MARGUERITE YOUNG -- the peripatetic kook of Greenwich Village and spinner of mystical literature, instantly recognizable in her big red wig, pink stockings, and scarlet woolen cape -- shuffled off this mortal coil in 1995, at the ripe old age of 87. She was, in every beloved sense of the word, an eccentric character, who spent her gypsy life chasing down dreams of failed utopias, documenting with inveterate hope-against-hope the images of earth-bound paradises found and then unfound, unfounded or brutally pre-empted, always lost and almost always forgotten, like Edenic mirages flaring up and instantly disintegrating in the meat grinder of America's industry. Young was, and remains, a greatly admired figure among the cognoscenti of high-brow fringe literature, probably best known for her Joycean epic, Miss MacIntosh, My Darling (a work that prompted Kurt Vonnegut to call her "unquestionably a genius").

Who was this strange woman, this square-headed peg in the rounded slot of canonized literature? Perhaps she can best be considered a Renaissance woman of the onrushing apocalypse, a busy-headed interpolator of jigsaw interests and transcendental obsessions: first and foremost, an enigmatic, idealistic, and fantastically off-kilter writer; a purple-word maniac of a faltering high modernism; a serious prankster and a punning mortician; the penultimate universal thinker who could link, poetically, intrinsically, the secretly uncoupled truths set adrift in the swirling eddies of neglected time; a brilliant crank; an oddity; and also some strange species of wildly bifurcating, deeply elegiac philosopher hatching a new strain of "dialectical spiritualism"; and always, to her dying day, an outspoken, sweetly antagonistic, and devout historian of America's deranged state of protracted lust and ongoing savagery, that teleological trump card so euphemistically referred to as Manifest Destiny. Young saw darkness in the Enlightenment, and she also spotted, with a reluctant optimist's eye, the subtle flashes of firefly light in the ongoing Dark Age. History was her intellectual stomping ground.

When Young finally gave up the ghost, she left a little something behind; or rather, quite a big something: an Emersonian gift tied up in a neo-Marxist ribbon. Her final work, though unfinished, is a mammoth tome of sweeping beauty, a difficult book of grand intent shot through with wit and humor and anger, and a sad fondness for her saintly subject. During the last 25 years of her life, Young labored -- with what was surely a heady and effusive admixture of love, awe, and indignation -- on a panoramic study of the life of Eugene Victor Debs, the Indianapolis-born socialist and union organizer who fought tooth and nail, body and soul, for the inherent dignity and intrinsic rights of shunned and shat-upon workers everywhere, those so-called lower classes who found (and still find) themselves in continual and aggrieved confrontation with the colossal injustices of the American "czars" of big industry.

Though a work of monumental and profound scholarship, Harp Song for a Radical is by no means a standard biography; in fact, it's not a biography at all. It's a visionary outpouring of aching love for transcendental ideals this country has left behind, a magnum opus which breathlessly confronts and condemns our betrayals, our forgetfulness. The book's putative subject, Eugene Debs, floats in and out of these 580 pages like a winsome ghost, a crucial yet ephemeral reminder of integrity and righteousness, sometimes disappearing, it might seem, for good -- only to reappear again and again as a stunned, furious visitor to scenes of human devastation forever inspired or instigated by the ruthless machinations of big business. What Young has conceived, in fact, is a lovely, lengthy, often lugubrious tone poem -- an exquisitely infuriating portrait of an (apparently, but not really) bygone age in which time plays like an accordion, often stretching and spanning to sound out things from an almost prehistoric remove. At other times, her meditations condense and become frighteningly immediate, as if time has collapsed and Walter Benjamin's wreckage of history is upon us, piling up in this all-devouring present. It is, in every sense, a millennial work of epic scope, a precisely detailed history, which reads like a tentative ode to humanity's immortal battle against the entrenchment of this seemingly invincible injustice.

Young's technique -- in spinning out the intricate web of her spiraling story -- is circular and overlapping, kaleidoscopic, as opposed to the typically linear narrative of conventional historiography. She weaves in and out of time, stitching a patchwork quilt full of "tremendously big archetypal figures" and important events (mostly labor strikes and their incredibly violent repression). These events are so distinctly American that they begin, in their interpenetrating accumulation, to take on something of a mythological aspect.

