Tag Archives: humor

Young Dorothy Parker at Vanity Fair

One thing I love about reading in 1918 is the unearned feeling of prescience I get when I come across up-and-coming young writers. Like Dorothy Parker of Vanity Fair, who turned twenty-five in August 1918. Take it from me, she’s going be huge!

This post was going to be about Parker’s theater criticism at the magazine, a job she took over in April 1918 because her predecessor, P.G. Wodehouse, was busy managing his own successful musical comedy career.* But I went back and read everything Parker wrote for the magazine before that, and once you start quoting Dorothy Parker it’s hard to stop. I hit my self-imposed word count limit before she even started the theater gig, so this will be Part 1 of 2.

Parker was born into a prosperous New York family (her maiden name was Rothschild, although they weren’t those Rothschilds), but she lost her mother, father, and stepmother by the time she was twenty. The family’s money evaporated, and she supported herself as a dancing school pianist, living in a Manhattan boarding house. She first came to the attention of Vanity Fair editor Frank Crowninshield when she submitted a poem called “Any Porch,” which was published in the magazine’s September 1915 issue. It recounts snippets of conversation supposedly overheard at a Connecticut hotel. Here are a few:

“I’m reading that new thing of Locke’s–
So whimsical, isn’t he? Yes—”
“My dear, have you seen those new smocks?
They’re nightgowns—no more and no less.”…

“My husband says, often, ‘Elise,
You feel things too deeply, you do—’”
“Yes, forty a month, if you please,
Oh, servants impose on
me, too.”

“The war’s such a frightful affair,
I know for a fact, that in France—”
“I love Mrs. Castle’s bobbed hair;
They say that
he taught her to dance.”

T.S. Eliot’s own renderings of the chitchat of upper-crust women in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and “Portrait of a Lady” were published at almost exactly the same time as “Any Porch” appeared. There’s a distinct resemblance—Elise who feels things too deeply, in particular, could have appeared in an Eliot poem.

Frank Crowninshield, Edna Chase, Condé Nast, Dorothy Parker, and Robert Benchley, 1919 (Robert Sherwood)

Crowninshield took a liking to Parker, and she was hired to write captions at Vogue, Vanity Fair’s sister publication..(She later claimed that she and her friend and colleague Robert Benchley used to go out with the 6’7” Crowninshield at lunchtime to protect him from hectoring by a group of midgets who were appearing in a show at the Hippodrome.) Parker’s most famous Vogue caption is “There was a little girl who had a little curl, right in the middle of her forehead. When she was good, she was very good, and when she was bad she wore this divine nightdress of rose-colored mousseline de soie, with frothy Valenciennes lace.” What most accounts don’t tell you is that this caption was spotted and quashed at the last minute. Vogue editor Edna Chase was not amused.

Parker’s next poem in Vanity Fair was a four-line stanza in the June 1916 issue called “A Musical Comedy Thought”:

My heart is fairly melting at the thought of Julian Eltinge:
His vice versa, Vesta Tilley, too.
Our language is so dexterous, let us call them ambi-sexterous,–
Why hasn’t this occurred before to you?

When I looked into this guess-you-had-to-be-there trifle, I learned that Julian Eltinge was an actor who played female parts and had a habit of beating up people he thought were questioning his sexuality. He wasn’t known to have lovers of either sex, but actress Ruth Gordon called him “as virile as anyone virile” in a 1969 New York Times article, so that settles that. Vesta Tilley was a British male impersonator whose husband was knighted and became a Conservative MP.

In August 1916, Vanity Fair published Parker’s poem “Women: A  Hate Song.” It ran under the pseudonym Henriette Rousseau, supposedly because Crowninshield feared controversy. In it, Parker skewered various feminine archetypes—domestic, fragile, know-it-all, cheerful, etc. Here’s the opening:

I hate Women.
They get on my Nerves.
There are the Domestic ones.
They are the worst.
Every moment is packed with Happiness.
They breathe deeply
And walk with large strides, eternally hurrying home
To see about dinner.
They are the kind
Who say, with a tender smile, “Money’s not everything.”
They are the ones always confronting me with dresses,
Saying, “I made this myself.”
They read Woman’s pages and try out the recipes.
Oh, how I hate that kind of women.

