Category Archives: Fiction and Poetry

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.*******

Vanity Fair 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).

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

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.)

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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).

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.

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!

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

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

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.

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

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)

Are You a Stagnuck? A 1918 Year-End Quiz (With a Prize!)

In 1918, Boni and Liveright, publishers of the Modern Library series, started running ads admonishing people, “Don’t be a Stagnuck.” The way not to be a Stagnuck: read every Modern Library book. Woodrow Wilson! Max Beerbohm! H.G. Wells! The Baron of Dunsany! And sixty-two more! A bargain at 70 cents each.

The Liberator, January 1919

But what was a Stagnuck? The world was clamoring to know. Or so claimed Boni and Liveright, which answered the question in another ad:

The Sun (New York), October 20, 1918

Ha ha! A Stagnuck thinks The Way of All Flesh is a sex book! That John Macy is the proprietor of a department store! Imagine!*

In December 1918, The Bookman reported in its “Gossip Shop” department that Boni and Liveright’s request for definitions of “Stagnuck” had yielded six hundred suggestions. Their favorite: “a person who thinks that George Eliot was the father of ex-president Eliot of Harvard.”** The publisher was printing a booklet of the hundred best suggestions, which sadly seems to be lost in the mists of time.

But don’t worry! You can still find out how much of a Stagnuck you are. Just take this year-end quiz on your 1918 knowledge. And there’s a prize!!! I’ll randomly select a winner from the correct responses submitted to the Contact page by 1 a.m. EST on January 4, 2019, and he/she will receive a 1918-era book of his/her choice from the Book List.***

Get out your pencils! (Which, if you’re a veteran of My Year in 1918 quizzes, you already know were not actually made of lead in 1918, or ever.) Good luck, everybody!

Studio portrait of Noel Pemberton-Billing, 1916

1. Noel Pemberton-Billing was prosecuted for:

a. Demonstrating sympathy for Germany by painting a blue stripe on a red, white, and blue pencil black.
b. Implying that dancer Maud Allan was part of a 47,000-member lesbian-German cabal.
c. Writing a short story about a young man who, about to be sent to the Western Front, sees animals mating and gets into the spirit with a local lass.

Harvey Wiley in his USDA lab (FDA)

2. Nutrition and food safety pioneer Harvey Wiley described what food as follows? It has in its composition more protein than has wheat flour, and about twenty times as much fatty material, and a considerable proportion of starch as well. It is, therefore, extremely nourishing and is usually easily digested.”

a. Chocolate.
b. Graham flour.
c. Meaty little pig snouts.

3. Alan Dale not only penned The Madonna of the Future, a scandalous play about a society woman who became a single mother, he also (choose all that apply):

a. Wrote the first gay-themed novel in English.
b. Won an Olympic silver medal for watercolors and drawing.
c. Was a Hearst drama critic, derided by George Jean Nathan for making puns like “‘Way Down Yeast’ ought to get a rise out of everybody.”

William Gibbs McAdoo, official portrait, 1914

4. In addition to being Woodrow Wilson’s son-in-law, William Gibbs McAdoo was (choose all that apply):

a. Secretary of the Treasury.
b. Director General of Railroads.
c. The Chief Magistrate of New York who said that, if called upon, he would rule that the play The Madonna of the Future was obscene.

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

5. Poet George Sterling earned the sobriquet “Uncrowned King of Bohemia” for (choose all that apply):

a. Founding the modernist journal The Little Review.
b. Living in a tent on Lake Michigan (with servants).
c. Establishing Carmel-by-the-Sea as an artists’ colony.
d. Having a partner, in work and life, who dressed as a member of the opposite sex.

Young Dorothy Parker, date unknown

6. Dorothy Parker published hate poems in Vanity Fair about which of the following? (Choose all that apply.)

a. Women.
b. Men.
c. Huns.
d. Relatives.
e. Actresses.
f. Farmerettes.
g. Slackers.

7. Joyous crowds poured out onto the streets of New York to celebrate the end of World War I on:

a. November 7, 1918.
b. November 11, 1918.
c. Both a and b.

