Floyd Dell

Floyd Dell

Floyd Dell was born on 28th June, 1887 in Barry, Illinois. His father, Anthony Dell, found it difficult to find regular work and the family experienced a great deal of poverty. In his autobiography, Homecoming (1933), he remembered: "That year my father and mother didn't say a word about Christmas. And once, when I spoke of it, there was a strange, embarrassed silence; so I didn't say anything more about it. I knew why I hadn't gone to school that fall - why I hadn't any new shoes - why we had been living on potato soup all winter. All these things, and others, many others, fitted themselves together in my mind, and meant something."

At school Dell developed a love of reading. He later claimed that it was books by William Morris and Frank Norris helped convert him to socialism. "Frank Norris's novel, The Octopus stirred my mind. And that spring, down in a small park near my home, I heard a man make a Socialist speech to a small and indifferent crowd. Afterwards I talked to him; he was a street-sweeper." At sixteen, he joined the Socialist Party and gave speeches on street-corners about his political beliefs. He also produced material for a small Socialist monthly, Tri-City Workers' Magazine.

After a spell as an apprentice candy-maker Dell worked as a cub-reporter for the Davenport Times. He later moved to the Chicago Evening Post and by 1911 was editor of the newspaper's Friday Literary Review. Over the next few years Dell promoted the work of writers such as Frank Norris, Jack London, Charles Edward Russell, David Graham Phillips, Upton Sinclair, Theodore Dreiser, Stephen Crane, George Gig Cook, Susan Glaspell, Arnold Bennett, George Bernard Shaw, Hillaire Belloc and G. K. Chesterton. Dell believed that the everyday life of the middle and working classes provided subjects worthy of serious literary treatment. Dell valued authenticity and accuracy of detail and welcomed those like Russell and Phillips who wanted to use literature to bring about social reform.

In 1913 Dell published Women as World Builders: Studies in Modern Feminism. In the book he argued that "feminism is going to make it possible for the first time for men to be free". The following year he moved to New York City and joined Max Eastman in helping edit the radical journal, The Masses. "I was paid twenty-five dollars a week for helping Max Eastman get out the magazine. My job on The Masses was to read manuscripts, bring the best of them to editorial meetings to be voted on, send back what we couldn't use, read proof, and make up the magazine - all duties with which I was familiar; and also to help plan political cartoons and persuade the artists to draw them. I could submit my stories and poems anonymously to the editorial meetings, hear them discussed, and print them if they were accepted." Dell wrote articles on several issues including support for Margaret Sanger and her birth control campaign. He also recruited promising writers such as Sherwood Anderson, Dorothy Day and Carl Sandburg to write for the journal.

Barbara Gelb has argued in So Short a Time (1973): "He (Floyd Dell) had been a Socialist since he was fourteen, and his ambition was to write novels, though he had tried his hand at playwriting. He was tall and slender, with a broad forehead and pointed chin, and wore long sideburns."

A group of left-wing writers including Floyd Dell, John Reed, George Gig Cook, Mary Heaton Vorse, Susan Glaspell and Louise Bryant, who lived in Greenwich Village, often spent their summers in Provincetown. In 1915 several members of the group established the Provincetown Theatre Group. A shack at the end of the fisherman's wharf was turned into a theatre. Later, other writers such as Eugene O'Neill and Edna St. Vincent Millay joined the group. Dell's King Arthur's Socks was the first play to be performed by the group. Later he wrote The Angel Intrudes for the group.

Dell, like most of the people working with The Masses, was opposed to USA involvement in the First World War. After the USA declared war on the Central Powers in 1917, The Masses came under government pressure to change its policy. When it refused to do this, the journal lost its mailing privileges.

In July, 1917, it was claimed by the authorities that articles by Dell and Max Eastman and cartoons by Art Young, Boardman Robinson and H. J. Glintenkamp had violated the Espionage Act. Under this act it was an offence to publish material that undermined the war effort.

Dell argued in court: "There are some laws that the individual feels he cannot obey, and he will suffer any punishment, even that of death, rather than recognize them as having authority over him. This fundamental stubbornness of the free soul, against which all the powers of the state are helpless, constitutes a conscious objection, whatever its sources may be in political or social opinion." The legal action that followed forced The Masses to cease publication. In April, 1918, after three days of deliberation, the jury failed to agree on the guilt of Dell and his fellow defendants.

