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Genevieve Taggard's Introduction to May Days (1926)


May Days

mayday.jpg (70755 bytes)I liked putting these poems together because the choosing of them took me over and over the old bound volumes, and in doing that I discovered a continuity--and a severance.

That is, I stepped back abruptly through the looking-glass into a literary and political world that seemed both familiar and strange--a preposterous world, but never for a moment an alien one. What I saw had the same fascination that the face of your father at the age of sixteen has, when you come upon it peering from an album, for the first time after years of pre-occupation with your own generation. Of course, only part of father's face is here. To put the whole portrait together I would have to get files of Others, Seven Arts, and the Little Review; find pictures of the first suffrage parades, and the speeches of social reformers reported in the New York Times; follow the editorial risings and sinkings of the Nation and the New Republic; and see by some act of the imagination, the expression on the faces of the crowds who went to the Armory Show in 1912 to watch the Nude descend the stairs.

A war and a revolution, and five or six famines have something to do with the severance I felt. Behind the human extremity of those slow war years we discover the preceding period in parade down Fifth Avenue;--white horses, purple banners, and a phalanx of well-shod middle-class women, demanding,--and getting, the ballot! Elsewhere, a little off the center, we find Frank Tanenbaum and Arturo Giovannitti stirring liberal opinion with the news that for a few in the commonwealth at least, this is not quite the best possible world. Behind them, the shadow of Upton Sinclair, who perhaps all by himself, hatched this germ of middle-class discontent during the muck-raking period just preceding when he jerked double the respectable consumer of Chicago slaughterhouse meat . . . acute stomach-ache hit a hypochondriac nation and an uneasy idea grew: Perhaps even for the middle-class this was not the best possible world--

"Factory windows are always broken.
Something or other is going wrong.
Something is rotten—I think, in Denmark . . ."

That was the state of mind. Something was wrong. Probably in Denmark. Where else? Not terribly wrong. Just wrong enough to insure a holiday.

And the holiday had numerous events and several attractive features. There was zealous social work, backed by optimistic social theory; humanitarian crusades abounded, gracious amateur movements made a mushroom growth. This activity was never ruthless or bitter, but earnest, idealistic,--always Christian.

Our awakening was like us. There was not much reflection or arduous labor. Austerity and desperate struggle were absent. It was a happy, well-bred and lively society, although it desired to be much more. The air was clear and exciting and the hour was the hour of seven on a spring morning. May days, indeed. . . . Dignity was not the fashion. Boredom, ennui, were not the fashion. There was so much to be said, done, thought, seen, tried out. The youth of the land was getting out of doors and all winter taboos were being broken:

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive
But to be young was very heaven.

Later, after the first spurt of activity bad spent itself, the whole mood of the time flowered in Woodrow Wilson. He and his words ended one period and began another--began it with the vow of the despoiled youth to be anything in the wide world, but never again Woodrovian.

In him, as in his generation, ended the beautiful belief in the beautiful efficacy of--beautiful words. Even the gangling free verse movement had not shaken that faith. Our rightful President before he went to France, was vaguely idealistic, earnest as earnest goes, Christian (as that goes). He could be. The age hadn't come to grips with anything more serious than the problems of rancid meat. Even the I.W.W. and the extreme left wing of the revolutionary movement shared the verbosity and romanticism of the time. Everybody was playing. And the Masses editors were playing hardest of all.

It was easy to read the Masses in those days. I say easy after following all the indignant letters protesting against Carl Sandburg's "Billy Sunday," or Billy Williams' "Ballad", (G. B. S. was one of the Protestants that time) or Floyd Dell's articles on birth control. It was easy in spite of all the shock it gave the college-professor, college-student audience, because its shock was pleasurable for those who could stand it and centered chiefly on breaking down prudery and traditional dogma. It hit few class or economic sore spots--not because it did not aim at them, but because class fear in the reader had not been genuinely aroused. If he could skip the fine print of Max Eastmans monthly "Knowledge and Revolution", he could swallow the rest--usually. At any rate this early reader seldom began to fidget, fearing bloody upheaval,--seeeing himself, wife and baby flung out of security into a great flux. This magazine was so obviously the voice of a harmless minority. Although its editor pounded away at the distinction between reform and the seizure of economic power by the working class, he failed to keep them separate in the mind of the middle-class intellectual because events themselves had not yet made them separate.

