Tag Archives: Rea Irvin

Nobel Prize Laureate Selma Lagerlöf: A Swedish storyteller whose own story couldn’t be told

Hello from Sweden, the land of ubiquitous candy

Candy in a store in Uppsala, Sweden.

and adorable groceries

Swedish groceries.

and clothes made of garbage

H&M label for pants made of recycled household waste.

and quaint swear words (“Devil!”)!

I’m spending September in Uppsala, half an hour outside Stockholm. The town is home to a 500-year-old university, so history is ever-present.

Sketch of Gustavianum at Uppsala University by Gustaf Johan Härstedt

Gustavianum, Uppsala University, Gustaf Johan Härstedt, ca. 1800

To get a sense of what was happening in Sweden a century ago, a relative blip in this ancient town, I turned to my trusty Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature, 1915-1918. It pointed me in the direction of an article in the February 1918 issue of the women’s magazine The Delineator called “Women All Too Womanly – In Sweden.” The problem with Swedish women, it turns out, is that they’re not sparkling enough in society. They walk behind their husbands all self-effacing like this

Illustration of a Swedish woman entering a hotel behind her husband.

Rea Irvin, The Delineator, February 1918

instead of making a grand entrance like this

Illustration of a woman in an evening gown entering a room.

Rea Irvin, The Delineator, February 1918

and enchanting their dinner companions with bon mots.*

Not being convinced that skin exposure = emancipation, I decided to look elsewhere for insights into ca. 1919 Swedish women.** An article in the April 1915 issue of the children’s magazine St. Nicholas called “Selma Lagerlöf, Swedish Genius” seemed like just the ticket.

Portrait photograph of Selma Lagerlof, ca. 1915.

Selma Lagerlöf, St. Nicholas magazine, April 1915 (Brown Bros.)

Lagerlöf, I learned, was born in 1858 and grew up on an estate called Mårbacka in west central Sweden. A semi-invalid as a child, she sat at home listening to visitors’ stories while her siblings played outdoors. She heard about wolves chasing sea captains across the snow and the Devil*** paying social visits, rocking in a rocking chair while the lady of the house played the piano.

Portrait photograph of Selma Lagerlof, 1881.

Selma Lagerlöf, 1881

The family experienced financial setbacks that eventually forced them to sell Mårbacka, and  Lagerlöf set off for Stockholm to study teaching. While she was there, she started writing down those childhood tales. In 1891 she published her first novel, Gösta Berling’s Saga. It’s the fantastical story of a Lutheran minister who is sacked for drinking and carousing, takes up with a group of eccentric vagrants, and eventually comes to see the error of his ways.**** “And in less time that it takes to get around it,” St. Nicholas tells us, “the world hailed the writer as a genius.” Other novels, and other accolades, followed.

Like, for example, the Nobel Prize in Literature, which Lagerlöf won in 1909, beating out other contenders such as Leo Tolstoy and Mark Twain, both of whom died the next year. She was the first woman to be awarded the prize.

Illustration of Selma Lagerlöf receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature from King Gustav V.

Selma Lagerlöf receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature from King Gustav V (Svenska Dagbladet, December 11, 1909)

If you’re thinking something sounds off here, there are a few things you need to know about the early days of the literature Nobel, which was first awarded in 1901. One is that writers from the Nordic countries had a distinct home field advantage, winning seven of the first 18 awards.*****

Also, the award in its early days bore the stamp of the Swedish Academy’s conservative permanent secretary, poet Carl David af Wirsén, who thought Nobelists should display “a lofty and sound idealism.” This, in his mind, disqualified not only Tolstoy and Twain but writers closer to home such as playwrights Henrick Ibsen of Norway and August Strindberg of Sweden.******

Photograph of Carl David af Wirsén with signature, 1877.

J. Wolf (from Literärt album, 1877)

And also, for a while, Selma Lagerlöf, whose characters, redeemed in the end or not, weren’t wholesome enough for af Wirsén’s liking. Whenever her name came up as a possible Nobelist, he would put forward other candidates, sometimes equally “unwholesome” writers who at least weren’t Swedish. But his fellow Swedish Academy members finally had their way in 1909, leaving af Wirsén a broken man.******* He died in 1912.

With her Nobel Prize money ($40,000, St. Nicholas informs us), Lagerlöf bought back Mårbacka, where she lived for the rest of her life.

Selma Lagerlof at her desk in her library in Marbacka.

