The Challenges of Supporting Challenging Arts

An article in The Awl, centered around a lost e. e. cummings poem which was recently discovered buried in a pile of papers, is a reflection on the life of the poet and his friend and supporter Scofield Thayer.  One portion of the article ties into the thoughts I expressed last week about the difference between “entertainment” and “art” and how much easier it is to sell the former than the latter.

While working as an editor at the magazine [The Dial], Thayer had tried to persuade the editorial staff to publish Cummings’ work, but they rejected the unorthodox experiments of the young poet… The poet Amy Lowell, a skeptic of both The Dial and Cummings’ work, bet Thayer $100 that Cummings would not ascend to the pantheon of American poets.

The Dial’s success came at a great cost to Thayer. The magazine never made a profit, and at one point he and Watson were supporting it to the tune of $100,000 a year…

Thayer also quickly found out that being forward thinking in matters of art was not without its dangers. He had to work tirelessly to ensure that the magazine did not fall afoul of John Sumner, the new head of The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, who was successfully prosecuting and closing magazines deemed to be politically radical or immoral. Modernism itself, being an import from Europe, was often conflated in the public mind with immorality, and the vice societies were as likely to prosecute artists and intellectuals as they were the purveyors of smut…

It’s not an exaggeration to say that The Dial made Cummings’ career.


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