Eugenics supporters hold signs criticizing various “genetically inferior” groups. Wall Street, New York, c. 1915.

8. Which of the following were enthusiasts of eugenics? (Choose all that apply.)

a. Daddy-Long-Legs author Jean Webster.
b. Marie Carmichael Stopes, author of the banned marriage manual Married Love.
c. Fired Columbia university professor James McKeen Cattell.
d. The American Journal of Insanity.
e. How to Live co-author Eugene Lyman Fisk.

The Bookman, January 1918

9. Which of the following were described as “virile”? (Choose all that apply.)

a. Society portrait painter Cecilia Breaux.
b. Alsace.
c. George Grey Barnard’s statue of Lincoln in Cincinnati.
d. Converting people to Christianity.
e. Readers of the literary magazine The Egoist.
f. William Carlos Williams’ grandmother.
g.  Canada.

10. Match the following people with criticism of their writing in the literary magazine The Egoist, where T.S. Eliot was literary editor:

a. John Drinkwater.
b. H. G. Wells and Arnold Bennet.
c. G.K. Chesterton.
d. Rebecca West.

1. “What interest can we take in instruments which must of nature miss two-thirds of the vibrations in any conceivable situation.”
2. “___________ says, ‘Hist!’.”
3.  “As a tale of human emotion it is altogether quite indecently unjust.”
4. His or her “brain swarms with ideas; I see no evidence that it thinks.”

Update 1/11/2019: And the answers are…

1. Noel Pemberton-Billing was prosecuted for:

a. Demonstrating sympathy for Germany by painting a blue stripe on a red, white, and blue pencil black.
b. Implying that dancer Maud Allan was part of a 47,000-member lesbian-German cabal.
c. Writing a short story about a young man who, about to be sent to the Western Front, sees animals mating and gets into the spirit with a local lass.

Answer: B. It was a man named Otto Bollmann who was arrested for treasonous pencil painting and writer/painter Wyndham Lewis who wrote the story that the Postal Service deemed obscene, leading to the seizure of the issue of The Little Review in which it was published. 

2. Nutrition and food safety pioneer Harvey Wiley described what food as follows? It has in its composition more protein than has wheat flour, and about twenty times as much fatty material, and a considerable proportion of starch as well. It is, therefore, extremely nourishing and is usually easily digested.”

a. Chocolate.
b. Graham flour.
c. Meaty little pig snouts.

Answer: A. Graham flour was an often-used substitute for wheat flour due to the war-related shortage, and meaty little pig snouts were featured in a Ladies’ Home Journal article with the headline “The New Meats that We Shall All Learn to Like When We Learn to Use Them.” 

3. Alan Dale not only penned The Madonna of the Future, a scandalous play about a society woman who became a single mother, he also (choose all that apply):

a. Wrote the first gay-themed novel in English.
b. Won an Olympic silver medal for watercolors and drawing.
c. Was a Hearst drama critic, derided by George Jean Nathan for making puns like “‘Way Down Yeast’ ought to get a rise out of everybody.”

Answer: A and C. It was cartoonist Percy Crosby who medaled in painting. 

4. In addition to being Woodrow Wilson’s son-in-law, William Gibbs McAdoo was (choose all that apply):

a. Secretary of the Treasury.
b. Director General of Railroads.
c. The Chief Magistrate of New York who said that, if called upon, he would rule that the play The Madonna of the Future was obscene.

Answer: A and B. The Chief Magistrate was a different William McAdoo. 

5. Poet George Sterling earned the sobriquet “Uncrowned King of Bohemia” for (choose all that apply):

a. Founding the modernist journal The Little Review.
b. Living in a tent on Lake Michigan (with servants).
c. Establishing Carmel-by-the-Sea as an artists’ colony.
d. Having a partner, in work and life, who dressed as a member of the opposite sex.

Answer: C. All of the other answer are true of The Little Review editor Margaret Anderson

6. Dorothy Parker published hate poems in Vanity Fair about which of the following? (Choose all that apply.)

a. Women.
b. Men.
c. Huns.
d. Relatives.
e. Actresses.
f. Farmerettes.
g. Slackers.

Answer: A, B. D, E, and G. 

