Born in Oregon in 1852, poet Edwin Markham preached love and social reform in his verses, often in stark contrast to some of his more pessimistic contemporaries. Although he was a late comer to poetry success, not publishing his first works until his late thirties, Markham became one of the most popular and widely read literary figures of the twentieth century, although he never achieved the critical acclaim that perhaps he deserved.
Markham’s parents divorced when he was still young and he moved onto a farm with his mother, who was not particularly supportive of his education. She refused to buy him any books which might explain why, when he died in 1940, he had amassed a collection of some 15,000 books. Indeed, it was only when Markham ran away from home for a couple of months that his mother conceded to an education and agreed he could go to college where he gained a certificate in teaching.
In his mid to late 20s he became attached to a more spiritualist and socialist viewpoint, eschewing his previous religious upbringing as a Methodist, something that would guide his poetry and prose works through the rest of his life.
In 1880, Markham sold and published his first poem and would be a regular contributor to local magazines over the next few years but it wasn’t until almost 19 years later that he would gain the success that he wanted. That came with the poem The Man with the Hoe which was partly based on a painting of the same name by French artist Millet.
The poem was essentially a socialist appeal for better working conditions for the poor and caused a fair amount of controversy at the time, catapulting Markham into the public eye for the first time in his life. He was criticized by some and lauded by others, but the general feeling at the time was that he showed great promise as a poet.
There were some however who believed he had become a poet when he started writing The Man with the Hoe and stopped being one once he had finished it. His prose work, Children in Bondage, was seen as an important written document in the fight against child poverty and slave labor. His next collection Gates of Paradise and Other Poems though received strong criticism from the literary elite but he continued to be one of the more popular poets of his time.
When the Lincoln Memorial was built in the 1920s, Markham’s poem Lincoln, the Man of the People was read out at the dedication and was hailed as one of the best works about the president that had ever been written. There was a twelve year hiatus before he published his next work, Eighty Poems at Eighty, in 1932 and in 1936 he received an Academy Fellowship.
On his death in 1940 at that age of 87, Markham’s vast library of 15,000 books and numerous letters to the likes of Ambrose Bierce and Carl Sandburg were bequeathed to the Horrmann Library in New York.