Category Archives: Fiction and Poetry

The surprisingly ubiquitous lesbians of 1918: A Pride Month salute

When I started my reading-in-1918 project, one of the first things that struck me was that just about every woman I came across was, or appeared to be, a lesbian. Of course, this being 1918, they weren’t waving rainbow flags or announcing their nuptials in the New York Times. Still, they were everywhere. Here are the stories of some of the women I’ve run into along the way.

Marie Corelli

Portrait of Marie Corelli, artist and date unknown

Corelli, who was Britain’s best-selling novelist in her heyday (which was waning by 1918), didn’t self-identify as gay. A number of writers, though, have claimed her for Team Lesbian, pointing to the eroticized depictions of women in her writing, which strikes me as pretty flimsy evidence, and, more convincingly, to her decades-long cohabitation with her companion, Bertha Vyver. Their initials were carved, intertwined, on their mantlepiece alongside the words “amor vincit,” and they exchanged rings.*

If Corelli was in fact a lesbian, she’s an awfully sorry example—as I’ve noted, she advocated forced sterilization and was the source for the homophobic “Cult of the Clitoris” article I wrote about in my last post. Also, she was a pretty bad writer. But, as I’ve also noted, it can’t have been easy to be Corelli, who was the illegitimate daughter of Charles McKay, author of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, and a household servant. Growing up with both your parentage and your sexuality treated as sources of shame would be enough to warp any mind.

Maria Thompson Daviess

Portrait of Maria Thompson Daviess by Ella Sophonisba Hergesheimer, date unknown

Daviess, the author of the Bridget Jones-like 1912 bestseller The Melting of Molly, is a more inspiring, though also ambiguous, example. She’s not famous enough today to have sparked much speculation about her sexuality, but just take a look at her writing. The Melting of Molly, which is narrated by 25-year-old widow Molly, is full of passages like this:

With [Molly’s aunt] came a long, tall, lovely vision of a woman in the most wonderful close clingy dress and hat that you wanted to eat on sight. I hated her instantly with the most intense adoration that made me want to lie down at her feet.

And this:

Miss Chester [the aforementioned tall, lovely vision] and I exchanged little laughs and scraps of conversation in between time and I fell deeper and deeper in love with her.

And especially this:

First I went to see Madam Courtier for corsets. I had heard about her and I knew it meant a fortune. But that didn’t matter! She came in and looked at me for about five minutes without saying a word and then she ran her hands down and down over me until I could feel the flesh just crawling off of me. It was delicious!

I’d really, really like to know what 1918 readers made of this. More on Daviess later.

Margaret Anderson

Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, date unknown

All this digging into people’s private lives was making me feel kind of creepy, so it was a relief to turn to Margaret Anderson, the editor of the ground-breaking modernist journal The Little Review, which published the first chapter of Ulysses in March 1918. She and Jean Heap, her partner in work as well as life, lived openly as a couple. Heap wore men’s clothing and sported a short haircut. “I am no man’s wife, no man’s delightful mistress, and I will never, never, never, be a mother,” Anderson wrote proudly.

Willa Cather

Willa Cather and Edith Lewis, 1926

Cather, the author of O Pioneers! and My Antonia, was fiercely private about her personal life, but she and editor Edith Lewis lived together for decades. The only letter from Cather to Lewis that is known to have survived—Cather burned most of them—begins, “My Darling.”

Amy Lowell

Amy Lowell (Bachrach, ca. 1916)

Poet Amy Lowell (the much younger sister of Abbott Lawrence Lowell, the academically progressive but homophobic Harvard president I wrote about here) didn’t self-identify as a lesbian, but that seems like a mere technicality if you read her work. Here’s “Madonna of the Evening Flowers,” which was published in the North American Review in February 1918 and appeared in the 1919 collection Pictures of the Floating World.

North American Review, February 1918

The subject of this and Lowell’s other love poems is Ada Dwyer Russell. The two lived together from 1914 until Lowell’s death in 1925. (Cohabiting relationships like this, sexual or not, were known—appropriately, in this case—as “Boston marriages.”) Russell’s father, by the way, deserves a place in the PFLAG hall of fame—he was kicked out of the Mormon church in 1913 for arguing that sex between people of the same sex was not a sin.

