Category Archives: In the News

The Year Mandela was Born: South Africa in 1918

A couple of months into this project, I was chatting with my 13-year-old nephew during an outing to Simon’s Town, a coastal village south of Cape Town. He’s a YouTuber, and we were talking about building an audience. He had a bigger following than I did, and I was hoping he could give me some tips.

“What do you write about again?” he asked me.

“Things that happened a hundred years ago,” I said.

“Kids don’t care about that,” he told me.

“I don’t write for kids,” I said.

“Who do you write for?” he asked. “Old people?”

“Yes,” I said.*

“Then you should write about things that old people care about, like Mandela,” he said.

Four months later, on the 100th anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s birth, I’m taking his advice.

Nelson Mandela, ca. 1941 (Nelson Mandela Foundation)

A baby being born in a village in the eastern Cape is not the stuff of international headlines, of course, so I can’t tell you about the birth itself. I can tell you, though, about the South Africa Nelson Mandela was born into and would grow up to transform.

With war raging in Europe, the outside world wasn’t paying much attention to South Africa. There was a fascinating article about the country’s “native problem,” though, in the December 8, 1917, issue of the New Republic. It was written by R.F. Alfred Hoernlé, who, despite his Afrikaans-sounding last name, was a British academic (with a German grandfather) who had taught for three years at what is now the University of Cape Town.

R.F. Alfred Hoernlé, date unknown

Hoernlé gets to the crux of the problem right away:

The native problem dominates the South African scene. Whatever political issues and movements show in the foreground, it supplies the permanent background. However much the white population of South Africa may be absorbed in the racial** and economic rivalries of the immediate present, it cannot but be profoundly apprehensive about its future, as long as the native problem remains unsolved.

Hoernlé points out that

Though in name a democracy, South Africa is in fact a small white aristocracy superimposed on a large native substratum.

Not that he’s advocating anything crazy, like making it a real democracy.

It is not a question, mainly, of the natives’ present unfitness for the vote, which everyone must readily grant.*** It is a question of political development. No policy which would ultimately involve that the white should admit the mass of the blacks to political power has any chance of acceptance, on the face of the unalterable numerical superiority of the blacks.

Jan Smuts, Elliott & Fry, 1917 (National Portrait Gallery)

So what to do?

To that question a speech which General [Jan] Smuts delivered in London, in May of this year, furnishes an answer. He rightly characterizes the problem as one of maintaining “white racial unity in the midst of the black environment.” This depends, in part, on avoiding two mistakes, viz., mere exploitation of the natives, and racial intermixture. The white races, Smuts insists, must strictly observe the racial axiom, “No intermixture of blood between the two colors,” and the moral axiom, “Honesty, fair-play, justice, and the ordinary Christian virtues must be the basis of all our relationship with the natives.”****

And how does Smuts plan to achieve this?  Hoernlé tells us that

Any incorporation of the black into the structure of white society is bound to raise, in the long run, the problem of admitting them to citizenship, giving them the vote, and treating them as the white man’s political equals. There is only one way of avoiding this result, and that way is segregation of the native—the creation of the land in a chequered pattern of white and black areas. This is the policy to which General Smuts pins his hopes…

The idea is, wherever there are large bodies of natives, to assign to them definitive areas within which no white man may own land. The native, on his side, is to be forbidden to own land in white areas, though he is to be free to go and work for the white man. The races having been thus territorially separated, each is to live under its own political institutions…

A beginning has so far been made by the Natives’ Land act of 1913, a purely temporary measure designed chiefly to prevent speculation in land in anticipation of later legislation.

Sol Plaatje, ca. 1900 (From “Native Life in South Africa”)

That’s one take on the Natives Land Act. Another comes from black writer and activist Sol Plaatje, who wrote in the 1914 classic Native Life in South Africa that

Awaking on Friday morning, June 20, 1913, the South African native found himself, not actually a slave, but a pariah in the land of his birth.

Map showing areas allocated to black South Africans under the Natives Land Act of 1913

The Natives Land Act prevented South Africans from buying land in 93% of South Africa. It would also have disenfranchised non-white voters in the Cape, the only place where they had the right to vote (some of them, that is—there were education and property qualifications), but the courts struck that provision down. As far as the law’s “purely temporary” nature goes, its impact continues today: under post-apartheid land restitution legislation, South Africans have the right to claim land taken from their ancestors only after its passage.

