Ashgate Publishing Ltd. 182 pages. £60. ISBN 978-1-4094-0945-8

Reviewed by Jim Burns


There is currently (April, 2011) an exhibition at the National Gallery in London called An American Experiment: George Bellows and the  ' Ashcan Painters. And there's an excellent small book accompanying the exhibition, but nowhere in it is it mentioned that Bellows, and his contemporary, John Sloan, were for a time closely associated with the radical magazine, The Masses. Neither the exhibition or the book claim to be comprehensive surveys of Bellows and the Ashcan group, so there is perhaps a good reason why that episode in their lives is left out. But the book under review does focus attention on the material that Bellows and Sloan contributed to the magazine.

Rachel Schreiber describes The Masses as a "small-run journal published in New York City between 1911 and 1917,"which seems a rather low-key description but she then says that it "was an exceptional magazine produced during an exceptional decade." It was started by Piet Vlag who ran the restaurant at the Rand School of Social Science, a socialist establishment which aimed to "educate workers and raise class-consciousness." Vlag persuaded many of the writers and intellectuals who came into the school to contribute, even though he couldn't pay them. The Masses, like many political and literary publications, never sold enough copies to make it a profitable venture and its use of graphics kept production costs high. According to Schreiber it always depended on outside donors who were often "wealthy philanthropists who were sympathetic to socialism and enjoyed The Masses' exposés." Neither the bohemians on the editorial board, nor the philanthropists, liked to have details of the funding too well-known so that their standing in their respective communities would not be affected.

The years prior to the First World War were a time of social ferment. Eugene V. Debs had received almost one million votes when he stood for the Presidency, the I.W.W. was flexing its muscles, and unions in New York were organising strikes among the large immigrant workforce in the city. There was a general feeling that the time was ripe for change. Needless to say, there was opposition to change, especially among business leaders, conservative politicians, and others with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. But many writers and artists were inclined to support socialist ideas, and when The Masses appeared it pulled in writers like Max Eastman, Floyd Dell, John Reed, and Mary Heaton Vorse, and artists such as George Bellows, John Sloan, Stuart Davis, and Robert Minor .

It needs to be noted that it was not a theoretical journal, no matter how much it wanted to promote socialism. Schreiber describes it as "idealistic," but makes it clear that it was "humorous, literary, and journalistic," and she quotes Floyd Dell as saying that it "stood for fun, truth, beauty, realism, freedom, feminism, revolution." Humour was a key factor in the magazine, especially in the visual work. I don't think there is any doubt that it's the drawings that have retained their interest over the years. Irving Howe once pointed out that "not much of the political writing in The Masses has worn well," whereas the art work can still pack a punch. There was a drawing by Boardman Robinson (it's not in Schreiber's book) of two working-class women talking. One asks the other why she's celebrating and is told that her son is being released from prison. He was sentenced to ten years but has been given three off for good behaviour. "Ah," says the first woman, "I wish I had a son like that." There's humour there, though some might claim that it's of a patronising kind. A darker humour comes through in K.R. Chamberlain's drawing of an obviously upper-class couple watching soldiers marching off to war, and the woman saying, "It checks the growth of the undesirable classes, don't you know." I’ve read some of the poetry that was published in The Masses and very little of it still has energy or relevance.

Schreiber states that "the muscular male appeared regularly in political cartoons that supported labour rights," and that in the anti­war cartoons he "served as the iconic and symbolic ideal for the might of the working-class." That "might" was seen as a contrast to the supposed weakness of the ruling class, and in the illustrations bosses were often shown as bloated while younger well-to-do types come across as effete and indolent. These were all stereotypes, of course, and in the case of representations of the working-class they could almost lend themselves to confirming suspicions about workers being "brutish, unintelligent, and prone to violence." But artists liked to play on ideas of working-class muscularity as compared to middle and upper-class flabbiness. There's a wonderful drawing by George Bellows, "Superior Brains: The Businessman's Class," which has a group of skinny or overweight, but clearly out-of-condition businessmen, being put through their paces by a trainer. It's effective and very funny, but really no more true than idealised drawings of supposedly fit and healthy workers.

