Author Archives: My Year in 1918

About My Year in 1918

An American in Cape Town. This year I’m reading as if it were 1918 and blogging about the experience.

My Year in World War I: A Centenary Reflection

For someone who decided  of her own free will to spend this year reading as if I were living in 1918, I have a curious aversion to reading and writing about World War I.

Part of it goes back to my education. In the seventies, when I was in school, battles and the like were out of fashion among history teachers. It was all cause and effect—the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand one day, Versailles the next.

Also, there’s a horrible, reactionary part of my brain that, when faced with a lengthy article by the New York Times’ military critic* about the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, says, “Battles are for BOYS!” Believe me, I know how crazy this is. Just within the community I’ve become a part of through this project, Connie Ruzich has been telling the story of World War I through its—often horrifyingly graphic—poetry and Pamela Toler has a book coming out in February on women warriors through the ages. Not to mention Barbara Tuchman, author of The Guns of August, one of the classics of World War I history.** Which I actually have read. Even so, battles aren’t, and never will be, my thing.

An article I didn’t read, New York Times, October 6, 1918

In my post-college years, I learned about the war through novels like All Quiet on the Western Front and A Farewell to Arms and memoirs like Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth. These left me with a clear sense of the traumatic effects of the war but a sketchy knowledge of how it actually transpired.

Now, on the 100th anniversary of the war’s end, I still can’t tell you how it played out French town by French town, but I have a better understanding of what happened during its last year, both on the battlefield and back home (mostly in the United States***). Here’s some of what I’ve learned.

First of all, the Americans got off to a sloooooow start. I’d always had the idea that the Doughboys showed up in 1917, went to the front to replace the depleted French and British forces, and saved the day.

 

Well, not so much. Or not so quickly, anyway.

To begin with, the United States didn’t have an army that was up to the task; American soldiers needed a huge amount of training. The U.S. declared war on Germany in April 1917, but American troops didn’t arrive in France in large numbers until almost a year later. When they arrived they were clueless,

Judge magazine, January 19, 1918

but cocky.

Judge magazine, January 19, 1918

Observers were unimpressed, if this AP report from the American sector, which I’m surprised made it past the censors, is anything to go by:

New York Times, February 21, 1918

A few American soldiers had prior combat experience from fighting with British or French forces. One of them, Captain Jimmy Hall, was shot down in May 1918, just as he was finally able to fly under American colors, and presumed dead. He survived, though, and was captured by the Germans. Hall went on to co-author Mutiny on the Bounty with fellow former aviator Charles Nordhoff.

James Hall in the Lafayette Escadrille, 1917

The U.S. armed forces were segregated, and most African-American units were led by white officers. A few African-Americans received commissions, though, including Benjamin O. Davis, a Spanish-American War veteran who was promoted to lieutenant colonel in 1918 (for the duration of the war, anyway—his rank later reverted to captain). Davis went on, during World War II, to become the first African-American general in the U.S. armed forces. His son, Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., was the first African-American general in the Air Force.

Benjamin O. Davis, 1901

On the logistical side, America’s entry into the war was a colossal screw-up. The United States wasn’t producing many weapons or planes, and a fuel shortage, exacerbated by one of the coldest winters on record, slowed the shipment of what military equipment had been produced. In January, Fuel Administrator Harry Garfield took the drastic step of ordering all industry east of the Mississippi to shut down for a week, and then for the next five Mondays. There was grumbling, but surprisingly no one questioned whether closing down the country was in the fuel administrator’s job description.

Springfield (OH) Daily News, January 19, 1918 (clarkcountyhistory.wordpress.com)

Meanwhile, Food Czar Herbert Hoover, who had gained celebrity status by organizing relief efforts in Belgium,**** was coordinating a food conservation campaign focused on “wheatless Wednesdays” and “meatless Tuesdays.” “Hooverize!” was the watchword.

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

Anxiety over German spies was high.

Life, March 14, 1918

A few real ones, like 23-year-old spy ring leader Despina Storch, were rounded up, along with a lot of people who had committed “crimes” like painting pencils a treasonous color.

New York Times, July 6, 1918

Women took over men’s work,

Life magazine, August 22, 1918

although they were reminded not to get too attached to their “war jobs,”

Ladies’ Home Journal, June 1918

and thousands of American women served in Europe in military or civilian roles, most of them as nurses.

Carl Rakeman, 1918

Americans took the war with deadly seriousness. “Slackers,” as draft evaders were known, were widely condemned,

Sheet music, 1917 (Library of Congress)

and pacifists were vilified. The staff of The Masses, a socialist magazine that was shut down in 1917, went on trial twice in 1918, charged under the Espionage Act with conspiracy to obstruct military recruitment. Both times, the jury was unable to come to a unanimous decision and a mistrial was declared. Art Young, one of the defendants, sketched the proceedings for The Masses’ successor, The Liberator.