Because this magazine of rebellion was edited in spite of its title, for the bourgeois liberal, to give him the freedom he had grown needy of, and because although it did talk in a very specific and realistic tone of voice about the proletariat, it did not talk to the proletariat, scoffers said, rightly enough:

They draw nude women for the MASSES
Thick, fat, ungainly lasses,--
How does that help the working classes?

When it came to it--really helping the working classes a little later--scoffers, along with the bulk of the other readers, found the magazine exceedingly hard to read. But by that time they were not confined to the Masses any longer. That early note of gleeful scorn for the Bourgeois and his lady, his ideas about sex, literature, art, politics, furniture, et cetera, has been the cue for nearly all the best sellers ever since. The 500,000 Americans who sat up nights with "Main Street" in 1920, and "So Big" in 1924, and Ring Lardner in 1925, would read the early Masses with chuckles of delight, if they could get them. Lewis, Lardner, and Ferber are not as hard nor as clear as their spasmodic original. The Saturday Evening Post method has helped dilute the murex for the billboards, while the too intense blue has been left for the serious artists. Sherwood Anderson, John Dos Passos, Edmund Wilson, John Howard Lawson and Eugene O'Neil would have written, Masses or no Masses, but they would have had to spend more time under water grubbing along on the floor of the ocean if the dredging had not begun earlier. The little magazine revived by John Sloan's group for the publication of its drawings, and gradually altered into a news letter for the hungry idealist had as curious a range of contributors as of readers. Gelett Burgess, Inez Haynes Gillmore, William English Walling, Lincoln Steffens, Amy Lowell, Jimmie Hopper, Will Levington Comfort, Mary Heaton Vorse, Harry Kemp, Sherwood Anderson, Ernest Poole, Charles Edward Russell, Witter Bynner, Irwin Granich, William Rose BenÚt, J. E. Spingarn, Margaret Widdemer;--if this rabble made up its contributors, you ask, just what was the magazine as a whole trying to say? Nevertheless the family was congenial. Because its foe was so impervious and so vast it found more likenesses than differences within its ranks. The widest implications of even a revolutionary doctrine may throw a grateful shade in a great desert. Reginald Wright Kauffman and Pablo Picasso lay down together between the same editorial sheets.

All this you may observe--the grotesque bright green landscape--through the peephole of the old numbers. Having glimpsed this I changed my position to the landscape itself for a moment to see the Masses in its milieu.

It was born of a general upheaval still too close to us to be accurately described. In 1912 there were other live spots, since overrated however, I believe, by schismatic disciples. The Masses seems to have vanished from the gaze of the literary historian--underground it went, to cut channels in the bed rock, and left the Little Review, The Glebe, Seven Arts, Others, Soil, Camera Work and Miss Monroe's Poetry in full view above ground. But with the exception of Soil these magazines lacked even an acquaintance with the qualities that made the Masses dynamic; they lacked native humor, and realistic philosophy, had too much defensive aestheticism, and too little natural or racial intoxication. They were all fearfully immaculate and upper class. They were High Brow. They distrusted the country and the country distrusted them--rightly, I think, as the fungus growths that any nation or time can produce for a season out of the determination of a few editors. We have had several such growths in the past; such a group produced Stephen Crane and Harold Frederic during the 'nineties.

And Soil, the exception, is the example which proves the futility of a sociological pioneer who carries crooked maps and poor tools in his knapsack. Its editor under a layer of radical sounding talk, believed finally in the familiar salvations of more education, Henry George and Community singing.

The Masses, in spite of its readers, and the economic status of its editors, in spite of its editorial background, in spite of almost everything,--was revolutionary. It takes very few individuals to make a new age or explode an old one. That is, if the individuals themselves have hold old on a vital substance. For me, and I think for numbers of others, there were few people writing in America in 1913 with the desire for a realistic grasp of our life as a whole. Creative artists dare not bite off more than they can chew; accordingly the novelists of the day who were in love with America, were deliberately seeing the country as a confusion of parts, and choosing for themselves one part of the many. So far as I know there were only three people who saw then what we all see now--the identity of the land. At any rate only three registered themselves indelibly: Max Eastman, Jack Reed and Floyd Dell.

