Monthly Archives: April 2018

The best and worst of April 1918: Magazines, stories, faint praise, and neologisms

A third of the way through!

After four months in 1918, I’ve become both more optimistic and more pessimistic about our present world. More optimistic because so many problems that seemed intractable back then, like the acceptability in mainstream circles of overt racism, sexism, and antisemitism, are gone now. More pessimistic because of all the new problems, like global warming, that people back then couldn’t have conceived of.

Okay, enough philosophizing. On to the best and worst of 1918.

Best magazine: The Dial

The Dial is one of the most reliably interesting reads of 1918. It started out in 1840 as an outlet for the Transcendentalists (Louisa May Alcott’s father came up with the name) and was now a Chicago-based political and literary journal. H.L. Mencken wasn’t a fan—he ridiculed the “insane labeling and pigeon-holing that passes for criticism among the gifted Harvard boys of the Dial and the Nation”—but staff writer Randolph Bourne gave as good as he got, saying that Mencken and Theodore Dreiser “beat at a strong man of puritanism which, for the younger generation, has not even the vitality to be interesting.”*

The Dial did have a tendency to review seemingly every book that showed up on its doorstep, like Colorado, the Queen Jewel of the Rockies. But when a single (April 11) issue includes John Dewey on education, historian Charles Beard (who had recently resigned in protest from Columbia) on universities and democracy, Conrad Aiken on poetry,** and Bourne on immigrant fiction, I can forgive a lot.

Best short story: “The Swimming Pool” by Evelyn Campbell, Smart Set

I haven’t read many magazine short stories this month. In fact, I’ve read just one: this one. And I wouldn’t call it a great story. So this might strike you as a shoddy bit of best-and-worst selecting. But something about this story by Evelyn Campbell, a 22-year-old screenwriter and Ziegfeld Follies girl, got to me.

A woman, swimming in a pool as darkness falls, strikes up a conversation with a man. They’re both natural swimmers, creatures of the water, and during their brief conversation they fall a little in love.

Suddenly it was dusk. Not in the enclosure made brilliant by white bulbs, but up above in the oblong of dark blue sky where newly awakened stars began to show timid faces to their bolder rivals. They were in the deep water which lay densely beneath them. Again they turned upon their backs and floated.

As the woman leaves the country club with her horrible rich husband and their children, she passes the man, who’s wearing an ill-cut suit. Her daughter says, Oh, look, the new janitor. A typical Smart Set snappy ending. In most stories, though, the twist at the end is the point—the rest is just setup. Here, the spell that the water casts on the swimmers is the point, and the ending is just the resolution.

Some of Campbell’s descriptions work better than others—I can’t picture what “in the middle of the pool a big golden square turned the water to bright emerald” looks like—but she’s trying something other writers just weren’t doing in 1918. That is, Imagist poets were, but not magazine short story writers.

Best magazine cover: The Crisis

Even by 1918’s high standards, this was an exceptional month for magazine covers. I’ve posted pictures of several of them already (here and here and here). The standout, though, is the cover of the April issue of The Crisis, the NAACP magazine edited by W.E.B. Du Bois. It features a copy of a painting called “Lead Kindly Light,” made for the magazine by 34-year-old William Edouard Scott (and now owned by the Huntington Museum of Art in West Virginia).

Here’s how the magazine’s editorial, probably written by Du Bois, interprets the painting.

It is just an old lantern, filled with grimy oil. It cannot lead anywhere, yet its light leads. Its golden light streams through the night.

Whose is the light?

It is not the lantern’s. It simply seems to be the lantern’s radiance. It is the Light of the World and it leads not toward the millennium in the North, but out of the insult and prostitution and ignorance and lies and lynchings of the South—up toward a chance, a new chance,—nothing more. But thank God for that…

Lead, Kindly Light.

Worst magazine cover: Ladies’ Home Journal

This is a repeat, but nothing was going to beat this Ladies’ Home Journal cover, titled (by me) “Oh, how sweet! My boyfriend killed someone!”

Best poem: “Is It Worth While,” Violet Hunt, Poetry

Violet Hunt, ca. 1900

Reading Poetry magazine, you can see how living in 1918 was like living in two worlds. In the April 1918 issue, there’s page after page of purple mountains, and it could be 1868, and suddenly there’s Violet Hunt mourning her relationship with Ford Madox Hueffer (Ford), and it could be 1968.

