"Livelier Kinds of Propaganda": Revelry and Revolution in Greenwich Village 1912-1917
Hey there! Welcome back to Out of The Archives and Into the Streets, the Archive on Parade Blog.
Today's post features at The Masses, a radical monthly magazine published in Greenwich Village from 1911-1917. You can find the entirety of the The Masses' print run in PDF format online via The Modernist Journals Project, or in hard copy as part of NYU's Labor Arts Collection, on the 10th floor of Bobst Library, 70 Washington Square South.
You can also learn more about the Village and The Masses at Archestratus Books on April 28th during Revolutionary Feasts!!!
In January 1911, The Masses began as a serious and high minded Socialist Periodical "Devoted to the Interests of the Working People," with earnest political orthodoxy that didn't make it very far, even at 5 cents a copy. Then came 1912. That year has been designated the moment when "the Village became the Village." It was the year when the journalist John Reed dubbed the neighborhood "Manhattan's Latin Quarter," and summed up the the area's attitude like this:
"Yet we are free who live in Washington Square,
We dare to think as Uptown wouldn't dare,
Blazing our nights with arguments uproarious;
What care we for a dull old world censorious
When each is sure he'll fashion something glorious?
Blessed art thou, Anarchic Liberty
Who asketh nought but joy of such as we!"
And so, from 1912-1917 the village had it's "lyric period," when joy was
both means and end, adopted by the writers and artists who called the Village home as a political point of view.
The Masses both led and captured this spirit under the direction of its new editor, Max Eastman. Eastman had been informed of his editorship by the Artist John Sloan, who ripped a piece of drawing paper off his pad and scrawled the note: "You are elected editor of The Masses. No pay." Who could refuse an offer like that? Obviously not Max Eastman, who was, among other things, a doctoral candidate in Philosophy at Columbia, founder of the Men's League for Women's Suffrage, and Village Casanova.
The Masses declared itself, "a revolutionary and not a reform magazine; a magazine with a sense of humor and no
respect for the respectable; frank, arrogant, impertinent, searching for the true causes; a magazine directed against rigidity and dogma wherever it is found; printing what is too naked or true for a money-making press; a magazine whose final policy is to do as it pleases and conciliate nobody, not even its readers." And extolled those same readers to, "pass us along to your friends. Talk about us. Praise us. Criticize us. Damn us publicly. We must have a little consideration."
In the same spirit, the editorial board called itself "Them Asses." While the magazine's staff reveled in its ability to shock, there was more than performance and bravado going on in the Village and at the magazine.
These were the years when Eugene O'Neil and Edna St. Vincent Millay were transforming American Drama at the Provincetown Playhouse on Macdougal Street, and when the Ashcan School of artists was depicting the gritty, urban 20th century life.
The Masses functioned as the beating heart of that cultural life, an organ at its center where all of these luminaries, and many others, could congregate and contribute. It's pages include art by Pablo Picasso, cartoons by Art Young, poetry by Carl Sandburg, reportage by John Reed, and essays on Feminism by Margaret Sanger.
To its champions, The Masses was the finest magazine in America. It's critics, on the Right and Left, lampooned its intellectual distance from direct political action. A famous rhyme points out, "They draw nude women for The Masses. Thick, fat ungainly lasses - how does that help the working classes?"
It's possible that both assessments had merit. There was value in collecting and publishing some of the most celebrated art, poetry and intellectual thought in the country, at the same time as it was paternalistic and farcical to insist that to do so was a gift to the working class. The magazine did not, as Emma Goldman's Mother Earth did, publish the words of workers or union organizers. Its support for Free Love, Birth Control and Modern Art alienated the people it claimed to speak for. Ultimately, The Masses was by and for the Villagers themselves.
In short, the Villagers' revelry didn't start the Russian Revolution, and the masses didn't read The Masses, but the magazine offered a platform for ideas and for artwork that didn't have a home in more mainstream publications, and the neighborhood nurtured some of the most influential artistic, musical, intellectual and political movements of the 20th century.
Check out The Masses, and let me know what you think!