I myself detest all Modern Art

Anne Diebel

  • The Tortured Life of Scofield Thayer by James Dempsey
    Florida, 240 pp, £32.50, February 2014, ISBN 978 0 8130 4926 7

‘All Thayer has is money,’ Sherwood Anderson wrote to Waldo Frank in 1919 about the man who’d just become co-owner and editor of the Dial. Anderson advised Frank to demand a good price for his work: if Thayer ‘does not surrender the money, he is N.G. to anyone’. Scofield Thayer surrendered a lot of money, lavishing it on the artists he admired, and on many he didn’t, including his former friend T.S. Eliot. Thayer found The Waste Land ‘disappointing’, yet he was its American publisher and gave Eliot the Dial Award, which was worth $2000, the same as his annual salary at the bank. Thayer’s manner could be remote and imperious, but Freud, who analysed him, said he had a ‘most gentle heart’. He was willing to reward talent even when a work didn’t take his fancy, and he rarely tried to take the credit for other people’s success. A friend described Thayer’s commitment to art as so earnest that he ‘remained insulated from the ironical comments about him’, yet he exercised his own tastemaking power with a certain irony – as when he bet Amy Lowell $100 that E.E. Cummings’s work would be seen as part of the canon by 2 June 1935.

Thayer has remained a minor figure in the history of modernism partly because he did so little to promote himself. Before he took over the Dial, he wrote James Joyce a cheque for $700; it came to Joyce from his publisher with a note that read: ‘Please don’t imagine that America is full of rich young men of that kind!’ Thayer wasn’t modest, but he was discreet, especially compared to the most prominent New York salonnier of the 1920s, Carl Van Vechten, who shamelessly made sure his name was associated with those he helped. Thayer had some literary ability – he wrote the Dial’s wry unsigned ‘Comment’ column, and poetry that Marianne Moore praised as ‘reflective, bi-visioned and rather wilfully unconventional’ – but his most important work was as a patron, not a promoter. He left the hawking to people like Ezra Pound, ‘that agitated agitator’, ‘official barker outside the tent – or is it a pagoda? – of imagism et al’.

In The Tortured Life of Scofield Thayer, James Dempsey makes a persuasive case for placing Thayer at the centre of modernism. He spent much of the 1920s running a magazine that made no money, buying art all over Europe, and during a two-year stay in Vienna paying handsomely for sessions with Freud. All the while, he kept a flat on Washington Square and supported his estranged wife, Elaine Orr, as well as the child she had with Cummings (at the time Nancy was born, Thayer and Elaine lived separately; they divorced two years later). But Thayer was not entirely at home in the modernist world. As Dempsey writes, he was a ‘curious blend of the Victorian and the libertine’. He was unflaggingly committed to the Dial, which he co-owned from 1919 to 1929 and edited from 1919 to 1926, and quickly established as one of the leading venues for avant-garde writers and artists, but the magazine didn’t reflect his own taste: ‘Although I am the editor of it,’ he wrote in 1925, at the height of the Dial’s fame, ‘no one who knew me would guess this fact … I myself detest all Modern Art.’

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