Art Young, The Liberator, June 1918

But just because war is a serious business doesn’t mean there’s no room for humor. Lt. Percy Crosby’s Private Dubb was a big hit,

That Rookie from the 13th Squad, Percy L. Crosby, 1918

as were Edward Streeter’s***** “Dere Mable” letters, supposedly written by semi-literate soldier Bill to his girlfriend back home.

Illustration from “Dere Mable” by G. William Breck, 1918

Once deployed, Dubb, Bill, and their compatriots rose to the task. American casualties mounted sharply as the Allied troops fought back the last German offensive in the Battles of Meuse-Argonne, which began on September 26 and lasted until the armistice. This remains the deadliest battle in United States history–26,277 American lives lost.

American soldiers, Argonne forest, September 26, 1918 (AP)

American participation in World War I didn’t last long enough to produce a literature equivalent to that of the British war poets, whose ranks included Rupert Brooke (who died in 1915), Wilfred Owen (who was killed a week before the war’s end), and Sigfried Sassoon (who survived). American veterans like Ernest Hemingway (who was seriously wounded while serving in Italy as an ambulance driver) and F. Scott Fitzgerald (who was commissioned but never made it overseas) would make their mark writing about the scars the war left on their generation.

Ernest Hemingway, Milan, 1918

Some American voices of the war stay with us, though. American Alan Seeger, who fought with the French Foreign Legion and was killed in 1916, left behind his poem “I Have A Rendez-Vous with Death.”

Francis Hogan (behindtheirlines.com)

I’ll end with a poem that is not as well-known but that has stayed with me since I read it, toward the beginning of this project, in the February 9, 1918, issue of The New Republic.

Corporal Hogan was killed on October 18, 1918, 24 days before the Armistice. He was 21 years old.

*An actual job title.

**Or all the women who have actually fought in battles, like Maria Bochkareva and the Battalion of Death.

***This is as good a place as any to point out that the America-centrism of this blog is not just because I’m American, it’s also because of differences in copyright laws that make American publications from 1918 more available than publications from other countries.

****1918 being an era when fuel administrators and relief coordinators and food safety scientists were celebrities.

*****Streeter later wrote the novel Father of the Bride.

Did College Shrink Your Breasts? A Quiz

I’m angry, people!

Over the past year, I’ve traded the horrible news of today for the even more horrible news of 1918, when the world was disease-ravaged and at war, suffragists were greeted with condescending amusement, there was a “Darkies” section in the leading humor magazine, and progressives debated about who should be allowed to breed.

I hate what was happening then, and I hate what’s happening now. But, unlike a lot of my friends, I haven’t fallen into a permanent state of anger and/or depression. It’s a question of temperament, I guess. At heart, I’m a sunny soul.

But then I read an article in the Educational Review called “Sex in Mind and Education,” and I was livid.

I was expecting an entertaining romp through the world of social hygiene, as sex education was known back then.* Instead, I got an article—two, actually, spread over the May and September 1918 issues—about why women are unfit for higher education.

An issue for another day, I thought, since I’ve been trying to focus more on World War I with the centenary of the armistice approaching. But then I remembered the suffragists being asked to put aside their demands because there was a war on. And, skipping back to the present, this West Virginia constitutional referendum I just voted on, which, whatever your views on abortion, is legally meaningless as long as Roe v. Wade is in place and also maybe not the most urgent issue in a state that’s awash in opioids. (UPDATE 11/7/2018: The amendment was approved, 52%-48%.)

German imperial ambition is, I think we can say with confidence, safely in check. The war on women, not so much. So I retrieved “Sex in Mind and Education” from the “later” pile.

The article, written by British psychiatrist Henry Maudsley, turns out to date back to an 1874 issue of the Fortnightly Review. The Educational Review justifies its republication by noting that it was reprinted and given wide circulation in Mr. C.W. Bardeen’s Series of School Room Classics. Which happened in 1884, so I’m not sure why it was considered timely in 1918. Maybe because Maudsley had just died? Maybe to keep women in their place with suffrage on the rise? Maybe because the journal’s editor was Columbia University’s horrible, reactionary president Nicholas Butler? Maybe all of these things? Who knows?

Henry Maudsley, 1881

Maudsley’s bottom line: women shouldn’t go to college with men, because menstruation.

Of course, there’s more to his argument than that. He has a LOT of reasons why women shouldn’t go to college with men. But, for someone so esteemed that Britain’s largest mental health training institution bears his name to this day**, he’s not exactly rigorous about evidence. He’s all “it is quite evident that” this and “when we thus look the matter honestly in the face” that.

