Edwin Markham—author of "The Man with the Hoe," one of the most popular and widely distributed poems in American history—died at the age of eighty eight. To help mark the anniversary of Markham's death, P&PC is pleased to bring you the following remembrance in which New Jersey writer Joel Lewis (pictured here) reminds us of Markham's once-broad appeal and incredible career that included reading at the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial at the bequest of Chief Supreme Court Justice William Howard Taft and spending his 80th birthday at Carnegie Hall being acclaimed by President Herbert Hoover and delegates from 35 nations. (I know, right???)
Lewis, a social worker living in Hoboken, has written or edited eight books including Surrender When Leaving Coach and Learning from New Jersey. "For better or worse," he explains, he also initiated the New Jersey Poet Laureate position infamously occupied for a time by Amiri Baraka. This posting is an excerpt from Lewis's work-in-progress, "My Shaolin," a long poem about Staten Island written while commuting to and from work via the Staten Island Ferry. ("Shaolin," btw, is the name the Wu-Tang Clan gave to their hometown borough.) Hold on to your hats, dear readers; from "The Man with the Hoe" to streets, housing complexes, and schools now named in his memory, Markham's story is an amazing one.
Edwin Markham, from the time he moved to Staten Island to his death in 1940, was a cherished and revered figure on the island. A few years before his arrival, he published a poem called "The Man with the Hoe" that catapulted him from the obscurity of a minor California poet to an international literary figure. The poem, a semi-mystical plea for non-alienated labor with gentle overtones of both Social Gospel and Utopian Socialism, hit an American nerve in a period marked by labor unrest and a shifting national cultural character that was a result of both mass immigration and increasing urbanization.
Hamlin Garland and Ambrose Bierce as mentors.
Writing in the Dearborn Independent in 1925, Markham recalled the origin of his most famous poem. Giving credit to the French Utopian Charles Fourier for his notion of a society based on a union of labor and culture, he also notes that it was in 1886 that he first saw a reproduction (like the one pictured here) of Jean-Francois Millet's great painting The Man with the Hoe in an issue of Scribner's Magazine. "I was drawn and held by the terror of it: I saw in it the symbol of betrayed humanity," he writes. Immediately, he jotted down the first lines of his poem in a large notebook:
Bowed by the weight of the 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.
For the next 13 years, Markham worked fitfully on the poem, but "the cares of the world swept in" and the poem remained unfinished. In 1898, Markham settled in Oakland, California, to take a position at the Observatory School at UC Berkeley. During summer break, he came upon his unfinished draft of "the Hoe-poem" and with his new wife's encouragement, he continued on with the work.
During his Christmas break of that same year, while on a trip to a San Francisco art museum, Markham finally got an opportunity to see Millet's masterpiece in person. It was recently purchased by a wealthy San Francisco family and was on display in the U.S. for the first time. The poet stared at the painting for over an hour then returned back to Oakland and began writing the final version of the poem. "All the stanzas seemed to me more like gifts than creations," he wrote, suggesting the ultimate version of the poem came to him in something like a vision.
William Jennings Bryan noted, "There is a majestic sweep to the argument, some of the lines pierce like arrows." However, the acerbic Ambrose Bierce was less convinced: "As a literary conception it has not the vitality of a dead fish. It will not carry a poem of whatever excellence through two generations."
In the wake of the success of his "hoe-poem," Markham moved to the East Coast to commence with a full time career as a literary man. He first settled in Brooklyn but came to the Westerleigh section of Staten Island, living most of his life at 92 Waters Avenue in a house that still stands.
Markham's literary output following the publication of "The Man with the Hoe" was relatively small in an era when there was a paying newspaper and magazine market for poetry. This trickle of poesy was a reflection of his busy life on the lecture circuit. He was also involved in the promotion of poetry itself and in 1910 helped found the Poetry Society of America and gave much of his time to promoting the organization.
in the process of making his over 6,000 letters available online and has been the primary source for the small trickle of Markham scholarship, which includes both a dissertation that was a critical biography of the poet and a volume of uncollected writings. There has never been a collected poems issued of Markham's work.
The Markham House has a library of over a thousand books, something the poet would have certainly approved of. And to make sure that Markham doesn't suffer the fate of becoming an anonymous name on a public building, there is an exhibit that includes artifacts of the poet's life including his cane, copies of his books, and a signed copy of his ekphrastic big hit, "The Man with the Hoe." It was a Florida man named Shawn McAllister who willed Markham's artifacts to the House’s parent organization, History San Jose, feeling that his collection had found a permanent home at History Park.