Monthly Archives: January 2018

The best and worst of January 1918: Magazines, stories, thinkers, and jokes

 I made it! One month of reading books, magazines, and the news as if I were living in 1918. It’s been even more fun than I expected. The 1918 New York Times at breakfast, printouts of The Dial and The Egoist for on-the-go reading, and Edith Wharton at bedtime. I don’t miss 2018 at all.

Here are some of the month’s highs and lows.

Best magazine: The Crisis

I expected the NAACP’s magazine, edited by W.E.B. Du Bois, to be historically interesting. It was–and it also turned out to be the month’s most compelling read, full of top-quality explanatory journalism, social criticism, personal essays, and fiction.

Runner-up: The New Republic. When I’m befuddled by something I read about in the New York Times—like, was the American war effort as pathetic as Wilson’s critics make it sound, or did Harry Garfield really have to shut down the entire East Coast—all I have to do is wait a few days and the New Republic will provide a clear, convincing explanation. And then explain it again. And then, in case I still don’t get it, spend another couple of pages making the same point. Illuminating? Yes. Concise? No.

Worst magazine: Good Housekeeping

Good Housekeeping was already in the lead for this category because of the horrible Marie Corelli article about cleansing the world through eugenics. Then I read “Mirandy on the One We Didn’t Marry,” by Dorothy Dix. I knew of Dix as a pioneering advice columnist. I’m a big fan of advice columns, and I was eager to find out what she had to say to the women of 1918. But Mirandy turns out to be Dix’s monthly impersonation of an African-American woman who provides her views on life in heavy dialect. “Ef you ’grees wid a woman ‘bout her husban’s faults an’ weaknesses she is lak enough to up an’ lambast you wid de fust thing dat is handy,” Mirandy says. There’s an illustration of a kerchiefed woman with an umbrella giving a talking-to to her pop-eyed friend. If you want to hear a real African-American woman’s take on family life, check out the lovely “A Mother’s New Year’s Resolutions” by Josephine T. Washington, in, where else, The Crisis.

 Best short story: “The Way of the Transgressor,” by Wallace Green

I wrote about this story, which ran in The Crisis, earlier this month. It’s vivid, unformulaic, funny, and moving. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find out anything about Green (if that was his real name), or to find anything else that he wrote. I’ll keep looking.

Runner up: “The Policewoman’s Daughter,” by Ben Hecht (Smart Set, January 1918). Agatha is an innocent young woman with a domineering mother (a figurative, not a literal, policewoman), and the story takes place entirely in her head as she waits in the parlor of a seedy hotel for an assignation with a violinist. As the minutes tick by and it becomes clear that he isn’t going to show up, she falls into a state of anguish, followed by relief that God has saved her from ruin. Then she realizes that she got the date wrong, and her joyful anticipation returns. Hecht, who was twenty-three when this story was written, would go on to be one of Hollywood’s top screenwriters. His many credits include His Girl Friday, which is one of the talkiest films ever made. In “The Policewoman’s Daughter,” no one says a word. Talk about versatility!

Worst short story: “A Palm Beach Honeymoon,” author unknown

Vanity Fair, January 1918

I opened up Vanity Fair and, after 23 pages of ads, seven of them for dogs, finally got to some editorial copy. Or so I thought. “A Palm Beach Honeymoon” is the story of, well, a Palm Beach honeymoon. Robert is smitten with Mabel, his stunning bride, but he gradually becomes aware that, from her perspective, something in the marriage is amiss. Desperate to find out what it is, he asks his friend, who has been flirting with Mabel’s maid, to see what he can find out. His friend reveals that, during the train ride down, the porter threw away Mabel’s copy of Vanity Fair. Really, Vanity Fair? That’s what I get after all those ads? An advertorial?

