The Definitive Dwiggins no. 69—Vague

Vague no. 7 (1915) is probably the strangest project that W.A. Dwiggins ever worked on. It is a hilarious satire of the avant-garde art and literature of its time with a few jabs at advertising along the way. But, true to its name, it is not easy to recognize all of its allusions or to understand all of its jokes.

Vague no. 7 front with belly-band (1915). Design by W.A. Dwiggins.

Vague no. 7 front with belly-band (1915). Design by W.A. Dwiggins.

Vague was published in the spring of 1915 by J.J. Jerbiam (or Gerbiam), H. Püterschein, and Hugo Messive—pseudonyms respectively for John J. Phillips, Jr. (b. 1888), Dwiggins, and Glenn Palmer (b. 1886). [1] The three men had taken over The Cornhill Booklet in the fall of 1914 following the illness of its founder, Alfred Bartlett (1870–1926). In the November issue they had lampooned both George Bernard Shaw and G.K. Chesterton. Vague seems to have been the next step in their satirical efforts.

The text on the front cover opens on a mysterious note with an initial B (with an upside-down K and Y hidden in its counters; and a small O to its right) flanked by two anxious-looking faces (one above a squiggly S pattern and the other above a squiggly N pattern). [2] Perhaps they are the ones voicing the words that follow:

But why? Must we in our ivory towers always only wail? A struggle my friend, a struggle for the coherent,—for vocable habit,—for all the props and crutches that help the human mind to get in touch with other minds, also human, possibly.

With Number 7  VAGUE emerges from the mist. Numbers 1 to 6, alas, are too dim to be seen. They are vanished numbers of a now impossible-to-be-complete file. By the evidence of Number 7 one may say, “VAGUE is different” to be different implies identity, state of existence, so that we may now claim with justice that VAGUE has emerged. Trade Journals, House Organs and Booklets devoted to the promotion of unusually unhealthy corporations and manufactures, month by month are so nearly approaching, in fascination, interest and illustration, the literature, that has caused so many subways and elevated stations to erect at small expense, veritable kiosks for the distribution of the same, that it is left (What was left?) to the confused brains of the editors of VAGUE to produce for the Great American Reading Public (Long may it wave) a magazine that was or is different.

But what of the purposes of VAGUE? A policy, it may be said in passing, is out of keeping with the spirit of the time in which we live? Nothing could be simpler. One can state it in a breath. Shallowness, greed, speed! [3]

With this hazy (and grammatically clumsy) statement Vague mocked avant-garde manifestoes and the “little magazines” of the day, while criticizing modern marketing. The reference to trade journals, house organs and booklets was clearly Dwiggins’ contribution as he was heavily involved in the design of such items for clients of Brad Stephens (1878–1964) and the Heintzemann Press at the time that Vague was being created.

Vague is printed on pink paper in purple ink. Its eight pages are bound askew with a tan chipboard wrapper placed diagonally across its front and back. On the back of the wrapper some rainbow-printed text set in Cheltenham, apparently taken from an unidentified book on contract law, bleeds off one edge of the paper. Although the bleed suggests that the wrapper was waste paper or make-ready from another print job, the rainbow ink contradicts that idea. [4]

From a surviving uncut sheet, it can be deduced that the pages of Vague were printed work-and-turn in two passes through the press. [5] The formes of type (and the zinc plates for the illustration on p. 7 and the calligraphic poem on p. 8) were imposed crookedly and then the sheets were gathered unevenly to create the fanned-out appearance. The distorted look was accentuated by irregularly shaped frames for all of the large illustrations and the fake advertisement. Beyond this, other aspects of Vague‘s production remain murky. There is no colophon. The assumption that it was printed by Dwiggins on his home press, the White Elephant—is weakened by the fact that it is set in three typefaces that he is not known to have owned: an unidentified heavy cut of Caslon for the text, three sizes of Bookman for the larger lines on p. 6, and Cheltenham for the wrapper. (A comparison of the Caslon types used in Vague and The Fabulist is at the end of this post.) He may have borrowed types from the Heintzemann Press or Vague may have been printed there or at Alfred Bartlett’s place. [6]

Vague lived up to its name as its satire was nebulous, scattershot, and somewhat sophomoric. At first glance it seems like a reaction to Dadaism, but its publication preceded the founding of that avant-garde art movement by nearly a year. Instead, Dwiggins and his colleagues were responding to Blast, the magazine of Vorticism edited by Wyndham Lewis (1882–1957), as well as to avant-garde literary activities in the United States. Although British, Blast was available in the United States through its publisher’s New York branch.