Selma Lagerlöf at Mårbacka (Dan Gunner, date unknown)

St. Nicholas tells us that

With all her fame and fortune, Selma Lagerlöf remains the pleasant, unpretentious, fun-loving, kind-hearted woman of her school-teacher days. She has never married, and, since she is now about fifty-six years old, she will probably remain a spinster. But her friends are thick as the leaves in her beloved forest in full summer.

A spinster! Fun-loving! Friends thick as leaves in the forest! What could this mean? Having been through this before, I had my suspicions. I Googled “Selma Lagerlöf lesbian,” and the true story of her life emerged.

Portrait photograph of Sophie Elkan, ca. 1893.

Sophie Elkan, ca. 1893

A few years after the publication of Gösta Berling’s Saga, Lagerlöf met fellow writer Sophie Elkan, who became her lifetime friend and companion. The daughter of German Jewish immigrants, Elkan had lost her husband and only daughter to tuberculosis in 1879, and she dressed in mourning for the rest of her life.

Lagerlöf, apparently, was smitten from the beginning. At their first meeting, she lifted up Elkan’s widow’s veil, unbidden, and said, “You are very beautiful. I know we will become friends.” In a letter to Elkan, she wrote,

These kisses of yours that you convey in your letters, they are a great puzzlement to me. How am I to understand such merchandise? Are they promissory notes, or ‘samples without value’? Are such debts to be repaid in rooms milling with people, or in the greenhouse at Nääs?…In Copenhagen I see so many relationships between women that I must try to comprehend in my own mind what Nature’s intention is with this.********

Posed photograph of Selma Lagerlof leaning against Sophie Elkan.

Selma Lagerlöf and Sophie Elkan, date unknown

Lagerlöf’s desire for physical intimacy seems to have been unrequited, though. In a letter written before a planned meeting, Elkan wrote, “Hands off!”

Still, the two remained devoted friends, traveling together to Italy and to Egypt and Palestine, the setting for Lagerlöf’s successful novel Jerusalem, which was published in parts in 1901 and 1902, with this dedication:

To Sophie Elkan, my comrade in life and literature

In 1902, Lagerlöf met Valborg Olander, an educator and suffragist, and the two began a passionate affair. Life became complicated. Elkan may not have wanted a physical relationship with Lagerlöf, but that doesn’t mean she wanted someone else filling this void.

Swedish educator and activist Valborg Olander.

Valborg Olander, date unknown

Jealousy and subterfuge ensued. Olander’s letters brimmed with passion, and Lagerlöf apparently destroyed many of them so that Elkan wouldn’t find them. Her own letters to Olander were equally ardent. “Every time you are here, I try to kiss you so I can be happy for a few days, but I long for you even before you are out of the gate,” she wrote in July 1902. In another letter, she expressed the wish that Olander would stay overnight—“that would be divine.”

Elkan grew desperate, writing, “Oh dear, you won’t take Valborg—is it Valborg?—instead of me, will you?”

Selma Lagerlöf and Valborg Olander in the 1930s.

Selma Lagerlöf and Valborg Olander, 1930s (Skodsborg Badesanatorium, Copenhagen)

Olander became deeply involved in Lagerlöf’s literary affairs as well, and Lagerlöf wrote to her saying that “you are becoming a real writer’s wife.” Eventually the trio reached an uneasy peace, which lasted until Elkan’s death of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1921.

Lagerlöf remained devoted to Elkan after her death. Toward the end of her life, she started writing down the stories that Elkan had told her about growing up as a Jewish girl in Sweden, thinking of tales of Vikings and kings as her own heritage until a schoolmate mimed a long nose and said, “Jew kid!” Lagerlöf never finished the project, but the stories she completed were published after her death, in 1940, at the age of 80.

I’ve found Lagerlöf’s books on sale at every bookstore I’ve visited in Sweden,

Books by Selma Lagerlof on a bookshelf.

Akademibokhandeln, Uppsala

but beyond her native country she’s a literary footnote, a hometown favorite who won the Nobel in the years before the award broadened its geographic and literary horizons. If she were alive today, she wouldn’t be a contender. On the other hand, if she were alive today, she would be able to live her life openly, and with pride.

Carlonia Rediviva, Uppsala, with pride flags

Carolina Rediviva, Uppsala

*The illustrations are by future New Yorker cartoonist Rea Irvin.

**In fairness, the writer of the article, American suffragist Frances Maule Björkman, does end up with a more nuanced view of Swedish women, who turn out to have not the slightest interest in sparkling in society but interesting thing to say under other circumstances.

Photograph of Frances Maule Bjorkman with a suffragist banner.

