Making Modernism

Letters between Floyd Dell and Sherwood Anderson, 1920s

Floyd Dell’s letter to Sherwood Anderson attempting to justify his opinion of Winesburg, Ohio was prompted by receiving the short note from Anderson praising Dell’s recently published autobiographical novel, Moon-Calf (1920), in which Anderson states with unqualified warmth, “the book makes me love and understand you as I never have before.”

Dell’s response is written on The Liberator letterhead. In 1914 he left his influential position editing the “Friday Literary Review” published by the Chicago Evening Post to become managing editor of The Masses in Greenwich Village. This innovative progressive magazine featured investigative reporting, socialist politics, political cartoons, and experimental literature and art until the government effectively shut it down under the Espionage Act of 1917 for its open critique of U.S. involvement in World War One. Masses editor Max Eastman and his sister Crystal, a feminist and political journalist, began The Liberator in 1918 to pick up where The Masses left off, with Dell assisting as Associate Editor and eventually assuming the editorship from 1922 until the magazine became The Workers Monthly in 1924.

When Anderson arrived in Chicago in early 1913 determined to abandon his business career and become a writer, Dell introduced him to the artists and writers of Chicago’s flourishing “renaissance” and played an instrumental role in getting his first novel published. However, as these letters demonstrate, the two had since become estranged. Although Dell had published “The Book of the Grotesque” and “Hands” in The Masses in 1916 and enthusiastically praised Anderson as “a great novelist” in his review of Windy McPherson’s Son in that same year, his review of Winesburg, Ohio in The Liberator in September 1919 is curt and ambivalent. He still praises Anderson’s “great power as a writer,” but states that the book is “in all but the finest sense true” and concludes with an oblique and unmerited attack on Anderson’s lack of knowledge of contemporary psychology. No wonder then, that the “generosity” of Anderson’s appreciation for Moon-Calf made Dell feel constrained to “explain in self-defense my own antagonistic attitude toward some things in your own work”.

Dell’s letter is written in a florid allegorical style and his quotations from Coleridge, Swinburne, and Kipling situate his discourse in 19th-century British Romanticism and fin-de-siècle decadence, in sharp contrast to Anderson’s characteristically American, simple and direct colloquial language. Note that Dell never criticizes Anderson’s literary technique per se; on the contrary, as he acknowledges more openly in his second letter, he “fears” its psychological and spiritual force, or as he quaintly puts it, “the recklessness with which you have commerce with the powers of darkness.” Thus Dell advocates for a “severely realistic theory of fiction,” but this is utterly contrary to the modernist aesthetic of self-revelation and rendering of subjectivity through lyrical, expressionistic language that Anderson had worked hard to develop and defends in his response.

Dell’s references to Anderson’s paintings in his second letter are relevant to this debate. Although Anderson had only recently taken up painting in 1920, his literary aesthetic had been profoundly impacted by the 1913 Armory Show of post-impressionist art at the Art Institute, which he attended repeatedly with his elder brother Karl, a painter himself and one of the planners of the exhibit. From then on Anderson would craft the realism of his fiction more abstractly and symbolically in order to reflect and reveal the inner life of his characters, which he regarded as the ultimate purpose of fiction. It is ironic that Dell expresses envy and even jealousy of Anderson’s “conquest” in painting (he had never actually seen Anderson’s paintings) of exactly those qualities he advocates curtailing in his writing: the expression of emotion, dream, and fantasy.

Martha C. Carpentier, Seton Hall University

Link to the finding aid for this collection

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