Fine, I hate them too, but controversial? Europe was at war. Didn’t people have more important things to worry about?

Other Hate Songs followed—on, among other things, men, relatives, actresses, and slackers (the era’s term for men who avoided joining the army).

“Men: A Hate Song,” illustration by Dorothy Ferriss

In October 1916, Parker (under her own name, Dorothy Rothschild) published her first Vanity Fair article, “Why I Haven’t Married: Sketches of My Seven Deadly Suitors.” My reaction was, “Um, because you just turned twenty-three?” The median age of marriage for women in the United States was twenty-one, though, so she was a little behind.

First there was Ralph, the domesticated man, from whom Parker fled when

I had a startlingly clear vision of the future. I seemed to see us—Ralph and me—settled down in an own-your-own bungalow in a twenty-minute suburb. I saw myself surrounded by a horde of wraps and sofa pillows. I saw us gathered around the lamp of a winter evening, reading aloud from “Hiawatha.” I saw myself a member of the Society Opposed to Woman Suffrage.

Then there was Maximilian, the socialist.

He was an artist and had long nervous hands and a trick of impatiently tossing his hair out of his eyes. He capitalized the A in art. Together we plumbed the depths of Greenwich Village, seldom coming above Fourteenth Street for air. We dined in those how-can­-they-do-it-for-fifty-cents table d’hôtes, where Maximilian and his little group of serious thinkers were wont to gather about dank bottles of sinister claret and flourish marked copies of “The Masses.”

Wait! This is my dream day as a time traveler to 1918! I can see how Maximilian isn’t what  you’d look for in a life partner, though.

On to Jim—Of Broadway, with whom life seems to be one long cabaret, all well and good until someone asks him his opinion of Baudelaire, and he says, “I really can’t say. I’ve never seen him get a good sweat-out in practice.” Then there are Cyril, the fastidious socialite; Lorenzo, the life of the party, and Bob, Son of Battle.

The seventh and final beau is Paul, the Vanished Dream.

I cannot dwell on Paul, the best one. I have not yet fully recovered from him. He was the Ideal Husband—an English-tailored Greek God, just masterful enough to be entertaining, just wicked enough to be exciting, just clever enough to be a good audience. But, oh, he failed me! In a moment of absent-mindedness, he went and married a blonde and rounded person whose walk in life was the runway at the Winter Garden.** I am just beginning to recuperate.

Dorothy Parker and Edwin Pond Parker II, date unknown

The first six suitors seem made up, but Parker’s portrayal of Paul has the ring of truth—you can see the hurt behind the flippant words. But he sounds just horrible! Count your blessings, Dorothy, I said. You dodged a bullet.

Except she didn’t. Paul was Edwin Pond Parker II, a handsome stockbroker from a socially prominent family. And he didn’t marry a chorus girl. In 1917, he married Dorothy Rothschild. Not long after the marriage, he joined the army. He went to Europe as an alcoholic and returned as an alcoholic and a morphine addict. He and Dorothy soon separated, and they divorced in 1928.

Morris Gest, P. G. Wodehouse, Guy Bolton, F. Ray Comstock and Jerome Kern, ca. 1917

As I said, I’ll get to Parker’s theater criticism in a future post. Here’s a teaser, from her April 1918 review of Wodehouse’s show, Oh, Lady! Lady!!:

I like the way the action slides casually into the songs without any of the usual “Just think, Harry is coming home again! I wonder if he’ll remember that little song we used to sing together? It went something like this.”…And oh, how I do like Jerome Kern’s music—those nice, soft, polite little tunes that always make me wish I’d been a better girl.

Twenty-four years old, but already unmistakably Dorothy Parker.

