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On The Dial

The Time of The Dial

by William Wasserstrom
Syracuse, 194 pp., $4.95

A Dial Miscellany

edited by William Wasserstrom
Syracuse, 372 pp., $9.00

The Time of the Dial has more than one ingratiating virtue, not always found in the recent output of academic theses. For one thing, Professor Wasserstrom singles out an important episode in American letters; and with such corroboration as his Miscellany offers, he brings forth an original but highly contentious account of the life and art of the Twenties. Instead of making the reader wallow in the minutiae of his research, Wasserstrom concentrates a very complex characterization of the period, with provocative juxtapositions of people whose relations have not usually been recognized, into 160 compact pages. This condensation makes an extensive criticism of his thesis difficult: so I shall, with some injustice to Wasserstrom’s other contributions, fasten on his main theme, the character of the monthly Dial, and what it reveals about the whole period. If Professor Wasserstrom’s thesis holds, the spiritual history of this period will have to be re-written.

Wasserstrom’s appreciation of The Dial’s role is admirable. He realizes that the Nineteen-Twenties was a period of rapid crystallization in American letters; and the magazine that Scofield Thayer and James Sibley Watson started to publish in January 1920 occupied a central position in the whole literary and cultural movement that spanned this decade. From the beginning the new Dial was no adolescent “little magazine” but a major publication, singularly competent and mature, in everything from Bruce Rogers’ typography to its choice of writers. If it never numbered more than thirty thousand subscribers, it claimed a new territory in American literature and art, as different from Broom or The Little Review as Lowell’s Atlantic was from Emerson’s Dial. Wasserstrom sees the monthly Dial as a lineal successor of The Seven Arts. This partly justifies his emphasis on not merely Van Wyck Brooks and Randolph Bourne but Alfred Stieglitz, though it was by his personal integrity and intensity—“intensity,” Wasserstrom points out, was a favorite Dial word—rather than by any body of ideas that Stieglitz touched those around him.

In building up his ancestry for The Dial, Wasserstrom does justice, in a measure unusual in his academic generation, to the work of Van Wyck Brooks, Paul Rosenfeld, and J. E. Spingarn. He sees plainly, for example, that the fundamental idea of the New Criticism, that the work of art must be judged by its intrinsic qualities and formal intention was put forward by Spingarn long before Ransom and his disciples re-stated it. But because he is concerned to demonstrate that The Dial amplified and fulfilled the prophetic movement about which Waldo Frank had written in Our America, Wasserstrom over-rates the part that Randolph Bourne’s spirit played in molding the kind of review that Thayer and Watson actually edited.

The spiritual father of The Dial, it seems to me, was rather Thayer’s old teacher, Santayana, a man whose supercilious aloofness from American ways was a s marked as Bourne’s loyal commitment. Both the virtues and the defects of The Dial derived, in no small measure, from the aesthetic preoccupations, the cultural detachment, and the playful irresponsibility that characterized Santayana. Certainly Santayana took no stock in the “prophetic tradition”; he regarded Whitman and William James as barbarians, and shuddered over the extravagances of Moby-Dick. But Santayana’s influence can be happily seen in The Dial’s readiness to recognize fine achievement in traditional form and to hold fresh literary experiments up to the same standards; while his immunity to the vulgar pressures of the American environment was likewise reflected in his more willful and impish disciple, Thayer, to whom Wasserstrom affixes the strange adjective “solemn.” Solemn indeed! I wonder from what documents or what human testimony the author culled that adjective. Witty, sprightly, quizzically ironic, tense, with a personal style that might have been modeled on one of Meredith’s elegant heroes—that was the impression Thayer made. Unfortunately, Wasserstrom has to remodel Thayer’s whole character, transforming a passionate dilettante into a major prophet in order to make his thesis about The Dial’s mission, interpreted as “crusading” and “apocalyptic,” even faintly credible.

In defining The Dial’s purpose and program, Wasserstrom uses terms that belong, if anywhere, to quite another period: the time of Looking Backward, when the ideas of Edward Bellamy and Henry George seethed in the agrarian and socialist movements. Apocalyptic was the word for that spirit; but it is about the last epithet to be applied to The Dial. “Thayer,” the author asserts, “saw himself as a crusader, ardent to provide society with forms of art which would enable Americans to discover within themselves the kingdom of heaven. Inspired by this discovery, they would establish at least the perfect state of man.” This kind of statement, implying strangely archaic religiosity, might have been applied to the Brook Farm experiments—but to the latter-day Dial? Wasserstrom insistently stresses this view without bringing forward a single supporting line written by Thayer or Watson: it is on his own ipse dixit that one is asked to believe that “Thayer hoped to perform the rite, the communion, which would enable this nation, redeemed by organic art, to save the world.”

