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.

Celebrating 100 Posts: 2017 Me Interviews 2019 Me about My Year in 1918

Happy 100 posts to My Year in 1918!* In the blog world, this milestone is traditionally celebrated by indulging in some navel-gazing. So I thought it would be a good time to finally sit down for an interview with 2017 Mary Grace, who had some questions for her post-2018 self. 2017 Mary Grace expected that this interview would take place around New Year’s, but 2019 Mary Grace kept dragging her feet. Once she finally sat down with 2017 Mary Grace, though, she was quite chatty.

2017 Mary Grace

2019 Mary Grace (well, November 2018, but I haven’t changed much)

Here goes:

Tell me about your favorites among the writers you discovered, the books you read, and your other reading.

Edna Ferber, date unknown

I read some great books by famous writers, like O Pioneers! and My Ántonia by Willa Cather and The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf. But, as much as I loved these books, I had more fun discovering books that are forgotten today. One that I’ve recommended over and over is Edna Ferber’s 1912 short story collection Buttered Side Down. Ferber is best known today for the theater and film adaptations of her books, like Showboat and Giant. I wish her book themselves were more widely read. She’s funny and entertaining and empathetic toward her mostly working-class characters.

Among magazines, the biggest revelation was The Crisis, the NAACP magazine edited by W.E.B. Du Bois. It was the only national publication for African-Americans, who were non-existent in the mainstream press except as racist stereotypes. Du Bois was unsparing in covering lynching, discrimination, and other racial injustices, but the magazine also included poems and short stories and news items about achievements by African-Americans, such as 20-year-old college football star/singer Paul Robeson. And cute babies!

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

Another highlight was reading T.S. Eliot’s monthly literary criticism in The Egoist, the small British magazine where he served as literary editor. I’d never thought of Eliot as funny, but he wrote some hilarious takedowns of well-known writers (often under a pen name). My favorite, on G.K. Chesterton: “Mr. Chesterton’s brain swarms with ideas; I see no evidence that it thinks.”

What were your least favorites?

H.L. Mencken, date unknown

 Hands down, my least favorite book was In Defense of Women by H.L. Mencken. It’s 218 pages of essentialist garbage: men are dreamy romantics and women are hard-headed pragmatists, too sensible to care about ridiculous pastimes like politics or to bother with the picayune details of the typical male job. That’s why more women aren’t lawyers, he says. Oh, that’s why. Mencken does take aim against some Victorian shibboleths, like the myth that women don’t enjoy sex. On the whole, though, it was infuriating, and I was glad to learn that the 1918 edition sold fewer than 900 copies. (A significantly revised edition published in 1922 did much better.)

The New York Times was surprisingly awful. Domestic news coverage was all right, but, aside from a few war reporters, the best known of whom (Phillip Gibbs) wrote primarily for British papers, there was virtually zero foreign news coverage, and much of it—especially about Russia—was highly inaccurate. The czar and his family were repeatedly reported killed when they were still alive and reported alive when they were dead. And there were some shockingly right-wing editorials, like the one saying that German accusations of American racism were unfounded because Americans are very patient with their black servants.

My go-to hate read was The Art World. The magazine detested all art from Impressionism on, which, as I’ve mentioned, was as reactionary for its time as saying today that rock and roll is just a bunch of noise. This caption to an illustration of a Cézanne painting was typical.

The Art World, January 1918

I kind of missed The Art World’s crazy rants when, in mid-1918, it merged into a décor magazine.

Were there any forgotten books or writers that readers of today might enjoy?

I’ve mentioned Ferber as an unjustly neglected writer. I also read a number of books that were a huge amount of fun without reaching that level of literary merit. One was Bab: A Sub-Deb, by Mary Roberts Rinehart. It’s a comic novel, told in the first person, about the hapless 17-year-old daughter of an upper-crust New York family. She’s always getting into scrapes, like when she buys a frame with the photograph of a young man in it and claims that it’s her boyfriend to shock her family, but then the man in the photograph shows up, full of endearments! Rinehart is better known today as a mystery writer, but Bab: A Sub-Deb was a huge popular and critical hit when it was published in 1917.