7. Joyous crowds poured out onto the streets of New York to celebrate the end of World War I on:

a. November 7, 1918.
b. November 11, 1918.
c. Both a and b.

Answer: C 

8. Which of the following were enthusiasts of eugenics? (Choose all that apply.)

a. Daddy-Long-Legs author Jean Webster.
b. Marie Carmichael Stopes, author of the banned marriage manual Married Love.
c. Fired Columbia university professor James McKeen Cattell.
d. The American Journal of Insanity.
e. How to Live co-author Eugene Lyman Fisk.

Answer: A, B, C, and E. The American Journalist of Insanity was appalled by eugenics. 

9. Which of the following were described as “virile”? (Choose all that apply.)

a. Society portrait painter Cecilia Breaux.
b. Alsace.
c. George Grey Barnard’s statue of Lincoln in Cincinnati.
d. Converting people to Christianity.
e. Readers of the literary magazine The Egoist.
f. William Carlos Williams’ grandmother.
g.  Canada.

Answer: A, B, D, E, and G

10. Match the following people with criticism of their writing in the literary magazine The Egoist, where T.S. Eliot was literary editor:

a. John Drinkwater.
b. H. G. Wells and Arnold Bennet.
c. G.K. Chesterton.
d. Rebecca West.

1. “What interest can we take in instruments which must of nature miss two-thirds of the vibrations in any conceivable situation.”
2. “___________ says, ‘Hist!’.”
3.  “As a tale of human emotion it is altogether quite indecently unjust.”
4. His or her “brain swarms with ideas; I see no evidence that it thinks.”

Answer: A-2, B-1, C-4, D-3

*Feeling quite the Stagnuck, I Googled John Macy and learned that he was a Harvard University instructor, critic, and editor who helped Helen Keller with her books and married Keller’s teacher and interpreter Anne Sullivan. The three of them lived together for a while but Sullivan and Macy eventually separated. Ellen Key, by the way, was a Swedish feminist.

**I would think that even knowing the name of an ex-president of Harvard would move you out of Stagnuck territory. I went to college there, and I don’t even know the name of the president. (In my defense, they just got a new one, and I do know the name of the previous one: Drew Gilpin Faust, who I further know is not the protagonist of a classic German legend. I also know who the president of Harvard was in 1918: Abbott Lawrence Lowell, brother of poet Amy.) But, as I’ve said, the definition of celebrity has changed a lot over the past hundred years. In 1918, being president of Harvard was like being a late-night talk show host today.

***Subject to the availability of a reasonably priced edition of decent quality. (If I read an okay edition, I’ve linked to it.) If you live someplace outside the United States where shipping presents difficulties, I’ll come up with an equivalent prize. Please include your name, your city and state (or country) of residence, and your e-mail address in your submission. Answers are as they appear on the blog. If no one gets all the answers right, I’ll choose randomly from the entries with the most correct answers. But that shouldn’t happen because, like I said, they’re all right there on the blog!

Your 1918 Holiday Shopping Guide

It’s Christmas 1918, and everyone’s in the mood to celebrate! But what to get for that special someone?

Everyone’s already gotten the gift they wanted most,

US Food Administration, Educational Division, 1918

but there’s lots of other cool stuff out there.

For the Kids

A good place to start your search is Happyland at Bloomingdale’s, where

There’s every old manner of plaything and banner
In BloomingdaleS Showing of Toys,
U-boats and airships, death-and-despair ships
In BloomingdaleS Showing of Toys.

New York Times, December 15, 1918

If your kid’s more into reading than visiting death on the Allied forces, you’re still in luck. Recommendations from The Bookman include an edition of Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales, with illustrations by Harry Clarke,

Canadian Wonder Tales by Cyrus Macmillan, illustrated by George Sheringham,

English Fairy Tales by Flora Annie Steel, illustrated by Arthur Rackham,

Folk Tales of Flanders, written and illustrated by Jean de Bosschère,

and Dream Boats, Portraits and Histories of Fauns, Fairies, and Fishes, written and illustrated by Dugald Steward Walker, of which The Bookman says that “text and drawing tinkle with elfish laughter and scintillate with flitting wings.”