You can read the rest of the poem here.

Faintest praise in a book review: T.S. Eliot, The Egoist

archive.org

This was a surprisingly competitive category. At first, this unsigned review in the April 11 Dial, of Lorinda Munson Bryant’s American Pictures and their Painters, looked like a shoo-in:

One sincerely wishes that Mrs. Bryant in her enthusiasm for nature, both inanimate and human, had focused her numerous descriptions of the subject matter of the paintings. That the painter has chosen to paint a wintry landscape…is surely no excuse for a genteel panegyric on winter, or that the artist has selected a human being…is no excuse for a general eulogy of mankind. In the family circle a little girl, it is true, may be a “darling,” but in a painting that may be the least interesting of her attributes….If the subject is a woman, and a thin one at that, the author thinks the artist would have been wiser to select a plumper and rosier model…Aside from these minor defects the book is a handy and valuable compendium.

From “Hearts of Controversy,” by Alice Meynell, second edition, 1918

But then I came across this review of Alice Meynell’s Hearts of Controversy by Apteryx, AKA T.S. Eliot, in the April issue of The Egoist, and we had a winner.

In its peculiar anti-style, Mrs. Meynell’s book, like all her books, is extremely well written, and she can incidentally pick out good bits from authors. If we can accept this attitude, we shall enjoy the book very much. And people who have a taste for that antiquated genre, that parlour-game, the Polite Essay—which consists in taking a tiny point and cutting figure eights around it, without ever uttering one’s meaning in plain words—will find in Mrs. Meynell’s last essay (“Charmain”) an almost perfect example of a forgotten craft which indeed had its attractions.

*                                              *                                              *

But we must learn to take literature seriously.

(Asterixes Apteryx’s.)

Best neologism: Surréaliste

Study for a portrait of Guillaume Appolinaire, Jean Metzinger, 1911

“SURRÉALISTE is the denomination M. Guillaume Apollinaire—there is no doubt his astounding name continues to have good reason for keeping well in evidence—has attached to his play, Les Mamelles de Tirésias,” the Paris correspondent for The Egoist tells us. I knew that the surrealist movement was just getting underway in 1918, but it seemed strange to think of the word itself being a novelty. So I crunched some big data—that is, did a Google Books N-Gram***—and it’s true, surreal and its variants were pretty much non-existent at that point. So what did people say when things were, you know, surreal?

Best humor: 

In The Bookman, there’s a report about the mystery surrounding the identity of the author of The Book of Artemas, a bestselling British spoof relating current events in biblical style. Was it G.K. Chesterton? J.M. Barrie? Hilaire Belloc? George Bernard Shaw? (It would turn out to be someone no one ever heard of named Arthur Telford Mason.) Here’s an excerpt:

5. Whilst Wudro, the son of Wyl, was tending his flock of young men in the pasture that is knowledge, and after he had taught them how they should go and what things they should know,
6. Behold, the men of Amer came unto him, saying, We have chosen thee for to rule over us; and we have
brought thee an high hat for to wear as the badge of thine office; and the size of the hat, it is six and seven-eights.
7. And because he knew not what he was letting himself
in for, he gave way to their importuning, and did put on the high hat, the size whereof was six and seven-eights.
8. And it came to pass that when the men of En fought against the men of Hu, they did send messengers unto the land of Amer for to buy them munitions for the war. And they took
with them gold in great quantity wherewith to satisfy the merchants that did sell unto them. Therefor did the land of Amer prosper exceedingly.

Worst joke:

Judge, April 27, 1918

On to May!

*Kind of harsh, since Bourne was only six years younger than Mencken.

**He agrees with me about Christopher Morley’s goopiness.

***Which is really fun—you should try if you’re off Facebook and looking for new ways to waste time.

Thursday Miscellany: Lady soldiers (ha ha!), a Vogue retread, a fed-up doctor, and an Erté duel

Ha ha, lady soldiers! I was going to ask C.W. Kahles if he’d ever heard of Russia’s all-woman Battalion of Death, but there they are in the upper right corner, running away from a mouse.

