Monday, October 28, 2013

Worcester and The Waste Land

“You are the music while the music lasts.” – T.S. Eliot

Painting by Tim Gannon
The Waste Land, written by T.S. Eliot has been called the single most influential poetic work of the 20th century and is widely recognized as one of the first great American poems to utilize the rhythms of jazz. It was first published stateside by Scofield Thayer of Worcester.

In the 1920s, Thayer published The Dial, an art and literary magazine which featured works by such cutting edge writers as Hart Crane, Ezra Pound, and W.B. Yeats, and important artists like Gaston Lachaise, Charles Demuth, and Odilon Redon. 

The Waste Land was the lead item in the now famous issue of November 1922. With its modern themes, revolutionary techniques and sharp-eyed look at post-WWI realities, it was both hailed and ridiculed and as Michael North notes, comparisons of “this new poem to jazz became almost ritualistic.”

In his book, Inside the Great Divide: Literature and Popular Culture in the Birth Year of the Modern, North writes: “In his influential review, Edmund Wilson noted how the language of The Waste Land turned ‘suddenly and shockingly into the jazz of the music halls.’ John McClure called Eliot’s poem, ‘the agonizing outcry of a sensitive romanticist drowning in a sea of jazz.’ And Burton Rascoe, writing in the New York Herald Tribune, called Eliot the “poet laureate and elegist of the jazz age.”

April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring 
Dull roots with spring rain. 
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.

The relationship of Thayer and Eliot went back to their days at Milton Academy in Massachusetts. Thayer’s father, Edward D. Thayer, was a founder of the Crompton & Thayer Loom Company, and an early director of the Worcester Trust Company. Young Scofield, born in Worcester on December 12, 1889, was no stranger to literary achievement. His uncle, Ernest Thayer is the author of the classic poem, Casey at the Bat.

Thayer's passport
Thomas Sterns Eliot was born in St. LouisMissouri on September 26, 1888. Originally from New England, the Eliot family left the area in order to establish their own Unitarian Church. T.S. Eliot’s father, Henry Ware Eliot, was a successful businessman who presided over the Hydraulic-Press Brick Company in St. Louis

Thayer and Eliot crossed paths again at Harvard, where Tom (1909 and 1914) studied philosophy and Scofield (1913) majored in literature. In 1914 the aspiring young writers found themselves in 
England, where Thayer studied philosophy for two years at Magdalen CollegeOxford. That same year, Eliot was awarded a scholarship to Merton CollegeOxford.Thayer’s early involvement with The Dial dates to 1918. He is said to have purchased stock in the publication for the sum of $600. The following year, he and fellow Harvard alumnus, Dr. James Sibley Watson, Jr., became owners of The Dial. 

Watson was the magazine’s president, while Thayer was its sole editor. The first issue under their direction was published in January 1920 (January-June), and from the start it was trumpeted as an art and literary magazine with serious import, featuring literary works by Sherwood Anderson, Amy Lowell, and Carl Sandburg, as well as art pieces by Eyre De Lanux, E.E. Cummings, and Oswald Herzog.
Young Eliot
In their book, The Oxford Critical and Cultural History of Modernist Magazines, editors Peter Brooker and Andrew Hacker noted that, “The influence which the Dial quickly acquired as a cultural arbiter and taste-maker allowed it to formally reconstitute modernism as a transatlantic project.”

Even before Eliot’s landmark The Waste Land was published, the young writer was contributing to the pages of The Dial. From 1921 to 1922, he was the London correspondent for the magazine. His dispatches included reviews of works by Stravinsky, Picasso and George Bernard Shaw.

The Waste Land was first published in the October 1922 issue of The Criterion, a London-based publication. In December of the same year, it was published in book form.  Its opening line, “April is the cruelest month,” is among the most recognizable in modern verse.

With its allusions to the Fisher King and The Holy Grail legends, The Waste Land utilizes a revolutionary, almost hallucinatory blend of voices, jumping between those of smarting satire and clear-eyed prophecy that shift in time and space. With its dark themes of disillusionment and despair, The Waste Land predicts the prevailing winds of change coming in 20th century.   

Eliot typing


The poem’s jump-cutting style is often associated with jazz. Ralph Ellison, the African-American writer whose 1952 novel Invisible Man won the National Book Award, cited The Waste Land for its seminal influence on his decision to become a writer.

In an interview in the Paris Review, Ellison said: “In 1935, I discovered Eliot’s The Waste Land, which moved and intrigued me but defied my powers of analysis -- such as they were -- and I wondered why I had never read anything of equal intensity and sensibility by an American Negro writer.”

At the time, Ellison was a student at Tuskegee and moonlighted as a jazz trumpeter. In the Collected Essays of Ralph Ellison, he wrote: “At Tuskegee I found myself reading The Waste Land and for the first time I was caught up in a piece of poetry which moved me but which I couldn’t reduce to a logical system. I didn’t quite know why it was working on me, but being close to the jazz experience – that is the culture of jazz – I had a sense that some of the same sensibility was being expressed in poetry.

“Now, the jazz musician, the jazz soloist, is anything if not eclectic. He knows his rhythms; he knows the tradition of his form, so to speak, and he can draw upon an endless pattern of sounds which he combines on the spur of the moment into meaningful musical experience, if he’s successful. I had a sense that all of these references of Eliot’s, all of this snatching of phrases from the German, French, Sanskrit, and so on, were attuned to that type of American cultural expressiveness which one got in jazz and which one still gets in good jazz.”

