Floyd Dell’s teenage years in Quincy inspired him to become an author. He became one of the most important American writers of the first half of the 20th century, a prolific novelist, poet, playwright, critic and publisher. He resided there from 1899 to 1903, between the ages of 12 and 16, a crucial period that shaped his life and gave the themes that would inform his work: socialism, atheism and free thought.
Though he became a bestselling author and inducted into the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame, and his work made into four Hollywood films and a hit Broadway play, Dell saw himself in Quincy and for the rest of his life as an iconoclast and rebel. After leaving Quincy, he lived as a bohemian artist, first in Davenport, Iowa, then in Chicago, and finally in Greenwich Village in New York, becoming part of this avant-garde generation of the 1920s who avoided conformity but valued art and believed it could change the world. .
Floyd James Dell was born on June 28, 1887 in Barry, the youngest of four children. His father, a Union Civil War veteran and staunch abolitionist, worked as a butcher in Barry. His mother, a former teacher, maintained the household until the depression of 1893 plunged the family into extreme poverty. Dell’s three older siblings soon dropped out of high school and moved to Quincy in search of factory work. In 1899, Floyd and his parents followed. The family lived in a decrepit house on the south side of town, and the Dell boy enrolled in Franklin School, then a college.
His parents adored their youngest child and longed for him to go to college and for the family to gain “respectability”. Katherine Dell encouraged her son to read and believed he could do better in the world than his older children. Dell did well in school but withdrew from his peers after a brief but life-changing encounter shortly after arriving in Quincy.
A boy introduced himself to Dell saying, “My dad is a doctor. What is yours?”
Ashamed of his family’s poverty and his father’s lack of steady work, Dell became a recluse and spent most of his time at the free public library, which he called a place of “perfect equality”. In the library, he read voraciously: poetry, travels, novels and the revolutionary works of Charles Darwin and Sigmund Freud, which influenced him deeply.
At the Franklin School, his study of Shakespeare’s play “The Merchant of Venice” sparked his passion for the language, and he wrote his first poem: a plea for people like his brothers to stop drinking, which which Dell says has brought misery to the country. The study of grammar and parts of speech suddenly became fascinating: a writer needed these skills to perfect his craft. Later, while reading Edgar Alan Poe in class, he began to write stories and founded a school literary society. After graduating from ninth grade in 1901, he gave a commencement address.
Dell’s mother sent him to the Presbyterian Church and his Sunday school, believing it would boost his chances of getting into college. During his first service, a well-dressed youth from a prosperous family ridiculed a group of Civil War veterans from the Soldier Home who were present, exclaiming within earshot, “Look at the blue bellies!” Painfully aware that his own father had fought and shed blood in that war, Dell renounced the churches and called the Bible “a beautiful fable.” His reading of the Quran and the Mormon Bible reinforced his contempt for organized religion, and he became an atheist for the rest of his life.
Having heard of Martin Luther’s famous nailing of the Ninety-Five Theses to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany, Dell considered posting a similar proclamation of atheism at the Presbyterian Church in Quincy. In his autobiography Homecoming, Dell wrote of his turbulent adolescence, made more bewildered by his study of Freud: “What the Church, for all its efforts to frighten us with hellfire, could not do to make us forget the subject of girls’ eyes, lips and breasts, we did it for ourselves by hating the Church. Later, he became one of the first champions of feminism and women’s rights.
Meanwhile, his reading of Karl Marx pushed Dell toward socialism. This political philosophy explained his family’s predicament as the result of a system that exploited working people and created a class of poor people, who were not, as many local citizens believed, “thoughtless and lazy”. During the four summers he worked in the Quincy factories to support his family, he wrote several plays, one about Benedict Arnold and another about abolitionist John Brown.
These early major works expressed his sympathies for rebels and outcasts like himself. He writes in his autobiography: “My life now seemed to have meaning, to be whole. Atheism was a natural part of socialism. And I was an enemy of the established order, of Church and State, and I set out to destroy it.
One day, he met William Morris, a sweeper of the streets of Quincy, converted like him to socialism. Morris invited the bold youngster and one of his few like-minded Franklin school friends to attend a political meeting. Although only fifteen years old, the two joined Quincy’s socialist party at a time of deep economic hardship that had left many across the country disillusioned with capitalism.
In his semi-autobiographical novel Moon-calf, Dell portrays Quincy as “Vickley” with a mixture of alienation and affection. He never truly despised small-town America the way Sinclair Lewis did in his satirical Main Street, a classic novel published the same week as Moon-calf. Like his older siblings, poverty forced Floyd Dell to drop out of high school. But he had fallen in love with literature at Quincy and had an unwavering belief that art holds the power to spark social reform. The Gem City endured as the bittersweet city that had spurned him, but where his literary career began and the themes he wrote and lived on first took off.
Clayton, Douglas. Floyd Dell: The Life and Times of an American Rebel. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1994, 3-
“Honourable work of a schoolboy.” Quincy Journal, June 15, 1901, 1.
Dell, Floyd. Homecoming: An Autobiography. Port Washington, NY: Kennikat Press, 1933, 42-78.
Dell, Floyd. Moon calf: a novel. New York: A. A. Knopf, 1920.
Gertz, Deborah. “Berry Native Floyd Dell Spotlights Program.” Quincy Herald-Whig, January 29, 1996, 3A.
“Local and general news.” Quincy Daily Journal, November 5, 1900, 7.
Joseph Newkirk is a local writer and photographer whose work has been widely published as a contributor to literary magazines, as a correspondent for the Catholic Times and, for the past 23 years, as a writer for the Veterans History from the Library of Congress. He is a member of the reorganized Quincy Bicycle Club and has cycled over 10,000 miles in his lifetime.
The Quincy and Adams County Historical Society preserves Governor John Wood’s mansion, the history museum on the plaza, the 1835 log cabin, livery, Lincoln Gallery exhibits and an artifact collection and documents that tell the story of who we are. This award-winning column is written by members of the Society. For more information, visit hsqac.org or email [email protected]