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Grayson Baker
Grayson Baker

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From 1910 until 1920 Floyd Dell was a major force in American literature, becoming a bellwether of literary experimentation. In Chicago he helped to fashion a midwestern resurgence of writing; later, in New York, he was at the center of the Provincetown Players who discovered Eugene O'Neill and invented modern American drama.Unfortunately for Dell, his fate for half a century has been to languish and be forgotten. Quem di diligunt adulescens moritur. His friends died young, thereby insuring their fame: John Reed died during the Russian Revolution, George Cook reached his apotheosis on the edge of Mount Olympus in Greece, and Randolph Bourne perished of disease. Dell died in 1969, virtually forgotten, meriting but a few seconds in Warren Beatty's recent movie production of Reds (1981).Dell's family exerted the strongest influence on his writing. He was born in Barry, Illinois, in 1887, the youngest son in a family of three brothers and a sister. His father, Anthony Dell, was an impecunious butcher who moved his family to the old river town of Quincy. It was there that Dell first felt the shame of being poor: as the family's fortunes plummeted, the bric-a-brac table in the kitchen containing mementoes of earlier times became for him a symbol of lost respectability.1 In 1903 the family moved again, this time upriver to Davenport, Iowa. His mother, Kate Crone Dell, had been a country schoolteacher, and she encouraged her son to write. His father was a Civil War veteran whose tenuous connection to the Republican party helped his son get a newspaper job and protected the son after Dell had publicly joined the local Socialist party.Although Dell left Iowa in 1908, he returned to Davenport on numerous occasions. The death of his parents in the early 1920s seemed to shatter his career and he left for Europe in 1925 in order to write his next book. Suffering apparent psychosomatic illness, he returned to New York City in a third-class tourist liner. For "ten weeks he had three acute attacks of gastritis" while failing to find inspiration, so he "decided to come home and write his book in Greenwich Village.2 He spent the next decade floundering about as he tried to find a new literary niche.This caricature of Floyd Dell is a drawing by William Gropper which appeared in Bookman for March 1923.Consciously Dell created a persona of "the young rebel in Davenport," a public image which he maintained for 30 years. His pattern of rebelling began in the summer of 1904 when he decided to drop out of Davenport High School. "I had made up my mind, and then had stopped thinking about it; I had not said anything to my mother, because I did not want her to feel bad about it in prospect . . . I announced it with such a casual decisiveness that nobody said anything, except my mother, who said softly, 'I'm sorry.'"3 His rejection of public education was not unusual; many of his Davenport High School classmates "dropped out," but not his contemporaries who became writers after attending college. Dell later recalled that

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