I submit that these revival meeting words have no plausible relation to the editors of The Dial; nor do they apply to any of the characteristic poets, novelists, and artists of the period. In the sudden post-war deflation that preceded the founding of the monthly Dial, any scheme of salvation, whether by art or by social reform and “reconstruction,” was out. That complete about-face took place in the second half of 1919. In the very month that Thayer and Watson took over the fortnightly Dial Helen Marot, the leading spirit in the “reconstruction” Dial, a one-time Masses editor and labor organizer, confessed to me that she had lost all interest in “labor” or “revolution:” she proposed to spend her remaining years studying psychology. Only Communists like Michael Gold who clung to the Marxian scheme of salvation by dictatorship of the proletariat thought it possible to save the world. The tide of nineteenth-century faith and hope was ebbing: those who did not want to be carried out with it built sand-castles and forts on the beach. Only five years separate Ernest Poole’s The Harbor from This Side of Paradise: but in spirit they were a whole epoch apart.

The merits of The Dial derived from a different source: it was the editor’s lack of any definable social purpose, their polite skepticism over any scheme of redemption or salvation, their detachment from purely national concerns that gave their magazine its representative position in the new scheme. They offered an attractive traditional alternative to the shallower modes of disillusionment that sent the young to the cosmopolitan rustication of the Left Bank, that drove them to compulsive drinking and glib fornication, or that made them turn bootleggers into heroes. Wasserstrom is well justified in holding that art served as node of integration during this period; but it served a private and personal need: no one expected art to awaken a thirst for political justice, to modulate economic greed, to transform the external environment, still less to “save the world.”

What The Dial did was of immediate value: it upheld a fresh standard of taste, a lively, adventurous, above all personal taste, unfrightened by popular indifference or academic hostility or even by avant-garde disdain. In a period of general disorientation, if not disintegration, this was a valuable contribution: it hardly calls for any eschatological justifications. How infirm American taste still was in the Twenties one may gather from a letter that Dr. William Carlos Williams wrote the editors. This is a precious social document, and like many other items Wasserstrom has dug up with scholarly zeal, we have reason to thank him for it. Almost a decade after the Armory Show, Williams was horrified at The Dial’s reproducing Chagall’s painting of the Jewish scholar, which Thayer later included in the Dial Portfolio. It was, he said, “the brazenest kind of prostitution, the Greenwich Village brand of moral and spiritual and artistic degeneracy.” The Dial helped to cure that provincialism.

Looking back through the old files of The Dial, even in the necessarily curtailed form presented in A Dial Miscellany, restores and even enhances one’s original sense of admiration, respect, and joy over its decade-long achievement. The editors, up to the time that Thayer handed over his functions to Marianne Moore, had an inviolable respect for the integrity of the writer’s work: so much so that they once even faithfully repeated the unintentional double spacing of words in a poem by Ezra Pound. Their intellectual alertness was no less keen than their esthetic sensitiveness: witness their early attention to Spengler, and the review by Bertrand Russell of The Meaning of Meaning. The very modesty of the pay they offered their contributors, great and small alike, ensured a kind of deft brevity of style: so that one could ask for no better reviews than those the anthologist has chosen: A. L. Kroeber on Sapir’s Language, Gilbert Seldes on The Great Gatsby, or Aiken’s neatly devastating attack on Tse-tse’s Lancelot Andrewes—all models of swift, perceptive, generous discrimination.

By reminding the present generation of The Dial’s achievements, Professor Wasserstrom has placed us in his debt. But though his account of the period is relatively free from minor errors of fact, the total picture seems to be distorted by certain preconceptions upon which he bases his entire structure of interpretation. The details are accurate but the total result blurred. One can almost detect the fallacy of Wasserstrom’s guiding ideas by the false ring of the rhetoric with which he propounds them; and who would have detected this quicker than the editors of The Dial themselves? Witness this: “Thayer, Harvard esthete become national prophet, sought to turn out each month a flawless journal, hoped to mold every disparate element in American culture into one organic community where men of art were also men of power.” These swollen claims, unbacked by concrete evidence, do not do justice to The Dial’s actual achievements: rather, they make them seem ridiculous—as they were not. If Wasserstrom’s ideas about The Dial’s “mission” are as fallacious as I believe they are, one would hate to see them become embedded in academic cement, as a future canon of judgment.