Or give the gift that keeps on giving, a subscription to St. Nicholas magazine. The kids will  spend many happy hours solving puzzles that leave me baffled, like this one:*

St. Nicholas, December 1918

 For the Men

Vanity Fair’s holiday shopping guide is full of ideas for the “Male of the Species,” but once you weed out the smoking presents

Vanity Fair, December 1918

and the war presents

Vanity Fair, December 1918

the selection’s a bit limited. There’s this extra speedometer for passenger’s seat viewing, but $50 ($834.56 in 2018 dollars) seems a bit pricey, plus, if given by a wife, isn’t this kind of passive-aggressive?

Vanity Fair, December 1918

These wallets ($13 and $7.25) are perfectly nice and all, but a wallet always smacks of “I couldn’t think of anything else so I got you this” desperation.

Vanity Fair, December 1918

The Bookman assures us that the poetry anthology Songs of Men, compiled by Robert Frothingham, is a “a book such as nearly everybody has been looking for.”

It is a collection of verse for men, with a swinging range of the gamut of emotions; it sings of camping and seafaring, of mining and mountain-climbing, of cow-punching and horse-wrangling, of prospecting, pioneering, loving and fighting. From the woodsman to the college professor, every man will read this small volume with keen delight.

If you’re still not convinced, here’s a random sample, from the poem “High-Chin Bob” by Badger Clark:

No? Well, then, a fourteen-year supply of alcohol might be appreciated. Get it while it lasts!

For the Ladies

Vanity Fair’s “Gifts for the Eternal Feminine” have stood the test of time better than the men’s gifts, with only the fur stoles (ranging in price from $75 (seal or nutria) to $150 (ermine)) likely to raise eyebrows today. Just as well, since I’d probably leave mine at the opera a week after I got it.**

Vanity Fair, December 1918

I’d probably do a better job of holding on to this gorgeous beaded bag,

Vanity Fair, December 1918

or, if you weren’t planning on spending $45 on me, I wouldn’t turn up my nose at this collarless guimpe, a steal at $2.75.

Vanity Fair, December 1918

If the lady in your life is as ladylike as the readers of Songs of Men are manly, how about the new novel You’re Only Young Once by Margaret Widdemer? It’s about five sisters who find love and is, according to the (male) Bookman reviewer,

the pinkest book it has ever been our fortune to read. It is as feminine as a powder-puff, as delicate as the frou-frou of silken skirts, and as appealing as the passing of a faint aroma of orris.***

Or, if she’s a debutante and is constantly being called on to be sprightly at teas, there’s always Vanity Fair itself:

New York Times, December 15, 1918

For the Whole Family

Hint hint: I’ve always dreamed of having a player piano, and this one’s a steal at $495! (Installment plan available.)

New York Times, December 15, 1918

On Second Thought…

You know what? My lifestyle doesn’t really call for beaded evening bags. I don’t even know what a giumpe is, to be honest. And there’s no room in my house for a player piano.

Which, now that I do the math, costs two years worth of wages for Lower East Side textile worker Elizabeth Hasanovitz, whose autobiography I just finished reading. (It was excerpted in the Atlantic in early 1918, and I wrote about Elizabeth here and here.) One day, when Elizabeth had just lost yet another job (her unionized shop had closed–it later reopened with more compliant workers), she passed a bread line and saw a man being angrily turned away because he’d arrived late. No weak coffee and stale bread today! She gave him a dime.

If Elizabeth can spare a dime for the (even) less fortunate, I can do without more stuff. Better the money should go somewhere where it will really do good, like to one of

New York Times, December 15, 1918

The stories are harrowing–abusive fathers, parents dead of suicide, breadwinners locked up in insane asylums, and children living on the street. Thanks to social safety nets, the kind of abject poverty that existed in the United States in 1918 has, for the most part, been eradicated. But there are still plenty of people in need, and the Neediest Cases Fund, now in its 107th year, is still extending a helping hand. So you don’t even have to be a time traveler to contribute!

Happy holidays to all of you, wherever (and whenever) you are!

