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Dell, Floyd James
(June 28, 1887–July 23, 1969)

–author—was born in Barry, Illinois, to Anthony and Kate (Crone) Dell. Anthony struggled and failed throughout Floyd's childhood to regain the same financial stability he had enjoyed before the Panic of 1873. That early experience of poverty was a major influence on Floyd Dell's development as a writer.

    In 1899 the Dell family moved to Quincy, Illinois, where Floyd attended high school. In 1903 the family left Quincy for Davenport, Iowa, and a richer cultural life than that of Barry or Quincy. At the Davenport Public Library, Dell immersed himself in the works of the English poets. In 1904 his first published poem, "Memorial," appeared in the Davenport Times. He subsequently published several poems in Davenport newspapers and sold four of his poems to national magazines.

    In 1904 Dell dropped out of high school to work in a candy factory but soon was fired; the following summer he began working at the Times as a cub reporter. Dell flourished as a writer partly because his mentor, librarian Marilla Freeman, foresaw a literary future for him and worked to convince him and others of his promise. He also became acquainted with authors George Cram Cook, Arthur Davi son Ficke, Harry Hansen, and Susan Glaspell, who became his companions in Davenport, Chicago, and New York.

    Dell became active in Davenport's Socialist Party, serving on its program committee and as financial secretary and delegate to the state convention. In January 1906 Dell began contributing articles to the local socialist magazine, Tri-City Worker; in August he became editor and published more than a dozen muckraking articles before the magazine ceased publication that October. The five years that Dell spent in Davenport helped to shape the leftist writer and social activist that the rest of the world soon came to know. His first novel, Moon-Calf (1920), demonstrates the significance of his time in Davenport; much of the story is set in the fictional town of Port Royal, modeled on Davenport.

    In 1909 Dell moved to Chicago and became a well-known critic, literary editor, and leading figure of the Chicago Renaissance. In that same year Dell married Margery Currey, but their marriage ended after four years. From 1909 to 1913 Dell wrote for the Friday Literary Review, a supplement of the Chicago Evening Post; in 1911 he became editor and hired George Cram Cook as assistant editor. In the fall of 1913, after a disagreement with the Post, Dell left for Greenwich Village.

    That December Dell became an editor of the radical magazine Masses, where he expressed his political and social opinions through essays, book reviews, and short stories. On April 15, 1918, Dell, with four other Masses staffers, was indicted under the Wartime Espionage Act for hindering the war effort, but two trials ended in hung juries. After publication of the Masses was subsequently suppressed, Dell became editor of the Liberator, a socialist publication that continued until 1924. From 1914 to 1929 Dell was also a member of the board of editors for another socialist journal, the New Review.

    During that time Dell also wrote several plays for the Liberal Club, beginning with his play St. George in Greenwich Village. In November 1916 Dell's play King Arthur's Socks was presented by the Provincetown Players, which produced four of his plays.

    On February 8, 1919, Dell married B. Marie Gage. They bought a second home in Croton, New York, and moved in permanently in March 1921. They had two sons, Anthony and Christopher.

    After Moon-Calf, Dell published 10 more novels, but his first novel remained his most popular. In the mid 1920s Dell became disillusioned with the Socialist Party. Although he remained a liberal until his death, after the mid 1920s he no longer was associated with any radical party. In 1935 the Dells moved to Washington, D.C., where he took a job with the Federal Writers Project of the Works Progress Administration. He continued to write essays, reviews, and poetry, and he aided scholars with his personal reflections until his death in Bethesda, Maryland.
Sources Dell's autobiography, Homecoming (1933), provides an insightful perspective on early-20th-century Davenport. Robert Humphrey's Children of Fantasy: The First Rebels of Greenwich Village (1978) contains a chapter on Dell; Douglas Clayton's biography, Floyd Dell: The Life and Times of an American Rebel (1994), is also essential reading.
Contributor: Rebecca J. Gildernew