R.C. Beadle, A.H. Brown, and Frances Björkman, 1913 (Bain News Service)

***Oops, sorry, I mean the Evil One.

****It was Greta Garbo’s performance in the 1924 film adaptation of this novel that brought her to the attention of Louis B. Mayer and launched her American career. You can watch some scenes from the film, with commentary, in this interesting five-minute clip.

Greta Garbo in Gösta Berlings saga

*****This was partly because, during most of World War I, the prize was awarded only to writers from non-combatant countries. To this day, only France, the United Kingdom, and the United States have more literature Nobelists than Sweden, which is tied with Germany at eight.

******The Nobel Prize website fesses up to the errors of its ways: “As to the early prizes, the censure of bad choices and blatant omissions is often justified.”

*******Or, as a vivid if probably not very accurate Google Translate translation from this essay in Upsala Nya Tydning puts it, “a lonely and isolated loser.”

********This translation is from a fascinating article called “Selma and her Lovers” in the June 2007 issue of Scanaroma, the SAS inflight magazine (!). Other translations are mine, with the help of Google Translate.

The best and worst of December 1918: Book talk, strewn violets, a sad loss, and a magazine of the future

2018 is over!

I should have anticipated that this would happen eventually, leaving me with a blog title and tag line that make me look like I can’t do simple arithmetic. When I started this project last January, though, the end of the year seemed so far off that it wasn’t worth thinking about. To the extent that I envisioned 2019 rolling around, I imagined myself luxuriating in all the reading I’d missed out on—diving into the new books that have been waiting on my bookshelf

Photograph of a pile of books

and reading frivolous lifestyle articles, which 1918 was woefully short of. Maybe taking a quiz to find out what Hogwarts house I belong in or what Jane Austen character I resemble.*

What actually happened: I got stuck, like someone in a science fiction story who invents a time machine that breaks down as the dinosaurs are descending. I couldn’t bring myself to read any of those new books, not even the biography of food safety pioneer Harvey Wiley, one of my favorite 1918 people. (That’s it at the top of the pile.) I did look at the New York Times headlines on my iPad on New Year’s Day, but they freaked me out. “What is all this news?” I asked myself. “And what does it have to do with me?” So I retreated to the January 1, 1919 news and My Antonia.

It looks like it will take a while. Maybe I’ll read The Waste Land and work my way gradually back to the present.

In the meantime, from my cozy perch in 1918, here are the December bests and worsts.

Best quiz contestants:  

The winners of the “Are You a Stagnuck?” quiz: fellow blogger Deborah Kalb of Books Q&A with Deborah Kalb** and Barbara Dinerman. For their prizes, Deborah has chosen a copy of The Melting of Molly and Barbara has chosen My Antonia. Congratulations to both of these loyal readers! You are not Stagnucks at all. The answers will be posted below the quiz soon. (UPDATE 1/11/2019: You can find them here.)

Best magazine:

Front page header for The Bookman magazine, December 1918

Up to now, four magazines have won the Best Magazine award: The Crisis (three times), The Little Review (twice), The Dial, and The American Journal of Insanity. But the magazine that I turned to most eagerly every month, the one that became my 1918 comfort read, never won the honor. In fact, I came close to naming it Worst Magazine one month, after an ownership change that seemed likely to send it down the tubes.

I’m happy to say that The Bookman’s wonderful December 1918 issue richly deserves the honor.

It began unpromisingly, with a profile of the editor of The Saturday Evening Post and a 15-page article called “The Amazing Story of the Government Printing Office.”*** But then things started looking up, with a Sara Teasdale poem and an interesting article by British war poet Robert Nichols called “To the Young Writers of America,” in which he discusses British taste in American books and vice versa, and notes that up-and-coming poets Robert Frost and T.S. Eliot**** were published in England before they were published in the United States. The highlight for me was when he said that

a certain American poet, come to live among us, antagonized the majority of those who were longing to hear what the real American poets were doing. I will not advertise his name. He does not need my help. He is an adept.

Well, I’ll advertise it: it must be Ezra Pound. I love feeling like a 1918 insider.

Then there was Margaret Ashmun’s Christmas round-up, including several gorgeously illustrated children’s books I mentioned in the 1918 Holiday Shopping Guide,

Harry Clarke illustration from Fairy Tales by Hans Christian Anderson, 1916. People in formal dress.

Fairy Tales by Hans Christian Andersen (1916)

and a fascinating set of articles on children’s literature around the world by writers from England, France, Holland, Spain, and Scandinavia. I was so riveted by the history of children’s books in the Netherlands that I looked up the writer, Hendrik Willem van Loon, who turns out to be the author of The Story of Mankind, which won the first-ever Newbery Award in 1921.

Illustration from Twin Travellers in South America by Mary H. Wade. Boy and girl outside house with parrot.

