The Masses Group and Public Theater – Hester L. Furey

Hester L. Furey

In his little book How to Re-imagine the World (Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers, 2007), Anthony Weston urges readers to make a model of “weeds”; he says, “Aim for changes (new patterns, practices, institutions)that are as hardy as possible and that insistently re-emerge on their own. … perennial, hardy, tenacious, wily, the kind of plant you can’t get rid of” (67).

As a native Southerner, I adore weeds and am a proud owner of Charles Bryson and Michael DeFelice’s Weeds of the South (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2009). “Weeds,” or undervalued wild herbs, require no nurturing, lurk invisibly everywhere, and are impossible to kill: ideal for the lazy gardener with half-assed dreams of healing the world. Although most people regard “weeds” as a nuisance, they turn out to be highly specialized nutrient capture (and delivery) systems. Once you begin to learn about them, you will see them everywhere. Botany is the gateway drug for animism, I think, but perhaps that is an essay for another time. Last spring, when an old friend asked me to be part of a conference panel on modernism and sustainability, I immediately thought of a group of writers and artists known for producing Masses (1911–1917), a revolutionary little magazine published in Greenwich Village during the Progressive Era and Great War.

The place to begin, it seems to me, is to define sustainability: For my purposes, I am using the word to mean both something that can be maintained with a low environmental cost and as a reference to how a system might remain diverse and productive. Masses writers and artists produced some modernist art that deserves another look because it embodied these traits, but became invisible partly because of its sustainability: public drama or street theater, including the culture of protest. In particular I contend that their Paterson Silk Strike Pageant of 1913 was a type of sustainable modernist art. I will conclude by discussing some critical practices that are not, in my view, sustainable.

Since this art collective from 100 years ago will be unknown to most readers, let me begin with a few facts. Masses was an art-driven magazine run by a heterogeneous combination of leftist political radicals that included John Sloan, Art Young, Max Eastman, John Reed, Floyd Dell, Mary Heaton Vorse, Louis Untermeyer, and Boardman Robinson. These are just a few of the more well-known figures; the group comprised a large art collective of about 30 regular contributors with roots in several activist communities. To give an idea of how extensive the group’s connections were, by all accounts a “committee” of about 70 to 80 worked on the Paterson Silk Strike Pageant.

Masses is confusing to historians because it grew from complicated roots and had many cultural offspring, intended and unintended. The magazine was a major design influence on The New Yorker. The New Yorker began publication in 1924 and copied the format of the earlier magazine, including layout and fonts, employed several of the same illustrators, and sought to re-create Masses’ unforgettable combination of incisive commentary on world and local events, cultural energy, and humor. Masses had ties to every other hub of artistic energy in Manhattan of the time period, most notably Stieglitz’s gallery 291, Mabel Dodge’s salon, the secret women’s club Heterodoxy, the Modern School, and Emma Goldman’s magazine Mother Earth. It grew from several previous collectives, including The Eight, the A Club, the Liberal Club, and the Settlement House circles that had supported the 1905 Russian Revolution.

The Masses group created the Washington Square Players in 1914 and the Provincetown Players in 1915. The magazine was removed from the U.S. mails in late 1917/early 1918 for alleged violations of the Great War-era Sedition and Espionage Act, but after two trials the writers and artists were acquitted. Many of them, headed by Max Eastman and his sister, Crystal Eastman, went on to create The Liberator (1918–1924), a more journalism- and literature-driven magazine later taken over by communists. Masses and later The Liberator emerged from a matrix of unconventional relationships and people who were self-consciously trying to change the world through changing community.

I have been studying these people for almost 30 years now, and the more I learn about them, the more convinced I’ve become that critics simply find them too complicated and don’t have the patience to study them. Traditional literary studies treat them, if at all, as simply odd characters on the margins of “real” modernism. Labor historians don’t write about them because their work falls into the category of culture. Leftists don’t write about them because they were heterodox. Roger Streitmatter excludes Masses from his study, Voices of Revolution: The Dissident Press in America (NY: Columbia UP, 2001), for example, “because it did not concentrate on advancing any one particular issue or movement” (xi). Scholarship on the period also reveals a regrettable tendency to take post-hoc critical frames as historical fact, and to divide people of the Progressive Era into either “modernist” or “leftist” categories based on oppositions that emerged during the WWII era Red Scare, some 35 to 40 years later. To learn what the artists and writers of Masses have to offer, perhaps it is time to reject the old narratives yet again. I argue that the Masses group was both modernist and leftist. It so aggravates scholars, I suspect, at least in part because the group’s work forces us to confront the fact that there were many modernisms and many lefts.

