Monthly Archives: February 2019

Harry Roseland illustration in Hazel by Mary White Ovington, captioned She stopped to listen to the riot of song.

The first African-American heroine in children’s literature

For Black History Month this year, I decided—knowing how few novels by or about African-Americans existed a hundred years ago—to look into whether there were any stories about black children.*

There was one, it turns out: Hazel, by Mary White Ovington, a white social activist. It was published in 1913 by the Crisis Publishing Company, which was associated with The Crisis, the NAACP magazine edited by W.E.B. Du Bois. (The first children’s book by an African-American writer was Mrs. A.E. Johnson’s 1890 Clarence and Corinne: Or God’s Way, but the characters aren’t identified as African-American.)

Photo portrait of Mary White Ovington, ca. 1910.

Mary White Ovington, ca. 1910

Ovington, who was born in 1865, was a socialist and a co-founder of the NAACP. Over her long career, she started a settlement in Brooklyn, studied employment and housing issues among African-Americans in Manhattan, campaigned for women’s suffrage, held several senior positions in the NAACP, and wrote numerous books on race and gender. Reading about Ovington convinced me that she was an admirable person, but it didn’t give me high hopes for Hazel. I figured the story would be worthy and right-minded but preachy and boring. The sole Goodreads review (2 stars) reinforced this preconception.

Advertisement in The Crisis for Hazel: The Story of a Little Colored Girl by Mary White Ovington, 1913.

Advertisement in The Crisis, November 1913

I was pleasantly surprised. Hazel has plenty to say about racism, but it’s also full of adventure and friendship and adversity and humor and all the things a children’s book should have.

Hazel isn’t your typical early-20th-century African-American girl. For the first decade of her life she lives in middle-class comfort in Jamaica Plain in Boston, the beloved only child of a lawyer and his wife. She goes to the Congregational church and attends an integrated school, where, Ovington tells us, she and the other black students are “staunch little New Englanders, with the same speech, the same dress, the same ambitions as their white classmates.” And check out Hazel’s picture in the ad, which also appears as the frontispiece in the book—she looks like a black person drawn by a white person who has never seen a black person.**

Then Hazel’s father dies and she and her mother move to an apartment in a poor neighborhood in the South End, where her mother works a hairdresser and laundress. When the story starts, Hazel has been experiencing health problems and her mother decides to send her to spend the winter with her husband’s mother in Alabama.***

Illustration by Harry Roseland from Hazel by Mary White Ovington, subtitled Granny.

Illustration from “Hazel” by Harry Roseland

The trip is an eye-opener for Hazel, who has never experienced racism. To travel in the same train car as her white escort, eleven-year-old Hazel has to pretend to be her maid. Once she arrives in Alabama, a pair of white sisters her grandmother, Ellen, does laundry for don’t know what to make of her, with her well-spoken ways and fancy wardrobe. They pepper her with questions:

“Is your pa living?”
“What does your ma do?”
“How is she buying you such clothes?”
“How long have you been to school?”
“Are you reckoning to stay here this winter?”
“Are you working for Aunt Ellen?”

After they leave, Hazel complains that, if her mother went to visit these ladies, she “wouldn’t ask about every teenty thing they did.”**** Her grandmother tells her not to worry about it:

“These people here are just naturally curious, sugar. Don’t you get put out at ’em…Nothing much happens except the hoeing of the corn and the picking of the cotton; and when a little girl with soft eyes and a pretty dress and sweet ways comes among us, we’s just naturally curious. We wants to see her and learn all about it.”

Illustration by Harry Roseland from Hazel by Mary White Ovington, captioned She still picked her cotton in the autumn...

Illustration from “Hazel” by Harry Roseland

Later in the story, Hazel gets lost and, with night falling, stops at a house to ask directions. The occupants turn out to be the same two ladies. “Sister,” one of them calls to the other, “here’s Aunt Ellen’s child come to ask her way, and if the little [n-word] didn’t knock at the front door!” But they invite Hazel in, marveling at her elegant little blue coat with a red lining. They ask her how much it cost, and Hazel says it was a gift from a friend of her father’s. The women tut with sympathy over her father’s death, saying that he was a “right nice boy.” When Hazel mentions that he was a lawyer, they say, “A [n-word] lawyer! That beats all.” They feed her coffee and biscuits and Hazel talks about life back in Boston. She’s planning to go to college, she says.