Lithograph for The Night Before Christmas by William Roger Snow, 1918

*On the other hand, there was a double acrostic on the same page with the hint “my primals and my finals name what every loyal American should own” and I instantly said, “Liberty Bond,” and completed the puzzle in about two minutes. “Thrift Stamp” was the rest of the answer.

**This actually happened a lot–the 1918 New York Times classifieds are full of expensive stuff that rich people lost at the theater or in taxis.

***I read the first chapter a few weeks ago, and I agree, it’s pretty damn pink.

My Sad Search for 1918 Love

After almost a year in 1918, I have yet to find a decent man.

If I were gay, I’d have it made—this was the golden age of (if not for) lesbian women. Amy Lowell! Willa Cather! Little Review editor Margaret Anderson! Dancer Maud Allan! Plus lots of probablys like Jane Addams and Edna Ferber. But no, I’m stuck with men.

Walter Lippmann (Pirie MacDonald, 1914)

Back in January, I checked out two prospects*, H.L. Mencken and Walter Lippmann. Mencken’s denunciation of American Puritanism and hypocrisy appealed to me, but then he started going on about the Jews and [n-word] republics and I was over him. Lippmann seemed stodgy at first, but he won me over by sneaking a bunch of double-entendres into a sober discussion on prostitution in his 1912 book A Preface to Politics.

But then he disappeared, as seemingly good men often do. Having left the New Republic to head up the War Department’s propaganda office in Paris, he was almost invisible in 1918. The only traces of him I could find (aside from a swipe from Mencken about his “sonorous rhapsodies”) were two New York Times articles from right before the armistice about an operation he was running to drop leaflets over Germany.

New York Times, November 9, 1918

So my search continued. After ruling out men who

I was left with ten men worth a closer look.

T.S. Eliot

T.S. Eliot (E.O. Hopp, 1919)

T.S. Eliot was my first 1918 love, way back in the eighties, when the internet wasn’t invented so people had to entertain themselves by memorizing The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. Or maybe that was just me. You can disturb MY universe any time, T.S., I would say to myself. Even then, though, there were warning signs. Like how in the very next poem he’s hanging out with an older woman and wondering if he would have a right to smile if she died. But what can I say? I was twenty-two.

As I read more Eliot, and learned more about him, disillusionment set in. For a lot of reasons, but the anti-semitism alone would have been enough. It’s evident already in 1918, in the poem “Sweeney Among the Nightingales,” published in the September 1918 issue of The Little Review.***

Good-bye, T.S.!

George Jean Nathan

George Jean Nathan, date unknown

If Mencken wasn’t the guy for me, what about George Jean Nathan, his best pal and Smart Set co-editor, who was also the preeminent drama critic of his time? Smart and funny and urbane, and an excellent source of theater tickets.

Digging around to find out whether he shared Mencken’s anti-semitism, I learned that he was part Jewish himself—and that he went to great lengths to hide this. Which would be a deal-breaker today, but those were different times. Case in point: movie star Lilian Gish, whom Nathan was madly in love with, supposedly broke up with him when she learned of his Jewish roots.

But have you seen All About Eve? If so, do you remember the poisonous middle-aged critic who was squiring around 24-year-old Marilyn Monroe? Turns out he was based on Nathan.

Good-bye, George!

Alan Dale

Alan Dale and his daughter Marjorie, 1900 (Library of Congress)

More than anything else I’ve written about this year, the story of Alan Dale’s play The Madonna of the Future has stuck with me. A Broadway play about a society woman who becomes a single mother by choice and acts like it’s no big deal? In 1918? How could this be? (Well, it wasn’t for long—facing obscenity complaints, the play closed after a month or so.) I was intrigued. Who was this Alan Dale person?

The hackiest of Broadway hacks, as it turns out. According to Nathan, the British-born Hearst drama critic (real name Alfred Cohen) perpetrated

the sort of humor…whose stock company has been made up largely of bad puns, the spelling of girl as “gell,” the surrounding of every fourth word with quotation marks, such bits as “legs—er, oh I beg your pahdon—I should say ‘limbs’,” a frequent allusion to prunes and to pinochle, and an employment of such terms as “scrumptious” and “bong-tong.”