So I decided to subject his arguments to evidence-based testing by pulling out his assertions so that we college-educated women can compare them to our own experience. And turned them into a quiz, because what woman doesn’t love a quiz? (No need to feel left out, men—we need a control group, so you can take it too.)

Get out your pencils!

  1. If you have a delicate constitution, with little vitality to spare, did you break out into disease when you reached puberty?

YES                         NO                        N/A

  1. In your experience at university, could the difference between between male and female students accurately be described by the expression “for valor he” is formed and “for beauty she and sweet attractive grace”?***

YES                         NO                       N/A

  1. Have childbearing and raising been the most important offices of the best period of your life?

YES                         NO

  1. Did your laborious days of intellectual exercise and production cause injury to your functions as the conceiver, mother, and nurse of children?

YES                         NO

Radcliffe College physics class, 1912 (Radcliffe College archives)

  1. Has this intellectual exercise resulted in your children being puny, enfeebled, and sickly?

YES                         NO                         N/A

  1. If your household has a male primary caregiver, is he almost as much out of place in caring for the babies as he would be in attempting to suckle them?

YES                         NO                         N/A

  1. If your household has a male primary caregiver, has he abandoned the task in despair or disgust, and concluded it not to be worth while that mankind should continue on earth?

YES                         NO                         N/A

  1. If you attended a coeducational college, was it at a cost to your strength and health which has entailed life-long suffering, and even incapacitated you for the adequate performance of the natural functions of your sex?

YES                         NO                         N/A

  1. If you attended a coeducational college, do you feel that the stimulus of study had a more harmful effect on you than on your male classmates, not only because of your greater constitutional susceptibility, but also because women do not have the compensating balance of competition on the playing field?

YES                         NO                        N/A

Basketball game, Stanford vs. University of California, E.J. Meeker, 1896

  1. In your experience, has the prediction been borne out that, due an increase in women’s education, the wives who are to be the mothers in our republic [the United States—Maudsley’s quoting a Harvard professor now] must be drawn from transatlantic homes?

YES                         NO

  1. Has study during the periodical tides of your organization [i.e. your period] led to pallor, lassitude, debility, sleeplessness, headache, neuralgia, and then to worse ills?

YES                         NO

  1. As a result of your studies, have you become the victim of aches and pains, unable to go on with your work, and compelled to seek medical advice?

YES                         NO

Women at the seaside, 1915

  1. If so, and if you were restored to health by rest from work, a holiday at the seaside, and suitable treatment, did you leave college a good scholar but a delicate and ailing woman, whose future life is one of more or less suffering? Did you fail to regain the vital energy which was recklessly sacrificed in the acquirement of learning?

YES                         NO                         N/A

  1. If so, and you subsequently married, were you unfit for the best discharge of maternal functions, and apt to suffer from a variety of troublesome and serious disorders in connection with them?

YES                         NO                         N/A

  1. Has the neglect of physical exercise, and the continuous application to study, left you lacking the instinct, desire, or capacity to nurse your offspring, forcing you to resort to a wet-nurse or feeding by hand?

YES                         NO                         N/A

  1. If you have not nursed, has this caused the organs which minister to this function to waste and finally to become by disuse as rudimentary as they are in the male sex, forcing you to invoke the dressmaker’s aid in order to gain the appearance of them?

YES                         NO                         N/A

Delineator, 1910 (witness2fashion.wordpress.com)

  1. During the best years of your life, are/were you, for one-quarter of each month, more or less sick and unfit for hard work?

YES                         NO

  1. Have you turned into a monstrosity—something which having ceased to be a woman is not yet a man?

YES                         NO

Okay. Pencils down.

In the spirit of fairness, Dr. Maudsley quotes John Stuart Mill’s argument in The Subjection of Women, to wit:

  • What we call the nature of women is essentially an artificial thing.
  • It is the result of forced repression in some directions, unnatural stimulation in others.
  • Women’s character has been disguised by their subjugation by men.
  • If given equal opportunities, they would perform as well as men.

He says that

if these allegations contain no exaggeration, if they be strictly true, then is this article an entire mistake.

Is it??? Let’s score the quiz and see! Disregard the N/A’s, count up the yeses, and divide them by the total number of questions you answered.

It would be terrible for humankind if even a significant minority of Maudsley’s concerns turned out to be valid. So let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and say that if most women score over 25% we’d better rethink this this whole going to college with men business.

I threw out a bunch of questions because I don’t have kids and calculated my score: 9%. My one “Yes” answer was to #4, about my laborious days of intellectual exercise causing injury to my functions as the conceiver, mother, and nurse of children. Most college-education women have children, but the percentage is lower than among women without college, so I’ll give this one to Maudsley.