The second trial was held in January 1919. John Reed, who had recently returned from Russia, was also arrested and charged with the original defendants. Dell wrote in his autobiography, Homecoming (1933): "While we waited, I began to ponder for myself the question which the jury had retired to decide. Were we innocent or guilty? We certainly hadn't conspired to do anything. But what had we tried to do? Defiantly tell the truth. For what purpose? To keep some truth alive in a world full of lies. And what was the good of that? I don't know. But I was glad I had taken part in that act of defiant truth-telling." This time eight of the twelve jurors voted for acquittal. As the First World War was now over, it was decided not to take them to court for a third time.

In 1918 the same people who produced The Masses, including Dell, Max Eastman, John Reed, Art Young, Robert Minor and Boardman Robinson went on the publish a very similar journal, The Liberator. The author of A Dreamer's Paradise Lost (1995) pointed out: "Floyd Dell's spirited literary columns continued to highlight figures like Sherwood Anderson, to uphold the sheer beauty of poetry, and to engage in an eclectic variety of literary proposals."

People who contributed to the journal included Crystal Eastman, Art Young, Claude McKay, Boardman Robinson, Roger Baldwin, Louis Fraina, Norman Thomas, John Reed, Louise Bryant, Bertrand Russell, Dorothy Day, Robert Minor, Stuart Davis, Maurice Becker, Helen Keller, Cornelia Barns, Louis Untermeyer, K. R. Chamberlain and William Gropper.

After the war Floyd Dell published the best-selling autobiographical novel, Moon-Calf (1920). Other novels such as The Briary-Bush (1921), Janet Marsh (1923) and Runaway (1925), were less successful. As well as writing for the left-wing magazines such as the New Masses (1924-39) Dell produced several non-fictional works including Upton Sinclair (1927), Love in the Machine Age (1930) and an autobiography, Homecoming (1933).

Linda Ben-Zvi has argued: "Today Floyd Dell is considered by critics to be a minor writer and is virtually unknown to the general reading public; but during the first decades of the century, it was impossible to read national newspapers, literary magazines, or book reviews without coming across his name. If anyone could be said to be the early chronicler of modernism in America and of the great migration of writers and artists from the Midwest to Greenwich Village, it was Floyd Dell."

Floyd Dell died in Maryland near Washington on 23rd July 23, 1969.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) In his autobiography, Homecoming, Floyd Dell recalled how he discovered he was poor.

I didn't go back to school that fall. My mother said it was because I was sick. I stayed cooped up in the house, without companionship. That year my father and mother didn't say a word about Christmas. And once, when I spoke of it, there was a strange, embarrassed silence; so I didn't say anything more about it.

I knew why I hadn't gone to school that fall - why I hadn't any new shoes - why we had been living on potato soup all winter. All these things, and others, many others, fitted themselves together in my mind, and meant something.

Then the words came into my mind and I whispered them into the darkness: "We're poor!" That was it. I was one of those poor children I had been sorry for, when I heard about them in Sunday school. My mother hadn't told me. My father was out of work, and we hadn't any money. That was why there wasn't going to be any Christmas at our house.

(2) Floyd Dell, Homecoming (1933)

There was a little boy whose father worked in the bank; I liked him until he asked me distastefully, "Why do you smell the way you do?" I answered, "I guess it's because I eat potato soup so often" - and after that I avoided him.

There was a nice little girl, with whom I walked to school every day for a week or so - a dark-eyed, quiet little girl. But when I was gently teased about my 'little sweetheart', I stopped. Having a sweetheart meant, I knew, buying candy for her; and I had no money to buy candy with.

There was a little boy that year who bought some candy and shared it with me as we were walking to school; a few days later, he asked me when I was going to 'treat back'. I went to my mother in shame, hating to ask her for money, and resolved never to get into that trap again. With her nickel I bought some candy, gave the other boy half, and grimly ate my own half. Next time I would know better.

I had no real friends, no chums, no one I trusted or let myself care for.

(3) Floyd Dell, Homecoming (1933)

My mother was always particular about whom I played with, and I sought to understand her discriminations. Politeness, neatness and lack of profanity seemed to be the chief points in her social decisions. But one Sunday I found a nice little coloured boy out in front of the house, who was very polite, and quite neat, and used no bad words; moreover, he had a pocket full of coloured chalks with which pictures could be drawn on the sidewalk. Nevertheless, my mother called me back into the house. I could not understand why, and demanded fretfully, "He's a nice boy, isn't he Mamma?" My mother looked embarrassed and ashamed, and did not reply.