Another very funny book, also about a young upper-class New York woman, was Hermione and Her Little Group of Serious Thinkers, a collection of newspaper pieces by Don Marquis, best known today as the creator of the cockroach-and-cat duo Archy and Mehitabel. Hermione and her little group “take up” every fad and fashionable cause—suffrage, clairvoyance, Indian philosophy, modernist poetry, etc.—and drop them just as quickly. Here’s a typical rumination of Hermione’s:

This war is going to have a tremendous influence on Art—vitalize it, you know, and make it real, and all that sort of thing. In fact, it’s doing it already. We took up the war last night—our Little Group of Advanced Thinkers, you know—in quite a serious way and considered it thoroughly in all its aspects and we decided that it would put more soul into Art.

 And into life, you know.

What was your most surprising discovery?

 I knew about the prevalence of eugenic thought—the belief in the purification of society through selective breeding—but I thought of it as a right-wing philosophy. So I was shocked to learn that it was embraced by progressives, including a lot of people I otherwise admire, like Daddy-Long-Legs author Jean Webster, a socialist. In Dear Enemy, the (deservedly) less well-known sequel to Daddy-Long-Legs, Sallie McBride (Daddy-Long-Legs heroine Judy’s best friend from college, who is now running the orphan asylum where Judy grew up) writes to the asylum’s doctor as follows:

You know, I’m tempted to ask you to prescribe arsenic for Loretta’s cold. I’ve diagnosed her case: she’s a Kallikak. Is it right to let her grow up and found a line of 378 feeble-minded people for society to care for? Oh dear! I do hate to poison the child, but what can I do?

On a lighter note, I always thought of 1918 as a time when the modernists  (the good guys) were facing off against the Victorians (the villains). There is truth to this, but a lot of modernist art and writing was just plain stupid. The 1917 collection Others: An Anthology of the New Verse, edited by Alfred Kreymborg, included verse by T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, and Carl Sandburg, but there was also this poem by Walter Conrad Arensberg:**

From The Others: An Anthology of the New Verse (1917)

Ahead of its time? Definitely. In a good way? I don’t think so.

What was the most difficult part of the project? What did you miss the most?

 I thought it would be hard to set aside the light but well-written contemporary fiction that I turn to for comfort reads—writers like Elinor Lipman, Stephen McCauley, and Meg Wolitzer—but I found so much fun 1918 reading that this wasn’t much of an issue. What I did miss was the journalistic entertainment that we take for granted—advice columns, quizzes, humor pieces, crossword puzzles and the like. With a few exceptions, like Dorothy Parker’s writing for Vanity Fair and Harvey Wiley’s Good Housekeeping column Dr. Wiley’s Question-Box, that type of thing just didn’t exist. (Three was humor, but for the most part it wasn’t funny.)

What was the most fun part?

 I loved writing the Best and Worst posts. It was fun to discover excellent writing, ads, and magazine cover art. Finding the worsts was even more fun. I’ll take the opportunity here to show this Life magazine cover, which I missed at the time but now belatedly crown the Worst Magazine Cover of 1918.

Life, July 4, 1918

What did you learn about the world of 1918? What did 1918 teach you about the world we live in today?

 One of my biggest takeaways was how central the role of social class was in 1918. We talk now—and rightly so—about the dangers of rising inequality, but back then social class (along with gender, race and ethnicity) determined every aspect of your life, from what you wore to who you married. In one story I read—I can’t remember what it was—an upper-class man is walking in the city and he gets depressed because, after an hour, he hasn’t seen another gentleman. It struck me as extraordinary that he could identify people’s social class with a single glance like that.

Harper’s Bazar, April 1918

Someone asked me what would surprise a 1918 person who was transported to 2018 the most. I said they’d be astonished by how casually dressed most people are, and how similarly men and women dress. There are good and bad things about this—I sigh over 1918 clothes—but clothing as a marker of social class doesn’t exist in the same way anymore (leaving aside work uniforms like suits and ties).