Frontispiece, Twin Travellers in South America, by Mary H. Wade

In an article about children’s holiday books, Annie Carroll Moore test-drives them on an actual child, nine-year-old Edouard–an ingenious gimmick in an era when gimmicks were sorely lacking.

“Twin Travellers in South America” looked promising but failed to hold his interest for more than a hasty glance at the pictures. “I think my teacher would like that book because it seems like a geography trying to be a story.”*****

And there’s a review of Booth Tarkington’s The Magnificent Ambersons by H.W. Boynton, who feels exactly as I do about it:

I take pleasure in the book, I suspect, because it covers vividly the range of my own generation and yields the atmosphere of and color of that “middle distance” which, as one emerges from it, is wont to be as blurred and insignificant to the backward eye. And I close the book with the queer feeling that everything about it is true except the central figure.

He reviews My Antonia too, but I’m saving that until I finish the book.

Okay, enough Bookman love–on to rest of the best (and worst).

Worst loss to criticism

Portrait photograph of Randolph Bourne.

Randolph Bourne, date unknown

One of the highlights of my 1918 reading has been Randolph Bourne’s criticism in The Dial. He was modern without (like Ezra Pound) descending into incoherence, hard-headed without (like H.L. Mencken) crossing the line to nastiness. At 32, he had a bright future ahead of him. Or he would have, if he hadn’t fallen victim, after suffering from chronic health problems and disabilities throughout his life, to the influenza epidemic. He died on December 22, 1918.  His last essay for The Dial, published on December 28, was a rapturous review of Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians. It ends as follows:

The book runs over with good things. One closes it with a new sense of the delicious violence of sheer thought. If there were more Gideons like this, at the sound of such trumpets all the walls of the Victorian Jerichos would certainly fall.

I wish he had lived to leave us his thoughts on the explosion of literary talent that would emerge after the war.

On a more cheerful note…

Best nostalgia-inducing headline:

President Wilson arrives in France, and the crowds go wild. Like, strewn violets wild. Sigh.

New York Times headline, December 15, 1918, Two Million Cheer Wilson. Includes subhead Flowers Strew His Path.

New York Times, December 15, 1918

Best Christmas present:

Because what says “Christmas” better than not executing someone for exercising their First Amendment rights?

December 17, 1918 New York Times story President Saves Soldier. Wilson commutes death sentence for disobeying orders.

New York Times, December 17, 1918

Worst Christmas present:

Because what says “Red Cross” better than a basket of tobacco?

December 10, 1918 New York Times story about Red Cross workers giving baskets of ciagrettes to returning soldiers.

New York Times, December 10, 1918

Best judicial decision:

Most 1918 judicial decisions were pretty appalling, but I can get behind Johnson v. Johnson.

December 16, 1918 New York Times item about judge ruling that wife's refusal to cook meals does not justify assault.

New York Times, December 16, 1918

Worst praise for a leader during a political campaign:

Excerpt from December 15, 1918 New York Times story saying Lloyd George was called a real spark of radium at a meeting.

New York Times, December 15, 1918

Best sinister stratagem:

Cordiality! Those dastards!

December 15, 1918 New York Times headline reading in part Germans' Cordiality to Army Believed to be a Peace Strategem.

New York Times, December 15, 1918

Worst journalistic flat-footedness:

World War I, as you undoubtedly know, ended on November 11, 1918. Some monthly magazines were on it, like The Crisis

Editorial page of The Crisis, December 1918, with editorial titled Peace.

and Poetry.

First page of Poetry Magazine, December 1918, with poem titled Peace.

Others missed the boat. The Atlantic Monthly was full of war articles with titles like “Morale” and “Impressions of the Fifth Year.”  St. Nicholas published its monthly update on how the war was going, with one line at the top saying, oh, wait, we won.

Header in December 1918 St. Nicholas with sentence announcing the war is over.

St. Nicholas, December 1918

And if you look closely at these festive stamps in the Ladies’ Home Journal to paste onto your letter to your boy or girl in service

Page of stickers in December 1918 Ladies' Home Journal.

Ladies’ Home Journal, December 1918

you’ll find this

Sticker reading 1919 on the Kaiser's Chest with picture of happy sailors sitting on a chest.

and this.

Sticker reading It's war this Christmas, but wait till next year.

Best caption on an illustration:

Phillisy sidled up to her Aunt Marion, intent on a Red Cross sweater. “So,” she asked, “can people come alive when they’re dead?”

Illustration from December 1918 Sunset magazine. Woman knitting outdoros with girl standing next to her.

