A LOT OF FOLKS BELIEVED THE
only part of the Constitution Floyd Dell liked was the First Amendment. But as Dell found out the hard way, the First Amendment doesn't pay the rent.
Dell, who would have been 100 years old today, was the only literary radical tried for sedition who eventually found being a minor Washington bureaucrat the ne plus ultra of life.
To literary historians, the remarkable things about the Illinois-born writer were his iconoclastic book reviews, which fueled the Chicago literary renaissance, and his Greenwich Village days, when he helped circle wagons of wit around free love, socialism and vino. Not to mention his dalliances with poet Edna St. Vincent Millay and others.
In 1917, one of Dell's pacifist anti-draft screeds got the left-wing monthly, The Masses, banned from the mails. Its editors, Dell included, were indicted. Two trials resulted in hung juries. Then, in the 1920s, he artfully re-created his life in a series of novels. The first, Moon-Calf, sold out 24 hours after Heywood Broun told the cognoscenti to buy it.
Dell got married, had two sons and published 11 novels before the wind went out of his literary sails. A publisher rejected his 12th novel. He fled to a New Hampshire farm, not at all well.
Friends didn't give up on him. In 1935, they got him a job in Washington working for the Works Progress Administration. He remained on Uncle Sam's payroll until 1947.
Jottings gleaned from the Dell Papers at the Newberry Library in Chicago reveal those days of triumphant normality.
"My name is now on the payroll," he said in a note dashed off to his wife, who was still in New Hampshire, "and I will receive a check in due course -- hurray! And I have just declined to be interviewed by the AP about anything whatever."
Soon he was hard at work on a report. Having novels published was nice, but "what thrill, after that, is left to an author? Of course, for some chaps, there are Pulitzer prizes and Nobel prizes -- which, however, it is said, usually cause nervous prostration in the recipient . . . But there is another thrill which comes from having a report published by the government."
Dell's pride and joy was "The Emergency Relief Program of the F.E.R.A." Of course he had trouble with his boss. "Hard to do any work," he wrote in his diary, "when we have to deal with a Messianic Megalomaniac."
But mentally, Dell was doing much better. "I have recovered fully from the neurotic and physical bad health I was in before I came here," he noted in 1939. "I seem to adjust to this kind of job remarkably well."
To Washington's gain, he did not completely forsake the literary life. His son Chris remembers frequent parties at their house in Mount Pleasant, with his father capping the evenings by reciting the poems of Millay.