Maud Allan

Maud Allan

And, of course, there’s dancer Maud Allan, the performer in Oscar Wilde’s Salome, who, as I wrote in my last post, sued British MP Noel Pemberton-Billing for supposedly accusing her, in an article headlined “The Cult of the Clitoris,” of engaging in unspeakable vice. Allan lived for three decades with Verna Aldrich, her secretary and partner.

…And the rest

These are only a few of the many women I came across who were not married and are not known to have had serious relationships with men. Others include writer Edna Ferber, first woman member of congress Jeannette Rankin, short story writer Elizabeth Jordan, portrait painter Cecilia Beaux, and actress Emily Stevens, who played the single-mother-by-choice in Alan Dale’s controversial play The Madonna of the Future.**

Emily Stevens

As I read about these women’s lives, certain patterns started to emerge. One is the “fell so deeply in love as an adolescent that no man could ever measure up” trope. Stevens’ Wikipedia entry says that she developed a girlhood crush on theatrical producer Harrison Fiske, her cousin’s husband, and “seems to have stayed true to her feelings for [him] as she did not pursue relationships with other men.” Maria Thompson Daviess fell at age 13 for her pervy male camp counselor, with whom, according to her autobiography, she exchanged the

most profound kiss ever bartered between two of the human race…That exchange, my first, also set standards for me and I am dimly afraid that is one of the reasons I write myself spinster today.***

Or something like that! Seven Times Seven is still under copyright, and the snippet Google Books displays begins, infuriatingly, with “most profound kiss.” In any case, Daviess told a friend that this infatuation was not as “glamorous”—which seems to be 1918-speak for “passionate”—as her crush on a woman teacher.

Do you have friends who have gone on to live a life of celibacy because they never got over their high school crush? If so, fine, feel free to buy this.****

Annette Abbott Adams, date unknown

Then there are the marriages of convenience. Groundbreaking California lawyer Annette Abbott Adams got married, according to friends, only because she wanted a “Mrs.” in front of her name, having found that professional doors were more open to married women. She and her husband lived apart for most or all of their marriage but never divorced.

There’s a reason, obviously, why lesbians and women without a (visible) man in their lives are found so often on the 1918 political and cultural scene. For most women, it was a choice of one or the other—marry, or have a career. Lesbians were, of course, more likely to opt against marriage than heterosexual women (although many lesbians, including Ada Dwyer Russell, did marry). But there must have been lots of heterosexual women, as well, who opted for a career over marriage and a family.

Anna Kelton Wiley with her sons, ca. 1920

Judging from the lives of the relatively few married women I’ve come across, career over marriage seems like the sensible choice. Edith Wharton’s husband suffered from crippling depression, and she divorced him after 28 years of marriage. E. Nesbit’s husband kept having children with other women. Artist Elizabeth Gardner endured a 17-year engagement because her lover and mentor William-Adolphe Bouguereau didn’t want to upset his mother by marrying her. Julia Clark Hallam wrote about how deadening the work of a wife and mother was. Suffragist Anna Kelton Wiley married food safety pioneer Harvey Wiley when she was 34 and he was 67. Married Love author Marie Carmichael Stopes’ first marriage was unconsummated. Daddy-Long-Legs author Jean Webster’s marriage was apparently happy, but she had to wait for years for her husband’s divorce from his first wife to come through. Also, her husband was an alcoholic. Webster died in childbirth the year after their marriage.*****

So here’s to the lesbian women of 1918—and to all the women, gay and straight, who were forced by an intolerant society to hide or suppress important parts of who they were.

*There are two schools of thought on how to interpret this type of thing. They can be summarized as, on the one hand, “Duh,” and, on the other hand, “But romanticized, non-sexual relationships between women were a thing.”

**Dale—who was married—made LGBT history himself by writing the first-ever gay-themed novel in English, A Marriage Below Zero, in 1889.

***This reminds me of an anecdote I read decades ago in a memoir by screenwriter Anita Loos, best known today as the author of the novel Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. George Gershwin’s buddies have noticed that he never has a girl, and one day she asks him why. He spins a tragic tale of the one who got away. Loos asks him what happened. “She moved to Detroit,” he says. Loos marvels at the spinelessness of a guy who couldn’t overcome such a minor obstacle. A modern reader might interpret this differently.

****Of course, there could be other reasons for claiming to be off the dating market, like a long affair with a married man.

*****A more fun fact about Jean Webster and her husband: Theodore Roosevelt invited himself along on their honeymoon at their camp in Canada, saying, “We can put up a partition in the cabin.” No word on whether he actually showed.