 Most famous thinker no one cares about today: G.K. Chesterton

G.K. Chesterton (photographer unknown)

 1918 was a bad year, great thinker-wise. Mark Twain died in 1910. So did William James, followed by his brother Henry in 1916. Walter Lippmann was starting to make his mark, but he was still in his twenties in 1918, and in any case he was on hiatus from journalism, working as an assistant to the Secretary of War. So that leaves…G.K. Chesterton. He’s probably best known today for his Father Brown detective stories, but back then he was known for, well, everything. He was a critic and a historian and a theologian and a bunch of other things. Everyone was always quoting him or criticizing him or reviewing his books. There could be a reading-in-1918 drinking game where you take a shot every time someone mentions him. Luckily there isn’t, because I’d be sozzled all the time.

 Least famous thinker everyone cares about today: T.S. Eliot

T.S. Eliot (Lady Ottoline Morrell, 1923)

 Okay, Eliot, who was 30 in 1918, wasn’t completely unknown. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” had been published in Poetry magazine in 1915, and The Egoist, where he was assistant editor, put together a small collection of his poems in 1917. He was publishing reviews in The Egoist and elsewhere. But he was still working as a banker, and no one, except maybe Ezra Pound, suspected that he’d end up as the century’s most important poet and critic.

 Best joke:

 Geraldine—Why didn’t you enlist?
Gerald—I had trouble with my feet.
Geraldine—Flat, or cold?
(Judge, January 5, 1918)

Judge magazine, January 5, 1918

I know what you’re thinking: “This joke is not funny at all. I wish I could go back in time and never have heard this joke.” But, believe me, this is the best joke I could find. I know. It’s sad.

 Worst joke:

It’s pretty much a tie between all the other jokes  I read this month. They’re either corny, like this one:

“I’d like to have Simpkins’ yellow streak.”
“Why you coward!”
“It’s in a gold mine.”

or incomprehensible, like this one:

He—What music are you going to have at your dance?
Other he—The fraternity hat-band.

(Both from Judge, January 5, 1918)

Okay, I can’t end on that note. As I’ve noted before, Judge did have excellent illustrators. I’ll close out the month with another Yapp’s Crossing illustration from John Gruelle, who, it turns out, was the creator of Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy.

On to February!

A 1918 story gets the MFA workshop treatment

For a recent MFA graduate like me, the 1918 writers’ market inspires huge envy. There were dozens of mass-circulation magazines, and all of them were full of short stories. Quality was a different matter—the poet and critic Louis Untermeyer summed up the critical consensus when he said in the January 17, 1918, issue of The Dial that the magazines offer the public “a series of pink and white heroines with perfume in their veins, endless variations of the Cinderella-Zenda romances, wax dummies with virile pretentions on their lips and riding breeches on their soul.” So I wasn’t expecting much. Most of the stories I’ve read have been pretty entertaining, though. The biggest problem is that, almost without exception, they end abruptly with a “surprise” twist that anyone could have seen coming.

The core of an MFA program is the workshop. Students read each other’s stories and—in my program, anyway—write letters commenting on them. I decided to give this treatment to one of the stories I read this month, “Between the Cat’s Paws,” by Elizabeth Jordan, which appeared in the January 1918 issue of Woman’s Home Companion.

Dear Elizabeth:

I enjoyed reading “Between the Cat’s Paws.” You did a good job of portraying the main character, Penfield “Penny” Hewett, a 23-year-old lover of “golf sticks and polo ponies,” who, to the unflattering astonishment of his friends and family, has found success as an architect. We see the increasing sense of entrapment caused by his long engagement to his college classmate Arabella, who’s a suffragist in the East and rarely writes these days. And we see how he’s torn apart by his feelings for Ruth, the sister of Ralph, his business partner and pal. I wish I’d learned more about Ruth, though, beyond that she’s an “awfully nice girl” who keeps Penny and Ralph “comfy.”