“What will you do with all your learning?” Miss Jane asked.

“I’ll teach.”

“[N-words]?”

Hazel did not want to answer, but sitting very erect, with a precision that would have done any teacher credit, she replied: “Everybody goes to school in Boston, every single child. And the teachers don’t ask whether they are black or white, or rich or poor. There are Turks, and Arabians, and (switching to the map of Europe as safer ground) Hungarians and Bulgarians, and Norwegians, and Swedians, (doubtfully) and Greeks, and Spaniards, and Romans, and Germans and Irish.”*****

“You don’t say!” exclaimed Miss Laura, “all those heathen!”  

Then Hazel, responding to another in the volley of questions, replies, “No, Miss Fairmount,” and is told,

“My name is Jane. You should call me Miss Jane.”

“Not Miss Fairmount?”

“Certainly not. It is impertinent in a [n-word].”

Hazel, who has had enough by now, says she has to go, and the ladies stroke her coat, tell her to come again, and escort her out the back door, where their servant is waiting to walk her home.

I had expected that Hazel would encounter 1910s Alabama racism at its most vile. After all, she had been warned by her friend Charity in Boston that “there’s two kinds of white folks down there: those that hates you and those that calls you ‘a cute little [n-word].'” This is as bad as the white people around her get, though. Her experiences with her black neighbors are more traumatic. The little Boston Congregationalist freaks out the first time she attends the local church, where the preacher, after a cursory description of heaven, depicts his parishioners

standing in the lake of fire and brimstone, burning, burning, not for a day but forever and ever. The flames seemed to leap up as the minister shouted: “And the devil will reach out for you, ye generation of vipers, he’ll reach for you across the flames, and he’ll catch you and draw you into the burning lake.”

“Lord save us!” “Please have mercy, Jesus,” came from the moaning crowd.

Hazel was aghast.

Illustration by Harry Roseland from Hazel by Mary White Ovington, captioned Scipio Lee. African-American boy in a field.

Illustration from “Hazel” by Harry Roseland

With her grandmother caught up in the service, Hazel tells her friend Scipio that she wants to leave. He takes her hand and leads her out, as the preacher shouts, “The heathen are burning, and every day the devil pours on fresh oil and the flames mount higher and higher to the sky.” (WARNING: THE UPCOMING EXCERPT INCLUDES DISTURBING MATERIAL.)

“Scip,” said Hazel with a quick breath, “do you believe in hell?”

“Yes, ma’am,” said Scipio.

“You don’t believe what he is saying? You don’t believe God will put us in fire to burn forever and ever?”

“I seen a lynching once,” Scipio replied. “It were just like that, they poured on oil.”

“Oh, don’t,” Hazel gasped. She seized his arm with her two hands; “don’t” she cried.

After a moment she whispered, “But it didn’t last forever. He died?”

“Yes, ma’am. He died.”

“And wicked men burned him, and it was only for a few minutes. God wouldn’t make him burn forever and ever.”******

Scipio is the antithesis of Hazel, the illiterate son of a drunken sharecropper. Hazel, who doesn’t go to school in Alabama, takes him up as her project, meeting him in a pine grove every evening for reading lessons. Often, he is often battered and bleeding from his father’s beatings. One day, Hazel sees him beating his younger brother and breaks off their friendship, but eventually all is forgiven.

In the end, Hazel returns to Boston, promising to return. As she and her mother head up to spend the summer in Maine, where there is money to be made shampooing white people’s hair, she receives a letter from Scip:

Dear Sister:
Aunt Ellen has took me in.
I am going to help her pick cotton when it ripes.
The cat is playing by the fire.
Scipio Lee

Handbill for Zeke by Mary White Ovington, 1931

Handbill for “Zeke,” 1931

In 1931, Mary White Ovington published another children’s book, called Zeke. It’s about a boy—Scipio’s younger brother, apparently, but not the one he beat up—who, with the encouragement of the adult Hazel, becomes the first African-American in his area to attend college. I guess I’ll have to wait another twelve years to see what happens.

