The Tortured Life of Scofield Thayer
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“For nearly a century, Scofield Thayer has remained a somewhat shadowy figure in the history of modernism. But James Dempsey has at last illuminated Thayer’s passionate, intense, and agonizing story.”—Barry Ahearn, editor of The Correspondence of William Carlos Williams and Louis Zukofsky
“As no other book has done before, The Tortured Life of Scofield Thayer places Thayer’s contribution to modernism as editor of The Dial in the context of his personal struggles to forge a new aesthetic and to understand his own psychology and the life of his times.”—Michael Webster, author of Reading Visual Poetry after Futurism
Regarded as a titanic artistic and aesthetic achievement, the influential literary magazine The Dial published most of the great modernist writers, artists, and critics of its day. As publisher and editor of The Dial from 1920 to 1926, Scofield Thayer was gatekeeper and guide for the movement. His editorial curation introduced the ideas of literary modernism to America and gave American artists a new audience in Europe.
In The Tortured Life of Scofield Thayer, James Dempsey looks beyond the public figure best known for publishing the work of William Butler Yeats, T. S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, E.E. Cummings, and Marianne Moore to reveal a paradoxical man fraught with indecisions and insatiable appetites, and deeply conflicted about the artistic movement to which he was benefactor and patron. Thayer suffered from schizophrenia and faded from public life upon his resignation from The Dial. His struggle with mental illness and his controversial personal life led his guardians to prohibit anything of a personal nature from appearing in previous biographies. The story of Thayer’s unmoored and peripatetic life, which in many ways mirrored the cosmopolitan rootlessness of modernism, has never been fully told until now.
of psychotherapy, and in 1921 he moved to Vienna for two years to become a patient of Freud’s. For Thayer, psychoanalysis was very much an active, engaged practice. He challenged his therapists, including Freud, quizzing them on the very premises of their ideas and methods. Of course, this led to further inner conflict, for in challenging these ideas, Thayer was questioning what could potentially cure him. And if the analysand does not believe the process has any healing powers, what can be the
over Elaine, filling pages of his notebooks with his feelings toward her and producing many passionate love poems. By February 1919, Cummings had been demobilized after a short stateside stint in the army and had returned to New York, where he was living the bohemian life with his friend William Slater Brown. One morning, having no coal to heat the apartment, he tried but was unable to contact any coal merchants, and so threw himself upon Elaine’s largesse. He describes the adventure in a letter
good deal in 1923, going from Vienna to Paris to buy paint- 125 126 The Tortured Life of Scofield Thayer ings, returning to Vienna, traveling to London for further purchases, and then in August returning finally to the United Sates and to his beloved Edgartown. Much of his time in Europe during this year was dedicated to producing the Living Art folio, a labor-intensive endeavor that required him to select and buy the works he needed for reproduction, to send the works on to America before
Institute, and a report from the horticultural society. Such were the arrivé fetishes of this growing and diverse industrial city.3 Mayor Dodge’s speech was peppered with references to the city’s Puritan roots and the industrious character of a people who had hacked civilization from the wilderness: “The history of Worcester,” he orated, “as town and city, is replete with incidents showing a community wise, conservative but progressive in business and public affairs, loyal to the traditions of
the magazine he had edited and for which he continued to write. It was not until the September issue, however, nine gestatory months after the initial criticism, that the Dial (probably through Watson) responded, rather weakly, in its “Comment” section, pettifogging the definition of what makes a writer “interesting” and arguing that the Dial published writing rather than writers. The New Republic fired back once more, and the Dial remained silent. As a literary feud, it was sadly (or perhaps