The Dial: Avant-Garde Literature in Greenwich Village

In January 1920, The Dial, a long standing and venerable magazine, published the first issue under its new literary identity and from its new home in Greenwich Village. The magazine had previously existed as a radical political biweekly publication based first in Boston and then in Chicago. In it's final edition in Chicago, published November 1919, articles appeared ranging in topic, from the labor movement in Barcelona to trade policy in Japan. Two months later The Dial reemerged across the country and under new ownership, carrying with it the avant-garde artistic spirit of its new home, Greenwich Village.


From its quiet quarters at 152 West Thirteenth Street, a modest building with a certain "compact pleasantness,"1 The Dial grew into an artistic and literary force that would define a generation. Appearing within the pages of The Dial during its run from 1920 to 1929 were experimental writers from the US and abroad whose work would shape American literary tastes and lead the "New Movement" of literary modernism into the mainstream. These writers, collectively constituting a "coruscating fireworks explosion of arts and letters,"2 included William Butler Yeats, E. E. Cummings, Marianne Moore, Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, Bertrand Russell, Marcel Proust, and T.S. Eliot.

The visionary accomplishments of The Dial were made possible by its two editors, James Sibley Watson and Scofield Thayer. Men of wealth and education, these Harvard graduates jointly purchased The Dial in 1919 with the express intention of ending the political focus of previous Dial incarnations and repositioning the magazine as an innovative literary wellspring. Watson and Thayer sought to introduce American readers to writers whose work was unique in literatrure and in many cases largely unknown to a wider audience.

The editors valued technical rigor, creative vision, and above all, a taste for novelty.3 Watson and Thayer wished to free the American artistic mind by publishing unconventional forms of expression.4 A contributor and later editor for the magazine, Marianne Moore, wrote that Watson and Thayer were together the "indestructible symbol for the doctrine that a love of letters knows no frontier."5

In a 1920 press release announcing the new Dial, Watson proclaims the Dial's mission: "[We] believe that the American people really have minds and use them to better purpose than the popular magazines admit. [We] think that Americans, in every part of America, want to know what the finest minds of the world are about, what they are thinking and what they are creating. [We] believe that Americans are not hide-bound and are willing to let an artist experiment provided he works passionately and sincerely at his art…[The Dial] wants to be the means of communication between the individual artist and the intelligent community."6


This certainty of cause and aspirational ideal is echoed by the poet William Carlos Williams, who writes in his autobiography of the early Dial years, "There was heat in us, a core and a drive that was gathering headway upon the theme of rediscovery of a primary impetus, the elementary principle of all art."7

This heat for artistic discovery was driven in no small part by The Dial's location in Greenwich Village. Many of the contributors to the magazine lived in the Village or visited the city often. Such collegiality was facilitated by The Dial editors, who hosted regular dinners in the top floor of the magazine's Greenwich Village offices. Meeting daily during the work week at 6:30PM, these evening meals were opportunities for editors and contributors to share ideas, develop new modes of expression, and entertain visiting writers and artists.

Members of the Dial circle would also meet outside of these dinners to socialize at Greenwich Village restaurants and in prohibition-era speakeasies. This group included the editors Watson, Thayer, and later Stewart Mitchell, and the contributors Cummings, Pound, Williams, Moore, Gilbert Seldes, Kenneth Burke, William Slater Brown, Edward Pierce Nagle, John Dos Passos.

At the center of The Dial circle was Cummings. The poet resided at 4 Patchin Place, where he had ample living quarters and even a top-floor studio where he wrote and painted. From here, Cummings, Brown, Nagle, Mitchell, and Don Passos would take long walks throughout the city, resting sometimes for long intervals in restaurants or parks.89 Cummings' own innovative verse drew inspiration from the city in which he lived. He remarked on his fascination with the city's "stark irresistibly stupendous newness," its Old World charm, and its ethnic multiplicity.10. The following poem, "no time go," was written, Cummings said, after he passed a homeless man while walking West Tenth Street and across Greenwich Avenue:11

no time go
or else a life
walking in the dark
i met christ

jesus) my heart
flopped over
and lay still
while he passed (as

close as i'm to you
yes closer
made of nothing
except loneliness

Dial writers and artists shared an enthusiasm for innovation and a feeling that the arts must move forward in a new direction. The underlying conceit was revealed in their collective conviction: they were the writers would be at the forefront of the new artistic movement. The tenets for modernism were defended by Cummings in his 1915 Harvard University commencement speech, in which he asserted "The New Art" and praised the work of avant-garde artists Matisse, Gertrude Stein, and Igor Stravinksy. (dupe vxi). Cummings summed up the ethos of The Dial in a 1920 letter he wrote to his father, in which he remarks, "it is a supreme pleasure to have done something FIRST."12

For The Dial, the decade of the 20s in Greenwich Village was marked by enthusiasm for a new art that would carry on throughout the 20th century, becoming what would eventually be identified as the modernist movement, one which allowed unconventional artistic abandon to flourish in the American mainstream. James Sibley Watson drew the Dial to a close in the magazine's final issue, July 1929: "Nine and a half years is a rather long time for one management in the present journalistic melee. On the edge of quitting we want to express out immense gratitude to the distinguished men and women who, with us, gave edited and helped edit The Dial since 1920…We are also grateful to our readers, always bearing in mind that although a magazine can get along somehow without readers it cannot exist without contributors - who were, however indignantly, The Dial."

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