Me graduating from college with no apparent ill effects, 1983

Granted, one is a small sample size if we’re trying to be scientifically rigorous, but it’s one bigger than Maudsley’s. And I’m guessing that my score is typical. Maybe some of you moms consider childbearing and raising the most important offices of the best period of your lives. But maybe some of you dads do too, so here’s where the control group comes in.

So, unless I’m gravely mistaken, Maudsley is hoist with his own petard.

But he’s not giving up so easily. Even if John Stuart Mill turns out to be right, he says,

there is a right in might—the right of the strong to be strong. Men have the right to make the most of their powers, to develop them to the utmost, and to strive for, and if possible gain and hold, the position in which they shall have the freest play.

If women were treated equally, and used their political power to pass laws that men didn’t like, he asks,

can it be supposed that, as the world goes, there would not soon be a revolution in the state by men, which would end in taking all power from women and reducing them to a stern subjection? Legislation would not be of much value unless there were power behind to make it respected.

You see what’s happening here, people? Maudsley’s admitting that, if women get too equal, the men are going to have a revolution! Throw out all the laws! Rely on brute force!

We have to do something, women!****

Starting with this:

League of Women Voters poster, 1920

*And which I can’t believe I’ve made it to November without writing about. On the list!

**Oh and he also gave them a lot of money.

***Hey Maudsley, you got the quote wrong! Here’s what Milton really said:

Not equal, as their sex not equal seemed;
For contemplation he and valor formed,
For SOFTNESS she, and sweet attractive grace.

****I realize that some men might be reading this, but if they managed to stomach all the menstruation talk they’re probably allies.

The best and worst of October 1918: Beautiful children, dubious remedies, and (sigh) fall colors

In the past, I’ve reflected cheerfully on how fast 1918 is flying by. Now, with two months to go, I do so with a sense of panic. I haven’t read The Magnificent Ambersons, or The Education of Henry Adams,* or any South African books, or anything in a foreign language except some French poems in The Little Review, or any children’s books except E. Nesbit’s disappointing The Railway Children. I blithely promised in my first post that “I’ll read magazines, watch movies, listen to music, and cook recipes from that time.” Well, I’ve read a lot of magazines. Much to be done in the next sixty days!

But first, the best and worst of October.

Best news:

It’s a tie among pretty much all of the front-page New York Times headlines of the month, with the Germans retreating so fast that in some places the Allies can’t keep up with them.

New York Times, October 31, 1918

Worst news:

Authorities keep saying that the worst of the Spanish influenza epidemic is over, but they keep being wrong. This is a hard story to follow if you’re not reading historical accounts, but my fellow 100-years-ago blogger Whatever It Is, I’m Against It is on the job. He’s been tracking the coverage of the epidemic in the New York Times from the beginning, as well as highlighting the ridiculous ads touting the purported flu-preventing qualities of various products, like this one, which I saw in the Times and was going to use myself so it isn’t copying:

New York Times, October 23, 1918

Best magazine: The Crisis

For its annual children’s issue, The Crisis asked readers to send in pictures of their children. 70 of them appear in the magazine. Under one group of pictures is the caption, “Would not the world be richer if the Gates of Opportunity were flung wide before these children as they grow?”

The Crisis, October 1918

In a story called “Race Purity,” a little boy, apparently African-American, hits a little girl, apparently white, in the face. A man passing by calls him a “d-mn little [n-word] and gently tells the girl to go home, saying, “I’d like to see that mother of yours that allows you to play with—.” The girl gasps through her tears, “he’s my bru-vv-er.”

W.E.B. du Bois, his wife Nina, and their son Burghardt, ca. 1898

Du Bois imagines his only son, Burghardt, who died as an infant, as “a ghost boy—just twenty-one he would have been last May,” gone off to the war. “It was not given to this my boy nor yet to me to go in the flesh; but he went dead, yet dreaming, and I dream-drunk, and yet alive, albeit with twitching, hanging hands.”

Best-sounding new novel: Strayed Revellers, by Allan Updegraff

The Bookman says of this book by Updegraff, a college buddy of Sinclair Lewis, that

his theme is very new, showing what the war did to a group of Greenwich villagers, extremely gay ones, who kill themselves, admit carelessly to illegitimate parents, get drunk on water and gelatin and lead a wild life generally.

 I’m sold!

 Worst new novel: Strayed Revellers, by Allan Updegraff

But then I pulled up the book on Hathitrust and flipped to the last page, which features a guy mansplaining anarchism to our heroine, Clothilde:

“The name’s filthied by men who care more for their individual stomachs and unwashed hides than they do for No-Rule. And it’s Socialism, too,–since they have a regard for the social will, as well as for their own individual wills—even though the name ‘Socialist’ has been so dirtied by men whose social instincts stop with the attainment of personal safety and a two-cent drop in the price of soup-meat, not to mention the dirtying done by rank pro-Germans, that real Socialists will probably take a new name after the war.”

