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.

The Uncrowned King of Bohemia: The fascinating story of a not-so-great poet

Illustration by Adelaide Hanscom Leeson, “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam,” 1905, with George Sterling as model

There I was, thinking I was all done with bad mother poems, when I discovered the worst one of all, by George Sterling–in the same issue of The Bookman, as it happens, as I found hitherto bad-mother-poem champion Anna Hempstead Branch.

Until a few months before, The Bookman had been running a series called “The Masque of Poets.” I came in in the middle, couldn’t make much sense of it, and filed it away under Incomprehensible 1918 Things. But the “Masque’s” editor, Best American Short Stories founder Edward O’Brien*, had published a book based on it, and there was a review by Bookman poetry critic Jessie Rittenhouse.**

The gimmick in “The Masque of the Poets”: each month, The Bookman ran a few poems by famous writers, published anonymously. This wasn’t much of a gimmick, as Rittenhouse pointed out—it would have been more fun, she said, to have a contest where people guessed the poets’ identities. On the whole, she was lukewarm about “The Masque,” reckoning that the poets hadn’t submitted their best work. There were some pleasant surprises, though. Like George Sterling’s poem “The First Food,” which she called “poignant and intimate.”

Portrait photograph of George Sterling by Arnold Genthe, 1904

I was skeptical. The 49-year-old Miss Rittenhouse was a big deal on the poetry scene—secretary of the Poetry Society of America and former poetry editor of the New York Times Book Review—but, poetry-wise, she was stuck in 1865.

Here’s “The First Food.” Judge for yourself.

Mother, in some sad evening long ago,
From thy young breast my groping lips were taken,
Their hunger stilled, so soon again to waken,
But nevermore that holy food to know.

Ah! nevermore! for all the child might crave!
Ah! nevermore! through years unkind and dreary!
Often of other fare my lips are weary,
Unwearied once of what thy bosom gave.

(Poor wordless mouth that could not speak thy name!
At what unhappy revels has it eaten
The viands that no memory can sweeten, —
The banquet found eternally the same!)

Then fell a shadow first on thee and me,
And tendrils broke that held us two how dearly!
Once infinitely thine, then hourly, yearly,
Less thine, as less the worthy thine to be.

(O mouth that yet should kiss the mouth of Sin!
Were lies so sweet, now bitter to remember?
Slow sinks the flame unfaithful to an ember;
New beauty fades and passion’s wine is thin.)

How poor an end of that solicitude
And all the love I had not from another!
Peace to thine unforgetting heart, O Mother,
Who gavest the dear and unremembered food!

I know—creepy, right?

I was all set to file this away for use as Worst Poem of the Month when I decided to look into Sterling’s life to see whether by any chance he killed his father and married his mother. He didn’t, but his actual story is almost as weird.

Mary Austin, Jack London, George Sterling, and Jimmie Hooper (Arnold Genthe, ca. 1902-07)

Sterling was born in 1869 in Sag Harbor, Long Island, the first of nine children of a doctor who tried to get him to become a priest—which, as we will see, would have been a very bad fit. He followed his uncle to California, worked in real estate for a while, made a name for himself locally with a book of poetry published in 1903, and moved to the sleepy town of Carmel-by-the-Sea in 1905. Sterling quickly put Carmel on the map as a center of literary, artistic, and Bohemian life, earning himself the sobriquet “The Uncrowned King of Bohemia.” An exodus from San Francisco following the 1906 earthquake increased the town’s popularity.

Sterling was no exception to the rule that all the people we’ve ever heard of from back then were friends with each other. He was the protégé of The Devil’s Dictionary author Ambrose Bierce, who followed him to Carmel, and his best friend was Jack London***. Writers Upton Sinclair, Gelett Burgess, Sinclair Lewis, Robinson Jeffers, and Mary Austin and photographer Arnold Genthe were among those who came to Carmel for temporary or permanent stays. (Okay, I’d never heard of the last two.)

