Adam L’s Visitor Center Script

December 10th, 2009

Eugene V. Debs, a prominent socialist, union leader, and once presidential candidate for the American Socialist party (receiving his nomination in jail), acknowledged Whitman as an influence upon his political ideology. To illuminate Debs’ connection to Whitman, it is best to start with their mutual friend, Horace Traubel, who “is best known as the author of a nine-volume biography of Whitman’s final four years” (Folsom). He transcribed many conversations he had with Whitman, which often focused on politics and, specifically, socialism.

Traubel was born in Camden in 1858 to a father who was a printer by trade and a fan of Leaves of Grass. Traubel shared his father’s appreciation for Whitman’s poetry, and when the poet moved to Camden in 1873, the young man befriended him, and they developed a close friendship over the next twenty years. Throughout their friendship, Traubel “often tried to convince his mentor that America’s democratic promise could only be realized through socialism” (Garman 90). Whitman warned Traubel, however, that his socialism was too radical; the two never agreed politically, and although Whitman’s socialism “was a pliable as the poet himself,” Traubel contributed to perpetuating a much more radical posthumous socialist legacy for Whitman than the poet had supported in his lifetime. (Folsom). In 1890, Traubel founded a monthly called The Conservator, which was devoted to reporting Progressive reform organizations, and to keeping Whitman’s works alive. “In virtually every issue there would be essays on Whitman, reviews of books about Whitman, digests of comments relating to Whitman, advertisements for books by and about Whitman. Often, Whitman would be presented as a kind of proto-Ethical Culture thinker” (Folsom). Traubel often attempted to “connect his idol (Whitman) to Eugene V Debs’ Socialist party” in the publication (Garman 92). Accordingly, Debs often wrote for The Conservator, acknowledging Whitman as one of his primary influences (Bussell).

Born and raised in the Midwest, “his fight against capitalism was inspired as much by Tom Paine, Walt Whitman and Wendell Phillips as it was by Karl Marx” (Platt). Debs was imprisoned for his activism several times throughout his life, arrested for his involvement in the Pullman Strike, and later convicted of espionage and sentenced to 10 years in prison for speaking out against World War I (Robertson). He was later pardoned by President Harding, and died in a sanitarium.

Debs’ letters were later collected and published; his own words about Whitman’s influence upon his politics speak for themselves:

2-13-1908 EVD, Terre Haute, to Stephen [Reynolds]. I have been East. Agree with your letter about organizing; have an article about that in a recent Appeal. We have to do more than talk Socialism– must get our machine in shape for political action. Will get a list of Indiana workers for you from Comrade Wayland. Will try to carry out your suggestion that Appeal discuss organization weekly. Being in West Virginia reminded me of John Brown. You are doing an immortal service which Old Walt [Whitman] would applaud. TLS 2p E (

Works Cited

Bussel, Alan. “In Defense of Freedom: Horace L. Traubel and the Conservator.”


“Eugene V Debs Papers, 1881-1940.” 2004.

Folsom, Ed. “With Whitman in Camden.” University of Iowa. 1996.

Platt, Pam. “Eugene V. Debs: The Hoosier Socialist. Courier Journal. November


Robertson, Michael. “The Gospel According to Horace: Horace Traubel And The

Walt Whitman Fellowship.” Mickel Street Review v 16.


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