Judge magazine, April 20, 1918

This April 1918 Vogue cover, the only repeat in the magazine’s history, first ran in November 1911. It’s worth a second look.

Nutritionist/FDA founder/Poison Squad leader Dr. Harvey Wiley is back, with some sensible child-rearing advice. He often seems like a time traveler from a future era, full of “I can’t believe I’m stuck in this stupid century” exasperation.

Dr. Wiley’s Question Box, Good Housekeeping, April 1918

One of the most pleasant surprises about 1918 is the bright and modern decor. I want to live in this bungalow.

The Delineator, April 1918

There’s often something vaguely sinister lurking under the surface of Erté’s gorgeous magazine covers. This one, titled “The Duel,” is more unsettling than most.

Insurgent Youth: The literary generation gap in 1918

“There is a vendetta between the generations.”

Portrait of Van Wyck Brooks by John Butler Yeats, 1909

So said critic Van Wyck Brooks in The Dial on April 11, 1918. Randolph Bourne, a colleague of Brooks’ at the magazine, addressed the same theme in his March 28 essay “Traps for the Unwary,” asking

What place is there to be for the younger American writers who have broken the “genteel” tradition?…Read Mr. Brownell on standards and see with what a bewildered contempt one of the most vigorous and gentlemanly survivals from the genteel tradition regards the efforts of the would-be literary artists of today.*

William Crary Brownell, date unknown (Library of Congress)

So I read Mr. Brownell on standards. (William Crary Brownell, that is. 1918 writers have an irritating habit of referring to people on first introduction as Mr. or Mrs. or Miss Last Name.) He was, it seems, a founding figure in American literary criticism, having sought to raise the country’s level of criticism as Matthew Arnold had in Britain. H.L. Mencken called Brownell “The Aristotle of Amherst”—not one of his better sallies, IMHO.

Brownell’s thesis in a nutshell: standards are important, but the younger generation doesn’t have them. He singles out “a recent clever novel—by a lady—that has evoked a very general chorus of cordial appreciation.” After quoting from a passage about a guy clipping his toenails, without providing the name of the book or author (another annoying 1918 habit), he says that

the picture is manifestly less a gem of genre than a defiance of decorum…One must draw the line somewhere and it is decorous to draw it on the hither side of the purlieus of pornography.

The lady writer, it turns out, is Virginia Woolf, and the book is her first novel, The Voyage Out.

First edition of Virginia Woolf’s The Voyage Out, Duckworth & Co., London, 1915

Brownell’s pretty boring, to be honest. Columbia professor Brander Matthews is a more entertaining old fogey. In his essay “The Tocsin of Revolt”,** in the March 1918 issue of The Art World, he says that

when a man finds himself at last slowly climbing the slopes that lead to the lonely peak of three-score-and-ten he is likely to discover that his views and his aspirations are not in accord with those held by men still living leisurely in the foothills of youth…If he is wise, he warns himself against the danger of becoming a mere praiser of past times; and if he is very wise he makes every effort to understand and to appreciate the present and not to dread the future.

Brander Matthews, date unknown

The young and old have clashed since time immemorial, Matthews says—and the survival of art depends on these very battles. This is all very sensible, and I wondered what Matthews was doing in such a reactionary magazine.

But!

But at the present moment, and perhaps more especially in our own country, there are signs of danger.

Uh-oh! Like what?

In this new century we have been called upon to admire painting by men who have never learned how to paint, dancing by women who have never learned how to dance, verse by persons of both sexes who have never acquired the elements of versification.

Matthews ends on a hopeful note. Ultimately, he believes, the younger generation

will tire of facile eccentricity and of lazy freakishness, of unprofitable sensationalism and undisciplined individualism. They will again seek the aid of tradition and they will toil to master the secrets of technic.***.

Bourne, a Columbia graduate himself, says of Matthews in a March 14 review of his autobiography that he was “incorrigibly anecdotal, genial, and curious.” He marvels, though, at his portrait of Columbia, then being torn apart by a free-speech controversy, as a paradise of harmoniousness. Ultimately, he delivers a damning verdict:

If there was ever a man of letters whose mind moved submerged far below the significant literary currents of the time, that is the man revealed in this book.