Cosmopolitan, September 1907

Cosmopolitan published Sterling’s poem “A Wine of Wizardry” in 1907, and Bierce proclaimed him the heir to Keats, Coleridge, and Rossetti. Many others begged to differ. There was apparently a low bar for controversy in 1907, because this one was huge. Meanwhile, things were getting pretty wild in Carmel. There were, or so rumor had it, nude beach parties, free love (gay and straight), wife-swapping, and opium dens.

Nora May French (Arnold Genthe, ca. 1907)

Then the tragedies began. In November 1907, Nora May French, a glamorous young poet who was staying with Sterling and his wife, committed suicide by drinking cyanide that she had obtained on the pretext that she needed to polish some silver. News accounts varied as to whether French had been sleeping in the same room as Sterling’s wife—Sterling was away. This, and tales of French’s nymphomaniac ways, increased Sterlings notoriety. Others in the circle also met sad ends. London died following a morphine overdose in 1906 (accidental, apparently, but there were rumors of suicide), and Bierce disappeared in Mexico in 1914.

Caroline “Carrie” Rand Sterling, George Sterling’s wife, date unknown

Sterling began drinking heavily. His wife filed for divorce in 1913, citing non-support, idleness, and dissipation. In August 1918, she too committed suicide by taking cyanide. Sterling began carrying around a vial of cyanide himself, and he finally took a lethal dose in November 1926, while H.L. Mencken was visiting him in San Francisco. (Yes, the Uncrowned King of Bohemia was friends with the Sage of Baltimore too. A volume of their correspondence was published in 2001.)

But let’s not leave Sterling on this sad note. He and his crowd had a lot of good times. Like when they were pounding abalone to tenderize it—the only time, apparently, that it was permissible to sing the Abalone Song, which was composed mostly by Sterling with contributions by London, Lewis, Bierce, Burgess, and others. There were many versions. Here’s the one that appeared in Carl Sandburg’s 1927 folk song anthology The American Songbag:

From “The American Songbag” by Carl Sandburg, 1927

*Edward O’Brien had recently started a new feature in The Bookman called “War Echoes.” It generated a lot of mail, and the nearest post office in South Yarmouth, Massachusetts, was two miles away, so he asked the postal service to open a new post office closer to his house. And they did!

**The Bookman was incestuous like that. Rittenhouse’s first book of poetry had been reviewed in the previous issue—lukewarmly, which must have stung.

***Sterling was portrayed in two London novels that I never heard of, Martin Eden and Valley of the Moon.

Thursday Miscellany: All-moms edition

Continuing our belated Mother’s Day festivities, here’s an all-mom miscellany.

With musical accompaniment!

Good Housekeeping, May 1918

…asked no daughter, ever.

I think I’m doing vacuuming wrong.*

Good Housekeeping, May 1918

For the aspiring mother.

The Independent, May 4, 1918

And for the aspiring non-mother.**

Finally, some modernists and their moms:

T.S. Eliot and Charlotte Champe Stearns Eliot, date unknown (tseliot.com)

Ezra Pound and Isabel Weston Pound, 1898

Julia Jackson Woolf and Virginia Woolf, 1884

And this is a repeat from my last post but I love this picture.

William Carlos Williams with his sons, Paul and William, and his mother, Raquel Helene Rose Hoheb Williams, ca. 1918

*To which I hear a chorus of voices of people who actually know me saying, “When was the last time you did vacuuming in any way whatsoever?”

**If she can get a copy–the Postmaster General banned it from the mails.

In search of a good mother poem

Mother’s Day has come and gone with no acknowledgement from me.* But better late than never, right?

Mothers were a big deal in 1918. Of course, they never exactly go out of fashion, but, with American soldiers just beginning to be in harm’s way, they were on everyone’s mind.

President Wilson paid tribute to the

patriotic sacrifices which are being most freely and generously made by the mothers of this land in unselfishly offering their sons to bear arms, and, if need be, die in defense of liberty and justice.