This ashamed silence of hers somehow threatened the moral fabric of my universe. From the window I could see the little coloured boy, after waiting a while, gather up his chalks, turn his back on the house, and slowly walk away. "Why, Mamma? Why can't I play with him? No answer. at least, she had the grace to be ashamed.

She did not know that at school I had kept the laws of her Ideal Universe which she was playing fast and loose with. There, at a double desk, I had sat with a little coloured boy, whom the other boys didn't want to sit with. How did my teacher know that I did not regard girls or Negro boys as my inferiors? Anyway, she was right. I took seriously the story about my father having fought and suffered in the war to set free the slaves.

(4) Floyd Dell, Homecoming (1933)

Frank Norris's novel, The Octopus stirred my mind. And that spring, down in a small park near my home, I heard a man make a Socialist speech to a small and indifferent crowd. Afterwards I talked to him; he was a street-sweeper. I believe William Morris has a street-sweeper Socialist in News from Nowhere; but this was not a literary echo, this Socialist street-sweeper in Quincy - he was real. And my long-slumbering Socialism woke up. I went to a meeting of the Socialist local, a group of only seven or eight who met in the back room of, if I remember rightly, a jewelry store. And between that and the next meeting I converted my friend - conversion is a task which friendship makes extraordinary easy - and brought him in triumph to the back room. We both joined the local and paid our dues; this was irregular, because eighteen was the lowest age for membership in the Party, and I was barely sixteen now, and my friend but a year older.

(5) Floyd Dell, Homecoming (1933)

I wrote a little piece called "Mona Lisa and the Wheelbarrow", about Leonardo da Vinci and the "two great riddles of the world today-machinery and women"... The little piece sold to Harper's Weekly for enough money for me to live on for a whole month. I visited the Smart Set, where the editor, Willard Huntington Wright, very flatteringly told me that my story, Jessica Screams, had caused more cancellations of subscriptions than any other story they had ever published. By Berkeley Tobey, who was the business manager of The Masses, and my boon companion, I was taken to the office of that magazine, and there I met Max Eastman, the editor, and John Reed. Max Eastman was a tall, handsome, poetic, lazy-looking fellow; Jack Reed a large, infantile, round-faced, energetic youth. The magazine had been started by a group of Socialist artists and writers; it had run out of money, and stopped; then they had read in the papers something that Max Eastman, a professor of philosophy in Columbia University, had said; he was evidently a Socialist, and they wrote a letter and asked the professor of philosophy if he would like to edit their magazine. He quit his professorial job, raised some money, and now the magazine was going again.

Now as it happened, when the magazine had stopped, the business manager, an enterprising Dutchman named Piet Vlag, had taken its moribund remains to Chicago, and had there united it with a Socialist and Feminist magazine published in Chicago by Josephine Conger-Kaneko. I had been at a meeting where the merger was made, and I had been made an editor of The Masses; but that had all been illegal, and I didn't mention it to Max Eastman or Jack Reed. But when they asked if I had any stories, and I asked them how long, and they said about six hundred words, I said I hadn't any of that length but would write them one; and the next day I wrote a story of that length called A Perfectly Good Cat; the magazine didn't pay for anything, but it was a great honor to have the privilege of contributing to it; the story, when published, was to evoke more letters of protest from shocked contributors, including Upton Sinclair, than anything The Masses had ever published up to that time. That Smart Set story and that Masses story would seem very tame now; but readers were easily shocked in those days.

I did not find a job, but I managed to keep going for the rest of the year by selling a few things to the magazines. Then, in December, one noon as I was walking down Greenwich Avenue, I was called into Gallup's restaurant to a gathering of some half dozen editors of The Masses, and was told that I was to be an editor, and get paid twenty-five dollars a week for helping Max Eastman get out the magazine; I said that was fine, but strictly on condition that I got my salary with never more than one week's delay.

Life seemed extraordinarily simple and happy in Greenwich Village; one even got a job without asking for it!

In the Village there were to be rented, for thirty dollars a month, whole floors in old houses, each with two enormous rooms - high-ceilinged rooms, with deep-embrasured windows, and fireplaces - and a hall bedroom, a kitchen with a gas-range, and a bathroom. In one of these apartments I lived very happily for several years with a girl with whom I was deeply in love. It was a companionship of two artists, which we knew might not last long, but which we hoped would last forever. Those were beautiful and serene years.

My job on The Masses was to read manuscripts, bring the best of them to editorial meetings to be voted on, send back what we couldn't use, read proof, and "make up" the magazine - all duties with which I was familiar; and also to help plan political cartoons and persuade the artists to draw them. I could submit my stories and poems anonymously to the editorial meetings, hear them discussed, and print them if they were accepted; and I came to run a regular department of literary criticism, mostly written by myself, in the back of the magazine, besides articles upon current matters.

