A Short History of THE MASSES

THE MASSES was an American monthly journal of arts and politics. It was Socialist in its outlook, and was known for its innovative treatment of illustrations and for its social criticism and news articles.

THE MASSES was founded in 1911 in Greenwich Village by Piet Vlag, a Dutch immigrant, who wanted a magazine to promote the interests of the working people, and to champion the cause of consumer co-operatives. In the early years the magazine was funded by Amos Pinchot, a progressive lawyer, and Rufus Weeks, a wealthy life insurance executive.

The magazine was run like a co-operative, with the artists and writers contributing to the periodical, sharing in its management. The first year of publication was not a financial or literary success. Its articles were mostly too dry and theoretical to promote much reader excitement. Vlag soon lost his interest, and resigned as editor leaving the magazine in the hands of artist John Sloan, cartoonist Art Young, writer Louis Untermeyer and treasurer Dolly Sloan. This group, unwilling to see the magazine fold, began a search for a new editor.

After a chance meeting with Max Eastman, a young philosophy professor and aspiring writer from Columbia University, Art Young thought he had found just the man to take over the magazine. Young met with the others on THE MASSES’ board and sent an informal brush-written note to Eastman who was vacationing in Connecticut. It read, “You are elected editor of THE MASSES. No pay!”

Eastman looked at this invitation as an opportunity to make a name for himself. He accepted, and immediately set about changing the magazine. In his first issue, Eastman wrote, “Our appeal will be to THE MASSES, both Socialist and non-Socialist, with entertainment, education, and the livelier types of propaganda.” He had dedicated this first issue to appeal for funds to sustain the publication. Unfortunately, it brought back only $21.00 in contributions—but it established THE MASSES as a free thinking, controversial journal of opinion, news and art.

The reborn magazine soon began to attract some of the best writers and artists of its day—George Bernard Shaw, Dorothy Day, Amy Lowell, Sherwood Anderson, John Reed, Floyd Dell, and Carl Sandberg were just a few of its literary stars. George Bellows, Maurice Becker, Boardman Robinson, Robert Minor, Art Young, Cornelia Barnes, John Sloan, and Stuart Davis all made regular artistic contributions to the magazine. Even Pablo Picasso submitted a drawing! None of these professional artists or writers was ever paid, with the exception of Floyd Dell who received a salary of $25.00 a week to be Mr. Eastman’s literary assistant.

THE MASSES published poetry, prose, short stories, news, editorials, book reviews, and philosophy. They carefully covered the American labor movement, the fight for women’s suffrage and reproductive rights, social justice issues, foreign affairs, and the role of big business in society. At the time, many believed that Floyd Dell’s book reviews were among the best ever published in America. He reviewed such classics as Jack London’s Memoirs, Edgar Lee Master’s Spoon River Anthology, and Carl Jung’s Psychology of the Unconscious.

But for all its hearty literary and news features, THE MASSES remained primarily an artist’s magazine. Its clean, clear makeup, its generous dimensions for all drawings and cartoons (often full page or double page representations), never allowed the art to become secondary to the text. Eastman pioneered the one or two line cartoon caption, getting away from the traditional he-and-she type picture captions. As official art editor, John Sloan designed the layout and worked with printers to reproduce vivid two-color covers and heavy black crayon drawings. The magazine attracted a number of urban realists who later became known as the Ashcan School (George Bellows, Stuart Davis, Glen Coleman, Robert Henri, John French Sloan) and that is why, even one hundred years later, the art remains compelling even if some of the political causes have been won.

Monthly meetings were held by Eastman and Dell to decide on the contributions to be printed in the next month’s edition. Floyd Dell wrote,

“At the monthly editorial meetings, the literary editors were usually ranged on one side of all questions and the artist on the other. The squabbles between literary and art editors were usually over the question of intelligibility and propaganda versus artistic freedom, [and] some of the artists held a smoldering grudge against the literary editors, and believed that Max Eastman and I were infringing the true freedom of art by putting jokes or titles under their pictures. John Sloan and Art Young were the only ones of the artists who were verbally quite articulate: but fat, genial Art Young sided with the literary editors usually, and John Sloan, a very vigorous and combative personality, spoke up strongly for the artists.”

In fact these monthly discussions could get quite heated. John Sloan once advised one clumsy artist, “There is only one thing left for you to do, pull off one of your socks and try with your feet!”

By 1915 the war in Europe was presenting THE MASSES with a dangerous dilemma. President Wilson had been elected on a platform of keeping the U.S. out of the war in Europe, but after his re-election his position changed. Max Eastman circulated an anti-war petition amongst the artists and writers asking for their signatures. Artist George Bellows refused and resigned from THE MASSES’s board. Most signed the statement, and the magazine began to publish more anti-war articles and satirical cartoons accusing rich capitalists of promoting the war for their own selfish rewards.

These hard-line anti-war and anti-conscription views of the editors and contributors of THE MASSES did not go unnoticed. The postmaster of New York City, refused to accept the August, 1917 issue calling it “unmailable.” The magazine had run afoul of the newly passed Espionage Act of 1917 which made some forms of speech unlawful. Without the use of the second class mailing permit THE MASSES had to cease publication. To make matters worse, in 1918 the government charged Max Eastman, Floyd Dell, John Reed, Art Young, Merrill Rogers, Josephine Bell and H. J. Glintenkamp of violating the Espionage Act. The government charged them with conspiracy to obstruct enlistment. A guilty verdict could result in twenty years in prison and/or a $10,000 fine.

The trial opened on April 15th 1918, and after weeks of testimony the jury was unable to reach a verdict. However, a year later a second trial was held on the same charges. John Reed had returned to the United States from Russia and stood trial with the other defendants. Testimony was again heard and Max Eastman gave a stirring three hour summation. At the trial’s end the prosecutor, Earl B. Barnes, concluded his case with emotional words about a friend who had died in the war.

“Somewhere in France he lies dead, and he died for you and he died for me. He died for Max Eastman. He died for John Reed. He died for Floyd Dell. His voice is but one of the thousand silent voices that demand that these men be punished.”

At that point Art Young, awakened from a courtroom nap, leaned back on his chair and cried out, “What! Didn’t he die for me too?” The courtroom was rocked with laughter and the intended effect of the prosecutor’s speech was ruined. And once again the jury was unable to reach a verdict, with four in favor of conviction and eight for acquittal. That was the last trial for the men and women of THE MASSES. Max Eastman and his sister Crystal started a new paper called The Liberator but it never became the independent, creative force that its predecessor had been.

THE MASSES may have folded but the ideals of its advocates are still debated today. And, although, as Albert Parry concluded in his book Garrets and Pretenders, THE MASSES was not really a magazine for “the masses” but was “by a radical petit bourgeois for the liberal petit bourgeois.” it did champion the rights of the less fortunate and attempted to create a more equitable and tolerant society.