Over the course of the project, I became much more appreciative of the world we live in today. Despite its many problems, it’s a vastly better place than the world of a hundred years ago. Of course, we’re the beneficiaries of hard-won victories by previous generations of activists on civil rights, women’s rights, and expanded educational opportunities. We need to fight just as hard as they did to ensure that we leave behind a better world than the one we inherited. Here, my views aren’t quite so rosy, particularly when it comes to climate change.

What did you learn about being a blogger?

A while back, I read a post by a successful blogger about increasing viewer traffic. The key, he said, is to write about the same things that everyone else is writing about because that’s what people want to read. Don’t think you can write about a niche topic and find your audience, he said—it’s not going to happen.

I’m glad I didn’t see this post when was starting out, because it would have discouraged me. And he’s wrong—I did find my audience. It might be small by his standards, and, sure, it can be frustrating to happen upon a blog post that says something like “I was kind of tired but I had some coffee and now I feel better” and see that it has 117 likes. But I can’t think of any other area of life with so few barriers to getting your voice heard and becoming part of a community. I’m not a historian, or an expert on 1918, but I had something to say, and people listened. That’s a wonderful thing.

How has your year in 1918 affected your reading life?

 As I’ve mentioned, I had a rocky transition at the beginning of 2019, similar to the reverse culture shock I used to experience when I got back to the United States from a diplomatic posting. It took me several weeks to go back to reading contemporary books and news. Now that I have, I’ve become fussier about what I read. Everything I read in 1918 had a larger purpose as part of the project, and I try to bring a similar sense of purpose into my reading now. I read less day-to-day news and more explanatory journalism. I read less journalism in general, for that matter, and more poetry. And I’m more tenacious about sticking with challenging reading, like this 800-page French book that I started four years ago and am finally close to finishing.

OK, it’s not Balzac

That said, I’m only human. The day I got back from my recent trip to Ethiopia, having taken six plane flights in eight days, I read five articles (here’s one) about how the cast of Crazy Rich Asians owned the red carpet at the Oscars.

Who was your most admired figure from 1918? Your least admired?

W.E.B. Du Bois, ca. 1919

Jane Addams reads to children at Hull House. (Jane Addams Memorial Collection, University of Illinois at Chicago)

For Thanksgiving, I wrote a post on 10 1918 People I’m Thankful For. Of these ten, I’d say that Jane Addams and W.E.B. Du Bois are my most admired.

New York Times, August 22, 1918

There were lots of villains. One of the worst is Senator James Vardaman of Mississippi. He was known as “the Great White Chief” and lived up to this moniker with comments like “the only effect of Negro education is to spoil a good field hand and make an insolent cook.” He was defeated in the Democratic primary when seeking a second term in 1918. Not for being a racist, though—it was because he had voted against the U.S. entry into World War I. The New York Times had this to say after his defeat: “Was he the victim of his own singularity, grown megalomaniacal, or did he simply overestimate the hillbilliness of his state?”***

What did you learn about marginalized voices from 1918?

Lower East Side, ca. 1910 (New York Times photo archive)

I learned that the world “marginalized” barely does justice to how African-American writers and members of other racial and religious minorities were treated in literature. “Erased” would be a better word. Jewish immigrant writers were starting to appear, though, and I read two fascinating memoirs by Lower East Side textile workers—One of Them by Elizabeth Hasanovitz (whom I wrote about here and here) and An American in the Making by Marcus Eli Ravage. Along with Edna Ferber’s short stories, Ravage’s memoir is the forgotten book I most enthusiastically recommend to readers today.

Is there anything you wish you had done that you didn’t have a chance to?

 So many things!!! I didn’t listen to much 1918 music or watch 1918 movies except one short one. I totally fell down on the job when it came to 1918 cooking, partly because wartime food restrictions made for awful-sounding recipes. And I didn’t spend a day wearing a corset, as I planned to.

 How does 1918 writing compare to today’s writing? What was better? What was worse?

