Monthly Archives: February 2018

The best and worst of February 1918: Magazines, stories, cover art, and jokes

Two months into My Year in 1918, I feel like I used to feel two months into a Foreign Service posting: completely at home in some ways but totally bewildered in others. I know who Viscount Morley was*, and which author every critic trots out to bemoan the sad state of fiction**, but there are references that go right over my head. Who is Baron Munchausen? What is Fletcherizing? And the jokes. I’ll never get the jokes.

Best magazine: The Crisis

The Crisis, February 1918

 This is a repeat, but no other magazine approaches The Crisis in terms of quality of writing and importance of subject matter. Aside from W.E.B. Du Bois’ autobiographical essay, which I wrote about last week on the 150th anniversary of his birth, the February issue includes Du Bois’ scathing take-down of a government-sponsored study on “Negro Education” that advocated the replacement of higher education institutions with manual, industrial, and educational training. There’s a horrifying account of the mob murder of an African-American man in Dyersburg, Tennessee—so brutal, the magazine reports, that some white townspeople felt he should have had a “decent lynching.” On the literary side, there’s “Leonora’s Conversion,” a slight but engaging story about a wealthy young black woman’s brief flirtation with the church.

I’m not awarding a Worst Magazine this month. Good Housekeeping was a contender again—dialect-talking black maid Mirandy has the month off, but Japanese manservant Hashimura Togo*** expounds on his employer’s marital problems in equally fractured English. (“‘You have left off kissing me as usually,’ she dib. ‘O.’ He march and deliver slight lip.”) The magazine redeems itself somewhat, though, with an article by suffragist Anna Kelton Wiley called “Why We Picketed the White House.”

Good Housekeeping, February 1918

Best short story: “A Sordid Story,” by J., The Egoist

February wasn’t a great month for short stories. Most of the ones I read, including two that made it into The Best American Short Stories of 1918, started out promisingly but ended with pathos or a gimmicky twist. “A Sordid Story,” in the January**** Egoist, isn’t great literature, but it has daring subject matter and lots of atmosphere. It features a Cambridge student named Alphonse, whose life is described in the most British sentence I’ve ever read:

He made friends easily and took friendship seriously; so seriously that he spent nearly the whole of the Michaelmas term following the taking of his degree in reading Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound and The Gospel according to St. Luke in the Greek with a much younger man—a certain Roderick Gregory—who was in his second year, but had hitherto failed to pass his Little-Go.

Maxwell Armfield, from “Cambridge and its History,” 1912

Alphonse falls for Roderick’s sister Beatrice, who “used to have a pet pig, and she called him Shakespeare, because he would be Bacon after his death.” But he spends the night with a working-class girl who grabs his arm as he’s walking near Midsummer Common and says, giggling, “Can yer tell me what o’clock it is?” Horrified with himself the next day, he goes back to her lodgings to pay her off. She tells him that he was her first lover, then, when he tells her it’s over, says, “Yer weren’t the first, then!” Relieved “not to be the first to help send a woman downward,” he goes back to his rooms, where Roderick is playing the cello and twenty-five copies of the Quarterly Journal of Mathematics, in which he has published a paper, await him. It’s only years later that he figures out that he was, in fact, the first.

Worst short story: “A Verdict in the Air,” J.A. Waldron, Judge

Lawrence Fellows, Judge, February 9, 1918

Harwood, on leave from aviation training, goes to a cabaret in Chicago. To his surprise, one of the singers is his childhood sweetheart Bessie Dean, who left their Ohio hometown to pursue a career in opera. She introduces Harwood to her husband Grindel, who takes a dislike to him. A few days later, Harwood is training on the Pacific Coast, when who should show up as a mechanic but Grindel! Harwood has a series of flying accidents, and Grindel is suspected, but he goes AWOL. Harwood is sent to fight with the French army. He visits a friend at a field hospital, where the nurse is none other than Bessie, who has escaped her husband. Back at the front, there’s a heated battle. Harwood pursues the last remaining German plane and hits its rudder after a lively skirmish. As the plane plunges to the ground, he sees that the pilot is—you guessed it—Grindel!

