Category Archives: My Life in 1918

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.

Wish me luck on my 1918 diet!

Earlier this year, I was planning to write a post called “How I Lost 5 Pounds for My College Reunion on a 1918 Diet.” Well…that goal, modest though it was, was not achieved. But then last month my friend Emily* invited me to participate in a group diet contest on DietBet. (She invited all of her Facebook friends, so I didn’t take it personally.) I jumped at this opportunity to regain the silhouette of youth.

I had just the diet in mind, from this article in the March 1918 issue of the Ladies’ Home Journal by Eugene Lyman Fisk, M.D., who was the medical director of the Life Extension Institute and the co-author, with Yale professor Irving Fisher, of the bestselling 1915 book How to Live.**

I expected 1918 dieting wisdom to be dubious, but Dr. Fisk, like fellow nutrition doc Harvey Wiley of Good Housekeeping, turns out to be pretty sensible.***

Dr. Fisk starts out by saying that

At age 25, Miss Blank, an average young woman, fully grown, 5 foot 4 inches in height, weighs 128 pounds; at 40 she weighs 138 pounds; at 50, 144 pounds. This gain over age 25 is practically all fat, and its distribution has sadly changed Miss Blank’s silhouette.

I’ll spare you the TMI and leave it that the reaction of this 5’4” over-50 upon reading this was “No wonder I feel so at home in 1918!”

Dr. Fisk counsels against trying to lose weight through exercise. To the extent that we stout (Dr. Fisk doesn’t pull any punches) 40+ women do exercise, it should consist of walking, gentle hill climbing, and a few setting-up exercises. Substituting easy yoga for the setting-up exercises, this is exactly my routine!

Some recent gentle hill climbing in Cape Town

But, really, it’s all about the food. Starting with….

Breakfast

On my otherwise ill-fated pre-reunion diet, I did make a permanent switch from my previous granola, banana, and tea breakfast to the one outlined by Dr. Fisk. With maybe a LITTLE more butter than he recommends, but I don’t take milk or sugar in my tea or use butter to scramble my eggs, so it cancels out, right? And it’s worked—I find myself more energetic in the mornings, and less likely to snack before lunch.

Breakfast, with a rusk instead of toast

After much experimenting, I’ve come up with a great recipe for microwaved scrambled eggs. Here it is:

MARY GRACE’S 30-20-10 MICROWAVE SCRAMBLED EGGS

Break two eggs into a small bowl or teacup. Add salt and pepper as desired. Cook eggs in microwave without stirring for 30 seconds. Stir, then return to the microwave and cook for 20 seconds. Scramble, then cook for an additional 10 seconds or more as needed.

Lunch

Here I’ve followed Dr. Lyman’s plan more loosely, but I’ve kept to the basic spirit of something vegetable-y, something bread-y, and some fruit. Here’s a recent literal interpretation

and a 21st century variation, featuring homemade tabbouleh and (not-homemade) hummus.

Dinner

Dinner is your basic protein-starch-vegetable combo. Sometimes I cook a chicken breast it in a foil pack at 350F for half an hour with whatever I happen to have around (typical ingredients are lemon, kale, garlic, aniseeds, and red pepper flakes). Lately I’ve been cooking frozen boneless chicken breasts**** in a pan with root vegetables and rosemary, which comes out way better than you’d expect. I’ve been eating a lot of grilled hake as well.

A recent dinner

Dr. Fisk is a big defender of potatoes, saying that

There is no tragedy in a fat woman***** eating a potato; the tragedy lies in the big pat of butter that is often melted in it, more than equal in fuel value to the whole potato.

My last name notwithstanding, I’m not much of a potatoes person, so I usually substitute couscous or rice or root vegetables as a starch at dinner. And I skip the stewed fruits for dessert. Virtuous, huh?

So How Am I Doing?

DietBet weigh-in

DietBet works like this: if you don’t lose 4% of your body weight during the competition period, your ante is divided among the people who do. With just eight days of the one-month contest to go, I’m only halfway there, so I need to step it up if I want to keep my money.

Although not to the extremes described in Maria Thompson Daviess’ 1912 novel The Melting of Molly, which was the very first book I read for this project. The gist, in case you missed it: Molly, a 160-pound 25-year-old widow, goes on a crash diet when she learns that her high school sweetheart, who’s in the Foreign Service, is coming back to town and wants to see her in the blue muslin dress she wore back when she had a 20-inch waist. Here’s the diet, as prescribed by her doctor neighbor:

Breakfast—one slice of dry toast, one egg, fruit and a tablespoonful of baked cereal, small cup of coffee, no sugar, no cream.

