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Edwin Markham

Edwin Markham (1852-1940)
by Janice Albert

Recently I drove to San Jose, looking for the home of the poet Edwin Markham. Markham's most famous poem, "The Man with the Hoe," describes his thoughts on seeing a painting by Jean-François Millet. This work, which now hangs in the Getty Museum, shows a man resting his weight on the thick wooden handle of a very crude hacking hoe. He is wearing wooden shoes. In this moment of repose bordering on exhaustion, his mouth hangs open. Behind him, women are burning the fields after a completed harvest, but our man is staring at the weeds and rocks that must be removed before cultivation can begin. He is the very picture of the stoic drudgery upon which the world's food supply depends.

Markham had seen this painting twice-once in a magazine, when it caused him to write some fragments of verse, and thirteen years later in the San Francisco home of Mrs. William Crocker, when he is reported to have sat in front of the painting for two hours before going home to finish his poem. When it was published in a special edition of the San Francisco Examiner in 1899, it caused a sensation. Fellow-poet Joaquin Miller called it, "the whole Yosemite-the thunder, the might, the majesty." Collis P. Huntington put up $5,000 for the writer who could refute Markham in words of equal power. Our state librarian, Kevin Starr, reports that "Markham's ultra-conservative friend Ambrose Bierce never spoke to him again." Starr tells us that the poem was published in 50,000 newspapers around the world and was translated into forty languages. It "sprang instantly before the world's attention as the Socialist poem of the century."

On that recent summer day, I was driving to an address for Markham's home that I had gotten out of a travel guide: 432 8th Street, San Jose. When I got there, I found a marker beside a parking lot-no house at all. After a phone call to the state historical society, I was able to find the house, now moved to Preservation Park on Senter Street, painted yellow but with no identifying marker. At the Visitor Center, I asked a docent, "Who was Edwin Markham? Why do you have his house here?" He couldn't tell me. I spent a couple of hours asking everyone I met from clerks in the gift shop to volunteers at the Information Desk. No one knew. Collis P. Huntington was having his revenge after all.

Here, then, the story of the poet known as Edwin Markham-

Charles Edward Anson Markham was born April 23, 1852, in Carson City, Oregon. Because his father did not believe the child was his, he abandoned the family, leaving them to survive as best they could. Markham grew up in poverty, working with his mother on ranches in Oregon and Northern California-the boy with the hoe. His interest in reading was bitterly resented by his mother, who believed it sapped his interest in manual labor. Nonetheless, Markham read whatever he could, attended college and eventually earned a Bachelor's degree. Like so many Californias who seek to reinvent themselves, he changed his name and, as Edwin Markham, began a teaching career that lasted twenty years, bringing his empathy and the fruit of his education to families in El Dorado County, still a sparsely settled region of the Golden State.

Companioned in this long exile by a library of 4000 books, Markham read the work of John Ruskin, Thomas Carlyle, Swedenborg and Tolstoi. By 1886, William Morris was accepting poems of his for the London magazine, Commonweal. Moving to the Bay Area, Markham became principal of a school and gained acceptance to literary and intellectual circles. In Frank Norris's novel The Octopus, the mystical, sensitive character Presley is believed to be modeled on Edwin Markham.

Curiously, the yellow house in San Jose, transported to Preservation Park on February 23, 1987, is one in which Markham lived with his mother. In his travels from a sorry childhood to international fame, he would not abandon her, letting this thankless relationship destroy two marriages. Only in 1901, after his Examiner success, was he able to escape, living out the rest of his life with his third wife on Staten Island where he wrote poetry and lectured on social and industrial reform. In 1922, his poem, "Lincoln, the Man of the People," was chosen to be read at the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC. After his death on March 7, 1940, his body was returned to California for burial in Calvary Cemetery, Los Angeles.

When we listen to Markham's famous poems today, we are aware that our taste has changed. The didactic poetry of the past laced with references to the Almighty is no longer in vogue. When we decide to forget those who wrote in that style, let it be mentioned, we are trying to rewrite our national past. Writers can't exist without readers. The audience that called for this elevated style-the hundred thousand people who sat on the lawn listening to Markham's Lincoln poem and the two million listening over the radio at home-were our ancestors.

In the case of "The Man with the Hoe," something more is at stake. California, which generates 15% of the economic value of the United States, is a state founded on agricultural labor.

Farm workers bring in the crops which are the wealth of the Central Valley. Grape pickers go from vine to vine, hand cutting the clusters of fruit without which the Napa Valley would be just another good spot for a trailer park. Great credit for bringing attention to the plight of farm workers goes to Cesar Chavez and the UFW, but you don't have to speak Spanish to understand the need for social justice. When Markham writes, "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," he describes the condition of laborers of all kinds. When he asks: "Whose breath blew out the light within this brain?" he poses a universal question. Why should one person's destiny be sacrificed to make another rich? The voice that phrased these questions may be out of fashion, but the issue has not gone away.

Markham house at Preservation Park, San Jose

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