Marching Men by Sherwood Anderson
It is difficult not to be of two minds about the manifestation now called, and perhaps rightly, "The Madness of the Marching Men." In one mood it comes back to the mind as something unspeakably big and inspiring. We go each of us through the treadmill of our lives caught and caged like little animals in some vast menagerie. In turn we love, marry, breed children, have our moments of blind futile passion and then something happens. All unconsciously a change creeps over us. Youth passes. We become shrewd, careful, submerged in little things. Life, art, great passions, dreams, all of these pass. Under the night sky the suburbanite stands in the moonlight. He is hoeing his radishes and worrying because the laundry has torn one of his white collars. The railroad is to put on an extra morning train. He remembers that fact heard at the store. For him the night becomes more beautiful. For ten minutes longer he can stay with the radishes each morning. There is much of man's life in the figure of the suburbanite standing absorbed in his own thoughts in the midst of his radishes.
And so about the business of our lives we go and then of a sudden there comes again the feeling that crept over us all in the year of the Marching Men. In a moment we are again a part of the moving mass. The old religious exaltation, strange emanation from the man McGregor, returns. In fancy we feel the earth tremble under the feet of the men --the marchers. With a conscious straining of the mind we strive to grasp the processes of the mind of the leader during that year when men sensed his meaning, when they saw as he saw the workers--saw them massed and moving through the world.
My own mind, striving feebly to follow that greater and simpler mind, gropes about. I remember sharply the words of a writer who said that men make their own gods and realise that I myself saw something of the birth of such a god. For he was near to being a god then--our McGregor. The thing he did rumbles in the minds of men yet. His long shadow will fall across men's thoughts for ages. The tantalising effort to understand his meaning will tempt us always into endless speculation.
Only last week I met a man--he was a steward in a club and lingered talking to me by a cigar case in an empty billiard-room--who suddenly turned away to conceal from me two large tears that had jumped into his eyes because of a kind of tenderness in my voice at the mention of the Marching Men.
Another mood comes. It may be the right mood. I see sparrows jumping about in an ordinary roadway as I walk to my office. From the maple trees the little winged seeds come fluttering down before my eyes. A boy goes past sitting in a grocery wagon and over-driving a rather bony horse. As I walk I overtake two workmen shuffling along. They remind me of those other workers and I say to myself that thus men have always shuffled, that never did they swing forward into that world-wide rhythmical march of the workers.
"You were drunk with youth and a kind of world madness," says my normal self as I go forward again, striving to think things out.
Chicago is still here--Chicago after McGregor and the Marching Men. The elevated trains still clatter over the frogs at the turning into Wabash Avenue; the surface cars clang their bells; the crowds pour up in the morning from the runway leading to the Illinois Central trains; life goes on. And men in their offices sit in their chairs and say that the thing that happened was abortive, a brain storm, a wild outbreak of the rebellious the disorderly and the hunger in the minds of men.
What begging of the question. The very soul of the Marching Men was a sense of order. That was the message of it, the thing that the world has not come up to yet. Men have not learned that we must come to understand the impulse toward order, have that burned into our consciousness, before we move on to other things. There is in us this madness for individual expression. For each of us the little moment of running forward and lifting our thin childish voices in the midst of the great silence. We have not learned that out of us all, walking shoulder to shoulder, there might arise a greater voice, something to make the waters of the very seas to tremble.
McGregor knew. He had a mind not sick with much thinking of trifles. When he had a great idea he thought it would work and he meant to see that it did work.
Mightily was he equipped. I have seen the man in halls talking, his huge body swaying back and forth, his great fists in the air, his voice harsh, persistent, insistent--with something of the quality of the drums in it--beating down into the upturned faces of the men crowded into the stuffy little places.