Sheet music for a song from “Oh Lady! Lady!!”, 1918

*This is the third time I’ve come across a 1918 person who was involved in theater on both the criticism and the production sides. The others were Hearst critic Alan Dale, who wrote The Madonna of the Future, and Jack Grien, critic for the British Sunday Times, who produced the Maud Allan dance performance of Salome. Both of these plays were hugely controversial. Maybe they were bored from sitting through so many bad shows and wanted to shake things up.

**The Winter Garden theater had a runway extending out into the audience, presumably populated by chorus girls.

The best and worst of April 1918: Magazines, stories, faint praise, and neologisms

A third of the way through!

After four months in 1918, I’ve become both more optimistic and more pessimistic about our present world. More optimistic because so many problems that seemed intractable back then, like the acceptability in mainstream circles of overt racism, sexism, and antisemitism, are gone now. More pessimistic because of all the new problems, like global warming, that people back then couldn’t have conceived of.

Okay, enough philosophizing. On to the best and worst of 1918.

Best magazine: The Dial

The Dial is one of the most reliably interesting reads of 1918. It started out in 1840 as an outlet for the Transcendentalists (Louisa May Alcott’s father came up with the name) and was now a Chicago-based political and literary journal. H.L. Mencken wasn’t a fan—he ridiculed the “insane labeling and pigeon-holing that passes for criticism among the gifted Harvard boys of the Dial and the Nation”—but staff writer Randolph Bourne gave as good as he got, saying that Mencken and Theodore Dreiser “beat at a strong man of puritanism which, for the younger generation, has not even the vitality to be interesting.”*

The Dial did have a tendency to review seemingly every book that showed up on its doorstep, like Colorado, the Queen Jewel of the Rockies. But when a single (April 11) issue includes John Dewey on education, historian Charles Beard (who had recently resigned in protest from Columbia) on universities and democracy, Conrad Aiken on poetry,** and Bourne on immigrant fiction, I can forgive a lot.

Best short story: “The Swimming Pool” by Evelyn Campbell, Smart Set

I haven’t read many magazine short stories this month. In fact, I’ve read just one: this one. And I wouldn’t call it a great story. So this might strike you as a shoddy bit of best-and-worst selecting. But something about this story by Evelyn Campbell, a 22-year-old screenwriter and Ziegfeld Follies girl, got to me.

A woman, swimming in a pool as darkness falls, strikes up a conversation with a man. They’re both natural swimmers, creatures of the water, and during their brief conversation they fall a little in love.

Suddenly it was dusk. Not in the enclosure made brilliant by white bulbs, but up above in the oblong of dark blue sky where newly awakened stars began to show timid faces to their bolder rivals. They were in the deep water which lay densely beneath them. Again they turned upon their backs and floated.

As the woman leaves the country club with her horrible rich husband and their children, she passes the man, who’s wearing an ill-cut suit. Her daughter says, Oh, look, the new janitor. A typical Smart Set snappy ending. In most stories, though, the twist at the end is the point—the rest is just setup. Here, the spell that the water casts on the swimmers is the point, and the ending is just the resolution.

Some of Campbell’s descriptions work better than others—I can’t picture what “in the middle of the pool a big golden square turned the water to bright emerald” looks like—but she’s trying something other writers just weren’t doing in 1918. That is, Imagist poets were, but not magazine short story writers.

Best magazine cover: The Crisis

Even by 1918’s high standards, this was an exceptional month for magazine covers. I’ve posted pictures of several of them already (here and here and here). The standout, though, is the cover of the April issue of The Crisis, the NAACP magazine edited by W.E.B. Du Bois. It features a copy of a painting called “Lead Kindly Light,” made for the magazine by 34-year-old William Edouard Scott (and now owned by the Huntington Museum of Art in West Virginia).

Here’s how the magazine’s editorial, probably written by Du Bois, interprets the painting.

It is just an old lantern, filled with grimy oil. It cannot lead anywhere, yet its light leads. Its golden light streams through the night.

Whose is the light?

It is not the lantern’s. It simply seems to be the lantern’s radiance. It is the Light of the World and it leads not toward the millennium in the North, but out of the insult and prostitution and ignorance and lies and lynchings of the South—up toward a chance, a new chance,—nothing more. But thank God for that…

Lead, Kindly Light.

