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Moon-Calf (1920), a thinly veiled autobiographical novel by Floyd Dell (1887–1969), covers the early part of the author's life to 1909. It is the story of Felix Fay, descended from a Civil War hero, born late to his parents, and from his earliest days a sickly child. It is clear to all that this boy is different—he is quiet, withdrawn, and a dreamer. Felix befriends those older than he is, many of them women who are drawn to his sensitive nature, and he engages them in talk of art, poetry, and literature. His intellectual prowess quickly outgrows his family, and he begins a series of moves that take him from the midwestern rural setting of Maple to the growing modern industrial and commercial city of Port Royal. Along the way he meets librarians and libertarians who direct his reading and thinking and who encourage his own attempts at poetry. He is openly atheistic and holds socialist views, attending meetings and becoming an activist. He is attractive to women of a certain type—women who admire him for his views and his poetry as much as for his looks. After a time of hardship and exploitation working in a candy factory, Felix gains a position at the local newspaper. He is fired after accusations of anti-Semitism by the paper's owner, but the editor who believes in his talents as a writer rehires him, and Felix becomes the regular drama critic of the publication. The final section of the novel is dedicated to Felix's affair with Joyce Tennant, the niece of the wealthiest and most influential lawyer in Port Royal. They use an idyllic retreat known as "The Cabin," a summer cottage by the lake, to practice an alternative lifestyle that is built on love, aestheticism, and equality and that totally rejects the traditional concept of marriage.

European intellectuals like Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud were very influential in American writing of this postwar period. Moon-Calf is heavily influenced by Freudian symbolism and interpretation, especially in the Oedipal search that is at the core of many of Felix's relationships. In many respects the novel finds a transatlantic partner in D. H. Lawrence's Sons and Lovers (1913). Certainly the freedom with which Dell writes about physical relationships that shake moral conventions is one element that some readers may find surprising and extremely modern, for example, discussions between Joyce and Felix regarding the nature of marriage and the limitations of monogamy. Felix sees marriage as a social construct that serves little purpose, and at first Joyce agrees with him. In the chapter called "Ethics," Felix explains, "I don't say . . . that a free society can be created all at once, or that any two individuals should crucify themselves before the public in the name of principle. Though if any two people wanted to do that, I would think it splendid of them" (p. 293). His idea of the perfect union extends to the couple not living together, because then "they spend as much time together as they can in each other's company, precisely because they don't have to. When they have to, they want to be apart" (p. 294). In time, however, Joyce feels the need to legitimize their relationship in society, and when Felix is unable to respond to her desires—highlighted by Felix moving away from Joyce to work on his novel—Joyce announces her engagement to an alternative and traditional suitor. Felix finds himself liberated (if also confused and hurt) by her decision and decides to move to a bigger city to pursue a career in journalism. His idealism seems reasonably intact as he looks forward to a move to the "dark blotch" in the corner of the map of the Midwest: "Chicago!" (p. 346).

The genesis of Moon-Calf was long and painful. Dell had been attempting to write a novel for years and finally took a leave of absence from The Liberator in February 1920 to concentrate on it, a decision influenced by blinding headaches that he saw as "psychic." He had been frozen by the inability to sort out his experiences for retelling as fiction and by uncertainty about how to frame the work stylistically. He found the way through reading Tolstoy's "Childhood, Boyhood, and Youth" and a discussion with the British writer Arnold Bennett, who told Dell that a novelist "learns everything he knows of people before . . . twenty-one years of age, possibly earlier" (Hart, p. 66). Psychoanalysis helped Dell choose the "emotionally important incidents and people in my youthful life, and to emphasize certain aspects of these" (p. 67). He used Felix to dramatize the ideas that were so important to him, avoiding tricks of style and constructing a true alter ego for himself through fiction. The result, says John E. Hart, is that Felix Fay becomes "both an individual and a type" (p. 67).

Dell's novel was published two days after Sinclair Lewis's Main Street, and according to Dell it rode the wave of Lewis's success because of the midwestern focus and the treatment of proletarian themes. By early 1922 Moon-Calf had been reprinted eleven times. Critics who saw a new focus on literature from the heartland compared Lewis, Dell, Sherwood Anderson, and Zona Gale. Dell and Lewis publicly admired each other's work, although Dell deplored the fact that Lewis's idealistic heroine gives in to conventionalism and commercialism in Main Street, something his protagonist would never do. To explain this difference, Lewis pointed out that Felix was clearly representative of Dell—"a genius," he called him—while his heroine Carol Kennicott "distinctly is not Sinclair Lewis" (Tanselle, p. 177).

