During My Year in 1918, I’ll be reading books that were available to a reader of a hundred years ago. This includes “recent” books as well as earlier books that a reader of 1918 might have read. So Jane Eyre or Pride and Prejudice are okay, but not Moby Dick, which was forgotten at the time. I’d appreciate any reading suggestions!
Here are the books I’ve read so far:
2. January 21: The Thirty-Nine Steps, by John Buchan (1915). A man goes on the run in the English countryside after uncovering a fiendish plot. Unlike in the Hitchcock film, he doesn’t get handcuffed to a beautiful woman.
3. January 31: A Preface to Politics, by Walter Lippmann (audiobook) (1912). 23-year-old Lippmann expounds sensibly about what’s wrong with politics: basically, that our system is organized around a notion of how people should be, rather than how they really are. I wrote about it here.
4. February 2: Sanctuary, by Edith Wharton (1903). A novella about a woman who places truthfulness above everything, and the impact this has over two generations.
7. March 9: Bab: A Sub-Deb, by Mary Roberts Rinehart (1917). The hilarious misadventures of a seventeen-year-old girl from a wealthy family.
8. March 10: Fighting France, by Edith Wharton (audiobook) (1915). Wharton, who lived in France, toured the front lines in 1915 and reported on the ruined towns, gallant soldiers, and resilient villagers she encountered. A vivid account of France in wartime.
9. March 26: O Pioneers! by Willa Cather (1913). The beautiful, gripping story of the triumphs and tragedies of a Swedish family in Nebraska. One of the best novels I’ve read in a long time.
10. April 9: Married Love by Marie Carmichael Stopes (1918). A British sex manual written for the tragically ignorant newlyweds (especially women) of the time.
11. April 13: Anarchism and Other Essays by Emma Goldman (audiobook) (1910). America’s most famous anarchist writes sensibly about women’s emancipation, prison reform, and social justice and kind of scarily about political violence.
12. April 16: Mrs. Spring Fragrance by Sui Sin Far (1912). A fascinating collection of stories, written by a writer (real name Edith Maude Eaton) of mixed Chinese-English ancestry, about how Chinese immigrants in Seattle and San Francisco adapt–or, just as often, fail to adapt–to their new country.
13. April 26: Songs for a Little House by Christopher Morley (1917). In this book of light verse, 27-year-old Morley writes about his wife, who by his account never thinks about anything except their baby and what time he’s coming home from work, and his neighborhood in bucolic Queens, New York (there are milkmaids). The prolific Morley deserves credit for trying his hand at everything, but he was better at fiction (Parnassus on Wheels) and criticism (Shandygaff) than poetry.
14. May 15: The Railway Children by E. Nesbit (1906). This is the (non-magical) story of three children from a prosperous London suburb who move to the country when their father mysteriously disappears. (He’s obviously in jail, although this never dawns on the otherwise bright children.) They become obsessed with the nearby railway station, and various adventures ensue. But something bothered me about the book, and I finally realized what it was. For the most part, the children have no agency; they just dump their problems on a random old guy who commutes on the train, and he solves them. This violates Rule #1 of children’s books: adults are useless; children solve their own problems.
15. May 18: Orthodoxy by G. K. Chesterton (audiobook) (1908). Chesterton engages in facile wordplay and takes aim against all manner of straw men in defending his Christian faith. Example: “Oscar Wilde said that sunsets were not valued because we could not pay for sunsets. But Oscar Wilde was wrong; we can pay for sunsets. We can pay for them by not being Oscar Wilde.” Now I understand why T.S. Eliot and the modernists were always dumping on him.
16. June 7: An American in the Making: The Life Story of an Immigrant by Marcus Eli Ravage (1917). In this witty and engaging book, one of my favorites of the year, Ravage describes coming to the United States from Romania alone at age sixteen, working in a Lower East Side textile factory, becoming a socialist, and struggling to fit in among his gung-ho classmates at the University of Missouri.