Hoernlé calls the partition/self-determination scheme “promising in principle.” The challenge, he says, is to come up with a fairer division of land than the one proposed by a recent commission, which allocates South Africa’s five million black inhabitants a little over 12% of South Africa’s territory and reserves the rest to the 1,250,000 whites. (This was exactly the breakdown when the black “homelands” were created during apartheid.)

If the “natives” are treated justly, Hoernlé said, there is a path to peace. But he’s not hopeful.

At present, the eye that would pierce the future, sees the deepening shadow of the native problem creep slowly but surely over the sunny spaces of South Africa.

Me in Pretoria (in flowery sundress), December 1989

People often ask me if 1918 reminds me of our world today. For the most part it doesn’t, at least as far as the United States is concerned. There are similarities, of course, but a country where lynchings were commonplace and women couldn’t vote and want ads specified Christians only is, thankfully, not one I recognize. The South Africa Hoernlé describes, on the other hand, differs hardly at all from the country I arrived in as a young diplomat in 1988.

It would take over seven decades for the South Africa Mandela was born into to change fundamentally—decades during which he would grow up, become a lawyer, join the liberation struggle, spend 27 years in prison, and emerge to lead his people to freedom.

Earliest known photo of Nelson Mandela (back row, fifth from right), Healdtown Secondary School

*No offense! The baseline here is 13.

**That is, English vs. Afrikaner.

***“Everyone” meaning whites, of course. Black South Africans don’t have a say in this matter because…well, they don’t have the vote. (Mostly. We’ll get to that.)

****Jan Smuts was the Woodrow Wilson of South Africa, renowned statesman abroad and racist at home. He was considered a liberal in South Africa, which gives you an idea of why “liberal” remains a swear word among black South Africans today.

The Parade of the Century: New York, July 4, 1918

I was all set to get working on the best and worst of June 1918—belatedly, due to my ruminations on reaching the midpoint of this project—when they had a humongous 4th of July parade in New York. Change of plan! June was a slow month for bests and worsts anyway, so I’ll roll it into July.

So! The parade!

New York, July 4, 1918 (International Film Service)

The theme was loyalty—specifically, how loyal all the different nationalities living in our land are to the U.S.A. But a mini-WWI broke out during the planning, with other delegations objecting to the Hungarian historical display, what with Hungary being at war with their nationalities and also with the United States. So a deal was struck: Hungarian historical characters out, Hungarian national costumes in. But the Italian Four-Minute Men* objected to the costumes, and the Hungarians said if they couldn’t wear costumes they weren’t coming, and finally the Grand Marshal brokered another deal whereby no one would wear national costumes. Which seems to defeat the purpose of a parade of nationalities.

In the end,

the reflection of European antagonisms did not appear in the parade, and nationalist displays which had been found objectionable when the advance program was made known had been censored to fit the demands of the spirit of the day.

Because what expresses the spirit of the Glorious Fourth like censorship?

4th of July parade, New York, 1918, Arnold Genthe (Library of Congress)

There were political machinations as well. William Randolph Hearst invited practically all of congress—members, the New York Times said, of “both the Republican and Democratic faiths”—to come up from Washington for the parade and other amusements, including the Ziegfeld Follies and a gala dinner at the Astor Hotel. Even though no one cared about conflict of interest, this seemed to be beyond the pale for some, because “a great many declinations were given.” In the end, 33 members of congress showed up. Seven railroad cars from Washington to New York were reserved for “Mr. Hearst’s excursionists,” but that’s not as impressive as it sounds because, the Times said, “it was apparent that many of those who accepted Mr. Hearst’s invitation were women.” But don’t feel too bad for WRH—John Francis Hylan, the Tammany Hall mayor, abandoned the reviewing stand that had been built for him, declared Hearst’s stand the official stand, and decamped there to hang out with him and the congressmen.

New York Times, July 5, 1918. (A rare photograph in the daily newspaper–in general they only appeared in the Sunday Rotogravure.)

I was afraid, that, given the size of the parade—75,000 marchers, plus 150 bands, plus 123 floats, plus American, French, British, Italian, and Polish soldiers—there would be no one left to watch it. But no, the streets were thronged with spectators. The New York Times waxed poetic:

It was more than a pageant, more than a parade; it touched on more than Independence Day; it went further than a mere display of the loyalty of citizens born abroad. It was more than a military display, more than a picturesque pageant, though those who have seen all of New York’s great parades in recent years said that it surpassed them all in the brilliancy of the color and the variety of figures represented.

