“Max Eastman’s Century” draws on one of the richest author collections in the Lilly Library (more than 80 cubic feet). The acquisition of Max Eastman’s archives and library began with director David Randall’s letter to Max in 1957 and continues until the present, thanks to the efforts of Randall’s successors, notably Breon Mitchell (now the executor of Eastman’s estate). The writer, editor, poet, and political activist Max Eastman (1883-1969) took part in, and actively influenced, the dominant intellectual trends of the better part of the twentieth century. He knew personally the most important minds of his time and corresponded with the ones he didn’t know. The son of two progressive ministers (his mother was the first ordained female minister in the state of New York), Max grew up surrounded by people with strong views about social justice and civil rights. Following in his mother’s footsteps and with his sister Crystal as an ally, he began campaigning for women’s suffrage, becoming one of the most sought-after speakers at suffragist rallies. Leaving Columbia University, where he had been a student of John Dewey’s, without formally submitting his dissertation on Plato, he soon made his mark as an editor of The Masses and, subsequently, The Liberator, becoming one of the most important radical voices in the United States during the years leading up to and following World War I.
A prolonged stay in Moscow and on the coast of the Black Sea convinced Max that a better society could not be achieved by ideology but by scientific “engineering” (a promise embodied by Lenin and betrayed by Stalin). Through his 1924 marriage to Eliena Krylenko, Eastman became the brother-in-law of Nikolai Krylenko, the former commander of the Red Army and later Stalin’s minister of justice. Eastman was fluent in Russian, translated Trotsky, and remained, for more than four decades, one of the most active commentators on Russian affairs in the United States. Eastman wrote poetry, toured the United States lecturing about everything from the sense of humor to sex in literature, produced and narrated one of the first and enduringly important political documentaries (From Tsar to Lenin, 1937), created and hosted one of the first successful radio quiz shows, and blazed a trail for nudist beachgoers everywhere by walking around naked on the beaches of Martha’s Vineyard. After he published a frank account of his life, Enjoyment of Living (1948), critics hailed him as the Alfred Kinsey of autobiography. And he continued to have the nation’s attention: in 1959, for example, he told Mike Wallace, in widely discussed television interview, that the word “God” had no meaning for him. With his third wife, the social worker Yvette Székely (1912-2014), he retreated to his island refuge on Martha’s Vineyard, from where he continued to attack what he believed the American indifference to Russian totalitarianism.
Shunned or criticized by many of his former friends on the Left, the proudly atheistic Max never found a comfortable home among conservatives either. He ended his spectacular career on the payroll of Reader’s Digest. For a while, Max’s name even appeared on the masthead of the National Review until he withdrew, disgusted by the piousness of its contributors. Yet he insisted that he had in fact never changed his views; the century around him had changed instead, he said, and terms such as “left” and “right” had lost their significance. In his final days, Max Eastman’s main fear was that that last certainty he had was gone, too—that, after having lived through the whirlwind of a century of ideas, the day would come when he would no longer “wake up as Max.”
“Max Eastman’s Century” was developed in conjunction with the 2015 “Themester” of the College of Art and Sciences at IU, “@Work: The Nature of Labor on a Changing Planet.” It was supported by a Themester grant from the College of Arts and Sciences. The exhibition can be viewed in the Lilly Library’s Lincoln Room until November 21. Christoph Irmscher, the curator of the exhibit, has just completed a new biography of Max Eastman.