Clifford Berryman, Washington Evening Star, May 2, 1918

According to the New York Times, General Pershing called on his troops to write home on Mother’s Day. The Y.M.C.A. in France took stationery to the trenches and delivered the letters to the army postal service, where they were marked “Mother’s Mail” and given top priority. “Mother booklets” were distributed to the soldiers, containing Rudyard Kipling’s “Mother o’ Mine,”** Henry van Dyke’s “Prayer for a Mother’s Birthday,” and “a typical letter written from any mother to any soldier.”***

There was a lot of poetry about mothers, most of it, as in any era, pretty bad. So I was intrigued when William Lyon Phelps, author of a seemingly endless series of articles in The Bookman called “The Advance of English Poetry in the Twentieth Century” (we’re on Part VIII now), praised some poems on motherhood by Anna Hempstead Branch. Phelps, an author, critic, and scholar whose lectures drew enthralled throngs,**** called Branch’s poems “as beautiful in their uncrowded simplicity as an eighteenth century room.”

I didn’t get my hopes up too high, though, since, according to Phelps, Branch was the only contemporary poet James Witcomb Riley could stand. The Hoosier Poet has a special place in my heart—he was imprinted on me during a few impressionable childhood years in Indiana—but even Phelps, who was no avant-gardist, called him “the most conservative man I ever knew.” My expectations were lowered further when I read on Wikipedia that Phelps “was regarded as a major poet during her life,” which always has a subtext of “but we all know better now.”

Here’s the first part of Songs for My Mother, called “Her Hands.”

My mother’s hands are cool and fair,
They can do anything.
Delicate mercies hide them there
Like flowers in the spring.

When I was small and could not sleep,
She used to come to me,
And with my cheek upon her hand
How sure my rest would be.

For everything she ever touched
Of beautiful or fine,
Their memories living in her hands
Would warm that sleep of mine.

Her hands remember how they played
One time in meadow streams, —
And all the flickering song and shade
Of water took my dreams.

Swift through her haunted fingers pass
Memories of garden things; —
I dipped my face in flowers and grass
And sounds of hidden wings.

One time she touched the cloud that kissed
Brown pastures bleak and far; —
I leaned my cheek into a mist
And thought I was a star.

All this was very long ago
And I am grown; but yet
The hand that lured my slumber so
I never can forget.

For still when drowsiness comes on
It seems so soft and cool,
Shaped happily beneath my cheek,
Hollow and beautiful.

With all due respect to Phelps, and to Branch’s fragrant mother—no. It’s not just that this poem has nothing to do with where poetry was going.***** Try to read that last stanza out loud. For it to work, you have to pronounce the last line “hollOW and beatiFOOL.” It’s fine to bend the rules on rhyming and scanning if your structure is looser—for example, “Streets that follow like a tedious argument/Of insidious intent,” from T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” doesn’t scan particularly well—but if you’re locked into your scheme as tightly as Branch is, you’ve got to stick with it. I did like “I…thought I was a star,” but I got lost trying to follow the cloud/pasture/cheek/mist trajectory.

Then I stumbled upon William Carlos Williams’ 1917 poem “Dedication for a Plot of Ground.” Once again, I didn’t get my hopes up. For one thing, WCW and I have a history, dating back to the early days of this blog when I denounced his foray into poetic Cubism. Plus, have you ever come across a more boring title?

William Carlos Williams with his two sons, Paul and William, and his mother, circa 1918 (Beinecke Library, Yale, University)

The poem is about Williams’ maternal grandmother. Here it is:

This plot of ground
facing the waters of this inlet
is dedicated to the living presence of
Emily Dickinson Wellcome
who was born in England; married;
lost her husband and with
her five year old son
sailed for New York in a two-master;
was driven to the Azores;
ran adrift on Fire Island shoal,
met her second husband
in a Brooklyn boarding house,
went with him to Puerto Rico
bore three more children, lost
her second husband, lived hard
for eight years in St. Thomas,
Puerto Rico, San Domingo, followed
the oldest son to New York,
lost her daughter, lost her “baby,”
seized the two boys of
the oldest son by the second marriage
mothered them—they being
motherless—fought for them
against the other grandmother
and the aunts, brought them here
summer after summer, defended
herself here against thieves,
storms, sun, fire,
against flies, against girls
that came smelling about, against
drought, against weeds, storm-tides,
neighbors, weasels that stole her chickens,
against the weakness of her own hands,
against the growing strength of
the boys, against wind, against
the stones, against trespassers,
against rents, against her own mind.