Well, the illustration is kind of cool.

Best magazine covers:

February was a great month for magazine covers. I just wish that the insides of the magazines were half as good. Besides the ones from Harper’s Bazar and Vanity Fair that I’ve mentioned already, there’s this Helen Dryden cover from Vogue,

 

 and this one, which Norman Rockwell sold to Judge after the Saturday Evening Post turned it down. I can kind of see why.

Best joke:

 This isn’t exactly a joke, but it made me laugh. It’s the opening of Louis Untermeyer’s review of poetry collections by Edna St. Vincent Millay, Samuel Roth, and Edwin Curran in the February 14 issue of The Dial.

These three first volumes, with their curious kinship and even more curious contrasts, furnish a variety of themes. They offer material for several essays: on “What Constitutes Rapture”; on “The Desire of the Moth for the Star”; on “The Growing Tendency among Certain Publishers to Ask One Dollar and Fifty Cents for Seventy Pages of Verse”; on “A Bill for the Conservation of Conservative Poetry”; on “Life, Literature, and the Last Analysis”; on “Why a Poet Should Never be Educated.”

Louis Untermeyer, ca. 1910-1915, Library of Congress

The Growing Tendency among Certain Publishers to Ask One Dollar and Fifty Cents for Seventy Pages of Verse! That Louis Untermeyer is such a card!

Not amused? Okay, then, you go back to 1918 and try to find something funnier.

Worst joke:

Judge magazine, February 9, 1918

 Once again, hard to choose. Maybe this, from the February 9 issue of Judge:

“You don’t—know me, do you, Bobby?” asked a lady who had recently been baptized.
“Sure I do,” piped the youth. “You’re the lady what went in swimming with the preacher, last Sunday.”

On to March!

*A British diplomat

**Mrs. Humphrey Ward

***Really Wallace Irwin, who made a career of writing about Togo. Mark Twain was a fan.

****I was reading The Egoist a month late on the principle that it would have taken time for the magazine to get to the United States, which I’ve since decided is ridiculous.

A Caruso fan on the factory floor

Remember Elizabeth Hasanovitz, the Hebrew school teacher’s daughter who fled Russia for a better life in New York? (If not, you can read about her here.) She’s back, in the second installment of her memoir in the February 1918 Atlantic.

Elizabeth attempted suicide at the end of the last installment, ground down by her life as a seamstress. She recovers quickly and gets a job in a non-union factory, making the princely sum of ten dollars a week.

My cheerfulness returned. Again I went among my friends, entertaining them with song and infecting them with my joyousness. Even in the shop I felt happy.

Factory workers, New York, 1911 (Lewis Wickes Hine, Library of Congress collection)

She starts saving up to send for her younger brother, and her friend Clara helps out with a fifty-dollar loan. Even the conversation at work has improved.

Very little talk about “fellers,” swell evening pumps, lace petticoats that the six dollar wage-earners were constantly discussing, in the sweater shop. Here we talked about questions of the day, world-happenings, music, art, literature, and trade questions.

Once she pays her debt to Clara, Elizabeth starts thinking about the finer things in life.

I at once went to the Opera House, secured tickets for five dollars at twenty-five cents each, so that I was provided with opera tickets for the next few weeks.

Enrico Caruso, New York Times, February 24, 1918

She sees Enrico Caruso sing and Anna Pavlova dance. Her tickets are standing room*, and she often goes straight from work.

If it happened to rain, my dress would be soaked through and through, and with wet clothes I would stand through the performance, changing from foot to foot, while there were often plenty of empty seats in the orchestra. Very often I would pay with a cold the next day.

Back at the factory, Elizabeth tries to get her co-workers interested in joining the Dress-and-Waist-Makers’ Union. The good conditions they enjoy, she argues, were won by activists in unionized factories. The other girls say, “You better shut up; if you don’t you will get fired.” She pays a visit to the union, and word gets back to her colleagues and her boss. They warn her that union leaders are nothing but grafters, after the members’ money.