I may be doing them some personal injustice in classifying them as they appear to me now. There will be ample time later to discuss them as rich and fascinating single figures. In this preface I think of them as interplaying forces, not as they are now, but as they were then, They were more than three people when you put them in close contact: they drew to themselves a swarm of excellent artists and social satirists,--Max Eastman, realistic philosopher and poet; Floyd Dell, teacher and intimate psychologist; Jack Reed, man of action and human symbol for the time. This was a living combination and the ideas that grew from it had kinetic energy. They were more than these embodied abstractions, but being figures in a historical drama they must, having chosen to play the roles, take all the foreshortening and warping that go with the simple outlines of large events.

Seen thus, working together, they are for America the most significant. group that ever managed to dominate, for a time, an entire generation. They, and the Masses as their instrument, were of tremendous importance for every young middle or working-class person just then coming alive within their radius. Their recorded sense of contemporary life has been a store house to which the diverse and quarreling publicist world has gone for its energy--the liberal editors of the New York World, Vanity Fair's humorists, Amalgamated organizers and pamphleteers, the New Republic's decorous contributor, the Nation's earnest one, and the present proletarian intellectuals who conduct the Daily Worker, all have to some extent consciously or unconsciously reflected Masses-Liberator tutelage. Only one other man, I think, belongs with Max, Floyd, and Jack, in their curious role of father-teacher-hero to that generation of young Americans, and he, George Bernard Shaw, is an English-Irishman, sidestepping sex with windy apologies and wedded in politics to the Fabians. What was it they did? Well, to begin with, all three although they would deny it, gave up being single-minded artists. They had started, all as poets (which they might also consider unimportant), when something else caught them. They became obsessed by the unity of our life, the dance of it, and when they found themselves, after following the dance with abandon for a time, they were no longer poets--merely. In them was a fatal social-mindedness that made being artists a temptation which they put aside somewhat reluctantly, for pressing matters in hand.

Floyd Dell expresses the struggle best in his own words. His writing abounds with the phrase ‘escape from reality’--the 'escape' being preoccupation with a fantasy,--or as we put it, the writing of a great poem, a great novel, a great play. That was the temptation he and his companions resisted. They turned their backs on 'escape' in the Masses days.

And to what purpose? There was this America--its politics, love life, industry, humor, architecture, education, poetry, dancing, clothing, drama, sport, language . . .When the Masses group, cartoonists, artists, and editors touched these subjects it was their combination of sophistication and na´vetÚ that made what they said so difficult to resist. These were in just the right proportions; proportions that allowed part of the soul to remain childlike while another part acquired worldly wisdom, and discovered its delicious heritage of homely sound sense. The native shrewdness, the drawling humor that is called American because Mark Twain and Mr. Dooley and Abraham Lincoln had it, was coming up through the outlet afforded by this magazine, under layers of surface solemnity. The Masses set up its little tent between the two most social minded tendencies then active in the American community--between the group that was liberal but Christian and the group that was rational but dull. It entertained them both with blithe impudence, being to some extent the child of both. The parents looked on as modern parents do, in awe of the little creature. Presently the child found its mission,--that of debunking the society into which it had been born. A point of view, known as Marxian, hitherto expressed in this land chiefly in undomesticated foreign gutturals, became, when simplified and translated into the idiom of Lincoln and Jefferson and Tom Paine, the new Yankee wisdom--shrewd, racy, materialistic.

And the awakening came none too soon. The world moved threateningly beneath everybody's feet. Big strikes, outrages; the Mooney case; the McNamara case,--a nest of textile strikes shoved it on. Much grist for the mill, and good honest grinding. The European war stretched across the Atlantic. Holiday time almost over. It wasn't all going to be a battle of ideas, no indeed. A long way to Tipperary, Chicago slaughter-houses, Isadora Duncan dancing, and the bright, eager faces of suffrage parades glittering down the great avenues, Fifth, Michigan, Commonwealth. The Masses had a movement on its hands--people following, going where it led. It had created that following and now it had to take it some place. And a fight coming--America came into the war.

The world, abandoning even liberal Christianity and rationalism, went off its head. The Masses folks saw the spectacle. They knew that something might be done--but what, exactly? They kept their balance if nothing else,--in a world that began to whirl faster than a merry-go-round. Until Wilson's second election their heads were clear and until their trial most of alert young America was going to school in the Masses office.

