Tag Archives: H.G. Wells

My Sad Search for 1918 Love

After almost a year in 1918, I have yet to find a decent man.

If I were gay, I’d have it made—this was the golden age of (if not for) lesbian women. Amy Lowell! Willa Cather! Little Review editor Margaret Anderson! Dancer Maud Allan! Plus lots of probablys like Jane Addams and Edna Ferber. But no, I’m stuck with men.

Walter Lippmann (Pirie MacDonald, 1914)

Back in January, I checked out two prospects*, H.L. Mencken and Walter Lippmann. Mencken’s denunciation of American Puritanism and hypocrisy appealed to me, but then he started going on about the Jews and [n-word] republics and I was over him. Lippmann seemed stodgy at first, but he won me over by sneaking a bunch of double-entendres into a sober discussion on prostitution in his 1912 book A Preface to Politics.

But then he disappeared, as seemingly good men often do. Having left the New Republic to head up the War Department’s propaganda office in Paris, he was almost invisible in 1918. The only traces of him I could find (aside from a swipe from Mencken about his “sonorous rhapsodies”) were two New York Times articles from right before the armistice about an operation he was running to drop leaflets over Germany.

New York Times, November 9, 1918

So my search continued. After ruling out men who

I was left with ten men worth a closer look.

T.S. Eliot

T.S. Eliot (E.O. Hopp, 1919)

T.S. Eliot was my first 1918 love, way back in the eighties, when the internet wasn’t invented so people had to entertain themselves by memorizing The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. Or maybe that was just me. You can disturb MY universe any time, T.S., I would say to myself. Even then, though, there were warning signs. Like how in the very next poem he’s hanging out with an older woman and wondering if he would have a right to smile if she died. But what can I say? I was twenty-two.

As I read more Eliot, and learned more about him, disillusionment set in. For a lot of reasons, but the anti-semitism alone would have been enough. It’s evident already in 1918, in the poem “Sweeney Among the Nightingales,” published in the September 1918 issue of The Little Review.***

Good-bye, T.S.!

George Jean Nathan

George Jean Nathan, date unknown

If Mencken wasn’t the guy for me, what about George Jean Nathan, his best pal and Smart Set co-editor, who was also the preeminent drama critic of his time? Smart and funny and urbane, and an excellent source of theater tickets.

Digging around to find out whether he shared Mencken’s anti-semitism, I learned that he was part Jewish himself—and that he went to great lengths to hide this. Which would be a deal-breaker today, but those were different times. Case in point: movie star Lilian Gish, whom Nathan was madly in love with, supposedly broke up with him when she learned of his Jewish roots.

But have you seen All About Eve? If so, do you remember the poisonous middle-aged critic who was squiring around 24-year-old Marilyn Monroe? Turns out he was based on Nathan.

Good-bye, George!

Alan Dale

Alan Dale and his daughter Marjorie, 1900 (Library of Congress)

More than anything else I’ve written about this year, the story of Alan Dale’s play The Madonna of the Future has stuck with me. A Broadway play about a society woman who becomes a single mother by choice and acts like it’s no big deal? In 1918? How could this be? (Well, it wasn’t for long—facing obscenity complaints, the play closed after a month or so.) I was intrigued. Who was this Alan Dale person?

The hackiest of Broadway hacks, as it turns out. According to Nathan, the British-born Hearst drama critic (real name Alfred Cohen) perpetrated

the sort of humor…whose stock company has been made up largely of bad puns, the spelling of girl as “gell,” the surrounding of every fourth word with quotation marks, such bits as “legs—er, oh I beg your pahdon—I should say ‘limbs’,” a frequent allusion to prunes and to pinochle, and an employment of such terms as “scrumptious” and “bong-tong.”

I couldn’t be with someone who said “bong-tong.” Plus, might the author of the first gay-themed novel in the English language, which Dale also was, possibly be gay?****

Good-bye, Alan!

W.E.B. Du Bois

W.E.B. Du Bois, 1918

Du Bois was a brilliant thinker and a wonderful writer and his magazine The Crisis is one of my favorite discoveries of 1918. But, the world being what it was in 1918, this wasn’t going to happen.