May Day march, Union Square, 1913 (Bain News Service, Library of Congress collection)

Elizabeth decides to attend the May Day workers’ march.

The day fell on Thursday**, a bright warm spring day. The many thousands of young girls, in uniforms of white waists with red collars, all in line, were ready to march on. The sun illuminated their pale but happy faces as they walked through the avenues and streets. Looking up at the skyscrapers where they slaved all year, their shiny eyes would gleam with pride and hope, as if they would speak and warn the world, “behold you who keep us in the darkness, no more are we to slave for you!”

 The next day, in high spirits, Elizabeth sets out for work, humming a favorite Russian song.

“Good morning,” said I merrily to the foreman, who happened to be the first to meet me when I entered the shop.***

 “Good morning,” came an angry sound from his nose.

That Saturday, Elizabeth receives her pay–and a dismissal notice.

Riverside Park, New York, ca. 1909 (Detroit Publishing Company, Library of Congress collection)

It’s the slow season, and Elizabeth has no luck finding a new job. She wonders how she will provide for her brother when he arrives. She sits on a bench in Riverside Park, looking out at the Hudson and thinking very Russian thoughts.

Life, life—O Happiness, where is thy sweetness, murmured I, in such mortal anguish for life.

 (To be continued.)

Elizabeth is still a drama queen. And she’s as snooty as ever. When her mother sends her a poem that her sixteen-year-old brother Nathan has written for her, she criticizes his grammar. She says of her friend Clara, who took her in after her suicide attempt and lent her the money for her brother’s passage,

Her spiritual development was on a much smaller scale than mine, and she would easily be inspired by things that did not interest me at all. My temper was a more revolutionary one, and I was more sensitive.

But, amid the flippancy of the fashionable magazines of 1918 and the dullness of the mainstream press, she’s a fresh, genuine voice.

(If you want to read about Elizabeth in her own words, her autobiography is available in several versions at Amazon. The issues of the Atlantic that it was serialized in (January – April 1918) can be accessed at Hathitrust Digital Library here.)

*in a parterre, maybe!

**So it was probably 1913.

***A different translator or editor apparently took over midway through the article, and Elizabeth in inverted sentences begins always to talk.

On W.E.B. Du Bois’ 150th birthday, a look back at his “Jubilee”

The February 1918 issue of the NAACP magazine The Crisis, headlined EDITOR’S JUBILEE NUMBER, starts with this note: “The Editor of the CRISIS will celebrate his fiftieth birthday on the twenty-third of February, 1918. He would be glad on this occasion to have a word from each of his friends.” The editor was W.E.B. Du Bois, born 150 years ago today.

The issue includes an autobiographical essay by Du Bois called “The Shadow of Years.” He tells of his ancestry:

a flood of Negro blood, a strain of French, a bit of Dutch, and thank God! No “Anglo-Saxon”

—his childhood in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, playing comfortably with his white friends and largely unaware of the country’s vast racial divide:

I think I probably surprised my hosts more than they me, for I was easily at home and perfectly happy and they looked to me just like ordinary people, while my brown face and frizzled hair must have seemed strange to them

The Crisis, February 1918

—encountering other African-Americans in large numbers for the first time at Fisk College in Tennessee:

Lo! My people came dancing about me—riotous in color, gay in laughter, full of sympathy, need, and pleading; unbelievably beautiful girls—“colored” girls—sat beside me and actually talked to me while I gazed in tongue-tied silence

—and the “Days of Disillusionment” that fueled his desire to work for the upliftment of his people:

I began to realize how much of what I had called Will and Ability was sheer luck. Suppose my good mother had preferred a steady income from my child labor, rather than bank on the precarious dividend of my higher training?…Suppose Principal Hosmer had been born with no faith in “darkeys,” and instead of giving me Greek and Latin had taught me carpentry and the making of tin pans?

