Tag Archives: MFA

Sound familiar? Book chat, 1918-style

If you spend as much time reading about books online as I do (or did, before I went back to 1918), there are certain topics that you come across again and again. I knew that these debates had been around for a while. But I had no idea that they’d been around for a hundred years. Here’s the 1918 take on a couple of book-chat perennials.

Can writing be taught?

Can creative writing be taught? Do writing classes really make students’ writing better? As a recent MFA grad, I’ve grown tired of this seemingly endless debate. (No one ever asks MBAs this type of question, and I don’t recall MFAs ever causing an international financial crisis.) But MFA programs weren’t around in 1918, so I thought I’d get a break.

But no, here’s Edward J. O’Brien, founding editor of The Best American Short Stories, weighing in in the January 1918 issue of The Bookman. “Experience with many short story writers who had completed courses in short-story writing under competent critics had left me frankly sceptical as to the value of endeavouring to teach the technique of a developing and changing literary form,” he says. He’s reviewing a book called A Handbook on Story-Writing by Blanche Colton Williams of Columbia University. After such an education, he goes on, “The last state of the pupil seemed worse than the first.” Oh no.

Postcard of Columbia University library, 1917.

Columbia University library, 1917 (librarypostcards.blogspot.com)

But then one day he’s bad-mouthing writing classes to a short story writer he admires, and the writer reveals that he’s studying writing at Columbia. He invites O’Brien to tag along, and he wins a convert. “What I found in this class was a free play of critical intelligence, taking actual stories as its point of departure…Here was a true academy, in which the teacher learned from the pupil.” This approach, he says, is skillfully presented in Williams’ book. Plot, point of view, character, and dialogue—all are lucidly discussed.

Score one for Team MFA!

Should adults read books written for children?

If there’s any debate in book-talk-land that’s even more heated than the one over MFAs, it’s the question of whether adults should read books written for children. Ruth Graham took up the anti-YA banner in a 2014 Slate article called, succinctly, “Against YA.” “Read whatever you want,” she said. “But you should be embarrassed if what you’re reading was written for children.” A raucous argument ensued, with writers like Meg Wolitzer coming to the defense of adult YA readers.

Seventeen by Booth Tarkington, first edition cover, 1916.

First edition cover, 1916

Again, not a topic I’d expect to have much currency in 1918, when grown-ups were grown-ups and children wore sailor suits. But, writing in The Bookman in February 1918, children’s writer and anthologist Montrose J. Moses notes that books for boys are popular among soldiers. The low level of literacy among enlisted men could be part of the reason, he says. But he thinks it’s more than that. “I believe—and I have followed the trend of juvenile literature for many years,—that this tendency on the part of the soldier to read boys’ books is only another evidence of the fact that juvenile literature, since it has come under the influence of out-door sports and modern inventions, has in it a degree of expertness which appeals to no age and to all interest.”

Cover, Bab A Sub-Deb by Mary Roberts Rinehart, 1917

First edition, 1917

It’s not only soldiers who were reading about children. A surprisingly high percentage of 1918-era books for adults have child protagonists. Booth Tarkington’s Seventeen (1916) and Mary Roberts Rinehart’s Bab: A Sub-Deb (1917) were adult best-sellers by well-established writers. But John Walcott, writing in The Bookman in December 1917, says that children don’t share their parents’ enthusiasm for these books. “Have you chanced to note the rueful grin with which a real Bab or [Seventeen’s] Willie Baxter scans those delightful and too-revealing records?” he asks. “The relief with which they turn to the latest number of St. Nicholas, or the latest ‘corker’ by Mr. Ralph Henry Barbour?” Young people, he says, take themselves with deadly seriousness, “and it behooves those who cater for [their] favour to do likewise.” That’s what Barbour does, with his tales of schoolboy athletics. “Just now,” Walcott says, “he is working his way methodically through the line-up, so that after Left End Edwards, Left Tackle Thayer, and Left Guard Gilbert, we have naturally arrived at Center Rush Rowland, and we have the right side of the line to look forward to in the near future. Heroes all!”

Cover of Center Rush Rowland, 1917.

It’s Barbour and his schoolboy athletes, Moses says, that the soldiers are clamoring for. And I can see why. For young men going off to fight for a cause that even the Allied countries’ leaders were having trouble articulating, it’s easy to understand the appeal of a tale in which the hero competes, as Moses puts it, in “the season’s decisive event upon the modern field of academic glory.”

