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English and Journalism
Floyd Dell (1887-1969)
By Bill Knight
Floyd Dell was a compelling character of extremes. A modest midwestern man, Dell also could be a swashbuckling celebrity of sorts in politics and the arts. Known widely in his time as an important journalist, critic and biographer, Dell also became a creative novelist, poet and playwright. He constantly resisted—and embraced—such contradictions.
Dell biographer Douglas Clayton in Floyd Dell: The Life and Times of an American Rebel, writes, “A pattern of commitment and independence, of cooperation and dissent was central to Floyd Dell’s life as a public intellectual.”
Dell had an internal impulse to reconcile opposing interests: socialism and bohemianism, public commitment and self-absorption, personal and political, cultural and social, carefree and careless.
Respected and reviled for his public stand on conscientious objections to the draft during World War I, Dell was to eventually work for the U.S. government—the government that decades earlier had indicted him for treason. Often tied to urban scenes in Chicago and New York, Dell drew heavily upon youthful ideals, experiences and roots in the Quad Cities, Quincy and Barry, Ill.
Barry is where Dell’s life (what he himself called a “dramatic pageant”) was composed—at least its rough draft.
A romantic/realistic “American Rebel” whose friends included radicals John Reed and Max Eastman, novelists Upton Sinclair and Theodore Dreiser, Catholic activist/socialist Dorothy Day and poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, Dell never fully escaped the influences of his family—parents Anthony and Kate Crone Dell, brothers Harry and Charles and sister Cora—and the impact of his years here, a big part of what he called “the painful but happily-ending tragic-comedy of my childhood and adolescence.”
Such remarks and observations tempt us to paint Dell as a paradox. But however real the conflict Dell felt between his need to rebel and his wish for order, he was not a contradiction, but a completeness. He didn't create on the political Left or the artistic extreme as much as express the American whole.
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