The first issue of Blast (published on June 20, 1914) was distinguished by a bright pink cover with the magazine’s name printed diagonally in heavy black sans serif capitals. Vague‘s pink paper linked it to the Vorticist manifesto, while its weak name and its rendition in a delicate calligraphic script combined to form a riposte to Lewis’ aggressiveness. [7]

Blast no. 1 edited by Wyndham Lewis (London: John Lane, The Bodley Head, 1914).

Blast no. 1 edited by Wyndham Lewis (London: John Lane, The Bodley Head, 1914). Design by Wyndham Lewis.

The opening statement (quoted above) continues onto the second page for three lines before segueing nonsensically into a fictional scene of card players, complete with veiled references to the theatre impresario David Belasco (1853–1931) (“painted asbestos Belascan cow”) and the novelist/playwright George Barr McCutcheon (1866–1928). The exact point of the jokes is unclear. It is most likely something topical that has been long forgotten. [8]

Page [2]—the pages are unnumbered—ends with an illustration of “The Prophet of Gath” by Püterschein (Dwiggins). This is not a modern portrait of “Jonah, the son of Amittai, the prophet, which was of Gath-hepher” (The King James Bible 2 Kings 14:25), but of a modern philistine, guided by materialism and disdainful of intellectual or artistic values. [9] (Gath was one of the five cities of the Philistines.) The title is an obvious pun. The tight collar and tie, spectacles, and sharp gaze combine to suggest a man of business, of profit and loss, with no interest in art. He is the embodiment of “the spirit of the time” that Vague defines as “shallowness, greed, speed”. Greed may be a reference to the businessmen profiting from the Great War then in progress while speed surely refers to Taylorism, a system of scientific management that was in vogue in business (including the printing industry) at the time. [10]

"The Prophet of Gath" [p. 2] from Vague (1915). Illustration by Hermann Püterschein (pseud. W.A. Dwiggins).

“The Prophet of Gath” [p. 2] from Vague (1915). Illustration by Hermann Püterschein (pseud. W.A. Dwiggins).

The counterpart to the “Prophet of Gath” is “Chaud,” a stereotypical garret artist. He is depicted by Püterschein (Dwiggins) on page [3] lying dead on his studio floor, with a rat perched on his shoulder, looking up at his “model,” a skeleton. The illustration, titled “The Early Rat,” accompanies a narrative of his death, killed by a bit of glass knocked loose from his skylight by a fierce wind. This inauspicious death pokes fun at Chaud’s dedication to the notion of ars longa while the skeleton, named “Moturart,” mocks his view of art as beauty. (His name, meaning “hot” in French, may indicate his passion for his art or be a bit of irony for a cold, dead body.)

"The Early Rat" [p. 3] from Vague (1915). Illustration and initial by Hermann Püterschein (pseud. W.A. Dwiggins.

“The Early Rat” [p. 3] from Vague (1915). Illustration and initial by Hermann Püterschein (pseud. W.A. Dwiggins.

The target of Vague‘s ridicule shifts to literature—and a swipe at advertising—with the center spread (pages [4 and 5]).