Columbia University library, 1917 (librarypostcards.blogspot.com)

Of Brownell, Bourne says in “Traps for the Unwary” that

one can admire the intellectual acuteness and sound moral sense…and yet feel how quaintly irrelevant for our purposes is an idea of the good, the true, and the beautiful.

Bourne agrees with Brownell and Matthews that standards are important, and that young people are turning out a lot of junk. The problem, he says, is that the older critics lump all young people together. What’s needed is a new criticism, focused on the younger generation, that

shall be both severe and encouraging. It will be obtained when the artist himself has turned critic and set to work to discover and interpret in others the motives and values and efforts he feels in himself.

In the natural order of things, Bourne could have been a standard-bearer for this new criticism after Brownell and Matthews passed on. But the two elders would survive for another decade, while Bourne had only months to live. Having battled disability and chronic illness throughout his life, he succumbed to influenza on December 22, 1918.****

If Bourne didn’t have the chance to build this new criticism, though, others did—first and foremost T.S. Eliot, who, across the Atlantic, was perfecting his craft as both a poet and a critic.

Randolph Bourne, date unknown

*The young generation was, I should note, fairly long in the tooth. Brooks was 32 and Bourne was 31. Other members of this literary youthquake included Ezra Pound (32), Margaret Anderson (31), T.S. Eliot (29), and John Reed (30). Meanwhile, much of the actual younger generation—21-year-old F. Scott Fitzgerald and 18-year-old Ernest Hemingway, for example—was off fighting in France. (11/17/1918: CORRECTION: Actually, neither of them was fighting in France. Fitzgerald a lieutenant in the army but the war ended before he was sent overseas. Hemingway was an ambulance driver in Italy.)

**I think he means toxin. Matthews was an advocate of simplified spelling, so that may be the issue, although I never thought of “toxin” as particularly complicated. (CORRECTION 12/16/1918: I came across “tocsin” in the New York Times and it turns out to mean a warning bell. Some dictionaries now consider it archaic.)

***Or technique, as we old-fashioned spellers call it.

****You can learn more about this brilliant thinker, and also about Walter Lippman, Alice Paul, John Reed, and Max Eastman, in Young Radicals, a wonderful book by Jeremy McCarter, co-author of Hamilton: The Revolution.

1918 campus wars: Academic freedom at Columbia

Tension is high at the universities. Some say the war is unnecessary and immoral; those who support it cry “treason.” There’s a raging debate over free speech. Columbia University is at the epicenter.

Yes, 1968—but 1918 as well.

Columbia University library, 1917 (librarypostcards.blogspot.com)

In 1917, the Columbia board of trustees came up with a plan to investigate the teachings of the university’s faculty members, in order to determine “whether the influence of a given teacher is injurious to private morals or dangerous to public order and security.”

The idea was eventually dropped amid widespread opposition—law professor Ellery Stowell called it “Prussianistic”—but in October the trustees fired two faculty members, James McKeen Cattell and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow Dana, for anti-war activities. Their crimes: Cattell had written to Congress asking that conscientious objectors be exempted from service, and Dana was involved with the People’s Council, a pacifist organization.

Cattell had been the first American to publish a dissertation in psychology, and was the first American psychology professor.* Dana was a comparative literature professor and a grandson of both Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Richard Henry Dana, the author of Two Years Before the Mast.**  To the Philadelphia Ledger, that was the worst part: “The distressing feature of the situation is that both these men bear eminent names and come from long strains of patriotic ancestors.”

Charles Beard in 1917 (Library of Congress)

On October 8, noted historian Charles A. Beard resigned from the Columbia faculty in protest. Beard was one of America’s most prominent historians; his 1913 book An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States remains famous (and controversial) today. He was pro-war himself, but, as he said in his resignation letter to Columbia president Nicholas Butler,

thousands of my countrymen do not share this view. Their opinions can not be changed by curses or bludgeons. Arguments addressed to their reason and understanding are our best hope. Such arguments, however, must come from men whose disinterestedness is above all suspicion…I am convinced that while I remain in the pay of the trustees of Columbia University I can not do effectively my humble part in sustaining public opinion in support of the just war on the German Empire.

Good riddance, the New York Times said in an October 10 editorial. In resigning, the paper snarked, Professor Beard “has just rendered the greatest service it was in his power to give.” About An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution of the United States, the Times said that

it was pointed out to him at the time, with due kindness but frankly, that his book was bad, that it was a book that no professor should have written since it was grossly unscientific…It was a book that did Columbia much harm, just as the two professors who were recently dropped for seditious utterances did the university much harm.