When the trial came the three men tugged in separate directions and the triangle cracked.

Mr. Glintenkamp had drawn two pictures, and an assistant editor had printed them while Max and Floyd were away, busy in the larger turmoil. The Liberty Bell in collapse made a frontispiece; another entitled, Conscription, a few pages over. The magazine for August was refused the mails. In October followed another picture by the same artist: a naked young man with a too beautiful young face, a skeleton measuring him. Hot stuff. But they had all been doing hot stuff for years--Art Young, Boardman Robinson, Clive Weed, Robert Minor, Maurice Becker, Cornelia Barns, John Sloan, George Bellows. Only suddenly it wasn't simply Hot Stuff. It was treason.

Or so it became apparent--slowly, in spite of a cordial letter from President Wilson, visits with George Creel, and the decision of one judge in their favor. The post office would have none of them at first, remained silent for a time, and then when the Masses went to court for the lost mailing privileges, turned swiftly and brought about the indictment.

The next spring, in April 1918, Max Eastman, Floyd Dell, Art Young, Merrill Rogers, and Josephine Bell were tried on the charge of "conspiracy to obstruct recruiting and enlistment," with Morris Hillquit and Dudley Field Malone to defend them.

In the interval between November 1917 and March 1918 there had been no magazine. The Masses was fading into the protective coloration of the Liberator.

The first jury disagreed. A new trial was ordered. A second jury disagreed. The editors had won-and lost.

Jack Reed got off the magazine, reorganized under a compromise with the war spirit; died in Russia, lies buried in the Kremlin with Lenin. Not gifted as a facile or complex thinker, but escaped the blind-alley of opportunism, and took the road to death and enduring glory. "Fog", his strange epitaph, printed in this anthology, assures him a no less permanent title as a poet.

Floyd, who had never advocated much more than parliamentary socialism, and who believed, as many bolsheviks do today, in conscription, was willing to go to jail but reluctant to go for an abstract principle he considered worthless. He stayed with the Liberator, to emerge at last as a popular novelist for the generation he had so long instructed.

Max determined to be a realist and keep the revolutionary home-fires burning. This is his reply to Jack's letter of resignation from the editorial board:

    I haven't a word of protest--only a deep feeling of regret.
    In your absence we all weighed the matter and decided it was our duty to the social revolution to keep this instrument we have created alive toward a time of great usefulness. You will help us with your writing and reporting, and that is all we ask.
    Personally, I envy you the power to cast loose when not only a good deal of the dramatic beauty but also the glamour of the abstract moral principle is gone out of this venture, and it remains for us merely the most effective and therefore right thing to do.
                    Yours as ever
                                Max Eastman.

This is what perhaps nowadays we should call a rationalization.

His followers who agreed with him that a sincere radical does not run about the world courting martyrdom, still felt that, a revolutionary leader does not purchase immunity from jail by repudiating his revolutionary opinions.

Prosecuting Attorney: "Will you tell us if the sentiments therein expressed (concerning the Star Spangled Banner), which I have just read to you are your sentiments today?"

Defendant: "No, they are not, Mr. Barnes. My sentiments have changed a good deal. I think that when the boys begin to go over to Europe, and fight to the strains of that anthem, you feel very differently about it. You noticed that when it was played out there in the street the other day I did stand up . . . I felt very sad; I felt very solemn, very sorrowful, because I thought of those boys over there dying by the thousands . . . with courage, and even laughter on their lips, because they are dying for liberty . . ."

Whether or not this retreat was a tactical error, Max did do what he set out to do. He did go on with the Liberator, forcibly modified as it was, and preserved what he could of the badly shattered body of the new philosophy. Significantly, because of his old quality of intellectual courage, Max was a bolshevik when several of the present most prominent leaders were still anarchists, mensheviks, or industrialists.

In its last days when the Liberator could not decide whether it wanted to be either a propagandist or an artistic magazine, or both, it declined rapidly--all that had been brilliant turned wastefully violent; what had been masterful was either harassed or sentimental. The magazine, like a seismograph once again vividly recorded the tremors of the day, before any other group could quite tell what was happening . . . . In November 1924 the Liberator became incorporated with Soviet Russia Pictorial and the Labor Herald as the official organ of the Workers Party--rechristened the Workers Monthly. The futile magazine of the last years had a new birth as a revolutionary publication of the first rank.

