Celebrating Children’s Book Week—and a pioneering librarian

Happy Children’s Book Week! This year marks its 100th anniversary.

This week doesn’t mark its anniversary, though—the 1919 Children’s Book week was held in November, as were all subsequent ones until 2008, when new management took over and the celebrations were moved to May. So I can’t tell you (yet) about the new children’s books the New York Times recommended in connection with the 1919 celebration.

Anne Carroll Moore at New York Public Library, ca. 1906.

Anne Carroll Moore in her office at the New York Public Library, ca. 1906

I can tell you, though, about Anne Carroll Moore, who was one of the founders of Children’s Book Week, and of children’s libraries as we know them. If you have fond memories of going to the library as a child—and if you don’t, you’re probably not a reader of this blog—then you have Anne Carroll Moore to thank.

I first came across Moore as the innovative critic for the Bookman who, facing a pile of children’s books to review for a December 1918 Christmas roundup, invited an actual child, Edouard, to look them  over. Edouard didn’t pull any punches. “I think my teacher would like that book because it seems like a geography trying to be a story,” he said of Mary H. Wade’s Twin Travellers in South America. I checked it out, and he was right.

Twin Travellers in South America, Mary H. Wade.

Frontispiece, Twin Travellers in South America, by Mary H. Wade

Moore was born in 1871, the eighth child and only surviving daughter of a Maine lawyer and his wife.* She dreamed of following in her father’s footsteps, and is the only person I’ve ever heard of to have been home-schooled in law. Her legal ambitions came to an end, though, when both of her parents died of influenza when she was twenty. She spent a few years helping to raise her brother Henry’s children after his wife died in childbirth. At his suggestion, she decided to become a librarian, and she studied at the Pratt Institute in New York. After graduating, she was given the job of setting up a children’s room at the institute’s library.

Children’s rooms in libraries are such a fact of now life that I never thought about anyone inventing them. It turns out, though, that until the early 20th century children were discouraged from using libraries, most of which, until Andrew Carnegie came along, were private. Often, you had to be 14 to use a library. Sometimes, you had to be a boy. When children’s rooms existed, they were generally little more than holding pens to ensure peace and quiet in the rest of the library.

Children reading in library, ca. 1910, William Davis Hassler.

Children reading in the reading room of an unidentified branch of the Queens Borough Public Library, ca. 1910 (William Davis Hassler)

Moore changed all that. At Pratt, and later in the New York public library system, where she served as the head children’s librarian for 35 years, she reinvented the children’s room. She installed open stacks, child-sized furniture, plants, and seasonal exhibits and scheduled story hours, puppet shows, and readings for children by famous writers (including W.B. Yeats). Moore was particularly passionate about making African-American children and children of immigrants feel welcome in libraries. In an era of “Americanization,” she insisted on stocking books in the foreign languages that many of New York’s children spoke at home. Dissatisfied with the quality of children’s literature, she championed talented writers. She was the first regular columnist on children’s books, writing first in The Bookman and later in the New York Herald Tribune and Horn Book.

Stuart Little, first edition, 1945.

Cover of Stuart Little, first edition, 1945

With many 100-years-ago personalities I come across, I end up with more or less a monopoly on them. If you Google alleged German spy/femme fatale Despina Storch, for example, you get Wikipedia, then me.** (I do, at least.) Moore, though, has been in the news quite a bit in recent years. New Yorker writer/Harvard historian Jill Lepore wrote an article in 2008 about Moore’s persistent-bordering-on-stalkerish attempts to get E.B. White to finish Stuart Little, followed by her efforts to make sure the finished product, which she hated, never saw the light of day. (She failed, obviously, but managed to keep Stuart Little out of contention for the Newbery Award, which is bestowed by the American Library Association.)

Nicholas: A Manhattan Christmas Story, by Anne Carroll Moore

Cover of Nicholas: A Manhattan Christmas Story, by Anne Carroll Moore

Lepore and others have highlighted Moore’s eccentricities, which, to be fair, were considerable. She had a wooden puppet named Nicholas that she took everywhere and often held conversations with, including in professional meetings. (When Harper editor Virginia Kirkus stopped by Moore’s office to ask why she was ignoring Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books, Moore kept turning to Nicholas and saying, “Nicholas, Miss Kirkus wants to know…”) Moore also wrote two children’s books about Nicholas. The first one, Nicholas: A Manhattan Christmas, was a runner-up for the 1925 Newbery Award, but this may have had more to do with Moore’s home-field advantage as a librarian than with its quality. It’s still under copyright so I couldn’t check it out myself, but here are excerpts from some Goodreads reviews (average rating: two stars):

“An oddly off-putting little book.”

“One of the worst books I’ve ever read.”

“Maybe it would be better reading at Christmas time, but I really don’t think so.”

“Very few people will live through the story unless it is an assignment.”

“Yaaaawn.”

Eventually, Nicholas was lost in a taxi, to the delight of Moore’s colleagues.

Slate book critic Laura Miller came to Moore’s defense in 2016, highlighting her efforts on behalf of underprivileged children and saying that she “changed the world of children’s books for the immeasurable better. She deserves to be remembered for that, and not just for her aversion to a certain nattily dressed mouse.”

Headline, From the Child's Holiday Books of 1918.

The controversies surrounding Moore’s later career were far in the future in 1919, though. So let’s leave Moore with her friend Edouard as they go through the pile of review copies for her December 1918 Bookman column.***

On Thornton Burgess:

“Is there a book here by Thornton Burgess?”

Without waiting for an answer he instinctively put his hand under a great pile of Boy Scout and war books and drew forth “Mother West Wind Where Stories” and clasped it to his heart.

“If I had a million dollars I would engage Thornton Burgess to write all the stories I could read.”

On Mother’s Nursery Tales, by Katharine Pyle:

Three Bears, Mother's Nursery Tales, Katharine Pyle, 1918

Illustration from Mother’s Nursery Tales, by Katharine Pyle, 1918

The picture of “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” is the only satisfying one I have seen. “She knows how to draw bears in a family”, was Edouard’s comment as he compared it with an illustration for the same story by another artist of which he said, “These bears are not a family, they are just colored to match the rest of the picture”.****

On Dream Boats by Dugald Stewart:

Dream Boats, Portraits and Histories of Fauns, Fairies, and Fishes, written and illustrated by Dugald Steward Walker.

Its delicate illustrations in color and in black and white made no appeal to him. Both in conception and in rendering this book seems to have been planned for an audience of somewhat sophisticated children.

On Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island, illustrated by N.C. Wyeth:

Illustration of Captain Nemo by N.C. Wyeth

Edouard wishes to own it for the sake of having “such a good picture of Captain Nemo”. He likes it better than the ones he has seen in the movies.

For writing like that—and for the many happy hours I spent in the library as a child—I’m willing to forgive some tone-deaf literary choices and a talking puppet. Thank you, Anne Carroll Moore!

*In 1919, Moore was still known as Annie Carroll Moore. Annie was the name on her birth certificate, but she had it legally changed in her fifties because—what are the odds?—there was another woman named Annie Moore who was writing about children’s libraries at the time.

**Unfortunately, you only get my post on her death on Ellis Island at age 23 and not the earlier one about her (alleged) career as a German spy.

***Her column didn’t become a regular feature until September 1919.

****I’m pretty sure the “Three Bears” illustrations Edouard panned were Arthur Rackham’s from Flora Annie Steele’s 1918 book English Fairy Tales. It’s just like Edouard said: the bears go better with the room’s decor than with each other. (On the other hand, I like the idea of a family of bears with a Van Dyck-style painting on their wall.)