Plus, he intimidates the hell out of me.

Good-bye, W.E.B.!

H.G. Wells

H.G. Wells, ca. 1918

Wells was the alpha male of the British literary scene, regarded as one of the greatest writers and thinkers of his day. It would no doubt astonish a 1918 person to learn that he would be known in the future primarily as a science fiction writer.

As a romantic partner, though? Bad news! Married to his cousin, he was always sleeping with other women, including a Soviet spy and birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger. Who at least could be relied on not to get pregnant, unlike 26-year-old writer Rebecca West and the daughter of one of his Fabian friends, both of whom bore him children.*****

Good-bye, H.G.!

James Hall

James Hall, 1917

James Hall lied and said he was Canadian to get into World War I, was caught and got kicked out, joined the American branch of the French air force, and was shot down just after he was finally able to fly under American colors. He was feared dead but turned out to have been captured by the Germans. After the war, he moved to Polynesia and co-wrote, among other books, Mutiny on the Bounty.

A cool guy, but I’m not into the swashbuckling type.

Good-bye, Jimmy!

Christopher Morley

The Bookman, February 1918

A prolific young literary man-about-town, Morley published the popular novel Parnassus on Wheels and a book of poetry called Songs for a Little House in 1917 and an essay collection in 1918. He was also the literary editor of Ladies’ Home Journal. He married young, stayed married, and never got up to any shenanigans that I know of.

On the other hand, this is how he wrote about his wife:

Songs for a Little House

I would die.

Good-bye, Christopher!

Harvey Wiley

Harvey Wiley, ca. 1900

Harvey Wiley fought against toxic preservatives in foods and was a driving force in the creation of the FDA. He’s one of my 1918 heroes.

Most of the badmouthing I’ve read about Wiley has broken down on examination. It’s been said that he thought women were stupid, but I haven’t found any evidence.****** He’s been called a eugenicist, but the main case for the prosecution is him saying in Good Housekeeping that there’s no better genetic stock than Scots-Irish, which I think was just him being funny because that’s his background. (This is, in any case, pretty mild as eugenics goes.) I’ll have to wait until 2019 rolls around and I can read his new biography to get the lowdown.

In the meantime, though, there’s this: if you’re the kind of guy who, at age 55, is so taken with your 22-year-old secretary that after she leaves you carry her picture around in your watch for ten years until you run into her on a streetcar and marry her, you’re probably not the guy for me.

Good-bye, Harvey!

Louis Untermeyer

Louis Untermeyer, ca. 1910-1915 (Library of Congress)

Untermeyer is one of those 1918 people I remember from when I was growing up, the editor of pretty much every literary anthology I came across. In 1918, he was all over the place, writing criticism for The Dial and The New Republic and poetry for The Smart Set and many other publications. He’s like a non-smarmy Christopher Morley. His wife, Jean Starr Untermeyer, was also a poet. I thought I might have found my man.

Then I looked into his life. He and Jean divorced in 1926, then he married someone else, then he and Jean got married again in 1929 but divorced in 1930. Then he married a judge named Esther Antin, and they lasted for over a decade, but then he got a Mexican divorce. She was presumably the wife who said in a lawsuit that he was, at 63, “still an inveterate anthologist, collecting wives with an eye always open for new editions.” His last marriage was to a much younger Seventeen magazine editor who wrote a book about their cat.

Good-bye, Louis!

William Carlos Williams

William Carlos Williams, 1921

And now for the one who broke my heart.

William Carlos Williams seemed like the ideal man. A groundbreaking poet AND a successful pediatrician. From New Jersey, like me. Part Puerto Rican, so I could practice my Spanish!

We even had a meet-cute story: In an early post, I trashed his foray into Cubist poetry. Kind of like H.G. Wells and Rebecca West, who met after she panned a book of his, except without the part where she immediately gets pregnant and they don’t admit to their son for quite a while that they’re his parents.

