Tag Archives: George Sterling

The Top 10 Posts of 1918

Just two days to go in My Year in 1918! After spending 2018 reading books, magazines, and the news as if I were living a century ago, I’m excited but also nervous about returning to the modern world.

Before that, though, I thought I’d count down the most popular posts of the year.

The Top 10 (well, really 11 because there’s a tie at #10)

Illustration from Daddy-Long-Legs, by Jean Webster

10 (tie). Dear Daddy-Long-Legs, Drop dead! In this February post, I reread the Jean Webster classic, in which an orphan writes to the benefactor who’s putting her through college. An aspect of the story that seemed charming to 12-year-old me struck me as creepy this time around. (No spoilers here, but I spoil away in the post itself.)

10 (tie). The best and worst of June and July 1918: Insanity, proto-flappers, and octopus eyes. This post, featuring one of my favorite magazine finds of the year, the American Journal of Insanity, the worst New York Times editorial I read all year, which is saying a lot, and Murad cigarette art, probably benefited from sitting at the top of the blog for two weeks while I was in D.C. being lazy.

9. My Year in 1918: Some thoughts at the halfway point. In which I ruminate about life as a literary time traveler, and about how checking out of the 2018 news has affected me.

8. Wish me luck on my 1918 diet! Surprise surprise—people like reading about diets. My Year in 1918 had its best week ever with this October post on how I tried to regain the silhouette of youth by going on a 1918 diet, spurred on by a group DietBet.

Marie Corelli

7. The bonkers world of Marie Corelli. During my very first week, I read a New York Times article about how British novelist Corelli, whom I’d never heard of,* had been arrested for hoarding sugar. A little digging turned up an article in the January 1918 issue of Good Housekeeping in which she rants about modern horrors like Cubism and Debussy and ruminates insanely on who should be shot like a mad dog and who should be involuntarily sterilized—my first, but by no means last, encounter with 1918 eugenic thinking.

6. The journey begins! My January 1 post, in which I announce my project and make several promises I will fail to keep.

Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, date unknown

5. The surprisingly ubiquitous lesbians of 1918: A Pride Month salute. One of the biggest surprises of my project was how many lesbian women I came across, either out (The Little Review editor Margaret Anderson), closeted (Willa Cather), or closeted except that it’s totally obvious if you read their poetry so it’s mind-boggling to a modern reader that people didn’t get it (Amy Lowell).

3 (tie). The best and worst of January 1918: Magazines, stories, thinkers, and jokes. The biggest head-scratcher on the list. I mean, I stand by it—it has W.E.B. Du Bois’s wonderful magazine The Crisis, and T.S. Eliot, and a G.K. Chesterton drinking game, and bad jokes—but I’m not sure what propelled it into the tied-for-#3 spot. The internet is a mystery sometimes.

Ladies’ Home Journal, June 1918

3 (tie). What’s Your 1918 Girl Job? Take This Quiz and Find Out! Don’t count on keeping your “war job” when peace comes, the Ladies’ Home Journal (correctly) warns. Set your sights on a realistic career, like teacher, saleswoman, office girl, or dressmaker. Take this quiz to find YOUR 1918 girl job!

Maud Allan as Salomé, c. 1906

2. Unmentionable vice, a secret German book, and a camarilla: The (looniest) trial of the century. This is the craziest story I came across all year, and that’s saying a lot. It’s about a dance production based on Oscar Wilde’s Salome and a libel trial spurred by an item about it in Member of Parliament Noel Pemberton-Billing’s right-wing newspaper, headlined “The Cult of the Clitoris.” Oh, and there’s (allegedly) a 47,000-member German-lesbian cabal. Except that the New York Times couldn’t say “clitoris” or “lesbian” so I had a terrible time figuring out what was going on.