No amount of getting drunk on gelatin is worth this. Run, Clothilde!

Worst headline:

Woman’s Home Companion, October 1918

So smack them!

Best ad:

This is one of the least attractive ads I saw all month. But it caught my attention, all right. And it represents the direction advertising is moving in–good-bye beautiful artwork, hello gimmicks!**

Delineator, October 1918

Worst ad: 

Hey, little kids! Murder! Rape!***

St. Nicholas magazine, October 1918

Best magazine cover:

Lots of worthy candidates.

I always have a weakness for a hardworking farmerette.

An appeal to kids’ patriotism at a time when the government seemed worried that the Allies were winning the war so fast that people wouldn’t want to fund it.

This because it’s, well, beautiful:

As is this.

In the end, I had to declare a tie, because I couldn’t bear to choose between this one

and this one, which makes me wistful from my perch in Cape Town, where it’s spring now. And even our backwards April autumns don’t have colors like this.

Worst magazine cover: Maclean’s

 Not doing much to counter the boringness image, Canada!****

On to November!

*Not my fault because, annoyingly, both of these American classics were published in late October.

**This is also, as it turns out, the cover image on the Spanish translation of Ring Lardner, Jr.’s memoir I’d Hate Myself in the Morning.

***Besides, the ad is all about how horrible the Turks are. It’s as if the copywriter forgot that that the U.S. never declared war on Turkey and then when he remembered hastily stuck something at the end about how the Germans are even worse.

****Especially since the most prominently featured boring story isn’t even in this issue, it just “starts soon.”

Book Review: The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West

As I’ve mentioned, I’ve been trying to pay more attention to World War I as the centenary of the armistice approaches. So I put aside Virginia Woolf’s The Voyage Out, which is excellent but pre-war and also loooooong*, and picked up Rebecca West’s 1918 novel The Return of the Soldier, which is war-related (well, sort of, see below) and short (90 pages).

Rebecca West, The Independent, April 13, 1918

Rebecca West (real name Cicely Isabel Fairfield) was already a fixture on London’s cultural scene when she published The Return of the Soldier, her first novel, at the age of 25. Born into an intellectual but financially struggling Anglo-Irish family, she had a brief career as an actress (her pseudonym came from an Ibsen play) before turning to literary criticism. She and H.G. Wells met like characters in a romantic comedy—she panned a book of his, calling him “the Old Maid among novelists,” and he requested a meeting. This led to a long affair with Wells, who was married and 27 years older. They had a son, Anthony, born in 1914. To disguise his illegitimacy, West made him call her “Auntie” and Wells “Wellesie” during his early years, and she sent him to boarding school at the age of three. Perhaps not surprisingly, he and West ended up estranged. West went on to have a highly successful career as a journalist and writer of fiction and nonfiction. Her best-known work today is her monumental book on Yugoslavia, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.

Rebecca West and her son Anthony, ca. 1918

The Return of the Soldier tells the story of Chris, who is sent home from the war when a shell explodes and wipes out his memory of the last 15 years, during which he married and lost his only child. It’s narrated by Jenny, Chris’s cousin and ardent admirer, who for unexplained reasons lives with him and Kitty, his wife, on their vast estate. Chris, in his damaged mind, is living in the happiest period of his life, when he was in love with Margaret, the daughter of the proprietor of a charmingly ramshackle inn. He insists that he must see her or die. Jenny is afraid he’ll be shattered when he encounters present-day Margaret,

repulsively furred with neglect and poverty**, as even a good glove that has dropped down behind a bed in a hotel and has lain undisturbed is repulsive when the chambermaid retrieves it from the dust and fluff.

But he loves her as much as ever and spends his days wandering around his estate with her, lost in his happy youth, while Jenny and Kitty agonize about how to bring him to his senses.

Illustration from “The Return of the Soldier,” Norman Price

As I read the first few chapters, I marveled that The Return of the Soldier, which received generally ecstatic reviews at the time of publication, is not better known today.*** Jenny’s initial visceral dislike of Margaret, she of the creaking stays and cheap plumes, says as much about the British class system as a Dickens novel. Speaking of her and Kitty’s sadness about Chris’s affliction, Jenny says that

grief is not the clear melancholy the young believe it. It is like a siege in a tropical city. The skin dries and the throat parches as though one were living in the heat of the desert; water and wine taste warm in the mouth and food is of the substance of sand; one snarls at one’s company; thoughts prick through one’s sleep like mosquitos.