Farmerettes float, New York, July 4, 1918 (National Archives)

The weather was perfect, and the staging went like clockwork, from the assembly point at the arch in Washington Square Park to the end point at Fifth Avenue and Seventy-Somethingth Street. (There were typsetting issues with the article, and this sentence was cut off.)

There was a squadron of twenty-two airplanes flying over the parade, “a sight never before seen in New York.” The planes

flew up and down over the city, breaking up to amuse the million upturned eyes with flying tricks, while the aviators dropped leaflets bearing the words and music of the “Star-Spangled Banner.”

“The sole Curtiss S-1 mounted on a White truck for the New York Independence Day Parade in 1918” (Bain News Service)

And get this:

Regarded purely as a pageant, the parade was remarkable in bringing out a greater variety of display of national spirit and national costume than the city has perhaps ever seen before.

That’s right, national costumes! Either the organizers backed down or the participants, having worked their fingers to the bone sewing their costumes, just didn’t care what the Hungarians and Italians and Jugoslavs had negotiated among themselves.

The brilliant pageantry of the Slav races had to some extent been anticipated, but what had not been expected by the public**, at least, was the remarkable exhibitions put forth by Armenia, Syria, Switzerland, Spain, Venezuela, and other nations whose floats and marchers were on a plane of artistic effect that is not often found in a street parade.

Camouflaged ship float, New York, July 4, 1918, Underwood & Underwood (National Archives)

Highlights among the floats were

a miniature battleship, perhaps twenty feet long, rolling along on invisible wheels and firing little shots from its toy guns as it went along

and one by the Mayor’s Committee on National Defense with the Statue of Liberty surrounded by armed men and

about twenty-five children of the streets, picked up at the last moment as part of the committee’s Americanization display.

Also, the Salvation Army threw donuts out to the crowd.

July 4 parade, New York, 1918 (National Archives)

The nationalities section of the parade was headed by Joan of Arc, followed by Zoroastrian Parsee Dinsshan F. Chadiali, who was the only Zoroastrian Parsee-American as far as he knew, and his son. After that,

a group of Bulgarians of American origin***—citizens of the blood of the nations of the German were thus indicated instead of simply the name of the nationality, as were Allies and neutrals—came in motor cars.

A huge group of Czechoslovaks “tramped past the reviewing stand for nearly half an hour.”

Italian float, July 4 parade, New York, 1918, Underwood & Underwood (National Archives)

Switzerland had a guy carrying a giant Swiss cheese over his shoulder. Also the best motto: “For Modesty and Against Pretension.”

Syria’s float had Christ and the Apostles, with a banner reading “The First Syrian expedition to conquer the world.”

Daughters of Armenia, July 4 parade, New York, 1918 (International Film Service)

A piece of interesting trivia on the Danish banner: “Bronck, a Dane, founded the Bronx.”

The French delegation wasn’t provided with a military band as promised, and was pissy about it. Huge cheers, though!

Chinese girls marching, New York, July 4, 1918 (National Archives)

“Jewish” was considered a nationality, and there was a float with Judah Maccabee’s army fighting for freedom alongside Jewish soldiers in the American army.

Palestine, somehow, was represented by Miss Sally Bergman.

A Russian banner bore the slogan “We Do Not Accept the Infamous Peace of Brest-Litovsk.”

The Hungarians, after all the hoopla, marched as “ordinary citizens in civilian dress.” IMHO the Hungarians got shafted.

Venezuelan float, July 4 parade, New York, 1918 (International Film Service)

All in all, a remarkable event—although one that may be more fun to read about it would have been to attend. As spectacular as the costumes were, watching Czechoslovaks tramp by for half an hour must have gotten kind of old, no offense to my grandmother, who, if I have my family history right, may have been one of them. And I’m not clear about the bathroom situation.

But—good news!—you can watch the parade from the comfort of your own home. It was filmed so that soldiers overseas could watch it. Here’s a six-minute excerpt, followed by two minutes of footage of the celebration in Washington, D.C., which I wasn’t as into until I realized that it features, in the final seconds, All-Woman Battalion of Death Commander Maria Bochkareva, who was in town to plead with President Wilson for help.