And the winner

1. Are you a superior adult? Take this 1918 intelligence test and find out! This post didn’t do all that well when it was published in February, but its continuing popularity over the year won it the top spot. You, too, can find out whether you’re a superior adult (as opposed to, say, feeble-minded or deficient) by taking this 100-word vocabulary test from Literary Digest. Which is totally accurate, the magazine assures us, because being able to identify a cameo or a parterre or shagreen has NOTHING to do with your socioeconomic status.

Honorable Mentions

My Sad Search for 1918 Love. This post, in which I search in vain for a nice 1918 boyfriend, came in 13th despite having been published in mid-December.

Illustration by Adelaide Hanscom Leeson, “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam,” 1905, with George Sterling as model

The Uncrowned King of Bohemia: The fascinating story of a not-so-great poet. Almost as crazy as the Unmentionable Vice story, this tale of a bad poet, scandalous goings-on in Carmel-by-the-Sea, and much taking of cyanide performed spectacularly when first posted, but then faded and didn’t even make the top 20.

Dishonorable Mention

Thursday Miscellany: Mauvais français, trippy Kewpies, and loud loos. Don’t you always wonder what people’s worst-performing posts are? I do! My bottom ten were all Miscellanies or very early, kind of earnest, posts. The nadir, with TWO views,** is this one. It’s a pretty typical Miscellany, so I’m not sure why the hate. Although on second thought it IS kind of creepy, with kewpies, which always freak me out, and scary wall faces, and a toilet. You can click on the link if you feel sorry for it.

So What Does it All Mean?

Some takeaways: people like reading about loony bohemian goings-on and diets and lesbians and bests and worsts and explanations of what people’s blogs are about. And they love quizzes!

Well, all of you quiz lovers are in luck, because there’s one going on right now: a test of your Year-in-1918 knowledge. Enter by 1 a.m. EST on January 4 for a chance to win a book of your choice from the Book List!***

*Which seems inconceivable to steeped-in-1918 December me, since she was hugely famous.

**But you don’t have to feel TOO sorry for it, because numbers of views are kind of misleading. If you look at a post on the home page and don’t click on it, it counts as a view for the home page. So, to make a blogger happy, click on the link.

***For you people who say the quiz is hard—YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE—it’s not! It’s an open-book test, and with judicious use of the search bar a perfect score can easily be yours. One of the answers is right here on this post!

New reviews on the Book List:

December 28: Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery (1908)

December 29: The Answering Voice: One Hundred Love Lyrics by Women, edited by Sara Teasdale (1917)

Are You a Stagnuck? A 1918 Year-End Quiz (With a Prize!)

In 1918, Boni and Liveright, publishers of the Modern Library series, started running ads admonishing people, “Don’t be a Stagnuck.” The way not to be a Stagnuck: read every Modern Library book. Woodrow Wilson! Max Beerbohm! H.G. Wells! The Baron of Dunsany! And sixty-two more! A bargain at 70 cents each.

The Liberator, January 1919

But what was a Stagnuck? The world was clamoring to know. Or so claimed Boni and Liveright, which answered the question in another ad:

The Sun (New York), October 20, 1918

Ha ha! A Stagnuck thinks The Way of All Flesh is a sex book! That John Macy is the proprietor of a department store! Imagine!*

In December 1918, The Bookman reported in its “Gossip Shop” department that Boni and Liveright’s request for definitions of “Stagnuck” had yielded six hundred suggestions. Their favorite: “a person who thinks that George Eliot was the father of ex-president Eliot of Harvard.”** The publisher was printing a booklet of the hundred best suggestions, which sadly seems to be lost in the mists of time.

But don’t worry! You can still find out how much of a Stagnuck you are. Just take this year-end quiz on your 1918 knowledge. And there’s a prize!!! I’ll randomly select a winner from the correct responses submitted to the Contact page by 1 a.m. EST on January 4, 2019, and he/she will receive a 1918-era book of his/her choice from the Book List.***

Get out your pencils! (Which, if you’re a veteran of My Year in 1918 quizzes, you already know were not actually made of lead in 1918, or ever.) Good luck, everybody!