The climax of the story, when Arabella shows up in town after failing to respond to Penny’s subtle (he thinks) inquiries as to whether the engagement is still on, mostly works. I would have liked to see more of the interplay between Penny, Arabella, Ruth, and Ralph at the tea he arranges at Arabella’s insistance, and at the dinner that follows. You can’t just say that “the best in each of the four at the table came out and fused into a perfect comradeship,” we need to see this happening. The next scene, with Penny and Arabella alone in a taxi, worked better for me. I believed that Arabella, having seen through Penny’s description of Ruth as “a peach” and “the sort of girl that makes a perfect friend,” would want to check Ruth out before setting Penny free, and I smiled when, to Penny’s bemusement, she said, “Well, Penny, it’s all right. You can have her.” I didn’t believe it, though, when she said that she would have gone ahead with the marriage if she hadn’t approved of Ruth. This seems like a case of the story driving the character, rather than the other way around.

I also didn’t buy it when Arabella and Ralph fell in love. Arabella seems too sophisticated and ambitious for Ralph. And Ralph is clearly in love with Penny. You say that his eyes “usually rested on Penny with the deep, dumb devotion that shines in the eyes of a splendid collie,” and that Ralph “adored his chum and did not care who knew it.” I can imagine Arabella (who may be gay as well, given that, pre-Ralph, she was planning to devote her life to her career once she was free of Penny) forming an alliance of convenience with Ralph. But true love? I don’t think so.

Thanks for a good read, and I look forward to more of your stories.

Best,

Mary Grace

Elizabeth Jordan in 1901

Elizabeth Jordan is—like practically everyone I’ve come across in 1918—an intriguing character. In addition to being a prolific short story writer, she was a noted journalist and editor. She accepted and edited Sinclair Lewis’s first novel for the publishing house Harper & Brothers (now HarperCollins), and she was the long-time editor of Harper’s Bazaar. She was a close friend of Henry James, and she convinced him to contribute a chapter to a 1908 round-robin novel called The Whole Family.

Jordan was a suffragist herself, and one of my favorite things about “Between the Cat’s Paws” is that ambitious, socially engaged Arabella isn’t a villain or figure of fun, as some writers might have made her. She’s the smartest character in the story (okay, that’s not saying a whole lot), and she pulls all the strings. As for the homoerotic subtext, this is something I’ve seen a surprising amount of, even in The Melting of Mollyespecially in The Melting of Molly. More on this subject later.

I enjoyed “Between the Cat’s Paws.” If Jordan had been free to write a story about the world as she really lived in it, though—now, that’s a story I’d like to read.

Who do you love? Walter Lippmann vs. H.L. Mencken

There’s a short story by the wonderful, much-missed writer Laurie Colwin called “An Old-Fashioned Story.” It’s about a rebellious young woman named Elizabeth whose horrible rich parents decided when she was a child that she should marry Nelson, the upstanding son of their equally horrible best friends. Elizabeth isn’t having any of it. Nelson’s ne’er-do-well older brother James sounds more up her alley, but he’s always off somewhere and she hasn’t seen him since she was a child. He finally shows up at his family’s holiday party, and she leaves with him, scandalizing everyone. But, as she sits in a bar listening to him drone on about his wicked ways, she realizes he’s a bore. A few weeks later, Nelson shows up at her apartment when she’s suffering from a cold. He turns out to be a secret rebel, and to be the one for her.

I thought of this story after reading (or listening to) social commentary by Walter Lippmann and H.L. Mencken, two of the top pundits of the 1918 era. I’ve tuned out of 21st century podcasts, and the audio accompaniment to my walks lately has been Lippmann’s 1912 book of essays A Preface to Politics. In it, Lippman, who was only twenty-three when the book was published, goes on sensibly about what’s wrong with politics in the United States: basically, that our system is organized around a notion of how people should be, rather than how they really are. He builds his case methodically, quoting William James and Nietzsche and G.K. Chesterton. He’s sensible, persuasive, and intelligent—Harvard Phi Beta Kappa intelligent. He’s the golden boy. Your mom would love him. But you wouldn’t say he was exciting.