Worst magazine cover: Ladies’ Home Journal

This is a repeat, but nothing was going to beat this Ladies’ Home Journal cover, titled (by me) “Oh, how sweet! My boyfriend killed someone!”

Best poem: “Is It Worth While,” Violet Hunt, Poetry

Violet Hunt, ca. 1900

Reading Poetry magazine, you can see how living in 1918 was like living in two worlds. In the April 1918 issue, there’s page after page of purple mountains, and it could be 1868, and suddenly there’s Violet Hunt mourning her relationship with Ford Madox Hueffer (Ford), and it could be 1968.

You can read the rest of the poem here.

Faintest praise in a book review: T.S. Eliot, The Egoist

archive.org

This was a surprisingly competitive category. At first, this unsigned review in the April 11 Dial, of Lorinda Munson Bryant’s American Pictures and their Painters, looked like a shoo-in:

One sincerely wishes that Mrs. Bryant in her enthusiasm for nature, both inanimate and human, had focused her numerous descriptions of the subject matter of the paintings. That the painter has chosen to paint a wintry landscape…is surely no excuse for a genteel panegyric on winter, or that the artist has selected a human being…is no excuse for a general eulogy of mankind. In the family circle a little girl, it is true, may be a “darling,” but in a painting that may be the least interesting of her attributes….If the subject is a woman, and a thin one at that, the author thinks the artist would have been wiser to select a plumper and rosier model…Aside from these minor defects the book is a handy and valuable compendium.

From “Hearts of Controversy,” by Alice Meynell, second edition, 1918

But then I came across this review of Alice Meynell’s Hearts of Controversy by Apteryx, AKA T.S. Eliot, in the April issue of The Egoist, and we had a winner.

In its peculiar anti-style, Mrs. Meynell’s book, like all her books, is extremely well written, and she can incidentally pick out good bits from authors. If we can accept this attitude, we shall enjoy the book very much. And people who have a taste for that antiquated genre, that parlour-game, the Polite Essay—which consists in taking a tiny point and cutting figure eights around it, without ever uttering one’s meaning in plain words—will find in Mrs. Meynell’s last essay (“Charmain”) an almost perfect example of a forgotten craft which indeed had its attractions.

*                                              *                                              *

But we must learn to take literature seriously.

(Asterixes Apteryx’s.)

Best neologism: Surréaliste

Study for a portrait of Guillaume Appolinaire, Jean Metzinger, 1911

“SURRÉALISTE is the denomination M. Guillaume Apollinaire—there is no doubt his astounding name continues to have good reason for keeping well in evidence—has attached to his play, Les Mamelles de Tirésias,” the Paris correspondent for The Egoist tells us. I knew that the surrealist movement was just getting underway in 1918, but it seemed strange to think of the word itself being a novelty. So I crunched some big data—that is, did a Google Books N-Gram***—and it’s true, surreal and its variants were pretty much non-existent at that point. So what did people say when things were, you know, surreal?

Best humor: 

In The Bookman, there’s a report about the mystery surrounding the identity of the author of The Book of Artemas, a bestselling British spoof relating current events in biblical style. Was it G.K. Chesterton? J.M. Barrie? Hilaire Belloc? George Bernard Shaw? (It would turn out to be someone no one ever heard of named Arthur Telford Mason.) Here’s an excerpt:

5. Whilst Wudro, the son of Wyl, was tending his flock of young men in the pasture that is knowledge, and after he had taught them how they should go and what things they should know,
6. Behold, the men of Amer came unto him, saying, We have chosen thee for to rule over us; and we have
brought thee an high hat for to wear as the badge of thine office; and the size of the hat, it is six and seven-eights.
7. And because he knew not what he was letting himself
in for, he gave way to their importuning, and did put on the high hat, the size whereof was six and seven-eights.
8. And it came to pass that when the men of En fought against the men of Hu, they did send messengers unto the land of Amer for to buy them munitions for the war. And they took
with them gold in great quantity wherewith to satisfy the merchants that did sell unto them. Therefor did the land of Amer prosper exceedingly.