I couldn’t be with someone who said “bong-tong.” Plus, might the author of the first gay-themed novel in the English language, which Dale also was, possibly be gay?****

Good-bye, Alan!

W.E.B. Du Bois

W.E.B. Du Bois, 1918

Du Bois was a brilliant thinker and a wonderful writer and his magazine The Crisis is one of my favorite discoveries of 1918. But, the world being what it was in 1918, this wasn’t going to happen.

Plus, he intimidates the hell out of me.

Good-bye, W.E.B.!

H.G. Wells

H.G. Wells, ca. 1918

Wells was the alpha male of the British literary scene, regarded as one of the greatest writers and thinkers of his day. It would no doubt astonish a 1918 person to learn that he would be known in the future primarily as a science fiction writer.

As a romantic partner, though? Bad news! Married to his cousin, he was always sleeping with other women, including a Soviet spy and birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger. Who at least could be relied on not to get pregnant, unlike 26-year-old writer Rebecca West and the daughter of one of his Fabian friends, both of whom bore him children.*****

Good-bye, H.G.!

James Hall

James Hall, 1917

James Hall lied and said he was Canadian to get into World War I, was caught and got kicked out, joined the American branch of the French air force, and was shot down just after he was finally able to fly under American colors. He was feared dead but turned out to have been captured by the Germans. After the war, he moved to Polynesia and co-wrote, among other books, Mutiny on the Bounty.

A cool guy, but I’m not into the swashbuckling type.

Good-bye, Jimmy!

Christopher Morley

The Bookman, February 1918

A prolific young literary man-about-town, Morley published the popular novel Parnassus on Wheels and a book of poetry called Songs for a Little House in 1917 and an essay collection in 1918. He was also the literary editor of Ladies’ Home Journal. He married young, stayed married, and never got up to any shenanigans that I know of.

On the other hand, this is how he wrote about his wife:

Songs for a Little House

I would die.

Good-bye, Christopher!

Harvey Wiley

Harvey Wiley, ca. 1900

Harvey Wiley fought against toxic preservatives in foods and was a driving force in the creation of the FDA. He’s one of my 1918 heroes.

Most of the badmouthing I’ve read about Wiley has broken down on examination. It’s been said that he thought women were stupid, but I haven’t found any evidence.****** He’s been called a eugenicist, but the main case for the prosecution is him saying in Good Housekeeping that there’s no better genetic stock than Scots-Irish, which I think was just him being funny because that’s his background. (This is, in any case, pretty mild as eugenics goes.) I’ll have to wait until 2019 rolls around and I can read his new biography to get the lowdown.

In the meantime, though, there’s this: if you’re the kind of guy who, at age 55, is so taken with your 22-year-old secretary that after she leaves you carry her picture around in your watch for ten years until you run into her on a streetcar and marry her, you’re probably not the guy for me.

Good-bye, Harvey!

Louis Untermeyer

Louis Untermeyer, ca. 1910-1915 (Library of Congress)

Untermeyer is one of those 1918 people I remember from when I was growing up, the editor of pretty much every literary anthology I came across. In 1918, he was all over the place, writing criticism for The Dial and The New Republic and poetry for The Smart Set and many other publications. He’s like a non-smarmy Christopher Morley. His wife, Jean Starr Untermeyer, was also a poet. I thought I might have found my man.

Then I looked into his life. He and Jean divorced in 1926, then he married someone else, then he and Jean got married again in 1929 but divorced in 1930. Then he married a judge named Esther Antin, and they lasted for over a decade, but then he got a Mexican divorce. She was presumably the wife who said in a lawsuit that he was, at 63, “still an inveterate anthologist, collecting wives with an eye always open for new editions.” His last marriage was to a much younger Seventeen magazine editor who wrote a book about their cat.

Good-bye, Louis!

William Carlos Williams

William Carlos Williams, 1921

And now for the one who broke my heart.

William Carlos Williams seemed like the ideal man. A groundbreaking poet AND a successful pediatrician. From New Jersey, like me. Part Puerto Rican, so I could practice my Spanish!