Walter Lippmann (Pirie MacDonald, 1914)

Then, in the January 1918 issue of Smart Set, I came across H.L. Mencken. Mencken was the magazine’s co-editor, and after 136 pages of jocular stories of varying quality there’s a piece by him called “Seven Pages about Books.” Reviewing a book called Success Easier than Failure, by E. W. Howe, he writes that it’s “the first forthright exposure, so far as I know, of the working philosophy of the American people—not the moony philosophy they serve with the lip, but the harsh, realistic, Philistine philosophy they actually practice.” He goes on:

This fundamental dualism, this disparity between what is officially approved and what is privately done, is at the heart of the American character; it sets our people off from nearly all other peoples. It is the cause of the astonishing hypocrisy that foreigners see in us, and it is the cause, too, of our constant failure to understand those foreigners and their ways.

H.L. Mencken

Mencken, the high school-educated son of a cigar factory owner, is as scruffy as Lippmann is urbane, as direct as Lippmann is deliberate. Reading him after weeks of 1918 journalism felt like stepping out into the fresh air from an overheated parlor. Finally—a writer who felt contemporary.

Then I read on. Mencken complains about how we “save the [n-word] republics from themselves” and then try to turn them into democracies. In a supposed tribute to the Jewish people, he says that any flaws they may possess are due to “corruption of blood” through intermixing with Greeks, Arabs, and Armenians. “The shark that a Jew can be at his worst is simply a Greek or Armenian at his best,” he says.

Meanwhile, in A Preface to Politics, Lippmann has turned his attention to a report on vice in Chicago. Prostitution, he says, isn’t a problem that takes effort to focus on, like trusts, or the poor. Instead, it “lies close to the dynamics of our own natures. Research is stimulated, actively aroused, and a passionate zeal suffuses what is probably the most spontaneous reform enthusiasm of our time.” Get it? Stimulated? Aroused? Passionate? Lippmann has sex on the brain! (I wonder if his editor noticed the puns. They might have slipped by me if the otherwise sedate narrator hadn’t had such a good time with them. He does all but say “heh heh heh.”)

It’s not just the puns. Lippmann argues that the preventive approach the Chicago commission advocates—more enforcement, putting lights in public parks, etc.—will never work. The only effective solution to prostitution, he says, is to get rid of the stifling morality that forces sex underground—to allow it to be enjoyed by people other than couples in lifelong monogamous marriages. Now that’s contemporary.

Mencken, as he winds up, takes a direct swipe at Lippmann, mocking his “sonorous rhapsodies.” Maybe he has a point.

But sorry, H.L., it’s too late.

Walter, you’re the one.

Wednesday Miscellany: Oh and by the way we’re publishing Ulysses

I can’t wait to find out what surprise the Little Review has in store for February 1918 that’s so huge that they can casually toss off “oh, and we’re publishing the first installment of Ulysses in March.”

The Little Review, January 1918

The best art of 1918 is found in some surprising places. For example, ads for constipation medicine.

Woman’s Home Companion, January 1918

Support the troops! Send them cigarettes from the enemy!*

*Actually just pretend-Turkish: really Liggett & Myers tobacco.

When half the country shut down

There seems to be a pattern: when something bad happens in 2018, it turns out that a similar, but way worse, thing happened on the same day in 1918. First the cold weather, now the shutdown.

Believe me, I know how bad a government shutdown is—I went through several of them during my Foreign Service career. But on January 21, 1918, half the country shut down.

The problem: ships full of war supplies destined for Europe were sitting idle because they didn’t have coal to fuel them. The fuel couldn’t get through because of congestion on the railways. So, on January 16, Fuel Administrator Harry Garfield ordered manufacturers east of the Mississippi and in Louisiana and Minnesota to shut down for five days beginning on January 18. In addition, all business establishments, with a few exceptions, were ordered to shut down for the next five Mondays.

Fuel Administrator Harry Garfield

The order, according to the New York Times, “came with an abruptness which left official Washington gasping.” Surprisingly, not many people asked, “What gives you the right to do this? You’re the fuel administrator, not the economic commissar.” But there were a lot of objections. The Times editorial page questioned Garfield’s competence, saying that “chloroforming a nation to spare it the pangs of hunger is not good therapeutics, it is malpractice.” The Senate, which was controlled by the Democrats but you’d never know it by the way they treated President Wilson, voted 50 to 19 in favour of a resolution requesting suspension of the order for five days to allow time to evaluate it. Too late! By the time the resolution was approved at “6:05 o’clock,” Garfield had signed the order and it “was flashed to every city in the country.” The Times noted that, after a day that “had been enough to try to nerves of every one,” Garfield seemed unperturbed. (It could be that, having been an eyewitness to the assassination of his father, President Garfield, at age 17, nothing seemed all that bad after that.)