I am calling them the Masses group for the sake of convenience, but we might get a better understanding of their modernism by considering the magazine as a by-product, an artifact thrown off by their emotional and political engagements with community life in the streets of New York. Instead, if we examine this collective’s involvement in events such as the 1913 Woman Suffrage march on Washington, DC; the Paterson Silk Strike Pageant; and their trials for violations of the Espionage and Sedition Act in 1918, we have a much better chance of seeing what we might learn from them as both artists and activists. Like the rest of the radical left at the turn of the 19th and early 20th century, they did practice a kind of modernism. I have discussed in earlier lectures and publications how supporters of the Haymarket Anarchists lifted iconographic conventions from Catholicism to construct a popular understanding of the eight-hour day martyrs as such, and how the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) rewrote patriotic and religious songs to disrupt piety, seize moral authority for workers, and stir discontent [“Art and U.S. Labor History.” AIA Lunch and Learn Lecture. November 2004; and “IWW Songs as Modernist Poetry.” Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association (Spring 2001): 51–72]. The radical left of that era had a particular talent for syncretism, for taking up the forms of religious practices and reconfiguring them semiotically. (Even the unorganized workers did it, because the establishment took for granted the inherent conservatism of religion — see, for example, Maxine Hong Kingston’s account in China Men of a railroad strike in which plans were hidden inside “heathen” holiday gift packages). In the case of the Masses group, the conservative medium they chose was pageantry and operatic-scale public drama.

The Masses group used the magazine to stage roasts of a broad swath of mainstream values. The magazine was but one vehicle, however, and probably not the most important one; the collective forged its primary relationships with other citizens through the medium of public theater, including dramatic episodes that took place in courtrooms. The group’s members started several theater companies, of course. They carried over a love of pageantry and tableaux from the woman suffrage movement, mixed with a devilish capacity for comedy and farce from the IWW and anarcho-syndicalists. They were Bergsonians who considered experiential art primary and artifacts secondary. And, just as much as they are leftists, we must remember, they are also part of a larger drama-obsessed generation that spawned Broadway, radio and television entertainment, and the film industry. John Reed’s primary poetic influence was Gilbert and Sullivan, and in fact Martin Green contends in New York 1913: the Armory Show and the Paterson Strike Pageant that “his vision of politics was in general theatrical” (203). These are people, who thought it appropriate, when Scott Nearing was running for Congress as a Socialist, to campaign in largely Jewish neighborhoods by staging a Yiddish-language translation of George Bernard Shaw’s Mrs. Warren’s Profession.

Many of the writers in the Masses group reported having a sort of religious experience during the Lawrence, Massachusetts Strike of 1912, when 20,000 unorganized workers who did not have a common language walked out of the mills and struck to protest wage cuts. Going into 1913, the Masses group was eager to reproduce what Mary Heaton Vorse, for example, later described as a kind of second birth in her autobiography, A Footnote to Folly. Some group members — John Sloan, Mabel Dodge, Hutchins Hapgood — had been involved in planning and organizing the Armory Show of 1913; others had gone with the suffragists led by Inez Milholland to the pre-inaugural march on Washington, DC, in early March 1913. They had revamped the magazine in December 1912, and Mabel Dodge had started her salon in January 1913, but there was a general feeling among them that only staging another high-energy event of national significance in the streets — in his film Reds, Warren Beatty gives the line to Emma Goldman, but the belief was shared among them — would keep the momentum going after the Lawrence strike, whose energy had been drawn out for almost an entire year by the spectacular trial of the IWW organizers Ettor and Giovannitti.

So when, in April 1913, John Reed went over to investigate the silk mills strike that had begun in February in Paterson, New Jersey, got arrested, and spent an ecstatic weekend in jail singing IWW songs with the strikers, it was fairly easy for him upon release to convince the Masses group to create a large dramatic event that would in effect bring the strike across the river to New York. Over the course of about six weeks 70 to 80 Greenwich Villagers associated with the group planned the pageant, working with a “cast” of tens of thousands of workers, many of whom walked more than 20 miles to New York from Paterson the day before the event in early June 1913.

