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.

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

The first African-American heroine in children’s literature

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

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

Photo portrait of Mary White Ovington, ca. 1910.

Mary White Ovington, ca. 1910

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

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

Advertisement in The Crisis, November 1913

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

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

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

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

Illustration from “Hazel” by Harry Roseland

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

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

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

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

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

Illustration from “Hazel” by Harry Roseland

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

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

“I’ll teach.”

“[N-words]?”

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

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

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

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

“Not Miss Fairmount?”

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

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

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

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

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

Hazel was aghast.

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

Illustration from “Hazel” by Harry Roseland

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

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

“Yes, ma’am,” said Scipio.

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

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

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

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

“Yes, ma’am. He died.”

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

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

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

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

Handbill for Zeke by Mary White Ovington, 1931

Handbill for “Zeke,” 1931

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the best novel of 1918 is…

Photo portrait of Willa Cather, 1918

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

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

My Ántonia by Willa Cather!

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

First edition, 1918

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

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

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

Photo portrait of Randolph Bourne.

Randolph Bourne, date unknown

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

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

Photo portrait of young H.L. Mencken.

H.L. Mencken, date unknown

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

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

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

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

First edition, 1918

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

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

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

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

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

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

The accent is on the first syllable of Ántonia.

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

My Ántonia, 1918 edition, p. 3

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

Ántonia was a real person.

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

Anna Sadile Pavelka, date unknown

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

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

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

Anna Sadilek Pavelka and her family, date unknown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See you soon!

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

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).

April 1918 Crisis cover, William Edouard Scott painting Lead Kindly Light. Man and woman riding ox cart with lamp.

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.

Tinted photograph of poet George Sterling, Rubaiyat illustration. Photograph of poet George Sterling, Rubaiyat illustration, 1905.

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.

George Lepape July 1918 Vanity Fair Cover. Startled flapper looking at caterpiller on wall.

“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.

1918 Old Dutch Cleanser ad. Tiny hooded woman washing floor. 1918 Old Dutch Cleanser ad. Hooded women leaving employment bureau.

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.

George Wolfe Plank August 1, 1918 Vogue cover. Startled woman with flowered hat looking at butterfly.

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.

1918 Marmon 34 ad. Green automobile on black background.

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.

1918 Life magazine cover, farmerette kissing soldier in field.

October 1918 Sunset magazine cover, farmerette in overalls wiping brow.

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.

1918 Nujol constipation advertisement. Painting of smiling woman holding baby.

Woman’s Home Companion, January 1918

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.”

Harper's Bazar magazine cover, May 1918. Erté illustration titled Fireflies. Woman holding up globe with 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.

January 1918 Vanity Fair cover by Gordon Conway. Woman in snow holding semaphore flags with hearts on them.

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

Johnny Gruelle cartoon in Life magazine titled The Winter Festival at Yapp's Crossing.

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

1918 advertisement for Bozard rugs. Painting of bedroom with a pink rug.

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.

March 1918 Liberator magazine cover by Hugo Gellert. Drawing of man in cutout style.

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

Harry Clarke illustration from Fairy Tales by Hans Christian Andersen, 1916. Three women in colorful robes..

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

Photograph of a pile of books

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:

Front page header for The Bookman magazine, December 1918

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,

Harry Clarke illustration from Fairy Tales by Hans Christian Anderson, 1916. People in formal dress.

Fairy Tales by Hans Christian 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.

Illustration from Twin Travellers in South America by Mary H. Wade. Boy and girl outside house with parrot.

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

Portrait photograph of Randolph Bourne.

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 headline, December 15, 1918, Two Million Cheer Wilson. Includes subhead Flowers Strew His Path.

New York Times, December 15, 1918

Best Christmas present:

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

December 17, 1918 New York Times story President Saves Soldier. Wilson commutes death sentence for disobeying orders.

New York Times, December 17, 1918

Worst Christmas present:

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

December 10, 1918 New York Times story about Red Cross workers giving baskets of ciagrettes to returning soldiers.

New York Times, December 10, 1918

Best judicial decision:

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

December 16, 1918 New York Times item about judge ruling that wife's refusal to cook meals does not justify assault.

New York Times, December 16, 1918

Worst praise for a leader during a political campaign:

Excerpt from December 15, 1918 New York Times story saying Lloyd George was called a real spark of radium at a meeting.

New York Times, December 15, 1918

Best sinister stratagem:

Cordiality! Those dastards!

December 15, 1918 New York Times headline reading in part Germans' Cordiality to Army Believed to be a Peace Strategem.

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

Editorial page of The Crisis, December 1918, with editorial titled Peace.

and Poetry.

First page of Poetry Magazine, December 1918, with poem titled Peace.

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.

Header in December 1918 St. Nicholas with sentence announcing the war is over.

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

Page of stickers in December 1918 Ladies' Home Journal.

