Skip to main content

Blood Too Bright: Floyd Dell Remembers Edna St. Vincent Millay


Blood Too Bright: Floyd Dell Remembers Edna St. Vincent Millay

Readers first may be drawn to this book by their interest in Edna St. Vincent Millay, but they also will be captivated by the intriguing story behind its inception as a family memoir project. Author Jerri Dell was eager to "fill in the gaps of stories" her grandmother had told her about her grandfather, Floyd Dell. The elder Dell had been an important member of the Greenwich Village Bohemian circle in the early 20th century, a writer and activist for progressive ideas who had known Millay and scores of other literary figures of the day. When the younger Dell started researching the archives at the Newberry Library, however, the project took on a much wider scope.

Delving into Floyd’s memoirs of his time with Millay, articles he wrote (published and unpublished), and hundreds of letters he penned to Millay's first biographer, Miriam Gurko, in the 1960s, Dell discovered that her grandfather had been "'one of the principal spokesmen for the artist-rebels' of his generation." Author and editor of the early 20th-century radical magazine, The Masses, and early champion and (not only friend but) lover of Millay, Floyd left a trove of papers that lent a fresh perspective not only on the poet but also on the literature, politics and progressive movements of his day, when Greenwich Village was on the cusp of becoming a mecca for writers, artists and activists. Selections from these make up the bulk of the book, providing an intimate record of Millay the person, and reviving the engaging voice and keen observations of Floyd Dell.

That brilliant voice is the real takeaway of this book, and the structure Dell adopts provides just enough background information before giving full rein to Floyd's writings. In the brief preface, she introduces us to the grandfather she knew, her original aim of writing a family biography, and the research that led her not only to the letters to Gurko but also to others to whom Floyd had written. These luminaries of the day included Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, H.L. Mencken, H.G. Wells, Julian Huxley and Sinclair Lewis.

"...a work that is at once a feat of literary excavation, a valuable contribution to Millay scholarship, and a chronicle of early-20th-century politics, social mores and artistic endeavor."

From there, Dell moves to the 1967 introduction from what would have been a collaboration between Gurko and Floyd, THE COLLECTED LETTERS OF FLOYD DELL ABOUT EDNA ST. VINCENT MILLAY, were it not for the legal threats of Millay's sister, Norma. Floyd's own work follows: his memories of Greenwich Village from his memoir, HOMECOMING; an article he wrote about Millay for the New York Herald Tribune in 1931, "Edna St. Vincent Millay as a Person"; selections from his unpublished memoir, NOT ROSES, ROSES ALL THE WAY; and selected letters from the thousand that he wrote to Gurko. What emerges is a work that is at once a feat of literary excavation, a valuable contribution to Millay scholarship, and a chronicle of early-20th-century politics, social mores and artistic endeavor.

Floyd's turbulent 1918 affair with Millay, just one of many she conducted with both men and women, was short-lived. Floyd was, as Nancy Milford observes in her biography of Millay, SAVAGE BEAUTY, an "apostle of the shocking new Freudian school of psychoanalysis," but his Freudian-informed "New Man" attitudes clashed sharply with those of Millay's anarchist "New Woman." Whereas Floyd wished for a deep and lasting relationship, the poet saw his love as a threat to her autonomy --- as he writes in his unpublished memoir, "complete yielding to love would mean a loss of her poetical powers, becoming a wife and ceasing to be a poet." At any rate, it was never his love for her that predominated --- though he remained fascinated with her all his life --- but his love of her poetry. He considered Millay to be "the last of our great poets" before modernism ushered in "a period of formlessness [that] may last a hundred years." Excerpts from Millay’s work are included throughout, with Floyd's insightful critiques and wistful reflections on just what part their relationship played in her creative process. On this he concludes, "If I were in any of them, I would be so mixed up with shadowy figures of her interior drama that I wouldn't be a person ever quite recognizable to myself."

I feel sad that I did not know of Floyd Dell while he was still alive (he died in 1969). And yet, his powerful voice is as relevant now as it was a hundred years ago. His advocacy for progressive education, birth control, Freudian psychoanalysis, and equality in love and marriage herald the battles still roiling today. And his portraits of the key writers of his day reveal not only his keen powers of observation but also his enormous talent: "Max Eastman was a tall, poetic, lazy-looking fellow --- Jack Reed, a large, infantile, round-faced, energetic youth." And Edna --- she is "a delightful, impudent, freckle-faced, snub-nosed, carroty-haired gamine" but one whom Floyd also likened to candles dripping paraffin like icicles:  "…those blossoms of fire that dripped ice seemed to me…symbols of the heart of this girl poet."

In a letter he wrote to Gurko two years before he died, Floyd reflects on what he termed his "propaganda pieces and concludes: "The only thing I find instructive about these pieces at this later date is the fact that they are so civilized, so good-humored, so gay --- so healthy if I may so say, lacking in bitterness, devoid of self pity, confident that the future belongs to these ideas." I wish that somehow he could know that his ideas did belong to the future and that his arguments still inspire today, at a time when writing and the truth are still under siege. And that, due to his granddaughter's remarkable book, he, the girl poet he loved, and the Greenwich Village of his time have come to life again.

Reviewed by Jeanne Belisle Lombardo on March 3, 2017

Blood Too Bright: Floyd Dell Remembers Edna St. Vincent Millay
by Jerri Dell

  • Publication Date: March 1, 2017
  • Genres: Letters, Memoir, Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 280 pages
  • Publisher: Glenmere Press
  • ISBN-10: 0990313948
  • ISBN-13: 9780990313946