Category Archives: Fiction and Poetry

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

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

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

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

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

Portrait photograph of George Sterling by Arnold Genthe, 1904

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I know—creepy, right?

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

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

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

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

Cosmopolitan, September 1907

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

Nora May French (Arnold Genthe, ca. 1907)

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

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

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

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

From “The American Songbag” by Carl Sandburg, 1927

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

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

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

Thursday Miscellany: All-moms edition

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

With musical accompaniment!

Good Housekeeping, May 1918

…asked no daughter, ever.

I think I’m doing vacuuming wrong.*

Good Housekeeping, May 1918

For the aspiring mother.

The Independent, May 4, 1918

And for the aspiring non-mother.**

Finally, some modernists and their moms:

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

Ezra Pound and Isabel Weston Pound, 1898

Julia Jackson Woolf and Virginia Woolf, 1884

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

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

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

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

In search of a good mother poem

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

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

President Wilson paid tribute to the

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

Clifford Berryman, Washington Evening Star, May 2, 1918

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And so much loss and heartbreak along the way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The fate of Captain Jimmy Hall

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

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

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

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

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

New York Times, May 9, 1918

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

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

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

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

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

…JIMMY LIVES!!!!!

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

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

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

Conrad Hall, American Cinematographer, 2003

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

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

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

Little, Brown, and Company, 1932

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

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

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

A pioneering 1918 infographic, worth a thousand words

Words! So. Many. Words. Mine, and the 1918 people’s. I need a break.

The April 1918 issue of The Bookman has just the thing: a graphic about book publication in the United States and Great Britain. And a picture is worth a thousand words, which is the length that my typical post has swollen to these days.

Here are the stats for books published in the U.S. in 1917:

And in Great Britain:

In the accompanying article, Fred E. Woodward, who drew the graphic, points out that

a single glance at the two charts reveals a notable difference between the two figures, the one representing the books of the United States being an almost symmetrical pyramid endued with the appearance of stability and a certain element of vigor and strength, while the one representing Great Britain exhibits an enormous overplus of works of fiction as compared to the remaining classes.

Interesting. Not so interestingly, Woodward goes on to explain the charts at length, which kind of defeats the purpose of a chart. But I can forgive him a lot because, as far as I can tell, he is basically inventing information graphics here. (I did some research and found some earlier examples, going back to a depiction by J.J. Sylvester of chemical bonds and their mathematic properties in Nature magazine in 1878.* So let’s just say Woodward was inventing fun infographics.**)

Chart showing the original boundary milestones of the District of Columbia, Fred E. Woodward, 1906 (Library of Congress)

Fred Woodward really, really liked drawing infographics about books. He did a way more complicated one in the April 1917 issue of The Bookman, and, also in 1917, wrote a graphic pamphlet on book sales for the U.S. Bureau of Education. Woodward also wrote a 1907 book called A Ramble Along the Boundary Stones of the District of Columbia with a Camera. I’m going to D.C. soon and, believe me, I’m going to be rambling along those boundary stones.

Bookplate of Fred E. Woodward, Washington, D.C., 1898 (Library of Congress)

The Library of Congress has this 1898 bookplate of Woodward’s (drawn by someone else, though) in its collection.  “Guardabosque” is a play on his name—it means forest ranger in Spanish, which is apparently the original meaning of Woodward. According to the LOC, there’s an inscription on the back saying that Woodward was the head of the books department at Woodward & Lothrop in Washington. A little more sleuthing revealed that he was the younger brother of the founder of the iconic, and now sadly out of business, department store.*** He’s apparently no relation, though, to graphic artist Fred Woodward, formerly the art director of Rolling Stone and now at GQ.

I was going to hold forth about how few books were published 100 years ago compared to now, but, you know, words. So here’s an infographic:

(Source, 1917: The Bookman magazine, April 1918. Source, 2015: International Publishers Association Annual Report, 2016.)

I realize that this is an apples-and-oranges situation in terms of comparisons. And that I’m no Fred Woodward (either one) infographics-wise.

Still, you get the picture.

*Sylvester, as it turns out, coined the word “graph” in another 1878 Nature article. This is even more amazing than there having been no such word as “surreal” in 1918. If you don’t believe that “graph” is so new, which I didn’t, here’s the Google N-Gram:

**I realize that Woodward probably wasn’t doing this all by himself. Please be in touch if you know of other examples!

***I have wonderful memories of going Christmas shopping in the children’s castle at Woodies (as we D.C. cognoscenti call it) in the 1970s.

