Commentary Magazine


The Way It Was, by Harold Loeb

The Expatriate Twenties
The Way It Was.
by Harold Loeb.
Criterion. 310 pp. $5.95.

 

This sober, unintentionally funny record of a strange literary career might have been called “Portrait of the Artist as a Shlimazl.” Its author, Harold Loeb, was a leading spirit in the expatriate literary activities of the 1920’s. A pleasant, conscientious, well-meaning heir to a modest fortune, he decided one day to become a man of letters, mainly because he liked the company of writers. In return, writers liked having him pay their bills.

Loeb first supported an avant-garde bookstore in New York. He was stimulated by his more literary customers but appalled by his business associates, who cared little about selling books. So, he gave up the store and started an arty little magazine, Broom, which was printed in Europe for economy’s sake. He hired a poet, Alfred Kreymborg, to help him. When his new associate insisted on a contract, Loeb wondered why; he may have found out later, when he paid the poet five hundred dollars to go away. A friend of Kreymborg’s wife had been hired as a secretary; in ten days of Loeb’s absence she did not type a single letter, and so was fired. Loeb felt his greatest disappointment when he found a letter to Kreymborg from the scenic designer Gordon Craig, who put Loeb in the inferior category of “work people” and told Kreymborg “how to manipulate” his wealthy backer.

Broom survived these trials, and Loeb continued to put up with delayed deliveries in America, embarrassing misprints (including an advertisement for “inferior decoration”), his family’s skepticism, and various financial hazards. His American representative proved incompetent and was replaced by an efficient, invaluable woman—who promptly resigned when Broom published Gertrude Stein’s work. One of his contributors, Gorham Munson, denounced Loeb by letter at a Broom meeting in New York, and later had a fist fight with Loeb’s friend and fellow editor, Matthew Josephson. When Loeb submitted some of his fiction to Broom, Josephson wrote him that it was not up to the standard that they had set by publishing Dostoevsky and Appollinaire. Loeb comments, with unusual bitterness: “I did not know why Matty had failed to note that my work fell short of Melville and Proust.”

At last, Loeb began to lose a little of his pleasure among the bohemians. Even in New York, he had been startled when his partner in the bookstore was suddenly deserted by her husband. In Paris, he found it difficult to maintain sang froid when a naked woman appeared at a costume ball. (He gallantly danced with her to cover her embarrassment.) Insults and financial loss were the price he paid for the company he preferred: “Despite their vanity, their humbleness, their compensatory egotism, their volatility, their meanness, and their ridiculous generosity, they were in my opinion the only people fit to associate with.”

Dismayed by some of the dubious types who turned to literature, Loeb was delighted that so hearty and masculine a fellow as Ernest Hemingway had become a writer. He found a publisher for Hemingway’s first book, only to learn that others were claiming to have performed this favor. Still, he and Hem were friends, and so he took his latest mistress, Duff, and another of her lovers to join Hemingway in Spain. Loeb was vaguely aware of some hanky panky between Duff and Hem, but he gained the ultimate reward of friendship when Hem immortalized Loeb and Duff as Robert Cohn and Lady Brett Ashley in The Sun Also Rises.

Loeb comes off a little better in his own book than in Hemingway’s. An obvious romantic in both accounts, he is much less pugnacious and slightly more flexible than Robert Cohn, but it is easy to understand how his untiring patience must have gotten on Hemingway’s. nerves. Perhaps Hemingway made Cohn an expert boxer (which Loeb was not) in order to provide some outlet for Loeb’s smoldering hostility. But this is the end of Loeb’s literary odyssey; his mighty efforts earned him permanent fame as the original of the obnoxious young man who is told: “Take that sad Jewish face away.”

From the first, Loeb had harbored profound suspicion of his arty friends. Describing his early, troubled loyalty to art, he tells us that he had “applauded Little Theatre productions even when it hurt.” He felt that the iconoclasts “were more intolerant in their anti-traditionalism than their parents had been in their traditions,” and he recognized his deep kinship with his parents, if not with their traditions. A strange bohemian indeed, he preserved close ties with his family in America. At one point, his cousin Edmond remarked that Broom was “a most interesting little endeavor” and requested some interpretation of a poem by a young man who had just married into the family. Loeb interpreted the poem, and Edmond, thoroughly satisfied, passed his analysis on to Uncle Simon. This “affectionate uncle” considered backing Broom, but withdrew. A few years later, however, Uncle Simon initiated the Guggenheim awards for promising young writers.

Editing Broom cost Loeb both personal and financial embarrassment; it made enemies and lost friends. Was it all worthwhile? He did have the satisfaction of putting out the handsomest and one of the best little magazines, which published early work by E. E. Cummings, Hart Crane, Marianne Moore, Wallace Stevens, and William Carlos Williams. All this would have been quite satisfying if Loeb had liked these writers, but apparently he never really did. His real enthusiasms are for such relatively conventional figures as James Stephens and Gilbert Cannan.

Furthermore, the most typical contributors to Broom were directly opposed to the one doctrine which Loeb himself preached—admiration for America’s technology and popular arts. Loeb liked American factories, movies, and jazz. He shared his interest in the popular arts with Cummings and Gilbert Seldes, but, unlike them, he preferred to go into print on technology, arguing that the American worker was much better off than his European counterpart and that the expatriates’ hostility to their native land was based on ignorance. Stephens and Cannan agreed with him, but few of his other literary friends did. Broom, devoted mainly to expatriate American writing and to European art, published little to support Loeb’s position except his own occasional articles. Loeb suspected that Gordon Craig’s thumb-to-nose cover drawing was aimed at him. Duff once phrased the obvious question: “Why do you sponsor one kind of thing and praise another?” She got an ineffective answer: “Broom, I explained, was a highbrow magazine that published individual expressions. But I had wanted our intellectuals to face the fact that many popular expressions were wonderful too in their way.” It is far from surprising that Loeb returned to America—to become a leading economist, an able student of American business, and an interpreter of technocracy.

Broom was a superior little magazine, and Loeb deserves credit for sponsoring it. No other little magazine approached it in the field of elegant reproductions of new art. It was also strong on poetry, but Loeb expresses so little interest in verse that I suspect he took his advisers’ counsel in selecting it. Much of its fiction was rather drab; most of the contributors of new fiction are now entirely forgotten. Fiction, perhaps significantly, was Loeb’s specialty. He was more moved by the novelists Stephens and Cannan than by any other writers whom he names. He himself turned novelist, proclaiming: “Anyone can write a novel.” (He later added: “I didn’t mean anyone could write a good novel.”)

We have grounds for believing that Loeb’s best contribution was managerial rather than editorial. Defending his publication of Gertrude Stein, he suggests that he was not very happy as an editor: “Certainly most of Stein was ‘blah!’ Most of what was being written was not good, either.” Then what kept Broom going all those years? A certain amount of taste backed by conviction; a certain amount of plain, iron stubbornness; and a great abundance of romanticism flying in the face of experience.

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