Arthur Rackham illustration, The Three Bears

April 1919 Ladies’ Home Journal ads: a riot of color for spring

I’ve been busy with non-blog-related writing projects lately, and over Easter weekend I found myself feeling homesick for 100-year-old artwork. So I looked through the April 1919 issue of Ladies’ Home Journal in search of some springtime color.

I found it in abundance. With wartime paper restrictions lifted, the magazine had swollen to 190 pages, up from 128 in April 1918, and the number of pages in color had increased from 30 to 50. As usual, the best part of the magazine was the ads.*

The women of 1919 were hard at work, cleaning up their (or their employers’) homes,

1919 O-Cedar polish ad with woman playing piano, living room, and woman cleaning.

choosing summer fabrics,

1919 Lux soap ad, How to Choose Summer Fabrics, woman looking at fabric.

and cooking disgusting-looking food,

1919 Libby's salad dressing ad with illustrations of food.

1010 Argo cornstarch ad, illustration of cake.

maybe for a big party

1919 Columbia Grafonola ad with illustration of party.

at which people would stay all night, dancing to dashing music that sets a swift and joyous pace.

For more simple fare, there’s delicious-looking bread

Yeast Foam ad, illustration of three loaves of bread.

and Cream of Wheat.**

In an ad for Nashua woolnap blankets, the child is, for a change, not packing heat.

1919 Nashua woolen blankets ad with girl lying in bed with dolls and grandmother sitting on bed.

Soap and perfume ads feature rich people

1919 Mavis perfume ad, woman on stairs in mansion, footmen.

and Japanese people***

Jap Rose soap ad, Japanese women with parasol.

and the Middle Eastern oasis where Palmolive soap was born.

Palmolive soap ad, man with women in harem clothing.

Fairies leap out of cars

and flitter around****

Djer-kiss perfume ad, illustration of fairies.

and chewing gum ingredients appear to movie stars in crystal balls.*****

1919 California fruit gum ad, woman holding globe with fruit inside.

The war was over and the world was celebrating.

1919 Uneeda Biscuit ad with slogan Peace and Plenty, illustration of cornucopia.

Then I saw this ad, drawn by Coles Phillips.

1919 ad for Luxite hosiery. Woman with dress blowing, showing hose, standing with man in wheelchair.

It’s been haunting me, a reminder–in a hosiery ad!–that peace, for some, came at a terrible price.

Not to end on too sad a note, there were signs of social progress. The young woman in this Lady Sealpax ad leaps joyfully, wearing underwear that gives her “the same ‘Free as the Air’ feeling that ‘brother’ enjoys.” Cast off those corsets, so constraining to your golfing or nursing! The Roaring Twenties are on the way.

Lady Sealpax underwear ad, leaping woman in underwear under golfer, nurse, and other women.

*The best illustrations, anyway. There are also a lot of surprisingly feminist articles that I haven’t had a chance to read yet.

**The model for the photograph on the poster was, apparently, Frank L. White, who was born in Barbados and was working as a master chef in Chicago when it was taken. It’s still used on the Cream of Wheat box today. (I say “apparently” because, while he said in later life that he had posed for the photograph, his name wasn’t recorded at the time.) Some early Cream of Wheat ads doctored the photograph in racist ways or used racist language, but the photograph as used here is, for the time, an unusually realistic depiction of an African-American.

***Jap Rose soap had a racist name but gorgeous illustrations.

****I wondered about Djer-Kiss, the unusually named French perfume. Unlike Bozart rugs and Talc Jonteel, it isn’t a fractured French spelling. These people, who have given considerable thought to the matter, aren’t sure what it means either, although they provide interesting information about the Parisian company that produced Djer-Kiss.

*****This is, if memory serves, the first celebrity endorsement I’ve seen.

Banner with pictures of Helen Bogan, Helen Dryden, Josephine Turpin Washington, Mary Roberts Rinehart, and Susan Glaspell.

Celebrating Women’s History Month: Five inspiring women of 1919

Every month is Women’s History Month at My Year in 1918. I’m celebrating the official one, though, by taking a closer look at some women I’ve come across in my reading but hadn’t gotten to know very well until now. For each of them, I’ll share something she left behind.

The Poet: Louise Bogan

Louise Bogan, ca. 1920 (Curt Anderson)

Louise Bogan had an illustrious career. She was named to the post now known as the Poet Laureate of the United States in the 1940s and was the New Yorker’s poetry critic for over three decades. When she died in 1970, the New York Times called her “one of the most distinguished lyric poets in the English language.”

Bogan’s life was not an easy one. She was born in Maine in 1897, the daughter of a mill superintendent and a mentally unstable woman whose inappropriate sexual behavior contributed to the severe depression Bogan suffered from throughout her life. Her family moved to Boston in 1909 and Bogan attended the famed Girls’ Latin School. After a year at Boston University, she turned down a scholarship to Radcliffe and instead married a soldier. By the time she was 23, she had given birth to a daughter and separated from her husband, who died of pneumonia in 1920. Bogan lived in Vienna for a few years, leaving her daughter behind with her parents (!), and then moved to New York, where she spent the rest of her life.

In 1919, 22-year-old Bogan had already begun to make a name for herself. I first came across her work in the December 1917 issue of the experimental poetry magazine Others. In “The Young Wife,” she describes what it was like to be a woman in an age when premarital sex was forbidden for women and condoned for men.*

Here’s an excerpt from “The Young Wife.” You can read the rest here. Bogan didn’t include it in her 1923 collection Body of This Death, and it’s not widely known today, but it’s become one of my favorite poems.

Others, December 1917

The Artist: Helen Dryden

American Club Woman Magazine, October 1914

1919 was a golden age of illustration, and Helen Dryden’s cheerful, colorful Vogue covers were one reason why. Born into an affluent Baltimore family in 1882, Dryden grew up in Philadelphia and began her career as an artist there. She moved to Greenwich Village in 1909 and soon signed a contract with Condé Nast, where she worked for the next thirteen years. In later life (as I learned in a comment on this blog by fashion blogger witness2fashion) she designed Studebaker car interiors. At one point she was reported to be the highest-paid woman artist in the United States. By 1956, though, she was living in a welfare hotel. I’m not sure what happened in between, and there doesn’t seem to be a biography of Dryden. I hope someone will write one.

In the meantime, here are some Dryden Vogue covers from 1919.

Vogue, January 15, 1919

Vogue, February 15, 1919

Vogue, March 15, 1919

The Educator: Josephine Turpin Washington

The Afro-American Press and Its Editors, 1891

I first came across Josephine Turpin Washington when I read her short piece “A Mother’s New Year’s Resolution” in the January 1918 issue of The Crisis. Washington was born in Virginia in 1861, the granddaughter of a Louisiana man named Edwin Durock Turpin and a woman named Mary whom he bought as a slave and, according to a family memoir, fell in love with and married. Washington grew up in Richmond and attended Howard University, working as a clerk for Frederick Douglas during the summers. She taught math at Howard for a few years and then married a doctor and moved to Alabama, where she taught at several African-American universities and wrote on a wide range of issues of concern to the black community. It turns out that we’ll have a chance to learn more about Turpin—a collection of her essays, edited by Rita B. Dandridge, was published last month.

Here’s the beginning of “A Mother’s New Year’s Resolution.”** You can find the rest of the article here. My favorite lines:

I will live with my children not merely for them; since such companionship is worth more than divergent ways, marked by needless sacrifices on the one side and a growing selfishness on the other.