Dinner–one small lean chop, slice of toast, spinach, green beans and lettuce salad. No dessert or sweet.

Supper—slice of toast and an apple.

“Why the apple?” Molly mourns. “Why supper at all?”

Molly, busted with a jar of jam by the doctor

But I’m not going to do that! Crash diets are unhealthy! Besides, who has the discipline?******

I’ll stick with Dr. Fisk. Whose diet is, as I said, pretty sensible. The one thing that strikes a modern reader as odd is the tolerance for carbs. This isn’t surprising, since I can well remember a time—up to the 1990s—when no one cared about carbs, it was all about fat. Still, it’s strange seeing even poor starving Molly allowed three slices of (butterless) toast a day. Dr. Fisk does emphasize the importance of cutting down on starches, fats, and sugars, but he still allows, along with the potato at dinner, a piece of toast at breakfast and bread or a roll at lunch. (He stipulates that the roll should be made of rye, bran, or graham flour, but this isn’t only a nutrition thing—there was a huge wartime drive for wheat conservation, led by food czar Herbert Hoover.) Bread and potatoes, I guess, were such an important part of the 1918 diet that cutting back any further than this was inconceivable.

In happier times

I’ve followed my 1918 diet fairly closely, with just a few slip-ups here and there. I’m eating more lean proteins and vegetables and I’ve cut out Indian take-out, a former weekly staple. When I go out, I have grilled fish with vegetables. I rarely feel hungry or have cravings.

On the other hand, I don’t have high hopes of meeting my DietBet goal. I’m not too worried, though. For one thing, the entertainment value of our WhatsApp chat group is worth the money I put up. And, while it’s good to have a jump-start, healthy eating isn’t a one-month affair. If I just keep at it, I will—maybe not this month but eventually—regain the silhouette of youth.

Wish me luck!

The silhouette of youth, wasted in a drop-waist dress

UPDATE 10/18/2018: I did it!!!

*Whose blog you should check out! She writes about dinner parties and travel and decor and the NYU Writers in Paris program, where we met, and, a favorite topic of mine, how hideous embassy furniture is.

**Of course, when you see that someone was the director of the Life Extension Institute, your first question is how old he was when he died. Answer: 64. He died suddenly in 1931 on a trip to Dresden, where he had gone to visit the Museum of Hygiene. How to Live had an introduction by William H. Taft. And this is now the most irony-packed footnote of My Year in 1918.

***Not just about dieting. He was also a strong opponent of tobacco. Unfortunately, like so many otherwise admirable people of 1918, he was a—and if you’re a regular reader, you’ll be able to recite this along with me—horrible eugenicist.

****This is legit—the USDA says so. You just have to cook it longer.

*****I told you he doesn’t pull any punches.

******Well, Molly did. But, unlike me, she had a houseful of servants under orders to keep food away from her.

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.

My Year in 1918: Some thoughts at the halfway point

I’m halfway through My Year in 1918!

Which seems about right. I feel at home in 1918, and I’m in no hurry to leave. I’ve settled into a routine, with my go-to magazines (The Dial, The Bookman, The Crisis), don’t-miss monthly reads (T.S. Eliot in The Egoist, H.L. Mencken in Smart Set, Randolph Bourne in The Dial, and Dr. Wiley’s Question Box in Good Housekeeping—plus there’s a bright new spark at Vanity Fair named Dorothy Parker I’ll be writing about soon), and guilty pleasures (Murad cigarette ads, children’s puzzles in St. Nicholas magazine).

I’ve probably settled into too much of a routine, in fact. It’s been pointed out that I’ve completely fallen down on the job recipe-wise. I could blame the dispiriting nature of 1918 recipes, which tend to focus on food rationing, but ahundredyearsago.com manages to do a whole blog focused on 1918 (or so) recipes. (This week: Old-Fashioned Sour Banana Ice Cream.) So I’ll get out my apron, and I’ll shake things up in other ways as well. There’s more to life than modernism and Erté covers!