Studio portrait of Noel Pemberton-Billing, 1916

1. Noel Pemberton-Billing was prosecuted for:

a. Demonstrating sympathy for Germany by painting a blue stripe on a red, white, and blue pencil black.
b. Implying that dancer Maud Allan was part of a 47,000-member lesbian-German cabal.
c. Writing a short story about a young man who, about to be sent to the Western Front, sees animals mating and gets into the spirit with a local lass.

Harvey Wiley in his USDA lab (FDA)

2. Nutrition and food safety pioneer Harvey Wiley described what food as follows? It has in its composition more protein than has wheat flour, and about twenty times as much fatty material, and a considerable proportion of starch as well. It is, therefore, extremely nourishing and is usually easily digested.”

a. Chocolate.
b. Graham flour.
c. Meaty little pig snouts.

3. Alan Dale not only penned The Madonna of the Future, a scandalous play about a society woman who became a single mother, he also (choose all that apply):

a. Wrote the first gay-themed novel in English.
b. Won an Olympic silver medal for watercolors and drawing.
c. Was a Hearst drama critic, derided by George Jean Nathan for making puns like “‘Way Down Yeast’ ought to get a rise out of everybody.”

William Gibbs McAdoo, official portrait, 1914

4. In addition to being Woodrow Wilson’s son-in-law, William Gibbs McAdoo was (choose all that apply):

a. Secretary of the Treasury.
b. Director General of Railroads.
c. The Chief Magistrate of New York who said that, if called upon, he would rule that the play The Madonna of the Future was obscene.

Illustration by Adelaide Hanscom Leeson, “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam,” 1905, with George Sterling as model

5. Poet George Sterling earned the sobriquet “Uncrowned King of Bohemia” for (choose all that apply):

a. Founding the modernist journal The Little Review.
b. Living in a tent on Lake Michigan (with servants).
c. Establishing Carmel-by-the-Sea as an artists’ colony.
d. Having a partner, in work and life, who dressed as a member of the opposite sex.

Young Dorothy Parker, date unknown

6. Dorothy Parker published hate poems in Vanity Fair about which of the following? (Choose all that apply.)

a. Women.
b. Men.
c. Huns.
d. Relatives.
e. Actresses.
f. Farmerettes.
g. Slackers.

7. Joyous crowds poured out onto the streets of New York to celebrate the end of World War I on:

a. November 7, 1918.
b. November 11, 1918.
c. Both a and b.

Eugenics supporters hold signs criticizing various “genetically inferior” groups. Wall Street, New York, c. 1915.

8. Which of the following were enthusiasts of eugenics? (Choose all that apply.)

a. Daddy-Long-Legs author Jean Webster.
b. Marie Carmichael Stopes, author of the banned marriage manual Married Love.
c. Fired Columbia university professor James McKeen Cattell.
d. The American Journal of Insanity.
e. How to Live co-author Eugene Lyman Fisk.

The Bookman, January 1918

9. Which of the following were described as “virile”? (Choose all that apply.)

a. Society portrait painter Cecilia Breaux.
b. Alsace.
c. George Grey Barnard’s statue of Lincoln in Cincinnati.
d. Converting people to Christianity.
e. Readers of the literary magazine The Egoist.
f. William Carlos Williams’ grandmother.
g.  Canada.

10. Match the following people with criticism of their writing in the literary magazine The Egoist, where T.S. Eliot was literary editor:

a. John Drinkwater.
b. H. G. Wells and Arnold Bennet.
c. G.K. Chesterton.
d. Rebecca West.

1. “What interest can we take in instruments which must of nature miss two-thirds of the vibrations in any conceivable situation.”
2. “___________ says, ‘Hist!’.”
3.  “As a tale of human emotion it is altogether quite indecently unjust.”
4. His or her “brain swarms with ideas; I see no evidence that it thinks.”

Update 1/11/2019: And the answers are…

1. Noel Pemberton-Billing was prosecuted for:

a. Demonstrating sympathy for Germany by painting a blue stripe on a red, white, and blue pencil black.
b. Implying that dancer Maud Allan was part of a 47,000-member lesbian-German cabal.
c. Writing a short story about a young man who, about to be sent to the Western Front, sees animals mating and gets into the spirit with a local lass.