Short stories were big business in 1918, but, aside from Edna Ferber’s, they were terrible. I bought The Best Short Stories of 1918 but didn’t make it through a single one. A critic at the time complained that everyone was trying to be O. Henry, and he was right.

On the other hand, it was a golden age of poetry. Poets like T.S. Eliot and William Carlos Williams and Marianne Moore and Louise Bogan were just starting their careers. (Yeats was more established.) Of course, there was a lot of terrible poetry too. Sadly, I haven’t been able to find the worst poem I read, toward the beginning of the year. It was about little baby Judas’s mommy wondering why he was so tormented.

As far as fiction goes, Ulysses appeared in print for the first time, serialized in The Little Review, and My Ántonia was published. In non-fiction, Eminent Victorians and The Education of Henry Adams transformed how biography and memoir are written. All in all, I doubt 2018 will leave as great a mark in literary history.

What were some of the underlying, unquestioned assumptions that you found? How does that shed light on the underlying assumptions that we might hold today?

People = men was a big one. It wasn’t just the generic use of “men” to mean human beings. Writers defaulted to the assumption that their readers were men and that, basically, anyone who did anything of any importance would be a man. This was hard-wired into the language.

It’s not possible to know which of our current unquestioned assumptions will seem as antiquated in a hundred years (if it were, they wouldn’t be unquestioned), but I’m constantly thinking about what they might be. There was a New York Times essay on this topic early this year that I found fascinating.

Did you cheat? How, and how often?

I went into the project with some unrealistic plans that went by the wayside almost immediately. The original idea was that I wouldn’t read anything contemporary at all, other than the minimum required to be a good citizen (information about candidates in the midterm elections, for instance).

Marie Corelli

Then, on January 3, I read an article in the New York Times about the British writer Marie Corelli being arrested for hoarding sugar. I had never heard of Corelli, and I realized that I wouldn’t be able to write about her without doing some research. I looked her up on Wikipedia and discovered that she was one of the best-selling writers of her day, that she was the illegitimate daughter of the author of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, which I had heard of, and that she was probably a lesbian. Fortuitously, she had written a totally bonkers article about eugenics in the January 1918 issue of  Good Housekeeping, so I wrote about that too. The small amount of background reading I did made the story a much richer one, and it ended up as one of my top 10 posts of the year.

From then on, my rule was that I’d treat research the way Catholics treat lustful thoughts—they’re inevitable, but don’t dwell on them. I’d go to (usually) Wikipedia, get the information I needed, and get out quickly.

Once the guidelines were set, I was pretty good about sticking to them. I got news alerts on my iPad, so I knew what was in the headlines. If a news event was important enough that I felt I needed to know about it (like the Trump-Putin summit, the Kavanaugh hearings, and the midterm election results) I’d read an article about it—just one. No editorials, op-eds, or features. I did make some exceptions: I read blogs because it was only fair since I wanted people to read my blog; I read a few articles written by friends from my MFA program, like this one; and I exchanged fiction writing with a few friends. That’s about it. 99% of my reading was from 1918.

Did you come across any interesting (contemporary) people over the course of the project?

Yes, I did. I’ve mentioned some of them before: history writer Pamela Toler, whose new book Women Warriors: An Unexpected History is waiting for me in Washington, D.C.; Connie Ruzich, who writes about World War I poets on her blog Behind Their Lines; Ph.D. student Leah Budke, who is researching modernist anthologies; the unnamed person behind the blog Whatever It Is, I’m Against It, who writes every day about what was in the New York Times a hundred years ago; Frank Hudson of The Parlando Project, who writes about poets, many of them from the 1918 era, and puts their words to song; and Sheryl Lazarus of the blog A Hundred Years Ago, who is cooking her way through the 1910s (putting me to shame). More recent discoveries include two wonderful fashion blogs, Femme Fashion Forward, Danielle Morrin’s blog about fashion from 1880 to 1930, and Witness2Fashion, reflections on everyday fashion through the ages . Getting to (virtually) know these people was one of the best parts of the year.