I remember that newspaper men used to sit in their little holes and write saying of him that the times made McGregor. I do not know about that. The city caught fire from the man at the time of that terrible speech of his in the court room when Polk Street Mary grew afraid and told the truth. There he stood, the raw untried red-haired miner from the mines and the Tenderloin, facing an angry court and a swarm of protesting lawyers and uttering that city-shaking philippic against the old rotten first ward and the creeping cowardice in men that lets vice and disease go on and pervade all modern life. It was in a way another "J'Accuse!" from the lips of another Zola. Men who heard it have told me that when he had finished in the whole court no man spoke and no man dared feel guiltless. "For the moment something--a section, a cell, a figment, of men's brains opened--and in that terrible illuminating instant they saw themselves as they were and what they had let life become."
They saw something else, or thought they did, saw McGregor a new force for Chicago to reckon with. After the trial one young newspaper man returned to his office and running from desk to desk yelled in the faces of his brother reporters: "Hell's out for noon. We've got a big red-haired Scotch lawyer up here on Van Buren Street that is a kind of a new scourge of the world. Watch the First Ward get it."
But McGregor never looked at the First Ward. That wasn't bothering him. From the court room he went to march with men in a new field.
Followed the time of waiting and of patient quiet work. In the evenings McGregor worked at the law cases in the bare room in Van Buren Street. That queer bird Henry Hunt still stayed with him, collecting tithes for the gang and going to his respectable home at night--a strange triumph of the small that had escaped the tongue of McGregor on that day in court when so many men had their names bruited to the world in McGregor's roll call--the roll call of the men who were but merchants, brothers of vice, the men who should have been masters in the city.
And then the movement of the Marching Men began to come to the surface. It got into the blood of men. That harsh drumming voice began to shake their hearts and their legs.
Everywhere men began to see and hear of the Marchers. From lip to lip ran the question, "What's going on?"
"What's going on?" How that cry ran over Chicago. Every newspaper man in town got assignments on the story. The papers were loaded with it every day. All over the city they appeared, everywhere--the Marching Men.
There were leaders enough! The Cuban War and the State Militia had taught too many men the swing of the march step for there not to be at least two or three competent drill masters in every little company of men.
And there was the marching song the Russian wrote for McGregor. Who could forget it? Its high pitched harsh feminine strain rang in the brain. How it went pitching and tumbling along in that wailing calling endless high note. It had strange breaks and intervals in the rendering. The men did not sing it. They chanted it. There was in it just the weird haunting something the Russians know how to put into their songs and into the books they write. It isn't the quality of the soil. Some of our own music has that. But in this Russian song there was something else, something world-wide and religious--a soul, a spirit. Perhaps it is just the spirit that broods over that strange land and people. There was something of Russia in McGregor himself.
Anyway the marching song was the most persistently penetrating thing Americans had ever heard. It was in the streets, the shops, the offices, the alleys and in the air overhead--the wail--half shout. No noise could drown it. It swung and pitched and rioted through the air.
And there was the fellow who wrote the music down for McGregor. He was the real thing and he bore the marks of the shackles on his legs. He had remembered the march from hearing the men sing it as they went over the Steppes to Siberia, the men who were going up out of misery to more misery. "It would come out of the air," he explained. "The guards would run down the line of men to shout and strike out with their short whips. 'Stop it!' they cried. And still it went on for hours, defying everything, there on the cold cheerless plains."
And he had brought it to America and put it to music for McGregor's marchers.
Of course the police tried to stop the marchers. Into a street they would run crying "Disperse!" The men did disperse only to appear again on some vacant lot working away at the perfection of the marching. Once an excited squad of police captured a company of them. The same men were back in line the next evening. The police could not arrest a hundred thousand men because they marched shoulder to shoulder along the streets and chanted a weird march song as they went.
The whole thing was not an outbreak of labour. It was something different from anything that had come into the world before. The unions were in it but besides the unions there were the Poles, the Russian Jews, the Hunks from the stockyards and the steel works in South Chicago. They had their own leaders, speaking their own languages. And how they could throw their legs into the march! The armies of the old world had for years been training men for the strange demonstration that had broken out in Chicago.
The thing was hypnotic. It was big. It is absurd to sit writing of it now in such majestic terms but you have to go back to the newspapers of that day to realise how the imagination of men was caught and held.
