Category Archives: In the News

My Year in World War I: A Centenary Reflection

For someone who decided  of her own free will to spend this year reading as if I were living in 1918, I have a curious aversion to reading and writing about World War I.

Part of it goes back to my education. In the seventies, when I was in school, battles and the like were out of fashion among history teachers. It was all cause and effect—the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand one day, Versailles the next.

Also, there’s a horrible, reactionary part of my brain that, when faced with a lengthy article by the New York Times’ military critic* about the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, says, “Battles are for BOYS!” Believe me, I know how crazy this is. Just within the community I’ve become a part of through this project, Connie Ruzich has been telling the story of World War I through its—often horrifyingly graphic—poetry and Pamela Toler has a book coming out in February on women warriors through the ages. Not to mention Barbara Tuchman, author of The Guns of August, one of the classics of World War I history.** Which I actually have read. Even so, battles aren’t, and never will be, my thing.

An article I didn’t read, New York Times, October 6, 1918

In my post-college years, I learned about the war through novels like All Quiet on the Western Front and A Farewell to Arms and memoirs like Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth. These left me with a clear sense of the traumatic effects of the war but a sketchy knowledge of how it actually transpired.

Now, on the 100th anniversary of the war’s end, I still can’t tell you how it played out French town by French town, but I have a better understanding of what happened during its last year, both on the battlefield and back home (mostly in the United States***). Here’s some of what I’ve learned.

First of all, the Americans got off to a sloooooow start. I’d always had the idea that the Doughboys showed up in 1917, went to the front to replace the depleted French and British forces, and saved the day.

 

Well, not so much. Or not so quickly, anyway.

To begin with, the United States didn’t have an army that was up to the task; American soldiers needed a huge amount of training. The U.S. declared war on Germany in April 1917, but American troops didn’t arrive in France in large numbers until almost a year later. When they arrived they were clueless,

Judge magazine, January 19, 1918

but cocky.

Judge magazine, January 19, 1918

Observers were unimpressed, if this AP report from the American sector, which I’m surprised made it past the censors, is anything to go by:

New York Times, February 21, 1918

A few American soldiers had prior combat experience from fighting with British or French forces. One of them, Captain Jimmy Hall, was shot down in May 1918, just as he was finally able to fly under American colors, and presumed dead. He survived, though, and was captured by the Germans. Hall went on to co-author Mutiny on the Bounty with fellow former aviator Charles Nordhoff.

James Hall in the Lafayette Escadrille, 1917

The U.S. armed forces were segregated, and most African-American units were led by white officers. A few African-Americans received commissions, though, including Benjamin O. Davis, a Spanish-American War veteran who was promoted to lieutenant colonel in 1918 (for the duration of the war, anyway—his rank later reverted to captain). Davis went on, during World War II, to become the first African-American general in the U.S. armed forces. His son, Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., was the first African-American general in the Air Force.

Benjamin O. Davis, 1901

On the logistical side, America’s entry into the war was a colossal screw-up. The United States wasn’t producing many weapons or planes, and a fuel shortage, exacerbated by one of the coldest winters on record, slowed the shipment of what military equipment had been produced. In January, Fuel Administrator Harry Garfield took the drastic step of ordering all industry east of the Mississippi to shut down for a week, and then for the next five Mondays. There was grumbling, but surprisingly no one questioned whether closing down the country was in the fuel administrator’s job description.

Springfield (OH) Daily News, January 19, 1918 (clarkcountyhistory.wordpress.com)

Meanwhile, Food Czar Herbert Hoover, who had gained celebrity status by organizing relief efforts in Belgium,**** was coordinating a food conservation campaign focused on “wheatless Wednesdays” and “meatless Tuesdays.” “Hooverize!” was the watchword.

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

Anxiety over German spies was high.

Life, March 14, 1918

A few real ones, like 23-year-old spy ring leader Despina Storch, were rounded up, along with a lot of people who had committed “crimes” like painting pencils a treasonous color.

New York Times, July 6, 1918

Women took over men’s work,

Life magazine, August 22, 1918

although they were reminded not to get too attached to their “war jobs,”

Ladies’ Home Journal, June 1918

and thousands of American women served in Europe in military or civilian roles, most of them as nurses.