An academic interlude: Harvard’s Widener Library

I live in Cape Town, which has a lot of advantages, like this

and this,

but presents certain challenges My Year in 1918-wise. Online resources like Google Books’ Hathitrust and the Modernist Journals Project are a godsend for online researchers–I get all my magazines there–and most of the books I read are available on Kindle, but there’s no substitute for holding an actual, physical book in your hand.*

So when I went to my Harvard reunion last month, I stayed on and spent a couple of days in Widener Library, which (together with the university’s other, smaller libraries) is home to the world’s third-largest collection of books. My ideal vacation destination!

Widener is a great place to channel 1918. The library, which was dedicated on commencement day in 1915,

Dedication of the Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library, Harvard University, 24 June 1915 (Harvard Graduates’ Magazine, Vol. 24)

was donated to the university by Eleanor Elkins Widener in memory of her son, Harry Elkins Widener of the class of 1907, who died on the Titanic. Harry was, despite his youth, an accomplished book collector**, and there’s a room in the library dedicated to his memory.***

That room is roped off, but I did get to browse the stacks (which is just as fun and creepy as it was when I was an undergrad), grab a pile of 1918-era books, and peruse them in this less luxurious but still very cool reading room.

Conclusions: E. Nesbit was kind of boring when she wasn’t writing for children. Winnifred Eaton’s Marion: The Story of an Artist’s Model seems like it’s worth reading (good thing, since it’s on my 1918 bedside bookshelf). So does Clive Bell’s Art.

I also did some literary detective work, continuing my pursuit of the script of Alan Dale’s 1918 play The Madonna of the Future, which, as I wrote in April, shocked audiences with its depiction of a wealthy woman who becomes a single mother by choice. There was no trace of it in the National Union Catalogue, although there were lots of other works by Dale, whose real name was Alfred J. Cohen.

With the help of a research librarian, I did find an article in Puck magazine in which Dale, who was a prominent (but, according to Smart Set’s George Jean Nathan, very, very bad) drama critic, interviewed his play’s star, Emily Stevens. Bottom line: Stevens thinks Dale is kind of a moron.

If anyone has advice on where else I might turn to find the elusive script, please let me know. The Library of Congress pointed me in the direction of a copyright records archive, but no luck there either. I’m starting to think it might not exist.

Just when I was winding up my visit to Widener, thinking that it had been fun but a bit lacking in serendipity, I came upon, in this copy of Edna Ferber’s Buttered Side Down,*****

a real-life copy of a Winward Prescott naked microscope bookplate!

Which, in case the excitement of this is eluding you (although a naked microscope bookplate should be exciting enough in its own right), I discovered a while back in an online scan of a Harvard library book and wrote about here.

Two afternoons well spent! Next stop, when I’m back in D.C. in July: The Library of Congress.

*Yes, I know there are some great South African books from that era, and I will get to them.

**An area of accomplishment that is, of course, available only to very rich people.

***There’s a myth at Harvard that, in memory of her drowned son, Eleanor Elkins Widener demanded that the university require that all students pass a swimming test in order to graduate. During the reunion, several classmates reminisced about dutifully going to the athletic center to take the test–which does (or did) in fact exist, but is not a graduation requirement and has nothing to do with Widener. Luckily, some upperclassmen clued me in before I got all wet for nothing.

****Although not as many as I wanted, since, unlike during my student days, much of Harvard’s collection is now stored offsite, including–who would have thought it!–a high percentage of obscure books from 100 years ago.

*****which I subsequently raved about

The best and worst of May 1918: Short stories, cover art, ads, and cartoons

I’m back! I’ve been traveling during the past few weeks–from Cape Town to DC to Boston to DC to Boston again and back to DC. Now, belatedly, for the best and worst of May 1918.

Best short story: “The Man Who Came Back,” from Buttered Side Down: Stories, by Edna Ferber (1912)

 

I decided to expand this category to include any short story I read, not just magazine stories from the “current” month. Just in time, because I’m loving this Edna Ferber collection. Ferber, who is best known for later novels like Show Boat and Cimarron and Giant—or, more accurately, for the movies and shows adapted from them—was twenty-seven when Buttered Side Down was published. She writes about ambitious young people from small towns whose big dreams haven’t panned out. They’re the most real people I’ve come across in my 1918 reading.

