination and reception, it is worth noting that the painting was first brought to San Francisco, across the bay from Markham's Oakland, California, home, in 1891, by Mrs. William H. Crocker, the wife of the heir to a fortune amassed by one of California's railroad barons. Charles Crocker had been inspired virtually to enslave Chinese laborers to help build the transcontinental railroad. Millet's painting had provoked something of scandal when it was first exhibited in Paris; the artist was accused of being both an anarchist and a socialist. But within a few decades its sentiments seemed acceptable to a wealthy San Francisco patron of the arts. She presumably did not see her family's economic history reflected in the overburdened laborer who fills the central third of the canvas.

While the painting was the decisive stimulus for the poem, Markham also clearly had in mind the great American labor struggles of the preceding decades, notably the coal strikes of the 1860s and 70s, the rail strikes of the 1870s, 80s, and 90s, and such historic events as the Haymarket massacre of 1886 and the Homestead, Pennsylvania, strike of steel and iron workers in 1892. Markham had himself been a farm laborer and had herded sheep as a young boy, so he also had some direct knowledge of the sort of work he was describing. The poem is effective in marshalling moral outrage and linking it to literariness on workers' behalf. Its indictment of the ravages wrought by those in power was decisive for its time, in part because Markham treated exploitation as a violation of God's will. The poem is equally successful at issuing a broad revolutionary warning to capitalists and politicians.

"The Man With the Hoe" also crystallizes a hundred years of American labor protest poetry and song and finally takes much of its message to a broad national audience. Markham no doubt knew some of that tradition, at least John Greenleaf Whittier's 1850 Songs of Labor and Other Poems if perhaps not more ephemeral texts like John McIlvaine's 1799 broadside poem "Address to the Journeymen Cordwainers L.B. of Philadelphia": "Cordwainers! Arouse! The time has come / When our rights should be fully protected." But the tradition in America had long been persistently dual: professional writers taking up labor issues and agitating in verse for decent wages and working conditions and working people themselves producing their own rousing songs and poems. Philip Foner's marvelous 1975 American Labor Songs of the Nineteenth Century is the most comprehensive collection. The painting that inspired Markham is partly ambiguous: we cannot really know whether Millet's man with the hoe is too crushed to speak or has just stepped forward to tell us his story.

For Markham the question is settled. "Stolid and stunned, a brother to the ox," the laborer does not utter a word. His presence is riveting but altogether determined by his victimhood. He has no culture of his own. We see "the emptiness of ages in his face." The laborer's imaged form speaks volumes, but he himself is mute. Despite the fact that the subaltern in this case had repeatedly spoken, Markham retroactively declares him unable to speak. The history of indigenous labor protest and song is forgotten and Markham instead speaks on behalf of mute suffering. It is the poem's address that raises the possibility "this dumb Terror shall reply to God, / After the silence of the centuries." The relentless othering of the worker persists throughout the poem despite Markham's evident outrage at his exploitation. It is that consistent othering of the worker——"Who loosened and let down this brutal jaw? . . . Whose breath blew out the light within this brain"——that made the poem widely acceptable at the time and earned it partial acceptance within the dominant culture's literary canon for so long. As a mute object of sympathy, the worker has no role in establishing the meaning of his suffering.

The impulse to dehumanize or infantilize victims, to deny the existence of their alternative cultures, was hardly new. Americans had done it with Native Americans and with their African American slaves. Nor was awareness of the risks of a racial othering and dehumanization unknown. It is one of the themes of abolitionist poetry and it surfaces again in turn-of-the-century poetry protesting the slaughter by American troops of the people of the Philippines, poems contemporary with Markham's. But the appeal of such power relationships leads us repeatedly to reenact them. In Markham's case, ironically, the implicit reaffirmation of such hierarchies helped give the poem remarkable cultural warrant.

Given the poem's huge and instant success it is not surprising that the Examiner should want to commemorate its pride in being the first place to publish it. So that same year (1899) the San Francisco paper reinvented the poem as an elaborately illustrated supplement to its Sunday edition. It is by far the most memorable reprinting of "The Man With the Hoe." Already oddly positioned within William Randolph Hearst's sometimes melodramatic newspaper, the poem has its inner tensions further exacerbated by the Examiner's richly contradictory fin-de-siècle presentation. Notoriously imperialist, the paper was also by turns sensationalist and antagonistic toward the barons of monopoly capitalism. Markham, wholly in sympathy with the plight of exploited workers, was nonetheless uneasy with organized labor and its aggressive and collective agency from below. All this, curiously, is enhanced by the poem's new incarnation.

The poem is printed on a large sheet of heavy paper about twenty-two inches wide. This broadside in turn had a series of images printed on its reverse side before it was folded in half so as to make the poem into a folder with a front and back cover. Unashamed of stylistic contradiction or cheerfully eclectic, the accompanying images mix elements of a Victorian scrap book with art nouveau and Edwardian book illustration. An oval portrait of Markham, framed in laurel leaves, shares the cover with an engraving after the central figure in Millet's painting [Fig. 1]. On the back cover a skeletal grim reaper rides a horse of the apocalypse down a road past poplar trees straining against the wind [Fig. 2]. Ringing the blade of his scythe is a crown that once perhaps sat on a head of state. Above the image two lines heralding a future of radical change and retribution are quoted from Markham: "When whirlwinds of rebellion shake the world? How will it be with Kingdoms and with Kings."

Inside, the poem is presented in two floral frames on opposite sides of the sheet [Fig. 3]. On the lower left, a bat-winged figure, part satyr and part serpent, lies vanquished, his ill-gotten crown beside him on the ground. To his left another snake, this one itself satanically crowned, coils itself around the tripod of science and a book of the law, showing us how culture can be allied with the forces of repression but also potentially evoking a populist anti-intellectualism and values Hearst held in contempt. Above all this, hovering in mid-air, is the agent of their undoing: a goddess of liberty wielding a flaming sword and a wreath of laurel. On her shoulders an adoring eagle is perched to serve as her wings. Below her the river of life, above her the clouds, sweep in harmonious brush strokes toward a redeemed destiny.

Nowhere in the illustration are there factory owners or workers to be seen. The illustration interprets the poem as a symbolic confrontation between abstract, mythological forces. Human agency is imaged out of it. If this presentation underlines the poem's high cultural ambitions, then, it also underwrites its relevance to eternal values rather than immediate (and potentially threatening) historical contexts. It is a version of the poem, needless to say, that the English profession would find more suitable, a properly transcendentalizing interpretation of the poem's idealizations. In a way, it is the version of the poem that generations of high school teachers have found fittingly literary. Contemporary struggles, inequities at arm's distance, are not the concern of this sort of literariness, which awaits a paradise to be regained in the fullness of time but accessible now in unsullied aestheticism.

The poem itself of course had other cultural effects. Despite its problematic curtailment of workers' agency, its condemnation of exploitation made it possible to articulate it to labor reform movements. It was open to multiple interpretations, only one of which is built into this illustrated version. Meanwhile, worker poets themselves would have to write poems suggesting they take matters into their own hands.

Note: see Revolutionary Memory for the full set of illustrations.


Title Cary Nelson: On "The Man with a Hoe" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Cary Nelson Criticism Target Edwin Markham
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 01 Jun 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Revolutionary Memory: Recovering the Poetry of the American Left
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