Carl Rakeman, 1918

Americans took the war with deadly seriousness. “Slackers,” as draft evaders were known, were widely condemned,

Sheet music, 1917 (Library of Congress)

and pacifists were vilified. The staff of The Masses, a socialist magazine that was shut down in 1917, went on trial twice in 1918, charged under the Espionage Act with conspiracy to obstruct military recruitment. Both times, the jury was unable to come to a unanimous decision and a mistrial was declared. Art Young, one of the defendants, sketched the proceedings for The Masses’ successor, The Liberator.

Art Young, The Liberator, June 1918

But just because war is a serious business doesn’t mean there’s no room for humor. Lt. Percy Crosby’s Private Dubb was a big hit,

That Rookie from the 13th Squad, Percy L. Crosby, 1918

as were Edward Streeter’s***** “Dere Mable” letters, supposedly written by semi-literate soldier Bill to his girlfriend back home.

Illustration from “Dere Mable” by G. William Breck, 1918

Once deployed, Dubb, Bill, and their compatriots rose to the task. American casualties mounted sharply as the Allied troops fought back the last German offensive in the Battles of Meuse-Argonne, which began on September 26 and lasted until the armistice. This remains the deadliest battle in United States history–26,277 American lives lost.

American soldiers, Argonne forest, September 26, 1918 (AP)

American participation in World War I didn’t last long enough to produce a literature equivalent to that of the British war poets, whose ranks included Rupert Brooke (who died in 1915), Wilfred Owen (who was killed a week before the war’s end), and Sigfried Sassoon (who survived). American veterans like Ernest Hemingway (who was seriously wounded while serving in Italy as an ambulance driver) and F. Scott Fitzgerald (who was commissioned but never made it overseas) would make their mark writing about the scars the war left on their generation.

Ernest Hemingway, Milan, 1918

Some American voices of the war stay with us, though. American Alan Seeger, who fought with the French Foreign Legion and was killed in 1916, left behind his poem “I Have A Rendez-Vous with Death.”

Francis Hogan (behindtheirlines.com)

I’ll end with a poem that is not as well-known but that has stayed with me since I read it, toward the beginning of this project, in the February 9, 1918, issue of The New Republic.

Corporal Hogan was killed on October 18, 1918, 24 days before the Armistice. He was 21 years old.

*An actual job title.

**Or all the women who have actually fought in battles, like Maria Bochkareva and the Battalion of Death.

***This is as good a place as any to point out that the America-centrism of this blog is not just because I’m American, it’s also because of differences in copyright laws that make American publications from 1918 more available than publications from other countries.

****1918 being an era when fuel administrators and relief coordinators and food safety scientists were celebrities.

*****Streeter later wrote the novel Father of the Bride.

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

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

But first, the best and worst of October.

Best news:

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

New York Times, October 31, 1918

Worst news:

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

New York Times, October 23, 1918

Best magazine: The Crisis

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

The Crisis, October 1918

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

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

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

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

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

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

 I’m sold!

 Worst new novel: Strayed Revellers, by Allan Updegraff

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

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

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

Worst headline:

Woman’s Home Companion, October 1918

So smack them!

Best ad:

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

Delineator, October 1918

Worst ad: 

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

St. Nicholas magazine, October 1918

Best magazine cover:

Lots of worthy candidates.

I always have a weakness for a hardworking farmerette.

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

This because it’s, well, beautiful:

As is this.

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

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

Worst magazine cover: Maclean’s

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

On to November!

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

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

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

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

Book Review: The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West

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

Rebecca West, The Independent, April 13, 1918

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

Rebecca West and her son Anthony, ca. 1918

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Comic Side of WWI: Percy Crosby and the Rookie from the 13th Squad

With the centenary of the armistice approaching, I’ve been feeling like I should be writing about the war more and not just going on about dieting and Dorothy Parker. But how? I’m not an expert on the Battles of the Meuse-Argonne and wouldn’t do a very good job of pretending to be one. Then it occurred to me that I could tell the stories of individual soldiers, as I did once before, months ago, when I wrote about aviator and Mutiny on the Bounty co-author Jimmy Hall.