The best and worst of April 1918: magazines, stories, faint praise, and neologisms

A third of the way through!

After four months in 1918, I’ve become both more optimistic and more pessimistic about our present world. More optimistic because so many problems that seemed intractable back then, like the acceptability in mainstream circles of overt racism, sexism, and antisemitism, are gone now. More pessimistic because of all the new problems, like global warming, that people back then couldn’t have conceived of.

Okay, enough philosophizing. On to the best and worst of 1918.

Best magazine: The Dial

The Dial is one of the most reliably interesting reads of 1918. It started out in 1840 as an outlet for the Transcendentalists (Louisa May Alcott’s father came up with the name) and was now a Chicago-based political and literary journal. H.L. Mencken wasn’t a fan—he ridiculed the “insane labeling and pigeon-holing that passes for criticism among the gifted Harvard boys of the Dial and the Nation”—but staff writer Randolph Bourne gave as good as he got, saying that Mencken and Theodore Dreiser “beat at a strong man of puritanism which, for the younger generation, has not even the vitality to be interesting.”*

The Dial did have a tendency to review seemingly every book that showed up on its doorstep, like Colorado, the Queen Jewel of the Rockies. But when a single (April 11) issue includes John Dewey on education, historian Charles Beard (who had recently resigned in protest from Columbia) on universities and democracy, Conrad Aiken on poetry,** and Bourne on immigrant fiction, I can forgive a lot.

Best short story: “The Swimming Pool” by Evelyn Campbell, Smart Set

I haven’t read many magazine short stories this month. In fact, I’ve read just one: this one. And I wouldn’t call it a great story. So this might strike you as a shoddy bit of best-and-worst selecting. But something about this story by Evelyn Campbell, a 22-year-old screenwriter and Ziegfeld Follies girl, got to me.

A woman, swimming in a pool as darkness falls, strikes up a conversation with a man. They’re both natural swimmers, creatures of the water, and during their brief conversation they fall a little in love.

Suddenly it was dusk. Not in the enclosure made brilliant by white bulbs, but up above in the oblong of dark blue sky where newly awakened stars began to show timid faces to their bolder rivals. They were in the deep water which lay densely beneath them. Again they turned upon their backs and floated.

As the woman leaves the country club with her horrible rich husband and their children, she passes the man, who’s wearing an ill-cut suit. Her daughter says, Oh, look, the new janitor. A typical Smart Set snappy ending. In most stories, though, the twist at the end is the point—the rest is just setup. Here, the spell that the water casts on the swimmers is the point, and the ending is just the resolution.

Some of Campbell’s descriptions work better than others—I can’t picture what “in the middle of the pool a big golden square turned the water to bright emerald” looks like—but she’s trying something other writers just weren’t doing in 1918. That is, Imagist poets were, but not magazine short story writers.

Best magazine cover: The Crisis

Even by 1918’s high standards, this was an exceptional month for magazine covers. I’ve posted pictures of several of them already (here and here and here). The standout, though, is the cover of the April issue of The Crisis, the NAACP magazine edited by W.E.B. Du Bois. It features a copy of a painting called “Lead Kindly Light,” made for the magazine by 34-year-old William Edouard Scott (and now owned by the Huntington Museum of Art in West Virginia).

Here’s how the magazine’s editorial, probably written by Du Bois, interprets the painting.

It is just an old lantern, filled with grimy oil. It cannot lead anywhere, yet its light leads. Its golden light streams through the night.

Whose is the light?

It is not the lantern’s. It simply seems to be the lantern’s radiance. It is the Light of the World and it leads not toward the millennium in the North, but out of the insult and prostitution and ignorance and lies and lynchings of the South—up toward a chance, a new chance,—nothing more. But thank God for that…

Lead, Kindly Light.

Worst magazine cover: Ladies’ Home Journal

This is a repeat, but nothing was going to beat this Ladies’ Home Journal cover, titled (by me) “Oh, how sweet! My boyfriend killed someone!”

Best poem: “Is It Worth While,” Violet Hunt, Poetry

Violet Hunt, ca. 1900

Reading Poetry magazine, you can see how living in 1918 was like living in two worlds. In the April 1918 issue, there’s page after page of purple mountains, and it could be 1868, and suddenly there’s Violet Hunt mourning her relationship with Ford Madox Hueffer (Ford), and it could be 1968.

You can read the rest of the poem here.