Illustration from “The Return of the Soldier,” Norman Price

As I continued reading, though, the book’s flaws emerged. West was attempting to incorporate recent psychological discoveries into the story, but her account of Chris’s mental state ring false to the modern reader. His recent memory is completely wiped out, but beyond the 15-year gap it’s intact—he’s exactly the happy lad he once was. Later critics pointed out that this condition, however common it may be in the movies, doesn’t exist in real life.**** The way his amnesia is resolved (I won’t give spoilers, but you can look it up in the book’s Wikipedia entry if you’re curious) is equally dubious. This is the problem with novels that are based on psychological theories: psychology moves on and the novel remains full of discarded ideas about how the mind works.

Also, The Return of the Soldier isn’t really about the war at all. With Chris’s memory of his time at the front wiped clean and Jenny and Kitty living in sheltered luxury, the conflict doesn’t directly enter their lives. Aside from the implication that trauma might have played a role in Chris’s amnesia, and Kitty and Jenny’s anxiety about him being sent back to France if cured, the book could as easily have been called The Return of the Guy Who Fell off a Horse and Hit His Head.

In spite of these flaws, The Return of the Soldier is worth reading for its excoriating depiction of the British class system, its evocation of a lost world, and, above all, West’s wonderful writing.

(I read the Penguin Classics edition, which is pricey for a 90-page paperback but otherwise recommended.)

Illustration from “The Return of the Soldier,” Norman Price

*422 pages, which might not strike you as exceptionally long, but the median length of the books I’ve read for this project is about 100 pages, so I’ve developed a short attention span.

**In that early 20th century British sense of having only one servant.

***Not that it’s forgotten, exactly. After fading into obscurity even as West’s career took off, it gained a new readership when it was made into a film in 1982. It has fared much better than May Sinclair’s equally well-received 1917 war novel The Tree of Heaven, which is out of print today. (Both were named Book of the Month by the North American Review, a prominent literary journal.) Still, it’s hardly a fixture in the modernist canon.

****At least one critic at the time did as well—Dora Marsden of The Egoist. “As a tale of human emotion it is altogether quite indecently unjust,” she said in the magazine’s October 1918 issue. Marsden was preoccupied with the nature of consciousness, about which she wrote long, incoherent articles for the Egoist, which she founded and where T.S. Eliot served as literary editor.

Miscellany: Magic machines, embarrassing problems, and the Worst. Recipe. Ever.

An all-ad miscellany.

Not to brag, but I have a machine that can do all this and more.

Little Review, September 1918

We’ve all been there, right?

Harper’s Bazar, June 1918

This deviled tongue mousseline is “just as good to taste as it is to look at.” Sometimes these things just write themselves.*

Good Housekeeping, September 1918

And sometimes I just have to throw up my hands in bewilderment.

St. Nicholas, October 1918

I don’t think he’s really thought the naked fence-jumping through.

St. Nicholas, October 1918

If I’d seen this before bestowing the prestigious “Best Ad Depicting the Advertised Item as Humongous” award last month, things might have played out differently.

Harper’s Bazar, September 1918

I’m not that into cars, but I look at this, look at my white Toyota Corrolla, and sigh.

Harper’s Bazar, June 1918

*Plus it’s patriotic, because for some strange reason tongue has not been declared “Essential” for our fighting men.

The Comic Side of WWI: Percy Crosby and the Rookie from the 13th Squad

With the centenary of the armistice approaching, I’ve been feeling like I should be writing about the war more and not just going on about dieting and Dorothy Parker. But how? I’m not an expert on the Battles of the Meuse-Argonne and wouldn’t do a very good job of pretending to be one. Then it occurred to me that I could tell the stories of individual soldiers, as I did once before, months ago, when I wrote about aviator and Mutiny on the Bounty co-author Jimmy Hall.

So here’s the story of Percy Lee Crosby. Well, he mostly tells his own story, through his wonderful cartoons.

Percy Crosby, date unknown

Crosby grew up in Queens, the son of Irish immigrants. His father ran an art supply store, and his talent was evident from an early age. He dropped out of high school as a sophomore and got a series of jobs as a writer and illustrator for magazines and newspapers, including the Socialist Daily Call, which sparked a lifelong commitment to leftist causes. He eventually started writing a syndicated comic strip, The Clancy Kids. While in training in France in 1917, Crosby, then a 25-year-old lieutenant, began writing That Rookie from the 13th Squad as a daily syndicated panel. A collection of these cartoons was published in February 1918.

When we meet the Rookie, a private in training at a U.S. military base, he hasn’t yet gotten the hang of military discipline,

and he’s the bane of his commanding officers’ existence.

Despite his haplessness and youthful appearance, he has a beautiful girlfriend,

although he has a bit of a wandering eye

and enjoys a good burlesque show.

