Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Floyd Dell: A Respectable Radical


      Few read his books today. Once his novels were immensely popular, not only for their literary merit but because they treated love and marriage with perceptive candor. It was a time when many young people rejected patriarchal family values and sought alternatives.
He was self-taught writer Floyd Dell who had learned his craft in public libraries and on newspapers. The characters in Dell's novels talked openly about the sexual components of love. They argued about the significance of sex in marriage. These were topics that few earlier novelists had treated with such honesty. By today's standards, however, their language and actions were tame.
Floyd James Dell was born in 1887 in the little Illinois town of Barry, not far from the Mississippi. He spent his youth in Quincy, Illinois, a small industrial city atop the steep bluffs of the Mississippi. His father was a failed butcher, constantly out of work. His mother was a country schoolteacher who encouraged her son to be a writer. In Quincy, young Floyd discovered the wonders of the public library and began to immerse himself in books.
Dell's next stop was Davenport, Iowa, a large industrial city, also on the Mississippi. After a brief stint at factory work, he joined the Socialist Party and became a reporter on Davenport newspapers.
Chicago beckoned, and Floyd arrived there in 1908, at the age of 21. He became an assistant editor on the Chicago Evening Post's Friday literary supplement. Here he came to know writers Carl Sandburg, Ben Hecht, Charles MacArthur, Frances Hackett and others who were part of the Chicago literary renaissance.
He also met Margery Currey, a high school teacher eleven years his senior who encouraged him in his writing. To show their unconventionality, they were married by a rabbi the following year, although neither was Jewish.
Dell's Friday book section encouraged the growth of Chicago's budding bohemian avant garde. His impulsive marriage gradually worsened, and Dell succumbed to affairs with the wives of two friends. Divorce was inevitable.

                   A young Floyd Dell left Chicago for New York's Greenwich Village.

To New York
Dell decided to decamp to New York. He arrived in Greenwich Village in October 1913, just in time to participate in Mabel Dodge's "evenings" and supporting himself by writing critical essays in various magazines.
His big break came when he was invited to join the editorial staff of The Masses to bring some editorial discipline to that haphazard enterprise. Max Eastman, a former college instructor in philosophy, had been named editor of the dry and stodgy magazine. Dell opened its pages to talented writers, artists and cartoonists whose work reflected the burgeoning realism in the arts.
He also added a managing editor's expertise in planning, designing and producing a magazine, shaping it to his and Eastman's political and literary tastes. It became a stunning periodical with two-color lithographed covers and fine printing for the artwork in its pages. A quality magazine costs money to produce, and smooth-talking Max Eastman secured donations from moneyed patrons.
Dell also acquired a reputation for having many love affairs. In January of 1918 he bedded green-eyed, red-haired Edna St. Vincent Millay, whose poem "Renascence" had burst like a bombshell on the literary scene. Her previous sexual experience was limited to homosexual relationships at Vassar.
Later that year, Dell was named a defendant in the two Masses trials in which juries were unable to agree on a verdict. After the second trial, he met an intriguing young woman from California named B. Marie Gage. Unhappy with her first name, Berta, she had shortened it to an initial.
Dell described her as "golden haired and blue-eyed." She reminded him of a girl in Frank Norris's The Octopus, a novel that he had devoured as a youth: "a sturdy, earth-strong girl, with hair as yellow as the ripe wheat." B. Marie was robust and big-boned. Shy and sensitive, Dell was slight of build—he stood five feet six inches and never weighed more than 120 pounds.

Another Marriage
Floyd fell in love with B. Marie at first sight. On their third meeting, he proposed marriage. At New York's City Hall, they encountered roadblocks invented by the City Clerk. This infuriated Dell, who would have no part in the charade. They took a ferry to Jersey City, only to be stymied there by residency requirements.
The couple recalled that they had been invited to visit Croton-on-Hudson by Jane Burr, described by Dell as "a writer with a very forceful personality." Jane Burr was the pseudonym of copper heiress Rosalind  Guggenheim Winslow, a 37-year-old poet and novelist whose 1916 book of poems, City Dust, had gone through several printings.
Jane Burr ran a sort of bed-and-breakfast in what was once Croton’s Post Inn. Operated for many years by the McCord family, its foundation is still visible opposite the former Holy Name of Mary School. She called it the Drowsy Saint Inn.
Dell later described it as "a place with pleasant rooms furnished in colonial style, where writers roomed in the summer, and with a restaurant decorated in the Greenwich Village fashion with gay colors. It was not open in the winter, but Jane Burr lived there, and asked occasional guests out to visit her."
"We want to get married," they told her on their arrival, "and we want you to help us."
Jane Burr was shocked. She opposed marriage in principle, but agreed to help them. She telephoned the town clerk in Peekskill. Although his office was closed, she learned that the Peekskill Village Board was meeting that evening, and the clerk would be there. Jane Burr arranged by telephone for him to issue the marriage license.
That evening, they got their marriage license in Peekskill and returned to Croton to wait for Judge Decker to marry them at his home. Judge Frank Decker operated a candy store and ice cream parlor on North Riverside Avenue.
Floyd begged B. Marie not to make any feminist objections to anything she was asked to promise, but to say yes to whatever question was asked. They told the judge they wanted a simple ceremony. Judge Decker found in his book one in which they took each other as husband and wife.
After the ceremony, the judge asked B. Marie if she wanted a marriage certificate. She shook her head. "Lots of people don't, nowadays," he remarked, almost wistfully. Then it was back to the Drowsy Saint and their wedding supper. For it, Jane Burr wangled a cake intended to be the finishing touch to a neighbor's Sunday dinner.