It was the 1917 collection Al Que Quiere! that made me fall in love. In “Danse Russe,” he dances around naked in his study, admiring his butt in the mirror, as his wife and nanny and children are napping. In “January Morning,” a poem I love so much I memorized all 500+ words of it, he takes us around Weehawken, New Jersey and environs, dancing with happiness on a rickety ferry-boat called Arden.

Here’s how the poem ends:

Well, you know how the young girls run giggling
on Park Avenue after dark
when they ought to be home in bed?
Well, that’s the way it is with me somehow.

A cheerful modernist, what a concept!

And there’s more. Judging from “Dedication for a Plot of Ground,” his tribute to his fierce, difficult grandmother, he appreciated strong women. He was attractive in a non-threatening way.******* Politically progressive without being loony. And a great family man! He married his wife Flossie in 1912 and they stayed married, stolen plums and all, until his death in 1963. Aside from the minor issue of how you could be named William Williams and then name your son William, he seemed perfect.

William Carlos Williams with his sons, Paul and William, and his mother, Raquel Helene Rose Hoheb Williams, ca. 1918

The first warning sign came at the end of Al Que Quiere!: a reference to “lewd Jews’ eyes” in the long poem “The Wanderer.” An isolated incident, I hoped. But, when I looked further, it all started to fall apart. The final blow came in a Washington Post review of a 1981 biography of Williams. The biographer acknowledges that he threw around words like “kike” but says that this wasn’t anti-semitism, it was just part of the “popular racial myths of his time.” The reviewer responds, “Exactly. ‘Popular racial myths’ are what racism consists of.”

Exactly.

Good-bye, W.C.!

At this point I threw up my hands and said,

Dada 3, December 1918

Which, if you don’t know French (and yes, Ezra Pound, there are such people), means “I don’t even want to know if there were men before me.”

There are lots of ways 1918 was better than 2018. Cars looked cooler

and magazine covers were more attractive

and, regardless of whether you’d want to marry them, these men were part of a far greater literary age than our own.

But my search for 1918 love has made me grateful that I’m living in a world of 2018 men.

Especially the one I married 15 years ago today.

Happy anniversary, S.!

Silk embroidered postcard, WWI

*I’m not being fussy here about whether people were single in 1918 (Mencken was; Lippmann wasn’t), or whether they were age-appropriate for a 100-years-older me.

**Who I just now found out was the father of Joan Aiken, one of my favorite children’s authors (The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, etc.).

***Also, Virginia Woolf called Eliot’s first wife a bag of ferrets around his neck in her journal, and I’d hate it if she said that about me.

****Judging from the photo, he had a daughter, but that didn’t mean much in 1918.

*****He also slept with the daughter of another Fabian friend, and when fellow Fabian Beatrice Webb called this a “sordid intrigue” he lampooned her and her husband Sidney in a novel.

******He did think some women were stupid, but that’s because they were.

Dr. Wiley’s Question-Box, Good Housekeeping, July 1918

*******If you beg to differ, that’s his passport photo. I got mine taken this week, and even though I made them retake it six times it still looks like the picture of Dorian Gray.

Book Review: The Return of the Soldier by Rebecca West

As I’ve mentioned, I’ve been trying to pay more attention to World War I as the centenary of the armistice approaches. So I put aside Virginia Woolf’s The Voyage Out, which is excellent but pre-war and also loooooong*, and picked up Rebecca West’s 1918 novel The Return of the Soldier, which is war-related (well, sort of, see below) and short (90 pages).

Rebecca West, The Independent, April 13, 1918

Rebecca West (real name Cicely Isabel Fairfield) was already a fixture on London’s cultural scene when she published The Return of the Soldier, her first novel, at the age of 25. Born into an intellectual but financially struggling Anglo-Irish family, she had a brief career as an actress (her pseudonym came from an Ibsen play) before turning to literary criticism. She and H.G. Wells met like characters in a romantic comedy—she panned a book of his, calling him “the Old Maid among novelists,” and he requested a meeting. This led to a long affair with Wells, who was married and 27 years older. They had a son, Anthony, born in 1914. To disguise his illegitimacy, West made him call her “Auntie” and Wells “Wellesie” during his early years, and she sent him to boarding school at the age of three. Perhaps not surprisingly, he and West ended up estranged. West went on to have a highly successful career as a journalist and writer of fiction and nonfiction. Her best-known work today is her monumental book on Yugoslavia, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.

