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Wednesday, 18 June 2014

THE TORTURED LIFE OF SCOFIELD THAYER By James Dempsey

DIAL 'T' FOR THAYER
By Richard Carreño
[Writers Clearinghouse News Service]
As its editor, patron, and publisher, Scofield Thayer revamped the Dial, an early 20th century literary monthly based in New York, into what today's readers might recognise as a late 20th century version of The New Yorker -- on steroids. Not for the little old lady from Dubuque, nor, really, for the patrician salons of Boston, New York, and Philadelphia.
 
Thayer (1889-1982) himself was a wealthy, blue-blood (Scofield, PUL-lezze), born in the central Massachusetts mill town of Worcester. In the course six short years from 1920, Thayer harnessed bursts of inspiration and exasperation to interpret a then-burgeoning 'modernist' creativity (in poetry, literature, and art) to a growing urban, upper middle-brow readership. The Dial was a savvy, avant-garde periodical. But Thayer never walked on the wild side, inviting legal censorship.

James Dempsey
In one typical issue alone, his contributors included T.S. Eliot, John Dos Passos, George Santayana, D.H. Lawrence, Gilbert Seldes, William Butler Yeats, and Wallace Stevens. There was never a culture magazine quite like it before, nor arguably one since that could match Thayer's Dial for literary star-power and influence.
 
Thayer published then-controversial writers (including Ezra Pound); thought enough of James Joyce that he gifted him several thousand dollars in today's money; and regularly gave E.E. Cummings a literary platform. (And his blessing to bed is wife. Elaine Orr Thayer was an angelic-looking knock-out, who also liked to screw around).
Thayer walked away from the Dial in 1926, moving to Florida with his mother and without Elaine, whom, not surprisingly, he had already divorced. He was still only 37 years old.
 
There's a reason that James Dempsey titled his new biography of Thayer as The Tortured Life of Scofield Thayer (University Press of Florida, 2014). Despite his moneyed, well-born upbringing; schooling at Harvard; a beautiful wife (her again); and a well-respected, expensive, and sought-after modern art collection, Thayer's life was anything but care-free. He suffered from depression, was an occasional patient of Sigmund Freud (travelling to Vienna for consultations), and had a mother who called him 'Leo.' Go figure.
 
Oh, yeah, Ernest Hemingway also implied that Thayer was gay. (Maybe bisexual would have been closer to the truth. And a fondness for under-aged girls made for a perfect trifecta).
 
Thayer's Dial went heavy on art criticism. But not the kind and form of criticism that we're familiar with today.
 
In the '20s, European modern art, mostly French Impressionism and post-Impressionism, was still new to the United States. Picasso, Matisse, Soutine, Renoir, and Cézanne were then innovators whose works, when they were first exhibited in America, needed to be explained, analysed, and, even, defended. At the Dial, Thayer had appointed art critic Thomas Jewell Craven as his chief theorist.
 
Other art criticism, not fully embraced by Craven, was also taking flight, principally one known as the Scientific Aesthetic Method. Advanced by the educational guru John Dewey, the idea was that art was refracted through a prism of objectified values. Results on a canvas, then, did not reflect an artist's inner emotion. Nor, the artist's muse. Why a painting was created was subordinated to how it created. By established criteria.
 
That gobbledygook theory may be today be fully debunked, but in the '20s, Thayer had no choice but include such pronuncimentos in the pages of the Dial.
 
Thanks to this controversy in art critique -- and Dempsey's' vivid account of it -- one of most twisted, colourful, and compelling characters in Thayer's life is introduced: Step up Dr. Albert C. Barnes. Yes, that Albert Barnes. Collector extraordinaire.
 
While the Dial was soul-searching modern art, Barnes was buying it -- by the carload. The result, of course, was his vast collection, housed in the Barnes Foundation, then located in a Philadelphia suburb.
 
Barnes was also an Dewey acolyte.
 
As such, his role in the Thayer saga unfolds. Typically, it's all Barnes, all the time. The Philadelphian had worked his way up from a hardscrabble youth to become he fabulously wealthy owner of prescription medicine call Argyrol. Being rich, in his thinking, gave him license to fancy himself as a newly-minted critic, a la Dewey, and he finagled his way into Thayer's editorial circle as a Dial contributor.  Thayer soon enough realised that Barnes could not write, much less articulate his specious theories. Undaunted, Barnes then turned to a paid surrogate, Lawrence Buermeyer, a putative 'philosopher' who served as one of Barnes' hired-hands.
 
How Barnes attempted to subvert Craven's art critique is pure, unadulterated Barnes -- full of his guttersnipe, foul-mouthed insinuations. Even to what amounted to blackmail against Thayer.
 
Thanks to Dempsey's well-documented, comprehensive book, this tawdry episode in Thayer's life gets what could be its first airing. Barnes' mean-spirited cruelty is well known. But how he directed it against Thayer is less so. The Dial gets scant mention in The Devil and Dr. Barnes, a biography by Howard Greenfield; none, in Art Held Hostage, another major Barnes-related book, by John Anderson.
 
To be sure, Thayer was paranoid; he believed his mail was being read by unnamed 'enemies.' But apart from these fantasies, he had never met an actual one, much less one like Barnes. In the torment department, the King of Argyrol was a later-day Torquemada.
 
Dempsey is even-handed. He also documents an instance of Thayer's mean streak. In this case, Thayer directed that ire to his hometown of Worcester. Over the years, he had loaned many important art works to the Worcester Art Museum, a small but eminent fine arts institution. WAM had quite naturally expected to receive the works permanently upon Thayer's death. Instead, Thayer pulled the works from WAM, and had them packed off to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
 
Thayer died in obscurity in 1982. Only his hometown newspaper, the Worcester Telegram, ran an obit. His current Wikipedia entry is just two paragraphs.

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