17. July 5: Buttered Side Down by Edna Ferber (1912). Ferber is known today mostly for the shows and movies made from her books (Show Boat and Giant and Cimarron), but, judging from these wonderful stories, written in her early to mid twenties, she should be more widely read. She writes of the dreams, disappointments, and, very occasionally, triumphs of department store saleswomen and accountants and stenographers. No book has given me a more visceral sense of what early twentieth-century life was really like–pot roasts and corset patterns and strawberry socials and small-town Main Streets on summer evenings. She breaks the fourth wall to tell of her own life as a writer, opening one story by saying that she wrote it for a saleswoman in her town who asked for a really homely heroine, not one like Jane Eyre who, Ferber says, is “constantly described as plain and mouse-like, but there are covert hints as to her gray eyes and slender figure and clear skin, and we have a sneaking notion that she wasn’t such a fright after all.”
18. July 17: Parnassus on Wheels by Christopher Morley (1917). I finally got around to this popular novel after trash-talking Morley in April for his overly manly bookshelf. It turns out to be a fun read, and not manly at all. A 39-year-old spinster impulsively buys a horse-drawn bookshop after getting fed up with her farmer-turned-folksy-writer brother, who has left all the farm chores to her after finding literary success. Picaresque adventures ensue. The edition I read also includes the sequel. The Haunted Bookshop, published in 1919 so off limits to me for now.
19. July 19: The Tree of Heaven by May Sinclair (1917). When I started this project, The Tree of Heaven was the big book everyone was talking about–the North American Review’s February 1918 book of the month, rave review in The New Republic, etc. (The Bookman said “we found it stupid,” but The Bookman was so fuddy-duddy that that’s practically a badge of honor.) It’s strange, then, to see that it has more or less disappeared—some call it a classic, but it’s not in print except by print-on-demand, where you can find just about everything. The book takes us through two decades, from the end of the nineteenth century to mid-World War I, in the life of the Harrison family: doting parents Frances and Anthony, sensitive Michael, pragmatic, big-hearted Nicky, idealistic Dorothy (not doted on as fondly by Frances as the boys), and forgettable younger son John. There’s also Anthony’s scandalous sister-in-law, Vera, and her daughter from an adulterous affair, Ronny (for Veronica—the book has a confusing plethora of nicknames), whom Michael and Nicky are in love with even though she’s theoretically their cousin. There’s suffrage, which the book treats as self-indulgent even though Sinclair, real name Mary Amelia St. Clair, was a suffragist herself; and modernism (Michael becomes a Wyndham Lewis-like modernist writer); and, of course, the war, which literally and figuratively tears the family apart. It’s a compelling story with some vivid characters, particularly Nicky, but in the end it doesn’t entirely come to life. Still, I can see how important it is–it’s a fascinating snapshot of upper-class England in mid-war, and Sinclair was paving the way for better modernist books by writers such as Virginia Woolf. In spite of its flaws, it deserves a wider readership.
20. August 1: The Theory of the Leisure Class by Thorstein Veblen (audiobook) (1899). I’d always imagined this book as an entertaining romp through the world of the privileged class–a sociology-book equivalent of the movie High Society. Wrong! It’s more like what would happen if an alien visited our planet and set out to explain bewildering phenomena like liveried butlers, football, corsets, and Christianity. And it’s dry. Here is a sentence that I swear I picked at random, rather than for its exceptional boringness: “The effect of the pecuniary interest and the pecuniary habit of mind upon the growth of institutions is seen in those enactments and conventions that make for security of property, enforcement of contracts, facility of pecuniary transactions, vested interests.” I’m not sure I would have survived the printed version. But letting Veblen’s words wash over me as I listened to the well-narrated audiobook with varying levels of attention was well worth the (relatively minimal) effort. It’s a brilliant book that changed the way I think about the world ca. 1900, and the world today.
21. August 8: Dear Enemy by Jean Webster (1915). This sequel to the better-known Daddy-Long-Legs, which I wrote about here, was written the year before Webster died in childbirth. It’s the story of DLL narrator Judy’s best friend Sallie McBride, whom Judy guilt-trips into giving up her vapid life as a Worcester, Massachusetts, socialite to run the orphan asylum where Judy grew up. It’s not as engaging as DLL, but it’s a fascinating depiction of the treatment of orphans and abandoned children in the early 20th century. Sallie, who originally plans to stay on for just a few months, gradually falls in love with her work (and with the asylum’s on-call doctor) and sets out to improve the factory-style upbringing of her 100+ charges. Like DLL, the story is told in letters, mostly to Judy, who is now married to her DLL pen pal/benefactor Jervis. He is now doing business in Central America and the Caribbean, including financing a railroad in Honduras, which, I can tell you as someone who has lived in Honduras, is not an admirable occupation. Also, Sallie’s doctor friend spouts eugenic theories that Webster apparently agrees with. Still, a worthwhile read.
