Tag Archives: H.L. Mencken

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.

2017 Mary Grace

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.

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.

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!

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?

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.

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?

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.

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?

 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:**

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.)

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, 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.

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?

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.

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?

W.E.B. Du Bois, ca. 1919

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, 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?

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?

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.

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).

Marie Corelli

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?

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.

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?

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).

And the best novel of 1918 is…

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!

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*

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

1918 Word of the Year: Virile

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:

Alsace:

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)

Canadian Newspapers:

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.