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…

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