22. August 11: Molly Make-Believe by Eleanor Hallowell Abbott (1910). Carl, living alone in an apartment in Boston, is seriously ill with rheumatic fever. His fiancée has decamped to Florida, saying that she’ll write once a week, maybe, if she feels like it. He comes across an advertisement for a correspondence service that will send a love letter every day (available in three varieties: shy, medium, and very intense), and impulsively signs up. The woman behind the letters turns out to be the original Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and it all plays out like you’d imagine. Still, Abbott’s harrowing descriptions of Carl’s miseries, the hilarious callousness of his fiancée, and the letter-writer’s wonderfully off-beat correspondence (one time she just sends two hats and asks him which one she should buy), makes this short novel a worthwhile read.
23. August 22: Roast Beef, Medium by Edna Ferber (1913). I was eager to read Roast Beef, Medium because I loved Ferber’s short-story collection, Buttered Side Down. And I did enjoy this episodic novel (clearly serialized in magazines) about Emma McChesney, a divorced mother in her late thirties whose passion is her work as a traveling petticoat saleswoman. Like Ferber’s short stories, it paints an evocative picture of early twentieth-century middle-class America and tells us, with both anger and humor, of the indignities faced by single working women back then. Emma’s adventures continue in the next two books, and I’m looking forward to reading them. Still, if I had to recommend one of these two books, I’d choose Buttered Side Down, because of the broader sweep of characters and locales.
24. September 9: Oh, Money! Money! by Eleanor Porter (1918). A novel by the author of Pollyanna about a middle-aged businessman whose fame and vast wealth haven’t brought happiness, love, or health. He pretends to disappear in South America, shows up under an assumed name in the New England hometown of his closest relatives, distant cousins whom he’s never met, and leaves each a provisional bequest of $100,000. The one who spends it the most wisely will become his heir. The story is slow in unfolding at the beginning–just give them the money already, Stanley!–but it’s fun to watch what unexpected wealth does to these ordinary people. I wrote about the book here.
25. September 24: Hermione and Her Little Group of Serious Thinkers by Don Marquis (1916). A collection of columns by Don Marquis, better known as the creator of the cockroach-and-cat duo archy and mehitabel. Hermione, an affluent young New Yorker, recounts her life as a wannabe Greenwich Village bohemian. She and her little group “take up” various interests–feminism and the war and transmigration of the soul–but she generally gets distracted and ends up talking about hats. A hilarious book that deserves to be better known.
26. September 29: Al Que Quiere! by William Carlos Williams (1917). A wonderful collection of early poems that feels like a stroll with the doctor/poet through suburban New Jersey, where he spent most of his life. “The domes of the Church of/the Paulist Fathers in Weehawken/against a smoky dawn–the heart stirred–/are beautiful as Saint Peters/approached after years of anticipation.” (The facsimile version I read, from Forgotten Books, is of reasonably high quality, though it does mix up the title and subtitle on the cover and includes a handwritten note above the Rafael Arévalo Martínez epigraph that says “Why the awful Spanish?”)
27. October 1: Twenty Years at Hull House by Jane Addams (audiobook) (1910). I thought that this memoir by the founder of the legendary Chicago settlement house would be worthy but a little dull. I couldn’t have been more wrong. If Addams hadn’t been a founding figure in social work, she could have been a novelist. A vivid portrait of Chicago’s immigrant community and of Addams’ efforts to create opportunity for its residents. This well-narrated audiobook was my most absorbing listen of the year so far.
28. October 18: That Rookie from the 13th Squad by Percy L. Crosby (1918). A witty and surprisingly modern-looking collection of cartoons about Dubb, a hapless private, by a cartoonist who went on to influence Charles Schultz. I wrote about Crosby and the Rookie here.