If you want to learn more about the human side of this towering (and sometimes intimidating) thinker, you can find the “The Shadow of Years” here. Or you can read “Of the Meaning of Progress,” the essay in Du Bois’ 1903 classic The Souls of Black Folk about his days as a young teacher in a rural Tennessee community. (I’ve been listening to the audiobook, wonderfully narrated by Rodney Gardiner.)

In “The Shadow of Years,” Du Bois presents himself as an old man. “The most disquieting sign of my mounting years is a certain garrulity about myself, quite foreign to my young days,” he begins. He ends the essay as follows:

Last year, I looked death in the face and found its lineaments not unkind. But it was not my time. Yet, in nature sometime soon and in the fullness of days, I shall die; quietly, I trust, with my face turned South and Eastward; and dreaming or dreamless, I shall, I am sure, enjoy death as I have enjoyed life.

But Du Bois lived almost long enough to celebrate another Jubilee, dying in Ghana in 1963 at the age of ninety-five.

As for his request in The Crisis for a word from each of his friends, I’ll just say this, from the distance of a hundred years:

Thank you.

(You can read more about The Crisis here and here.)

Wednesday Miscellany: Virile modernists, “quotation marks,” and a masterpiece on the way

An ad for The Egoist in The Little Review: “Obviously a journal of interest to virile readers only.”  In that case, I want my $1.60 back.

Also: “It is not written for tired and depressed people.” Sorry, Egoist, but in our day only tired and depressed people read T.S. Eliot.

“Transforming the whole conception of poetic form.” Okay, I’ll give you that one.

Little Review, February 1918

An ad for next month’s Little Review: “We are about to publish a prose masterpiece.” Okay, if you’re publishing Ulysses, and your other contributors are Wyndham Lewis, Ezra Pound, and Ford Madox Hueffer (aka Ford), then you’re entitled to a little attitude.

(In case you’re wondering what they had in store for February that made them reduce Ulysses to a footnote, it was a full issue devoted to French poets, in French. Cool, but no Ulysses.)

Little Review, February 1918

One last Little Review ad, showing us that “overuse” of “quotation marks” is not a strictly “contemporary” phenomenon. I do like “Solve Your Food Problem” as a restaurant slogan, though. Sometimes, it’s just that simple.

Little Review, February 1918

Dear Daddy-Long-Legs, Drop dead!

If you’ve followed My Year in 1918 since the beginning, you may be thinking around now, “What’s with this person? She said she was going to read her way through 1918, but all she does is sit around looking at magazines. She’s mentioned one book so far, and it wasn’t exactly Dostoevsky.”

As my Book List will attest, I have, in fact, read other books. I just haven’t had much to say about them. But now I’ve read a book that I have a lot to say about—Jean Webster’s 1912 epistolary novel Daddy-Long-Legs.

Daddy-Long-Legs—which I’d read before, when I was twelve or so—is the story of Jerusha Abbott, a foundling who was raised, if that’s the word for it, in the grim John Grier Home. A trustee of the home offers to put her through college. She’s supposed to write him a letter every month, and he keeps his identity secret. She renames herself Judy and—despite never having seen the inside of a house—adapts quickly to college life. She sends her benefactor cheery, breezy missives, illustrated with whimsical drawings. She saw his elongated shadow in the hallway once, so she nicknames him “Daddy-Long-Legs.”

Illustration by Jean Webster

Judy tells Daddy-Long-Legs everything—about her (quickly overcome) academic struggles, her fun-loving roommate Sally McBride of Worcester, Mass.*, her snooty roommate Julia Pendleton, and her growing fondness for Julia’s young uncle, Jervie, who’s a socialist and not at all like the rest of his clan.

If you haven’t read Daddy-Long-Legs, and are planning to, and are the world’s densest reader**, then stop here, because I’m going to give away the ending.

JERVIE AND DADDY-LONG-LEGS ARE ONE AND THE SAME!