One of Schreiber's main points is that mostly male figures appear in cartoons of industrial situations. And, of course, men did play a dominant role heavy industry and many of the service industries, as well as in strikes. But women were heavily represented in the garment trades in New York and in the mills of New England and Massachusetts. In many ways, however, the artists tended to accept the idea, also believed by their supposed opponents, that "the normative worker was male," and that a woman's role should be mostly domestic. Schreiber says that "Unionists and other labour advocates took it for granted that men should be the primary wage earners," and she points out that, in fact, "the realities of working-class life" meant that everyone in a family (husband, wife, older children, the elderly) often had to contribute when possible. Women did do domestic work and look after children but they also had to do piecework in the home or work in sweat shops. There are a few drawings of women in these circumstances reproduced in the book and they mostly show them as worn-out and downtrodden. This was probably an accurate portrayal of their circumstances and it contrasted with the frequent images of working-class men towering over cringing bosses. Or there was Robert Minor's picture of "labour's lawyer," a giant fist punching its way into a courtroom and terrifying everyone there.

Minor was one of the most forceful of the artists linked to The Masses. It's significant that he and Art Young were overtly political artists and, unlike Bellows, Sloan, and others, did not also produce what might be called conventional (in the sense of non-political) work for the art market. And it's a fact that, once they lost contact with The Masses, Bellows and Sloan were no longer involved with direct social and political commentary. Schreiber notes that Robert Minor did produce work which focused on women's role in industry but that little of it got into The Masses. Was this because the editorial board "favoured the gendered distinction of active male working figures to passive female victims"? Perhaps not, though she does think that "the editors emphasised a visual strategy that elevated the muscular male working-class figure to heroic status in order to further their political aims, leaving female workers within the space of representation to serve only as symbols for the adverse aspects of industrial labour."

One of the most striking illustrations shows a large capitalist (easily identifiable by his top hat and coat tails, not to mention  the grim expression on his face) pointing to an empty cradle and shouting "Breed" to a woman standing nearby. In the background is a gloomy factory with hordes of workers pouring in while large black clouds hang menacingly overhead. The clouds symbolise war (the word is actually printed among them). Schreiber has a neat discussion of this drawing by Art Young, but I couldn't help thinking that her idea that it is a "depiction of (male) workers and soldiers as dispensable fodder for industrial gain" may be pushing the gender analysis a bit too far. It may sound like nit-picking but I think I can see some female figures in the crowd, and Art Young would have been well aware that women worked in large numbers in mills and elsewhere and were just as much "dispensable fodder for industrial gain," as well as being affected by war. But I don't want to quarrel with Schreiber's general view that the role of women was often overlooked or underplayed in The Masses.

The suggestion that women should breed tied in with worries about eugenics prevalent at the time. The mass immigration policies that had led to an influx of people from Russia, Eastern Europe, Italy, and other places led to claims of "race suicide" as birth rates among white middle-class American-born women declined. The Masses satirised these fears by questioning how people with large families living in deplorable conditions could be expected to raise healthy children. Art Young's "Hell on Earth" pictured a mother with three young children in a hovel while the father (not at all a sturdy-looking type) stares in despair at a pile of bills falling off a small table. Young liked to tag on captions and this one read: "Questions for Eugenists: In an atmosphere of worry and fear, how can children be developed physically and morally?'" Of course, some people would ask why the working-class had children if they couldn't afford them, but this was a time when birth control methods were known about but were still frowned on because they would, it was said, encourage women to be promiscuous. The notorious Anthony Comstock and his Society for the Suppression of Vice attempted to limit the circulation of information relating to contraception and other matters. The Masses supported Margaret Sanger in her work and frequently attacked Comstock. There are three illustrations (one by George Bellows, two by Robert Minor) which lampoon him, but one of the sharpest comments on what happens when proper forms of birth control aren't available was K.R. Chamberlain's "Family Limitation - Old Style," which shows a woman about to drop a baby into the river.