Worst joke:

Judge, April 27, 1918

On to May!

*Kind of harsh, since Bourne was only six years younger than Mencken.

**He agrees with me about Christopher Morley’s goopiness.

***Which is really fun—you should try if you’re off Facebook and looking for new ways to waste time.

The best and worst of March 1918: Magazines, essays, cover art, and humor

When I was in the Foreign Service, living in Cambodia or Honduras or wherever, people used to ask, “But don’t you miss home?” I never knew what to say. The honest answer was, “I miss some things, sometimes, but it’s way more interesting here. Don’t you get bored living in the same place all the time?” That seemed kind of rude, though.

A quarter of the way through, that’s how I feel about my life in 1918. I’ll see, for example, that Meg Wolitzer, Curtis Sittenfeld, and Rebecca Harrington all have books coming out, and for a second I’ll wish that I could read them, but then I’ll pick up Mrs. Spring Fragrance or the latest issue of The Dial, and the feeling goes away. I can read those books next year. In the meantime, it’s way more interesting here.

Now for the best and worst of March 1918:

Best Magazine: The Little Review

Ulysses, as I wrote earlier this month, made its first appearance in the Little Review in March 1918. The issue also includes Ezra Pound writing on Marianne Moore, fiction by Wyndham Lewis, and an essay by Ford Madox Hueffer (a.k.a. Ford) that contains the sentence “The Englishman’s mind is of course made up entirely of quotations.” But the rest of the issue could have been blank (which wouldn’t have been unprecedented—the first thirteen pages of the September 1916 issue were blank, an expression of editor Margaret Anderson’s frustration over the lack of quality submissions) and it still would have been the best magazine of the month, if not the year.

Worst Magazine: The Art World

The Art World, as I noted last week, had nothing good to say about impressionism or anything that came after. To put that into perspective, the first major exhibition of impressionist art was in 1874. So an art magazine taking this stance in 1918 is like Rolling Stone saying in 2018 that this rock-and-roll music is just a lot of noise.

Statue of Lincoln, George Grey Barnard, Lytle Park, Cincinnati (1917)

In its March 1918 issue, the last before it merged into another magazine, The Art World criticized George Grey Barnard’s statue of Lincoln in Cincinnati, saying that Barnard

does not show the majestic Lincoln at the bar of history being judged and admired, but a slave Lincoln at the block, being sold and pitied…let us hope that Mr. Barnard will now deign to accept the advice we gave him in June 1917 and make a new Lincoln—virile, heroic, and majestic.

The magazine approvingly quotes portraitist Cecilia Beaux saying of the 1913 Armory Show in New York, the first large exhibition of modern art in the United States, that

“It was like a sudden windstorm that raises no little dust, noise, and confusion for the moment; when the wind dies down you discover that much that was of no real value has blown away, leaving a clearer, wholesome atmosphere.”

The Art World branches out to the written word in this issue, calling a modernist poem “speech worthy of a yapping maniac.”

Best humorous essay: “Making the Nursery Safe for Democracy,” by Harold Kellock, The Bookman

 

Essays about family life in 1918 are generally steeped in sarcasm (if they’re by men) or sentimentality (if they’re by women). It’s hard to find a family that seems real. Then I came across Harold Kellock’s essay about his four-year-old son being bombarded with royalist propaganda through his nursery reading. Every night, Kellock is forced to read his son a story about some heroic king. “In a world wherein we are pouring out our blood and treasure that democracy may live safely,” he complains, “our children scarcely out of the cradle are being made into staunch little monarchists.” He takes a stab at democratizing the stories, but it doesn’t work, and he resigns himself to nursery royalism.

“Then,” I read, “the king took Gretel to his palace and celebrated the marriage in great state. And she told the king all her story, and he sent for the fairy and punished her.” Think of having the power of punishment over fairies! The King und Gott! But my son swallows it complacently. He does not question the divine right of kings.