In “The Man Who Came Back,” Ted Terrill, our handsome hero, has returned to his small town after spending three years in prison. Here’s how, trying to keep up with the smart set, he met his downfall:

In a mad moment he had attempted a little sleight-of-hand act in which certain Citizens’ National funds were to be transformed into certain glittering shares and back again so quickly that the examiners couldn’t follow it with their eyes. But Ted was unaccustomed to these now-you-see-it-and-now-you-don’t feats and his hand slipped. The trick dropped to the floor with an awful clatter.

Ted is planning to stop in town just long enough to visit his mother’s grave—she died of heartbreak while he was in prison—and make a new start in Chicago, but on the train he runs into Joe Haley, the owner of a fashionable hotel. Joe offers him a job as a bookkeeper, saying that he’d be better off facing up to his crime at home than living in fear of discovery in a new place.

Illustration from “The Man Who Came Back,” American Magazine, April 1911

Ted is trained by his predecessor, Minnie Wenzel, who is marrying a “swell fellow.” His family’s former servant, Birdie, whose face “looked like a huge mistake,” works at the hotel as a waitress. All goes well until one day Joe tells Ted $300 is missing. “Ted, old kid,” he says sadly, “what’n’ell made you do it again?’” Birdie bursts in and unmasks the real culprit, Minnie, who has been pocketing the money for her trousseau. Ted asks Birdie if he can walk her home. But Birdie—and this is what elevates the story from good to great—turns him down. If she let him, she says,

“inside half a year, if yuh was lonesome enough, yuh’d ask me to marry yuh. And b’gorra,” she said softly, looking down at her unlovely red hands, “I’m dead scared I’d do it. Get back to work, Ted Terrill, and hold yer head up high, and when yuh say your prayers to-night, thank your lucky stars I ain’t a hussy.”

Edna Ferber, date unknown

Best magazine covers:

Two favorites in indigo: this one from Woman’s Home Companion, artist unknown,

…and, as always, Erté. This one’s called “Fireflies.”

Also, a paean to spring from The Liberator’s wonderful Hugo Gellert.

Best ad:

May wasn’t a sensational month ad-wise, but I always have a soft spot for Old Dutch Cleanser.

Ladies’ Home Journal, May 1918

Worst ad:

Even without the benefit of hindsight, this ad for asbestos looks ominous.

Literary Digest, May 11, 1918

(Although not as ominous as this 1917 ad I came across in Scientific American.)

Scientific American, April 28, 1917

Best cartoon:

Cartooning was in its infancy in 1918, but I don’t think the artistry of that era has ever been surpassed.

“The Mail from Home Arrives,” H.C. Greening, Judge magazine, May 11, 1918

Worst cartoon:

 Captions, though, still left a lot to be desired.

“Will you tell me what time the train that starts for Louisville reaches Glenside, and where I can change cars for Caldwell?”
“Madam, I just told you all that.”
“Yes, but I have a friend who wants to know.”

Screenshot (729)-2

Arthur Young, The Liberator, May 1918

 On to (okay, the middle of) June!

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

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

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

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

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

Portrait photograph of George Sterling by Arnold Genthe, 1904

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I know—creepy, right?

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

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

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

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

Cosmopolitan, September 1907

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

Nora May French (Arnold Genthe, ca. 1907)

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

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

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

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

From “The American Songbag” by Carl Sandburg, 1927

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

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

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

Thursday Miscellany: All-moms edition

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

With musical accompaniment!

Good Housekeeping, May 1918

…asked no daughter, ever.

I think I’m doing vacuuming wrong.*

Good Housekeeping, May 1918

For the aspiring mother.

The Independent, May 4, 1918

And for the aspiring non-mother.**

Finally, some modernists and their moms:

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

Ezra Pound and Isabel Weston Pound, 1898

Julia Jackson Stephen and Virginia Stephen (Woolf), 1884

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

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

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

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

In search of a good mother poem

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

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

President Wilson paid tribute to the

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

Clifford Berryman, Washington Evening Star, May 2, 1918

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so much loss and heartbreak along the way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The fate of Captain Jimmy Hall

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

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

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

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

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

New York Times, May 9, 1918

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

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

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

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

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

…JIMMY LIVES!!!!!

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

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

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

Conrad Hall, American Cinematographer, 2003

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

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

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

Little, Brown, and Company, 1932

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

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

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