We even had a meet-cute story: In an early post, I trashed his foray into Cubist poetry. Kind of like H.G. Wells and Rebecca West, who met after she panned a book of his, except without the part where she immediately gets pregnant and they don’t admit to their son for quite a while that they’re his parents.

It was the 1917 collection Al Que Quiere! that made me fall in love. In “Danse Russe,” he dances around naked in his study, admiring his butt in the mirror, as his wife and nanny and children are napping. In “January Morning,” a poem I love so much I memorized all 500+ words of it, he takes us around Weehawken, New Jersey and environs, dancing with happiness on a rickety ferry-boat called Arden.

Here’s how the poem ends:

Well, you know how the young girls run giggling
on Park Avenue after dark
when they ought to be home in bed?
Well, that’s the way it is with me somehow.

A cheerful modernist, what a concept!

And there’s more. Judging from “Dedication for a Plot of Ground,” his tribute to his fierce, difficult grandmother, he appreciated strong women. He was attractive in a non-threatening way.******* Politically progressive without being loony. And a great family man! He married his wife Flossie in 1912 and they stayed married, stolen plums and all, until his death in 1963. Aside from the minor issue of how you could be named William Williams and then name your son William, he seemed perfect.

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

The first warning sign came at the end of Al Que Quiere!: a reference to “lewd Jews’ eyes” in the long poem “The Wanderer.” An isolated incident, I hoped. But, when I looked further, it all started to fall apart. The final blow came in a Washington Post review of a 1981 biography of Williams. The biographer acknowledges that he threw around words like “kike” but says that this wasn’t anti-semitism, it was just part of the “popular racial myths of his time.” The reviewer responds, “Exactly. ‘Popular racial myths’ are what racism consists of.”

Exactly.

Good-bye, W.C.!

At this point I threw up my hands and said,

Dada 3, December 1918

Which, if you don’t know French (and yes, Ezra Pound, there are such people), means “I don’t even want to know if there were men before me.”

There are lots of ways 1918 was better than 2018. Cars looked cooler

and magazine covers were more attractive

and, regardless of whether you’d want to marry them, these men were part of a far greater literary age than our own.

But my search for 1918 love has made me grateful that I’m living in a world of 2018 men.

Especially the one I married 15 years ago today.

Happy anniversary, S.!

Silk embroidered postcard, WWI

*I’m not being fussy here about whether people were single in 1918 (Mencken was; Lippmann wasn’t), or whether they were age-appropriate for a 100-years-older me.

**Who I just now found out was the father of Joan Aiken, one of my favorite children’s authors (The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, etc.).

***Also, Virginia Woolf called Eliot’s first wife a bag of ferrets around his neck in her journal, and I’d hate it if she said that about me.

****Judging from the photo, he had a daughter, but that didn’t mean much in 1918.

*****He also slept with the daughter of another Fabian friend, and when fellow Fabian Beatrice Webb called this a “sordid intrigue” he lampooned her and her husband Sidney in a novel.

******He did think some women were stupid, but that’s because they were.

Dr. Wiley’s Question-Box, Good Housekeeping, July 1918

*******If you beg to differ, that’s his passport photo. I got mine taken this week, and even though I made them retake it six times it still looks like the picture of Dorian Gray.

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

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

But first, the best and worst of October.

Best news:

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

New York Times, October 31, 1918

Worst news:

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

New York Times, October 23, 1918

Best magazine: The Crisis

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

The Crisis, October 1918

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

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

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

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

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

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

 I’m sold!

 Worst new novel: Strayed Revellers, by Allan Updegraff

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

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

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

Worst headline:

Woman’s Home Companion, October 1918

So smack them!

Best ad:

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

Delineator, October 1918

Worst ad: 

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

St. Nicholas magazine, October 1918

Best magazine cover:

Lots of worthy candidates.

I always have a weakness for a hardworking farmerette.

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

This because it’s, well, beautiful:

As is this.

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

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

Worst magazine cover: Maclean’s

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

On to November!

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

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

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

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

Book Review: The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West

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

Rebecca West, The Independent, April 13, 1918

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

Rebecca West and her son Anthony, ca. 1918

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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