Faery Tales from Hans Christian Andersen, Maxwell Armfield, 1910

Kellock reassures himself that, when the time comes, he can turn his child into a democrat by showing him photographs “of some vacuous king, discreetly bearded to hide his recessional features,” or “a typical princess, whose hat and features alike seem so unfortunately chosen, opening a Red Cross bazaar.”

But not for a while, he says.

Worst humorous essay: “I Must Have Been A Little Too Rough,” by George B. Jenkins, Jr., Smart Set

I hope this is the worst thing I read all year. There must be an anti-gender violence message hidden somewhere, but…well, read it for yourself.

I must have been a little too rough.

“Women,” her father had told me, “are tired of the courteous treatment of the average man. They are bored by the vapid compliments, the silly lies, the stupid chatter of pale youths with gardenias in their lapels. If you want to be a success with women, be rude! Be violent! Overpower them, assert your physical superiority! If necessary, beat them!” He became quite excited. “Pound them! Assault them! Half-murder them!”

I listened to him respectfully, though I did not care for him at all. Yet I believed him, for he is notoriously successful in his affaires.

I decided to test his theories. Striding into the next room, I grasped his daughter about the waist.

“I love you!” I roared, squeezing her until her face was purple.

“You belong to me!” I shouted, dragging her around the room by her hair, and overturning several chairs in our progress.

“Damn you!” I shrieked, striking her on the shoulder, where the blow left a blue welt, “I will fight the world for you.”

She began to whimper.

“Shut up!” I ordered, in my rudest manner, and slung her across the room.

But I must have been a little too rough, for she fell out the window.

Best magazine cover: The Liberator

The first issue of The Liberator was published in March 1918. Its predecessor, The Masses, had closed down in 1917 after being declared treasonous by the government for its anti-war stance. The debut issue included reporting from Russia by John Reed, whose Ten Days that Shook the World was published the next year (and who died in Russia in 1920 at the age of 32). I’ll write more about The Liberator later. For now, here’s its inaugural cover, by Hungarian-American artist Hugo Gellert.

Worst magazine cover: Collier’s

I’m imagining the meeting where this cover was conceived.

Art director: How about…the President?
Editor: What would he be doing?
Art director: Nothing, just a picture of his face, in black and white. With a caption that says [stretches his hand into the air dramatically], “The President.”
Editor: I like it!

Best humor:


As I’ve noted before, there are no good jokes in 1918 magazines. But I liked this Cornelia Barns Liberator cartoon, featuring the world’s most coldhearted mother seeing her son off to war.

Worst humor:

First dog: How is brother collie over there? Is he in your set?
Second: Oh, yes; we visit the same garbage pails.

(Life magazine, March 28, 1918)

And, in honor of Women’s History Month, the most inspiring women:

I came across so many! Novelists Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, and Mary Roberts Rinehart; artist Elizabeth Gardner; dancer Irene Castle; Little Review editor Margaret Anderson; suffragist Anna Kelton Wiley; prosecutor Annette Abbott Adams; rebellious housewife Julia Clark Hallam; and the anonymous woman who wrote about how divorce saved her sanity.

But every month is Women’s History month at My Year in 1918, and there are lots more inspiring women to come. (Sneak preview: a pioneering British sexologist and a witty Chinese-American writer.) On to April!

Wednesday Miscellany: Grotesque wallpaper, a Locomobile, and a Rockwell Easter cover

He—Well, thank heavens, we shan’t have to go on being decent to those impossible Riggsby people!
She—You mean they’re going to die, or move away?
He—Oh, hadn’t I told you? I found out today that they’re relatives of ours.

The punch line’s only so-so, but I love “You mean they’re going to die, or move away?”

Judge magazine, March 16, 1918

I know, right? The snarling color grotesqueries of wallpaper are the worst.

The Delineator, March 1918

Um, if your car is so serious that it has its own Latin motto, maybe don’t call it the Locomobile?

Life magazine, March 28, 1918

And finally, a soldier uses his helmet to water tulips on this Norman Rockwell cover, titled “Easter.”