What’s next? Where will you take the project from here?

When I started, I envisioned this as strictly a one-year project. But, although I’m no longer reading only as if I were living in 1918, that period is like a second home to me now and I plan to go back often. So I’ll keep going with my blog, although I won’t post as frequently. At some point I’ll need to figure out what to do about its now out-of-date title!****

Do you have any advice for anyone considering a project like this?

Do it! I had high hopes for the project, but it was even more rewarding than I expected.

Annie Sadilek Pavelka and her family, date unknown. (A photo file that was really, really hard to reduce.)

But don’t let it take over your life. Once in a while, particularly during the first half of the year when I kept to a strict three posts a week schedule, I would be working late at night to get a post up, stressing out over picture file size reductions (something I spent way more time on than I could have imagined), and I’d have to remind myself that, hey, it’s just a blog.

Anything else you want to add?

In E.L. Konigsberg’s 1967 children’s classic From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweilerone of my favorite books of all time—Claudia Kinkaid, who has run away to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, says that she wants to “come back different.” When I decided to spend a year in 1918, I wanted to come back different, too. But, like Claudia, I didn’t know exactly what this meant.

After my year in 1918, I know that period in a way that no one else in the world does. Not that I know more about it than anyone else–for example, many people were, unlike me, aware that they didn’t have helicopters back then. But no one else, I am sure, has experienced the year in real time as I did. And I have come back different, in ways that I’m still figuring out. It was a remarkable journey, and one I’ll always be glad I made.

Thanks for joining me.

Thanks for having me!

*If you want to get technical, this is actually my 101st post. I spent much of February traveling in Ethiopia and Zanzibar, which was a great way to celebrate Black History Month but not a very good way to write about it. When I got back to Cape Town I had to rush to get out my post on the first book about an African-American child while it was still February. That was my 100th post.

**Don’t feel too sorry for Arensberg. He was very rich and later became a prominent collector of modern art.

***There is a building at the University of Mississippi named after Vardaman. Wikipedia says it was renamed, but as far as I can tell this is in the works but hasn’t happened yet.

****As I was preparing for this blog in 2017, I asked my friend Emily, she of the DietBet, for advice. As a veteran of several location-related blog name changes (her husband is in the Foreign Service), she warned me against choosing a title that would go out of date. But did I listen? No. You were right, Emily! Her blog is now (and forever) named The Next Dinner Party.

New review on the Book List:

February 27: The Education of Henry Adams by Henry Adams (1918) (audiobook).

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.)

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, 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 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 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 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,” 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 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…

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!

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*

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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:

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.

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.

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

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.*

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.

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.

More beautiful images from 1918

As I mentioned last week, I’ve been posting some of my favorite images from 1918 on Twitter while I regroup after spending 2018 reading as if I were living in 1918. Here’s this week’s batch.

On Martin Luther King Day, I posted the April 1918 cover of The Crisis, featuring a painting by William Edouard Scott of a couple making their way to a new life in the north. The painting is now in the Huntington Museum of Art in West Virginia (although not currently on display).

Poet George Sterling posed for this illustration in an edition of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam featuring photographs by Adelaide Hanscom (later Leeson). The original 1905 edition was in black and white; the photographs were tinted in a 1914 reissue. I wrote about Sterling, who founded Carmel, California as an artists’ colony and was known as the “Uncrowned King of Bohemia,” here.

I’m intrigued by the short-haired, drop-waisted woman on the cover of the July 1918 issue of Vanity Fair. She looks like a time-traveling flapper from 1923. The artist is Georges Lepape.

“Haunting” isn’t a word we typically associate with cleaning products, but I was haunted by the tiny cleaners in the Old Dutch Cleanser ads. Here are two of my favorites, from the February and May 1918 issues of the Ladies’ Home Journal.

Women in 1918 were apparently easily startled by insects. This one’s from George Wolf Plank’s cover for the August 1 issue of Vogue.