The discinction [sic] between Vers Libre and Prose Libre is that in Prose Libre, O’Sullivan’s, Slipnot, and the other one that depicts the silhouette of a black cat are used to great advantage and the reading of the same recalls many of the eye-batters and catch-phrases used in all rubber-heel publicity. In vers Libre one might nonchalantly say “The accoustics [sic] are rotten.” Prose Libre leaves nothing to the imagination. Imagination? Is not that the clue to Verslibertinism? The Vers-libertine uses not his own imagination but yours. Imagine an imagination that imagines you at the other end. [11]

What sounds like gibberish in the first sentence is a convoluted reference to the cooperative rubber-heel campaign by the Beck Shoe Stores and the O’Sullivan Rubber Heel Co. and to the competing Cat’s Paw brand of rubber heels.[12] “Eye-batters” is old merchandising slang for attention-grabbing package designs.

The text pirouettes from making fun of shoe advertising to questioning vers libre (free verse), the 19th-century French poetry form that characterized the Imagist movement that was then in full sway in the United States. It was responding to the American edition of Des Imagistes: An Anthology edited by Ezra Pound (New York: Albert and Charles Boni, 1914) and Some Imagist Poets (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1915). The latter was published in April 1915 while Vague was being produced. Its preface was written by local poet Amy Lowell (1874–1925) who Dwiggins (as Püterschein) caricatured in the accompanying illustration entitled “Vers Libre.” She is the stocky figure with a cane holding the sign saying “Liberté.” [13]

"Vers Libre" [center spread pp. 4–5] from Vague (1915). Illustration by H. Püterschein (pseud. W.A. Dwiggins).

“Vers Libre” [center spread pp. 4–5] from Vague (1915). Illustration by Hermann Püterschein (pseud. W.A. Dwiggins).

Page [6] of Vague, the masthead page, is notable for its blurbs and a fake advertisement for parfum “Odeur de Cochon” illustrated by Püterschein. [14] The wittiest of the blurbs is one from the Cleveland Under-the-Table Dealer: “Along side [sic] of Gerbiam, Whistler is but a puckering of the lips and Sargent is not even a corporal.” [15] The perfume advertisement was an opportunity for Dwiggins to satirize the commercial work he was then doing for businesses selling furniture, coffee and tea, shoes, and jewelry. The name of the agent Adrienne Huff de Guffe (roughly translated as “puff of nonsense”)  is a tip-off to his feelings about much of that work. [16]

"Odeur de Cochon" advertisement [p. 6] from Vague (1915). Design by Hermann Püterschein (pseud. W.A. Dwiggins).

“Odeur de Cochon” advertisement [p. 6] from Vague (1915). Design by Hermann Püterschein (pseud. W.A. Dwiggins).

Page [7] consists solely of a naive illustration of a short-haired woman wearing a patterned dress tending a flower. A Thurber-like dog stares up at her while, in the background, there is a car and a house. Near her outstretched right hand is a tiny silhouetted figure with a hoe. The drawing is unsigned which means that it may have been made by Phillips (remember the encomium above about his artistic skills from the Cleveland Under-the-Table Dealer?) rather than by Dwiggins as Püterschein. However, one argument for it being the work of Dwiggins is the presence of the man with a hoe, a clear reference to “the digger” figure that graced his stationery during the years he had a studio on Cornhill. (Perhaps the figure is a form of signature?) [17]

Is the uncaptioned drawing a commentary on contemporary fashion trends? The simplicity of her dress contrasts strongly with American fashion of the time, though it is in line with the “modern” dress introduced by French fashion designer Paul Poiret (1879–1944) several years earlier. This woman’s dress follows the “uncorseted silhouette” that Poiret promoted, along with a new emphasis on pattern over draping. Her short hair is surprising, since the bob is associated with flappers of the 1920s. It may have been influenced by the popular ballroom dancer Irene Castle (1893–1969) who wore her hair short at the time.

Illustration [p. 7] from Vague (1915). Unsigned by probably by W.A. Dwiggins.

Illustration [p. 7] from Vague (1915). Unsigned by probably by W.A. Dwiggins.