If this type of nonsense was allowed to go on, the Times said, “we would soon see the doctrine of economic determinism applied to everything from the binomial theorem to the Lord’s prayer.” The trustees, the Times said,

have been very tolerant, very patient, and the university has suffered through the acts, the utterances, and the teachings of some of its professors who mistook the chairs they occupied for pulpits from which doctrines might freely be preached that are dangerous to the community and the nation.

Nicholas Murray Butler in 1916 (Library of Congress)

If you’re thinking that the Times is taking this way too personally, you might be onto something. According to a 1958 article in Columbia’s newspaper, the Daily Spectator, it was widely believed that Times publisher Adolph Ochs let Butler, who was a friend of his, write the editorial himself. That seems plausible. For one thing, the Times editorial board displays a surprising amount of knowledge about the inner workings of Columbia University. Also, the turnaround between Beard’s October 8 letter and the October 10 publication of the editorial was awfully speedy.

John Dewey, date unknown (New York Public Library Digital Archive)

Writing in The Dial on November 8, educationist John Dewey, who was also on the university’s (apparently very illustrious) faculty, said that the press had falsely portrayed the controversy as a free speech issue because the real issue, administrative control of the universities, was too boring. But just because it’s boring doesn’t mean it’s not important:

It is not too much to say that the final issue is how much the American people cares about the integrity and responsibility of the intellectual life of the nation.

Ellery Stowell in 1917 (Library of Congress)

In February 1918, Ellery Stowell, the law professor who had called the inquiry “Prussianistic,” submitting his own resignation. Stowell himself supported not only the war but the firing of Cattell and Dana. Like Dewey, though, he believed that the issue should have been left up to the faculty rather than the trustees.

Beard himself weighed in in the Dial on April 11:

At bottom and forever, the question of academic freedom is the question of intellectual and spiritual leadership in American democracy. Those who lead and teach, are they free, fearless, and worthy of trust?

If the trustees take over, Beard says,

men who love the smooth and easy will turn to teaching…Men of will, initiative, and inventiveness, not afraid of falling into error in search for truth, will shun such a life of futile lubricity, as the free woman avoids the harem.

Abbott Lawrence Lowell, “The World’s Work,” 1919

Beard praised Harvard president Abbott Lawrence Lowell, who wrote in the university’s annual report in December 1917 that

the teaching by the professor in his class room on the subjects within the scope of his chair ought to be absolutely free. He must teach the truth as he has found it and sees it. This is the primary condition of academic freedom, and any violation of it endangers intellectual progress.

Well said, President Lowell!***

The debate over free speech (or whatever you want to call it) wasn’t the only battle raging on the campuses. Also at issue was the whole essence of what a university, and the country’s intellectual life as a whole, should be about. Here, too, Columbia was at the center of the action.

But that’s an issue for another post.

Widener Library, Harvard University, 1914 (Harvard University Archives)

*He was also a eugenicist. He offered his children a cash gift of $1000 if they married the offspring of a professor.

**That ought to be worth at least $2000 to Cattell’s kids.

***I’d be a lot prouder on my alma mater’s behalf, though, if Lowell–who was the brother of poet and critic Amy Lowell–didn’t have such a sorry record on treatment of black, Jewish, and gay students.

Thursday Miscellany: an eight-year-old writer, a Vanity Fair harlequin, and toasted cigarettes

(I’m changing my schedule from M-W-F to Tu-Th-Sat, so Wednesday Miscellany is now Thursday Miscellany.)

This story was a submission to a contest in St. Nicholas magazine. Even if you don’t read it as an allegory of a doomed WWI soldier–and it’s hard not to–it seems way too good to have been written by an eight-year-old. I Googled Edgar Pangborn,  and it turns out that he went on to become a science fiction writer who was one of the founders of the “humanist” school and served as an inspiration to Ursula Le Guin.*

St. Nicholas magazine, April 1918

Oh, how sweet! My boyfriend killed someone!

Ladies’ Home Journal, April 1918

In case you thought, like I did, that Don Draper made up “It’s toasted” in 1960.