One of Wasserstrom’s dubious generalizations rests upon the concept of “organicism.” For him the whole body of writing gathered in The Dial was “organic.” I have nothing against the word itself: it was from the beginning part of my own vocabulary, and often appears in that of many other contemporaries, notably Waldo Frank. As originally used, it implied a whole complex of ideas and allusions, apart from the vertabral one; that of partaking of the nature of an organism, as distinct from a lifeless object, a system, a machine, or an abstraction. Among these ideas were those of vitality, rootedness, indigenousness; being part of a larger whole; adbesion to a place, a period, a culture; and finally—not least—traveling freely back and forth between the inner and the outer world, but being exclusively concerned with neither alone. For my generation, the restrictive colonial and genteel-academic writers produced only paper forget-me-nots in contrast to the wide variety of native plants we sought to cultivate—organically!—in our own gardens.

This addiction to what was alive and kicking characterized the entire younger generation; but to use it as an identifying adjective becomes meaningless, when Professor Wasserstrom extends it even to the doctrines of the New Humanists. From our point of view, their favored values were even less organic than those of Santayana; and to the degree that The Dial shared the detachment of Babbitt, Eliot, or Santayana, it too lacked the organic vision that the editors of The Seven Arts, and notably Randolph Bourne, shared. This does not however deny that the prime virtue of The Dial, like that of the New Humanists, was to bring to American culture something that the countrymen of Dreiser and Dewey seriously needed: a sense of the integral function of esthetic expression, amplified by a hierarchy of values nurtured in other periods than our own. Valery, Santayana, Eliot, Mann, Hoffmansthal, The Dial’s favored authors, stood for just that.

Unfortunately these salutary qualities were accompanied by a certain skittishness on the part of the editors in embracing the contributions of their own countrymen, at least those outside their immediate circle. If The Dial published Sandburg and Aiken, it studiously passed over Robert Frost; if it welcomed Sherwood Anderson, it turned its back on Hemingway’s early work; and the stories of Faulkner, though they appeared in The American Caravan, did not come out, if I remember correctly, in The Dial. While the editors, slightly nettled, explained more than once that literary merit, not provenance, was their sole standard of judgment, they were more ready to close their eyes to the crudities of the D. H. Lawrence review that Wasserstrom reprints than to comparable American effusions. Wasserstrom loyally defends The Dial against the criticism that it did little to bring out new American writers. But it was precisely a wide dissatisfaction over this failure that led Paul Rosenfeld, Alfred Kreymborg and myself to begin publication of the first American Caravan in 1927. At an earlier time, it was the editors of The Smart Set and The American Mercury who deserve special honor here; and Wasserstrom’s neglect of their role gives The Dial a more lonely distinction than it deserves.

But Wasserstrom’s other misconception seems to me even more fatal to a true picture of the period or of The Dial’s place and performance: his belief that The Dial was carrying through, by means of art, the prophetic utopian spirit of the pre-1914 days, which he links with that of Whitman and the Emersonian original Dial. According to Wasserstrom, “it is nothing less than the crusading spirit of 1910 that had, by 1922, conferred on this journal its crusading power.” On more than one count, one may quarrel with this judgment. And first, there was very little of the crusading spirit in the best work published in the pre-Dial decades: the literary resurgence that began around 1910 was mainly the work of poets whose new freedom was a quite different kind of New Freedom from that which Woodrow Wilson stood for. Neither Frost nor Robinson, neither H. D. nor Amy Lowell was concerned with rebuilding the foundations of the republic. The notion that Bourne and his kind held, that the human imagination should be applied as freely to political and industrial life as to works of art dates from the Nineties, not from 1910; and though this idea never entirely disappeared it was only in the Nineteen-Thirties that the calamitous depression revived it. By then, the esthetic preoccupations of The Time of the Dial made the Twenties seem a frivolous interlude. The name for the real crusading spirit of the Twenties was Da-da.

For one whose youth coincided with the Dial decade, Wasserstrom’s account of the period is like hearing one’s voice played back on a tape recorder from which the careless thumb of time has erased half the message: the blank spaces make what is left sound relatively meaningless. As for the voice—it surely belongs to someone else! If his evidence holds water Professor Wasserstrom has of course as much right to deny the correctness of my interpretations as those of Van Wyck Brooks, who saw in the Twenties a denial of the robust human values of The Confident Years. But, to sustain his theory of the time of The Dial, he must also deny our actual experience. Was I dreaming? Perhaps I only imagined the disillusion, the forced gaiety, the quiet despair of the hollow men, or the breakdowns and crackups that punctuated this decade. Perhaps The Waste Land, once The Dial accepted it, should have been re-named The Promised Land. No doubt it was the Lost Generation that really found itself—thanks to The Dial’s successful “crusade.”

Letters

The Dial April 16, 1964

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