The back cover of Vague (page [8]) is devoted to “Nympholepsy,” a poem by J.J.G. (Phillips), calligraphically written out by Dwiggins and illustrated (as Püterschein) with four vignettes interspersed between each stanza. The stanza pattern and rhyme scheme do not match any standard poetic forms. The tragi-romantic narrative of the long couplets (and final quatrain) gives it a ballad-like feel, but the interspersed short couplets are reminiscent of a Greek chorus commenting on the action. [18] The title—not a concocted word but an ancient Greek term for ecstasy inspired by nymphs or beautiful young girls—seems to have nothing to do with the story of young lovers breaking up.

The contract law questions on the back wrapper, covering part of “Nympholepsy,” may be a sardonic comment on courtship and “breach-of-promise” lawsuits, rather than just a random bit of text.

"Nympholepsy" by J.J.G [pseud. John J. Phillips, Jr.]. [p. 8] from Vague (1915). Vignettes by Hermann Püterschein (pseud. W.A. Dwiggins); calligraphy by W.A. Dwiggins.

“Nympholepsy” by J.J.G (pseud. John J. Phillips, Jr.). [p. 8] from Vague (1915). Vignettes by Hermann Püterschein (pseud. W.A. Dwiggins); calligraphy by W.A. Dwiggins.

Back cover with wrapper of Vague (1915). Design by W.A. Dwiggins.

Back cover with wrapper of Vague (1915). Design by W.A. Dwiggins.

What is the point of Vague? Why spend so much effort trying to dissect and decipher it? Vague is part of a moment in Dwiggins’ life and career when he was struggling to assert himself as an “artist” while earning a livelihood as a designer for commerce. The magazine was published in the wake of the collapse of the newly revived version of The Cornhill Booklet and prior to the first issue of The Fabulist, the occasional magazine he and his cousin Laurence B. Siegfried (1892–1978) issued to amuse themselves. The content and style of those two publications are a reminder that Dwiggins was a child of the Arts & Crafts era. Yet, he is striving to be an artist in a world increasingly dominated by alien creatures: Futurists, Vorticists, Imagists, and whatnot! Vague is a flailing, confused response to this new world.

At a glance, Vague appears to be a parody of Dadaism. But this close reading of Vague, even with many of its allusions unparsed, shows that it is not that. More importantly, it shows that it was something more complicated. It was simultaneously a knee-jerk reaction against avant-garde artistic and literary trends and a complaint about advertising. One thing it was not, despite what Phillips said later in his life, was an anti-war statement. Dwiggins had already expressed himself on that score with a special illustration inserted into the October 1914 issue of The Cornhill Booklet entitled “The Last War.” And he continued to publicize his anti-war views later in 1915 with a short story (and illustration) called “La Derniére Mobilisation” in with The Fabulist no. 1. [19]

Vague was published before Hermann Püterschein as Dwiggins’ alter ego was officially “born” with the publication of The Fabulist no. 1. But it was not the first appearance of Püterschein. In 1914 he had written and illustrated two children’s verses describing the “Extra-Wild Animals of the Faraway-Land of Lurg” for Happyland magazine. [20] With Vague Dwiggins was trying out Püterschein as a persona he could hide behind to publicly comment on advertising, design, art and other topics.

Tracking down the various allusions and references in Vague has been the only way to fully discover how complicated it is despite its shallow surface. With this in mind, it should be remembered that the magazine was not solely a Dwiggins creation, but a group effort with Phillips and Palmer. Although the illustrations are all (or nearly all—depending on the attribution of the naive illustration of the woman) his, the exact authorship of the texts (other than “Nympholepsy”) remains unclear. Were they the work of Phillips and Palmer or of all three men together? Given how little is known about the first two men, it is difficult to come to a reliable conclusion, but I suspect Phillips contributed more than Palmer. [21] But whoever wrote what, Vague remains a disappointment as its three contributors chose light humor over incisive criticism in responding to the artistic and literary turmoil they found themselves in as the Great War ground on.