Rebecca West and her son Anthony, ca. 1918

The Return of the Soldier tells the story of Chris, who is sent home from the war when a shell explodes and wipes out his memory of the last 15 years, during which he married and lost his only child. It’s narrated by Jenny, Chris’s cousin and ardent admirer, who for unexplained reasons lives with him and Kitty, his wife, on their vast estate. Chris, in his damaged mind, is living in the happiest period of his life, when he was in love with Margaret, the daughter of the proprietor of a charmingly ramshackle inn. He insists that he must see her or die. Jenny is afraid he’ll be shattered when he encounters present-day Margaret,

repulsively furred with neglect and poverty**, as even a good glove that has dropped down behind a bed in a hotel and has lain undisturbed is repulsive when the chambermaid retrieves it from the dust and fluff.

But he loves her as much as ever and spends his days wandering around his estate with her, lost in his happy youth, while Jenny and Kitty agonize about how to bring him to his senses.

Illustration from “The Return of the Soldier,” Norman Price

As I read the first few chapters, I marveled that The Return of the Soldier, which received generally ecstatic reviews at the time of publication, is not better known today.*** Jenny’s initial visceral dislike of Margaret, she of the creaking stays and cheap plumes, says as much about the British class system as a Dickens novel. Speaking of her and Kitty’s sadness about Chris’s affliction, Jenny says that

grief is not the clear melancholy the young believe it. It is like a siege in a tropical city. The skin dries and the throat parches as though one were living in the heat of the desert; water and wine taste warm in the mouth and food is of the substance of sand; one snarls at one’s company; thoughts prick through one’s sleep like mosquitos.

Illustration from “The Return of the Soldier,” Norman Price

As I continued reading, though, the book’s flaws emerged. West was attempting to incorporate recent psychological discoveries into the story, but her account of Chris’s mental state ring false to the modern reader. His recent memory is completely wiped out, but beyond the 15-year gap it’s intact—he’s exactly the happy lad he once was. Later critics pointed out that this condition, however common it may be in the movies, doesn’t exist in real life.**** The way his amnesia is resolved (I won’t give spoilers, but you can look it up in the book’s Wikipedia entry if you’re curious) is equally dubious. This is the problem with novels that are based on psychological theories: psychology moves on and the novel remains full of discarded ideas about how the mind works.

Also, The Return of the Soldier isn’t really about the war at all. With Chris’s memory of his time at the front wiped clean and Jenny and Kitty living in sheltered luxury, the conflict doesn’t directly enter their lives. Aside from the implication that trauma might have played a role in Chris’s amnesia, and Kitty and Jenny’s anxiety about him being sent back to France if cured, the book could as easily have been called The Return of the Guy Who Fell off a Horse and Hit His Head.

In spite of these flaws, The Return of the Soldier is worth reading for its excoriating depiction of the British class system, its evocation of a lost world, and, above all, West’s wonderful writing.

(I read the Penguin Classics edition, which is pricey for a 90-page paperback but otherwise recommended.)

Illustration from “The Return of the Soldier,” Norman Price

*422 pages, which might not strike you as exceptionally long, but the median length of the books I’ve read for this project is about 100 pages, so I’ve developed a short attention span.

**In that early 20th century British sense of having only one servant.

***Not that it’s forgotten, exactly. After fading into obscurity even as West’s career took off, it gained a new readership when it was made into a film in 1982. It has fared much better than May Sinclair’s equally well-received 1917 war novel The Tree of Heaven, which is out of print today. (Both were named Book of the Month by the North American Review, a prominent literary journal.) Still, it’s hardly a fixture in the modernist canon.

****At least one critic at the time did as well—Dora Marsden of The Egoist. “As a tale of human emotion it is altogether quite indecently unjust,” she said in the magazine’s October 1918 issue. Marsden was preoccupied with the nature of consciousness, about which she wrote long, incoherent articles for the Egoist, which she founded and where T.S. Eliot served as literary editor.