Hazel might be considered more historically significant today if its author had been black, or if its heroine had been less privileged. Still, it deserves to be better known. I’m glad I read it. Much more than that, I’m glad it was there for African-American children to read in 1913.

*There’s the notorious Story of Little Black Sambo, of course, but that book’s history turns out to be complicated. Author Helen Bannerman, a Scottish woman who lived in India, intended Sambo to be Indian (hence the tigers). Here’s how he appeared on the cover of the original 1899 edition, which Bannerman illustrated.

Cover of The Story of Little Black Sambo by Helen Bannerman, 1900. Cartoon of dark-skinned boy with umbrella.

Cover illustration, “The Story of Little Black Sambo,” Helen Bannerman, 1899

It was only much later, notably in a 1927 American edition with illustrations by Frank Dobias (also used decades later in a wildly popular Japanese edition), that Sambo was depicted as African. The illustrations remain under copyright, but if you’re curious you can see some of them here.

**Which, to be fair, wasn’t the case at all. Illustrator Harry Roseland was a well-known artist who specialized in paintings of poor African-Americans.

***Going on a long, arduous journey being the universal solution to serious health problems in the 1910s.

****“Teenty” is my new favorite 1910s word. Here it is in a poem called “When Baby Slept,” by Hoosier Poet James Whitcomb Riley, best known for “Little Orphant Annie.” (Date unknown, but he died in 1916.)

WHEN weenty-teenty Baby slept,
With voices stilled we lightly stepped
And knelt beside the rug where she
Had fallen in sleep all wearily;
And when a dimpled hand would stir,
We breathlessly bent over her
And kissed the truant strands that swept
The tranc’d lids and the dreams that kept
When Baby blinked her Court and slept.

 *****This might be a teenty bit idealized. I went to college in the Boston area in the 1980s, and the educational system there wasn’t exactly a post-racial utopia.

******UPDATE 3/2/2019: Reading the post over, I realize that I didn’t address this aspect of the book sufficiently. While historically accurate, the lynching reference is too intense for a child of Hazel’s age, and for that reason I wouldn’t recommend Hazel (or this part of the book, at least) for a middle-school child of today. I’ve added the warning in the text of the blog to alert readers to the sensitive content.

And the best novel of 1918 is…

Photo portrait of Willa Cather, 1918

Willa Cather, 1918 (Aime Dupont Studio, New York)

Hi everyone, I’m back! During the first few weeks of the year I’ve been weathering a somewhat rocky transition from 1918 to 2019, posting beautiful images from 1918 on Twitter, and finishing the last book I started in 2018, which was also the best novel I read all year. Which is…

My Ántonia by Willa Cather!

Cover of My Antonia by Willa Cather, first edition, 1918.

First edition, 1918

That’s right—I went out on a limb and chose the book that people today regard as the best novel of 1918*

Screenshot of Goodreads top 199 book published in 1918, with My Antonia at number 1.

and that was already recognized as a future classic in its own time.

Photo portrait of Randolph Bourne.

Randolph Bourne, date unknown

In one of his last reviews before he died of Spanish influenza at the age of 32, Randolph Bourne wrote of My Ántonia in The Dial on December 14, 1918, that

here at last is an American novel, redolent of the western prairie, that our most irritated and exacting preconceptions can be content with…It has all the artistic simplicity of material that has been patiently shaped until everything irrelevant has been scraped away. The story has a flawless tone of candor, a naïve charm, that seems quite artless until we realize that no spontaneous narrative could possibly have the clean pertinence and grace which this story has…Miss Cather’s even novel has that serenity of the story that is telling itself, of people who are living through their own spontaneous charm.

Photo portrait of young H.L. Mencken.

H.L. Mencken, date unknown

H.L. Mencken was downright swoony, writing in the February 1919 issue of Smart Set that My Ántonia was “sound, delicate, penetrating, brilliant, charming.” Cather, he said,

has arrived at last at such a command of the mere devices of writing that the uses she makes of them are all concealed—her style has lost self-consciousness; her feeling for form has become instinctive. And she has got such a grip upon her materials—upon the people she sets before us and the background she displays behind them—that both take on an extraordinary reality. I know of no novel that makes the remote folk of the western prairies more real than “My Ántonia” makes them, and I know of none that makes them seem better worth knowing.