Answer: B. It was a man named Otto Bollmann who was arrested for treasonous pencil painting and writer/painter Wyndham Lewis who wrote the story that the Postal Service deemed obscene, leading to the seizure of the issue of The Little Review in which it was published. 

2. Nutrition and food safety pioneer Harvey Wiley described what food as follows? It has in its composition more protein than has wheat flour, and about twenty times as much fatty material, and a considerable proportion of starch as well. It is, therefore, extremely nourishing and is usually easily digested.”

a. Chocolate.
b. Graham flour.
c. Meaty little pig snouts.

Answer: A. Graham flour was an often-used substitute for wheat flour due to the war-related shortage, and meaty little pig snouts were featured in a Ladies’ Home Journal article with the headline “The New Meats that We Shall All Learn to Like When We Learn to Use Them.” 

3. Alan Dale not only penned The Madonna of the Future, a scandalous play about a society woman who became a single mother, he also (choose all that apply):

a. Wrote the first gay-themed novel in English.
b. Won an Olympic silver medal for watercolors and drawing.
c. Was a Hearst drama critic, derided by George Jean Nathan for making puns like “‘Way Down Yeast’ ought to get a rise out of everybody.”

Answer: A and C. It was cartoonist Percy Crosby who medaled in painting. 

4. In addition to being Woodrow Wilson’s son-in-law, William Gibbs McAdoo was (choose all that apply):

a. Secretary of the Treasury.
b. Director General of Railroads.
c. The Chief Magistrate of New York who said that, if called upon, he would rule that the play The Madonna of the Future was obscene.

Answer: A and B. The Chief Magistrate was a different William McAdoo. 

5. Poet George Sterling earned the sobriquet “Uncrowned King of Bohemia” for (choose all that apply):

a. Founding the modernist journal The Little Review.
b. Living in a tent on Lake Michigan (with servants).
c. Establishing Carmel-by-the-Sea as an artists’ colony.
d. Having a partner, in work and life, who dressed as a member of the opposite sex.

Answer: C. All of the other answer are true of The Little Review editor Margaret Anderson

6. Dorothy Parker published hate poems in Vanity Fair about which of the following? (Choose all that apply.)

a. Women.
b. Men.
c. Huns.
d. Relatives.
e. Actresses.
f. Farmerettes.
g. Slackers.

Answer: A, B. D, E, and G. 

7. Joyous crowds poured out onto the streets of New York to celebrate the end of World War I on:

a. November 7, 1918.
b. November 11, 1918.
c. Both a and b.

Answer: C 

8. Which of the following were enthusiasts of eugenics? (Choose all that apply.)

a. Daddy-Long-Legs author Jean Webster.
b. Marie Carmichael Stopes, author of the banned marriage manual Married Love.
c. Fired Columbia university professor James McKeen Cattell.
d. The American Journal of Insanity.
e. How to Live co-author Eugene Lyman Fisk.

Answer: A, B, C, and E. The American Journalist of Insanity was appalled by eugenics. 

9. Which of the following were described as “virile”? (Choose all that apply.)

a. Society portrait painter Cecilia Breaux.
b. Alsace.
c. George Grey Barnard’s statue of Lincoln in Cincinnati.
d. Converting people to Christianity.
e. Readers of the literary magazine The Egoist.
f. William Carlos Williams’ grandmother.
g.  Canada.

Answer: A, B, D, E, and G

10. Match the following people with criticism of their writing in the literary magazine The Egoist, where T.S. Eliot was literary editor:

a. John Drinkwater.
b. H. G. Wells and Arnold Bennet.
c. G.K. Chesterton.
d. Rebecca West.

1. “What interest can we take in instruments which must of nature miss two-thirds of the vibrations in any conceivable situation.”
2. “___________ says, ‘Hist!’.”
3.  “As a tale of human emotion it is altogether quite indecently unjust.”
4. His or her “brain swarms with ideas; I see no evidence that it thinks.”

