Charles Edwin Anson Markham was born on April 23, 1852, in Oregon City, Oregon, the youngest of six children. His parents were divorced shortly after his birth, and Charles, as he was known for many years, saw almost nothing of his father. In 1856, Charles moved with his mother and only sister to a ranch in Lagoon Valley, northeast of San Francisco. By the age of twelve, he was doing hard labor on the family farm.
Charles's mother vehemently opposed his interest in literature, but he nonetheless attended a rudimentary "college" at Vacaville, California, and managed to earn enough money through teaching to continue his studies at Christian College in Santa Rosa, California. He completed the classical course in 1873 and went on to teach in El Dorado County. Markham was elected county superintendent of schools in 1879 and received the principalship of the Tompkins Observation School in Oakland in 1890. His circle of friends in Oakland included Joaquin Miller, Donna Coolbrith, Charles Warren Stoddard, and Edmund Clarence Stedman, among many others.
Markham dropped the name Charles in about 1895 and became Edwin. In 1898, after two failed marriages, he married Anna Catherine Murphy. That same year, Markham read "The Man with the Hoe," inspired by Millet's painting by that title, at a New Year's Eve party; the poem, which protested the plight of the exploited laborer, was soon published and became an instant success. Markham and his wife moved to New York shortly after, settling first in Brooklyn and then in Staten Island in 1901. He began lecturing extensively, appearing at labor and radical gatherings as frequently as literary ones.
Markham published several collections of verse, among them The Ballad of the Gallows Bird (1960, Antioch Press), Eighty Poems at Eighty (1932), Gates of Paradise (1920), Lincoln and Other Poems (1901), and The Man with the Hoe and Other Poems (1899). He also edited many anthologies of poetry. His prose work, Children in Bondage (1914), was a landmark in the crusade against child labor. He was the first poet to receive the Academy Fellowship in 1936.
Markham died on March 7, 1940, in Brooklyn, New York. Upon his death, he bequeathed his personal library of 15,000 volumes to the Horrmann Library, Wagner College, on Staten Island. He also gave to the college his personal papers, including many manuscript letters from well-known literary and political figures of the early twentieth century. Among his correspondents were Franklin D. Roosevelt, Ambrose Bierce, Jack London, Carl Sandburg and Amy Lowell.