Wednesday Miscellany: Pacifist nightmares, a sad funny page, and a widowed dancer

Judge magazine has been running a series called “The Nightmares of a Pacifist,” featuring conscientious objector Willie Bonehead, whose guilty subconscious places him in a series of horrific scenarios. First he is “compelled to dance on every note of the ‘Star Spangled Banner,’ while the girl, who rejected him because he was a slacker, plays the national anthem on the piano.”

Judge magazine, March 2, 1918

Next he falls asleep while smoking his pipe, which transports him to the front line.

Judge magazine, March 9, 1918

The political message is pretty heavy-handed, but I like the proto-surrealist art.

Turkish cigarettes join the fight against…the Turks.*

The table of contents of the March 1918 issue of The Crisis, the NAACP magazine edited by W.E.B. Du Bois, has a listing for “The Funny Page.” The Crisis isn’t exactly a barrel of laughs, so I wondered what this could be. Here’s the answer:

I can’t stop looking at this picture of dancer Irene Castle, which appeared in Cosmopolitan in  March 1918. Just as the issue was hitting the newsstands, her husband and dancing partner Vernon died in an aviation training accident in Texas. He had completed 300 missions as a Royal Air Corps pilot. The Castles were the subject of a 1939 Astaire-Rogers biopic.

*Yes, yes, I know, the United States was not actually at war with the Ottoman Empire.

The best and worst of February 1918: Magazines, stories, cover art, and jokes

Two months into My Year in 1918, I feel like I used to feel two months into a Foreign Service posting: completely at home in some ways but totally bewildered in others. I know who Viscount Morley was*, and which author every critic trots out to bemoan the sad state of fiction**, but there are references that go right over my head. Who is Baron Munchausen? What is Fletcherizing? And the jokes. I’ll never get the jokes.

Best magazine: The Crisis

The Crisis, February 1918

 This is a repeat, but no other magazine approaches The Crisis in terms of quality of writing and importance of subject matter. Aside from W.E.B. Du Bois’ autobiographical essay, which I wrote about last week on the 150th anniversary of his birth, the February issue includes Du Bois’ scathing take-down of a government-sponsored study on “Negro Education” that advocated the replacement of higher education institutions with manual, industrial, and educational training. There’s a horrifying account of the mob murder of an African-American man in Dyersburg, Tennessee—so brutal, the magazine reports, that some white townspeople felt he should have had a “decent lynching.” On the literary side, there’s “Leonora’s Conversion,” a slight but engaging story about a wealthy young black woman’s brief flirtation with the church.

I’m not awarding a Worst Magazine this month. Good Housekeeping was a contender again—dialect-talking black maid Mirandy has the month off, but Japanese manservant Hashimura Togo*** expounds on his employer’s marital problems in equally fractured English. (“‘You have left off kissing me as usually,’ she dib. ‘O.’ He march and deliver slight lip.”) The magazine redeems itself somewhat, though, with an article by suffragist Anna Kelton Wiley called “Why We Picketed the White House.”

Good Housekeeping, February 1918

Best short story: “A Sordid Story,” by J., The Egoist

February wasn’t a great month for short stories. Most of the ones I read, including two that made it into The Best American Short Stories of 1918, started out promisingly but ended with pathos or a gimmicky twist. “A Sordid Story,” in the January**** Egoist, isn’t great literature, but it has daring subject matter and lots of atmosphere. It features a Cambridge student named Alphonse, whose life is described in the most British sentence I’ve ever read:

He made friends easily and took friendship seriously; so seriously that he spent nearly the whole of the Michaelmas term following the taking of his degree in reading Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound and The Gospel according to St. Luke in the Greek with a much younger man—a certain Roderick Gregory—who was in his second year, but had hitherto failed to pass his Little-Go.

