The socio-political and economic turmoil of the early twentieth century transformed American society. Between the conclusion of the Civil War and the end of the First World War, the country went from being a predominantly rural farming society to an urban industrial one.
The beginning of the Great War brought about a rise in socialist activism in the United States, but also created division within the movement about the question of neutrality or involvement. The Russian Revolution both fueled and crushed left-wing sentiment, bringing about the infamous “Red Scare” late in the decade.
During the 1910s, Greenwich Village became a hotbed of socialist politics. The foundation of the magazine The Masses in 1911 reflected the political and cultural turbulence of its time. Changes in print media and the inclusion of graphic arts in their publications enabled radical political movements to get their message to an increasingly large audience.
Having arrived in New York from the Netherlands in 1905, Piet Vlag was both manager and cook of the basement restaurant at the newly established (1906) Rand School of Social Science in New York. Located in a brownstone at East 19th Street, the institution aimed at enhancing the education of workers and raise their class-consciousness (its governing body was the American Socialist Society). The school’s presence gave further impetus to the district’s growing attraction to students and artists. Rents were still cheap, studio space was available, and its ethnic diversity enhanced Greenwich’s appeal to bohemian newcomers.
A popular figure amongst the school’s staff and students, Vlag befriended various intellectuals in the school lunchroom with whom he discussed the idea of launching a magazine that would communicate a socialist message. He argued that quality graphics (satirical cartoons and illustrations) had to feature in such a journal. They were a necessary “luxury” that would hammer home the message.
This insistence on visual quality was undoubtedly part of the intellectual package that Vlag carried with him from the Netherlands where, inspired by William Morris and the British Arts and Crafts Movement, a dedicated “Applied Arts Movement” had come into being during the 1890s. Its representatives linked concepts of good design to notions of a decent (socialist) society.
The movement promoted the revival of craftsmanship, including that of typography and printing. Morris had set the example with the foundation of the Kelmscott Press aiming to restore the lost ideals of book design and inspire improved standards of publication at a time when the printed page was at its poorest. Piet Vlag brought similar ideals of harmonizing aesthetics with social justice to New York by offering a forum for political journalism, manifestos, cartoon art, poetry, and fiction.
Piet Vlag’s vision of an illustrated socialist monthly attracted a circle of young activists in Greenwich Village to The Masses. The journal dealt with a wide range of social issues such as freedom of speech, racial equality, women’s suffrage, sweatshop labor and militarism with investigative reporting by radical journalists such as John Reed and Louise Bryant, and essays by Piet Vlag himself and others.
The term “muckraker” was coined by President Theodore Roosevelt in a 1906 speech to describe the wave of writers and investigative journalists who waged a cultural campaign against abusive labor practices, corporate monopolies, and corrupt politicians at the turn of the century.
Greenwich turned itself into a Village of modernist muckrakers adding a novel aspect to the demand for change that would become a vital part of future social agitation – protest as celebration. The bitter “struggle” of old was replaced by a playful projection of alternative options. Public dissent combined a radical vision with a modernist display of color and design.
The Village fostered a “Paris type” salon culture where parties were thrown by socialites, patrons, and cultural radicals such as Mabel Dodge, Alyse Gregory, or Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. Socialists, anarchists, feminists, poets, painters and eccentrics met at these social get-togethers in a festival of subcultures. The magazine found a financial backer in Amos Pinchot, a wealthy lawyer and reformer with an interest in civil liberties, labor problems, government, and politics.
Piet Vlag’s dream of a cooperatively organized magazine by which contributors shared in its management never functioned properly and after about a year and a half The Masses floundered. Whilst the disillusioned founder left for Florida, the journal’s tiny staff of contributors, which included the artist John French Sloan, the cartoonist Art Young, and the poet Louis Untermeyer, held an emergency session to rescue The Masses. It was Young’s idea to ask Max Eastman, a former graduate student and instructor in philosophy at Columbia University, to take on the editorship of The Masses.
Prince of Greenwich Village
The son of two ministers at the Park Church in Elmira (founded by Thomas Beecher, the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe), Max Forrester Eastman had been raised in an enlightened atmosphere. As his mother was the first woman to be ordained a Congregational minister in New York State, young Eastman found himself in sympathy with the aims of suffragists and other reform movements of the day.
Although there was no remuneration, Eastman accepted the offer and the gamble paid off. Through this, his first influential platform, he built a reputation as being one of America’s leading radical thinkers. A handsome Adonis, he went through several marriages and affairs and was referred to as the Prince of Greenwich Village.