So here’s the story of Percy Lee Crosby. Well, he mostly tells his own story, through his wonderful cartoons.

Percy Crosby, date unknown

Crosby grew up in Queens, the son of Irish immigrants. His father ran an art supply store, and his talent was evident from an early age. He dropped out of high school as a sophomore and got a series of jobs as a writer and illustrator for magazines and newspapers, including the Socialist Daily Call, which sparked a lifelong commitment to leftist causes. He eventually started writing a syndicated comic strip, The Clancy Kids. While in training in France in 1917, Crosby, then a 25-year-old lieutenant, began writing That Rookie from the 13th Squad as a daily syndicated panel. A collection of these cartoons was published in February 1918.

When we meet the Rookie, a private in training at a U.S. military base, he hasn’t yet gotten the hang of military discipline,

and he’s the bane of his commanding officers’ existence.

Despite his haplessness and youthful appearance, he has a beautiful girlfriend,

although he has a bit of a wandering eye

and enjoys a good burlesque show.

He’s not the bravest of souls, but he resists the temptation of a deferment.

Training can be terrifying

and he wishes the war would just be over and done with.

But he pulls his socks up,

dreams big dreams,

and rises in the ranks.

Crosby was struck in the eye by shrapnel on the Argon and awarded a Purple Heart. He returned to action, survived the war, and published another Rookie collection in 1919. In 1923, he began writing Skippy, a strip about the adventures of a nine-year-old boy that made him rich and famous. There were Skippy dolls and toys and an Oscar-winning Skippy movie. (And the peanut butter, which sparked a long trademark dispute.) Skippy was a major influence on Peanuts creator Charles Schulz.

Life Magazine cover featuring Skippy, August 2, 1923

In the 1932 Olympics, Crosby won a silver medal in, I kid you not, watercolors and drawing. This, along with architecture, literature, painting, and sculpture, was an Olympic events from 1928 to 1936. I couldn’t find a picture of his entry, “Jackknife,” but here are some spectators checking out the action in the painting event.

Crosby started buying two-page ads in major newspapers espousing left-wing positions and taking on targets like the FBI, the IRS, and Al Capone. The New Republic dubbed him the “Mad Patriot.” He socialized with the stars of the New York artistic and literary scene, including Jerome Kern, Ring Lardner, John Barrymore, and Heywood Broun. Like many of them, he was a heavy drinker.

Crosby and his first wife divorced, and he stopped drinking for a few years when he remarried. He fell off the wagon, though, and after a violent episode in 1939 his wife filed for divorce and got a restraining order against him. He never saw her or their four children, aged five to nine at the time, again. He married again, but his drinking continued and his behavior became increasingly erratic. In 1948, following a suicide attempt after the death of his mother, he was committed to a mental hospital. Despite his efforts to be freed–he claimed that his long confinement was related to his left-wing views–he remained institutionalized until his death in 1964.

In 1918, though, these bad times were far in the future. So let’s end with the Rookie, on watch at the front now, thinking a soldier’s thoughts.

 

The best and worst of August and September 1918: Modernist all-stars, predictions, and red scarves

Three-quarters of the way through 1918, everything seems normal to me now.* Appalling a lot of the time (racism, eugenics, anti-Semitism, class snobbery), but normal. Nine months of immersion have broken down the barriers of aesthetics and language use. I now think of people as being the age they were in 1918. Happy August/September birthdays to Dorothy Parker (25), T.S. Eliot (30), and William Carlos Williams (35), youngsters all!

I didn’t do a Best and Worst for August because I was back in the United States, socializing nonstop. I don’t know how those 1918 rich people did it—it’s exhausting!** By the time I got back to Cape Town and emerged from the fog of jet lag, September was halfway gone. Which October will be too if I don’t hurry up. So, without further ado, the best and worst of August and September 1918!

Best Magazine: The Little Review, September 1918

Just look at the table of contents of the Little Review’s September issue. It’s the literary equivalent of the Yankees’ 1927 starting lineup.***

Of course, another possible analogy is to one of those movies so overstuffed with stars that you just know it’s going to be horrible.