He’s not the bravest of souls, but he resists the temptation of a deferment.

Training can be terrifying

and he wishes the war would just be over and done with.

But he pulls his socks up,

dreams big dreams,

and rises in the ranks.

Crosby was struck in the eye by shrapnel on the Argon and awarded a Purple Heart. He returned to action, survived the war, and published another Rookie collection in 1919. In 1923, he began writing Skippy, a strip about the adventures of a nine-year-old boy that made him rich and famous. There were Skippy dolls and toys and an Oscar-winning Skippy movie. (And the peanut butter, which sparked a long trademark dispute.) Skippy was a major influence on Peanuts creator Charles Schulz.

Life Magazine cover featuring Skippy, August 2, 1923

In the 1932 Olympics, Crosby won a silver medal in, I kid you not, watercolors and drawing. This, along with architecture, literature, painting, and sculpture, was an Olympic events from 1928 to 1936. I couldn’t find a picture of his entry, “Jackknife,” but here are some spectators checking out the action in the painting event.

Crosby started buying two-page ads in major newspapers espousing left-wing positions and taking on targets like the FBI, the IRS, and Al Capone. The New Republic dubbed him the “Mad Patriot.” He socialized with the stars of the New York artistic and literary scene, including Jerome Kern, Ring Lardner, John Barrymore, and Heywood Broun. Like many of them, he was a heavy drinker.

Crosby and his first wife divorced, and he stopped drinking for a few years when he remarried. He fell off the wagon, though, and after a violent episode in 1939 his wife filed for divorce and got a restraining order against him. He never saw her or their four children, aged five to nine at the time, again. He married again, but his drinking continued and his behavior became increasingly erratic. In 1948, following a suicide attempt after the death of his mother, he was committed to a mental hospital. Despite his efforts to be freed–he claimed that his long confinement was related to his left-wing views–he remained institutionalized until his death in 1964.

In 1918, though, these bad times were far in the future. So let’s end with the Rookie, on watch at the front now, thinking a soldier’s thoughts.

 

Wish me luck on my 1918 diet!

Earlier this year, I was planning to write a post called “How I Lost 5 Pounds for My College Reunion on a 1918 Diet.” Well…that goal, modest though it was, was not achieved. But then last month my friend Emily* invited me to participate in a group diet contest on DietBet. (She invited all of her Facebook friends, so I didn’t take it personally.) I jumped at this opportunity to regain the silhouette of youth.

I had just the diet in mind, from this article in the March 1918 issue of the Ladies’ Home Journal by Eugene Lyman Fisk, M.D., who was the medical director of the Life Extension Institute and the co-author, with Yale professor Irving Fisher, of the bestselling 1915 book How to Live.**

I expected 1918 dieting wisdom to be dubious, but Dr. Fisk, like fellow nutrition doc Harvey Wiley of Good Housekeeping, turns out to be pretty sensible.***

Dr. Fisk starts out by saying that

At age 25, Miss Blank, an average young woman, fully grown, 5 foot 4 inches in height, weighs 128 pounds; at 40 she weighs 138 pounds; at 50, 144 pounds. This gain over age 25 is practically all fat, and its distribution has sadly changed Miss Blank’s silhouette.

I’ll spare you the TMI and leave it that the reaction of this 5’4” over-50 upon reading this was “No wonder I feel so at home in 1918!”

Dr. Fisk counsels against trying to lose weight through exercise. To the extent that we stout (Dr. Fisk doesn’t pull any punches) 40+ women do exercise, it should consist of walking, gentle hill climbing, and a few setting-up exercises. Substituting easy yoga for the setting-up exercises, this is exactly my routine!

Some recent gentle hill climbing in Cape Town

But, really, it’s all about the food. Starting with….

Breakfast

On my otherwise ill-fated pre-reunion diet, I did make a permanent switch from my previous granola, banana, and tea breakfast to the one outlined by Dr. Fisk. With maybe a LITTLE more butter than he recommends, but I don’t take milk or sugar in my tea or use butter to scramble my eggs, so it cancels out, right? And it’s worked—I find myself more energetic in the mornings, and less likely to snack before lunch.

Breakfast, with a rusk instead of toast

After much experimenting, I’ve come up with a great recipe for microwaved scrambled eggs. Here it is:

MARY GRACE’S 30-20-10 MICROWAVE SCRAMBLED EGGS

Break two eggs into a small bowl or teacup. Add salt and pepper as desired. Cook eggs in microwave without stirring for 30 seconds. Stir, then return to the microwave and cook for 20 seconds. Scramble, then cook for an additional 10 seconds or more as needed.

