Quick: what do society portrait painter Cecilia Beaux, Canadian newspapers, and Alsace have in common?
You got it! They’re all super-manly.
Virile, that is.
For the most part, I’ve found that 1918 writing seems surprisingly contemporary. But I noticed early on in My Year in 1918 that certain words were used in ways that they aren’t used now. So I set out in search of the most 1918 word of all. It might be premature to declare a winner this early, but I don’t see how anything can beat virile.
Let’s look at some of the other contenders.
Race. In 1918, race didn’t just mean race as we know it—in fact, it rarely meant that. It meant nationality or religion or basically any kind of sub-group. It was used all the time. But how 1918 people used the word doesn’t say much about who they were—except to emphasize how inclined they were to divide people into groups. And to believe that membership in these groups determined their character. (Okay, on second thought that does say a lot. But not as much as virile.)
Wholesome. Wholesome didn’t have the faintly condescending connotation that it has now. To say that a book or a work of art was wholesome was meant as high praise. But the word had a whiff of the stuffy Victorian parlour, and the modernists sneered at it. Wholesome was headed for a fall. Just look at its Google N-Gram:
Virile, on the other hand, was in its heyday.
Why virile? Why now? First of all, the obvious: the United States was at war, and what’s more virile than a war? Theodore Roosevelt, Mr. Manliness himself, had said so:
No qualities called out by a purely peaceful life stand on a level with those stern virile virtues which move the men of stout heart and strong hand who uphold the honor of their flag in battle.
And virility was a virtue that had appeal for everyone. The old school liked its robustness. When Kipling won the Nobel Prize in 1907, the committee praised his “virility of ideas.” The modernists wanted to smash up the old order, so they liked virile too. In 1914, when the sculptor Henri Gaudier-Brzeska was making a bust of him, Pound said, “Make it virile.” Gaudier-Brzeska responded with this priapic work. Careful what you ask for, Ezra!*
Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, 1914
It was the modernists, in fact, who first clued me in to virile, back in February when I took offense at this ad for The Egoist, the British literary magazine where T.S. Eliot worked:
Little Review, February 1918
As for H.L. Mencken, virility was his middle name. (Well, actually, L. was.) The Los Angeles Times said that, with his “virile and ruthless attitude,” he had “done much to quash the effeminacy which for half a century has devastated our literature.”
Well, maybe not everyone liked virile. I imagine that Jewish men, who were stereotyped as unmanly (the word languid was frequently deployed), weren’t too fond of it. And the whole virile thing must have gotten old for women.
New York Times, January 12, 1918
Not all women, though. Take Miss Mary G. Kilbreth, Acting President of the New York State Association Opposed to Woman Suffrage, who complained that
a woman autocracy has been established in the national capital. Will the people tamely submit to the yoke? The French dealt summarily with women politicians after the French Revolution,** but the French are a virile race.*** Are we?****
Anyway, women can be virile too! Take portrait painter Cecilia Beaux, of whom The Art World said in March 1918, “Physically, professionally, this forceful woman and virile painter is at her zenith.” Here’s a painting by the studly Miss Beaux:
Ernesta, Cecilia Beaux, 1914 (Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Now for a few of my favorite virile things from 1918:
Malagasy working on the road from Ballon d’Alsace to Alfred, November 1917 (Charles Winckelsen)
As, thinking on these things, I passed the boundary stone into the virile landscape of Alsace, suddenly I recalled the huge American encampment my train had whirled past in France. (Ladies’ Home Journal, April 1918)
Antique Spanish furniture:
House & Garden, January 1918
It is so virile that it holds its own by harmonious contrast and so adaptable that it appears to complete advantage against either a severely austere or a richly elaborate setting. It is only when placed in a weak, namby-pamby environment that it is neither austere nor completely opulent that old Spanish furniture looks out of keeping. (House and Garden, January 1918)
Converting people to Christianity:
Young men are more ready than any other class of people to accept Christ when the offer is made simply, virilely, unapologetically, and without ecclesiastical slants and theological camouflage. (Literary Digest, April 6, 1918)
Literary Digest, January 26, 1918
In the larger cities of Canada are printed a number of strong, virile, influential Newspapers that give the people their daily news of war, of peace, of progress, politics and MERCHANDISING. (Advertisement, Literary Digest, January 26, 1918)
And, in fact, everyone in Canada:
Literary Digest, February 16, 1918
Right at your side door, separated from you only by a friendly and imaginary line, is a young and growing nation of virile people, who have more money to their credit per capita than any other race of people. (Advertisement, Literary Digest, February 16, 1918)
I’m off to find a fan to wave in front of my face. I’ll leave you with this virile poem:*****
Literary Digest, January 26, 1918
*Actually, he loved it.
**If this is a reference to Marie-Jean Roland, a revolutionary who fell out of favour during the Reign of Terror, then “dealt summarily with” means “chopped off the head of.”
***If only they were a wholesome, virile race, we’d have had a trifecta.
****To which the logical answer is, “Who cares what you think? You’re a woman.”
*****I think “hip pickets” is supposed to be “hip pockets.” Or maybe I’m missing some subtle 1918 wordplay.