Ladies’ Home Journal, December 1918

you’ll find this

Sticker reading 1919 on the Kaiser's Chest with picture of happy sailors sitting on a chest.

and this.

Sticker reading It's war this Christmas, but wait till next year.

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?”

Illustration from December 1918 Sunset magazine. Woman knitting outdoros with girl standing next to her.

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.

December 28, 1918 Johnny Gruelle Life cover titled Christmas Eve at Yapp's Crossing.

Judge, December 28, 1918

December 5, 1918 Harrison Cady Life illustration showing snowy village.

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.

Rea Irvin cartoon in Life, December 5, 1918. Butler bringing lump of coal on tray into living room.

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 cartoon, December 7, 1918 showing monstrous man about to attack little boy with caption about Bolsheviki.

Judge, December 7, 1918

Best ad (magazine)

Murad generally owns this category******

1918 Murad cigarette ad showing Santa with giant box of Murads in his sack.

Life, December 19, 1918

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

1918 Helmar cigarette ad saying Helmar Turkish cigarettes with each letter colored with a country's flag.

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.

1918 ad for New York Edison titled Give Something Electric with cartoons of people using electrical appliances.

New York Times, December 20, 1918

Worst ad:

In another month it might have been this,

1918 ad for Restgood mattress with headline Curled Hair: The Natural Mattress Filler.

Sunset, December 1918

or this,

1918 ad for Radioc with headline Radium and Hair Health.

New York Times, December 17, 1918

but this was the month of

1918 Nashua Woolnap ad showing child in bed aiming rifle at owl.

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.

Helen Dryden Vogue cover, December 15, 1918. Woman reclining on bed with colorful cushions in front of open window.

Vogue, December 15, 1918

Vogue 1918 Christmas Gifts number cover. Woman on Juliet balcony waving garlands.

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.*******

Erté December 1918 Harper's Bazar cover illustration, woman in pink coat in snow.

Harper’s Bazar cover illustration, December 1918, Erté

House and Garden featured this snowy scene.

House and Garden December 1918 cover illustration. Gray house with pink roof, footprints in snow.

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

The Crisis December 1918 cover. William Edouard Scott painting The Flight into Egypt. Black family next to river with lamp.

And I loved this Vanity Fair cover,

Vanity Fair December 1918 cover, colorful cartoon of crowd of happy soldiers.

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

Cover of Dada 3, December 1918 with caption reading Je ne veux meme pas savoir s'il y a eu des hommes avant moi.

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).

The Top 10 Posts of 1918

Just two days to go in My Year in 1918! After spending 2018 reading books, magazines, and the news as if I were living a century ago, I’m excited but also nervous about returning to the modern world.

Before that, though, I thought I’d count down the most popular posts of the year.

The Top 10 (well, really 11 because there’s a tie at #10)

Illustration from Daddy-Long-Legs by Jean Webster captioned Judy Wins the Fifty Yard Dash.

Illustration from Daddy-Long-Legs by Jean Webster

10 (tie). Dear Daddy-Long-Legs, Drop dead! In this February post, I reread the Jean Webster classic, in which an orphan writes to the benefactor who’s putting her through college. An aspect of the story that seemed charming to 12-year-old me struck me as creepy this time around. (No spoilers here, but I spoil away in the post itself.)

July 1918 George Lepape Vanity Fair cover showing startled flapper looking at caterpiller on wallpaper.

10 (tie). The best and worst of June and July 1918: Insanity, proto-flappers, and octopus eyes. This post, featuring one of my favorite magazine finds of the year, the American Journal of Insanity, the worst New York Times editorial I read all year, which is saying a lot, and Murad cigarette art, probably benefited from sitting at the top of the blog for two weeks while I was in D.C. being lazy.

Hugo Geller March 1918 Liberator cover illustration, cutout of bearded man.

9. My Year in 1918: Some thoughts at the halfway point. In which I ruminate about life as a literary time traveler, and about how checking out of the 2018 news has affected me.

Headline of March 1918 Ladies' Home Journal article titled If You are 40 or Over, How You Can Keep the Silhouette of Youth

8. Wish me luck on my 1918 diet! Surprise surprise—people like reading about diets. My Year in 1918 had its best week ever with this October post on how I tried to regain the silhouette of youth by going on a 1918 diet, spurred on by a group DietBet.

Photo portrait of novelist Marie Corelli, 1909.

Marie Corelli

7. The bonkers world of Marie Corelli. During my very first week, I read a New York Times article about how British novelist Corelli, whom I’d never heard of,* had been arrested for hoarding sugar. A little digging turned up an article in the January 1918 issue of Good Housekeeping in which she rants about modern horrors like Cubism and Debussy and ruminates insanely on who should be shot like a mad dog and who should be involuntarily sterilized—my first, but by no means last, encounter with 1918 eugenic thinking.

Good Housekeeping January 1918 cover showing swaddled baby in front of starry sky.