Judy discovers this after she writes to Daddy-Long-Legs, broken-hearted after turning down Jervie’s marriage proposal because of the vast social divide between them, and begs for a meeting. Her last letter, written after she discovers the truth and accepts his proposal, is an outpouring of joy.

From a twenty-first-century perspective: No. Just…no.

Run, Judy, run! (Illustration by Jean Webster.)

How about this instead?

Dear Whoever,

Of all the sick mind games anyone ever played, yours is the sickest. I came from nowhere. I had nobody. Nobody, that is, except the benefactor who lifted me from poverty—in spite of everything, thank you for that—and the man I loved. I told my benefactor all about him—his generosity, his liveliness, but also his little inconsiderate acts (showing up at inconvenient times and expecting everyone to drop everything) and his horrible family. And you let me do this—for FOUR YEARS—even as our friendship turned to love.

Two men in the world cared about me. Now it’s just one. Daddy-Long-Legs is dead. No, worse—he never existed. I can always find another lover, but I’ll never have another father. I’ll miss him, Jervie, more than I’ll miss you.

And all that string-pulling along the way…making me spend the summer at your old nanny’s farm when I begged to go to the McBride family camp in the Adirondacks. “It’s the kind of nice, jolly, care-free time that I’ve never had; and I think every girl deserves it once in her life,” I said. But no, to the farm it was—so that I could keep you entertained during your brief visit. I’m not your plaything, Jervie.

You probably think I’m going to run off and marry Jimmie McBride. But you know what? I’m twenty-one. I’ve never lived anywhere but in a foundling asylum and a girls’ college. I’m not going to marry anyone. I need some time on my own.

 Not yours, not anyone’s,

 Judy

 There. That’s better.

Jean Webster, Bookman Magazine, July 1916

The ending aside, though, Daddy-Long-Legs was my most enjoyable read of the year so far—bright and breezy and fun. Jean Webster seems like she would have been bright and breezy and fun too. But her life was shadowed with tragedy. Her father started a publishing business with Samuel Clemens (AKA Mark Twain), who was his wife’s uncle, but it ended up going broke, and he committed suicide when Jean was fourteen. She had a long affair with Standard Oil heir Glenn Ford McKinney, whose wife suffered from severe mental illness. They finally married in 1915, after his divorce, but she died in childbirth the next year, at the age of thirty-nine. Her daughter was named Jean in her memory.

A bright light, gone far too soon. But she left a lot of books behind. There’s a sequel to Daddy-Long-Legs called Dear Enemy, which I’ll read later in the year. For now, on to more serious fare—Willa Cather’s O Pioneers!

 I’m sure it will be great, but I miss Judy already.

*Shout out!

**Well, tied with twelve-year-old me

Are you a superior adult? Take this 1918 intelligence test and find out!

Intelligence tests were all the rage in 1918. Without them, how could you determine whether someone was a dullard, a laggard, an imbecile, feeble-minded, retarded, or deficient (all terms I found in a single article in Century magazine)? How could you implement your eugenics program?

There were lots of articles about intelligence tests, but I was having trouble finding the tests themselves, so I had no idea where I fit in, 1918-intelligence-wise. Luckily, Literary Digest stepped in. Its February 16, 1918 issue included a test that, it promised, “is so easily used that within a brief period readers of The Digest will doubtless be applying it to their family and friends.” Okay, a hundred years isn’t all that brief, but here we go.

The test goes like this: you go through a list of 100 words, which have been selected randomly from the dictionary and placed in order of difficulty, and see how many you can define. 75 and above makes you a “superior adult”—top third of the population. 65 makes you an average adult. There are different scales for kids, but, trust me, if you’re a kid and you’re reading this blog, you’re superior.

The test designers are pretty flexible about scoring. Like, if a child defines “orange” as “an orange is to eat,” or “gown” as “it’s a nice gown that ladies wear,” then that’s okay. The key is to establish that you have a clear understanding of what the word means.