Sunset, December 1918

Best cartoons:

I love both of these Christmas-Eve-in-the-village scenes by Johnny Gruelle of Judge (the creator of Raggedy Ann and Andy) and Harrison Cady at rival humor magazine Life.

December 28, 1918 Johnny Gruelle Life cover titled Christmas Eve at Yapp's Crossing.

Judge, December 28, 1918

December 5, 1918 Harrison Cady Life illustration showing snowy village.

Life, December 5, 1918

Curious about who drew this charming Life cartoon, I blew it up to to 800% of its size and managed to read the signature: Rea Irvin, who later became a New Yorker cartoonist and created the magazine’s mascot, Eustace Tilley.

Rea Irvin cartoon in Life, December 5, 1918. Butler bringing lump of coal on tray into living room.

Life, December 5, 1918

Worst cartoon:

With the Huns out of the picture, the cartoonists need a new scary-looking villain. Sounds like a job for…the Bolsheviki!

Judge cartoon, December 7, 1918 showing monstrous man about to attack little boy with caption about Bolsheviki.

Judge, December 7, 1918

Best ad (magazine)

Murad generally owns this category******

1918 Murad cigarette ad showing Santa with giant box of Murads in his sack.

Life, December 19, 1918

but is edged out this month by rival Turkish cigarette Helmar.

1918 Helmar cigarette ad saying Helmar Turkish cigarettes with each letter colored with a country's flag.

Judge, December 28, 1918

Best ad (newspaper)

Newspaper ads are rarely interesting, but I did like this one. I’m unclear on the purpose of the electric vibrator that the woman on the right in the second row is using on her head.

1918 ad for New York Edison titled Give Something Electric with cartoons of people using electrical appliances.

New York Times, December 20, 1918

Worst ad:

In another month it might have been this,

1918 ad for Restgood mattress with headline Curled Hair: The Natural Mattress Filler.

Sunset, December 1918

or this,

1918 ad for Radioc with headline Radium and Hair Health.

New York Times, December 17, 1918

but this was the month of

1918 Nashua Woolnap ad showing child in bed aiming rifle at owl.

Ladies’ Home Journal, December 1918

so it was no contest.

Best magazine covers:

There was surprisingly little Yuletide festiveness on the December magazine covers, perhaps due to bet-hedging on the war.

Vogue upheld its usual high standard with two beautiful covers.

Helen Dryden Vogue cover, December 15, 1918. Woman reclining on bed with colorful cushions in front of open window.

Vogue, December 15, 1918

Vogue 1918 Christmas Gifts number cover. Woman on Juliet balcony waving garlands.

Vogue Christmas Gifts Number, 1918

Erté finally turned up again after several months of covers that are lost to history, or at least to the internet.*******

Erté December 1918 Harper's Bazar cover illustration, woman in pink coat in snow.

Harper’s Bazar cover illustration, December 1918, Erté

House and Garden featured this snowy scene.

House and Garden December 1918 cover illustration. Gray house with pink roof, footprints in snow.

Artist William Edouard Scott was back with another luminous painting on the cover of The Crisis.

The Crisis December 1918 cover. William Edouard Scott painting The Flight into Egypt. Black family next to river with lamp.

And I loved this Vanity Fair cover,

Vanity Fair December 1918 cover, colorful cartoon of crowd of happy soldiers.

which might have won, but then I remembered this Dada 3 cover, which was featured in the post on my sad 1918 love life. With the war over, it’s a new era, with a new, sometimes anarchic, aesthetic emerging. And nothing looks more like that future than

Cover of Dada 3, December 1918 with caption reading Je ne veux meme pas savoir s'il y a eu des hommes avant moi.

On to…1919!!!!!!

*Although I don’t need to; I know I’m a Ravenclaw and, like everyone else, Lizzie.

**You should check out her website, which features interviews with a huge number of authors (although none from 1918).

***Which, it turns out, is so amazing that the story continues in the January 1919 issue.

****What The Bookman had to say about Eliot under the previous ownership: “There is such a display of cynical cleverness in the verse of T.S. Eliot that I think he might be able to write almost anything except poetry.”

*****Edouard was right. A sample of the twins’ childish prattle: “‘Why, that must be a mataco,’ he said. ‘It’s a kind of armadillo. See, it has rolled itself into a ball for safety. Matacos always do that when they think danger is near. With its head hidden and its jointed shell curled around, it now feels quite safe.'”

******Fun fact: cartoonist Rea Irvin was a Murad illustrator.

*******I couldn’t find an undamaged copy of the actual cover–this is a reproduction of the illustration.

 

New review on the Book List:

December 31: Renascence and Other Poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay (1917).