She grubbed this earth with her own hands,
domineered over this grass plot,
blackguarded her oldest son
into buying it, lived here fifteen years,
attained a final loneliness and—

If you can bring nothing to this place
but your carcass, keep out.

Now, THAT’s a poem. It’s fierce. And Emily Dickinson Wellcome was a fierce mother. What a life! Look at it in geographic terms******:

And so much loss and heartbreak along the way.

If I had to pick a mother from between these two, I’d choose Phelps’s mom, Mary L.B. Branch. When she wasn’t caressing Anna’s brow, she was a poet and children’s author (although not a very good one, from my brief look at her work). She and her husband raised Anna in Connecticut, where her family had lived since 1640. There’s something to be said for stability.

But a poem about a mother? I’ll take Emily, any day.

Title page, The Kanter Girls, by Mary L.B. Branch, 1895

*My Year in 1918-wise, that is. IRL I was on it.

**Which I just read and it’s all about dying and is a terrible poem to give to a soldier!

***1918 mothers were surprisingly interchangeable. American soldiers were apparently known for their need for mothering and their tendency to glom on to the nearest French woman of appropriate age. (But the French apparently thought it was pretty cool, since they followed the American soldiers’ example and celebrated Mother’s Day for the first time that year.)

****People supposedly sat outside packed churches to listen to him through the windows. Those were the days!

*****For an interesting discussion of how a poem can have nothing to do with where poetry is going and still be great, read Frank Hudson’s recent post on Sara Teasdale’s “Union Square.” He sings it too!

******Not completely accurate geographic terms, apparently—E.D.W. was not the most truthful of grandmothers.

The fate of Captain Jimmy Hall

You know how, when someone disappears following an apparently fatal accident, everyone talks about their prospects with fake hope belied by occasional slippage into the past tense? That’s what happened when American aviator Captain James “Jimmy” Hall was shot down by the Germans.

According to a May 9, 1918 story in the New York Times, Hall was “popular throughout the army” and “had won admiration by his daring, coolness, and skill in handling his machine.” But his luck ran out. He was on the brink of victory in an air battle over Pagny-sur-Mosselle when his desperate German foe attempted

a manoeuvre unheard of, so far as American and French pilots in this part of France are concerned. It has been considered dangerous to the last degree to bring up a machine sharply from a downward plunge, because the strain is almost certain to cause the collapse of some vital part of the plane.*

But it worked, and the German pilot “thus was enabled to pour a stream of bullets into the bottom of Hall’s machine.”

Jimmy’s companions watched as his plane plunged toward the ground. They waited for several hours before returning to the hangar, where they talked bravely of his possible survival.

New York Times, May 9, 1918

At the time of Hall’s crash, the American air force was in its infancy. It went by the uninspiring name of “Aviation Section, Signal Corps,” although it would be rebranded the United States Army Air Service later in the month. The first American air squadrons had just arrived in April. Before that, a few American aviators, like Hall, had flown with allied forces. The Times noted that Hall’s plane bore the American aviators’ newly created “Hat in the Ring” insignia.

I didn’t see much hope for Jimmy. Nor did the Times, which ran a short obituary-like item below the story:

Flight Captain James Norman Hall, reported as missing in France, fulfilled an oft-repeated wish for, after fighting under French and British colors, his final combat was as an American. Hall was 30 years old and his home was in Colfax, Iowa, where his parents live.

But I figured that Hall’s story was interesting enough that, even if he had died, I might be able to learn more about him. So I Googled him and…

Hat in the Ring insignia, Air Service, U.S. Army, 1918

…JIMMY LIVES!!!!!

Not only does he live, he goes on to co-write Mutiny on the Bounty. I bet you didn’t see that coming!