1. Phillips’ pseudonym is spelled both ways in Vague. I have been unable to decipher the joke since neither gerbiam nor jerbiam is a Latin word or Biblical reference. Similarly,
I have found no source for Hugo Messive. Perhaps the names are wordplay like Püterschein (= pewter + shine)—e.g. “verb I am” and “huge massive”. For the history of the Püterschein family, including the genesis of Hermann Püterschein, Dwiggins’ alter ego, see ”Genus Püterschein” in The Fabulist no. 1 (Autumn 1915). It claims that the collaborators behind Vague included Ghu Mbheannaigh Dhiadh Dhuit, though that Celtic-sounding name appears nowhere in the pages of no. 7. Furthermore, Frances Parsons Davis declared that Edward O’Brien (1890–1941), another newspaper associate of Dwiggins like Phillips and Palmer, was involved in Vague. See “William Addison Dwiggins: Maker of Books” in The Boston Evening Transcript, February 16, 1929.
2. I have not been able to figure out any hidden meaning to the letters S B K Y O N, either as a word or an acronym.
3. Vague no. 7, [pp. 1–2]. The text is replete with broken syntax, misspellings, transposed letters, typos, absent and incorrect  hyphenation, and odd punctuation. The typography is also erratic and slovenly. The earliest reference to Vague in Dwiggins’ account books is November 2, 1914 with the last being April 28, 1915. See Folder 3, Box 81(1), 1974 W.A. Dwiggins Collection, Boston Public Library.
4. Forty-five years after Vague was published, John J. Phillips, Jr. reminisced: “We were agin’ everything especially the war. One of our protests materialised [sic] in a publication we called “Vague”. [Harrison] Cowan furnished the paper which was light off prints of a job gone wrong and we thought it was some sort of examination paper to be used at M.I.T. We called this the palimsest [sic] number and sent it to our amazed friends.” Phillips to Dorothy Abbe 16 December 1959 in Folder 19–755, Box 19, Dorothy Abbe Collection, Boston Public Library. His explanation of the source of the wrapper paper is not plausible since the rough paper and rainbow printing would not have been used for an examination paper. But it is possible that Cowan supplied the plate for the text printed on the wrapper. In February 1915, Harrison Cowan (b. 1890) had left the Cowen Company (no relation)—an advertising agency that Dwiggins worked with on a regular basis between 1910 and 1917—to set up Cowan Publicity Service.
5. A single uncut sheet is in Folder 12, Box 46pb, 1974 W.A. Dwiggins Collection, Boston Public Library. There is also a set of pencil roughs of conventional designs for a twelve-page publication titled Vague, but which bear no visual relationship to the printed magazine. See Folder 3, Box 46, 1974 W.A. Dwiggins Collection, Boston Public Library.
6. Supposedly the only type that Dwiggins owned was Caslon, used to print the first two numbers of The Fabulist. Examination of those pages indicates that it was ATF Caslon 471. The Caslon used for Vague is heavier. I have been unable to match it to any of the Caslons shown in American Metal Typefaces of the Twentieth Century by Mac McGrew (New Castle, Delaware: Oak Knoll Books, 1993), pp. 62–71. The problematic features are the near upright ear on g, the steep spine of 2, and the narrow ?. The closest design is Ludlow Caslon Bold, but the notion that Dwiggins would set lengthy text using a Ludlow typograph seems unlikely. The idea that Vague may have been printed at Alfred Bartlett’s place on Cornhill is sparked by John J. Phillips, Jr.’s account of how Bartlett revived The Cornhill Booklet in 1914: “Bartlett bought a Melie [sic—Miehle press] second hand, a used saddle stitcher [for binding], fonts of used type and hired a printer to run the press.” See Phillips to Dorothy Abbe, 16 December 1959 in Folder 19—1755, Box 19, Dorothy Abbe Collection, Boston Public Library.
7. The second and last issue of Blast was published July 1915.
8. Dwiggins had illustrated George Barr McCutcheon’s serial novel Craneycrow in 1902 and, during his school days in Chicago, was acquainted with his younger brother, the cartoonist/illustrator John T. McCutcheon (1870–1949). Palmer, who was reportedly a theatre agent during his brief time in Boston, may have known Belasco. But these connections are too slight to explain the references.
9. This definition is derived from Culture and Anarchy by Matthew Arnold (London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1869). Arnold divided society into three groups: Barbarians, Philistines, and the Populace.
10. The printing trade press during this time was full of discussions about efficiency in the press room, composing room, and bindery. For example, the Fourth International Cost Congress of the United Typothetae in Chicago (1912) included sessions each of those subjects and one on scientific management.
11. Vague no. 7, [p. 4].
12. See “The Interchange News Service” in Boot and Shoe Recorder (April 2, 1913), pp. 139, 143 for an account of the campaign’s origins. The shoe reference may have been sparked by Dwiggins’ experience working for United Shoe Machinery Co., E.T. Wright & Co., and The Commonwealth Shoe & Leather Co. (maker of Bostonians, Shoes for Men) in 1914 and early 1915.
13. John J. Phillips, Jr. said that, “Dwiggins made a double spread illustration for the center page [of Vague] caricaturing the ‘Verse Leib’ [sic] poetry movement that was beginning to assault the literary battlements. The picture showed a crowd of lame, halt and blind being led by a stout lady on a cane. O’Brien showed a copy of it to Amy Lowell the doyen of the movement and she said the lady on the cane was intended for her.” From Phillips to Dorothy Abbe 16 December 1959 in Folder 19–755, Box 19, Dorothy Abbe Collection, Boston Public Library.
14. 16 Grimes Street, South Boston, the address of Vague, was where Phillips lived with his mother and sister. The use of his address rather than those of Palmer or Dwiggins suggests that the idea for Vague may have originated with him.
15. The references are to the painters James McNeil Whistler (1834–1903) and John Singer Sergent (1856–1925), the two most celebrated American painters of the time; and to the Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper (established in 1842).
16. The “celebrated contralto” Louise Rochambeau touting “Odeur de Cochon” may be a nod to Louise Homer (1871–1947), a member of the Boston Opera Company from 1909 to 1915. Given Dwiggins’ love of 19th-century adventure novels, there is a slim possibility that the name was taken from a character in Cartouche, the Celebrated French Robber by Richard Brinsley Peake (London: Hugh Cunningham, 1844):