Both Bourne and Mencken were depressed about the state of the American novel in 1918. My Ántonia gave them hope.

Cover of The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington, first edition, 1918. Man and woman seen through window.

First edition, 1918

Not everyone thought (or thinks) so highly of My Ántonia, though. The Pulitzer Prize for that year (the second one ever for a novel) was awarded to Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons. If you haven’t read it, take my word for it: Cather was robbed. The Magnificent Ambersons (which I wrote about herewas an enjoyable novel, but Tarkington’s portrayal of its central character was as hollow as Cather’s of Ántonia was masterful.** And My Ántonia didn’t make the Modern Library’s much-discussed 1998 list of the 100 best novels of the 20th century (although her 1927 novel Death Comes for the Archbishop did). The Magnificent Ambersons made the cut, barely, at #100.

Still, My Ántonia’s status as a classic is unquestioned. For that reason, I struggled with how to write about it. The danger about writing about a recognized masterpiece is that you’ll end up sounding like you’re doing a high school homework assignment. In the end I decided to write about some things I learned about the book while reading it and reading about it (which I’m allowed to do now that I’m freed from the reading-in-1918 strictures). I learned a lot, as it turned out, so I’m splitting the discussion into two (or more) posts.

Photograph of Willa Cather's family home in Red Cloud, Nebraska.

Willa Cather’s family home in Red Cloud, 2010 (Ammodramus)

First, a summary of the book in case you haven’t read it, or haven’t read it in a while (as I hadn’t–I first read it when I was nineteen or so and remembered literally nothing except that it took place on the prairie). The story is narrated by Jim Burden, who moves to his grandparents’ Nebraska farm from Virginia after being orphaned at age ten. He arrives on the same train as a family of Bohemian immigrants, the Shimerdas. Ántonia Shimerda, four years older, becomes Jim’s inseparable companion. Their friendship continues when Jim’s grandparents move to town a few years later and Ántonia starts working for a neighboring family, the Harlings. The story doesn’t have much of a plot; the most dramatic incident is the suicide fairly early on of Ántonia’s father, a soulful musician ill-suited for hardscrabble farm life. Jim goes to college and Ántonia gets engaged to a railroad employee who abandons her, leaving her an unwed mother. The book ends with Jim, now a successful New York lawyer but unhappily married and childless, returning to Nebraska after a twenty-year absence and visiting Ántonia and her large, affectionate family.

Now for the things that I didn’t know about My Ántonia: 

The accent is on the first syllable of Ántonia.

Footnote from My Antonia explaining that the name Antonia is accented on the first syllable.

My Ántonia, 1918 edition, p. 3

This isn’t exactly a closely held secret. The accent mark is a dead giveaway, for one thing. And there’s a footnote on the first page of the first chapter explaining exactly how to pronounce it. But, like everyone else who knows enough not to pronounce it like anTOneea, I’ve been saying antonEEa all these years. If you want to go around saying, “Well, ACTUALLY, it’s…” you can hear the correct pronunciation here.

Ántonia was a real person.

Photograph of Anna Sadile Pavelka, the real-life My Antonia.

Anna Sadile Pavelka, date unknown

I wondered as I read My Ántonia whether it was based on a true story. It had the ring of truth, and not just in the way that good novels seem real. There was also Cather’s tendency to paint vivid portraits of secondary characters, like Nina Harling and Jim’s college teacher Gaston Cleric, and then not do much with them. It didn’t seem that she would have bothered to portray them at this level of detail if they weren’t real people.

My Ántonia is, it turns out, closely based on events in Cather’s life. She moved from Virginia to Nebraska with her parents when she was nine. Like Jim, she moved from a farm to the nearby town (Black Hawk in the book, Red Cloud in real life) later in her childhood. The real Ántonia was Anna (Annie) Sadile, who worked for Cather’s close friends the Miners, the inspiration for the Harling family. (My Ántonia is dedicated to Carrie and Irene Miner.) Annie’s father, like Ántonia’s, shot himself and was buried at the crossroads of the family farm. Annie, like Ántonia, was impregnated and abandoned by a railway worker. She later married a Bohemian man named John Pavelka and had a large family.

Photo portrait of Anna Sadilek Pavelka, the real-life My Antonia, and her family.