Artists in The Masses were fervently anti-war and Schreiber has some interesting comparisons to make between their views and those expressed by illustrators in more-conventional magazines. While Robert Minor drew an officer looking at a massive but headless man and saying, "At last a perfect soldier!", and Art Young showed a tough-looking worker confronting a capitalist and asserting that, having done the fighting, the workers would now take over, the suffragist magazine, The Woman Citizen, had covers which hammered away at the idea that if women played a key role in the war effort (they were called "Win-the-war-Women") by working in factories, on the land, or even just knitting, they would earn the right to vote. The women in these pictures were usually pretty, neatly-dressed, and if in a domestic setting shown only with one healthy child. It would seem that there was only a single-issue involved, that of getting the vote, and that otherwise there was an acceptance of the traditional female roles, with women only going outside them when an emergency arose. A K.R. Chamberlain drawing in The Masses suggested what would really happen once the war was over and men attempted to dominate again.

The editors of The Masses had never been totally in agreement about how political its art work should be, and not all of the illustrations were as didactic as some of those I've mentioned. John Sloan's "The Return from Toil" is simply a picture of a group of tidily dressed working-class girls walking arm-in-arm and seemingly having a good time. And the same artist's "The Bachelor Girl" can be taken as a positive statement about a woman living independently, though that may be a form of social comment, not all of society thinking it right and proper that women should be able to act in that way. With regard to illustrations that didn't fit into the political category there was a mocking little rhyme in circulation:

They draw nude women for The Masses
Thick, fat, ungainly lasses -
How does that help the working classes?

But it's undeniable that social and political commentary was a priority for most of the artists, as it was for the writers, and once America entered the First World War in 1917 trouble was almost inevitable. Draconian laws restricting free speech came into force and were cited by the Post Office as the reason for refusing to deliver copies of The Masses to subscribers and that added to the problems it had been having for some time with distributors who refused to place it on bookstalls because of its anti-war sentiments. Some of its contributors (George Bellows was one of them) deserted the magazine. And then the Government decided to prosecute some of the editors for allegedly conspiring to obstruct recruitment and enlistment in the armed forces. Two trials took place and both resulted in hung juries. Art Young was the one artist to appear in court, along with the writers Max Eastman and Floyd Dell, and even though they walked free the magazine was effectively at an end.

As I mentioned earlier, it's the illustrations in The Masses that have survived best. Just look at the Robert Minor drawing on the cover of Rachel Schreiber's book. It's called "Pittsburgh," and is a comment on the use of militia to suppress a strike. A worker is impaled on the bayonet of a rifle held by a lunging militiaman, and Schreiber refers to the "forceful crayon strokes and deep contrasts between the dense black marks and the white page." Its power is still evident. She also describes it as a "striking example of the dynamic, powerful images of the muscular male workers that had become standard fare by the time of its publication in The Masses in August, 1916," so it helps support her general thesis about the "workings of gender and the role of images in activist practices" early in the 20th Century. She presents her case efficiently, though at times I couldn't help thinking that, given the period they lived in, the artists couldn't help portraying men and women, and their respective roles in society, in certain ways. Hutchins Hapgood, a writer who shared many of the same interests with the writers and artists of The Masses (see his Types From City Streets, with lively illustrations by Glenn O. Coleman, an artist associated with the Ashcan group) later wrote an autobiography called A Victorian in the Modern World, and that title perhaps points to the crux of the problem, which was that they were living at a time when old and new values were often in competition for the attention of creative people and this led to inevitable contradictions in their attitudes and activities.

Gender and Activism in a Little Magazine is a fascinating book and is largely free of the worst forms of academic jargon. Rachel Schreiber has not tried to tell the whole story of the rise and fall of The Masses, and though she does sketch in the backgrounds of the leading artists who contributed to the magazine it is necessary to turn to other books for information about their activities and those of more artists who are referred to. Her lengthy bibliography will easily provide the relevant information. I ought to add that the book is well illustrated throughout.