What have I learned in six months? First of all, that it’s harder than I thought to identify any kind of trajectory going through history. I do still believe that we’ve made tremendous progress in the last hundred years. The hardest thing to take in my reading has been the ubiquity of casual sexism and racism. (Judge magazine, for example, has a monthly jokes section called “Darkies.”) We have a long way to go, but I don’t think anyone would want to go back to that time.

On the other hand, none of the progressive battles of 1918 have been unambiguously won. (Other than the right to buy alcohol, if you consider that progressive.) The fights for racial and gender equality, reproductive freedom, and immigrants’ rights are still going on, just in different ways.

I knew all these things before, in a general sense. I hadn’t thought much, though, about all the problems that were invisible in 1918 to all but the most far-seeing observers. Magazines were full of ads for unknown killers—cigarettes and asbestos and radium clock dials and lead-based paint. No one was worried about man-made climate change or the sustainability of the oceans. For me, that’s the biggest lesson—for all the obvious problems of today (as numerous and troubling as they are), there must be other grave dangers, already present or on the horizon, that we’re not even thinking about.

As for the tuning-out-of-2018 aspect of this project, that’s been mostly a good thing, and much easier than I expected. There’s a New Yorker cartoon making its way around Facebook with a doctor telling his patient that his problem is that he’s paying too much attention to the news. I’m definitely not that guy. But neither am I the man in Ohio the New York Times wrote about who decided after the 2016 election to cut himself off from all news.

I didn’t read that article, naturally, I just heard about it. I decided at the beginning of the year that, while a total news blackout wasn’t feasible or desirable, I’d read the bare minimum amount of news required to be a responsible citizen. I get news alerts on my iPad and occasionally glance at an article to get the gist. If something really important happens, I’ll read a whole article about it—just one—in the New York Times. I’ve read a few stories about what’s going on in the State Department, where I worked for many years. And, okay, there was that emergency situation when I had to settle an argument about what rock critics think about Jim Morrison. But I haven’t read a contemporary op-ed or magazine article or book review all year, other than a handful of pieces by friends. No current fiction either, except for exchanges of work with writer friends and a few published pieces, like this and this, by my NYU creative writing classmates. (Congrats, guys!)

I do read blogs, because that’s only fair if I want people to read my blog. And Twitter, although my feed these days is mostly focused on World War I and literary modernism and, for some reason, how horrible it is to be an academic in the UK.* I look at Facebook, but I don’t click on articles. I’ve spent more time than I expected doing research for blog posts (confession: LOTS of Wikipedia), and I’ve had to bone up on the technical aspects of blogging. (Notice how much clearer the pictures have become?) With contemporary resources like this, I follow the rule that Catholics are supposed to follow about impure thoughts: they’re unavoidable, but don’t dwell on them.

A couple of months ago, I was eating dinner in a Cape Town food hall and reading an article from the WTOP Radio website about the D.C. boundary stones as research for a blog post. This was one of the few times this year—maybe the only time—that I printed out a contemporary article and read it from start to finish. As I read, a disoriented sensation came over me. “This article is weird,” I kept thinking. But I couldn’t figure out why. I reread it later, and identified the problem. There’s a quote that starts, “One thing that gets really funky with these things is, the Park Service owns the little piece that’s the fence enclosure and the stone, but then [one of the stones] is on Metro ground…” and continues in this colloquial vein. No one in 1918 talked like that! I was experiencing the same kind of reverse culture shock that I used to have in the Foreign Service when I returned to the United States from overseas.

Has my withdrawal from the news made me a less informed person? Well, yes, by definition. Has it made me a worse citizen? I don’t think so. In fact, I think it’s made me a better one. I analyze what’s happening on my own, rather than through the lens of an op-ed columnist. I focus on what’s going on in the longer term, not on the twists and turns of the daily news cycle. And it’s definitely been good for my well-being. I’ve lost that jittery feeling that comes with compulsively following the news. The troubling things that are happening today make me sad, but I don’t have the sense of lingering depression that many of my friends are experiencing.

When another six months have passed and I reengage with the contemporary world, I think—at least, I hope—that I’ll read more discriminately, more mindfully, and with a better sense of our place on the long arc of history.

* Some favorite blogs and Twitter accounts:

Connie Ruzich on World War I poets (Behind Their Lines,  @wherrypilgrim)

Pamela Toler on fascinating footnotes to history (History in the Margins, @pdtoler)

Leah Budke on modernist anthologies (ModMarkMake, @modmarkmake)

Whatever It Is, I’m Against It (@wiiiai), an indispensable and entertaining source of day-to-day 100-years-ago news.