Faintest praise in a book review: T.S. Eliot, The Egoist

archive.org

This was a surprisingly competitive category. At first, this unsigned review in the April 11 Dial, of Lorinda Munson Bryant’s American Pictures and their Painters, looked like a shoo-in:

One sincerely wishes that Mrs. Bryant in her enthusiasm for nature, both inanimate and human, had focused her numerous descriptions of the subject matter of the paintings. That the painter has chosen to paint a wintry landscape…is surely no excuse for a genteel panegyric on winter, or that the artist has selected a human being…is no excuse for a general eulogy of mankind. In the family circle a little girl, it is true, may be a “darling,” but in a painting that may be the least interesting of her attributes….If the subject is a woman, and a thin one at that, the author thinks the artist would have been wiser to select a plumper and rosier model…Aside from these minor defects the book is a handy and valuable compendium.

From “Hearts of Controversy,” by Alice Meynell, second edition, 1918

But then I came across this review of Alice Meynell’s Hearts of Controversy by Apteryx, AKA T.S. Eliot, in the April issue of The Egoist, and we had a winner.

In its peculiar anti-style, Mrs. Meynell’s book, like all her books, is extremely well written, and she can incidentally pick out good bits from authors. If we can accept this attitude, we shall enjoy the book very much. And people who have a taste for that antiquated genre, that parlour-game, the Polite Essay—which consists in taking a tiny point and cutting figure eights around it, without ever uttering one’s meaning in plain words—will find in Mrs. Meynell’s last essay (“Charmain”) an almost perfect example of a forgotten craft which indeed had its attractions.

*                                              *                                              *

But we must learn to take literature seriously.

(Asterixes Apteryx’s.)

Best neologism: Surréaliste

Study for a portrait of Guillaume Appolinaire, Jean Metzinger, 1911

“SURRÉALISTE is the denomination M. Guillaume Apollinaire—there is no doubt his astounding name continues to have good reason for keeping well in evidence—has attached to his play, Les Mamelles de Tirésias,” the Paris correspondent for The Egoist tells us. I knew that the surrealist movement was just getting underway in 1918, but it seemed strange to think of the word itself being a novelty. So I crunched some big data—that is, did a Google Books N-Gram***—and it’s true, surreal and its variants were pretty much non-existent at that point. So what did people say when things were, you know, surreal?

Best humor: 

In The Bookman, there’s a report about the mystery surrounding the identity of the author of The Book of Artemas, a bestselling British spoof relating current events in biblical style. Was it G.K. Chesterton? J.M. Barrie? Hilaire Belloc? George Bernard Shaw? (It would turn out to be someone no one ever heard of named Arthur Telford Mason.) Here’s an excerpt:

5. Whilst Wudro, the son of Wyl, was tending his flock of young men in the pasture that is knowledge, and after he had taught them how they should go and what things they should know,
6. Behold, the men of Amer came unto him, saying, We have chosen thee for to rule over us; and we have
brought thee an high hat for to wear as the badge of thine office; and the size of the hat, it is six and seven-eights.
7. And because he knew not what he was letting himself
in for, he gave way to their importuning, and did put on the high hat, the size whereof was six and seven-eights.
8. And it came to pass that when the men of En fought against the men of Hu, they did send messengers unto the land of Amer for to buy them munitions for the war. And they took
with them gold in great quantity wherewith to satisfy the merchants that did sell unto them. Therefor did the land of Amer prosper exceedingly.

Worst joke:

Judge, April 27, 1918

On to May!

 

*Kind of harsh, since Bourne was only six years younger than Mencken.

**He agrees with me about Christopher Morley’s goopiness.

***Which is really fun—you should try if you’re off Facebook and looking for new ways to waste time.

Insurgent Youth: The literary generation gap in 1918

“There is a vendetta between the generations.”

Portrait of Van Wyck Brooks by John Butler Yeats, 1909

So said critic Van Wyck Brooks in The Dial on April 11, 1918. Randolph Bourne, a colleague of Brooks’ at the magazine, addressed the same theme in his March 28 essay “Traps for the Unwary,” asking

What place is there to be for the younger American writers who have broken the “genteel” tradition?…Read Mr. Brownell on standards and see with what a bewildered contempt one of the most vigorous and gentlemanly survivals from the genteel tradition regards the efforts of the would-be literary artists of today.*

William Crary Brownell, date unknown (Library of Congress)

So I read Mr. Brownell on standards. (William Crary Brownell, that is. 1918 writers have an irritating habit of referring to people on first introduction as Mr. or Mrs. or Miss Last Name.) He was, it seems, a founding figure in American literary criticism, having sought to raise the country’s level of criticism as Matthew Arnold had in Britain. H.L. Mencken called Brownell “The Aristotle of Amherst”—not one of his better sallies, IMHO.