From a 2018 perspective, the idea of having a giant parade around the theme “recent immigrants are not traitors to our country!”—with prizes given for the best loyalty pledge****—sounds a little off. Especially given that, the day after the parade, there was a big roundup of people of German descent who had committed treasonous acts like painting their pencils the wrong color.

On the other hand, living as we are—and as people in 1918 also were—at a time when immigrants are being used as political punching bags, there’s something refreshing about the spectacle of hundreds of thousands of people celebrating all the different ways there are to be American.

Parade passing the New York Public Library, July 4, 1918, Underwood and Underwood (National Archives)

*Four-minute men gave four-minute speeches on topics provided to them by the Committee on Public Information.

**”The public,” in situations like this, generally seems to mean “me, the unbylined New York Times reporter.”

***“Bulgarians of American origin” seems backwards to me, but whatever.

****As of July 6, the judges were still holding out. Smart money is on the Poles. (UPDATE 7/12/18: I was right!!! Poles #1, Syrians #2, Portuguese #3. The awards turn out to be for the floats and marchers as a whole, not just the loyalty pledge. The Hungarians got an honorable mention–I think the organizers just felt guilty.)

Thursday Miscellany: Crossdressing soldiers, infinite nurses, and ham to the rescue

I have a love-hate relationship with this Norman Rockwell cover.

Judge magazine, June 1, 1918

Mennen’s talcum powder ad, Ladies’ Home Journal, June 1918

…we would be living in a world of mathematical impossibility!

Pioneering the “make women feel bad about themselves so you can sell them stuff” ad…

Ladies’ Home Journal, May 1918

…and the “our product saved the day in this fake situation” ad.

Good Housekeeping, May 1918

Solid choice.

Good Housekeeping, June 1918

I love how literally this kid takes the concept of writing a letter to a magazine: “I read the advertisements in you.”

St. Nicholas magazine, March 1918

And, finally, some summer color to brighten a wintery Cape Town day.

Unmentionable vice, a secret German book, and a camarilla: The (looniest) trial of the century

 As I was catching up on the 1918 news over breakfast at a Cambridge, Massachusetts B&B during my recent vacation, I came across the following headline in the May 31 New York Times, right below a humongous banner headline about the German offensive:

I was confused.

I read the article, and I was still confused. British MP Noel Pemberton-Billing, apparently, was on trial for defaming dancer Maud Allan, who had appeared in a private dance production based on Oscar Wilde’s play Salome, and the play’s producer, Jack Grien of the Independent Theatre. (Grien was also the drama critic for the Sunday Times, because no one cared about conflict of interest in 1918.) According to prosecutor Travers Humphreys, Pemberton-Billing had made an attack on Allan in his right-wing magazine The Vigilante that was “unworthy of any man to make upon any woman.” Humphreys said that

the coupling of the name of Miss Allan, or any woman, with the heading of the paragraph could only mean one thing—that the lady, either in her private or professional capacity, was associated with something that could not be regarded as otherwise than disreputable.

Studio portrait of Noel Pemberton-Billing, 1916

What heading? What paragraph? The Times isn’t telling. Humphreys goes on to say that, if Allan had failed to challenge this mysterious allegation,

some of those persons whose mental food was garbage might be able to say hereafter, ‘You have this said of you, and you took no steps to stop it, and therefore, there must be something in it.’

Have what said? This was getting frustrating.

Portrait of Maud Allan by Alexander Bassano, 1913

Oh, and there was a list. Which the Times does explain. (Well, the British Telegraph does—the Times, as was its habit, quotes large chunks of the Telegraph’s reporting verbatim.) In an earlier article, the Vigilante had reported that

there exists in the cabinet noir of a certain German Prince a book compiled by the secret service from the reports of German agents who have infested this country for the past twenty years, agents so vile and spreading debauchery of such a lasciviousness as only German minds could conceive.*

Okay, so there’s an evil German plot to perversify English society. But what does it have to do with Maud Allan et al.? Humphreys explains that the other Vigilante article, the one with the mysterious headline, made

a cryptic suggestion that if Scotland Yard were to seize a list of the members subscribing to the Independent Theatre there was no doubt they would secure the names of several thousands of the first 47,000.