The Crisis, January 1918

The Writer: Mary Roberts Rinehart

Mary Roberts Rinehart, 1914 (Theodore Christopher Marceau)

Mary Roberts Rinehart is often called the American Agatha Christie, although she started writing mysteries more than a decade before Christie did. Rinehart was born outside Pittsburgh in 1876, the daughter of an unsuccessful entrepreneur who committed suicide when she was 19. She attended nursing college, married a doctor, and turned her writing hobby into a profession after she and her husband lost $12,000 in the 1903 stock market crash.*** In 1908, she published her first mystery novel, The Circular Staircase, which sold 1.25 million copies. Reinhart was amazingly prolific, turning out several books a year in a variety of genres—mainstream fiction, travel books, and short stories as well as mysteries. She also wrote several plays, including the 1920 Broadway hit The Bat.

First edition, 1908

Oddly, Rinehart was almost murdered herself. In 1947, while she was staying at her summer house in Bar Harbor, Maine, a chef who had worked for her for 25 years shot at her and then tried to slash her with a pair of knives. Apparently he was angry that Rinehart had hired a butler.**** Other servants subdued him, and he killed himself in jail the next day. Later that year, the house burned down in a huge fire that destroyed 250 Bar Harbor homes. Also in 1947—a horrific year for Rinehart, it seems—she revealed in a Ladies’ Home Journal article that she had had a radical mastectomy and urged women to have breast examinations.

I haven’t read any of Rinehart’s mysteries yet, but I did read, and love, her 1917 comic novel Bab: A Sub-Deb. Here’s the first page. You can read the rest here.

The Playwright: Susan Glaspell

Susan Glaspell, date unknown

Susan Glaspell first won fame as a short story writer and novelist, but she’s best known today as a playwright and as the co-founder, with her husband, of the Provincetown Players, an avant-garde theater group.

Glaspell was born on a farm in Iowa and moved with her family to Davenport when she was a teenager. After graduating from Drake College, she worked in Davenport for a few years as a journalist and then turned to writing fiction full-time. She quickly found success as a short story writer***** and published a bestselling novel called The Glory of the Conquered in 1909. After her second novel appeared in 1911, the New York Times said she was “high among the ranks of American storytellers.”

Glaspell fell in love with a married writer named George Cram Cook, married him in 1913 after his divorce came through, and moved to Greenwich Village. In 1916, she and Cook founded the Provincetown Players in Cape Cod, working alongside friends, including leftist journalist John Reed, to produce a series of innovative one-act plays. Always looking for material, Glaspell asked an acquaintance one day whether he had written any plays. He said he hadn’t, but a friend of his had. The friend was Eugene O’Neill, and the theater produced his first one-act play, Bound East for Cardiff, in July 1916. The group continued its work at the Provincetown Playhouse in Greenwich Village.

George Cram Cook and Susan Glaspell, New York Tribune, July 15, 1917

Glaspell’s success continued after her husband’s death in 1924. She was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1931 for her play Alison’s House. Her best-known work today, though, is the 1916 one-act play Trifles, which was inspired by a murder trial she covered as a journalist. As it opens, a surly farmer has been killed and his wife has been taken in for questioning. The county attorney and the sheriff are interviewing a neighboring farmer in the dead man’s house. The sheriff’s wife and the neighboring farmer’s wife have tagged along. The women make occasional comments about the murder suspect’s preserves and her quilting, and the men snicker. While the men are upstairs investigating, the women discover a dead parakeet, apparently killed by the husband. The investigators haven’t been able to find a motive, and this seems to be it. To protect the abused wife, the women hide the incriminating evidence.

Here’s the first page of Trifles. You can read the play here. (It’s really short!)

Trifles, 1916 edition

It was great to learn more about these inspiring women. But women’s history, like men’s history, isn’t just a pageant of hero(in)es. In my next post I’ll tell you about some 1919 women I’m not such a big fan of.

*Before this project, I had the impression that premarital sex for men was frowned upon in principle but tolerated. In fact, it was more or less encouraged, the theory being that men were physically incapable of abstaining from sex and were better off sleeping with prostitutes or loose women than marrying before they were ready to support a family.

**The Crisis often used swastikas in its graphic design—this was, of course, before the emergence of the Nazi party.

***As an MFA graduate, I’m envious of all those 1919-era women who turned to writing short stories to make money.

****Speaking of butlers, we have Rinehart to thank for the phrase “the butler did it,” which originated with her 1930 novel The Door. She didn’t use those exact words, but—SPOILER ALERT—the butler did do it.

*****Like I said.

Celebrating 100 Posts: 2017 Me Interviews 2019 Me about My Year in 1918

Happy 100 posts to My Year in 1918!* In the blog world, this milestone is traditionally celebrated by indulging in some navel-gazing. So I thought it would be a good time to finally sit down for an interview with 2017 Mary Grace, who had some questions for her post-2018 self. 2017 Mary Grace expected that this interview would take place around New Year’s, but 2019 Mary Grace kept dragging her feet. Once she finally sat down with 2017 Mary Grace, though, she was quite chatty.

Photograph of Mary Grace McGeehan, 2017.

2017 Mary Grace

Photograph of Mary Grace McGeehan, 2018.

2019 Mary Grace (well, November 2018, but I haven’t changed much)

Here goes:

Tell me about your favorites among the writers you discovered, the books you read, and your other reading.

Photograph of young Edna Ferber.

Edna Ferber, date unknown

I read some great books by famous writers, like O Pioneers! and My Ántonia by Willa Cather and The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf. But, as much as I loved these books, I had more fun discovering books that are forgotten today. One that I’ve recommended over and over is Edna Ferber’s 1912 short story collection Buttered Side Down. Ferber is best known today for the theater and film adaptations of her books, like Showboat and Giant. I wish her book themselves were more widely read. She’s funny and entertaining and empathetic toward her mostly working-class characters.

Cover of The Crisis magazine, January 1918, drawing of African-American woman with daisies in front of her face.

Among magazines, the biggest revelation was The Crisis, the NAACP magazine edited by W.E.B. Du Bois. It was the only national publication for African-Americans, who were non-existent in the mainstream press except as racist stereotypes. Du Bois was unsparing in covering lynching, discrimination, and other racial injustices, but the magazine also included poems and short stories and news items about achievements by African-Americans, such as 20-year-old college football star/singer Paul Robeson. And cute babies!

Photograph of T.S. Eliot by Lady Ottoline Morrell, 1923.

T.S. Eliot, 1923 (Lady Ottoline Morrell)

Another highlight was reading T.S. Eliot’s monthly literary criticism in The Egoist, the small British magazine where he served as literary editor. I’d never thought of Eliot as funny, but he wrote some hilarious takedowns of well-known writers (often under a pen name). My favorite, on G.K. Chesterton: “Mr. Chesterton’s brain swarms with ideas; I see no evidence that it thinks.”

What were your least favorites?

Photograph of young H.L. Mencken.

H.L. Mencken, date unknown

 Hands down, my least favorite book was In Defense of Women by H.L. Mencken. It’s 218 pages of essentialist garbage: men are dreamy romantics and women are hard-headed pragmatists, too sensible to care about ridiculous pastimes like politics or to bother with the picayune details of the typical male job. That’s why more women aren’t lawyers, he says. Oh, that’s why. Mencken does take aim against some Victorian shibboleths, like the myth that women don’t enjoy sex. On the whole, though, it was infuriating, and I was glad to learn that the 1918 edition sold fewer than 900 copies. (A significantly revised edition published in 1922 did much better.)

The New York Times was surprisingly awful. Domestic news coverage was all right, but, aside from a few war reporters, the best known of whom (Phillip Gibbs) wrote primarily for British papers, there was virtually zero foreign news coverage, and much of it—especially about Russia—was highly inaccurate. The czar and his family were repeatedly reported killed when they were still alive and reported alive when they were dead. And there were some shockingly right-wing editorials, like the one saying that German accusations of American racism were unfounded because Americans are very patient with their black servants.

My go-to hate read was The Art World. The magazine detested all art from Impressionism on, which, as I’ve mentioned, was as reactionary for its time as saying today that rock and roll is just a bunch of noise. This caption to an illustration of a Cézanne painting was typical.

Photograph of Cezanne landscape in Art World magazine, January 1918, with caption reading in part, to a normal mind significant of childish incompetence.

The Art World, January 1918

I kind of missed The Art World’s crazy rants when, in mid-1918, it merged into a décor magazine.

Were there any forgotten books or writers that readers of today might enjoy?

Cover illustration of Bab: A Sub-Deb by Mary Roberts Rinehart, first edition, 1917.

I’ve mentioned Ferber as an unjustly neglected writer. I also read a number of books that were a huge amount of fun without reaching that level of literary merit. One was Bab: A Sub-Deb, by Mary Roberts Rinehart. It’s a comic novel, told in the first person, about the hapless 17-year-old daughter of an upper-crust New York family. She’s always getting into scrapes, like when she buys a frame with the photograph of a young man in it and claims that it’s her boyfriend to shock her family, but then the man in the photograph shows up, full of endearments! Rinehart is better known today as a mystery writer, but Bab: A Sub-Deb was a huge popular and critical hit when it was published in 1917.

Cover of Hermione and Her Little Group of Serious Thinkers by Don Marquis, first edition, 1916.

Another very funny book, also about a young upper-class New York woman, was Hermione and Her Little Group of Serious Thinkers, a collection of newspaper pieces by Don Marquis, best known today as the creator of the cockroach-and-cat duo Archy and Mehitabel. Hermione and her little group “take up” every fad and fashionable cause—suffrage, clairvoyance, Indian philosophy, modernist poetry, etc.—and drop them just as quickly. Here’s a typical rumination of Hermione’s:

This war is going to have a tremendous influence on Art—vitalize it, you know, and make it real, and all that sort of thing. In fact, it’s doing it already. We took up the war last night—our Little Group of Advanced Thinkers, you know—in quite a serious way and considered it thoroughly in all its aspects and we decided that it would put more soul into Art.

 And into life, you know.

What was your most surprising discovery?

Cover of Dear Enemy by Jean Webster, first edition, 1915.

 I knew about the prevalence of eugenic thought—the belief in the purification of society through selective breeding—but I thought of it as a right-wing philosophy. So I was shocked to learn that it was embraced by progressives, including a lot of people I otherwise admire, like Daddy-Long-Legs author Jean Webster, a socialist. In Dear Enemy, the (deservedly) less well-known sequel to Daddy-Long-Legs, Sallie McBride (Daddy-Long-Legs heroine Judy’s best friend from college, who is now running the orphan asylum where Judy grew up) writes to the asylum’s doctor as follows:

You know, I’m tempted to ask you to prescribe arsenic for Loretta’s cold. I’ve diagnosed her case: she’s a Kallikak. Is it right to let her grow up and found a line of 378 feeble-minded people for society to care for? Oh dear! I do hate to poison the child, but what can I do?

On a lighter note, I always thought of 1918 as a time when the modernists  (the good guys) were facing off against the Victorians (the villains). There is truth to this, but a lot of modernist art and writing was just plain stupid. The 1917 collection Others: An Anthology of the New Verse, edited by Alfred Kreymborg, included verse by T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, and Carl Sandburg, but there was also this poem by Walter Conrad Arensberg:**

Text of poem Ing by Walter Conrad Arensberg, from The Others, An Anthology of the New Verse, 1917.

From The Others: An Anthology of the New Verse (1917)

Ahead of its time? Definitely. In a good way? I don’t think so.

What was the most difficult part of the project? What did you miss the most?

 I thought it would be hard to set aside the light but well-written contemporary fiction that I turn to for comfort reads—writers like Elinor Lipman, Stephen McCauley, and Meg Wolitzer—but I found so much fun 1918 reading that this wasn’t much of an issue. What I did miss was the journalistic entertainment that we take for granted—advice columns, quizzes, humor pieces, crossword puzzles and the like. With a few exceptions, like Dorothy Parker’s writing for Vanity Fair and Harvey Wiley’s Good Housekeeping column Dr. Wiley’s Question-Box, that type of thing just didn’t exist. (Three was humor, but for the most part it wasn’t funny.)

Header for Dr. Wiley's Question-Box, Good Housekeeping magazine, 1918, with instructions for submitting questions.

What was the most fun part?

 I loved writing the Best and Worst posts. It was fun to discover excellent writing, ads, and magazine cover art. Finding the worsts was even more fun. I’ll take the opportunity here to show this Life magazine cover, which I missed at the time but now belatedly crown the Worst Magazine Cover of 1918.

Life magazine cover, July 4, 1918, boy pointing toy gun at dachshund wearing German helmet, shadow of soldier with sword.

Life, July 4, 1918

What did you learn about the world of 1918? What did 1918 teach you about the world we live in today?

 One of my biggest takeaways was how central the role of social class was in 1918. We talk now—and rightly so—about the dangers of rising inequality, but back then social class (along with gender, race and ethnicity) determined every aspect of your life, from what you wore to who you married. In one story I read—I can’t remember what it was—an upper-class man is walking in the city and he gets depressed because, after an hour, he hasn’t seen another gentleman. It struck me as extraordinary that he could identify people’s social class with a single glance like that.

Drawing of the De Pinna family, owners of the De Pinna department store, wearing Easter finery, Harper's Bazar, April 1918.

Harper’s Bazar, April 1918

Someone asked me what would surprise a 1918 person who was transported to 2018 the most. I said they’d be astonished by how casually dressed most people are, and how similarly men and women dress. There are good and bad things about this—I sigh over 1918 clothes—but clothing as a marker of social class doesn’t exist in the same way anymore (leaving aside work uniforms like suits and ties).

Over the course of the project, I became much more appreciative of the world we live in today. Despite its many problems, it’s a vastly better place than the world of a hundred years ago. Of course, we’re the beneficiaries of hard-won victories by previous generations of activists on civil rights, women’s rights, and expanded educational opportunities. We need to fight just as hard as they did to ensure that we leave behind a better world than the one we inherited. Here, my views aren’t quite so rosy, particularly when it comes to climate change.

What did you learn about being a blogger?

Copy of My Year in 1918 blog header with five 1918 magazine covers.

A while back, I read a post by a successful blogger about increasing viewer traffic. The key, he said, is to write about the same things that everyone else is writing about because that’s what people want to read. Don’t think you can write about a niche topic and find your audience, he said—it’s not going to happen.

I’m glad I didn’t see this post when was starting out, because it would have discouraged me. And he’s wrong—I did find my audience. It might be small by his standards, and, sure, it can be frustrating to happen upon a blog post that says something like “I was kind of tired but I had some coffee and now I feel better” and see that it has 117 likes. But I can’t think of any other area of life with so few barriers to getting your voice heard and becoming part of a community. I’m not a historian, or an expert on 1918, but I had something to say, and people listened. That’s a wonderful thing.

How has your year in 1918 affected your reading life?

 As I’ve mentioned, I had a rocky transition at the beginning of 2019, similar to the reverse culture shock I used to experience when I got back to the United States from a diplomatic posting. It took me several weeks to go back to reading contemporary books and news. Now that I have, I’ve become fussier about what I read. Everything I read in 1918 had a larger purpose as part of the project, and I try to bring a similar sense of purpose into my reading now. I read less day-to-day news and more explanatory journalism. I read less journalism in general, for that matter, and more poetry. And I’m more tenacious about sticking with challenging reading, like this 800-page French book that I started four years ago and am finally close to finishing.

Cover illustration of La Valse Lente des Tortues by Katherin Pancol.

OK, it’s not Balzac

That said, I’m only human. The day I got back from my recent trip to Ethiopia, having taken six plane flights in eight days, I read five articles (here’s one) about how the cast of Crazy Rich Asians owned the red carpet at the Oscars.

Who was your most admired figure from 1918? Your least admired?

Portrait photograph of W.E.B. Du Bois, 1918.

W.E.B. Du Bois, 1918

Photograph of Jane Addams reading to children at Hull House.

Jane Addams reads to children at Hull House. (Jane Addams Memorial Collection, University of Illinois at Chicago)

For Thanksgiving, I wrote a post on 10 1918 People I’m Thankful For. Of these ten, I’d say that Jane Addams and W.E.B. Du Bois are my most admired.

New York times editorial headline reading Vardaman Falls.

New York Times, August 22, 1918

There were lots of villains. One of the worst is Senator James Vardaman of Mississippi. He was known as “the Great White Chief” and lived up to this moniker with comments like “the only effect of Negro education is to spoil a good field hand and make an insolent cook.” He was defeated in the Democratic primary when seeking a second term in 1918. Not for being a racist, though—it was because he had voted against the U.S. entry into World War I. The New York Times had this to say after his defeat: “Was he the victim of his own singularity, grown megalomaniacal, or did he simply overestimate the hillbilliness of his state?”***

What did you learn about marginalized voices from 1918?

Street scene, Lower East Side, New York, ca. 1910.

Lower East Side, ca. 1910 (New York Times photo archive)

I learned that the world “marginalized” barely does justice to how African-American writers and members of other racial and religious minorities were treated in literature. “Erased” would be a better word. Jewish immigrant writers were starting to appear, though, and I read two fascinating memoirs by Lower East Side textile workers—One of Them by Elizabeth Hasanovitz (whom I wrote about here and here) and An American in the Making by Marcus Eli Ravage. Along with Edna Ferber’s short stories, Ravage’s memoir is the forgotten book I most enthusiastically recommend to readers today.

Is there anything you wish you had done that you didn’t have a chance to?

 So many things!!! I didn’t listen to much 1918 music or watch 1918 movies except one short one. I totally fell down on the job when it came to 1918 cooking, partly because wartime food restrictions made for awful-sounding recipes. And I didn’t spend a day wearing a corset, as I planned to.

 How does 1918 writing compare to today’s writing? What was better? What was worse?

Cover of The Best Short Stories of 1918, edited by Edward J. O'Brien.

Short stories were big business in 1918, but, aside from Edna Ferber’s, they were terrible. I bought The Best Short Stories of 1918 but didn’t make it through a single one. A critic at the time complained that everyone was trying to be O. Henry, and he was right.

On the other hand, it was a golden age of poetry. Poets like T.S. Eliot and William Carlos Williams and Marianne Moore and Louise Bogan were just starting their careers. (Yeats was more established.) Of course, there was a lot of terrible poetry too. Sadly, I haven’t been able to find the worst poem I read, toward the beginning of the year. It was about little baby Judas’s mommy wondering why he was so tormented.

Cover of The Little Review, March 1918, with text reading Ulysses by James Joyce.

As far as fiction goes, Ulysses appeared in print for the first time, serialized in The Little Review, and My Ántonia was published. In non-fiction, Eminent Victorians and The Education of Henry Adams transformed how biography and memoir are written. All in all, I doubt 2018 will leave as great a mark in literary history.

What were some of the underlying, unquestioned assumptions that you found? How does that shed light on the underlying assumptions that we might hold today?

People = men was a big one. It wasn’t just the generic use of “men” to mean human beings. Writers defaulted to the assumption that their readers were men and that, basically, anyone who did anything of any importance would be a man. This was hard-wired into the language.

It’s not possible to know which of our current unquestioned assumptions will seem as antiquated in a hundred years (if it were, they wouldn’t be unquestioned), but I’m constantly thinking about what they might be. There was a New York Times essay on this topic early this year that I found fascinating.

Did you cheat? How, and how often?

I went into the project with some unrealistic plans that went by the wayside almost immediately. The original idea was that I wouldn’t read anything contemporary at all, other than the minimum required to be a good citizen (information about candidates in the midterm elections, for instance).

Portrait photograph of novelist Marie Corelli, 1909.

Marie Corelli, 1909

Then, on January 3, I read an article in the New York Times about the British writer Marie Corelli being arrested for hoarding sugar. I had never heard of Corelli, and I realized that I wouldn’t be able to write about her without doing some research. I looked her up on Wikipedia and discovered that she was one of the best-selling writers of her day, that she was the illegitimate daughter of the author of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, which I had heard of, and that she was probably a lesbian. Fortuitously, she had written a totally bonkers article about eugenics in the January 1918 issue of  Good Housekeeping, so I wrote about that too. The small amount of background reading I did made the story a much richer one, and it ended up as one of my top 10 posts of the year.

From then on, my rule was that I’d treat research the way Catholics treat lustful thoughts—they’re inevitable, but don’t dwell on them. I’d go to (usually) Wikipedia, get the information I needed, and get out quickly.

Once the guidelines were set, I was pretty good about sticking to them. I got news alerts on my iPad, so I knew what was in the headlines. If a news event was important enough that I felt I needed to know about it (like the Trump-Putin summit, the Kavanaugh hearings, and the midterm election results) I’d read an article about it—just one. No editorials, op-eds, or features. I did make some exceptions: I read blogs because it was only fair since I wanted people to read my blog; I read a few articles written by friends from my MFA program, like this one; and I exchanged fiction writing with a few friends. That’s about it. 99% of my reading was from 1918.

Did you come across any interesting (contemporary) people over the course of the project?

Cover of Women Warriors by Pamela D. Tonder.

Yes, I did. I’ve mentioned some of them before: history writer Pamela Toler, whose new book Women Warriors: An Unexpected History is waiting for me in Washington, D.C.; Connie Ruzich, who writes about World War I poets on her blog Behind Their Lines; Ph.D. student Leah Budke, who is researching modernist anthologies; the unnamed person behind the blog Whatever It Is, I’m Against It, who writes every day about what was in the New York Times a hundred years ago; Frank Hudson of The Parlando Project, who writes about poets, many of them from the 1918 era, and puts their words to song; and Sheryl Lazarus of the blog A Hundred Years Ago, who is cooking her way through the 1910s (putting me to shame). More recent discoveries include two wonderful fashion blogs, Femme Fashion Forward, Danielle Morrin’s blog about fashion from 1880 to 1930, and Witness2Fashion, reflections on everyday fashion through the ages . Getting to (virtually) know these people was one of the best parts of the year.

What’s next? Where will you take the project from here?

When I started, I envisioned this as strictly a one-year project. But, although I’m no longer reading only as if I were living in 1918, that period is like a second home to me now and I plan to go back often. So I’ll keep going with my blog, although I won’t post as frequently. At some point I’ll need to figure out what to do about its now out-of-date title!****

Do you have any advice for anyone considering a project like this?

Do it! I had high hopes for the project, but it was even more rewarding than I expected.

Portrait of Annie Sadilek Pavelka, the real-life My Antonia, and her family.

Annie Sadilek Pavelka and her family, date unknown. (A photo file that was really, really hard to reduce.)

But don’t let it take over your life. Once in a while, particularly during the first half of the year when I kept to a strict three posts a week schedule, I would be working late at night to get a post up, stressing out over picture file size reductions (something I spent way more time on than I could have imagined), and I’d have to remind myself that, hey, it’s just a blog.

Anything else you want to add?

Cover of From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsberg.

In E.L. Konigsberg’s 1967 children’s classic From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweilerone of my favorite books of all time—Claudia Kinkaid, who has run away to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, says that she wants to “come back different.” When I decided to spend a year in 1918, I wanted to come back different, too. But, like Claudia, I didn’t know exactly what this meant.

After my year in 1918, I know that period in a way that no one else in the world does. Not that I know more about it than anyone else–for example, many people were, unlike me, aware that they didn’t have helicopters back then. But no one else, I am sure, has experienced the year in real time as I did. And I have come back different, in ways that I’m still figuring out. It was a remarkable journey, and one I’ll always be glad I made.

Thanks for joining me.

Thanks for having me!

*If you want to get technical, this is actually my 101st post. I spent much of February traveling in Ethiopia and Zanzibar, which was a great way to celebrate Black History Month but not a very good way to write about it. When I got back to Cape Town I had to rush to get out my post on the first book about an African-American child while it was still February. That was my 100th post.

**Don’t feel too sorry for Arensberg. He was very rich and later became a prominent collector of modern art.

***There is a building at the University of Mississippi named after Vardaman. Wikipedia says it was renamed, but as far as I can tell this is in the works but hasn’t happened yet.

****As I was preparing for this blog in 2017, I asked my friend Emily, she of the DietBet, for advice. As a veteran of several location-related blog name changes (her husband is in the Foreign Service), she warned me against choosing a title that would go out of date. But did I listen? No. You were right, Emily! Her blog is now (and forever) named The Next Dinner Party.

New review on the Book List:

February 27: The Education of Henry Adams by Henry Adams (1918) (audiobook).

Harry Roseland illustration in Hazel by Mary White Ovington, captioned She stopped to listen to the riot of song.

The first African-American heroine in children’s literature

For Black History Month this year, I decided—knowing how few novels by or about African-Americans existed a hundred years ago—to look into whether there were any stories about black children.*

There was one, it turns out: Hazel, by Mary White Ovington, a white social activist. It was published in 1913 by the Crisis Publishing Company, which was associated with The Crisis, the NAACP magazine edited by W.E.B. Du Bois. (The first children’s book by an African-American writer was Mrs. A.E. Johnson’s 1890 Clarence and Corinne: Or God’s Way, but the characters aren’t identified as African-American.)

Photo portrait of Mary White Ovington, ca. 1910.

Mary White Ovington, ca. 1910

Ovington, who was born in 1865, was a socialist and a co-founder of the NAACP. Over her long career, she started a settlement in Brooklyn, studied employment and housing issues among African-Americans in Manhattan, campaigned for women’s suffrage, held several senior positions in the NAACP, and wrote numerous books on race and gender. Reading about Ovington convinced me that she was an admirable person, but it didn’t give me high hopes for Hazel. I figured the story would be worthy and right-minded but preachy and boring. The sole Goodreads review (2 stars) reinforced this preconception.

Advertisement in The Crisis for Hazel: The Story of a Little Colored Girl by Mary White Ovington, 1913.

Advertisement in The Crisis, November 1913

I was pleasantly surprised. Hazel has plenty to say about racism, but it’s also full of adventure and friendship and adversity and humor and all the things a children’s book should have.

Hazel isn’t your typical early-20th-century African-American girl. For the first decade of her life she lives in middle-class comfort in Jamaica Plain in Boston, the beloved only child of a lawyer and his wife. She goes to the Congregational church and attends an integrated school, where, Ovington tells us, she and the other black students are “staunch little New Englanders, with the same speech, the same dress, the same ambitions as their white classmates.” And check out Hazel’s picture in the ad, which also appears as the frontispiece in the book—she looks like a black person drawn by a white person who has never seen a black person.**

Then Hazel’s father dies and she and her mother move to an apartment in a poor neighborhood in the South End, where her mother works a hairdresser and laundress. When the story starts, Hazel has been experiencing health problems and her mother decides to send her to spend the winter with her husband’s mother in Alabama.***

Illustration by Harry Roseland from Hazel by Mary White Ovington, subtitled Granny.

Illustration from “Hazel” by Harry Roseland

The trip is an eye-opener for Hazel, who has never experienced racism. To travel in the same train car as her white escort, eleven-year-old Hazel has to pretend to be her maid. Once she arrives in Alabama, a pair of white sisters her grandmother, Ellen, does laundry for don’t know what to make of her, with her well-spoken ways and fancy wardrobe. They pepper her with questions:

“Is your pa living?”
“What does your ma do?”
“How is she buying you such clothes?”
“How long have you been to school?”
“Are you reckoning to stay here this winter?”
“Are you working for Aunt Ellen?”

After they leave, Hazel complains that, if her mother went to visit these ladies, she “wouldn’t ask about every teenty thing they did.”**** Her grandmother tells her not to worry about it:

“These people here are just naturally curious, sugar. Don’t you get put out at ’em…Nothing much happens except the hoeing of the corn and the picking of the cotton; and when a little girl with soft eyes and a pretty dress and sweet ways comes among us, we’s just naturally curious. We wants to see her and learn all about it.”

Illustration by Harry Roseland from Hazel by Mary White Ovington, captioned She still picked her cotton in the autumn...

Illustration from “Hazel” by Harry Roseland

Later in the story, Hazel gets lost and, with night falling, stops at a house to ask directions. The occupants turn out to be the same two ladies. “Sister,” one of them calls to the other, “here’s Aunt Ellen’s child come to ask her way, and if the little [n-word] didn’t knock at the front door!” But they invite Hazel in, marveling at her elegant little blue coat with a red lining. They ask her how much it cost, and Hazel says it was a gift from a friend of her father’s. The women tut with sympathy over her father’s death, saying that he was a “right nice boy.” When Hazel mentions that he was a lawyer, they say, “A [n-word] lawyer! That beats all.” They feed her coffee and biscuits and Hazel talks about life back in Boston. She’s planning to go to college, she says.

“What will you do with all your learning?” Miss Jane asked.

“I’ll teach.”

“[N-words]?”

Hazel did not want to answer, but sitting very erect, with a precision that would have done any teacher credit, she replied: “Everybody goes to school in Boston, every single child. And the teachers don’t ask whether they are black or white, or rich or poor. There are Turks, and Arabians, and (switching to the map of Europe as safer ground) Hungarians and Bulgarians, and Norwegians, and Swedians, (doubtfully) and Greeks, and Spaniards, and Romans, and Germans and Irish.”*****

“You don’t say!” exclaimed Miss Laura, “all those heathen!”  

Then Hazel, responding to another in the volley of questions, replies, “No, Miss Fairmount,” and is told,

“My name is Jane. You should call me Miss Jane.”

“Not Miss Fairmount?”

“Certainly not. It is impertinent in a [n-word].”

Hazel, who has had enough by now, says she has to go, and the ladies stroke her coat, tell her to come again, and escort her out the back door, where their servant is waiting to walk her home.

I had expected that Hazel would encounter 1910s Alabama racism at its most vile. After all, she had been warned by her friend Charity in Boston that “there’s two kinds of white folks down there: those that hates you and those that calls you ‘a cute little [n-word].'” This is as bad as the white people around her get, though. Her experiences with her black neighbors are more traumatic. The little Boston Congregationalist freaks out the first time she attends the local church, where the preacher, after a cursory description of heaven, depicts his parishioners

standing in the lake of fire and brimstone, burning, burning, not for a day but forever and ever. The flames seemed to leap up as the minister shouted: “And the devil will reach out for you, ye generation of vipers, he’ll reach for you across the flames, and he’ll catch you and draw you into the burning lake.”

“Lord save us!” “Please have mercy, Jesus,” came from the moaning crowd.

Hazel was aghast.

Illustration by Harry Roseland from Hazel by Mary White Ovington, captioned Scipio Lee. African-American boy in a field.

Illustration from “Hazel” by Harry Roseland

With her grandmother caught up in the service, Hazel tells her friend Scipio that she wants to leave. He takes her hand and leads her out, as the preacher shouts, “The heathen are burning, and every day the devil pours on fresh oil and the flames mount higher and higher to the sky.” (WARNING: THE UPCOMING EXCERPT INCLUDES DISTURBING MATERIAL.)

“Scip,” said Hazel with a quick breath, “do you believe in hell?”

“Yes, ma’am,” said Scipio.

“You don’t believe what he is saying? You don’t believe God will put us in fire to burn forever and ever?”

“I seen a lynching once,” Scipio replied. “It were just like that, they poured on oil.”

“Oh, don’t,” Hazel gasped. She seized his arm with her two hands; “don’t” she cried.

After a moment she whispered, “But it didn’t last forever. He died?”

“Yes, ma’am. He died.”

“And wicked men burned him, and it was only for a few minutes. God wouldn’t make him burn forever and ever.”******

Scipio is the antithesis of Hazel, the illiterate son of a drunken sharecropper. Hazel, who doesn’t go to school in Alabama, takes him up as her project, meeting him in a pine grove every evening for reading lessons. Often, he is often battered and bleeding from his father’s beatings. One day, Hazel sees him beating his younger brother and breaks off their friendship, but eventually all is forgiven.

In the end, Hazel returns to Boston, promising to return. As she and her mother head up to spend the summer in Maine, where there is money to be made shampooing white people’s hair, she receives a letter from Scip:

Dear Sister:
Aunt Ellen has took me in.
I am going to help her pick cotton when it ripes.
The cat is playing by the fire.
Scipio Lee

Handbill for Zeke by Mary White Ovington, 1931

Handbill for “Zeke,” 1931

In 1931, Mary White Ovington published another children’s book, called Zeke. It’s about a boy—Scipio’s younger brother, apparently, but not the one he beat up—who, with the encouragement of the adult Hazel, becomes the first African-American in his area to attend college. I guess I’ll have to wait another twelve years to see what happens.

Hazel might be considered more historically significant today if its author had been black, or if its heroine had been less privileged. Still, it deserves to be better known. I’m glad I read it. Much more than that, I’m glad it was there for African-American children to read in 1913.

*There’s the notorious Story of Little Black Sambo, of course, but that book’s history turns out to be complicated. Author Helen Bannerman, a Scottish woman who lived in India, intended Sambo to be Indian (hence the tigers). Here’s how he appeared on the cover of the original 1899 edition, which Bannerman illustrated.

Cover of The Story of Little Black Sambo by Helen Bannerman, 1900. Cartoon of dark-skinned boy with umbrella.

Cover illustration, “The Story of Little Black Sambo,” Helen Bannerman, 1899

It was only much later, notably in a 1927 American edition with illustrations by Frank Dobias (also used decades later in a wildly popular Japanese edition), that Sambo was depicted as African. The illustrations remain under copyright, but if you’re curious you can see some of them here.

**Which, to be fair, wasn’t the case at all. Illustrator Harry Roseland was a well-known artist who specialized in paintings of poor African-Americans.

***Going on a long, arduous journey being the universal solution to serious health problems in the 1910s.

****“Teenty” is my new favorite 1910s word. Here it is in a poem called “When Baby Slept,” by Hoosier Poet James Whitcomb Riley, best known for “Little Orphant Annie.” (Date unknown, but he died in 1916.)

WHEN weenty-teenty Baby slept,
With voices stilled we lightly stepped
And knelt beside the rug where she
Had fallen in sleep all wearily;
And when a dimpled hand would stir,
We breathlessly bent over her
And kissed the truant strands that swept
The tranc’d lids and the dreams that kept
When Baby blinked her Court and slept.

 *****This might be a teenty bit idealized. I went to college in the Boston area in the 1980s, and the educational system there wasn’t exactly a post-racial utopia.

******UPDATE 3/2/2019: Reading the post over, I realize that I didn’t address this aspect of the book sufficiently. While historically accurate, the lynching reference is too intense for a child of Hazel’s age, and for that reason I wouldn’t recommend Hazel (or this part of the book, at least) for a middle-school child of today. I’ve added the warning in the text of the blog to alert readers to the sensitive content.

And the best novel of 1918 is…

Photo portrait of Willa Cather, 1918

Willa Cather, 1918 (Aime Dupont Studio, New York)

Hi everyone, I’m back! During the first few weeks of the year I’ve been weathering a somewhat rocky transition from 1918 to 2019, posting beautiful images from 1918 on Twitter, and finishing the last book I started in 2018, which was also the best novel I read all year. Which is…

My Ántonia by Willa Cather!

Cover of My Antonia by Willa Cather, first edition, 1918.

First edition, 1918

That’s right—I went out on a limb and chose the book that people today regard as the best novel of 1918*

Screenshot of Goodreads top 199 book published in 1918, with My Antonia at number 1.

and that was already recognized as a future classic in its own time.

Photo portrait of Randolph Bourne.

Randolph Bourne, date unknown

In one of his last reviews before he died of Spanish influenza at the age of 32, Randolph Bourne wrote of My Ántonia in The Dial on December 14, 1918, that

here at last is an American novel, redolent of the western prairie, that our most irritated and exacting preconceptions can be content with…It has all the artistic simplicity of material that has been patiently shaped until everything irrelevant has been scraped away. The story has a flawless tone of candor, a naïve charm, that seems quite artless until we realize that no spontaneous narrative could possibly have the clean pertinence and grace which this story has…Miss Cather’s even novel has that serenity of the story that is telling itself, of people who are living through their own spontaneous charm.

Photo portrait of young H.L. Mencken.

H.L. Mencken, date unknown

H.L. Mencken was downright swoony, writing in the February 1919 issue of Smart Set that My Ántonia was “sound, delicate, penetrating, brilliant, charming.” Cather, he said,

has arrived at last at such a command of the mere devices of writing that the uses she makes of them are all concealed—her style has lost self-consciousness; her feeling for form has become instinctive. And she has got such a grip upon her materials—upon the people she sets before us and the background she displays behind them—that both take on an extraordinary reality. I know of no novel that makes the remote folk of the western prairies more real than “My Ántonia” makes them, and I know of none that makes them seem better worth knowing.

Both Bourne and Mencken were depressed about the state of the American novel in 1918. My Ántonia gave them hope.

Cover of The Magnificent Ambersons by Booth Tarkington, first edition, 1918. Man and woman seen through window.

First edition, 1918

Not everyone thought (or thinks) so highly of My Ántonia, though. The Pulitzer Prize for that year (the second one ever for a novel) was awarded to Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons. If you haven’t read it, take my word for it: Cather was robbed. The Magnificent Ambersons (which I wrote about herewas an enjoyable novel, but Tarkington’s portrayal of its central character was as hollow as Cather’s of Ántonia was masterful.** And My Ántonia didn’t make the Modern Library’s much-discussed 1998 list of the 100 best novels of the 20th century (although her 1927 novel Death Comes for the Archbishop did). The Magnificent Ambersons made the cut, barely, at #100.

Still, My Ántonia’s status as a classic is unquestioned. For that reason, I struggled with how to write about it. The danger about writing about a recognized masterpiece is that you’ll end up sounding like you’re doing a high school homework assignment. In the end I decided to write about some things I learned about the book while reading it and reading about it (which I’m allowed to do now that I’m freed from the reading-in-1918 strictures). I learned a lot, as it turned out, so I’m splitting the discussion into two (or more) posts.

Photograph of Willa Cather's family home in Red Cloud, Nebraska.

Willa Cather’s family home in Red Cloud, 2010 (Ammodramus)

First, a summary of the book in case you haven’t read it, or haven’t read it in a while (as I hadn’t–I first read it when I was nineteen or so and remembered literally nothing except that it took place on the prairie). The story is narrated by Jim Burden, who moves to his grandparents’ Nebraska farm from Virginia after being orphaned at age ten. He arrives on the same train as a family of Bohemian immigrants, the Shimerdas. Ántonia Shimerda, four years older, becomes Jim’s inseparable companion. Their friendship continues when Jim’s grandparents move to town a few years later and Ántonia starts working for a neighboring family, the Harlings. The story doesn’t have much of a plot; the most dramatic incident is the suicide fairly early on of Ántonia’s father, a soulful musician ill-suited for hardscrabble farm life. Jim goes to college and Ántonia gets engaged to a railroad employee who abandons her, leaving her an unwed mother. The book ends with Jim, now a successful New York lawyer but unhappily married and childless, returning to Nebraska after a twenty-year absence and visiting Ántonia and her large, affectionate family.

Now for the things that I didn’t know about My Ántonia: 

The accent is on the first syllable of Ántonia.

Footnote from My Antonia explaining that the name Antonia is accented on the first syllable.

My Ántonia, 1918 edition, p. 3

This isn’t exactly a closely held secret. The accent mark is a dead giveaway, for one thing. And there’s a footnote on the first page of the first chapter explaining exactly how to pronounce it. But, like everyone else who knows enough not to pronounce it like anTOneea, I’ve been saying antonEEa all these years. If you want to go around saying, “Well, ACTUALLY, it’s…” you can hear the correct pronunciation here.

Ántonia was a real person.

Photograph of Anna Sadile Pavelka, the real-life My Antonia.

Anna Sadile Pavelka, date unknown

I wondered as I read My Ántonia whether it was based on a true story. It had the ring of truth, and not just in the way that good novels seem real. There was also Cather’s tendency to paint vivid portraits of secondary characters, like Nina Harling and Jim’s college teacher Gaston Cleric, and then not do much with them. It didn’t seem that she would have bothered to portray them at this level of detail if they weren’t real people.

My Ántonia is, it turns out, closely based on events in Cather’s life. She moved from Virginia to Nebraska with her parents when she was nine. Like Jim, she moved from a farm to the nearby town (Black Hawk in the book, Red Cloud in real life) later in her childhood. The real Ántonia was Anna (Annie) Sadile, who worked for Cather’s close friends the Miners, the inspiration for the Harling family. (My Ántonia is dedicated to Carrie and Irene Miner.) Annie’s father, like Ántonia’s, shot himself and was buried at the crossroads of the family farm. Annie, like Ántonia, was impregnated and abandoned by a railway worker. She later married a Bohemian man named John Pavelka and had a large family.

Photo portrait of Anna Sadilek Pavelka, the real-life My Antonia, and her family.

Anna Sadilek Pavelka and her family, date unknown

Jim’s later life parallels Cather’s too, although more loosely. Both attended the University of Nebraska, and both went on to have successful careers in New York. Cather, like Jim, returned to Nebraska after many years, reconnected with her old friend, and got to know her family.

After My Ántonia was published, Annie and her family proudly acknowledged that she was the original Ántonia. John Pavelka used to  introduce himself as “the husband of My Ántonia,” and one of her sons*** would say, until he was an old man, “I’m Leo, the mischievous one.” In 1955, at the age of 86, Annie wrote to a schoolgirl telling her that “most all is true that you read in the Book thoug most of the names are changed.”

Annie died not long after she wrote that letter. Her life wasn’t easy, but it seems to have been happy.

Next I’ll write about a major change that Cather made to My Ántonia when it was republished in 1926.

*This list isn’t a particularly good reflection of what people were reading in 1918. The Elements of Style, #2 on the list, was written by Cornell Professor William Strunk Jr. in 1918 as a brief pamphlet, but it wasn’t published (privately, for the use of students) until 1919. The Strunk and White version we know today was published in 1959, after Strunk’s death. Also, the #10 book on the list is La educación de Henry Adams.

**Cather did win the Pulitzer in 1922, though, for One of Ours. Have you read it? Me neither.

***If Cliff’s Notes can be believed, anyway. I couldn’t find this anecdote anywhere else.

Still more beautiful images–but there will be words soon!

Happy February! I can say this without irony because I live in the southern hemisphere, where it’s like this:

Photograph of beach in Muizenberg, Cape Town, South Africa.

I had a rocky entry into 2019. I had fantasized about all the great new books I’d be able to read once I rejoined the 21st century, but when January 1 rolled around I couldn’t stop reading as if I were living in 1918. The whole idea just freaked me out. It was like reverse culture shock when you return home from overseas, which anyone who’s experienced it can tell you is the worst kind of culture shock. Then there was a transition period when I read “The Waste Land” and other non-contemporary but post-1918 poetry. Now I’ve (mostly) gotten over it and am happily reading Stephen McCauley’s 2018 novel My Ex-Life. In the meantime, I just finished the last 1918 book that I started in 2018 (although I’m still listening to the audiobook of The Education of Henry Adams). As soon as I read the last page, I metaphorically jumped up and said, “I’m ready to go back to blogging!” (Real blogging, not just posting pictures like this.) And I will soon. In the meantime, here are more of the images I’ve posted on Twitter during the hiatus.

During WWI, Americans were warned to “Hooverize,” or conserve food. (The future president was the “Food Czar” and a huge celebrity.) This poster by John Sheridan was one reminder.

Poster by John Sheridan, 1918, showing basket of vegetables in front of and soldiers. Caption: Food is Ammunition: Don't waste it.

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

For those of you suffering through the cold spell in the U.S., here’s a reminder of spring from The Liberator’s wonderful Hugo Gellert.

May 1918 Liberator cover by Hugo Gellert. Illustration of jumping deer on abstract background.

Variations on a theme, February 1918: Helen Dryden (Vogue) and Erté (Harper’s Bazar).

February 1918 Vogue cover by Helen Dryden. Illustration of woman in pink hoop-skirt dress looking in mirror.

February 1918 Harper's Bazar cover by Erté. Masked woman with man hiding inside her hoop skirt.

The Crisis, the NAACP magazine edited by W.E.B. Du Bois, took on discrimination and lynching and other horrors, but it was black America’s community newspaper too. There was an annual children’s issue, with lots of pictures of cute babies. Here are some from October 1918.*

Photographs of nine babies in October 1918 issue of The Crisis.

Another luminous William Edouard Scott painting, on the cover of the December 1918 issue of The Crisis. In his editorial, W.E.B. Du Bois poetically identifies African-Americans’ flight north with Joseph and Mary’s flight to Egypt.

The Crisis cover, December 1918. William Edouard Smith painting The Flight into Egypt. African-American family in field.

See you soon!

*Surprise surprise: people love cute babies. This was by far my most popular tweet of the week, although not as popular as the constipation ad.