Category Archives: World War I

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

Screenshot (1118)-1

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.

Screenshot (1128)-1

Vogue, August 1, 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, and 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 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 New York Times said,

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 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.

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 grandmother, Emily Dickinson Wellcome, 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!

******CORRECTION 9/4/2019: I originally identified the woman in this photograph as Williams’ mother after seeing her identified as such in several places, including a blog post published by Yale’s Beinecke library, which owns the photograph. When I saw her identified as Williams’ grandmother Emily Dickinson Wellcome in the Williams biography Something Urgent I Have to Say to You, I inquired with Beinecke Library and was told it is Wellcome.

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