6. The journey begins! My January 1 post, in which I announce my project and make several promises I will fail to keep.

Photograph of Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap with rainbow flag tint.

Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, date unknown

5. The surprisingly ubiquitous lesbians of 1918: A Pride Month salute. One of the biggest surprises of my project was how many lesbian women I came across, either out (The Little Review editor Margaret Anderson), closeted (Willa Cather), or closeted except that it’s totally obvious if you read their poetry so it’s mind-boggling to a modern reader that people didn’t get it (Amy Lowell).

January 1918 The Crisis cover, black and white drawing of African-American woman with daisies in front of her face.

3 (tie). The best and worst of January 1918: Magazines, stories, thinkers, and jokes. The biggest head-scratcher on the list. I mean, I stand by it—it has W.E.B. Du Bois’s wonderful magazine The Crisis, and T.S. Eliot, and a G.K. Chesterton drinking game, and bad jokes—but I’m not sure what propelled it into the tied-for-#3 spot. The internet is a mystery sometimes.

Headline of Ladies' Home Journal June 1918 article titled What Shall I Do After I Graduate? It Isn't Safe to Trust to War Jobs.

Ladies’ Home Journal, June 1918

3 (tie). What’s Your 1918 Girl Job? Take This Quiz and Find Out! Don’t count on keeping your “war job” when peace comes, the Ladies’ Home Journal (correctly) warns. Set your sights on a realistic career, like teacher, saleswoman, office girl, or dressmaker. Take this quiz to find YOUR 1918 girl job!

Postcard of Maud Allan as Salome, ca. 1906, showing Salomé recoiling from severed head.

Maud Allan as Salomé, c. 1906

2. Unmentionable vice, a secret German book, and a camarilla: The (looniest) trial of the century. This is the craziest story I came across all year, and that’s saying a lot. It’s about a dance production based on Oscar Wilde’s Salome and a libel trial spurred by an item about it in Member of Parliament Noel Pemberton-Billing’s right-wing newspaper, headlined “The Cult of the Clitoris.” Oh, and there’s (allegedly) a 47,000-member German-lesbian cabal. Except that the New York Times couldn’t say “clitoris” or “lesbian” so I had a terrible time figuring out what was going on.

And the winner

Photograph of cameo of girl holding out hand surrounded by pink gems.

1. Are you a superior adult? Take this 1918 intelligence test and find out! This post didn’t do all that well when it was published in February, but its continuing popularity over the year won it the top spot. You, too, can find out whether you’re a superior adult (as opposed to, say, feeble-minded or deficient) by taking this 100-word vocabulary test from Literary Digest. Which is totally accurate, the magazine assures us, because being able to identify a cameo or a parterre or shagreen has NOTHING to do with your socioeconomic status.

Honorable Mentions

Close-up of bride and groom's hands.

My Sad Search for 1918 Love. This post, in which I search in vain for a nice 1918 boyfriend, came in 13th despite having been published in mid-December.

Tinted photograph of poet George Sterling in robe and turban, illustration in The Rubaiyat.

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

The Uncrowned King of Bohemia: The fascinating story of a not-so-great poet. Almost as crazy as the Unmentionable Vice story, this tale of a bad poet, scandalous goings-on in Carmel-by-the-Sea, and much taking of cyanide performed spectacularly when first posted, but then faded and didn’t even make the top 20.

Dishonorable Mention

1918 advertisement for Alabastine showing disembodied faces on walls.

Thursday Miscellany: Mauvais français, trippy Kewpies, and loud loos. Don’t you always wonder what people’s worst-performing posts are? I do! My bottom ten were all Miscellanies or very early, kind of earnest, posts. The nadir, with TWO views,** is this one. It’s a pretty typical Miscellany, so I’m not sure why the hate. Although on second thought it IS kind of creepy, with kewpies, which always freak me out, and scary wall faces, and a toilet. You can click on the link if you feel sorry for it.

So What Does it All Mean?

Some takeaways: people like reading about loony bohemian goings-on and diets and lesbians and bests and worsts and explanations of what people’s blogs are about. And they love quizzes!

Well, all of you quiz lovers are in luck, because there’s one going on right now: a test of your Year-in-1918 knowledge. Enter by 1 a.m. EST on January 4 for a chance to win a book of your choice from the Book List!***

*Which seems inconceivable to steeped-in-1918 December me, since she was hugely famous.

**But you don’t have to feel TOO sorry for it, because numbers of views are kind of misleading. If you look at a post on the home page and don’t click on it, it counts as a view for the home page. So, to make a blogger happy, click on the link.

***For you people who say the quiz is hard—YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE—it’s not! It’s an open-book test, and with judicious use of the search bar a perfect score can easily be yours. One of the answers is right here on this post!

New reviews on the Book List:

December 28: Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery (1908)

December 29: The Answering Voice: One Hundred Love Lyrics by Women, edited by Sara Teasdale (1917)