Eastman invited Floyd Dell, an aspiring novelist and recent arrival in Greenwich Village, to act as his associate editor. The latter started work as a freelance journalist in Chicago and had just published his first book titled Women as World Builders. Under this editorial team, the magazine published poems, stories, and political commentary by writers such as Sherwood Anderson, Carl Sandburg, Upton Sinclair, John Reed, and Louis Untermeyer.
John French Sloan, co-founder of New York’s Ashcan School of painting, was appointed art editor of the journal and held that position for a little over three years until January 1916. Under his inspiring direction, ample space was given to the visual arts with an array of political cartoons and striking illustrations and covers.
Within months of his arrival, Eastman had revamped the magazine and increased its circulation. Based from 1913 to 1917 at 91 Greenwich Avenue (in a building that has since been demolished), The Masses with its blend of radical politics and modernist aesthetics was labelled the “most dangerous magazine in America.”
Piet Vlag’s heavy layout was replaced by John Sloan’s elegant design with bold headlines, wide margins, and large drawings. Much like the modernists in Central Europe who spurned archaic Germanic lettering, he replaced the clogged format with lean typography, the headlines different in size but not in font.
Poems, short stories, cartoons were displayed as discrete pieces rather than subordinated to a dominant ‘message.’ Advertising was reduced to a minimum. Eastman and associates turned The Masses into the flagship journal of Greenwich Village, New York’s burgeoning artistic community.
In his first editorial, Eastman stressed that the magazine was “owned and published cooperatively by its editors. It has no dividends to pay, and nobody is trying to make money out of it.” Its authors directed their fire against intellectual rigidity and dogma. The ultimate editorial policy of the journal “is to do as it pleases and conciliate nobody, not even its readers.” Not surprisingly, The Masses found itself regularly entangled in libel lawsuits brought by major corporations, including a long running dispute with the Associated Press. It did the journal’s reputation no harm.
During Eastman’s tenure the magazine followed a radical socialist policy and also championed feminist activism from the fight for women’s suffrage to birth control. As Eastman announced in one of his early editorials, the “awakening and liberation of woman is a revolution in the very process of life.” Village feminism and the related free love movement defied restrictive social norms by challenging double standards of sexual morality. The editors regularly flouted puritanism, publishing erotic verse by women poets and printing ads for books on female sexuality.
Shut Down & Trials
Maurice Becker had been contributing illustrations to The Masses since 1911. Born into a Jewish family in Nizhni-Novgorod, the family had moved from Russia to the United States in 1892 and settled in the Jewish community of New York’s Lower East Side. In 1918 Becker became a conscientious objector to American participation in the war and fled to Mexico to avoid the draft. Upon his return in 1919 he was arrested and sentenced to twenty-five years of hard labor of which he served four months at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, prior to commutation of his punishment.
The war divided the Village community. Max Eastman believed that the First World War had been caused by the imperialist competitive system and he agreed with John Reed who reported the conflict for The Masses that America must remain neutral. Those amongst the journal’s contributors who argued that the nation should join the Allies in the battle against the Central Powers were in a minority. One of those was Upton Sinclair. Failing to convince fellow comrades, he resigned from the Socialist Party and ceased to contribute to The Masses.
The magazine’s anti-war stance would lead to its demise. After America declared war, the editors came under pressure to change its policy but refused to do so. Invoking the Espionage Act, the government barred the magazine from being dispersed. In July 1917 the Postmaster General revoked its mailing permit. Publication of The Masses ceased at the end of that year.
In 1918 Eastman and several other contributors were accused of undermining the war effort and twice stood trial. Both trials produced hung juries. Undeterred, Max then founded The Liberator, another radical journal of politics, art and literature, which was based at West 13th Street.
Artists and intellectuals who gathered in the 1910s in Greenwich Village celebrated creative individuality over social adjustment, racial diversity over middle-class respectability, dissent over conformity, improvisation over expertise, and innovation over tradition. Although the magazine only ran for six years, The Masses both reflected and inspired that ‘rebellious’ spirit. It shaped Greenwich Village’s liberal character for many generations to come. Its call for civil rights and democratic participation for all, regardless of race, class or gender, helped those who sought to re-define American culture as pluralistic and cosmopolitan.
Request: Very little is known about Piet Vlag. If you have sources or other information about his life, please leave us a comment below.
Illustrations, from above: Piet Vlag drawing (1911), part of a collection of images from The Masses, Volume 1, Number 1; advertisement for the Rand School Restaurant in the first issue of The Masses, January 1911; first issue of The Masses, January 1911; Max Eastman. (Library of Congress); The Masses magazine cover by Frank Walts, February 1915; and The Masses magazine cover by Frank Walts, February 1916.