Maxwell Armfield, from “Cambridge and its History,” 1912

Alphonse falls for Roderick’s sister Beatrice, who “used to have a pet pig, and she called him Shakespeare, because he would be Bacon after his death.” But he spends the night with a working-class girl who grabs his arm as he’s walking near Midsummer Common and says, giggling, “Can yer tell me what o’clock it is?” Horrified with himself the next day, he goes back to her lodgings to pay her off. She tells him that he was her first lover, then, when he tells her it’s over, says, “Yer weren’t the first, then!” Relieved “not to be the first to help send a woman downward,” he goes back to his rooms, where Roderick is playing the cello and twenty-five copies of the Quarterly Journal of Mathematics, in which he has published a paper, await him. It’s only years later that he figures out that he was, in fact, the first.

Worst short story: “A Verdict in the Air,” J.A. Waldron, Judge

Lawrence Fellows, Judge, February 9, 1918

Harwood, on leave from aviation training, goes to a cabaret in Chicago. To his surprise, one of the singers is his childhood sweetheart Bessie Dean, who left their Ohio hometown to pursue a career in opera. She introduces Harwood to her husband Grindel, who takes a dislike to him. A few days later, Harwood is training on the Pacific Coast, when who should show up as a mechanic but Grindel! Harwood has a series of flying accidents, and Grindel is suspected, but he goes AWOL. Harwood is sent to fight with the French army. He visits a friend at a field hospital, where the nurse is none other than Bessie, who has escaped her husband. Back at the front, there’s a heated battle. Harwood pursues the last remaining German plane and hits its rudder after a lively skirmish. As the plane plunges to the ground, he sees that the pilot is—you guessed it—Grindel!

Well, the illustration is kind of cool.

Best magazine covers:

February was a great month for magazine covers. I just wish that the insides of the magazines were half as good. Besides the ones from Harper’s Bazar and Vanity Fair that I’ve mentioned already, there’s this Helen Dryden cover from Vogue,

 

 and this one, which Norman Rockwell sold to Judge after the Saturday Evening Post turned it down. I can kind of see why.

Best joke:

 This isn’t exactly a joke, but it made me laugh. It’s the opening of Louis Untermeyer’s review of poetry collections by Edna St. Vincent Millay, Samuel Roth, and Edwin Curran in the February 14 issue of The Dial.

These three first volumes, with their curious kinship and even more curious contrasts, furnish a variety of themes. They offer material for several essays: on “What Constitutes Rapture”; on “The Desire of the Moth for the Star”; on “The Growing Tendency among Certain Publishers to Ask One Dollar and Fifty Cents for Seventy Pages of Verse”; on “A Bill for the Conservation of Conservative Poetry”; on “Life, Literature, and the Last Analysis”; on “Why a Poet Should Never be Educated.”

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

The Growing Tendency among Certain Publishers to Ask One Dollar and Fifty Cents for Seventy Pages of Verse! That Louis Untermeyer is such a card!

Not amused? Okay, then, you go back to 1918 and try to find something funnier.

Worst joke:

Judge magazine, February 9, 1918

 Once again, hard to choose. Maybe this, from the February 9 issue of Judge:

“You don’t—know me, do you, Bobby?” asked a lady who had recently been baptized.
“Sure I do,” piped the youth. “You’re the lady what went in swimming with the preacher, last Sunday.”

On to March!

*A British diplomat

**Mrs. Humphrey Ward

***Really Wallace Irwin, who made a career of writing about Togo. Mark Twain was a fan.

****I was reading The Egoist a month late on the principle that it would have taken time for the magazine to get to the United States, which I’ve since decided is ridiculous.

Friday Miscellany: Cigarette poetry, comics, and more vermin for children

Apparently no one knows whether British Corporal Jack Turner, who supposedly wrote this poem, was real or not. If he was a figment of an ad writer’s imagination, it makes me mad. If he was real, it makes me want to cry.

…Then you think about a little grave, with R. I. P. on top,
And you know you’ve got to go across–altho’ you’d like to stop;
When your backbone’s limp as water, and you’re bathed in icy sweat,
Why, you’ll feel a lot more cheerful if you puff your cigarette.

Judge magazine, February 2, 1918

What was it with St. Nicholas magazine and the vermin?

St. Nicholas magazine, February 1918

I haven’t read any 1918 comics yet, but this gets me pretty much up to speed.

Judge magazine, February 2, 1918