In its ad copy for first editions of The Waste Land, The Manhattan Rare Book Company states: "Assembled out of dramatic vignettes based on Eliot's London life, The Waste Land's extraordinary intensity stems from a sudden fusing of diverse materials into a rhythmic whole of great skill and daring.

“Though it would be forced into the mold of an academic set piece on the order of Milton's 'Lycidas,' The Waste Land was at first correctly perceived as a work of jazz-like syncopation--and, like 1920s jazz, essentially iconoclastic. A poem suffused with Eliot's horror of life, it was taken over by the postwar generation as a rallying cry for its sense of disillusionment.

“[Ezra] Pound, who helped pare and sharpen the poem when Eliot stopped in Paris on his way to and from Lausanne, praised it with a godparent's fervor. As important, Eliot's old friend Thayer, by then publisher of The Dial, decided even before he had seen the finished poem to make it the centerpiece of the magazine's attempt to establish American letters in the vanguard of modern culture.

“To secure The Waste Land for The Dial, Thayer arranged in 1922 to award Eliot the magazine's annual prize of two thousand dollars and to trumpet The Waste Land's importance with an essay commissioned from The Dial's already influential Edmund Wilson.”

It should be noted that the 1920s was commonly known as the Jazz Age, where people were almost expected to “live fast, die young and leave a beautiful corpse.” While many of the writers of the generation wrote about it, many women of the era lived it. Well documented by F. Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby, the women were shaking off the corsets of Victorian restraint.

The wives of Fitzgerald (Zelda), Eliot (Vivienne) and Thayer’s (Elaine) were all flappers, dancers who celebrated life, music and excess in the Jazz Age.

Historically speaking, Thayer and Eliot are often defined as important figures of the “Lost Generation.” Eliot, the more famous of the two, became one of the most important writers of the 20th century. He died in London in January 1965 of lung disease. 

Thayer suffered a worse fate. His biographer Alyse Gregory described him as, “Slender of build, swift of movement, always strikingly pale, with coal-black hair, black eyes veiled and flashing, and lips that curled like those of Lord Byron, he seemed to many the embodiment of the aesthete with over-refined tastes and sensibilities.” 
e.e. cummings

Thayer was also a troubled soul. His marriage to Elaine Orr in 1916 ended a year later after her affair with E.E. Cummings. By the mid-1920s, he began showing early signs of mental illness and became a patient of Sigmund Freud. By 1926, he was institutionalized for the rest of his life.

Operations of The Dial, under the direction of Watson and editorship of writer/poet Marianne Moore, continued until 1929. For years the Thayer collection was housed at the Worcester Art Museum, but at the time of his death it was bequeathed to the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art in New York City. As legend has it, Thayer had originally intended to donate the entire collection to this city’s museum, but after a 1924 exhibition of the work at the WAM, he changed his mind. In his overview of The Dial Collection, Daniel Catton Rich documented the account: "Scofield Thayer had been born in Worcester and he undoubtedly felt pride that this collection, which he had thoughtfully chosen for the portfolio would be exhibited in his own city. If he was 'irritated slightly' when the Braque Nude (No.7) and a Picasso drawing were not hung (the administration fearing 'a conservative public might be prejudiced'), he was indignant when John J. Johansen, then in Worcester to paint a life-sized portrait of the president of Clark University, denounced The Dial in a local paper as 'an intellectual sewer.' This episode he made the theme of one of his most biting comments in a subsequent issue of the magazine."

Woman Carrying Fruit by Braque

The collection includes works by Alexander Archipenko, Pierre Bonnard, Constantin Brancusi, George Braque, Charles Burchfield, Marc Chagall, James Chapin, Charles Demuth, Arthur B. Davis, André Derain, Jacob Epstein, Duncan Grant, Herman Haller, Marsden Hartley, Rockwell Kent, Yosuko Kunyoshi, Gaston Lachaise, Marie Laurencin, Reinhold Lepsius, Wyndham Lewis, Reinhold Lepsius, Jacques Lipchitz, Aristide Maillol, Manolo, Franz Marc, Jean Marchand, John Marin, Henry McBride, Henri Matisse, Kenneth Hayes Miller, Marianne Moore, Edvard Munch, Elie Nadelman, Georgia O'Keeffe, Pablo Picasso, Andé Denoyer de Segonzac, Charles Sheeler, Paul Signac, Maurice de Vlaminck, Edouard Vuillard, and William Zorach.

Standing Woman by Lachaise

Today, The Dial magazine is recognized by literati around the world for its importance in documenting the Jazz Age. Thayer’s papers are held at Yale University.

Scofield Thayer died in May of 1982 and is buried in Rural Cemetery109 Grove StreetWorcester.

Note: This is a work in progress. Comments, corrections, and suggestions are always welcome at: Also see:  Thank you.

Special thanks to Tom Reney for his editorial commentary. 

Look for the upcoming release of The Tortured Life of Scofield Thayer by James Dempsey. Former Worcester Telegram & Gazette columnist and current instructor at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute, Dempsey is also the author of The Court Poetry of Chaucer and Zakary’s Zombies. The new biography will be published by University Press of Florida on February 18, 2014. 


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