Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Masses 1911 to 1917 – America’s Great Arts and Politics Magazine

February 1916, Frank Walts illustration
  by Richard Samuel West

The handful of years leading up to America’s entry into World War I was Socialism’s glorious moment in America, its high-water mark of energy and promise. This pregnant moment in time was the result of decades of ferment, indeed more than 100 years of growing agitation to curb the excesses of American capitalism, beginning with Jefferson’s warnings about the deleterious effects of urbanized culture, and proceeding through the painful dislocation of the emerging industrial economy, the excesses of speculation during the Civil War, the rise of the robber barons, the suppression of labor unions, the exploitation of immigrant labor, through to the exposes of the muckrakers. By the decade of the ‘teens,’ the evils of capitalism were widely acknowledged, even by champions of the system.

Socialism became capitalism’s logical alternative and the rallying point for the disenchanted.  It was, of course, merely a vision, largely untested. But that is exactly why the socialist movement was so formidable. The artists and writers of The Masses didn’t need to defend socialism when Rockefeller’s henchmen were gunning down mine workers and their families in Ludlow, Colorado. Eventually, the American socialist movement would shatter on the rocks of the Russian revolution, when it was finally confronted with the reality of a socialist state, but that story comes later. The time of The Masses was a magical moment in the history of the American left, when it was resolute in its fight against evil and pregnant with glorious possibility. During these heady days, The Masses was the movement’s flagship.

Janary 1911, First issue cover of Piet Vlag’s Masses
By all measures except the most mundane (profitability, advertising pages, circulation figures), The Masses was a great magazine: beautiful, intelligent, surprising, deadly serious, laugh-out-loud funny, hard-edged and frivolous.  Nothing like it had ever been seen in America before. It was an arts and letters magazine that thoroughly embraced a political agenda of radical reform and pacifism. And it managed to do this, unlike all of its predecessors in the field of political thought and opinion, with wit and style. The result was then and remains today a joy to behold, an ever-evolving experiment in publishing and a supremely entertaining intellectual high-wire act.

November 1913, John Sloan illustration
It was founded in 1911 by Piet Vlag, a Dutch immigrant, to promote the cooperative movement. Nearly every issue in The Masses’ early days contained an article or editorial explaining the merits of business- or consumer-owned and run cooperatives. The magazine was earnest and attractive, enlivened by cartoons by Art Young and John Sloan and illustrations by Charles and Alice Winter. But by August 1912, Vlag’s vision had run its course and the magazine folded. Though Vlag had given up on the magazine and left for the south, Art Young was not yet ready to follow suit. He rallied Sloan, the Winters, and others, and they corralled Max Eastman, a doctoral candidate at Columbia who was a leader in the suffrage movement, to edit the magazine. A brighter, more vibrant Masses reappeared in December 1912.

December 1913, Art Young illustration
In the pages of this second Masses, art predominated. It was not an adornment or mere illustration used to break up fields of gray type. Artwork in The Masses appeared, well printed and large, on its own terms. This explains why some of America’s finest talents – Young, Sloan, and the Winters, soon joined by George Bellows, Stuart Davis, Boardman Robinson, Frank Walts, among many — contributed art to The Masses for no remuneration. While The Masses was a child of America’s leading political satire magazines, Puck, Judge, and Life, in that it built on the visual and comedic vocabulary they had popularized, it was more interested in subverting tradition than on extending it. For that task, The Masses artists drew their inspiration from the leading satire magazines of Europe, Simplicissimus and L’Assiette au Beurre, and succeeded in bringing the visual bravura of those unconventional publications to America.

February 1914, Cornelia Barns illustration
The Masses letterpress was a happy jumble of essays, short stories, poetry, and humor. Max Eastman contributed rousing and lucid editorials that set forth one of the most radical agendas of the day. Floyd Dell conducted what was arguably the finest review of the arts in the American press. Except for excerpts of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, The Masses fiction was not particularly distinguished. The poetry, on the other hand, was of a fairly high caliber at a time when American poets were shaking off the 19th century and letting their words fly.

March 1914, Frank Walts illustration
The war complicated The Masses’ mission. It brought a new urgency to the magazine’s pages, with Eastman’s passionate editorials against the war leading the way. Some of the contributors objected to this new increasingly strident tone. Others, like Art Young, championed it. Old allies fell apart. Founders such as Sloan and the Winters left the magazine. New contributors such as Robert Minor and Hugo Gellert took their places.

April 1914, John Sloan illustration
The magazine came to an end at the hands of the US post office when it refused to mail the August 1917 issue forcing that issue and the remaining three issues of that year to be distributed only on newsstands. By then, Eastman, Young, and others were charged with treason for having through the pages of the magazine “obstructed the recruiting and enlistment of the US military.” Two trials ensued, dragging on throughout 1918. Both ended in deadlocked juries. Though the men of The Masses were free of legal prosecution, the magazine that had championed their causes was now long gone.

June 1914, John Sloan illustration
If you want to learn more about this amazing periodical, there are many valuable books to consult. The best are Rebecca Zurier’s Art For The Masses (1988), a cogent and well-illustrated scholarly assessment of the magazine and William O’Neill’s Echoes of Revolt (1966), which collects much of the best from the magazine’s pages. My personal favorite is Richard Fitzgerald’s Art and Politics (1973), a vigorous and surprisingly opinionated appraisal of the men and women who created the magazine’s graphics. I believe that the more we examine The Masses in all of its splendor the more certain we will become that this David of the magazine world was the Socialist movement’s greatest tangible gift to American culture.

August 1914, Maurice Becker illustration
January 1915, Stuart Davis illustration
February 1915, Frank Walts illustration
March 1915, George Bellows illustration
July 1915, K.R. Chamberlain illustration
August 1915, Robert Minor illustration
September 1915, Cornelia Barns illustration
December 1915, Ilonka Karasz illustration
January 1916, Frank Walts illustration
May 1916, Maurice Becker illustration
June 1916, Will Hope illustration
July 1916, Robert Minor illustration
December 1916, Frank Walts illustration
January 1917, Frank Walts illustration
March 1917, Frank Walts illustration
May 1917, Frank Walts illustration
June 1917, Hugo Gellert illustration
July 1917, Carlo Leonetti illustration
September 1917, Carlo Leonetti illustration
* Richard Samuel West’s new book 
‘Iconoclast in Ink; The Political Cartoons of Jay N. “Ding” Darling’ can be purchased HERE.

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