Daniel Mulhall, who, in addition to his day job as Irish Ambassador to the United States, writes about Irish writers, including Yeats and Joyce (Ambassador’s Blog, @danmulhall)

Frank Hudson, who writes about (mostly) modernist poets and puts their work to music (The Parlando Project)

Sheryl Lazarus, who started out publishing her grandmother’s diaries a hundred years to the day after she wrote them, but since the diary ran out has been publishing recipes and writing about food-related topics at A Hundred Years Ago.

An academic interlude: Harvard’s Widener Library

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

and this,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*****which I subsequently raved about

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

A third of the way through!

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

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

Best magazine: The Dial

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best magazine cover: The Crisis

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

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

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

Whose is the light?

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

Lead, Kindly Light.

Worst magazine cover: Ladies’ Home Journal

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

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

Violet Hunt, ca. 1900

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

You can read the rest of the poem here.

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

archive.org

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

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

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

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

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

*                                              *                                              *

But we must learn to take literature seriously.

(Asterixes Apteryx’s.)

Best neologism: Surréaliste

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

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

Best humor: 

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

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

Worst joke:

Judge, April 27, 1918

On to May!

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

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

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

My 1918 Bedside Bookshelf

Christopher Morley was one of those famous-in-their-time people no one has heard of today.* In 1918, the hardworking twenty-seven-year-old had just published Parnassus on Wheels, his first novel, and a book of light verse called Songs for a Little House,** and he had a book of essays coming out. He was also the literary editor of Ladies’ Home Journal.

The Bookman, February 1918

In a piece in the February 1918 issue of The Bookman (originally published in the New York Sun), Morley stirred up quite a kerfuffle. The issue: what books you should choose for your guest room. “Let us assume that many of your guests are of the male sex and have the habit of reading in bed,” he writes. “You keep a reading lamp by the bed, of course, and a bookshelf. What thirty volumes would you choose to fill that shelf?”

Of course, Morley doesn’t really want to know what books YOU’D choose. He wants to tell you what books HE’D choose. As advertised, they’re pretty manly. Robert Louis Stevenson, Arthur Conan Doyle, Joseph Conrad, Rudyard Kipling. Plus some manly-sounding books I never heard of, like The Adventures of Captain Kettle and Casuals of the Sea. You can read the rest of the list here. Morley writes that

I find that for such strollers, wastrels and errant persons as frequent my house, this is a fairly well-selected guest-room library. I wonder if your readers will concur.

They didn’t. Harold Crawford Stearns sent in a list, published in March, that only had one duplicate with Morley’s, the Bible. It was equally manly, though. In April, D.M.T. Willis argued that Morley had chosen not bedtime books but “books that one wants to read when wide awake on a cold afternoon before the fire, or in a hammock under trees in warm weather.”

Bedtime reading, he says,

seems to me like the intense desire to eat candy one experiences immediately after church service, a sort of reactive indulgence, a kind of “now-I-can-do-as-I-please-for-the-rest-of-the-night” feeling.

My sentiments exactly!

Willis includes little blurbs with his list, like, “The Rubaiyat. Because every man and most women sometime at night want to feel as happy-go-lucky and sentimental as Omar,” and “The Bible, because some one might read it and become a poet.” His list is as lacking as Morley’s in women authors, but he’s such a charming blurber that I would totally stay at his house.

As for the contribution from Edward O’Brien, the editor of the Best American Short Stories series, all I can say is, really, Edward? The Canterbury Tales? At bedtime? I checked out another one of his choices, Religio Poetae, by Coventry Patmore. Here’s how the title essay starts:

No one, probably, has ever found his life permanently affected by any truth of which he has been unable to obtain a real apprehension, which, as I have elsewhere shown, is quite a different thing from real comprehension.

Zzzzzz.

The Bookman, to its credit, is snarky about Morley’s gender policy, saying in April that

Mr. Morley’s guest-room is apparently adapted solely to the needs of his male friends—or is it that his women visitors are of the kind that do not read?***

Finally, some women, identifying themselves as “Two Old Maids,” weigh in, and at last we have a handful of women authors: Jane Addams, Edna Ferber, and Lady Montagu.

Of course, I’m just like Christopher Morley: the real reason I’m writing about this is to give you MY 1918 guest room bookshelf list.