The Silk Strike Pageant was held at Madison Square Garden. Like all pageants, it employed an operatic scale and relied on stark contrasts, beginning with “the mills alive, the workers dead.” Reenacting the strike, it then dramatized “the mills dead, the workers alive”; the IWW’s organization of the workers; speeches by Big Bill Haywood and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn; conflicts with police that left a worker, Vincenzo Modesto, aka Modestino, dead; and his funeral, followed by IWW songs. The point that many sympathetic interpreters of the pageant make is that it was deliberately staged to erase the boundary between participants in the drama and the audience. The spectacle, the action, subsumed the audience, involving them ritually in both communion and loss.

Thus the conservative vehicle of pageantry, instead of consolidating power and upholding the status quo as it usually did in civic events, acted with a disruptive force upon the consciousness of the audience. We have textual evidence that the experience was so read. Martin Green notes that Independent’s reviewer compared the pageant to “the dramatic liturgy of the Roman Church, out of which English drama derived, the processional … and even the familiar wedding march” (his words, 204). The familiar art form gave a legitimacy to an unorthodox perspective. Likewise Hutchins Hapgood, one of the pageant committee who later, like Vorse, was a founding member of the Provincetown Players, thought that the power of the pageant had nothing to do with any external telos but lay in its value as an instrument of self-reflection for the workers and New Yorkers in the audience. As I argue about IWW songs, participation in the pageant would have given everyone in the audience a chance to try on an identity as a member of a radical group, to see how “The Internationale” sounded coming out of their own mouths, to test how it felt to boo and hiss the police, and to experience at closer hand than a newspaper account allowed what might be happening or at stake across the river.

Much has been written of the “failure” of the Paterson Silk Strike Pageant. More mainstream historians, especially those far removed in time from the event, regard it as a failure because it didn’t raise enough money or because New Yorkers did not put down everything and rush to the aid of Paterson in a total conversion. The memoirs of people who worked on the pageant stress the fact that they nearly dropped the project because it was so costly a production. It is highly unlikely that they saw it as a source of revenue. Rather, the pageant, like every other staged drama, pulled together intellectuals, workers, and others attending into a community, working together, albeit a transitory community. But every living community is transitory. In no way does that mean it is not worth having.

One reading that I strongly reject is the anachronistic interpretation that the Masses group engaged in the communist model of “using art as a weapon.” What makes them interesting is that their propaganda uses of art came from all different directions. Their practice was not at all predictable. Because they were dealing with large groups of Roman Catholic immigrant workers, for example, they might just as likely draw their materials from liturgical staging as from some leftist concept. And because John Reed, who graduated in Harvard’s genius class of 1910, was a cheerleader, Harvard pep rallies had more influence on their pageant than the ideas of Karl Marx (who was not the most admired figure among pre-communist American leftists — they preferred Owen, Bellamy, George, Bakunin, Kropotkin, and French and Dutch anarcho-syndicalists like Pouget, Pannekoek, and Gorter to Marx).

The public dramas staged by the Masses group continued right through the magazine’s demise. During the Great War-era Red Scare the radical left engaged the courtroom as a stage. Considering the entire country their audience, they adopted various strategies to present their story. Eugene Debs and Scott Nearing, for example, used their trials to educate the public and advocate socialist politics. Debs and almost 200 IWWs went to prison. When their turn came to be tried for violations of the Sedition and Espionage Act, the Masses group were fairly certain they would be found guilty, but they decided to play it as comedy. Art Young recalls that when he arrived in court the first day, John Reed asked him, “Got your grip packed for Atlanta?” The large group of defendants made great sport out of standing up each time the band outside the open windows struck up “The Star Spangled Banner” until the judge told them they had honored the national anthem enough. Young’s subsequent cartoon self-portrait, “Art Young, on trial for his life” depicts him snoring during the trial.

Christine Stansell’s American Moderns offers the most insightful account of the Masses group from an outsider’s perspective. Rather than trying to make its members seem more like stereotypical leftists or organizing her discussion by thematic topics, Stansell is the only literary historian to emphasize the primacy of their conversational hubs and to introduce them by clubs, gathering places, business networks, and cooperative ventures. Magazine historians Suzanne Churchill and Adam McKible regard this as a new model of understanding modernism and little magazines. They adopt Stansell’s model and, noting that “little magazines provide a published record of the richness, variety, chaos, and exhilaration of modernist talk,” they envision their own collection of essays as reviving what Andrea Barnet calls “a great party” (All-Night Party: The Women of Greenwich Village and Harlem, 1913–1930, 13).