The Dells Move to Croton
Floyd and B. Marie returned to Greenwich Village and their Christopher Street apartment. The memory of Croton remained with him; Dell was a small-town boy at heart. On B. Marie's birthday in April 1919, they again took the train to Croton to visit friends. As they walked up Mt. Airy Road they encountered John Reed walking down with friends from Greenwich Village. His now-classic account of the October Revolution had just been published.
Reed announced, "This is the Mt. Airy Soviet, and we have decided that you two are to live here in Croton." Indicating a nearby house that was for sale, he added, "And this is the house you are to live in!"
As a down payment, Floyd paid ten dollars to the artist and his wife who owned it. A mortgage covered half the $3,000 price. Although money was tight, they secured the balance by the end of the month.
When Floyd and B. Marie returned to Croton the first weekend in May, they immediately began work on the somewhat dilapidated building. They replaced rotting floorboards, planted a garden, and painted everything inside and out, spending most of the summer getting the house ready.
The Dells continued to live in Greenwich Village until 1921 and used the Croton house only on weekends. It was here that Dell worked on most of his eleven novels, and several collections of short stories, poems, essays and plays. The Dell house at 75 Mt. Airy Road is one of Croton's true literary landmarks.

Dell’s Literary Output
Despite his prodigious output of books, interest in Floyd Dell today is low. Between them, the 38 member libraries of the Westchester Library System own a total of only seven Dell titles. In its collection of works by local authors, the Croton Free Library has only one of Dell’s books, his 1933 autobiography Homecoming.
Whether in essays, critical reviews, or novels, Dell drew heavily on his own experience in everything he wrote. His first novel, Moon-Calf, appeared in 1920 and recounted the story of Felix Fay, a thinly disguised young Floyd Dell. He included accounts of his own family and their frequent moves, showing how Felix Fay's character was shaped by the poverty of his own early years.
Critics reviewed Moon-Calf enthusiastically. It went through several printings and sold more than 40,000 copies, bringing Dell nearly $15,000. The Brooklyn Public Library considered the book so racy it restricted its sole copy to approved readers.
His story of a sensitive young man who rebels against small-town respectability to seek success in the city took its title from a 1901 science fiction story by H.G. Wells. "I should define a 'moon-calf,'" he told a reporter from the New York Herald in February 1921, "as an awkward young man with a touch of intellectual lunacy."
Years afterward Dell attributed the book's success quite as much to popular misconceptions about it as to acceptance of its virtues. No other writer of the 1920s so successfully explored the maturation of the young and sensitive intellectual who finds himself isolated and alone in the cities and towns of the American Middle West.
Dell's second novel, The Briary-Bush, appeared in 1921 and continued Felix Fay's story in Chicago, where Dell scored his own early literary success. Felix falls in love with and marries Rose-Ann Prentiss, but they soon are miserable, replicating Dell's own unhappy first marriage.
Dell did not complete his semi-autobiographical trilogy until 1929 with his eighth novel, Souvenir. In it, Dell reflected about his life, and concluded, "He could regret none of it, would not have had it different, would not have missed a single one of the pains and insults that had hardened him and taught him."
After the birth of their first son, Anthony, named for Floyd’s father, the Dells moved from Greenwich Village early in 1922 and made Croton their permanent residence.
In An American Testament: A Narrative of Rebels and Romantics, writer Joseph Freeman, a Croton resident and frequent guest at Dell parties, described the Dell house in Croton as "a magic little world retaining all that was best in the tradition of Greenwich Village. That tradition shone from orange curtains at the windows, Nordfeldt's [Swedish-American Chicago artist Bror Nordfeldt] portrait of Dell as a young man, the walls lined from floor to ceiling with books."

