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Landmark literary magazine for radical writers was once based in St. Louis
Literary history

Landmark literary magazine for radical writers was once based in St. Louis

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St. Louis is home to several top-tier literary magazines such as River Styx, Boulevard, december and Natural Bridge. They’re continuing a proud tradition. When the United States was in the throes of the Great Depression, the Gateway City hosted one of the most acclaimed little magazines in our nation’s history: The Anvil, which was founded and edited by Jack Conroy.

Few Missourians today have heard of Conroy, who was born in 1899 in a coal mining camp named Monkey Nest near Moberly, Missouri.

His seminal work, “The Disinherited” (1933), remains a classic of Depression-era proletarian literature. “Mr. Conroy writes about scabs, coal-miners, prostitutes, yard bulls ... without self-consciousness and without mawkishness,” Clifton Fadiman wrote in praise of “The Disinherited” in the New Yorker.

The July 30, 1935, edition of the St. Louis Star and Times carried an article by Homer Bassford headlined “Magazine Published Here by Radical Writers Gets Most of Its Support From East; Few Copies Sold at Home.” It provides a plethora of information about the Anvil’s St. Louis years.

“At 5431 Nottingham avenue (sic) a group of young men and women are publishing a proletarian fiction magazine called ‘The Anvil,’ a periodical of social protest,” Bassford wrote. He noted that the back cover of the July issue carried an ad for the Anvil “that indicates the straight-forwardness in which the editors approach their job.” The ad read: “No radical can afford to miss The Anvil.”

Bassford stated that Conroy moved the Anvil to St. Louis “about a year ago” because he found that as “a writer with many other interests,” he needed help producing the magazine. Conroy remained the editor but was now “assisted by a board consisting of Will Wharton, J.S. Balch and Jean Winkler of St. Louis, and Walter Snow and Clinton Simpson of New York.”

Even when located in St. Louis, the Anvil enjoyed its greatest success in New York. “Nobody in St. Louis seems to have heard of The Anvil,” Wharton told Bassford. “Recently a woman called me and asked where she could buy a copy. She said that she had read it regularly in New York, but when she came to St. Louis she couldn’t find it anywhere. We usually sell about twenty-five copies here; but, in New York, I stood in the doorway of the Mecca Temple [now called the New York City Center] and saw 150 sold in a few minutes.”

Wharton conceded that the “initial impulse” for the kind of writing published in the Anvil “has come from the east, mainly New York; but we believe that its greatest development, its most genuine flowering, must come from the middle west. That is why we expect The Anvil to play an important part in this movement.”

Some literary heavyweights appeared in the Anvil during its St. Louis days, including Nelson Algren, Erskine Caldwell and James T. Farrell.

Conroy also wrote for the magazine. “Down in Happy Hollow,” published in the March-April 1935 issue, epitomizes his literary style and subject matter. Coal miner Monty Cass served 12 years of a 25-year prison sentence for murder. “When I seed Jess Gotts a-laying there breathin’ his last, with my pick buried in his head, and the red blood and grey brains blubberin’ out o’ his skull,” he tells a couple of boys, “I was sure heartsick and sorry. Hearin’ his wife and kids hollerin’ and screamin’ didn’t help none either.”

The unionized coal miners were on strike. Cass killed Gotts because he was a scab who intended to work in the mine, which would have broken the strike. Cass believes the presence of some union men on the jury saved him from a life sentence or hanging. Upon his release from prison, however, he finds that he’s an outcast among his fellow miners. While working solo in an abandoned coal mine, Cass is killed when a tunnel collapses.

“The Anvil lasted from 1932 to 1935, when it was swallowed up in an ill-advised merger with Partisan Review,” Conroy wrote in his introduction to the 1973 work “Writers in Revolt: The Anvil Anthology 1933-1940.” Despite its proletarian focus, the Anvil’s “independent editorial policy” meant that it “had never won complete approval from the Communist Party cultural apparatus, though the CP string of bookstores did distribute the magazine.”

Merger with Partisan Review, Conroy noted, meant that this “new magazine would be directly under CP hegemony” and “devote a large amount of its space to the dialectical gymnastics so dear to the hearts of the New York intelligensia.”

Conroy and Nelson Algren later founded the New Anvil in Chicago, which published works by Langston Hughes, William Carlos Williams and Frank Yerby. Unfortunately, its sixth issue — May-June 1940 — was also its last.

The Anvil is quite collectible. I found a copy of the January-February 1934 issue offered for $200 at biblio.com. The Jack Conroy American Studies Collection is housed in the Kate Stamper Wilhite Library of Moberly Area Community College. The collection includes several thousand volumes, many of them rare, that Conroy collected during his lifetime. It also includes Conroy’s published works as well as copies of the Anvil and other literary journals that Conroy edited.

John J. Dunphy is an author and poet whose works include “Unsung Heroes the Dachau Trials,” “Abolitionism and the Civil War in Southwestern Illinois” and numerous other works. He owns The Second Reading Book Shop in Alton.

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