The communal hub/conversational model represents a great advancement in analysis over more individualistic models. This generation of progressives, sometimes called the Bohemian Left, had a genius for community and was known not by its enemies, but by its friends. It is well documented that this Left was not just about the working class, the intellectuals, or the students, but really tried to pitch its vision of the desirability of revolution to everyone in the society. And, before the Great War-era Red Scare, it had a lot of social support. One did not have to be an artist to participate in this culture and experience its art. Any truthful account of Greenwich Village culture will note how much it owed to the small business owners in that community. Small businessmen and women supported this culture when they rented space to magazines, little theaters, mini-communes, unmarried couples, and chronically underemployed and late individual payers of rent. They generously allowed club meetings to take place in their restaurants and above their stores, opened their warehouses to be used as impromptu ballrooms to raise money for radical causes, and very often were themselves important characters in the Village. Likewise wealthy patrons opened their homes and pocketbooks and shamed their wealthy friends into doing the same to publish magazines, fund play productions, pay salaries at schools, endow foundations, and buy art to support radicals and their work (most famously Mabel Dodge, Alden Freeman, Alva Belmont, John Quinn). They also paid bail bondsmen and hired lawyers for friends accused of sedition, libel, or obscenity, or they silently pulled strings to make indictments disappear. Masses had many angels who donated thousands of dollars to make it happen and keep it running: Amos Pinchot, E. W. Scripps, Mrs. Belmont, and Kate Crane were just a few.

An anarchist manifesto floating around the Internet declares that “product is the excrement of process.” I have often argued that art is the fossil record of a people’s emotional life. Masses, the printed magazine, the artifact, had a sentimental value, then, in part because it elicited the emotional memories of those intense conversational and dramatic exchanges. But as the people in question saw it, the real art-magic was happening in the moment, in ephemeral situations in which bits of generative chaos erupted from temporary frames (borrowing language here from Elizabeth Grosz’s Chaos, Territory, Art) to create experiences in audiences, who then went on, perhaps, to make their own art. That was modernism, and that was sustainable, or as Weston says, “weedy.”

In conclusion, I contend that the kind of individualist literary history we have practiced through much of the 20th century is NOT sustainable because it relies on a falsely categorical understanding of how art happens in the world. Perhaps it is a lingering inheritance of New Critical standards that literary criticism tends to proceed as if the texts people produce are primary, and as if literature could be created by people other than those thinking, writing, and having experiences in communities. Suzanne Churchill and Adam McKible cleverly call this old critical practice “strip-mining, in which individual artists were extracted from the heterogeneous terrain in which they first published and singled out as the elite geniuses of modernism” (4).

Conversation about weedy, socially transformative art practice seemed especially timely at the end of 2014. Creative Loafing’s November 6, 2014 issue documented a number of conversations among arts professionals in town about their groups’ history. Adam Fristoe of Out of Hand Theater says of his group’s decision not to have a fixed location: “We’re trying to make theater for audiences not reached by traditional theater. … So we’re trying to make events, and to take theater to people who wouldn’t otherwise go. And we can make really exciting experiences different than in a traditional theater setting” (“Theater vs. the Economy,” 29). Street theater like that in which the Masses group engaged may easily become invisible because it does not produce the kind of artifacts that invite collection and veneration. In no time at all we might develop an entirely false understanding of the art climate of a period or a city if our only access to it lies through text and the apparatuses of so-called high art. But if we walk out into the streets in cities like Atlanta, our experience might change what we think and what we see. Like weeds, these practices spring up all over, and once we begin to work with them, they may change our ideas of what is real and what is possible.



Author’s note:

I presented an earlier version of this essay at the South Atlantic Modern Language Association meeting in Atlanta, Georgia, on November 8, 2014. I am indebted to Marsha Bryant, University of Florida, for the invitation to participate and to Andrea Krafft for welcoming me to the panel she chaired on modernism and sustainability. Namaste and many thanks to Bill Taft for reading an interim draft and his encouraging comments and advice.

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