Answer: A-2, B-1, C-4, D-3

*Feeling quite the Stagnuck, I Googled John Macy and learned that he was a Harvard University instructor, critic, and editor who helped Helen Keller with her books and married Keller’s teacher and interpreter Anne Sullivan. The three of them lived together for a while but Sullivan and Macy eventually separated. Ellen Key, by the way, was a Swedish feminist.

**I would think that even knowing the name of an ex-president of Harvard would move you out of Stagnuck territory. I went to college there, and I don’t even know the name of the president. (In my defense, they just got a new one, and I do know the name of the previous one: Drew Gilpin Faust, who I further know is not the protagonist of a classic German legend. I also know who the president of Harvard was in 1918: Abbott Lawrence Lowell, brother of poet Amy.) But, as I’ve said, the definition of celebrity has changed a lot over the past hundred years. In 1918, being president of Harvard was like being a late-night talk show host today.

***Subject to the availability of a reasonably priced edition of decent quality. (If I read an okay edition, I’ve linked to it.) If you live someplace outside the United States where shipping presents difficulties, I’ll come up with an equivalent prize. Please include your name, your city and state (or country) of residence, and your e-mail address in your submission. Answers are as they appear on the blog. If no one gets all the answers right, I’ll choose randomly from the entries with the most correct answers. But that shouldn’t happen because, like I said, they’re all right there on the blog!

The Uncrowned King of Bohemia: The fascinating story of a not-so-great poet

Illustration by Adelaide Hanscom Leeson, “The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam,” 1905, with George Sterling as model

There I was, thinking I was all done with bad mother poems, when I discovered the worst one of all, by George Sterling–in the same issue of The Bookman, as it happens, as I found hitherto bad-mother-poem champion Anna Hempstead Branch.

Until a few months before, The Bookman had been running a series called “The Masque of Poets.” I came in in the middle, couldn’t make much sense of it, and filed it away under Incomprehensible 1918 Things. But the “Masque’s” editor, Best American Short Stories founder Edward O’Brien*, had published a book based on it, and there was a review by Bookman poetry critic Jessie Rittenhouse.**

The gimmick in “The Masque of the Poets”: each month, The Bookman ran a few poems by famous writers, published anonymously. This wasn’t much of a gimmick, as Rittenhouse pointed out—it would have been more fun, she said, to have a contest where people guessed the poets’ identities. On the whole, she was lukewarm about “The Masque,” reckoning that the poets hadn’t submitted their best work. There were some pleasant surprises, though. Like George Sterling’s poem “The First Food,” which she called “poignant and intimate.”

Portrait photograph of George Sterling by Arnold Genthe, 1904

I was skeptical. The 49-year-old Miss Rittenhouse was a big deal on the poetry scene—secretary of the Poetry Society of America and former poetry editor of the New York Times Book Review—but, poetry-wise, she was stuck in 1865.

Here’s “The First Food.” Judge for yourself.

Mother, in some sad evening long ago,
From thy young breast my groping lips were taken,
Their hunger stilled, so soon again to waken,
But nevermore that holy food to know.

Ah! nevermore! for all the child might crave!
Ah! nevermore! through years unkind and dreary!
Often of other fare my lips are weary,
Unwearied once of what thy bosom gave.

(Poor wordless mouth that could not speak thy name!
At what unhappy revels has it eaten
The viands that no memory can sweeten, —
The banquet found eternally the same!)

Then fell a shadow first on thee and me,
And tendrils broke that held us two how dearly!
Once infinitely thine, then hourly, yearly,
Less thine, as less the worthy thine to be.

(O mouth that yet should kiss the mouth of Sin!
Were lies so sweet, now bitter to remember?
Slow sinks the flame unfaithful to an ember;
New beauty fades and passion’s wine is thin.)