Lunch

Here I’ve followed Dr. Lyman’s plan more loosely, but I’ve kept to the basic spirit of something vegetable-y, something bread-y, and some fruit. Here’s a recent literal interpretation

and a 21st century variation, featuring homemade tabbouleh and (not-homemade) hummus.

Dinner

Dinner is your basic protein-starch-vegetable combo. Sometimes I cook a chicken breast it in a foil pack at 350F for half an hour with whatever I happen to have around (typical ingredients are lemon, kale, garlic, aniseeds, and red pepper flakes). Lately I’ve been cooking frozen boneless chicken breasts**** in a pan with root vegetables and rosemary, which comes out way better than you’d expect. I’ve been eating a lot of grilled hake as well.

A recent dinner

Dr. Fisk is a big defender of potatoes, saying that

There is no tragedy in a fat woman***** eating a potato; the tragedy lies in the big pat of butter that is often melted in it, more than equal in fuel value to the whole potato.

My last name notwithstanding, I’m not much of a potatoes person, so I usually substitute couscous or rice or root vegetables as a starch at dinner. And I skip the stewed fruits for dessert. Virtuous, huh?

So How Am I Doing?

DietBet weigh-in

DietBet works like this: if you don’t lose 4% of your body weight during the competition period, your ante is divided among the people who do. With just eight days of the one-month contest to go, I’m only halfway there, so I need to step it up if I want to keep my money.

Although not to the extremes described in Maria Thompson Daviess’ 1912 novel The Melting of Molly, which was the very first book I read for this project. The gist, in case you missed it: Molly, a 160-pound 25-year-old widow, goes on a crash diet when she learns that her high school sweetheart, who’s in the Foreign Service, is coming back to town and wants to see her in the blue muslin dress she wore back when she had a 20-inch waist. Here’s the diet, as prescribed by her doctor neighbor:

Breakfast—one slice of dry toast, one egg, fruit and a tablespoonful of baked cereal, small cup of coffee, no sugar, no cream.

Dinner–one small lean chop, slice of toast, spinach, green beans and lettuce salad. No dessert or sweet.

Supper—slice of toast and an apple.

“Why the apple?” Molly mourns. “Why supper at all?”

Molly, busted with a jar of jam by the doctor

But I’m not going to do that! Crash diets are unhealthy! Besides, who has the discipline?******

I’ll stick with Dr. Fisk. Whose diet is, as I said, pretty sensible. The one thing that strikes a modern reader as odd is the tolerance for carbs. This isn’t surprising, since I can well remember a time—up to the 1990s—when no one cared about carbs, it was all about fat. Still, it’s strange seeing even poor starving Molly allowed three slices of (butterless) toast a day. Dr. Fisk does emphasize the importance of cutting down on starches, fats, and sugars, but he still allows, along with the potato at dinner, a piece of toast at breakfast and bread or a roll at lunch. (He stipulates that the roll should be made of rye, bran, or graham flour, but this isn’t only a nutrition thing—there was a huge wartime drive for wheat conservation, led by food czar Herbert Hoover.) Bread and potatoes, I guess, were such an important part of the 1918 diet that cutting back any further than this was inconceivable.

In happier times

I’ve followed my 1918 diet fairly closely, with just a few slip-ups here and there. I’m eating more lean proteins and vegetables and I’ve cut out Indian take-out, a former weekly staple. When I go out, I have grilled fish with vegetables. I rarely feel hungry or have cravings.

On the other hand, I don’t have high hopes of meeting my DietBet goal. I’m not too worried, though. For one thing, the entertainment value of our WhatsApp chat group is worth the money I put up. And, while it’s good to have a jump-start, healthy eating isn’t a one-month affair. If I just keep at it, I will—maybe not this month but eventually—regain the silhouette of youth.

Wish me luck!

The silhouette of youth, wasted in a drop-waist dress

UPDATE 10/18/2018: I did it!!!

*Whose blog you should check out! She writes about dinner parties and travel and decor and the NYU Writers in Paris program, where we met, and, a favorite topic of mine, how hideous embassy furniture is.

**Of course, when you see that someone was the director of the Life Extension Institute, your first question is how old he was when he died. Answer: 64. He died suddenly in 1931 on a trip to Dresden, where he had gone to visit the Museum of Hygiene. How to Live had an introduction by William H. Taft. And this is now the most irony-packed footnote of My Year in 1918.

***Not just about dieting. He was also a strong opponent of tobacco. Unfortunately, like so many otherwise admirable people of 1918, he was a—and if you’re a regular reader, you’ll be able to recite this along with me—horrible eugenicist.

****This is legit—the USDA says so. You just have to cook it longer.

*****I told you he doesn’t pull any punches.

******Well, Molly did. But, unlike me, she had a houseful of servants under orders to keep food away from her.