Louise Rochambeau was lovely in the extreme; to use the words of Father André, in his Essay, she possessed the visible beautiful: the harmony which results from the proportions which nature and art have established in their productions; an assemblage of parts so well arranged by the aid of symmetry, that the whole may be embraced at one glance. [p. 255]

17. It is unlikely that the flower in the illustration is a clue that the woman is Mabel Dwiggins. Although Dwiggins’ wife was an avid gardner, she had long hair (which she wore up) and her dresses (in photographs from the period) were belted and unpatterned, with pleated collar and cuffs.
18. Phillips’ complex rhyme scheme suggests he had a model, but I have been unable so far to find a contemporary poem or poet that he is copying or parodying.
19. Dwiggins may have considered anti-war sentiment too serious to include with the aesthetic and literary hijinks in Vague. It is significant that he signed both “The Last War” and “La Derniére Mobilisation” with his name rather than Püterschein’s.
20. See “The Extra-Wild Animals of the Faraway-Land of Lurg, observed and described by Hermann Püterschein” in Happyland (February 1914), p. 31 and “The Extra-Wild Animals of the Far-Away Land of Lurg, Observed and described by Hermann and Jacob Püterschein in Happyland (March 1914), p. 41. The first installment described the Winged Wygampus and the second showed the Drab Doroone, two creatures inspired by the nonsense of Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear.
21. I base my conclusion on a sense of Phillips as the less serious of the two men. Later in his life he wrote The Bomb That Wouldn’t Go Off and Other Fables from Moronia (Boston: Bruce Humphries, 1941). Dwiggins contributed “pictographs” to it.

A comparison of the Caslon types used in Vague (1915) above and The Fabulist no. 1 (1915) below.

A comparison of the Caslon types used in Vague (1915) above and The Fabulist no. 1 (1915) below.