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
magazinea cooperative enterprisewas 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 procuredartists 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 pointmuch like Reedof 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 satisfactionshelping 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 gracea 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
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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