David R. Weimer: On "The Man with a Hoe"

For the present, I wish only to illustrate what may be done in the reconstruction of labor history by using kinds of materials and of interpretation not ordinarily treated as relevant to this pursuit, and by setting forth the worker's attitudes toward something quite inadequately described in existing studies—the worker, himself, as a human being. Our microcosm will be the American Federation of Labor from its origins in 1881 to World War I, in the green years when trade-union leaders began seriously to challenge the narrow business ideals that had made employers temporarily strong.

Two poems by the minor American poet Edwin Markham (1857-1940) can help bring us to the mind and imagination of the AFL leadership. One of the poems, "The Man under the Stone," appeared at the top of the first page in the official AFL monthly magazine, the American Federationist, for July 1899. The full text is as follows:


When I see a workingman with mouths to feed,

Up, day after day, in the dark, before the dawn,

And coming home, night after night, through

    the dusk,

Swinging forward like some fierce, silent animal,

I see a man doomed to roll a huge stone up an

    endless steep.

He strains it onward inch by stubborn inch,

Crouched always in the shadow of the rock....

See where he crouches, twisted, cramped, misshapen!

He lifts for their life;

The veins knot and darken—

Blood surges into his face.

Now he loses—now he wins—

Now he loses—loses—(God of my soul!)

He digs his feet into the earth—

There's a moment of terrified effort…

Will the huge stone break his hold,

And crush him as it plunges to the gulf?

The silent struggle goes on and on,

Like two contending in a dream.


The overt conflict is simply enough conceived in this melodrama. The worker—appropriately not a union man but a "workingman"—is described as a beast whose existence is one of perpetual physical labor. His toil and even his appearance call to mind "some fierce, silent animal," not a man. He has a family, but the members exist only as "mouths to feed." Unselfish as he is, slaving "for their life," his progress is nevertheless uncertain. For the AFL unionist, the major conflict in the poem would not have been between the man and the stone (an analogy unlikely to convince anyone); it would have been the one suggested by the imagery, between an animal and a human life.

Markham's more famous poem, "The Man with the Hoe" (also published in 1899), deals with the same theme. Here is the opening stanza, which more than the rest of the poem recalls the Millet painting upon which it was based:


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.

Who made him dead to rapture and despair,

A thing that grieves not and that never hopes,

Stolid and stunned, a brother to the ox?

Who loosened and let down this brutal jaw?

Whose was the hand that slanted back this brow?

Whose breath blew out the light within this brain?


Both poems depict the same kind of figure—more animal than human, the victim of a lasting struggle for biological survival. In both, the tone is a mingled pity and despair.

Although "The Man with the Hoe" was not reprinted in AFL publications, it had, in the opinion of Henry Nash Smith, a "sensational vogue" around the turn of the century. In his words, the poem "assimilated the American farmer to the downtrodden and brutalized peasant of Europe," but this agrarian reference did not seem to lessen its appeal to urban workers and others engaged in labor-union activity. It was, for example, a favorite poem of Eugene Debs, who was "excited" by the humanitarian implications of its portrayal of the oppressed worker. President Samuel Gompers (1850 - 1924) of the American Federation of Labor was strongly enough impressed by the dark image of the man with the hoe to comment upon it in his formal report at a national AFL convention. "Due to the bona fide labor movement of the world," Gompers declared to the assembled delegates in 1905, "we are living in the time when there is disappearing, and soon will be eliminated, the last vestige of that type 'the man with the hoe’ and taking his place is the intelligent worker, standing erect, looking his fellow man in the face, demanding for himself, and according to all, the full rights of disenthralled manhood" (italics added). The man with the hoe was, in short, a counter-image to that of the trade unionist. A French landscape painter and a popular American poet had provided a name and a concrete focus for this theme which ran through the speeches and writings of AFL spokesmen in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. "There is no shape more terrible than this"—here, in Markham's words, was the union leaders' conception of the exploited worker down the ages. This "thing" symbolized for them the sort of creature that wageworkers, but for the trade union, might have been. Gompers' speech to the convention merely furnishes an explicit statement of this imaginative idea.


Title David R. Weimer: On "The Man with a Hoe" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Joseph J. Kwiat, Mary C. Turpie Criticism Target Edwin Markham
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 01 Jun 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Studies in American Culture: Dominant Ideas and Images
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