Anna Sadilek Pavelka and her family, date unknown

Jim’s later life parallels Cather’s too, although more loosely. Both attended the University of Nebraska, and both went on to have successful careers in New York. Cather, like Jim, returned to Nebraska after many years, reconnected with her old friend, and got to know her family.

After My Ántonia was published, Annie and her family proudly acknowledged that she was the original Ántonia. John Pavelka used to  introduce himself as “the husband of My Ántonia,” and one of her sons*** would say, until he was an old man, “I’m Leo, the mischievous one.” In 1955, at the age of 86, Annie wrote to a schoolgirl telling her that “most all is true that you read in the Book thoug most of the names are changed.”

Annie died not long after she wrote that letter. Her life wasn’t easy, but it seems to have been happy.

Next I’ll write about a major change that Cather made to My Ántonia when it was republished in 1926.

*This list isn’t a particularly good reflection of what people were reading in 1918. The Elements of Style, #2 on the list, was written by Cornell Professor William Strunk Jr. in 1918 as a brief pamphlet, but it wasn’t published (privately, for the use of students) until 1919. The Strunk and White version we know today was published in 1959, after Strunk’s death. Also, the #10 book on the list is La educación de Henry Adams.

**Cather did win the Pulitzer in 1922, though, for One of Ours. Have you read it? Me neither.

***If Cliff’s Notes can be believed, anyway. I couldn’t find this anecdote anywhere else.

Still more beautiful images–but there will be words soon!

Happy February! I can say this without irony because I live in the southern hemisphere, where it’s like this:

Photograph of beach in Muizenberg, Cape Town, South Africa.

I had a rocky entry into 2019. I had fantasized about all the great new books I’d be able to read once I rejoined the 21st century, but when January 1 rolled around I couldn’t stop reading as if I were living in 1918. The whole idea just freaked me out. It was like reverse culture shock when you return home from overseas, which anyone who’s experienced it can tell you is the worst kind of culture shock. Then there was a transition period when I read “The Waste Land” and other non-contemporary but post-1918 poetry. Now I’ve (mostly) gotten over it and am happily reading Stephen McCauley’s 2018 novel My Ex-Life. In the meantime, I just finished the last 1918 book that I started in 2018 (although I’m still listening to the audiobook of The Education of Henry Adams). As soon as I read the last page, I metaphorically jumped up and said, “I’m ready to go back to blogging!” (Real blogging, not just posting pictures like this.) And I will soon. In the meantime, here are more of the images I’ve posted on Twitter during the hiatus.

During WWI, Americans were warned to “Hooverize,” or conserve food. (The future president was the “Food Czar” and a huge celebrity.) This poster by John Sheridan was one reminder.

Poster by John Sheridan, 1918, showing basket of vegetables in front of and soldiers. Caption: Food is Ammunition: Don't waste it.

U.S. Food Administration poster, John Sheridan, 1918

For those of you suffering through the cold spell in the U.S., here’s a reminder of spring from The Liberator’s wonderful Hugo Gellert.

May 1918 Liberator cover by Hugo Gellert. Illustration of jumping deer on abstract background.

Variations on a theme, February 1918: Helen Dryden (Vogue) and Erté (Harper’s Bazar).

February 1918 Vogue cover by Helen Dryden. Illustration of woman in pink hoop-skirt dress looking in mirror.

February 1918 Harper's Bazar cover by Erté. Masked woman with man hiding inside her hoop skirt.

The Crisis, the NAACP magazine edited by W.E.B. Du Bois, took on discrimination and lynching and other horrors, but it was black America’s community newspaper too. There was an annual children’s issue, with lots of pictures of cute babies. Here are some from October 1918.*

Photographs of nine babies in October 1918 issue of The Crisis.

Another luminous William Edouard Scott painting, on the cover of the December 1918 issue of The Crisis. In his editorial, W.E.B. Du Bois poetically identifies African-Americans’ flight north with Joseph and Mary’s flight to Egypt.

The Crisis cover, December 1918. William Edouard Smith painting The Flight into Egypt. African-American family in field.

See you soon!

*Surprise surprise: people love cute babies. This was by far my most popular tweet of the week, although not as popular as the constipation ad.