So which is it?

Somewhere in between. Yeats’s “In Memory of Robert Gregory,” mourning the death of the son of close friends in an aviation accident in Italy (or maybe it was friendly fire), sounds like outtakes from “Easter 1916,” but so-so Yeats is better than just about anyone else at the top of their game. The Eliot poems include his notoriously anti-Semitic “Sweeney Among the Nightingales” (“Rachel née Rabinovitch/Tears at the grapes with murderous paws”), but also a poem in French, “Dans le Restaurant,” part of which eventually made its way, in English, into “The Wasteland.” I confess that I haven’t kept up with the Ulysses serialization, but, hey, it’s Ulysses.

So more 1927 Yankees than New Year’s Eve. And there are more accolades for this issue to come—keep on reading!

Worst Magazine: Current Opinion, September 1918

Halfway through the September issue of The Bookman, I was convinced we had a winner. The magazine, under a new owner, had undergone its second major revamp of the year, and 1918 magazines revamps are never a good thing. They just make the magazine more like all the other magazines. The old Bookman was fusty, but it was entertaining. In the new Bookman, most of the article aren’t even about books. If they are, they’re about old books like Tom Jones or boring books about “Sea Power Past and Present.” But then the magazine redeems itself with an Amy Lowell love poem**** and an excerpt from the upcoming sequel to Christopher Morley’s fun 1917 novel Parnassus on Wheels. And they kept “The Gossip Shop,” which, although most of the gossip is about which writer got his commission and is shipping off to France, is still kind of fun. So I felt better about The Bookman but was left without a worst magazine.

Then I came across the September issue of Current Opinion, featuring an article called “Why the Jew is Too Neurotic.” The reason is explained in the sub-head: “Because his Extraordinary Resemblance to the Average Spoiled Child Causes Mental Strain.” The rest of the article isn’t as bad as that makes it sound. Something about how the Jews were the favorite children of God, and were isolated from the rest of society, and…I’ll spare you the psychoanalytic logic. And there’s sympathetic discussion of anti-Jewish discrimination throughout the ages. But the article epitomizes what’s worst about 1918: the tendency to lump together entire “races” (African-Americans, Jews, Germans, Czechoslovakians, whoever) and ascribe a common set of qualities to them. Inconsistency alert: the issue also includes an admiring profile of New York Times owner Adolph Ochs, who comes across as a gee-whiz regular guy and not neurotic at all.

Best Line in an Editorial: “Vardaman Falls,” New York Times, August 22

I’m not a fan of 1918 NYT editorials, which are generally narrow-minded, prejudiced, and smug. But this one, a gloating account of the primary election defeat of Senator James Vardaman, one of the worst racists in congressional history (although that didn’t bother the Times nearly as much as his antiwar stance), has my favorite 1918 sentence so far:

Was he the victim of his own singularity, grown megalomaniacal, or did he simply overestimate the hillbilliness of his state?

Least Prescient Literary Criticism: Louis Untermeyer, “The Georgians,” The Dial,  August 15

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

It’s not really fair, with the benefit of hindsight, to poke fun at predictions by past critics about how future critics will regard their own times. But it’s fun! So let’s!

Louis Untermeyer, who was actually one of the best critics of the era as well as being a noted poet himself, ruminates on this topic in a review of the anthology Georgian Poetry: 1916-1917. He says of the anthologized poets that “these men of what he [the future critic] will doubtless call the 1920s” will say that the Georgians “produced a literature as distinctive and even more human than their [Elizabethan and Victorian] predecessors.”

No they won’t, Louis. And we don’t call the 1910s the 1920s. We call them the 1910s.

Specifically, Untermeyer predicts that the future critic

will have a vigorous chapter on the invigorating vulgarisms of Mansfield and an interesting essay on Lascelles Abercrombie, who he will find, in spite of the latter’s too packed blank verse, to be even more “modern” than the author of “The Everlasting Mercy.”

