Masses

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Dec 25 09:26:14 MST 2001


Robert Rosenstone, "Romantic Revolutionary" (biography of John Reed):

The roads that brought [John] Reed, Eastman and the Masses to the 
same intersection were circuitous. Born in January 1911, the 
magazine—a cooperative enterprise—was the brain-child of Piet Vlag, a 
dark-eyed Dutchman who managed the restaurant in the basement of the 
Socialist Rand School. A laughing, boisterous sort, Vlag 
energetically rounded up the financial backing and personnel to 
produce a publication devoted to the interests of working people and 
to his pet formula for social improvement cooperative movement. 
Despite the talent procured—artists John Sloan, Art Young, Charles A. 
Winter and Maurice Becker, and writers Louis Untermeyer, Mary Heaton 
Vorse, Ellis O. Jones and Inez Haynes Gillmore--the Masses was a dull 
publication. The editor's zeal for co-operatives placed him among the 
most conservative Socialists, and rather than showing any lively, 
radical impulse, the magazine embarked on tepid campaigns against the 
"militaristic" Boy Scouts and the rising cost of living. By the 
summer of 1912 Vlag was ready to sell out to a radical women's
magazine in Chicago.

Prevented from doing so by the editorial board, whose members felt of 
an outlet for noncommercial works, the founder left the their hands. 
The editors, however, did not wish to be bothered lay-to-day business 
of running it, and were in a quandary until g remembered a recent 
discussion with Max Eastman about the future of the magazine. Eastman 
was a young Ph.D. in philosophy from Columbia University who had 
organized the Men's League for Women's and had recently been 
converted to Socialism. Previously more in aesthetics than in 
politics, he was just at the point—much like Reed—of very much 
needing "to romanticize New York life and romanticize the 
revolution." When he received a note saying, "You are elected editor 
of The Masses. No pay," he was both skeptical and intrigued. At a 
meeting of editors one night, he found a warm atmosphere and exciting 
conversation filled "with a sense of universal revolt and 
reegeneration, of just-before-the-dawn-of-a-new-day in American art 
and literature and living." Charmed, impressed and more than a little 
flattered, Max agreed to edit one issue of the Masses and then join 
the others in helping to raise money for its continuation.

A cooperative in theory, the magazine became a one-man show. Of all 
the editors only Dolly Sloan, the tiny, scrappy, devoted Socialist 
wife of the painter, knew anything about the practical side of the 
publication, and, overburdened with work, she was ready to defer to 
Eastman. Before the first number was out, he was fully in charge of 
raising money, dealing with printers, handling correspondence, 
convening the editors and making final decisions on what would 
appear. The burden was great, more than Eastman really wanted, but 
the position had its satisfactions—helping to clean up typography and 
create a modern format, printing works the capitalist press ignored 
and, above all, changing the editorial policy to left-wing Socialism, 
in support of the class struggle. Weighing factors pro and con, 
Eastman was annoyed enough by Reed's intrusion to decide "to bring 
out one more number and quit."

Reading "Where the Heart Is" changed his mind. Max had suspected that 
a magazine which could not pay contributors would receive decent 
works only from its editors. Now he knew differently. Reed was 
obviously "a man writing about a significant phase of American life 
that no other magazine would dare to mention unless sanctimoniously, 
and writing with unlabored grace—a style both vivid and restrained." 
For the first time, "the idea that The Masses might be good, that 
there really was a creative literature stifled by commercial 
journalism," took a firm grip on Eastman, and he dashed off a note to 
Jack saying, "Your things are great," promising to print the story in 
the next issue and asking for "a brief study, or comment, humorous or 
dramatic, on some current matter as often as you can."

The praise brought Reed back. Calmed by acceptance, he was more 
direct, and a warmer Max soon found him "kindly and sagacious." 
Anxious to join the staff, Jack tentatively offered a manifesto for 
the masthead. Eastman read it and was disappointed that Reed either 
had not read the editorial page or had not understood what he read. 
Trained under John Dewey, thinking himself a "revolutionary 
experimentalist," Eastman had stressed the need for a "carefully 
thought-out program of class struggle" and was dismayed by Jack's 
visceral, freewheeling commitment to any and all kinds of radicalism. 
Borrowing the idea and impertinent tenor, along with some of its 
phraseology, Max composed a manifesto of his own. The editors voted 
that it be run permanently about the same time they elected Reed to 
the board.

Being an editor of the Masses was fun. Reed shared the job of 
winnowing poetry contributions with Louis Untermeyer, who found his 
new  partner "big-boned, broad-shouldered, handsome, 
semi-theatrical." The two men shared a seriousness about poetry, a 
distrust of any work too fastidious or hermetic and a grand passion 
for "unforgettably bad" poems.  Out of the piles of verse that poured 
into the office they began to compile an anthology of The World's 
Worst Poetry. Together they howled with delight on discovering 
particularly execrable rhymes, and often left notes for each other 
calling attention to choice examples of dreadful verse. Twice a month 
Untermeyer and Reed took the best works to evening editorial meetings 
held in dim, bare studios, where over glasses of beer and through 
heavy cigarette smoke, drawings were scanned, poems, essays and 
stories were read aloud, and everyone wrangled over what to include 
in the next issue. The atmosphere was dreamy, almost unreal, for, as 
Art Young recalled, "We were sailing out, so to speak, with no chart 
but our untried beliefs and a kind of confidence that any way might 
be better than the old way." Debates were often heated, and Reed, in 
particular, could become so petulant that he was remembered as "the 
spoiled child of the Masses meetings." Tenacious and unbending in 
argument, Jack soon regained perspective. After one tiring, dogmatic 
session, he commented to Untermeyer, "God damn it, Louis, we're a 
bunch of much-too-serious Samsons. We've forgotten that the only 
weapon feared by the Philistines is the jawbone of an ass."

-- 
Louis Proyect, lnp3 at panix.com on 12/25/2001

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