Captain Harold Spencer (date unknown)

No one had actually managed to produce a copy of this book. But a lot of people had seen it. Or said they had. Including the author of the article, former American navy captain Harold Spencer. Spencer was the aide-de-camp to Prince William of Wied**, who he said had shown him the book in Albania. Another witness, Mrs. Villiers Stewart, said that she had seen former Prime Minister Asquith’s name in the book.*** Spencer said he hadn’t, but he had seen Asquith’s wife’s name.

Guess who else Mrs. Villiers Stewart said she saw in the book? Justice Darling, who was presiding over the case! Sensation in the court. But it apparently didn’t occur to him to stop the trial and recuse himself, because, like I said, conflict of interest.

Noel Pemberton-Billing and Eileen Villiers Stewart arriving at court

Spencer testified that the Vigilante had been tipped off about the Salome production by—I bet you didn’t see this coming!—Marie Corelli, the purple-prose novelist who was last seen here espousing forced sterilization in Good Housekeeping and hoarding sugar. (And who, by the way, was almost certainly a lesbian herself.)

Lord Alfred Douglas, Oscar Wilde’s lover-turned-nemesis, also testified for the defense, although I couldn’t for the life of me make out what he had to do with anything, and was later kicked out of the courtroom for heckling.

And there was a camarilla! A word that, despite my superior-adult score on a 1918 vocabulary-based intelligence test, I had to look up. It turns out to mean a secret group of plotting courtiers. This particular camarilla, allegedly, was aimed at getting Asquith back into power and making peace with Germany. (Which was seen as a bad thing–right-thinking people wanted to beat them.)

Margot Asquith, date unknown

The pieces were starting to fall together, but I still wasn’t clear on the unspeakable vice. Oscar Wilde + vice, I figured, had to = something about homosexuality. But what exactly?

As I sipped my tea and reflected on the situation, I had an inspiration. “You know who will be all over this story?” I said to myself. “My fellow 100-years-ago blogger, Whatever it is, I’m Against It.” And I was right! As WIIIAI explains here and here, the crux of the matter is the title of the Vigilante article, which the Times was too delicate to reprint: “The Cult of the Clitoris.” Aha! The insinuation, then, was that Allan was at the heart of a giant pro-German lesbian cabal.****

Now I was up to speed on why the Times was skirting around the headline. Armed with this information, I was able to track down the full text of the Vigilante article:

The Cult of the Clitoris

To be a member of Maud Allan’s private performances in Oscar Wilde’s ‘Salome,’ one has to apply to a Miss Valetta, of 9, Duke Street, Adelphi W.C. If Scotland Yard were to seize the list of these members I have no doubt they would secure the names of several of the first 47,000.

That’s it!

London’s Palace Theater, where Salome was performed, date unknown

Fast forward a few days, to a June 5 piece in the Times. As Humphreys was making his closing arguments, Pemberton-Billings interrupted him to say that he’d never accused Allan of engaging in vice herself, only of pandering to it. He was acquitted.

In the first draft of this post, I wrote that the good guys lost. And it’s true that I’ll root for scandalous lesbian dancers (Allan was in fact a lesbian, which was the only true allegation in the whole trial as far as I can tell) and cutting-edge theater producers over homophobic right-wing politicians and conspiracy-peddling ex-military officers any time. But, even by the standards of British defamation law, which is much stricter than its American equivalent, the penning of the Vigilante story doesn’t seem like a criminal act. It’s just a piece of vague, sloppy insinuation. Not something that people should go to jail for, however despicable they might be.

The real crime here—twenty-three years after Oscar Wilde was sentenced to two years in jail for homosexual acts, and eighteen years after he died, impoverished and disgraced, in Paris—is that homophobia was still so deeply rooted in British society that it was fodder for ridiculous conspiracy theories (the book of 47,000, of course, never surfaced), scurrilous newspaper reporting, and farcical trials.

Not a very inspiring way to commemorate Pride Month. But there are positive LGBTQ stories as well. (Mostly L, actually.) I’ll get to them in an upcoming post.

Oscar Wilde and Lord Alfred Douglas, 1893

* Because everyone knows that Germans and hot-bloodedness are virtually synonymous.

**Arguably the best name in a story full of great ones.

***Mrs. Villiers Stewart was subsequently jailed for bigamy, but that’s another story.

****Because, you know, there’s nothing lesbians like so much as living under right-wing militaristic rule.

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!

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.)