Judge magazine, March 2, 1918

And finally, a harlequin and a ballerina on Rita Senger’s April 1918 Vanity Fair cover.

*He’s going to be hard to top as the youngest person I run across in My Year in 1918 who will go on to later fame.

My 1918 Bedside Bookshelf

Christopher Morley was one of those famous-in-their-time people no one has heard of today.* In 1918, the hardworking twenty-seven-year-old had just published Parnassus on Wheels, his first novel, and a book of light verse called Songs for a Little House,** and he had a book of essays coming out. He was also the literary editor of Ladies’ Home Journal.

The Bookman, February 1918

In a piece in the February 1918 issue of The Bookman (originally published in the New York Sun), Morley stirred up quite a kerfuffle. The issue: what books you should choose for your guest room. “Let us assume that many of your guests are of the male sex and have the habit of reading in bed,” he writes. “You keep a reading lamp by the bed, of course, and a bookshelf. What thirty volumes would you choose to fill that shelf?”

Of course, Morley doesn’t really want to know what books YOU’D choose. He wants to tell you what books HE’D choose. As advertised, they’re pretty manly. Robert Louis Stevenson, Arthur Conan Doyle, Joseph Conrad, Rudyard Kipling. Plus some manly-sounding books I never heard of, like The Adventures of Captain Kettle and Casuals of the Sea. You can read the rest of the list here. Morley writes that

I find that for such strollers, wastrels and errant persons as frequent my house, this is a fairly well-selected guest-room library. I wonder if your readers will concur.

They didn’t. Harold Crawford Stearns sent in a list, published in March, that only had one duplicate with Morley’s, the Bible. It was equally manly, though. In April, D.M.T. Willis argued that Morley had chosen not bedtime books but “books that one wants to read when wide awake on a cold afternoon before the fire, or in a hammock under trees in warm weather.”

Bedtime reading, he says,

seems to me like the intense desire to eat candy one experiences immediately after church service, a sort of reactive indulgence, a kind of “now-I-can-do-as-I-please-for-the-rest-of-the-night” feeling.

My sentiments exactly!

Willis includes little blurbs with his list, like, “The Rubaiyat. Because every man and most women sometime at night want to feel as happy-go-lucky and sentimental as Omar,” and “The Bible, because some one might read it and become a poet.” His list is as lacking as Morley’s in women authors, but he’s such a charming blurber that I would totally stay at his house.

As for the contribution from Edward O’Brien, the editor of the Best American Short Stories series, all I can say is, really, Edward? The Canterbury Tales? At bedtime? I checked out another one of his choices, Religio Poetae, by Coventry Patmore. Here’s how the title essay starts:

No one, probably, has ever found his life permanently affected by any truth of which he has been unable to obtain a real apprehension, which, as I have elsewhere shown, is quite a different thing from real comprehension.

Zzzzzz.

The Bookman, to its credit, is snarky about Morley’s gender policy, saying in April that

Mr. Morley’s guest-room is apparently adapted solely to the needs of his male friends—or is it that his women visitors are of the kind that do not read?***

Finally, some women, identifying themselves as “Two Old Maids,” weigh in, and at last we have a handful of women authors: Jane Addams, Edna Ferber, and Lady Montagu.

Of course, I’m just like Christopher Morley: the real reason I’m writing about this is to give you MY 1918 guest room bookshelf list.

First I need a 1918 guest bedroom, though. Luckily I found one that’s perfect:

Okay, now for my list. It includes a mix of  books I’ve read for this project, other 1918-era books I’ve been wanting to read, and a few earlier classics. In the spirit of D.M.T. Willis, I’ve included blurbs explaining why I picked each one.