Before we come to that, though, I’ll get you up to speed on Hall’s pre-war life. After attending Grinnell College in Iowa, he moved to Boston to be a social worker, studied for a master’s degree at Harvard, happened to be on vacation in England when the war broke out, enlisted in the army by posing as a Canadian, went to the trenches, got kicked out when his ruse was discovered, went back to the United States and began a career as a writer, was sent to France by the Atlantic Monthly to report on Americans fighting for France, got caught up in the cause and joined the Lafayette Flying Corps,** and joined the American army when the United States entered the war.

After spending the rest of the war in German prisons, Hall was awarded the French Légion d’Honneur and the American Distinguished Service Cross. He moved to Tahiti and resumed his writing career. With fellow veteran and Tahiti resident Charles Nordhoff,*** he wrote Mutiny on the Bounty and its sequels, along with numerous other books.

Conrad Hall, American Cinematographer, 2003

Hall and his wife, who was part Polynesian, had a daughter named Nancy and a son named Conrad. Conrad would go on to win three Academy Awards as a cinematographer, for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, American Beauty, and Road to Perdition.

It’s one thing to realize in the abstract that each life lost in World War I, or in any war, erases what the person might have achieved in later life, the children they might have had, what their children might have achieved, and so on through time. But I’ve never seen this illustrated so vividly as it is here. If Hall had died in that crash, we wouldn’t have Mutiny on the Bounty, or any of his other books, or any of the movies based on his books, or, at least in their current form, any of Conrad Hall’s movies. And that’s just one person. Ten million soldiers and five million civilians died in World War I.

It makes you stop and think, doesn’t it?

Little, Brown, and Company, 1932

*Of course this is old hat to us because we’ve seen it a million times in the movies.

**Which you’d think the Atlantic Monthly could have seen coming given his track record.

***whom he had or hadn’t met during the war depending on whose Wikipedia entry you believe (UPDATE: According to Hall’s family’s fascinating website about him, they met in November 1918 after Hall’s release.)

Thursday Miscellany: Mauvais français, trippy Kewpies, and loud loos

French phonetic pronunciation was a big thing in 1918 product names. (See also Bozart Rugs.) In this case I kind of get it, since you wouldn’t want to go to all the effort of creating a costly new odor out of 26 flowers only to have everyone call it “Talc Gentile.”

Good Housekeeping, May 1918

Good Housekeeping ran a recurring feature on the Kewpies for the children of 1918, who were apparently less easily freaked out than I am. In this episode, an invalid child’s bed is absolutely infested with Kewpies, but she’s OK with it.

Good Housekeeping, May 1918

Apparently having other people hear you flush the toilet was a highly dreaded 1918 situation.

Good Housekeeping, May 1918

I don’t know, my own ideal scenario is NO creepy disembodied faces on my living room wall.

Good Housekeeping, May 1918

I know I’ve been kind of a shill for the 1918 cigarette industry, and Murads in particular. But I can’t help it, I just love Murad ads. So, just so we’re all on the same page here, CIGARETTES ARE BAD FOR YOU. THEY KILL. THEY SMELL REALLY, REALLY BAD. YOU SHOULDN’T SMOKE, AND IF YOU ALREADY DO YOU SHOULD QUIT.* Now that I’ve made that clear, here’s an ad for Murads in the May 1918 Scribner’s. 

*ESPECIALLY IF YOU LIVE IN MY BUILDING.

1918 Word of the Year: Virile

Quick: what do society portrait painter Cecilia Beaux, Canadian newspapers, and Alsace have in common?

You got it! They’re all super-manly.

Virile, that is.

For the most part, I’ve found that 1918 writing seems surprisingly contemporary. But I noticed early on in My Year in 1918 that certain words were used in ways that they aren’t used now. So I set out in search of the most 1918 word of all. It might be premature to declare a winner this early, but I don’t see how anything can beat virile.

Let’s look at some of the other contenders.

Race. In 1918, race didn’t just mean race as we know it—in fact, it rarely meant that. It meant nationality or religion or basically any kind of sub-group. It was used all the time. But how 1918 people used the word doesn’t say much about who they were—except to emphasize how inclined they were to divide people into groups. And to believe that membership in these groups determined their character. (Okay, on second thought that does say a lot. But not as much as virile.)