                        Portrait of Floyd Dell by Swedish-American artist Bror Nordfeldt. 

Goodbye to the Communist Party 
Dell became an editor of The Liberator, the successor magazine started in 1918 by Max and Crystal Eastman. This folded in 1924, and he next joined the staff of The New Masses, published by the Communist Party.
      Floyd Dell always thought of himself as a radical--but his radicalism was romantic and utopian, not fitting any ideological mold. Mike Gold, editor of The New Masses, drummed him out of the radical movement in 1929. 
      Unhappy with the magazine's policies, Dell had submitted his resignation as a contributing editor. Gold published Dell's letter and added two pages of his own comment scolding a Dell so corrupted by prosperity he wore a dress suit.
Dell took his excommunication in stride. He denied wearing a dress suit except to pose for a single publicity photo, but conceded that he liked wearing dinner clothes.
"It is also true," he commented, "that I like to make money, though Mike exaggerates my prosperity. I think Mike would like to make money, too."  Gold would be less unhappy and less full of hatred for others, Dell added, if he could admit to himself that he wants what many others have in an insecure world.
Cartoonist Robert Minor and his artist wife, Lydia Gibson Minor, had built a home in Croton at 79 Mount Airy Road, next door to Floyd and B. Marie. Minor had been the editor of the Communist Party newspaper The Daily Worker, and indefatigable candidate for governor of New York, mayor of New York City and U.S. senator. The doctrinaire Minor had many bitter arguments with Floyd over Dell's peculiar brand of radicalism.

Broadway and Hollywood
Floyd Dell's novel An Unmarried Father had been published in 1927. About that time a second son was born and named Christopher for the Greenwich Village street on which the Dells had lived.
In this novel, Norman Overbeck, a young man about to be married, breaks his engagement and adopts a child he has become convinced he fathered. In the end, he accepts responsibility and marries the unwed mother. It was received with mixed reviews by critics confused by Dell's sudden conventionality.
Dell saw theatrical possibilities in the story and turned it into a play script. Broadway producer Crosby Gaige read it and referred Dell to Thomas Mitchell, a 35-year-old former reporter, stage actor and playwright. Mitchell, who would later achieve success in Hollywood, is best remembered for his 1940 Academy Award-winning performance as Doc Boone in John Ford's classic film Stagecoach.
Mitchell took Dell's wordy and unwieldy rough draft and turned it into a risqué and funny piece of stagecraft. Retitled Little Accident and with Mitchell playing the role of Norman Overbeck, it opened to rave reviews at New York's Morosco Theater in October 1928. The play ran for 303 performances before taking to the road. Money--as much as $500 a week--began to roll in for Dell.
Little Accident was adapted three times by Hollywood: In 1930, with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., as Norman, and again in 1939 with Hugh Herbert in the lead. Re-titled Casanova Brown, a third Hollywood version starred Gary Cooper in 1944. The French also saw the comedic possibilities in Dell’s plot and released the film Papa sans Le Savoir (A Father without Knowing It) in 1932.
In the depths of the Depression, Floyd and Thomas Mitchell tried to repeat the success of Little Accident with another collaborative effort. Cloudy with Showers, a lighthearted treatment of the relations between the sexes, opened in September of 1931, also at the Morosco Theater. Although it played for a respectable 71 performances with Mitchell playing the lead role, it was no solution to the Dell family's money problems in the depths of the Depression. 

Moving On 
 Later novels also were important. Dell’s favorite, Diana Stair, a big, 641-page work, revived the popularity of the historical novel in 1932. Floyd and B. Marie rented out their Croton house the following year and moved to Winchester, New Hampshire. His last novel, The Golden Spike, appeared in 1934.
The family moved again in 1935, this time to Washington, D.C. Floyd had been hired as an editorial consultant and speech writer for the Works Progress and Public Works administrations and other agencies. B. Marie worked as a librarian in the Washington public library. He retired from government service in 1947.
All his life Floyd Dell had been a heavy cigarette smoker, preferring a brand called Richmond Straight Cuts. As he grew older he suffered from emphysema and a series of strokes in the mid- and late-60s and lost the sight of one eye to glaucoma. Confounding those who had predicted the marriage wouldn't last, the Dells celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary in February 1969.
Floyd Dell died five months later in Bethesda, Maryland, survived by his wife and two sons, Anthony and Christopher. His body was cremated, and his ashes were taken to the family’s New Hampshire summer home.
As a novice editor of The Masses, Max Eastman had hired Dell with the title of managing editor to put a journalist’s stamp on the magazine. He later paid this tribute to him: “I never knew a more reasonable or dependable person, more variously intelligent, more agile in combining sociability with industry and I never knew a writer who had his talents in such complete command.”


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