Brownell’s thesis in a nutshell: standards are important, but the younger generation doesn’t have them. He singles out “a recent clever novel—by a lady—that has evoked a very general chorus of cordial appreciation.” After quoting from a passage about a guy clipping his toenails, without providing the name of the book or author (another annoying 1918 habit), he says that

the picture is manifestly less a gem of genre than a defiance of decorum…One must draw the line somewhere and it is decorous to draw it on the hither side of the purlieus of pornography.

The lady writer, it turns out, is Virginia Woolf, and the book is her first novel, The Voyage Out.

First edition of Virginia Woolf’s The Voyage Out, Duckworth & Co., London, 1915

Brownell’s pretty boring, to be honest. Columbia professor Brander Matthews is a more entertaining old fogey. In his essay “The Tocsin of Revolt”,** in the March 1918 issue of The Art World, he says that

when a man finds himself at last slowly climbing the slopes that lead to the lonely peak of three-score-and-ten he is likely to discover that his views and his aspirations are not in accord with those held by men still living leisurely in the foothills of youth…If he is wise, he warns himself against the danger of becoming a mere praiser of past times; and if he is very wise he makes every effort to understand and to appreciate the present and not to dread the future.

Brander Matthews, date unknown

The young and old have clashed since time immemorial, Matthews says—and the survival of art depends on these very battles. This is all very sensible, and I wondered what Matthews was doing in such a reactionary magazine.

But!

But at the present moment, and perhaps more especially in our own country, there are signs of danger.

Uh-oh! Like what?

In this new century we have been called upon to admire painting by men who have never learned how to paint, dancing by women who have never learned how to dance, verse by persons of both sexes who have never acquired the elements of versification.

Matthews ends on a hopeful note. Ultimately, he believes, the younger generation

will tire of facile eccentricity and of lazy freakishness, of unprofitable sensationalism and undisciplined individualism. They will again seek the aid of tradition and they will toil to master the secrets of technic.***.

Bourne, a Columbia graduate himself, says of Matthews in a March 14 review of his autobiography that he was “incorrigibly anecdotal, genial, and curious.” He marvels, though, at his portrait of Columbia, then being torn apart by a free-speech controversy, as a paradise of harmoniousness. Ultimately, he delivers a damning verdict:

If there was ever a man of letters whose mind moved submerged far below the significant literary currents of the time, that is the man revealed in this book.

Columbia University library, 1917 (librarypostcards.blogspot.com)

Of Brownell, Bourne says in “Traps for the Unwary” that

one can admire the intellectual acuteness and sound moral sense…and yet feel how quaintly irrelevant for our purposes is an idea of the good, the true, and the beautiful.

Bourne agrees with Brownell and Matthews that standards are important, and that young people are turning out a lot of junk. The problem, he says, is that the older critics lump all young people together. What’s needed is a new criticism, focused on the younger generation, that

shall be both severe and encouraging. It will be obtained when the artist himself has turned critic and set to work to discover and interpret in others the motives and values and efforts he feels in himself.

In the natural order of things, Bourne could have been a standard-bearer for this new criticism after Brownell and Matthews passed on. But the two elders would survive for another decade, while Bourne had only months to live. Having battled disability and chronic illness throughout his life, he succumbed to influenza on December 22, 1918.****

If Bourne didn’t have the chance to build this new criticism, though, others did—first and foremost T.S. Eliot, who, across the Atlantic, was perfecting his craft as both a poet and a critic.

Randolph Bourne, date unknown

*The young generation was, I should note, fairly long in the tooth. Brooks was 32 and Bourne was 31. Other members of this literary youthquake included Ezra Pound (32), Margaret Anderson (31), T.S. Eliot (29), and John Reed (30). Meanwhile, much of the actual younger generation—21-year-old F. Scott Fitzgerald and 18-year-old Ernest Hemingway, for example—was off fighting in France.

**I think he means toxin. Matthews was an advocate of simplified spelling, so that may be the issue, although I never thought of “toxin” as particularly complicated.

***Or technique, as we old-fashioned spellers call it.

****You can learn more about this brilliant thinker, and also about Walter Lippman, Alice Paul, John Reed, and Max Eastman, in Young Radicals, a wonderful book by Jeremy McCarter, co-author of Hamilton: The Revolution.