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American Periodicals: A Journal of History, Criticism, and Bibliography 15.1 (2005) 56-73

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"Life is real and life is earnest":

Mike Gold, Claude McKay, and the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven

In the fall of 1921, after nine years as editor of The Masses and then The Liberator, Max Eastman decided to join the steady stream of American writers, artists, and intellectuals crossing the Atlantic for Europe. After considerable internal squabbling among The Liberator staff, control of the magazine was passed to Mike Gold and Claude McKay, who became Executive Editors beginning with the January 1922 number. Eastman suggests that he nominated Gold and McKay as counter-balances to each other: "Although I trusted Claude's political intelligence as well as his literary taste, I had no more faith in his ability to manage people than I had in Mike Gold's. They were both richly endowed with complexes, and moreover Claude looked upon Mike's tobacco-stained teeth, and his idea of 'printing doggerels from lumberjacks and stevedores and true revelations from chambermaids' as the opposite of a poised loyalty to art and the proletariat. It was indeed as a foil to Mike's emotional extremism that I had suggested Claude as co-editor. Their colleagueship did not last long."1

Seven months, as it turned out, and during that time, tensions at The Liberator had become impossible to ignore. Fractious arguments, sometimes bordering on physical violence, were common in the magazine's offices, and the overly aggressive Gold became a recurrent target in the pages of The Liberator for the taunts and barbs of his colleagues, who charged him with being boorish and doctrinaire. Gold responded to his detractors by characterizing them—particularly McKay—as effete aesthetes who valued art over the needs of the proletariat. Such tensions at The Liberator were clearly difficult for McKay and Gold to live through, but their contentiousness ultimately benefited the magazine, because together they published some of its most exciting issues. [End Page 56]

Gold's ironically entitled essay of April 1922, "Thoughts of a Great Thinker," offers us a good gauge of the magazine's tempestuous vitality during the Gold-McKay editorship. This portmanteau editorial, which covers everything from the publication of Harold Stearns's Civilization in the United States, by Thirty Americans, to the imprisonment of wobblies and the arrest of Gandhi, describes the Liberator office as "a vertiginous place" where partisans of revolution and defenders of poetry clash regularly. In an offhand aside, Gold describes McKay in lively conversation with one of the most recognizable figures of Greenwich Village, the Dadaist poet and artist, Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, and it is from this scene that my essay finds its genesis: "Ah, the Baroness Else Von Freytag-Loringhoven, with huge rings on her fingers, and her dog Sophie in her lap, is reciting her Dada poetry to Claude McKay in another room. The walls shake, the ceiling rocks, life is real and life is earnest!"2 In this passage, Gold, the child of Jewish immigrants, describes two foreign nationals—a German and a Jamaican—discussing avant-garde poetry in what was one of the most important centers of American modernism in the 1910s and 20s.

The constellation of people and ideas Gold describes is fascinating. Gold and McKay, who shared a similar commitment to Marxist politics, differed radically about the relationship of politics to both art and race. McKay and Freytag-Loringhoven, who arguably shared a more "poised loyalty to art" than Gold, differed radically in practice: Freytag-Loringhoven was an avant-gardist notorious for her attacks on the traditional forms and content of art, while McKay was a staunch practitioner of established poetic forms, most notably the sonnet. Freytag-Loringhoven and Gold were an even odder couple. About the only thing they would not have differed radically on was their well-known pugnacity; fisticuffs figure prominently in both of their biographies. What most fascinates me about Gold's scenario, however...


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