In response to objections that workers would lose their wages, Garfield suggested that their employers could pay them. The board of U.S. Steel, though, decided that this was not such a good idea. Chairman E.H. Gary, who, according to the Times, “did one of the hardest day’s work in his busy life,” said that to pay idle workers “would establish a precedent that would eventually be unfair to the employer and the employe.” The New York State Federation of Labor estimated that 80 percent of the state’s 600,000 workers would lose their pay during the shutdown.

Railway Age (public domain photo)

For the first few days, things went all right. More coal was making its way to the ports, despite freezing temperatures and snowstorms. But then came the first Monday shutdown. Disaster! Federal officials had mobilized longshoremen to unload the thousands of tons of coal that had been rushed to the piers, but they were stopped by police and soldiers because they didn’t have photo IDs. The rule requiring the IDs wasn’t supposed to go into effect until February 1, but it was implemented early because of bomb threats. By the time it was lifted, most of the workers had gone home. Meanwhile, merchandise that arrived by train couldn’t be moved out of the rail yards to make room for the coal because, oops, the department store warehouses they were destined for were closed under Garfield’s order. The result of all the chaos: less than half the normal daily supply of coal arrived in New York.

Some theatrical fare on offer (January 22, 1918)

At least the idle workers had something to entertain them. Theaters had been given permission to stay open on Mondays and close on Tuesdays instead. On the first workless Monday, it was standing room only in the theaters and the vaudeville, motion-picture, and burlesque houses.

How to be a New York Times war correspondent, 1918-style

So you got hold of a time machine and you want be a New York Times war correspondent in 1918? Here are some tips.

1. If the British Prime Minister gives an important speech on the war, don’t worry about analyzing it. Just send in the official report.

New York Times, January 6, 1918

2. To be on the safe side, you might also want to quote a British newspaper’s analysis of the speech in its entirety.

New York Times, January 6, 1918

3. If you don’t know what’s going on, open with a vague statement.

New York Times, January 15, 1918

4. Or just come out and admit that you don’t have a clue.

New York Times, January 16, 1918

5. If you manage to talk with someone who’s actually involved in the war but all he does is spout generalities, throw in lots of atmospherics.

New York Times, January 14, 1918

6. Don’t worry about sending in war news. This will be provided by your colleagues, like a reporter covering the unveiling of a plaque at the Biltmore Hotel honoring its employees at the front, who will come across a letter from one of these employees containing actual war news.

New York Times, January 14, 1918

7. Human interest is also good! If the German press reports that the mistress of the former German emperor has died, write about that. Don’t worry about getting confirmation. The Times can just run another obituary in 1940, when she actually does die.

New York Times, January 12, 1918

I know that reporters in Europe faced censorship and restrictions on their movements. And the Western Front was quiet in January 1918. Still, I have to believe it was possible to do better than this. I can see now why the public was so eager for soldiers’ personal accounts of life at the front, provided in books and public lectures. I hope that, as the war heats up and American lives are increasingly on the line, the Times will provide the public with better information.

Wednesday Miscellany: Women’s clothing, or lack thereof

She: What do you think, Kate–shall I take off another stitch or two?
He (sotto voce)–Take off another stitch! Dear, dear! I had better absent myself without delay!

This is about as racy as 1918 gets.

Judge, January 12, 1918

Note to advertisers: if you want to get a half-naked woman into the New York Times, make her an Egyptian goddess.

From the New York TImes rotogravure: the “new wartime evening gown” with a knitting pocket. Waltzing…sharp needles…what could go wrong?

New York Times, January 13, 1918 (All the photos in the rotogravure were this bad.)