Um, not quite. What’s really going to happen, Louis, is that T.S. Eliot***** and the modernists are going to wipe these guys off of the map. Which brings us to…

Most Prescient Literary Criticism: Edgar Jepson, “The Western School,” The Little Review, September

National Magazine, April-September 1915

Continuing our September 1918 Little Review/1927 Yankees starting lineup analogy, Edgar Jepson is, say, Tony Lazzeri to Eliot’s and Joyce’s Ruth and Gehrig. In his article “The Western School,” Jepson, a British writer of detective and adventure fiction, complains about the undue accolades being given to subpar work by prominent poets. He makes his case convincingly by quoting these lines by Vachel Lindsay:

And kettle-drums rattle
And hide the shame
With a swish and a swirk
and dead Love’s name

and these from “All Life in a Life” by Edgar Lee Masters:

He had a rich man or two
Who took up with him against the powerful frown
That looked him down
For you’ll always find a rich man or two
To take up with anything–
There are those who want to get into society, or bring
Their riches to a social recognition

and these from “Snow,” a long poem by Robert Frost about some monks having a conversation in the middle of the night:

That leaf there in your open book! It moved
Just then, I thought. It’s stood erect like that,
There on the table, ever since I came,
Trying to turn itself backward or forward—
I’ve had my eye on it to make out which…

But don’t despair for poetry! For, Jepson says,

the queer and delightful thing is that in the scores of yards of pleasant verse and wamblings and yawpings which have been recently published in the Great Pure Republic I have found a poet, a real poet, who possesses in the highest degree the qualities the new school demands.

None other than…T.S. Eliot!

Could anything be more United States, more of the soul of that modern land than “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”?… Never has the shrinking of the modern spirit of life been expressed with such exquisiteness, fullness, and truth.

Jepson also praises Eliot’s “La Figlia Che Piange” (“Weave, weave the sunlight in your hair”), saying that

it is hardly to be believed that this lovely poem should have been published in Poetry in the year in which the school awarded the prize [Poetry magazine’s Levinson prize] to that lumbering fakement “All Life in a Life.”

Jepson may be overstating his role in the discovery of Eliot, who, after all, is in plain sight in that very issue. But he deserves credit for his prescience, especially since he also complains about Lindsay’s “Booker Washington Trilogy” in language straight out of the #OwnVoices movement:

I have a feeling that it is rather an impertinence. Why should a white man set out to become the poetic mouth-piece of the United States blacks? These blacks have already made the only distinctively United States contributions to the arts—ragtime and buck-dancing. Surely it would be well to leave them to make the distinctively United States contribution to poetry.

Home run for Tony Lazzeri!

Best Magazine Cover of a Woman Swimming with a Red Scarf on Her Head:

In this surprisingly competitive category, here are the runner up

and the winner.

Best Ad Depicting the Advertised Item as Humongous

Winner:

Harper’s Bazar, September 1918

Runner-up:

Good Housekeeping, August 1918

Worst Magazine Cover:

At the risk of sounding like a Boche sympathizer, this is just mean.

Screenshot (1116)-1

Everybody’s, September 1918

Best Magazine Cover:

There are a lot of worthy contenders, like this

Screenshot (1137)

St. Nicholas, August 1918

and this

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Vanity Fair, August 1918

and this startlingly modern-looking one

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House & Garden, August 1918

and this, which, in another month, might have won.

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Vogue, August 1918

But the war was intensifying, American casualties were mounting, and it seems wrong not to recognize that. So here’s the winner, a soldier saying good-bye to his farmerette sweetheart.

August - Life cover - couple kissing-1

Life, August 22, 1918

On to October!

*Of course, I might feel differently if I had to wear a corset.

**Although not as exhausting as working in a Lower East Side textile factory all day and then going to night school.

***Ford Madox Hueffer is Ford Madox Ford, remember.

****To her female lover. Which may not have been clear to her audience, although does “quiet like the garden/And white like the alyssum flowers/And beautiful as the silent spark of the fireflies” sound like a man to you?

*****Whom, to be fair, Untermeyer mentions later in the article. He says that the future critic will realize “in the light of the new psychology” how much prose writers like J.D. Beresford, Gilbert Cannan, A. Neil Lyons, Rebecca West and Thomas Burke had in common with “such seemingly opposed verse craftsmen” as Edward Thomas, W.W. Gibson, Rupert Brooke, James Stephens, T.S. Eliot. If you blah-blah-blah out the writers no one reads today, we’re left with “Rebecca West has something in common with Rupert Brooke and T.S. Eliot.” I’ll give him that. Kind of.