I’m not a car person, but I love 1918 cars (and car advertisements). The Marmon 34 set a coast-to-coast speed record in 1916: 5 days, 18 hours, 30 minutes. This ad is from the February 1918 issue of Harper’s Bazar.

I found the word “farmerette” hilarious when I started my reading-in-1918 project, but now I see a picture of a woman in overalls and think, “Oh, a farmerette.” Italian-American painter Matteo Sandonà drew the farmerette on the Sunset cover; I couldn’t find the artist for the Life cover.

Maybe I’ll be ready to move on to 1919 soon. If not, there are lots more great pictures from 1918.

Some beautiful images while I catch my breath

Hi everyone,

Since January 1, I’ve been making the transition, slowly, from the world of 1918 to the world of 2019. People keep asking me what’s going to happen with the blog. I originally envisioned it as strictly a one-year project, but I’m planning to continue into 1919. It won’t be exactly the same, since I won’t ONLY be reading from a hundred years ago. (Doing that for a year is a project. Doing it indefinitely is an eccentricity.) And I won’t be posting as often, since there’s the whole having a life business to attend to.

To keep the spirit alive while I regroup, I’ve been posting some of my favorite images from 1918 on Twitter. Here’s the first week’s worth.

The best art often came in unlikely places, like this ad for Nujol constipation medicine in the January 1918 issue of Woman’s Home Companion.

One of the highlights of my year of reading as if I were living in 1918 was Erté’s Harper’s Bazar (sic) covers. If I had to pick a favorite, it might be this one from May, titled “Fireflies.”

Longing for a snow day in sunny Cape Town, I found this January 1918 Vanity Fair cover by Gordon Conway, a 23-year-old WOMAN artist.

Continuing with the snow theme, here’s a drawing by Johnny Gruelle (creator of Raggedy Ann and Andy) from Judge, the popular humor magazine.

My dream 1918 bedroom, from an ad for Bozart Rugs.

Ladies’ Home Journal, May 1918

The inaugural cover of The Liberator, March 1918. The magazine succeeded The Masses, which shut down after its editors were (unsuccessfully) prosecuted for obstructing conscription. Hugo Gellert created this and many other Liberator covers.

One of many gorgeous illustrations by Harry Clarke from Fairy Tales by Hans Christian Andersen (1916).

See you soon!

The best and worst of December 1918: Book talk, strewn violets, a sad loss, and a magazine of the future

2018 is over!

I should have anticipated that this would happen eventually, leaving me with a blog title and tag line that make me look like I can’t do simple arithmetic. When I started this project last January, though, the end of the year seemed so far off that it wasn’t worth thinking about. To the extent that I envisioned 2019 rolling around, I imagined myself luxuriating in all the reading I’d missed out on—diving into the new books that have been waiting on my bookshelf

and reading frivolous lifestyle articles, which 1918 was woefully short of. Maybe taking a quiz to find out what Hogwarts house I belong in or what Jane Austen character I resemble.*

What actually happened: I got stuck, like someone in a science fiction story who invents a time machine that breaks down as the dinosaurs are descending. I couldn’t bring myself to read any of those new books, not even the biography of food safety pioneer Harvey Wiley, one of my favorite 1918 people. (That’s it at the top of the pile.) I did look at the New York Times headlines on my iPad on New Year’s Day, but they freaked me out. “What is all this news?” I asked myself. “And what does it have to do with me?” So I retreated to the January 1, 1919 news and My Antonia.

It looks like it will take a while. Maybe I’ll read The Waste Land and work my way gradually back to the present.

In the meantime, from my cozy perch in 1918, here are the December bests and worsts.

Best quiz contestants:  

The winners of the “Are You a Stagnuck?” quiz: fellow blogger Deborah Kalb of Books Q&A with Deborah Kalb** and Barbara Dinerman. For their prizes, Deborah has chosen a copy of The Melting of Molly and Barbara has chosen My Antonia. Congratulations to both of these loyal readers! You are not Stagnucks at all. The answers will be posted below the quiz soon. (UPDATE 1/11/2019: You can find them here.)