When Moon-Calf appeared, Dell's friends and admirers rallied to its cause, recognizing its political, social, and cultural value as well as the way it covers Dell's own political and artistic awakening. In the Chicago Daily News, Harry Hansen proclaimed that this single novel would earn Dell a "permanent place in the literature of America" (27 October 1920). Francis Hackett wrote in the New Republic that Felix Fay (and by association, Dell himself ) was "the weak but ruthless literary apprentice" (8 December 1920, p. 49). The New York Times reviewer claimed: "So skillfully has the author drawn his poignant portrait of a sensitive idealist in conflict with a hostile, workaday world that the reader will soon cease to think of Felix as a character in a novel. Rather, he will think that he is the novelist himself dressed in the incognito of a few imaginary experiences" (12 December 1920, p. 20). Robert Benchley admired the book too, calling it "a subtle character study accomplished by narrative episodes rather than detailed analyses." He also warned, however, that "some readers will object to this on moral grounds," suggesting that the book was "not for the small library" (Bookman, February 1921, p. 559). Overall the novel was very favorably reviewed alongside Main Street; indeed, many found strengths in Dell's novel that eclipsed Lewis's work.

A discussion between Felix Fay, the central figure of Moon-Calf, and his socialist mentor Vogelsang highlights the differences between the idealism of poetry and the reality of an industrial and capitalist America. Vogelsang tells Felix:

"The American bourgeoisie pays millions of dollars a year to support colleges to teach young people like you to believe in ideals—and to stop looking at economic facts. You tell me that you will have to keep on working—that you cannot afford to go back to school. You are wrong. Do not think for a minute that the American bourgeoisie wants you to work in its factories. No—you might get tired of your ideals, and see what is going on in those factories. . . . You want to be a poet? Very well; lift your hand, and it is done. Say the word, and you shall spend the rest of your life writing pretty verses about yourself, like those you have shown me. No, you do not know the world you live in. . . . I have been trying to get it into your head that you are a member of what is in Europe called the intellectual proletariat. If I can get you to understand what that means, you can work out the implications of it for yourself. Perhaps I am mistaken. Perhaps you are just a romantic proletarian, and will go on working in a factory and writing bad verses; perhaps you are not a real proletarian at all, but the offspring of a broken-down, middle-class family, in which case you will go back to where you belong. That is more likely. But I have hopes for you."

"Do you mean that I should work for Socialism?"

"More romantic nonsense! No, no self-sacrifice, no martyrdom. Socialism does not need your help. On the contrary, it will help you."

Dell, Moon-Calf, pp. 191–193.


Dell was born in Barry, Illinois, in 1887. His father was a butcher who moved the family to the old river city of Quincy and then to Davenport, Iowa (the model for Port Royal in Moon-Calf ), in 1903. Dell was encouraged to write by his mother, who was a schoolteacher, while his father managed to find Dell a position on a local newspaper, the Davenport Times.His father's connections to the Republican Party managed to protect him when he joined the local branch of the Socialist Party at age sixteen. Dell also wrote regularly for the socialist Tri-Cities Workers' Magazine. In 1908 he left Davenport to move to Chicago, but he returned to his roots on numerous occasions, both physically and in his fiction. Davenport provided a lot of material for his writing and was for the most part a safe venue in which to flex his political muscles: Dell could complain about local institutions and write of them critically, but Davenport was also a city that tolerated such views with reasonably good humor. As Dell grew older he was very aware of this fact, and in no way did he satirize or reject the small town, as Sinclair Lewis would do.

In 1911 Dell became the editor of the Friday Literary Review in Chicago, and he promoted writers he believed capable of effecting social reform through their work. He was a champion of David Graham Phillips and Charles Edward Russell as well as more established writers, such as Upton Sinclair, Theodore Dreiser, and Jack London. His knowledge of international movements and literature led him to feature work by socially aware luminaries from Europe—authors like Arnold Bennett, Susan Glaspell, G. K. Chesterton, and Hilaire Belloc. Moving to New York in 1914 to work on the Masses, a radical journal, Dell was instrumental in commissioning pieces from Sherwood Anderson and Carl Sandburg. In 1916 Dell became involved with the Provincetown Players, joining fellow members Eugene O'Neill, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Louise Bryant, and John Reed.

In 1917, when the United States joined the war in Europe, the Masses was pressured to reverse its antiwar stance. When the board refused, mailing privileges for the journal were revoked. In July 1917 Dell and Max Eastman were charged under the Espionage Act, accused of writing articles designed to undermine the war effort. The case came to court in 1918, forcing the Masses to close down, but after three days of deliberation, the jury could not agree upon a verdict. The case was brought again in 1919, and despite the lack of a unanimous verdict once more, the case was dropped because the war was now over. The editors of the Masses regrouped, and a new journal, The Liberator, appeared and ran until 1924. The New Masses began publication in 1924 and continued in print until 1939, with Dell as a frequent contributor.

The novels that followed Moon-CalfThe Briary-Bush (1921), Janet Marsh (1923), and Runaway (1925)—were less favorably received. For some, the focus on the misunderstood poet and social iconoclast restricted Dell to being somewhat one-note in his work. Robert Coates said Dell's work was focused "the same as always" on youth in revolt but that the rebels never really got anywhere, except to Chicago. Dell also wrote several nonfiction books, including Upton Sinclair (1927) and Love in the Machine Age (1930). In 1933 he published Homecoming, an amalgam of the autobiographical novels on which his reputation was to rest.


For the modern reader, Moon-Calf provides useful insight into social and political feelings following the apocalypse of World War I. Many Americans returned from the war disillusioned and horrified by the destruction brought by the first modern mechanized war. Approximately 120,000 enlisted Americans died in the war, and the financial cost to the United States exceeded $20 billion. For many, socialism seemed to be the ideological answer to avoiding a repeat event, and socialist movements would wax and wane in popularity and political influence over the next half century. In Moon-Calf, Dell cleverly captures Felix's growing awareness of real-world politics along with his growing cynicism, and yet he fondly reiterates Felix's determination to rise above such drudgery and to keep alive a positive vision for the future.

Dell's socialist stance and expression of a political ideology belongs to a tradition of socialist writing that also includes works of Upton Sinclair and Jack London. Writers more contemporaneous with Dell also saw the aftermath of the war as being a difficult, divisive, and unsettling time. This period produced novels such as Ernest Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms (1929), John Dos Passos's Three Soldiers (1921), and William Faulkner's Soldier's Pay (1926) as well as Maxwell Anderson and Laurence Stallings's play What Price Glory? (produced in 1924). Dos Passos wrote that the war, instead of being a threat to civilization, merely showed it up as a "vast edifice of sham."

Many soldiers from the United States who went to fight in Europe found the return to their homeland difficult, particularly those who were returning to rural areas reliant on agriculture. They became more aware of the changes wrought by increased mechanization and market forces that worked to keep crop prices and workers' wages low. For some American writers and thinkers, a return to Europe and an existence based on the relative strength of the dollar allowed them to take stock and reflect on how the modern world was shaping up. The Lost Generation writers gathered in Paris well into the 1920s, a "movable feast" of expatriates that included Hemingway, Dos Passos, Gertrude Stein, Archibald MacLeish, Ezra Pound, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

see alsoFree Love; Socialism; World War I


Primary Works

Dell, Floyd. Moon-Calf. 1920. New York: Sagamore Press, 1957.

Hart, John E. Floyd Dell. New York: Twayne, 1971.

Tanselle, G. Thomas. "Sinclair Lewis and Floyd Dell: Two Views of the Midwest." Twentieth Century Literature 9, no. 4 (January 1964):175–184.

Secondary Works

Cooperman, Stanley. World War I and the American Novel. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1967.

Duffey, Bernard I. The Chicago Renaissance in AmericanLetters: A Critical History. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1954.

Pizer, Donald. American Expatriate Writing and the ParisMoment: Modernism and Place. Lafayette: University of Louisiana Press, 1997.

Roba, William H. "Floyd Dell in Iowa." Books at Iowa 44 (April 1986).

Shore, Elliott. Talkin' Socialism: J. A. Wayland and the Role of the Press in American Radicalism, 1890–1912. Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 1988.

Smith, Carl S. Chicago and the American Literary Imagination, 1880–1920. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984.

Stansell, Christine. American Moderns: Bohemian New York and the Creation of a New Century. New York: Metropolitan, 2000.

Tate, Trudi. Modernism, History, and the First World War. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press, 1998.

Keith Gumery