But the Masses-Liberator spirit was gone--not so much dead as dispersed and divided. The magazine, until the war, was like a self-fertilizing tree. Social passion and creative beauty grew from the same branches. Now there has been pruning and grafting,--we have in consequence two trees--the air is sultry--there is no cross pollenizing. The artists who were attracted to the Masses for its art have gone one way; the revolutionists another. The two factions regard each other with hostility and suspicion. They consider themselves mutually exclusive and try their best to remain so. In the main the artists have become reactionaries or at best liberal camouflage for reaction. The revolutionists are impatient of all expression that fails to rubber-stamp the specific doctrines of the latest party creed. From one point of view the artists are loafers. From another, the revolutionists are-not artists! *

In such a disheartening world the Masses' robust interchange between the two kinds of temperament seems amazing and impossible. Bellows, Sterne, Sloane, Minor, Lankes, Young, Barber, Becker, Davis, Barnes, Robinson, numbers of others in the prolific years, did not lie awake nights fighting off the essential significance of the contemporary scene as material unfit for art. Barnes, the most native of the older group, runs from the first volume until the bitter end. Gropper was the paper's last great social satirist. In him and in those who came before him the best of the Masses' spirit bore its fruit. The poetry, from first to last, was never so whole, native, radical--and still so powerful, as this drawing. The poets tended either to a Tennysonian convention or to journalism. There are a few exceptions worth all the failures. If the Masses had continued another twenty years, this anthology might have preserved for English literature not four great poems, but forty.

But it ceased, and the buds on the two trees wither for lack of each other. It is the artist's fault because he is afraid of revolution. It is the propagandist's fault for giving the artist a job he cannot perform. And it is nobody's fault, as well, but simply the effect of a world change.

From now on, as long as this division holds, our art will have little fertility. Certainly it will be hard to put roots deep into a soil preempted by propagandists who insist that the artist bear only one kind of fruit. The artist's concern is not to persuade or educate, but to overpoweringly express. A good revolutionist should allow the artist this freedom, since he knows very well that only liberals seek to persuade, or to lure other half-hearted liberals into action.

The working class needs artists. It has no one to convince of its quality but itself. The exploited mass that owns neither the earth or its own toil or the fruits or implements of toil will sooner or later have all these.

Whether it will have its artists before or after these, we do not know. What they will be like we can only guess. But the beginnings of that art in poetry, will, I think, be found in the Masses-Liberator anthology, 1912-1924.

Genevieve Taggard.

A Note on the Poetry

Although much fine poetry was published in the Masses-Liberator, I have not tried to restrict this anthology to verse of conspicuous poetic merit. Much of the best is light verse. I have tried to preserve everything that gave the flavor of those days. Blank pages at the back of the book are provided for the reader who wishes to supplement this selection from his memory or his scrap-book.

I wish to think J. J. Lankes, the artist, for his generous contribution of advice, and the jacket wood-cut, together with other cuts first published in the Liberator; Dorothy Stoner, Lillian Symes and Ruth Gordon for assistance in typing and checking back the manuscript; Anne Owen for assistance in reading proof; T. R. Smith for relieving me of the arduous task of collecting publishers' permissions; Robert L. Wolf for the original suggestion that I undertake the book and for the title May Days, and the numerous poets herein represented for their courteous permission to include their work.

Whatever royalties come from the sale of this anthology above the bare expense of compiling it, the editor contributes to International Workers' Aid.

G. T.

*cf. "Pletnev proves . . . that the products of proletarian poetry . . . are significant cultural and historical documents. But this does not at all mean that they are artistic documents. . . . Undoubtedly, the weak, the colorless, and even the illiterate poems may reflect the . . . growth . . . of a class, and may have an immeasurable significance as a symptom of culture. But weak poems do not make up proletarian poetry, because they do not make up poetry at all. . . . It would be monstrous to conclude that the technique of bourgeois art is not necessary to the workers. Yet there are many who fall into this error. 'Give us,' they say, 'something even pock-marked, but our own.' This is false and untrue. A pock-marked art is no art and is therefore not necessary to the working-masses, Those who believe in a 'pock-marked' art are imbued to a considerable extent with contempt for the masses." Leon Trotsky, "Literature and Revolution," pp, 202, 204.


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