Wholesome. Wholesome didn’t have the faintly condescending connotation that it has now. To say that a book or a work of art was wholesome was meant as high praise. But the word had a whiff of the stuffy Victorian parlour, and the modernists sneered at it. Wholesome was headed for a fall. Just look at its Google N-Gram:

Virile, on the other hand, was in its heyday.

Why virile? Why now? First of all, the obvious: the United States was at war, and what’s more virile than a war? Theodore Roosevelt, Mr. Manliness himself, had said so:

No qualities called out by a purely peaceful life stand on a level with those stern virile virtues which move the men of stout heart and strong hand who uphold the honor of their flag in battle.

And virility was a virtue that had appeal for everyone. The old school liked its robustness. When Kipling won the Nobel Prize in 1907, the committee praised his “virility of ideas.” The modernists wanted to smash up the old order, so they liked virile too. In 1914, when the sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska was making a bust of him, Pound said, “Make it virile.” Gaudier-Brzeska responded with this priapic work. Careful what you ask for, Ezra!*

Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, 1914

It was the modernists, in fact, who first clued me in to virile, back in February when I took offense at this ad for The Egoist, the British literary magazine where T.S. Eliot worked:

Little Review, February 1918

As for H.L. Mencken, virility was his middle name. (Well, actually, L. was.) The Los Angeles Times said that, with his “virile and ruthless attitude,” he had “done much to quash the effeminacy which for half a century has devastated our literature.”

Well, maybe not everyone liked virile. I imagine that Jewish men, who were stereotyped as unmanly (the word languid was frequently deployed), weren’t too fond of it. And the whole virile thing must have gotten old for women.

New York Times, January 12, 1918

Not all women, though. Take Miss Mary G. Kilbreth, Acting President of the New York State Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage, who complained that

a woman autocracy has been established in the national capital. Will the people tamely submit to the yoke? The French dealt summarily with women politicians after the French Revolution,** but the French are a virile race.*** Are we?****

Anyway, women can be virile too! Take portrait painter Cecilia Beaux, of whom The Art World said in March 1918, “Physically, professionally, this forceful woman and virile painter is at her zenith.” Here’s a painting by the studly Miss Beaux:

Ernesta, Cecilia Beaux, 1914 (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Now for a few of my favorite virile things from 1918:

Alsace:

Malagasy working on the road from Ballon d’Alsace to Alfred, November 1917 (Charles Winckelsen)

As, thinking on these things, I passed the boundary stone into the virile landscape of Alsace, suddenly I recalled the huge American encampment my train had whirled past in France. (Ladies’ Home Journal, April 1918)

Antique Spanish furniture:

House & Garden, January 1918

It is so virile that it holds its own by harmonious contrast and so adaptable that it appears to complete advantage against either a severely austere or a richly elaborate setting. It is only when placed in a weak, namby-pamby environment that it is neither austere nor completely opulent that old Spanish furniture looks out of keeping. (House and Garden, January 1918)

Converting people to Christianity:

Young men are more ready than any other class of people to accept Christ when the offer is made simply, virilely, unapologetically, and without ecclesiastical slants and theological camouflage. (Literary Digest, April 6, 1918)

Canadian Newspapers:

Literary Digest, January 26, 1918

In the larger cities of Canada are printed a number of strong, virile, influential Newspapers that give the people their daily news of war, of peace, of progress, politics and MERCHANDISING. (Advertisement, Literary Digest, January 26, 1918)

And, in fact, everyone in Canada:

Literary Digest, February 16, 1918

Right at your side door, separated from you only by a friendly and imaginary line, is a young and growing nation of virile people, who have more money to their credit per capita than any other race of people. (Advertisement, Literary Digest, February 16, 1918)

I’m off to find a fan to wave in front of my face. I’ll leave you with this virile poem:*****

Literary Digest, January 26, 1918

*Actually, he loved it.