Every train brought writers tumbling into Chicago. In the evening fifty of them would gather in the back room at Weingardner's restaurant where such men congregate.
And then the thing broke out all over the country, in steel towns like Pittsburgh and Johnstown and Lorain and McKeesport and men working in little independent factories in towns down in Indiana began drilling and chanting the march song on summer evenings on the village baseball ground.
How the people, the comfortable well-fed middle class people were afraid! It swept over the country like a religious revival, the creeping dread.
The writing men got to McGregor, the brain back of it all, fast enough. Everywhere his influence appeared. In the afternoon there would be a hundred newspaper men standing on the stairway leading up to the big bare office in Van Buren Street. At his desk he sat, big and red and silent. He looked like a man half asleep. I suppose the thing that was in their minds had something to do with the way men looked at him but in any case the crowd in Weingardner's agreed that there was in the man something of the same fear-inspiring bigness there was in the movement he had started and was guiding.
It seems absurdly simple now. There he sat at his desk. The police might have walked in and arrested him. But if you begin figuring that way the whole thing was absurd. What differs it if men march coming from work, swinging along shoulder to shoulder or shuffle aimlessly along, and what harm can come out of the singing of a song?
You see McGregor understood something that all of us had not counted on. He knew that every one has an imagination. He was at war with men's minds. He challenged something in us that we hardly realised was there. He had been sitting there for years thinking it out. He had watched Dr. Dowie and Mrs. Eddy. He knew what he was doing.
A crowd of newspaper men went one night to hear McGregor at a big outdoor meeting up on the North Side. Dr. Cowell was with them--the big English statesman and writer who later was drowned on the Titanic. He was a big man, physically and mentally, and was in Chicago to see McGregor and try to understand what he was doing.
And McGregor got him as he had all men. Out there under the sky the men stood silent, Cowell's head sticking up above the sea of faces, and McGregor talked. The newspaper men declared he could not talk. They were wrong about that. McGregor had a way of throwing up his arms and straining and shouting out his sentences, that got to the souls of men.
He was a kind of crude artist drawing pictures on the mind.
That night he talked about labour as always--labour personified--huge crude old Labour. How he made the men before him see and feel the blind giant who has lived in the world since time began and who still goes stumbling blindly about, rubbing his eyes and lying down to sleep away centuries in the dust of the fields and the factories.
A man arose in the audience and climbed upon the platform beside McGregor. It was a daring thing to do and men's knees trembled. While the man was crawling up to the platform shouts arose. One has in mind a picture of a bustling little fellow going into the house and into the upper room where Jesus and his followers were having the last supper together, going in there to wrangle about the price to be paid for the wine.
The man who got on the platform with McGregor was a socialist. He wanted to argue.
But McGregor did not argue with him. He sprang forward, it was a quick tiger-like movement, and spun the socialist about, making him stand small and blinking and comical before the crowd.
Then McGregor began to talk. He made of the little stuttering arguing socialist a figure representing all labour, made him the personification of the old weary struggle of the world. And the socialist who went to argue stood with tears in his eyes, proud of his position in men's eyes.
All over the city McGregor talked of old Labour and how he was to be built up and put before men's eyes by the movement of the Marching Men. How our legs tingled to fall in step and go marching away with him.
Out of the crowds there came the note of that wailing march. Some one always started that.
That night on the North Side Doctor Cowell got hold of the shoulder of a newspaper man and led him to a car. He who knew Bismarck and who had sat in council with kings went walking and babbling half the night through the empty streets.
It is amusing now to think of the things men said under the influence of McGregor. Like old Doctor Johnson and his friend Savage they walked half drunk through the streets swearing that whatever happened they would stick to the movement. Doctor Cowell himself said things just as absurd as that.
And all over the country men were getting the idea--the Marching Men-- old Labour in one mass marching before the eyes of men--old Labour that was going to make the world see--see and feel its bigness at last. Men were to come to the end of strife--men united--Marching! Marching! Marching!