First I need a 1918 guest bedroom, though. Luckily I found one that’s perfect:

Okay, now for my list. It includes a mix of  books I’ve read for this project, other 1918-era books I’ve been wanting to read, and a few earlier classics. In the spirit of D.M.T. Willis, I’ve included blurbs explaining why I picked each one.

  1. Bab: A Sub-Deb by Mary Roberts Rinehart. Because this story about a rebellious, hapless teenager is hilarious, and short enough that you’ll be able to read the whole thing during your visit.
  2. Emma by Jane Austen. Because somehow it seems more 1918-ish than the rest of Austen.
  3. Mrs. Spring Fragrance by Sui Sin Far. Because I just finished this fantastic collection of short stories about the Chinese community in Seattle and San Francisco, and I can’t wait to tell you about it.
  4. The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton. Because being a houseguest with a well-stocked bookshelf at hand is such an Edith Wharton thing to do.
  5. The Magic City by E. Nesbit. Because every guest room bookshelf needs some magic, and I missed this one during my E. Nesbit years.
  6. Tendencies in Modern American Poetry by Amy Lowell. Because I want to take a deeper look into what was happening in poetry in 1918, and who better to explain it than Lowell?
  7. The Tree of Heaven by May Sinclair. Because it was one of the big books of 1918, but when I ordered a print-on-demand version they sent me a book with Sinclair’s name on the cover but a 1907 Robert Chambers book with the same title inside.
  8. Pointed Roofs by Dorothy Richardson. Because May Sinclair said in The Egoist that she’s a great modernist but I’d never heard of her.
  9. Villette by Charlotte Brontë. Because I’ve been wanting to read it and it seems more bedtimey than Jane Eyre.
  10. Renascence, and Other Poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay. Because Louis Untermeyer panned it in The Dial and I’m in the mood to pick a fight.
  11. Marion: The Story of an Artist’s Model by Winnifred Eaton. Because the story of a half-white, half-Chinese artist’s model sounds intriguing, plus she’s Sui Sin Far’s sister.
  12. Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery. Because, shamefully, I’ve never read it.
  13. Daddy-Long-Legs by Jean Webster. Because this breezy epistolary novel, which I wrote about here, is the perfect bedtime read.
  14. Personality Plus by Edna Ferber. Because the Two Old Maids sound like they know what they’re talking about.
  15. O Pioneers! by Willa Cather. Because it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read. Just don’t read the ending right before you turn off the light, like I did.
  16. The Last Ditch by Violet Hunt. Because her wonderful poem in Poetry magazine about her breakup with Ford Madox Hueffer (Ford) made me want to read more of her work.
  17. The Story of an African Farm by Olive Schreiner. Because I really need to read this South African classic.
  18. Behind the Scenes, or, Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House, by Elizabeth Keckley. Because Keckley’s amazing journey sounds well worth reading about.
  19. The Circular Staircase by Mary Roberts Rinehart. Because this was Rinehart’s first best-seller, and if her mysteries are as good as Bab: A Sub-Deb I can’t wait to get started.
  20. Understood Betsy by Dorothy Canfield Fisher. Because I read this when I was very young and I’d love to see if I remember anything.
  21. The God by H.D. Because I need to start actually reading the Imagist poets instead of just reading about their love lives.
  22. Married Love by Marie Carmichael Stopes. Because, who knows, this British sex manual might come in handy for my houseguests.
  23. Parnassus on Wheels by Christopher Morley. Because Jeff O’Neal raved about it, but mostly because I love the idea of Morley sitting on the bookshelf with all these women.

Of course, what I’ve really done is put together a list of books I want YOU to have when I stay in YOUR guest room. I’ll be traveling a lot over the next few months, so get ready!

(And there’s still room on the bookshelf–I haven’t reached Morley’s 30 volumes yet–so I’d welcome your suggestions.)

The House Beautiful, September 1917

*Except for Jeff O’Neill of Book Riot, who talked about Morley’s novel Parnassus on Wheels on last year’s holiday book recommendation podcast.

**It’s just like it sounds. He writes so goopily about his wife that I assumed, based on previous 1918 experience, that she would run off with a female Imagist poet in short order. But no, they were still married when he died in 1957.

*** This can’t possibly mean what it sounds like. If it did, she wouldn’t be sleeping in the guest room, would she?