**If this is a reference to Marie-Jean Roland, a revolutionary who fell out of favour during the Reign of Terror, then “dealt summarily with” means “chopped off the head of.”

***If only they were a wholesome, virile race, we’d have had a trifecta.

****To which the logical answer is, “Who cares what you think? You’re a woman.”

*****I think “hip pickets” is supposed to be “hip pockets.” Or maybe I’m missing some subtle 1918 wordplay.

On Marx’s 100th birthday, a surprising New York Times tribute

It’s May 5, 1918, the 100th anniversary of Karl Marx’s birth. There’s an admiring article about him in the New York Times Magazine.

My first reaction: What?

Illustration for John Spargo’s article on Karl Marx, New York Times Magazine, May 5, 1918

The New York Times was so conservative that it had recently let the president of Columbia University write the Times’ good-riddance editorial himsef after renowned historian Charles Beard resigned from the university’s staff over free speech issues. If you’re having trouble disentangling this sentence, you can read all about this episode here. Or you can just take my word for it: the Times was really, really conservative.

Then I started reading about John Spargo, who wrote the article, and got even more confused. The British-born Spargo was a leading socialist thinker and a founding member of the Socialist Party of America. He was the author of Karl Marx: His Life and Work.

What was going on here?

John Spargo, Midweek Pictorial, October 7, 1919

As I learned more about Spargo, it started to make sense. It turned out that he had resigned from the Socialist Party in 1917 after his attempt to get it to support U.S. participation in the war was roundly defeated. He started his own short-lived socialist party and helped found the American Alliance for Labor and Democracy, a pro-war labor organization led by AFL president Samuel Gompers.

In 1918, it all came down to where you stood on the war. Being a socialist was a less serious offense than being a pacifist. The defunct socialist magazine The Masses was on trial, but for obstructing conscription, not for advocating socialism (although that probably didn’t help).* Also, Wilson had until recently been trying to keep Russia’s Bolshevik government in the war (they made peace with Germany in March), so a hard-line anti-socialist stance hadn’t been in the national interest.

New York Times Magazine, May 5, 1918

In Spargo, the Times had found a prominent socialist who would argue in favor of the war in Marx’s name. Kind of, anyway. The headline of Spargo’s article reads “Today is 100th Anniversary of Marx’s Birth: Bitterly Opposed to Prussia and an Ardent Admirer of America—his Record Shows Where He Would Have Stood in the Present War.” Which overstates Spargo’s case, kind of.

Spargo writes that

because Marx wrote in the famous “Communist Manifesto” that “the workingmen have no country,” and because he was a strong advocate of internationalism, it has been generally supposed that Marx did not believe in nations or nationalism. This is a profound misconception.

Communist Manifesto, first edition, in German, 1848

According to Spargo, Marx was a strong German nationalist, and was no pacifist—favoring, for example, vigorous action against France in the 1870 Franco-Prussian War. He hated militarism, though, “with all the fierce passion of which he was so magnificently capable.” His view on war was nuanced:

Always he asked himself whether a particular war, or the triumph of one or the other side in a particular war, made for human progress or against it.

Marx was also a “a great friend of America,” and a big Abraham Lincoln fan. According to Spargo, he played an influential role in Britain’s decision to stay out of the Civil War instead of siding with the south.

Therefore, Spargo says,

Having regard to his life’s record, we are justified in believing that, if Marx were alive today, he would hold in scorn those Socialists who, in the name of Socialist Internationalism, have proclaimed their opposition to America’s participation in the great struggle for freedom, democracy, and that independence and integrity of nations without which there can be no internationalism.

That’s a bit of a leap of logic. But it got Marx into the New York Times on his centenary.

Karl Marx, 1882

*Actually, it was between trials—Judge Augustus Hand (cousin of Learned) had declared a mistrial on April 27 after the jurors failed to reach agreement. One juror held out for acquittal and eventually persuaded one or two others (accounts vary) to side with him. When his fellow jurors found out that he was of Austrian descent, they threatened to have him lynched. “If I had noticed that man’s jaw, I never would have let him on the jury,” the prosecutor later said. A new trial was scheduled for later in the year.