Tag Archives: H.L. Mencken

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.