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On West 13th Street, A Journal Founded By Transcendentalists, That Hit “Like An Atom Bomb”

152 West 13th Street. Photo by Nick Birns

Not many people remember it today, but The Dial, one of the most influential literary magazines of its time, was housed at 152 West 13th Street, and published some of the most groundbreaking work of the 20th century, including The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot (September 26, 1888 – January 4, 1965). The building, built in 1846, became home to The Dial in 1919. Despite the magazine’s tumultuous life of multiple incarnations, the dreams of its founder Ralph Waldo Emerson that the magazine would change the landscape of thought and literature did in many ways come true.

Emerson and his cadre of Transcendentalists founded The Dial 1840. It was hailed by the New-York Weekly Tribune as the “most original and thoughtful periodical ever published in this country.” The magazine failed financially and ceased publication in 1844. It was resuscitated for one year in 1860, then again in 1888 in Chicago, where it also failed. The magazine was then brought back to New York in 1919 when Scofield Thayer and Dr. James Sibley Watson. Jr. re-established it as a literary magazine, publishing influential artwork, poetry, and fiction, including T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land in its November 1922 issue.

The Dial was mentioned in the Designation Report  for the South Village Historic District:

After World War I, Greenwich Village attracted a group of professional writers, many well-educated, although disenchanted and frustrated with American society and looking for a place that was different physically and intellectually. As opposed to the optimism of the earlier Village radicals, these people took pacifistic positions because of their experiences in war and they were generally opposed to all authority, rather than supporting a particular school of thought. Professional writers, their books, poems, and magazine articles in journals such as Vanity Fair, The New Republic, and The Dial

In 1840, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote of The Dial that it should be a “Journal in a new spirit.” He wrote, “I wish we might make a Journal so broad & great in its survey that it should lead the opinion of this generation on every great interest & read the law on property, government, education, as well as on art, letters, & religion. A great Journal people must read.”

It was with this spirit that The Dial was founded and taken up at each new incarnation, to bring literature, criticism, and groundbreaking ideas to the world. From the 1880s to 1919 it was revived as a political review and literary criticism magazine. From 1920 to 1929 it was an influential outlet for modernist literature in English.

The Dial, November 1922, featuring Eliot’s The Waste Land

T.S. Eliot, who was the London correspondent for The Dial and Harvard buddy of co-editor Scofield Thayer, came quite close to refusing to let The Dial publish his poem The Waste Land. He believed that he deserved more than the $150 fee for it, given the high profile of his work and the chatter that particular poem inspired – both positive and negative. In his negotiations for publication, it was agreed that he would also be awarded the magazine’s Dial Award for “service to letters,” which Eliot gladly accepted along with a $2,000 prize. He was the second person to receive the award; the first was Sherwood Anderson.

Commenting on the impact of the Waste Land, the poet William Carlos Williams wrote: “It wiped out our world as if an atom bomb had been dropped upon it and our brave sallies into the unknown were turned to dust.”

Critics also had their fun with the Waste Land. Writer and publisher John C. Farrar wrote: “It is only proper to mention ‘The Wasteland’ [sic] by T. S. Eliot in The Dial. Mr. Eliot has received this year’s prize award from that magazine and is rapidly gaining what might almost be called a “cult” of adorers among the intellectuals. I hesitate to recommend any poem which I am incapable of understanding. In this class falls ‘The Wasteland.’”

Other recipients of the Dial Award included William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound, e.e. cummings, and Marianne Moore.


Alyse Gregory. Photo courtesy Hilary Henderson

When Thayer and Watson stepped down as co-editors of the magazine, literati and suffragette Alyse Gregory took over as editor. She reminisced about The Dial’s offices in the Village in her book, “The Day is Gone,” writing: “The top floor of the magazine was given up to a dining room where the contributors could meet for a meal when they pleased, and where eminent authors and artists visiting New York were entertained for dinner.” Alyse worked for The Dial from 1923 till 1925, when she handed the magazine off to Dial Award winner, poet, critic, New York baseball enthusiast, and Greenwich Village homebody Marianne Moore. Moore carried the magazine until 1929 when it shut its doors for the (as yet) final time. In 1924, the co-editors Thayer and Watson worked with Marianne Moore to publish her book “Observations,” and awarded her the Dial Award for that work.


Marianne Moore at The Dial, courtesy of Yale University

Moore’s eye for detail, imperious skill as a reader and writer, and delight in new ideas earned her a strong reputation at The Dial. She worked with accomplished writers including Gertrude Stein, Hart Crane, and Archibald MacLeish. In the years Moore acted as editor, The Dial published some of the most significant poems of the century, including Hart Crane’s “To Brooklyn Bridge,” and segments from William Carlos Williams’ Patterson, and Ezra Pound’s Cantos. 

“The Waste Land” continues to be studied by those who love it and those who are unable to understand it, hailed as one of the most important modernist poems of the 20th century. The Dial’s papers are archived at Yale University and are available in segments online here, here, and here. And 152 West 13th Street underwent modernizing renovations in 2016 and hit the market for $15 million




One response to “On West 13th Street, A Journal Founded By Transcendentalists, That Hit “Like An Atom Bomb”

  1. What a terrific piece. Thanks for publishing it. You are right that the Dial and Thayer were largely forgotten, and I wrote Thayer’s biography (https://www.amazon.com/Tortured-Life-Scofield-Thayer/dp/0813049261) with the aim of giving him the merit he deserved, The book has many scenes in the Village. You might also be interested in knowing that the Met will mount an exhibit of works from Thayer’s art collection next year.

    Best wishes,

    Jim Dempsey

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