Tell Us What you Value
| Lenore Weiss, Fiction Editor
“Literary Values in a Political Age.” Just what do those words appearing on the masthead of our Web page, no less in red, mean? Is it something like “In God We Trust,” a slogan that’s printed on U.S. currency, something that’s just there? I don’t think so.
The relationship between politics and art is always being redefined. Every generation does so for itself. During the sixties, a good many writers, musicians, playwrights, and graphic artists—considered themselves “cultural workers.” I was one of them. First and foremost, we acknowledged that we were workers, magnetic filings pointed in a similar direction, hoping to guide ourselves and the country toward freedom. But The Masses was a magazine that attempted to do that years before us we’d arrived on the scene.
Published monthly just before the outbreak of World War I in the years between 1911 and 1917, the magazine brought together writers and artists of varying persuasions including socialists, anarchists, communists, feminists trade unionists, and radicals of all stripe within the cultural nexus of New York City’s Greenwich Village. It was a product of the revolt against the genteel tradition and the commercial control of publishing.
Sold at subway newsstands throughout New York City and mailed to subscribers everywhere, The Masses published essays of Walter Lippmann, Max Eastman, Bill Haywood, and John Reed. Dorothy Day and Margaret Sanger dared to talk publicly about birth control and the reproductive rights of women and championed the sexual education of the young. Literary contributors included Sherwood Anderson, Carl Sandburg, Amy Lowell, and Louis Untermeyer. The magazine was a showcase for the leading political cartoonists of the day like Robert Minor, Boardman Robinson and Art Young, together with fine drawings by Arthur B. Davies, Abraham Walkowitz and Pablo Picasso. Its circulation hovered somewhere between fifteen and forty thousand.
The pages of The Masses also reflected the struggles of the labor movement and covered the IWW-led (International Workers of the World) strike in the silk mills of Paterson, New Jersey in 1913. When miners struck in the Mesabi Range of Minnesota, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn sent in an appeal to the magazine for funds. The Masses denounced American intervention in Mexico and the Philippines, claiming that imperialism and commercial interests worked together. Many members of the editorial board were opposed to World War I. John Reed’s coverage for The Masses of the 1917 revolution in Russia became the initial material for his book, “Ten Days that Shook the World.” Mabel Dodge, one of the magazine’s financial supporters, recruited people in and around its heady atmosphere to attend her famous Village salons.
The following manifesto appeared every month on its masthead:
“This Magazine is Owned and Published Co-operatively by its Editors. It has no Dividends to Pay, and nobody is trying to make Money out of it. 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 Moneymaking Press; a Magazine whose final Policy is to do as it Pleases and Conciliate Nobody, not even its Readers—There is a Field for this Publication in America. Help us to find it.”
Max Eastman served as Editor and Floyd Dell as managing editor. Both wrote accounts in its pages of psychoanalysis that was starting to get more popular. Eastman came to The Masses in 1912 after founding the Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage. His mother was the first female Congregationalist minister in New York State and his sister had drafted legislation for the New York State Labor Committee. Radicalism ran through the paper’s blood.
However, Eastman refused to align the magazine editorially with any one “ism” of the day. The paper established collective editorship where at monthly editorial meetings, the board voted on submissions. Anyone was welcome to attend and offer opinions. Eastman and Dell read manuscripts out loud, without identifying the author. Jokes and drawings were also voted upon. Some pundits of the day said that when The Masses stopped being funny, it also stopped being interesting.
What finally nipped the publication in its bloom was the outbreak of World War I, and the Espionage Act of June 15, 1917. In a version of today’s Homeland Security Act, the Espionage Act empowered the United States Post Office to withhold from the mail any material promoting “treason, insurrection or forcible resistance to any law of the United States.” After a well-publicized trial, The Masses eventually was unable to distribute the magazine through the mail or at subway newsstands. It became its own history.
What The Masses did do, like the Haight-Ashbury cultural revolution of the ’60s and today’s organizers of demonstrations at International Monetary Fund meetings, was to bring together an intelligentsia with a larger group of social movements, and in doing so, build a growing platform for change.
There are so many publications and individuals working today toward that purpose. Some that come to mind are “smartMeme” at www.smartmeme.com hoping to “change the stories that shape the dominant culture,” or “The Journal of Aesthetics & Protest,” a forum for the exchange and discussion of mass strategies at http://joaap.org/ or “Globalize Liberation,” which explains “How to uproot the system and build a better world,” at www.globalizeliberation.org. The many artists, young and older, who are adopting certain forms for their own use including graphic novelist Joe Sacco’s “Palestine” or the political art of Steve Brodner, showcased in the book, “Freedom Fries.” Amy Goodman, co-author of the book "The Exception to the Rulers," continues to do a collectively produced daily radio and TV news broadcast – Pacifica's “Democracy Now!” – on more than 500 stations.
The Internet is changing the geography of communication, making it international in scope. Hip-hop youth culture begun in the South Bronx, now is its own drumbeat spreading stories of young people throughout the world. Text messaging has created a new truncated language of consonants and syllables. YouTube invites us to “broadcast yourself,” establishing home video as a medium for delivering story and culture. Blogs give us a look at the raging frontlines in Palestine, Afghanistan, and Iraq with their first-person uncensored reality. Although corporations seem to control the world, we as a planet are learning more directly about how we each live. And with the ubiquitous use of cell phones, definitions are shifting between public and private space, something I explored in “The CellPhone Poems,” a poetry and music project in collaboration with Paul Kirk. We eavesdrop constantly on each other, repeating the same conversation that E.T. had some 25 years ago—we want to go home. However, what home looks like today is also changing as we push the planet to its brink—hopefully forcing us to sit down with each other if only to survive—perhaps one of the challenges which confronts today’s generation and the cultural messages which it chooses to shape.
And in the meantime, here we are at The November 3rd Club throwing our net out to you for stories, poetry, and nonfiction that speak to the issues of the day. Write us. Tell us if there are certain topics you’d like for us to feature online.
(Some of the research for this editorial came from “Art for the Masses: A Radical Magazine and Its Graphics, 1911-1917,” by Rebecca Zurier, Temple University Press, 1988.)