Benjamin De Casseres was an early 20th century critic of literature, theater, cinema, and society. Born on , he was primarily active between 1902 and 1945, writing articles, columns, and essays for a wide variety of newspapers, magazines, and journals, mostly from his home in New York City. He also published several books of poetry, prose, and correspondence, and in his later years self-published a series of pamphlets on literature and politics, often mixing is love of the two into a single topic.
De Casseres spent the first 26 years of his life in Philadelphia, where he worked for the Philadelphia Press from about the age of 15. He started out as an assistant to the editor, and soon was writing (unsigned) editorial copy of his own. In 1899, De Casseres moved (probably in November) to New York, where he began working as a proofreader for The Sun, a New York daily broadsheet that rivaled the likes of The New York Times. Except for a short stint in Los Angeles, De Casseres remained in New York until he died on Dec. 7, 1945.
Why De Casseres Interests Me
There are several aspects of De Casseres’ life and writings that fascinate me.
Foremost, De Casseres was known by a lot of influential people, and more importantly, they thought he was an influential person. As I wrote in How Benjamin De Casseres Built Authority 100 Years Ago: A Case Study for Modern Marketers, De Casseres hit pretty much all of the right notes to build up his own “brand” to keep people reading is works and relying on him as someone who provided insightful, if sometimes a bit kooky, ideas.
Given how much De Casseres was considered to be an influential and popular figure, it also fascinates me how little people know about him today. As a student of intellectual history, I enjoy looking at the ways in which ideas form, shift, and disappear from the zeitgeist of a particular era. Given that De Casseres wrote during a tumultuous period of history – two global wars, Prohibition, the Depression, the New Deal, etc. – I am extremely intrigued by how his own ideas either supported or (more often) ran against public opinion and the opinions of those with whom he came into contact.
As for De Casseres’ writing style, it is all over the place, and I love it. He is frequently praised as an epigrammatist, and it’s true that he is very quotable. However, the actual content of De Casseres’ essays shows how expansive and eclectic his range was. He wrote everything from straightforward historical and biographical essays to literary analyses in the style of the subject, from memorial versifications to surreal expositions on dust. One of his books is titled Chameleon: Being the Book of My Selves, and it’s becomes clear after reading just a few of his works that De Casseres that he truly could take on many different personas as a writer.
Finally, the subject matter also fascinates me. While I don’t always agree with (or even understand) some of the points he makes, his general interests and his social and political viewpoints tend to align with my own. He loved literature, cinema, philosophy, and he loved putting his love for those things in writing. He also considered himself an “individualist anarchist” who was a strong proponent of capitalism and disliked any sort of cronyism and statist intervention. In part, I suspect that was why he eventually fell out of vogue. He spent his last several years of writing columns and book reviews attacking FDR’s policies, and while he remained a witty writer who could turn a good phrase right up until his last column, published only a short time before he died,in much of his later writing De Casseres frequently sounded more like a crotchety old man than the insightful and quirky nonconformist of his earlier years.
Current De Casseres Scholarship
Today there is little, if any, primary scholarship interest in Benjamin De Casseres. When he is regarded by the academic community at all, De Casseres’ works are almost always looked to as a secondary source for studying other writers, such as Jack London or Eugene O’Neill, both of whom De Casseres knew personally.
The best source I’ve found for current Benjamin De Casseres research is benjamindecasseres.com. Run by publisher Kevin I. Slaughter, the site has a lot of good information about De Casseres, including some great biographical and bibliographic detail that has been extraordinarily helpful in my own research and collection of De Casseres works. As useful as the information is, however, it is not quite as scholarly as I am looking for.
My De Casseres Vision
My goal here is to create an online archive of critical versions of De Casseres’ works, including apparatus where necessary and notes about sources, citations, and more. In addition, I will build a comprehensive – though it’s unlikely ever to be truly exhaustive – bibliography of works that I know De Casseres has written, with pointers to items that are available online.
As of Dec. 2015, I have collected digital versions of:
- 12 books and pamphlets written by De Casseres
- 1,694 short works written by De Casseres, including
- Prefaces and introductions to books by others
- Essays, articles and columns
- Uncollected individual poems
- 1,303 citations about De Casseres or his works
I expect these numbers to grow.
Additional De Casseres Information
Writings by De Casseres