The easiest words are at the beginning, so you get a free pass on some of them depending on your age. A fifteen-year-old starts with #21. I’d suggest starting at #51.

Here’s the test. If you’re going to take it, don’t read any further until you’re finished—spoilers lie ahead. The Google dictionary is an easy way to check your answers.

Whew! That was exhausting, wasn’t it? And surprisingly hard. Or maybe that’s just me.

I was pretty cocky going in. Not to get all braggy on you, but vocabulary is my thing. Whenever there was a vocabulary test—which, luckily for me, there is at several key junctures in the American educational process—I would ace it. Random dictionary words, how hard can they be? I figured I might miss a couple of 1918-specific words, about wireless telegraphy or animal husbandry or whatever, but I was counting on upper nineties.

I got a 92. Safely in the superior adult range, but not spectacular. If there had been a competition, with a prize like, say, a date with Ezra Pound, I definitely wouldn’t have won.

Here’s where I went wrong: Depredation. Drabble, Declivity. Ambergris. Theosophy. Parterre. Shagreen. Limpet.

A limpet (Tango 22)

In some cases I was close. I knew that theosophy was a philosophy related to theology, and that there were societies about it, but I didn’t know exactly what they believed. I knew a limpet was a sea creature, but I thought it was a wiggly fish. (Which doesn’t make sense in retrospect, given the phrase “stuck to me like a limpet.”) Other words, like drabble*, sounded like I should know them, but when I thought about the meaning I drew a blank. The only one that didn’t even sound familiar was shagreen. So. 92.

At this point, you may be thinking, false advertising—the blog title is about an intelligence test, not a vocabulary test. But the amazing thing is, it IS an intelligence test! The result, Literary Digest says, is reliably within ten percent of your score on the Binet-Simon (IQ) scale. And it doesn’t depend much on your level of schooling.

That’s right, this is a reliable, objective test of intelligence! There’s no earthly reason why, say, a sharecropper’s child should have more trouble identifying a cameo

Tobias “ToMar” Maier

or a parterre

or the other kind of parterre

than the child of a Rockefeller or a Carnegie.

It makes you think, doesn’t it? If a vocabulary test that’s so clearly reliant on cultural background is such an accurate predictor of your score on an IQ test, then maybe that should raise questions about the IQ test?

But that’s just me, with my 21st-century nitpicking.

I hope you had fun. If anyone got 100, please be in touch—and let me know where the hell you ever heard of shagreen!

A box covered with shagreen

*A cool feature of the Google dictionary is that it has a little graph showing how the word’s popularity has changed over time. Generally, these are fairly predictable, but “drabble” takes off like crazy in the 1960s and peaks in about 1975. I was puzzled, since I didn’t recall everyone suddenly talking about things becoming wet and dirty by movement into or through muddy water. Then it dawned on me: the graph traces the career path of Margaret Drabble, the British novelist. Who’s great! If, unlike me, you’re allowed to read books written in the last hundred years, I recommend The Millstone.

 

Wednesday Miscellany: Romantic magazine covers and a Hoover-themed valentine

Strange as it sounds, government administrators were huge celebrities in 1918. And none was more famous than Herbert Hoover, head of the U.S. Food Administration. (Yes, that Herbert Hoover.) To reduce consumption so that food could be sent to Europe, he led campaigns for “Meatless Mondays” and “Wheatless Wednesdays.” Ads for food and cooking equipment touted their effectiveness in helping housewives “Hooverize.” Good Housekeeping magazine called him–with a wink, presumably–“the man who made food famous.”

In that spirit, here’s a 1918 valentine to all of you:

Herbert Hoover Presidential Library, via prologue.blogs.archives.gov.

Magazines in 1918 were pretty conservative about portraying any kind of romantic activity, but judging from the cover of the February 1918 Cosmopolitan, soldiers got a free pass.

Finally, the February 1918 cover of Vanity Fair…not Valentine’s-themed, but definitely romantic.

Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone!