One of the most alluring—but also vaguely ridiculous—elements of Eastman’s and Vorse’s autobiographical works is their strenuous effort to reshape their personalities. Both of them self-consciously transformed themselves from shy, earnest young Protestants into people who could easily share a drink with Russian anarchists or Chicago stevedores. John Dos Passos, a longtime friend of Vorse’s who owned a Provincetown house not far from hers, drew on her quality of willed self-creation when he invented Mary French, an ill-fated labor organizer in The Big Money, the third volume of his U.S.A. trilogy.
The portrait is sympathetic but laced with a streak of cruelty: French, a young woman from a comfortable home in Colorado, drops out of Vassar College to become a social worker in Chicago. When that does not feel like a sharp enough break from her bourgeois roots, she moves into a rooming-house in Cleveland and works in a diner. When a friend worries that she has “lost her mind,” French exclaims: “I’m not a Vassar graduate…I’m just like any other working girl.” She finds her way to the labor movement, where she works endless hours, eventually acquiring “a haggard desperate look.” She is disappointed by a series of men, including an aggressive organizer for a Communist union and a smooth procedural liberal who works for a Democratic senator. As the novel ends, she is drinking heavily, unable to save her union friends from the police and unable to quite escape the “parasite life” of the rich New Yorkers her mother wants her to spend time with.
Vorse’s story was not, in the end, very much like Dos Passos’s nightmare. She saw a way to escape from the drawing-room life that her mother imagined for her, and she made that escape stick. But she did suffer a good deal of anguish along the way. She lost two husbands. She was addicted to alcohol and morphine for several years during the 1920s. She had an extremely difficult relationship with her daughter, who resented the long weeks she spent away from home. She wrote an essay for Cosmopolitan in 1924 titled “Why I Have Failed as a Mother,” and the title was not meant ironically. “I don’t even want the affection of my children when I’m through work,” she wrote. “All I want is to be left alone….They seem to me like a nestful of birds, their yellow beaks forever agape for me to fill.” Men like Eastman had an easier time negotiating the demands of domesticity. He took the repellent step of abandoning his wife and four-year-old child. As Christine Stansell points out in American Moderns: Bohemian New York and the Creation of a New Century, despite the Village’s self-conscious gender egalitarianism, the burden of domestic life and child-rearing still fell overwhelmingly on women.
Reading Eastman in college, and reading Vorse today, I find it easy to slip into a Walter Mitty reverie of 1915, imagining what it would have been like to argue about Kropotkin at 2 a.m. in some basement on Greenwich Avenue, or to scrounge for assignments to cover trench warfare in Ypres for Harper’s or The Nation. Most of all, I envy Eastman and Vorse for the vast and diverse range of friends they cultivated. But it’s not obvious how to translate those daydreams into advice for the practice of journalism in 2007. If someone wrote today, as Vorse wrote of her and O’Brien’s experience in Lawrence, that “we knew now where we belonged—on the side of the workers and not with the comfortable people among whom we were born,” I would think that person was a posturing fool. But maybe a small dose of posturing and folly is what we need, if that’s what it takes to motivate us to broaden our social circles and our moral horizons. Maybe a few more of us should abandon our profiles of the most recent YouTube star or today’s other vaudeville descendants and make our way to the next textile strike in North Carolina or Pakistan or China.