  1. Bab: A Sub-Deb by Mary Roberts Rinehart. Because this story about a rebellious, hapless teenager is hilarious, and short enough that you’ll be able to read the whole thing during your visit.
  2. Emma by Jane Austen. Because somehow it seems more 1918-ish than the rest of Austen.
  3. Mrs. Spring Fragrance by Sui Sin Far. Because I just finished this fantastic collection of short stories about the Chinese community in Seattle and San Francisco, and I can’t wait to tell you about it.
  4. The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton. Because being a houseguest with a well-stocked bookshelf at hand is such an Edith Wharton thing to do.
  5. The Magic City by E. Nesbit. Because every guest room bookshelf needs some magic, and I missed this one during my E. Nesbit years.
  6. Tendencies in Modern American Poetry by Amy Lowell. Because I want to take a deeper look into what was happening in poetry in 1918, and who better to explain it than Lowell?
  7. The Tree of Heaven by May Sinclair. Because it was one of the big books of 1918, but when I ordered a print-on-demand version they sent me a book with Sinclair’s name on the cover but a 1907 Robert Chambers book with the same title inside.
  8. Pointed Roofs by Dorothy Richardson. Because May Sinclair said in The Egoist that she’s a great modernist but I’d never heard of her.
  9. Villette by Charlotte Brontë. Because I’ve been wanting to read it and it seems more bedtimey than Jane Eyre.
  10. Renascence, and Other Poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay. Because Louis Untermeyer panned it in The Dial and I’m in the mood to pick a fight.
  11. Marion: The Story of an Artist’s Model by Winnifred Eaton. Because the story of a half-white, half-Chinese artist’s model sounds intriguing, plus she’s Sui Sin Far’s sister.
  12. Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery. Because, shamefully, I’ve never read it.
  13. Daddy-Long-Legs by Jean Webster. Because this breezy epistolary novel, which I wrote about here, is the perfect bedtime read.
  14. Personality Plus by Edna Ferber. Because the Two Old Maids sound like they know what they’re talking about.
  15. O Pioneers! by Willa Cather. Because it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read. Just don’t read the ending right before you turn off the light, like I did.
  16. The Last Ditch by Violet Hunt. Because her wonderful poem in Poetry magazine about her breakup with Ford Madox Hueffer (Ford) made me want to read more of her work.
  17. The Story of an African Farm by Olive Schreiner. Because I really need to read this South African classic.
  18. Behind the Scenes, or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House, by Elizabeth Keckley. Because Keckley’s amazing journey sounds well worth reading about.
  19. The Circular Staircase by Mary Roberts Rinehart. Because this was Rinehart’s first best-seller, and if her mysteries are as good as Bab: A Sub-Deb I can’t wait to get started.
  20. Understood Betsy by Dorothy Canfield Fisher. Because I read this when I was very young and I’d love to see if I remember anything.
  21. The God by H.D. Because I need to start actually reading the Imagist poets instead of just reading about their love lives.
  22. Married Love by Marie Carmichael Stopes. Because, who knows, this British sex manual might come in handy for my houseguests.
  23. Parnassus on Wheels by Christopher Morley. Because Jeff O’Neal raved about it, but mostly because I love the idea of Morley sitting on the bookshelf with all these women.

Of course, what I’ve really done is put together a list of books I want YOU to have when I stay in YOUR guest room. I’ll be traveling a lot over the next few months, so get ready!

(And there’s still room on the bookshelf–I haven’t reached Morley’s 30 volumes yet–so I’d welcome your suggestions.)

The House Beautiful, September 1917

*Except for Jeff O’Neill of Book Riot, who talked about Morley’s novel Parnassus on Wheels on last year’s holiday book recommendation podcast.

**It’s just like it sounds. He writes so goopily about his wife that I assumed, based on previous 1918 experience, that she would run off with a female Imagist poet in short order. But no, they were still married when he died in 1957.

*** This can’t possibly mean what it sounds like. If it did, she wouldn’t be sleeping in the guest room, would she?

A 1918 play about a single mother, too far ahead of its time

Reading the March 1918 issue of The Bookman a couple of weeks ago, I came across a brief review of The Madonna of the Future, which had recently opened on Broadway. As critic Clayton Hamilton tells us,

the heroine of this play is a very rich young woman, unencumbered with relatives, who desires to become a mother but does not desire to be saddled with a husband. In consequence of her convictions, she picks out an apparently eugenic mate and becomes, in due time, the mother of a nameless child.

My reaction: What? This is the least 1918 thing I’ve ever heard of!   