A 1918 story gets the MFA workshop treatment

For a recent MFA graduate like me, the 1918 writers’ market inspires huge envy. There were dozens of mass-circulation magazines, and all of them were full of short stories. Quality was a different matter—the poet and critic Louis Untermeyer summed up the critical consensus when he said in the January 17, 1918, issue of The Dial that the magazines offer the public “a series of pink and white heroines with perfume in their veins, endless variations of the Cinderella-Zenda romances, wax dummies with virile pretentions on their lips and riding breeches on their soul.” So I wasn’t expecting much. Most of the stories I’ve read have been pretty entertaining, though. The biggest problem is that, almost without exception, they end abruptly with a “surprise” twist that anyone could have seen coming.

The core of an MFA program is the workshop. Students read each other’s stories and—in my program, anyway—write letters commenting on them. I decided to give this treatment to one of the stories I read this month, “Between the Cat’s Paws,” by Elizabeth Jordan, which appeared in the January 1918 issue of Woman’s Home Companion.

Banner, Woman's Home Companion, January 1918.

Dear Elizabeth:

I enjoyed reading “Between the Cat’s Paws.” You did a good job of portraying the main character, Penfield “Penny” Hewett, a 23-year-old lover of “golf sticks and polo ponies,” who, to the unflattering astonishment of his friends and family, has found success as an architect. We see the increasing sense of entrapment caused by his long engagement to his college classmate Arabella, who’s a suffragist in the East and rarely writes these days. And we see how he’s torn apart by his feelings for Ruth, the sister of Ralph, his business partner and pal. I wish I’d learned more about Ruth, though, beyond that she’s an “awfully nice girl” who keeps Penny and Ralph “comfy.”

Illustration, Woman's Home Companion, January 1918.

The climax of the story, when Arabella shows up in town after failing to respond to Penny’s subtle (he thinks) inquiries as to whether the engagement is still on, mostly works. I would have liked to see more of the interplay between Penny, Arabella, Ruth, and Ralph at the tea he arranges at Arabella’s insistance, and at the dinner that follows. You can’t just say that “the best in each of the four at the table came out and fused into a perfect comradeship,” we need to see this happening. The next scene, with Penny and Arabella alone in a taxi, worked better for me. I believed that Arabella, having seen through Penny’s description of Ruth as “a peach” and “the sort of girl that makes a perfect friend,” would want to check Ruth out before setting Penny free, and I smiled when, to Penny’s bemusement, she said, “Well, Penny, it’s all right. You can have her.” I didn’t believe it, though, when she said that she would have gone ahead with the marriage if she hadn’t approved of Ruth. This seems like a case of the story driving the character, rather than the other way around.

Illustration, Woman's Home companion, January 1918.

I also didn’t buy it when Arabella and Ralph fell in love. Arabella seems too sophisticated and ambitious for Ralph. And Ralph is clearly in love with Penny. You say that his eyes “usually rested on Penny with the deep, dumb devotion that shines in the eyes of a splendid collie,” and that Ralph “adored his chum and did not care who knew it.” I can imagine Arabella (who may be gay as well, given that, pre-Ralph, she was planning to devote her life to her career once she was free of Penny) forming an alliance of convenience with Ralph. But true love? I don’t think so.

Thanks for a good read, and I look forward to more of your stories.

Best,

Mary Grace

Portrait photograph of Elizabeth Jordan, 1901.

Elizabeth Jordan in 1901

Elizabeth Jordan is—like practically everyone I’ve come across in 1918—an intriguing character. In addition to being a prolific short story writer, she was a noted journalist and editor. She accepted and edited Sinclair Lewis’s first novel for the publishing house Harper & Brothers (now HarperCollins), and she was the long-time editor of Harper’s Bazaar. She was a close friend of Henry James, and she convinced him to contribute a chapter to a 1908 round-robin novel called The Whole Family.

Cover of The Whole Family, 1908.

Jordan was a suffragist herself, and one of my favorite things about “Between the Cat’s Paws” is that ambitious, socially engaged Arabella isn’t a villain or figure of fun, as some writers might have made her. She’s the smartest character in the story (okay, that’s not saying a whole lot), and she pulls all the strings. As for the homoerotic subtext, this is something I’ve seen a surprising amount of, even in The Melting of Mollyespecially in The Melting of Molly. More on this subject later.

I enjoyed “Between the Cat’s Paws.” If Jordan had been free to write a story about the world as she really lived in it, though—now, that’s a story I’d like to read.