Young's tone, working within the spirographic architectonics of her structure, is almost biblical. Though always on her hands and knees, always down in the dirt with her motley cast of wrongly criminalized subjects, she keeps her eyes on the heavens, reaching upward now and again for that elusive dynamo of cosmic comprehension that will provide a suitable frame for her mythological narrative. Each specific repetition of capitalist injustice against the meek and powerless seems to hark back to some grander, universal reiteration of other monolithic crimes -- like a terrible tape loop replaying the soundtrack of all the unlearned, recorded and unrecorded lessons of history: filched dignity, class violence, stolen property, and broken promises. Though her tale is loaded with hard facts and real-life anecdotes, the resulting portrait is predominantly psychological, but on a mass scale, as though she were giving a Hobbesian canvas of this nation's leviathan psyche for readers to peruse and contemplate. By following every surprising tangent (often for hundreds of pages), and through the interjection of quasi-religious metaphors and brazen analogies with which to raise the stakes, Young brings vividly to life the tumultuous, halting birth of American working-class consciousness, as well as the horrible, fascistic forces sent forth to strangle that fetal awareness before it grew into full-blown revolution. Through the loopy magic of her prose, she conjures the dead and buried, whether they be the nameless masses of murdered workers, the innumerable charred blueprints for worldly justice handed down over time, or the suffocated, stillborn hopes and aspirations of generations of America's downtrodden and oppressed.

In Young's own words, cited in Charles Ruas' introduction: "What I'm doing is giving the most dramatic and, I think, revelatory things, and linkages, and passages, to know exactly where it is at all times." Whether she is recounting the early travails of Brigham Young and the diaspora of the Mormons, the neurotic shopping sprees of the widowed Mary Todd Lincoln, the insidiously hypocritical rise of Allan Pinkerton and his corporate detective agency ("The Eye That Never Sleeps"), the multiple botched experiments in fin-de-siècle utopian settlements, the slapstick exploits of Karl Marx's nutty disciples wandering the American wilderness with misinterpretive zeal, or the Russian czar's pseudo-execution (a "macabre joke") of the addlepated Feodor Dostoyevsky, Young is continually, if ever-slowly, drawing everything inward toward a critical center -- a gravitational orbit pulling circles within circles within cycles -- to reveal the deepest, dark-soiled roots of what she scathingly refers to as that boorishly internecine and cruelly ironic "other Civil War," the bloody, pan-historic struggle between the consolidated rich and the proliferating poor, the questionable haves (entitled to be) and the questioning have-nots (damned not to be). This ridiculous tragedy and awful comedy, this overarching psychological history in which the terms good and evil, justice and injustice, are always shifting poles, finds its point of focus -- its perpetual referent -- in the heroic figure of Debs, "this Abel who would be branded Cain by the murderers of working men."

Harp Song for a Radical, as you may have already guessed, is an extremely demanding, often maddening work of art. It's easy to lose your way. From the first paragraph, the reader is plunged into a wonderfully crafted but often befuddling puzzle of poetic imagery, an intricate maze in which words ooze and pool like a heavy syrup. Young's self-contained lexicology and her languid, liquid style create a dense, esoteric universe, which rewards the hard work of reading with brief flashes of insight and humor. After a while (if you don't end up throwing the book across the room), those flashes begin to spark back and forth across the pages, cross-igniting as the mystical vision of the book gains its own unique clarity.

The following, as an example of Young's hyper-intelligent, hyperventilating prose, is a single sentence which rears up in the latter chapters of the book, apropos of simply everything that has come before it: "In a land of many kingdoms, many powers joined in a monarchical monolith such as had no business in a democracy of which the principles worked best when no attempt was made to clothe the word with flesh when only the words should have sufficed without the demonstration as some of its critics averred, how easy it was for the Allan Pinkerton agency to make these so-called Molly Maguires, although few in number, seem many and of the same brand as the Reno brothers, the James and Younger brothers, and most especially as the poor Irishmen who had come to the anthracite barrens before the Civil War in search of survival and had bitterly resented being dragged from the coal pits and tied hand and foot, slung like corpses over horses or tied by ropes and dragged along the ground to the draft headquarters for shipment to the southern battlefields as those who, wild dogs although they were, had been unwilling to wear Mr. Lincoln's dog tags."

Whew! Nearly every page uncorks a geyser of scintillating language such as this. It can be slow going, yet the sense of outrage, of compulsion and immediacy, is always palpable, a tangible force driving her forward. Young wrote as though every sentence were her last and only sentence -- with the specter of both the millennium and her own earthly departure looming ever larger -- a brilliance set furiously ablaze by the embers of a secular and spiritual indignation regarding the unpunished crimes of the capitalist status quo. The feeling one gets is that the book finished her, and not vice versa. This in no way diminishes what Young accomplished; in fact, her death prior to the completion of Harp Song gives it an almost sacred quality, a sense that nothing truly ends if it's remembered, or that in every ending is a beginning.

What Young succeeded in doing, in her portrait of the life and times of Debs, was to bring history to life -- to resurrect in words an idealistic figure that others, for good reason, might wish to bury and forget. And an autopsy (the post-mortem of history) cannot be performed on that which should, but will not, die.