How poor an end of that solicitude
And all the love I had not from another!
Peace to thine unforgetting heart, O Mother,
Who gavest the dear and unremembered food!

I know—creepy, right?

I was all set to file this away for use as Worst Poem of the Month when I decided to look into Sterling’s life to see whether by any chance he killed his father and married his mother. He didn’t, but his actual story is almost as weird.

Mary Austin, Jack London, George Sterling, and Jimmie Hooper (Arnold Genthe, ca. 1902-07)

Sterling was born in 1869 in Sag Harbor, Long Island, the first of nine children of a doctor who tried to get him to become a priest—which, as we will see, would have been a very bad fit. He followed his uncle to California, worked in real estate for a while, made a name for himself locally with a book of poetry published in 1903, and moved to the sleepy town of Carmel-by-the-Sea in 1905. Sterling quickly put Carmel on the map as a center of literary, artistic, and Bohemian life, earning himself the sobriquet “The Uncrowned King of Bohemia.” An exodus from San Francisco following the 1906 earthquake increased the town’s popularity.

Sterling was no exception to the rule that all the people we’ve ever heard of from back then were friends with each other. He was the protégé of The Devil’s Dictionary author Ambrose Bierce, who followed him to Carmel, and his best friend was Jack London***. Writers Upton Sinclair, Gelett Burgess, Sinclair Lewis, Robinson Jeffers, and Mary Austin and photographer Arnold Genthe were among those who came to Carmel for temporary or permanent stays. (Okay, I’d never heard of the last two.)

Cosmopolitan, September 1907

Cosmopolitan published Sterling’s poem “A Wine of Wizardry” in 1907, and Bierce proclaimed him the heir to Keats, Coleridge, and Rossetti. Many others begged to differ. There was apparently a low bar for controversy in 1907, because this one was huge. Meanwhile, things were getting pretty wild in Carmel. There were, or so rumor had it, nude beach parties, free love (gay and straight), wife-swapping, and opium dens.

Nora May French (Arnold Genthe, ca. 1907)

Then the tragedies began. In November 1907, Nora May French, a glamorous young poet who was staying with Sterling and his wife, committed suicide by drinking cyanide that she had obtained on the pretext that she needed to polish some silver. News accounts varied as to whether French had been sleeping in the same room as Sterling’s wife. (Sterling was away.) This, and tales of French’s nymphomaniac ways, increased Sterlings notoriety. Others in the circle also met sad ends. London died following a morphine overdose in 1906 (accidental, apparently, but there were rumors of suicide), and Bierce disappeared in Mexico in 1914.

Caroline “Carrie” Rand Sterling, George Sterling’s wife, date unknown

Sterling began drinking heavily. His wife filed for divorce in 1913, citing non-support, idleness, and dissipation. In August 1918, she too committed suicide by taking cyanide. Sterling began carrying around a vial of cyanide himself, saying, “A prison becomes a home if you have the key.” He finally took a lethal dose in November 1926, while H.L. Mencken was visiting him in San Francisco. (Yes, the Uncrowned King of Bohemia was friends with the Sage of Baltimore too. A volume of their correspondence was published in 2001.)

But let’s not leave Sterling on this sad note. He and his crowd had a lot of good times. Like when they were pounding abalone to tenderize it. This was the only time that it was permissible to sing the Abalone Song, which was composed mostly by Sterling, with contributions by London, Lewis, Bierce, Burgess, and others. There were many versions. This one is from Carl Sandburg’s 1927 folk song anthology The American Songbag:

From “The American Songbag” by Carl Sandburg, 1927

*Edward O’Brien had recently started a new feature in The Bookman called “War Echoes.” It generated a lot of mail, and the nearest post office in South Yarmouth, Massachusetts, was two miles away, so he asked the postal service to open a new post office closer to his house. And they did!

**The Bookman was incestuous like that. Rittenhouse’s first book of poetry had been reviewed in the previous issue—lukewarmly, which must have stung.

***Sterling was portrayed in two London novels that I never heard of, Martin Eden and Valley of the Moon.