Best magazine:

Up to now, four magazines have won the Best Magazine award: The Crisis (three times), The Little Review (twice), The Dial, and The American Journal of Insanity. But the magazine that I turned to most eagerly every month, the one that became my 1918 comfort read, never won the honor. In fact, I came close to naming it Worst Magazine one month, after an ownership change that seemed likely to send it down the tubes.

I’m happy to say that The Bookman’s wonderful December 1918 issue richly deserves the honor.

It began unpromisingly, with a profile of the editor of The Saturday Evening Post and a 15-page article called “The Amazing Story of the Government Printing Office.”*** But then things started looking up, with a Sara Teasdale poem and an interesting article by British war poet Robert Nichols called “To the Young Writers of America,” in which he discusses British taste in American books and vice versa, and notes that up-and-coming poets Robert Frost and T.S. Eliot**** were published in England before they were published in the United States. The highlight for me was when he said that

a certain American poet, come to live among us, antagonized the majority of those who were longing to hear what the real American poets were doing. I will not advertise his name. He does not need my help. He is an adept.

Well, I’ll advertise it: it must be Ezra Pound. I love feeling like a 1918 insider.

Then there was Margaret Ashmun’s Christmas round-up, including several gorgeously illustrated children’s books I mentioned in the 1918 Holiday Shopping Guide,

Fairy Tales by Hans Christen Andersen (1916)

and a fascinating set of articles on children’s literature around the world by writers from England, France, Holland, Spain, and Scandinavia. I was so riveted by the history of children’s books in the Netherlands that I looked up the writer, Hendrik Willem van Loon, who turns out to be the author of The Story of Mankind, which won the first-ever Newbery Award in 1921.

Frontispiece, Twin Travellers in South America, by Mary H. Wade

In an article about children’s holiday books, Annie Carroll Moore test-drives them on an actual child, nine-year-old Edouard–an ingenious gimmick in an era when gimmicks were sorely lacking.

“Twin Travellers in South America” looked promising but failed to hold his interest for more than a hasty glance at the pictures. “I think my teacher would like that book because it seems like a geography trying to be a story.”*****

And there’s a review of Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons by H.W. Boynton, who feels exactly as I do about it:

I take pleasure in the book, I suspect, because it covers vividly the range of my own generation and yields the atmosphere of and color of that “middle distance” which, as one emerges from it, is wont to be as blurred and insignificant to the backward eye. And I close the book with the queer feeling that everything about it is true except the central figure.

He reviews My Antonia too, but I’m saving that until I finish the book.

Okay, enough Bookman love–on to rest of the best (and worst).

Worst loss to criticism

Randolph Bourne, date unknown

One of the highlights of my 1918 reading has been Randolph Bourne’s criticism in The Dial. He was modern without (like Ezra Pound) descending into incoherence, hard-headed without (like H.L. Mencken) crossing the line to nastiness. At 32, he had a bright future ahead of him. Or he would have, if he hadn’t fallen victim, after suffering from chronic health problems and disabilities throughout his life, to the influenza epidemic. He died on December 22, 1918.  His last essay for The Dial, published on December 28, was a rapturous review of Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians. It ends as follows:

The book runs over with good things. One closes it with a new sense of the delicious violence of sheer thought. If there were more Gideons like this, at the sound of such trumpets all the walls of the Victorian Jerichos would certainly fall.

I wish he had lived to leave us his thoughts on the explosion of literary talent that would emerge after the war.

On a more cheerful note…

Best nostalgia-inducing headline:

President Wilson arrives in France, and the crowds go wild. Like, strewn violets wild. Sigh.

New York Times, December 15, 1918

Best Christmas present:

Because what says “Christmas” better than not executing someone for exercising their First Amendment rights?

New York Times, December 17, 1918

Worst Christmas present:

Because what says “Red Cross” better than a basket of tobacco?

New York Times, December 10, 1918

Best judicial decision:

Most 1918 judicial decisions were pretty appalling, but I can get behind Johnson v. Johnson.

