Tag Archives: H.L. Mencken

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, and 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—the only time, apparently, 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. Here’s the one that appeared in 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.