James Dempsey: Scofield Thayer, 'The Dial' and the Modernist revolution

  Scofield Thayer

Scofield Thayer

Scholars disagree on when that many-headed phenomenon we call Modernism really took hold. Some quote Virginia Woolf’s famous line, ''On or about December 1910 human character changed.'' Others point to 1922, a Modernist annus mirabilis in which both The Waste Land and Ulysses were published. Others dig back into the 19th Century.

Trying to pin down a movement, or rather, movements as messy and self-contradictory as was Modernism is probably pointless. But there is some value in charting the progress of Modernism through the opening decades of the 20th Century, a century whose cultural landscape it helped heave open.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of a flurry of events, some titanic, some seemingly negligible, some public, some taking place behind the scenes, that constituted or were responses to the “modern” to which artists and writers were reacting and would forever alter our sense of human reality.

The U.S. entered the Great War and so made its presence felt on the world stage, and Russia writhed in the throes of its two revolutions. Poet and war-hero Siegfried Sassoon’s anti-war “A Soldier’s Declaration’’ was read in the British Parliament. E.E. Cummings, like many other young Americans, volunteered in a French ambulance brigade, an experience that he would use in The Enormous Room, a Modernist classic. The Little Review, a daring avant-garde magazine, moved from Chicago to New York City.

Most notably, perhaps, T.S. Eliot published his first collection of poems, Prufrock and Other Observations, shocking, or bemusing, readers with his description of an evening that was “anaesthetized’’.  Less notably, Scofield Thayer moved to New York to begin a career in publishing. In little more than a decade, he would drift back into anonymity, but in the intervening years he would transfuse Modernism into the cultural bloodstream of America.

Thayer launched his own magazine in 1920. It was a reincarnation of The Dial, a financially lame and literarily stodgy journal of politics and book reviews that had once been a bulwark of culture in the Midwest, and before that an outlet for the cheery thoughts of Ralph Waldo Emerson and the Transcendentalists.

Few expected him to succeed. He was, after all, a rich boy from a Massachusetts factory town, Worcester, who had come to New York to indulge his dilettantism and put a dent in his sizable inheritance. He had published poetry and helped edit magazines during his school years at Milton Academy and Harvard, but that was just the extent of his experience. His business partner, James Sibley Watson, also the scion of a wealthy family, was similarly untried.

Indeed, many seemed eager to see the magazine fail. “All Thayer has is money,” sneered the short-story writer and novelist Sherwood Anderson. “A pink thread of juvenility runs through it,” wrote Conrad Aiken. T.S. Eliot, though a friend of Thayer’s, was also dismissive. “It is very dull -- just an imitation of The Atlantic Monthly with a few atrocious drawings reproduced,” he wrote. The drawings, all of burlesque characters, were by E.E. Cummings, seven of whose poems were also included in the issue.

And yet for all the private carping, writers and artists clamored to get their work into the pages of the journal. Aiken was published regularly. Eliot and Pound served as foreign correspondents, and would each go on to win the coveted Dial Award of $2,000 (about $24,000 today), as would Anderson.

Thayer and Watson bought the magazine in 1919 and turned it into a showcase for what they believed was the best  visual art and literature of their time.

They succeeded to the extent that the Contents pages of the magazine from that period reads today like a Who’s Who of the  literary greats of the 20th Century. Eliot, Pound, Cummings, Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams, Virginia Woolf, Hart Crane, D.H. Lawrence, Thomas Mann and Maxim Gork -- all published their work in The Dial. Artists whose work was chosen for reproduction included Picasso, Matisse, Chagall, Demuth, LaChaise,  Burchfield, Marin, Schiele and many more.

The magazine saw the first American appearance (usually the first ever appearance) of works that have become touchstones of 20th Century literature—Ezra Pound’s The Cantos and Hugh Selwyn Mauberley; Eliot’s The Waste Land and The Hollow Men; W.B. Yeats’s The Second Coming; E.E. Cummings’s Buffalo Bill; D.H Lawrence’s The Prussian Officer; Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. Thayer’s and Watson’s  writers -- as well as the editors they hired, including Gilbert Seldes, Alyse Gregory, Kenneth Burke and Marianne Moore--were truly prescient.

Most of the art reproduced came from Thayer’s own collection, which he built up in a frantic three-year period when he was in France, Germany and Austria, mostly in Vienna, where he was a patient of Sigmund Freud for two years. This stunning collection is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. An exhibit of highlights from it, Obsession: Nudes by Schiele, Picasso and Klimt from the Scofield Thayer Collection, will open in the fall of 2018 at the Metropolitan Museum.

Scholars have come to understand the crucial role played by magazines in creating and distributing what has become known as “Modernism,” which was not so much a manifesto as an axis of complex responses to the perceived thrust of modernity.

Of those magazines, The Dial was the most influential. Certainly, there were more radical publications, such as Blast and The Little Review, but these journals were hampered by shortages of funds or of continuity. Blast, for instance, put out by Pound and Wyndham Lewis, had just two issues. The Dial had the luxury of being able to lose money. This, together with the almost religious devotion  that Thayer had to  visual art and literature, ensured its longevity.

Thayer wrote, “If a magazine isn't to be simply a waste of good white paper it ought to print, with some regularity, either such work as would otherwise have to wait years for publication, or such as would not be acceptable elsewhere.”

But the lifespan of little magazines, as these journals came to be known, depended upon their being able to steer clear of such organizations as the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, which had the power to charge publishers with obscenity. In 1921, for instance, The Little Review was found guilty of obscenity in publishing the “Nautical” section from Ulysses, which has a masturbation scene, which resulted in the novel being essentially banned in the U.S. It was then also a crime to use the mails to distribute obscenity, and the loss of the ability to distribute to subscribers was a de facto death sentence for any magazine. In any event, The Dial, under the steady hands of Thayer and Watson, lasted through the decade—from January 1920 to June, 1929. The sheer longevity of the journal gave it an unequaled influence.

Thayer suffered from schizophrenia. Shortly after the middle of the decade, when he was just 37, Thayer suffered a breakdown that took him out of public life. He spent time in various hospitals and institutions and was eventually declared “an insane person.” As time went by, Thayer and his achievement faded into history. He died in 1982 at 92, having outlived most of his friends and contemporaries, all but forgotten.

The Dial didn’t last long without Thayer, and the last issue was brought out in June 1929, at the end of the decade it had come to define. The magazine’s mission had been to bring the best of contemporary arts and letters, including the avant-garde and the experimental, into the mainstream, and it succeeded to such a degree that it more or less put itself out of business. By the time that it closed its doors at 152 West 13th St., in Greenwich Village, the work it had championed--much of which had been earlier ridiculed--had created a new normal. Its poets were showing up in anthologies and its visual artists work was now to be found in galleries and museums. That same year saw the founding of the Museum of Modern Art.

James Dempsey is the author of The Tortured Life of Scofield Thayer (2014) and is currently at work on the exhibition catalog for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s fall 2018 show on Thayer’s collection, in New York. He is also Consulting Producer on the film Make It New: Scofield Thayer, The Dial, and Modernism. While researching Thayer, he unearthed a previously unpublished poem of  one of Thayer’s friends, E.E. Cummings. Dempsey has written several books (fiction and nonfiction) and numerous articles for both academic and general audiences. An award-winning journalist (Associated Press and United Press International), he is an instructor in the Humanities and Arts Department at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, where he teaches writing and literature. Dempsey is at work on a book about the late Stanley J. Kunitz, United States Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner.