Tag Archives: 1910s

My Year in 1918: Some thoughts at the halfway point

I’m halfway through My Year in 1918!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* Some favorite blogs and Twitter accounts:

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

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

Leah Budke on modernist anthologies (ModMarkMake, @modmarkmake)

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

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

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

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

Despina Storch: The sad fate of a woman of intrigue

Remember Despina Storch, the beautiful Turkish woman who was arrested by the Secret Service as the suspected head of a German spy ring and sent to Ellis Island to be deported?

Despina Storch, 1917 (Underwood & Underwood, N.V.)

She never made it to France. She died on Ellis Island on March 30, 1918, at the age of 23. The cause was pneumonia.

Or was it? Some suspected suicide, especially since two of her three accused co-conspirators, Elizabeth Nix and “Baron”* Robert de Clairmont, had also fallen seriously ill.

An immigration inspector denied the rumors, saying of Mme. Storch, “She made a brave fight for her life and every effort was made to save her. She was physically unable to overcome the ravages of pneumonia. I wish to state positively that she did not commit suicide.”

The suicide theory would have been plausible, though, since Mata Hari’s October 1917 execution by a French firing squad must have been on the group’s mind.

Mata Hari, 1906

Despina Storch’s funeral took place on April 1. Her companion and co-accused, the Count de Beville, was allowed to leave Ellis Island to attend, accompanied by his parents and a Secret Service agent. According to a report in the New York Sun, Beville “bore a plaque of roses and some lilies which he tenderly placed in the folded arms of the dead woman.” He knelt by the casket, praying, for two hours.

He murmured over and over again, and some say the words were “Forgive me,” and others, “Cherie, Cherie, and like French words of endearment.

Willis Music Company, 1918 (Library of Congress)

Outside, a “morbidly inquisitive crowd” milled around the hearse. When the coffin was borne out of the funeral parlor,

the chatter of the crowd hushed, and all that stirred the quiet was the music of “The Girl I Left Behind Me,” which echoed into the street, as the subway band, on an army recruiting bus, rolled through Fifth avenue, close by.

Mount Olivet Cemetery, date unknown

The Count and his parents accompanied the hearse to Mount Olivet Cemetery in Queens, where Mme. Storch’s “exquisitely carved white coffin” was placed in a vault. Beville “wept silently and cast a last look at the vault as he was led back to the car.”

Thus ended the brief life of the woman the Sun called “the most romantic spy suspect America has yet known.”

Despina Storch in Spain, Washington Times, June 16, 1918

*The New York Times was dubious about his claim to this title.

“I Am a Jew”: A story of assimilation and identity in 1910s New York

If all you knew about Judaism came from the 1918 mainstream press, you’d think that every Jewish person in the world lived in a colorful village in Europe or worked the soil in Palestine or sewed shirtwaists in the Lower East Side. You might see this picture of the De Pinna family, department store owners, strolling down Fifth Avenue in their spring finery in Harper’s Bazaar, but you wouldn’t necessarily know they were Jewish. Depictions of American Jews outside the tenements were almost nonexistent.

Harper’s Bazar, April 1918

Well, there was “The Little Mixer,” in the January 1918 issue of Good Housekeeping. In this story by Lillian Nicholson Shearon, little Hannah Joseph longs to celebrate Christmas like her Christian friends. Chanukah, in her opinion, is a poor substitute. “Mama, I’m so tired of tales about the children of Israel,” she says. “They never did anything funny.” She listens with envy to her family cook’s reminiscences about about Marse and ole Mis’ going to town and buying Christmas presents for all the slave children.

Good Housekeeping, January 1918

Hannah’s friend comes to the rescue, donning a long black raincoat and performing an emergency baptism. Hannah writes to Santa informing him of her conversion and instructing, “Bring me any nice things you got left.” Her parents find the letters pinned to the wall next to a stocking she’s hung. Her mother cries, but her father thinks it’s hilarious. “Every child who has heard of Santa Claus deserves to enjoy the myth,” he says. He rushes downtown, and, on Christmas morning,

it seemed that Santa Claus, never having visited Hannah before, had a mind to make up for lost time. An overflowing stocking hung from the mantel; a tree loaded with presents and tinsel stood by her bed; about the room were placed larger gifts, everything a little girl might look for.

Hannah searches for a way to express her thanks, and finally “bowing her little bronze head reverently, she made the sign of the cross—upside down!”

You know what? I have a feeling that Lillian Nicholson Shearon wasn’t Jewish. The author of the article “I Am a Jew” definitely was, though. We know this because the article, which appeared in the North American Review in December 1917, opens with a note that says:

Because of the intimate character of this poignant disclosure, the author prefers to withhold his name. It is, however, known to the Editor of the REVIEW, as is the writer’s authenticity as an American Hebrew.

Upper East Side brownstone, ca. 1911 (oldnyc.org)

The writer tells us that he was born into “that pallid and genteel limbo, an uptown side-street in New York City; one of those colorless and respectable streets whose denizens are neither rich nor poor, neither good nor bad, neither all Jews nor all Gentiles.”

For the Jews in this neighborhood, being Jewish was

the rock bottom of their lives, never to be blasted away. Yet hardly less fundamental was the conviction that it was well not to insist too strongly on their Jewishness; not to flaunt it before strangers; not to be “too Jewish.”

He was raised outside the Jewish tradition, but he longs to find his God.

I did not know the name of my God, but I knew that He was there. I did not know the prayers which the people of my race prayed to him; so I prayed the prayer which I learned from my Gentile nurse…I prayed in secret, even as my father had, in secret, refrained from prayer.

For years he drifts through life unhappily.

And then one day I met a Negro, one of the leaders of his race, in whose veins, mingling with the blood of Africa, there flowed some of the best white blood of America, and of France. He looked—but for his golden-brown skin—like those patricians of the seventeenth century whom Van Dyck loved to paint.

W.E.B. Du Bois, ca. 1919 (Library of Congress)

This man—who must have been W.E.B. Du Bois—had a great reputation as a scholar and a writer.

Had had chosen to live in France, where he would have been looked upon as an individual, he might have had a respected and a leisured life. But he chose America. He chose persecution. He chose the black blood in his veins, instead of the white.

Pushcart, Lower East Side, date unknown

He asks himself, “If a Negro is proud of being a Negro, shall not a Jew be proud of being a Jew?” So he goes to seek his people, on the streets of the Lower East Side.

In the thunderous murk of Allen Street I came to feel at home, and on Houston Street, and where the pushcarts of Bleecker Street form long, motley lines, and on East Broadway, and where the fish and vegetable vendors set up their stands under the East River bridges. The reek of pickled fish and pickles ceased to offend my nostrils. Nor did I turn my eyes from the dirty bedding and the dirty children hanging over rusty fire-escapes which made the hideous fronts of tenements still more hideous. They were my people. They were Jews—undiluted, unAmericanized.

Lower East Side, ca. 1915 (Library of Congress)

But it was not as simple as that.

I had been taught to despise them. I now learned to admire them.

But I could not become one with them.

They would not accept me.

To them I was a Goy.

Lower East Side, ca. 1910

He closes with words from the Song of Solomon.

I opened to my beloved;
But my beloved had withdrawn himself and was gone.
My soul had failed me when he spake
I sought him, but I could not find him;
I called him, but he gave me no answer.

I hope that somehow, somewhere, he found his people.

Happy Passover to all who celebrate!

Women spies of 1918

I was going to write about women artists in honor of Women’s History Month, but then I opened the March 19, 1918, New York Times and saw that women were hatching international conspiracies all over Manhattan. Change of plan!

First, this:

Two men and two women were arrested, the Times reports, for alleged participation in an international German spy ring. The principal suspect is Despina Davidovitch Storch, the 23-year-old Turkish ex-wife of a French army officer. The Times said of Storch that

she is in appearance a strikingly handsome woman, and in the year that she made her home at the Waldorf-Astoria numbered among her friends many well-known persons, some of whom it was intimated yesterday are not at all anxious now to appear to have been among her admirers.

Despina Storch, 1917 (Underwood & Underwood, N.V.)

Mme. Storch was arrested in Key West with a young Frenchman, the Baron Henri de Beville, as the two were preparing to flee to Cuba. The Baron’s father, according to the apparently sympathetic Times, was “broken hearted as a result of his son’s arrest,” and felt that his son was “a victim of the ‘charms’ of the Turkish woman.”

(This account of masculine helplessness comes from a paper that, remember, wasn’t particularly sympathetic to women getting the vote.)

The pair had been living a peripatetic life. They were taken into custody in Madrid in 1915 as suspected enemy agents, sailed to Cuba after their release, and went on to the United States. They had also lived in Paris and Lisbon, where they amassed bills of $1000 a month. Their equally lavish New York lifestyle attracted the attention of the American authorities, who also found a safe deposit box in Mme. Storch’s name containing “a mass of foreign correspondence and a code.”

Waldorf-Astoria, 1917 (Library of Congress)

Their alleged co-conspirators were picked up in New York. Mrs. Elizabeth Charlotte Nix, who, according to the Times, “is about 40 years of age, but looks ten years younger,” had received a $3000 payment from the German ambassador before he left the country when war was declared, but she denied that it was a spy payment. The principal crime of “Count” Robert de Clairmont, as far as I can tell, was his dubious claim to his title.

The Justice Department official who announced the arrests, Charles F. De Woody,* recommended that the four suspects be deported to France. The problem with trying them in the United States was that—oops!—the espionage law only applied to men. President Wilson had mentioned this problem in his State of the Union address, and Congress was taking action, but not in time to go after Mme. Stroch and Mrs. Nix.

Meanwhile, down in Greenwich Village, a very different sort of (alleged) German-sponsored conspiracy was uncovered.

Agnes Smedley, the twenty-six-year-old “girl,” was arrested with Sailendra Nath Ghose, a “highly educated Hindu” who was already under indictment in San Francisco, for fomenting rebellion against British rule in India. (Uncharacteristically, the Times makes no mention of Smedley’s level of attractiveness.) Their activities were allegedly part of a “worldwide German-directed plot to cause trouble in India” and thereby weaken British war efforts. They sought assistance from several Latin American countries (Ghose lived for a time in Mexico, under the implausible pseudonym of Sanchez) and from Leon Trotsky.

Agnes Smedley

“First women arrested in New York for enemy activities” might not be your idea of an inspiring Women’s History Month first. Well, then, there’s Annette Abbott Adams, the San Francisco-based Assistant U.S. District Attorney who spoke to the Times about the Ghose indictment. She would go on to be the first woman Assistant Attorney General and later a high-ranking California judge.

Annette Abbott Adams, 1914

The indictment against Smedley was eventually dropped. She spent many years in China as a sympathetic chronicler of the Communist Party, and wrote a well-regarded autobiographical 1929 novel, Daughter of the Earth. She counted a Soviet spymaster among her lovers. She died in England at the age of 58, and is buried in Beijing.

As for Despina Storch…stay tuned! (UPDATE: Find out what happened to her here.)

*Even the bureaucrats in this story have picturesque names.

Ulysses is 100!

The Little Review, March 1918

Happy 100th anniversary, Ulysses! This week, more or less, marks the centennial of the first publication of its opening chapter in the American journal The Little Review.

The reason for the “more or less” is that The Little Review wasn’t the world’s most prompt publication. The February issue, according to an announcement in the January issue, was published on February 10. Ezra Pound, who was the magazine’s foreign editor, wrote to Joyce on March 29 that the March issue was in print and thirty copies had reached him in London, so mid-month seems a reasonable estimate. (If anyone has a more exact publication date, please let me know!)

Not hedging any bets, the Little Review announced in its January issue, and again in February, that “we are about to publish a prose masterpiece.”

Little Review, February 1918

The Egoist also announced the upcoming serialization, but with British reserve rather than American braggadocio.

But The Egoist had to back out because its printer refused to print the issue.

Egoist, March 1918

So the Little Review had to go it alone.

The magazine’s editors knew they were taking a risk. As I recently noted, the October 1917 issue had been suppressed after the Postmaster General declared Wyndham Lewis’s story “Cantleman’s Spring-Mate” obscene*—a disappointing and expensive blow.

Little Review, December 1918

They knew that publishing Ulysses could get them into even more trouble. But they went ahead anyway.

Who were these people? I wondered.

Ezra Pound, 1913 (Alvin Langdon Coburn)

I knew who Ezra Pound was, of course. He was everywhere in 1918, working himself into a state of exhaustion as the foreign editor of the Little Review and Poetry magazine, an editor at the Egoist, and a contributor to New Age, another modernist journal. He wrote prolifically—sometimes at the expense of coherence**—for these and other publications, and did translation as well. And, oh right, he was a poet. It’s Pound who is best remembered as the creative mind behind The Little Review.

But it was the magazine’s editor, Margaret Anderson, who had the most at stake. She would be responsible for any criminal charges regarding its content while Pound was safe in London.

Margaret Anderson

Like a surprisingly large number of people I’ve come across in my 1918 reading, Anderson was from Indiana***.  She grew up in various towns, including Columbus (Indiana, not Ohio), where I lived for a few years as a child, and which is way less boring now than it was then. The rebellious daughter of wealthy parents, she dropped out of the genteel women’s college where she was being groomed for life as a society matron and moved to Chicago just as the Chicago literary renaissance was getting underway. She worked as a book critic for a Chicago newspaper and literary editor at a religious publication before joining the staff of Dial magazine, where she learned the ropes of magazine publishing.

In 1914, at the age of twenty-seven, Anderson founded The Little Review with financial support from Breeder’s Gazette editor DeWitt Wing, whom she met at a party. (Everyone who wrote about Anderson mentioned her physical attractiveness, which might have played a role in Witt’s impetuous decision.)  Money was always tight, though. Accounts of Anderson’s life make much of a six-month period that she and her colleagues spent living in a tent on Lake Michigan after she was forced out of her apartment—although most don’t mention the wooden floors, or the servants.

Anderson’s partner at the magazine, and also in life, was Jane Heap, a former lover of Djuna Barnes. They moved briefly to San Francisco and then relocated to Greenwich Village in 1917.  Pound joined the magazine that year. Its table of contents during that period is a Who’s Who of modernism.

James Joyce, ca. 1918 (Cornell Joyce collection)

Reading the chapter in the Little Review was my own first encounter with Ulysses, and it wasn’t as difficult as I’d been led to believe.**** I had read A Portrait of the Artist of the Young Man, and its main character, Stephen Dedalus, features in the opening section. Stephen and Buck Mulligan, his roommate (towermate, actually—they live in a former military fort), are bickering as they get ready for work. It’s not exactly Bab: A Sub-Deb, but it’s not any more difficult than some of the mannered, faux-archaic novels of the time.

Obscenity-wise, it’s pretty tame stuff, unless the sexual references went over my head, which is quite possible. The most risqué passages I could find were this description of a milk seller:

He watched her pour into the measure and thence into the jug rich white milk, not hers. Old shrunken paps.

and this song sung by Buck Mulligan:

—For old Mary Ann
She doesn’t care a damn
But, hising up her petticoats……

 Way tamer than “Cantleman’s Spring-Mate.” The Postmaster General apparently thought so too, and the March issue made it through the mail. The Little Review was safe—for now.

James Joyce Tower and Museum in Sandycove, Dublin, Ireland (YvonneM)

*A recap, in case you missed it: Cantleman, going off to war, sees animals rutting, gets into the spirit, does same with local lass.

**If you can make any sense of his overview of popular magazines in the January 3, 1918 issue of New Age—Part XVIII in a series—you’re a better 1918 reader than I am.

***Other influential Hoosiers: novelist Booth Tarkington, food safety pioneer Harvey Wiley, and folksy poet James Whitcomb Riley, who died in 1916 but was still much written about in the stodgier magazines. Janet Flanner was working as a film critic in Indianapolis but in a few years would step onto the national stage as the Paris correspondent of the New Yorker.

****Of course, I realize that this is like saying after the first mile that running a marathon is a piece of cake.

Wednesday Miscellany: Paper doll servants, a puzzling puzzle, and a bad ad

Look, kids! Paper doll servants to order around!

Ladies’ Home Journal, March 1918

Can someone help me out with this Illustrated Zigzag? STICT RICK SUES can’t possibly be right.

St. Nicholas magazine, March 1918

I wonder how many people had to sign off on this before it was green-lighted.

Harper’s Bazar, March 1918

Garish New York hotels are apparently not just a contemporary phenomenon.

Smart Set, March 1918

And finally, an Erté serenade.

Harper’s Bazar, March 1918

Oh snap! The modernists’ cringe-inducing criticism

The writers who were reviewed in the modernist journals of 1918 are all long dead. But, when I read what T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and their fellow critics had to say about them, I can’t help cringing on their behalf.

Take this review, in the March 1918 edition of The Egoist, of a collection called Georgian Poetry, 1916-1917. The reviewer, who calls himself Apteryx but is really T.S. Eliot, sums up the work of five contributors as follows:

Mr. Graves has a hale and hearty daintiness. Mr. Gibson asks, “we, how shall we…” etc. Messrs. Baring and Asquith, in war poems, both employ the word “oriflamme.” Mr. Drinkwater says, “Hist!”

Robert Graves (First World War Poetry Digital Archive, University of Oxford)

These few sentences give us a good sense of what’s in the poems. Under the circumstances, though, this criticism seems a bit cruel. Robert Graves, who would go on to fame as a poet, novelist, and memoirist, was a 23-year-old soldier in 1918. “David and Goliath,” written in memory of his friend David Thomas, is a reversal of the Bible story, ending:

‘I’m hit! I’m killed!’ young David cries.
Throws blindly forward, chokes…and dies.
And look, spike-helmeted, grey, grim,
Goliath straddles over him.

Maurice Baring, Wilfrid Wilson Gibson, Herbert Asquith (the son of the Prime Minister), and John Drinkwater were older, in their thirties or forties, but they were all in uniform except Gibson, who tried to enlist but was turned down because of ill health.

Alan Seeger

Even dying in the war didn’t spare a writer from The Egoist’s sharp scrutiny. The December 1917 issue included an unsigned review of a book of poems by Alan Seeger, who had joined the French Foreign Legion and died in the Battle of the Somme in 1916. Seeger, best known now for the poem “I Have a Rendezvous with Death,” was a Harvard classmate of T.S. Eliot, who may have written the review.* According to the Egoist,

Seeger’s poems are not unworthy of the attention they have attracted. The book has not much to offer to the small public which wants nothing twice over, but it has a good deal to give to the public which will take what it likes in any amount.

The Egoist was dismissive toward popular novelists. In a discussion in the February 1918 issue of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, reprinted from an Italian publication and apparently translated by Joyce himself, Diego Angeli says:

To tell the truth, English fiction seemed lately to have gone astray amid the sentimental niceties of Miss Beatrice Harraden, the police-aided plottiness of Sir Conan Doyle, the stupidities of Miss Corelli or, at best, the philosophical and social disquisitions of Mrs. Humphrey Ward.**

Across the Atlantic, The Dial, which wasn’t a modernist journal but had modernist sympathies,*** shared The Egoist’s contempt for popular novelists. You don’t really have to read further in B.I. Kinne’s review of Hugh Walpole’s The Green Mirror than the title: “If This Be Literature Give Me Death.” If you do, you’ll read that

Mr. Walpole’s most irritating fault is his adherence to the court reporter’s method of observing and recording. This is the fault of many of the contemporary novelists. It is their belief, apparently, that the mere writing down of lists of things, whether dishes of food, toilet articles on the heroine’s dressing-table, books and objects d’art on the drawing-room tables, or the furnishings of a room, constitutes vivid literature.

Hugh Walpole, 1915 (The Independent)

The modernist critics reserve their most scathing criticism for literary luminaries. In an article in the January 1918 Egoist on Henry James (whom he admired), Eliot writes that G.K. Chesterton’s “brain swarms with ideas; I see no evidence that it thinks.” Ezra Pound, also writing admiringly about James in the same issue, says of recent writing that

we may throw out the whole [H.G.] Wells-[Arnold] Bennett period, for what interest can we take in instruments which must of nature miss two-thirds of the vibrations in any conceivable situation.

The modernists’ criticism may be harsh, but, unlike H.L. Mencken’s, it doesn’t seem mean-spirited. Eliot and Pound and the other modernist critics took their work with tremendous seriousness. They thought that the ossified literary world of their time had to die, and that it was their job to kill it. They didn’t just rip into bad writing; they explained how it exemplified what was wrong with the literature of the day. And they had a vision of what should come in its place: modernist writing by the likes of Joyce, Wyndham Lewis, and of course themselves.

This wasn’t exactly trench warfare, but it had its risks. Eliot reported in the March 1918 Egoist that the October 1917 issue of the American modernist journal The Little Review had been declared obscene and seized by the post office, the offending item being a story by Wyndham Lewis. The journal’s legal complaint against the post office had failed.****

The March 1918 issue of the Egoist contained the following announcement:

 That is, no printer in England would touch it. But it was scheduled to be serialized in the Little Review as well.

Bigger battles lay ahead.

*He was also folk singer Pete Seeger’s uncle.

**See! I told you!

***It later became a modernist journal, and was the first place “The Waste Land” was published in the United States.

****The story was called “Cantleman’s Spring-Mate.” Naturally, I immediately tracked it down. Summary: a young man about to go to war sees animals rutting all around, joins in the action with a village girl, and feels that he has defeated death. (Except that makes the story sounds life-affirming, which it’s not. It’s modernist!)