“Madonna of the Future” star Emily Stevens, New York Times, January 27, 1918

The Dramatic Mirror thought so too. “The most pitiful creature of the brothel would scorn such an idea,” the magazine huffed. It was not alone, apparently—New York Chief Magistrate William McAdoo* received a number of complaints. He wrote to the theater’s lawyers telling them that, if the issue arose in court, he would have to declare the play obscene. McAdoo said that

the character of the heroine repeatedly and tiresomely states over and over again that the doctrines advanced by her are unconventional and, in the sense usually accepted by ordinary people, immoral. She says that her highest ideal of maternity is that of the cow, which might suggest that the proper place for this play would be a stable instead of the stage, committing the dialogue to learned veterinarians.

I haven’t been able to find a script of the play, but here’s what I’ve managed to piece together. Iris Fotheringham, a wealthy young woman from Tarrington, New York, hates men, but has what the Dramatic Mirror calls “one redeeming virtue—the dream of all good women—the desire of motherhood.” She decides that her secretary, Rex Letherick, would be a suitable father,** and whisks him off to Europe. After the baby is born, she blithely resumes her New York life. Rex is desperately in love with Iris, and, as the Dramatic Mirror puts it, “still willing to be her husband.” Iris gets wind that there’s another woman in the picture, gets jealous, and marries Rex.

Alan Dale and his daughter Marjorie, 1900 (Library of Congress)

What makes this story even more interesting is that the play’s author, Alan Dale, was America’s most famous theater critic. The British-born Dale (real name Alfred Cohen) had been writing acerbic reviews for the Hearst newspapers since the 1880s. He had made a lot of enemies along the way. “The theatrical world is finding considerable amusement in the situation created by the police complaint,” the Dramatic Mirror gloated, speculating that the cause of the play’s troubles was a morality campaign by the city’s Tammany Hall mayor. For good measure, the magazine threw in some cracks about the play’s bad reviews.

New York Times, January 29, 1918

This was unfair, as far as I can tell. The un-bylined New York Times reviewer called the play “a brilliantly written comedy of ideas,” although he complained that the ending was a copout. He noted similarities to George Bernard Shaw, but said that Shaw, “having real ideas of his own, also has the courage of them.”  Astonishingly, the reviewer got away with saying that the de-stigmatization of single motherhood was important to contemplate,

for women in these coming manless times will be much occupied with the thought that life would be less empty if only there were children. And the world will have need of new citizens.

George Jean Nathan, date unknown

George Jean Nathan, who co-edited Smart Set with H.L. Mencken and is now regarded as the greatest theater critic of his time, really, really hated Dale’s reviews. He complained in Smart Set’s April 1918 issue that Dale displayed

the sort of humour…that proceeds from the comparison of something or other with a Limburger cheese or from some such observation as “‘Way Down Yeast’ ought to get a rise out of everybody.” The sort of humor, in short, whose stock company has been made up largely of bad puns, the spelling of girl as “gell,” the surrounding of every fourth word with quotation marks, such bits as “legs—er, oh I beg your pahdon—I should say ‘limbs’,” a frequent allusion to prunes and to pinochle, and an employment of such terms as “scrumptious” and “bong-tong.”

But Nathan goes on to praise The Madonna of the Future, saying that

its theme is viewed through the glasses of a man possessed of a certain pleasant measure of cultural background and expounded in well thought out and effective vein; its net impression is of a piece of writing designed by a civilized gentleman for a civilized audience.

The New York Times ran this list of adjectives that had been used to describe the play, ranging from puerile to shocking to brilliant:

New York Times, March 10, 1918

After the theater received the letter, the script was revised, there was some back and forth with McAdoo, the play closed on Broadway after less than two months, and the censored version, retitled The Woman of the Future, moved to New York’s “subway circuit.”

In spite of its short run, The Madonna of the Future caused quite a stir. Today’s Iris Fotheringhams may, in part, have Alan Dale to thank for getting people used to the idea that having a baby without a husband isn’t all that big a deal.

Alan Dale lives on in another way as well: his 1889 novel A Marriage Below Zero has been described as the first English-language novel to depict a romantic relationship between two men.

All in all, not a bad legacy for someone who said “scrumptious” and “bong-tong.”

G.W. Dillingham, 1889

*This William McAdoo, a former congressman and New York police commissioner, was born in Ireland and was apparently no relation to Secretary of the Treasury/Railroad Administrator/Woodrow Wilson son-in-law William Gibbs McAdoo.

**Well, he has a great porn star name anyway.