The best and worst of June and July 1918: Insanity, proto-flappers, and octopus eyes

I’m not in much of a mood to wax philosophical, having recently made my second trip from Cape Town to Washington, D.C. in two months. So I’ll just say that I feel really, really sorry for all those people out there who aren’t spending the year reading as if they were living in 1918. Check out these bests and worsts of June and July to see why.

Best Magazine: The American Journal of Insanity

The American Journal of Insanity is so good that its name isn’t even the best thing about it. It’s full of case histories of various psychological conditions that read like novels.* The saddest is the story, in an article titled “The Insane Psychoneurotic,”  of a Romanian Jewish immigrant who studied to become a lawyer while working (like Marcus Eli Ravage and every other Romanian Jewish immigrant) in a Lower East Side textile factory. He fell into a depression after failing the bar exam three times, became elated when he passed on his fourth try, and then went blind. A doctor restored his sight by pressing a pencil against his eye and telling him that he would be able to see when he opened his eyes. He lost the ability to talk and recovered it when a woman volunteer agreed to his (written) request that she allow him to use her first name. He was institutionalized for a while and released to outpatient care when he seemed to be getting better. Twelve days after his release, though, he hanged himself.

There’s also an article on shell shock by a French doctor that deals in a sympathetic and nuanced manner with the often-dismissed condition, and that in no way justifies the discussion of his and his colleagues’ research in the New York Times under this headline:**

New York Times, July 2, 1918

Before awarding it the prestigious “Best Magazine” title, I figured I should check whether The American Journal of Insanity, like many other erstwhile subjects of my 1918 admiration (I’m looking at you, Marie Carmichael Stopes!), was a fan of eugenics, and in particular of the forced sterilization of “defectives.” So I did a word search of the 1918-1919 volume, cheated a little to glance at the 1919 article that came up, and found out that they were absolutely appalled by it. Way to go, AJI!

Best quote from a book in a review:  

Ambrose Bierce, 1892

“They had a child which they named Joseph and dearly loved, as was then the fashion among parents in all that region.” (From the Ambrose Bierce short story “A Baby Tramp” (1893), quoted in a retrospective on Bierce in The Dial, July 18, 1918.)

Worst Editorial: “Their Hope Doomed to Disappointment,” New York Times, July 27, 1918

A German newspaper has, according to a July 27 Times editorial, proposed that the German army undermine morale among American prisoners of war by making black and white soldiers live together in close quarters.

This, the deviser of the scheme thinks, would give keenest pain both to those thus united in misfortune and to Americans in general…His basis of belief is some vague knowledge he has of the negro’s place in the United States and an exaggerated and distorted notion of an antagonism existing here between the white and black races.

Which, the Times says, is totally not the case!***

Someone should tell the German editor that negroes are not hated in this country—that in innumerable white families they occupy positions that bring them into daily and intimate contact with the other members, especially the children, and it is the Americans who know the negro best that in proper place and season are most forgetful of racial differences or make most kindly allowance for them.

Really, you can’t make this stuff up.

Best Ad: 

I wish I could honor a more healthy product, but Murad owns this category.

Scribner’s, July 1918

Worst Ad:

…Although not all Murad ads are created equal. This one looks like their regular artist was off sick so they hired a failed Italian Futurist as a temp.

New York Times, July 31, 1918

Best Magazine Covers:

I love this Georges Lepape portrait of a short-haired, drop-waisted proto-flapper.

Vanity Fair, July 1918

My favorite thing about this Erté Harper’s Bazar cover, called “Surprises of the Sea,” is the octopus eye.

On to August!

*Although they don’t seem, at this point in the history of psychiatry, to ever actually cure anyone. Which could explain why the case histories read like novels.

**Which first came to my attention as a “Whatever It Is, I’m Against It” Headline of the Day.

***Even though the very same issue has an article and an editorial about lynching.

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.