29. October 27: The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West (1918). Beautiful writing and iffy psychology in the story of a soldier who comes back from the war having lost all memory of the past 15 years. I wrote about the book here.
30. November 10: Dere Mable: Love Letters of a Rookie by E. Streeter (1918). Letters from semi-literate soldier Bill to his girl back home, full of delusional boasting (“I been made an officer,” he writes when he’s promoted–briefly–to corporal), digs at Mable’s family (“They have been learnin us a lot about gas attacks. These are not the kind your father has”), and French lessons (“A croquette is a French society woman”). Wonderfully illustrated by G. William Breck. I bought this on Amazon and it turned out to be an actual 1918 copy of the book.
31. November 24: The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington (1918). This novel, which won the second Pulitzer Prize in fiction ever awarded, chronicles the changing fortunes of the Ambersons, the leading lights of a city resembling Tarkington’s home town of Indianapolis. It’s an entertaining and well-written account of the time and place it depicts but is marred by the utterly unlikeable and uninteresting character at its center, spoiled brat George Amberson Minafer. You can just see F. Scott Fitzgerald (who reviewed an earlier book by fellow Princetonian Tarkington in the Nassau Review in 1917) waiting in the wings.
32. November 27: Eminent Victorians by Lytton Strachey (audiobook) (1918). Strachey, a member of the Bloomsbury Group, revolutionized the art of biography in these short profiles of one eminent Victorian I’d heard of–Florence Nightingale–and three I hadn’t: ambitious Catholic Cardinal Henry Manning, who schemed against fellow convert Cardinal John Newman; Rugby schoolmaster Thomas Arnold, who brought games, prefects, and piety to English public schools but didn’t care much about education; and General Charles Gordon, a religious zealot whose career of glorious military victories came to a horrifying end in Khartoum. As with Twenty Years at Hull House, I thought this would be worthy but boring but it turned out to be a gripping read, or, rather, listen. The audiobook I listened to, incongruously narrated by an American, was serviceable if not particularly polished.
33. December 6: The War-Whirl in Washington by Frank Ward O’Malley (1918). Billed as a humorous account of wartime Washington, this story of a fictional New York couple’s trip to D.C. in January 1918 is more like sitting next to a guy who goes on and on like, “And THEN our train was cancelled because of the coal shortage, and THEN it took an hour to get a trolley, and don’t even get me started about trying to find a hotel room…” (For all these reasons, plus the fact that the east coast was experiencing some of its coldest weather ever, a pleasure trip like this never would have happened.) And it’s full of (Republican) politics, clearly O’Malley’s but in the voice of “the wife.” They go to the House of Representatives on the day the women’s suffrage amendment is passed, and she dismisses this milestone as a frivolous distraction from the war. Still, there are interesting tidbits, like that Washington was dry and Baltimore wasn’t and the train between the two cities was known as the “Liquor Local.”
34. December 13: In Defense of Women by H.L. Mencken (1918). Mencken’s “defense” in a nutshell: women are hardhearted, practical creatures and men are moony, romantic idiots. Men marry for love and women marry the best catch they can find. Women are too sensible to care for idiotic male pastimes like politics, which is why most of them don’t support suffrage. If they do, it’s because they’re too old or ugly to attract a man. Mencken does make a few sensible points, like that it’s time to get rid of the notion that women don’t enjoy sex. (He can’t go into too much detail, he says, but if you want to know more you can ask a bachelor of your acquaintance–like H.L. Mencken, presumably). Overall, though, the book is hugely offensive. His defenders say it’s irony, or satire, but for something to be irony or satire the reader should be able to see the point the writer is making. Otherwise, he’s just being a jerk. This book sold only 900 copies when it was issued in 1918–ha!–but a significantly edited, apparently milder, 1922 edition did better.