(6) Linda Ben-Zvi, Susan Glaspell: Her Life and Times (2005)

Today Floyd Dell is considered by critics to be a minor writer and is virtually unknown to the general reading public; but during the first decades of the century, it was impossible to read national newspapers, literary magazines, or book reviews without coming across his name. If anyone could be said to be the early chronicler of modernism in America and of the great migration of writers and artists from the Midwest to Greenwich Village, it was Floyd Dell.

(7) Floyd Dell wrote about discovering the work of Sherwood Anderson, Carl Sandburg and Theodore Dreiser while the literary editor of the Chicago Evening Post.

I met Carl Sandburg, and he read some of his poems from manuscript. They were all impressionistic, misty, soft-outlined, delicate; I remember liking particularly the one about the fog that "comes on little cat feet". Carl Sandburg had not struck yet the note he was soon to strike in Chicago Poems.

I saw something of Theodore Dreiser, who was in Chicago for a while; he said I was the best critic in America; but I had said he was a great novelist, so it was only natural for him to think well of my critical powers.

A new, hitherto unknown novelist swam into my ken, Sherwood Anderson, with the manuscript of a novel, Windy MacPherson's Son, which I immediately admired; it had things in it about the Middle West which had never got into fiction. Sherwood Anderson worked in an advertising agency, and loathed it.

(8) In his autobiography, Homecoming, Floyd Dell wrote about joining The Masses in 1914.

I was paid twenty-five dollars a week for helping Max Eastman get out the magazine. My job on The Masses was to read manuscripts, bring the best of them to editorial meetings to be voted on, send back what we couldn't use, read proof, and 'make up' the magazine - all duties with which I was familiar; and also to help plan political cartoons and persuade the artists to draw them. I could submit my stories and poems anonymously to the editorial meetings, hear them discussed, and print them if they were accepted.

At the monthly editorial meetings, where the literary editors were usually ranged on one side of all questions and the artists on the other. The squabbles between literary and art editors were usually over the question of intelligibility and propaganda versus artistic freedom; some of the artists held a smoldering grudge against the literary editors, and believed that Max Eastman and I were infringing the true freedom of art by putting jokes or titles under their pictures. John Sloan and Art Young were the only ones of the artists who were verbally quite articulate; but fat, genial Art Young sided with the literary editors usually; and John Sloan, a very vigorous and combative personality, spoke up strongly for the artists.

Nobody gained a penny out of the things published in the magazine; it was an honour to get into its pages, an honour conferred by vote at the meetings. Max Eastman and I did get salaries for editorial work; but that was regarded as dirty work, which ought to be paid for. We were actually a little republic in which, as artists, we worked for the approval of our fellows, not for money.

(9) As editor of The Masses Floyd Dell gave Margaret Sanger support in her campaign in favour of birth control.

Margaret Sanger had begun her work on behalf on women's freedom from unwanted pregnancies; she renamed the prevention of conception "birth control", and under that name it began to get attention in the newspapers. The propaganda went on under the threatening shadow of a federal statute, passed under the influence of that strange moral monstrosity, Anthony Comstock, which classed such information as 'obscene'.

In New York City a woman police spy, pretending to be a wife desperately in need of birth control information, got a pamphlet from William Sanger, as he was arrested. The Masses published articles in defence of him and of Margaret Sanger, and the magazine was immediately flooded with thousands of letters from women, asking for information about the methods of birth control, and giving the best as well as the most heart-breaking reasons for needing such information.

(10) Floyd Dell, like most of the people working for The Masses, was totally opposed to the United States becoming involved in the First World War.

In 1917 Allied propaganda was dragging the United States into the war, in spite of the re-election of Wilson on the promise contained in the slogan, "He kept us out of the war!" Nearly all the American Socialist leaders, from Upton Sinclair down, had joined in the pro-war hysteria. Socialism seemed a broken reed; but the Pacifist movement looked stronger and more courageous than had been expected. I had to consider whether I was a Pacifist or not; I wasn't sure - if there were hope of Revolution, I wasn't. But the masses of Europe seemed to be going like sheep to the slaughter; Revolution seemed a vain hope.