New York Times, December 16, 1918

Worst praise for a leader during a political campaign:

New York Times, December 15, 1918

Best sinister stratagem:

Cordiality! Those dastards!

New York Times, December 15, 1918

Worst journalistic flat-footedness:

World War I, as you undoubtedly know, ended on November 11, 1918. Some monthly magazines were on it, like The Crisis

and Poetry.

Others missed the boat. The Atlantic Monthly was full of war articles with titles like “Morale” and “Impressions of the Fifth Year.”  St. Nicholas published its monthly update on how the war was going, with one line at the top saying, oh, wait, we won.

St. Nicholas, December 1918

And if you look closely at these festive stamps in the Ladies’ Home Journal to paste onto your letter to your boy or girl in service

Ladies’ Home Journal, December 1918

you’ll find this

and this.

Best caption on an illustration:

Phillisy sidled up to her Aunt Marion, intent on a Red Cross sweater. “So,” she asked, “can people come alive when they’re dead?”

Sunset, December 1918

Best cartoons:

I love both of these Christmas-Eve-in-the-village scenes by Johnny Gruelle of Judge (the creator of Raggedy Ann and Andy) and Harrison Cady at rival humor magazine Life.

Judge, December 28, 1918

Life, December 5, 1918

Curious about who drew this charming Life cartoon, I blew it up to to 800% of its size and managed to read the signature: Rea Irvin, who later became a New Yorker cartoonist and created the magazine’s mascot, Eustace Tilley.

Life, December 5, 1918

Worst cartoon:

With the Huns out of the picture, the cartoonists need a new scary-looking villain. Sounds like a job for…the Bolsheviki!

Judge, December 7, 1918

Best ad (magazine)

Murad generally owns this category******

Life, December 19, 1918

but is edged out this month by rival Turkish cigarette Helmar.

Judge, December 28, 1918

Best ad (newspaper)

Newspaper ads are rarely interesting, but I did like this one. I’m unclear on the purpose of the electric vibrator that the woman on the right in the second row is using on her head.

New York Times, December 20, 1918

Worst ad:

In another month it might have been this,

Sunset, December 1918

or this,

New York Times, December 17, 1918

but this was the month of

Ladies’ Home Journal, December 1918

so it was no contest.

Best magazine covers:

There was surprisingly little Yuletide festiveness on the December magazine covers, perhaps due to bet-hedging on the war.

Vogue upheld its usual high standard with two beautiful covers.

Vogue, December 15, 1918

Vogue Christmas Gifts Number, 1918

Erté finally turned up again after several months of covers that are lost to history, or at least to the internet.*******

Harper’s Bazar cover illustration, December 1918, Erté

House and Garden featured this snowy scene.

Artist William Edouard Scott was back with another luminous painting on the cover of The Crisis.

And I loved this Vanity Fair cover,

which might have won, but then I remembered this Dada 3 cover, which was featured in the post on my sad 1918 love life. With the war over, it’s a new era, with a new, sometimes anarchic, aesthetic emerging. And nothing looks more like that future than

On to…1919!!!!!!

*Although I don’t need to; I know I’m a Ravenclaw and, like everyone else, Lizzie.

**You should check out her website, which features interviews with a huge number of authors (although none from 1918).

***Which, it turns out, is so amazing that the story continues in the January 1919 issue.

****What The Bookman had to say about Eliot under the previous ownership: “There is such a display of cynical cleverness in the verse of T.S. Eliot that I think he might be able to write almost anything except poetry.”

*****Edouard was right. A sample of the twins’ childish prattle: “‘Why, that must be a mataco,’ he said. ‘It’s a kind of armadillo. See, it has rolled itself into a ball for safety. Matacos always do that when they think danger is near. With its head hidden and its jointed shell curled around, it now feels quite safe.'”

******Fun fact: cartoonist Rea Irvin was a Murad illustrator.

*******I couldn’t find an undamaged copy of the actual cover–this is a reproduction of the illustration.

 

New review on the Book List:

December 31: Renascence and Other Poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay (1917).