35. December 15: One of Them: Chapters from a Passionate Autobiography by Elizabeth Hasanovitz (1918). The Atlantic ran several excerpts of this book in early 1918, which I wrote about here and here, so reading it was like reuniting with an old friend. Hasanovitz came to the United States from Russia as a teenager to escape anti-Jewish persecution, but life as a textile worker on the Lower East Side was just as brutal. She was often fired for trying to get her co-workers to unionize, or, if they were unionized, for insisting that her employers comply with labor-management agreements. Her health was ruined by the long hours and poor working conditions, and she was unable to attend night school as she had planned. During the “slack season,” she sometimes came close to starving. Having once attempted suicide, she was contemplating it again when a wealthy supporter of the trade union movement hired her to write this memoir. One of Them is not as well-written as Marcus Eli Ravage’s similar book (#16 on this list)–the dialogue often sounds like union talking points–but it’s an absorbing and illuminating account of a female immigrant’s life.
36. December 21: The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf (1915). In Woolf’s first novel, upper-crust English people go to an imaginary South American country where they sit around at the hotel talking and, in the case of the younger people, falling in love. Not much happens, but Woolf’s portrait of Rachel, an intelligent but badly educated young woman, is so compelling that it turned me into the kind of reader I hadn’t been for years–one who reads, absorbed, for hours to find out the heroine’s fate. Woolf hadn’t yet developed the experimental stream-of-consciousness style of her later books, and if I’d had to guess I would have picked E.M. Forster rather than Woolf as the author. The first 100 pages or so, which describe the ocean journey, seem like they’re from a different book (Mrs. Dalloway, actually–she and her husband are fellow passengers) and don’t add much to the story. But it doesn’t seem right to be critiquing this book in terms of its plot and structure. It’s Virginia Woolf, and it’s brilliant.
37. December 28: Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery (1908). I somehow missed this beloved classic when I was growing up, and I’m glad I finally discovered it. Some children’s books don’t hold up well as first reads for adults, but this one did, which make sense because it was originally published as a book for all ages. I threw myself into the story in a way I don’t much anymore, worrying about whether elderly brother-and-sister farmers Marilla and Matthew, who had asked for a boy to help with the chores, would agree to keep plucky (is there any other type?) orphan Anne. Spoiler alert: they do! I’d always imagined Anne as noble and long-suffering, but she is actually an irresponsible drama queen, which is much more fun. I’m glad I have more of her adventures to look forward to.
38. December 29: The Answering Voice: One Hundred Love Lyrics by Women, edited by Sara Teasdale (1917). H.L. Mencken said of this collection of “amorous strophes by lady bards” that the poems are “capitally chosen.” I was less charmed. The poems range from the mid-1800s to the 1910s, and there’s lots of “thee” and “thine” and rhyming of “saith” and “death.” But, especially after reading Mencken’s cynical take on women (#34), it was refreshing to read about women’s love in its many forms–ecstatic, unrequited, regretted, and fully lived. And it was fun to come across women I’d encountered over the year, like Nora May French, who committed suicide at the age of 26 at the home of Uncrowned King of Bohemia George Sterling, and Jean Starr Untermeyer, wife of poet/critic/anthologist Louis–both of whom, judging from their work here, are worth a closer look.
39. December 31: Renascence and Other Poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay (1917). I thought I’d close the year in a peaceful, cozy way with 24-year-old Millay’s first collection. Wrong! The 15-page title poem is about someone who suffers, dies, and rises from the dead, which I somehow just now realized is a Christ allegory. Written when Millay was 19, it won fourth prize in a nationwide poetry contest. Many, including the top two winners, thought it should have won, and a huge scandal ensued. (Oh, for the days of poetry scandals!) The next two poems, also long, are about the death of a lover (“Interim”) and a suicide who is condemned to hell (“Suicide”). The rest are less grim, but few are memorable. Louis Untermeyer, writing in The Dial, said that going to Vassar had destroyed the spontaneity of Millay’s verse, and he criticized later poems like “Interim.” That was my favorite, though, with its focus on the little details surrounding the death of a loved one: “That book, outspread, just as you laid it down!/Perhaps you thought, ‘I wonder what comes next,/And whether this or this will be the end’;/So rose, and left it, thinking to return.”
Finding decent-quality editions of 1918 books, especially the more obscure ones, can be tricky. If the edition I read is reasonably readable, I’ve included a hyperlink. Hyperlinks for audiobooks are also included. Most of these books can also be found on Kindle (often for free) and Project Gutenberg.