(11) Floyd Dell, Homecoming (1933)

The Masses harassed by the post-office authorities, was suppressed in October, 1917, by the Government, and its editors were indicted, myself among them, under the so-called Espionage Act, which was being used not against German spies but against American Socialists, Pacifists, and anti-war radicals. Sentences of twenty years were being served out to all who dared say this was not a war to end war, or that the Allied loans would never be paid. But the courts would probably not get around to us until next year; and we immediately made plans to start another magazine, The Liberator, and tell more truth; we would stand on the pre-war Wilsonian program, and call for a negotiated peace.

(12) Floyd Dell, speech in court when charged with breaking the Espionage Act (1918)

There are some laws that the individual feels he cannot obey, and he will suffer any punishment, even that of death, rather than recognize them as having authority over him. This fundamental stubbornness of the free soul, against which all the powers of the state are helpless, constitutes a conscious objection, whatever its sources may be in political or social opinion.

(13) In his autobiography, Homecoming, Floyd Dell explained his thoughts on being charged with breaking the Espionage Act.

While we waited, I began to ponder for myself the question which the jury had retired to decide. Were we innocent or guilty? We certainly hadn't "conspired" to do anything. But what had we tried to do? Defiantly tell the truth. For what purpose? To keep some truth alive in a world full of lies. And what was the good of that? I don't know. But I was glad I had taken part in that act of defiant truth-telling.

Rumours began to perculate. "Six to six." Next morning the debate in the jury-room grew fiercer, noisier. At noon the jury came in, hot, weary, angry, limp, and exhausted. They had fought the case amongst themselves for eleven vehement hours. And they could not agree upon a verdict.

But the judge refused to discharge them; and they went back, after further instructions, with grim determination on their faces.

At eleven o'clock the jurors reported continued disagreement, but were sent back. The next noon, hopelessly deadlocked, the jury was discharged, with all our thanks. And so we were free.

(14) Floyd Dell, Homecoming (1933)

Allied propaganda was dragging the United States into the war, in spite of the re-election of Wilson on the promise contained in the slogan, "He kept us out of war!" Nearly all the American Socialist leaders, from Upton Sinclair down, had joined in the pro-war hysteria. Eugene V. Debs alone among familiar Socialist names stood for Socialist principles; and Bill Haywood of the I.W.W., who had been expelled from the Socialist Party. Socialism seemed a broken reed; but the Pacifist movement looked stronger and more courageous than had been expected. I had to consider whether I was a Pacifist or not; I wasn't sure - if there were hope of Revolution, I wasn't. But the masses of Europe seemed to be going like sheep to the slaughter; Revolution seemed a vain hope.

(15) Floyd Dell, Homecoming (1933)

One evening I was taken by Alex Gumberg to call on two young women who had just moved into Greenwich Village. Both girls were recently from California, and were friends of Albert Rhys Williams. The dark-haired one, in whom my friend Alex was interested, was Miss Frances Adams, who was running a free-speech forum in connection with the church of Dr. Percy Stickney Grant. The other, golden-haired and blue-eyed, seemed to have stepped out of that novel of Frank Norris's which had so impressed me in my boyhood. She had been born in Minnesota, and looked like a Scandinavian girl, though she was really of mixed Scotch, Irish, English and Dutch ancestry. Her name was B. Marie Gage; she didn't like her first name and had shortened it to an initial. She was a Socialist; she had gone to the University of Wisconsin in the earlier days of the war, and had led in the organization of the free-speech forum there. Going back to her home in Pasadena, California, she had been active in organizing a very extensive league of Pacifist groups throughout the West, and had been indicted for selling a Pacifist book then under Government ban.

Put on trial under the Espionage Act, her youth and courage and candor - and without doubt her good looks, too, her blue eyes, golden hair and peaches-and-cream complexion - were much in her favor, and she heard with astonishment the Prosecutor plead her case for her; her lawyer was John Beardsley, who afterwards won before the U. S. Supreme Court a decision declaring unconstitutional one of the most hideously reactionary of the California "anti-Red" laws; and she was given a nominal fine at a time when other Pacifists were being given twenty years in prison - a discrimination, with which, in her earnestness, she was not altogether pleased. She was a friend of Upton Sinclair, and of Mrs. Kate Crane Gartz, who had been one of the backers of the Liberator. As two who had been through war-time trials, we had much in common; I fell in love with B. Marie at once, recognizing her as the most splendid young woman I had ever seen; and we were everywhere together from that moment. Though one is poor, there are always bus-tops to ride on to nowhere and back under the stars, there are the ferries that slide out into a night of mystery, there are woods to walk in and secluded beaches to lie upon in the darkness, there are picnic fires beside whose embers poetry may be remembered and said.