A Rousing Call: Socialist Poetry in Milwaukee

By Calleigh Wondra October 5, 2020
John Kurth to Frank Zeidler, 7 January 2003, box 7, folder 47, Socialist Party of Milwaukee, Milwaukee Mss Collection 349, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries, Archives Department.

Source Description

This is a photocopy of a type-written letter John Kurth of Delaware wrote to former Milwaukee mayor and devoted socialist Frank Zeidler in early January 2003. Written in response to Zeidler’s Christmas card, the two appeared to have been in regular contact—regular enough at least to exchange holiday wishes. In the letter, Kurth refers to a trip to Milwaukee over the holidays, which he refers to as “back home”—suggesting a longstanding basis for the relationship between the Delaware resident and Zeidler. Kurth also expresses his excitement about the publication of Zeidler’s poetry in a book he encountered on display at the Milwaukee Public Library during his visit. Kurth closes his letter with a poem written by another former Socialist Milwaukee mayor, Emil Seidel. The poem has no date but may very well have been written during his mayoral term (1910-1912), or further into his career as he worked to end U.S. involvement in World War I.[1] Seidel’s poem calls for working people to rise up against the oppression of capitalism. Kurth appears particularly attached to this work, indicating that it is one of the few things he brought back with him from Milwaukee to Delaware.

Historical Context

Boasting a strong working-class politics heavily influenced by European migrants, Milwaukee became the largest city in the United States to have had a socialist mayor and the only to have had three socialist mayors in the early twentieth century. Emil Seidel, Milwaukee’s first Socialist mayor, served for two years (1910-1912). After a brief interruption, Daniel Hoan served as mayor for twenty-four years (1916-1940). Milwaukee’s third socialist mayor, Frank Zeidler, served for twelve years (1948-1960)—the last of Milwaukee’s socialist administrations (as of 2019). After a failed presidential run on the Socialist Party ticket in 1976, Zeidler did not run for another public office.[2] Zeidler remained a prominent figure in the party, however, participating in annual socialist picnics, speaking at local and national events, and regularly corresponding with other socialists and activists until his death in 2006.

Source Analysis

Kurth’s letter displayed his familiarity with Milwaukee socialism and its impact on the city’s history. It also reveals how poetry served as an important cultural expression of this heritage since at least Seidel’s tenure as mayor. Zeidler published a collection of his own poetry titled Reflections in 2002.[3] While not as politically expressive as Seidel’s work, Reflections offered snapshots of Zeidler’s life, including his three terms as mayor and his 1976 presidential run. In his 1972 poem, “I Am the Munitions-Maker, and I AM,” Zeidler states, “I try to stay out of public life as much as possible because of the nature and secrecy required in my work.” This assertion might be unexpected coming from such a public figure. Yet it recognizes the danger of his continued devotion to socialist politics in the days of the Cold War due to the fear of leftists in the public and the general mistrust of anything deemed un-American.

Emil Seidel also wrote many poems, including the one enclosed in the letter. His own time in office was limited, but he worked tirelessly on anti-war efforts, education reform, and other local and national issues. Having lived through both World Wars and the Great Depression, Seidel saw times of hardship, divide, and corruption in American culture. In the poem attached to this letter, Seidel called on his fellow Americans to rise up against the capitalist exploitation that he saw as having produced their troubles. While certainly a product of Seidel’s time, the poem could apply to many historical moments, as shown by its continued importance to the author of this letter.

Kurth’s letter shows that a poetry tradition spanned throughout Milwaukee’s Socialist movement. Disparaged as “Sewer Socialism” by critics, Milwaukee’s socialists were devoted to solving city problems with pragmatic and infrastructural solutions.[4] However, the poetry in this letter illuminates a more romantic side—a movement focused not just on sewers but on the arts too.

Footnotes

[1] The University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s digital collection of Emil Seidel’s papers dates this poem in 1938. Emil Seidel, “Rousing Call,” Autobiography: Sketches from My Life, 1938, Box 1, Volume 1, Emil Seidel Papers, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries, Archives Department, https://collections.lib.uwm.edu/digital/collection/mkesocialism/id/3661/rec/1, accessed October 5, 2020.

[2] Steven Watrous, “The Last Great Socialist,” Shepherd Express, 9 October 1997, Socialist Party of Milwaukee, box 7, folder 74, Milwaukee Mss Collection 349, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries, Archives Department.

[3] Press Release, 21 November 2002, box 7, folder 74, Socialist Party of Milwaukee Records, Milwaukee Mss Collection 349, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries, Archives Department.

[4] Elmer Beck, The Sewer Socialists: A History of the Socialist Party of Wisconsin, 1897-1940 (Fennimore, WI: Westburg Associates, 1982).

Further Questions

Comprehension

  • Who wrote this letter?

  • Where is the letter-writer from?

  • What is the letter-writer’s connection to Milwaukee?

  • Who wrote the poem in this letter?

Discussion

  • Why might the letter-writer be connected to this specific poem?

  • Why might Milwaukee Socialists have been inclined towards the arts?

  • How might poetry have offered a “Rousing Call” to working people?

Further research possibilities

  • Did other Milwaukee Socialists write poetry?

  • How did the themes, rhetoric, symbolism, and other elements of Milwaukee Socialist poetry change over time, and what did these changes reflect or represent?

Further Reading

Beck, Elmer. The Sewer Socialists: A History of the Socialist Party of Wisconsin, 1897-1940. Fennimore, WI: Westburg Associates, 1982.

Emil Seidel Papers, Milwaukee Mss collection 76, 79, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries, Archives Department.

Gurda, John. The Making of Milwaukee. Milwaukee, WI, Milwaukee County Historical Society, 1999.

Zeidler, Frank. Reflections: The Poetry of a Young Frank Zeidler, Milwaukee: Milwaukee Public Library, 2002.

Media

John Kurth to Frank Zeidler, 7 January 2003, box 7, folder 47, Socialist Party of Milwaukee, Milwaukee Mss Collection 349, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries, Archives Department.

See in the Encyclopedia of Milwaukee