Tag Archives: T.S. Eliot

The best and worst of August and September 1918: Modernist all-stars, predictions, and red scarves

Three-quarters of the way through 1918, everything seems normal to me now.* Appalling a lot of the time (racism, eugenics, anti-Semitism, class snobbery), but normal. Nine months of immersion have broken down the barriers of aesthetics and language use. I now think of people as being the age they were in 1918. Happy August/September birthdays to Dorothy Parker (25), T.S. Eliot (30), and William Carlos Williams (35), youngsters all!

I didn’t do a Best and Worst for August because I was back in the United States, socializing nonstop. I don’t know how those 1918 rich people did it—it’s exhausting!** By the time I got back to Cape Town and emerged from the fog of jet lag, September was halfway gone. Which October will be too if I don’t hurry up. So, without further ado, the best and worst of August and September 1918!

Best Magazine: The Little Review, September 1918

Just look at the table of contents of the Little Review’s September issue. It’s the literary equivalent of the Yankees’ 1927 starting lineup.***

Of course, another possible analogy is to one of those movies so overstuffed with stars that you just know it’s going to be horrible.

So which is it?

Somewhere in between. Yeats’s “In Memory of Robert Gregory,” mourning the death of the son of close friends in an aviation accident in Italy (or maybe it was friendly fire), sounds like outtakes from “Easter 1916,” but so-so Yeats is better than just about anyone else at the top of their game. The Eliot poems include his notoriously anti-Semitic “Sweeney Among the Nightingales” (“Rachel née Rabinovitch/Tears at the grapes with murderous paws”), but also a poem in French, “Dans le Restaurant,” part of which eventually made its way, in English, into “The Wasteland.” I confess that I haven’t kept up with the Ulysses serialization, but, hey, it’s Ulysses.

So more 1927 Yankees than New Year’s Eve. And there are more accolades for this issue to come—keep on reading!

Worst Magazine: Current Opinion, September 1918

Halfway through the September issue of The Bookman, I was convinced we had a winner. The magazine, under a new owner, had undergone its second major revamp of the year, and 1918 magazines revamps are never a good thing. They just make the magazine more like all the other magazines. The old Bookman was fusty, but it was entertaining. In the new Bookman, most of the article aren’t even about books. If they are, they’re about old books like Tom Jones or boring books about “Sea Power Past and Present.” But then the magazine redeems itself with an Amy Lowell love poem**** and an excerpt from the upcoming sequel to Christopher Morley’s fun 1917 novel Parnassus on Wheels. And they kept “The Gossip Shop,” which, although most of the gossip is about which writer got his commission and is shipping off to France, is still kind of fun. So I felt better about The Bookman but was left without a worst magazine.

Then I came across the September issue of Current Opinion, featuring an article called “Why the Jew is Too Neurotic.” The reason is explained in the sub-head: “Because his Extraordinary Resemblance to the Average Spoiled Child Causes Mental Strain.” The rest of the article isn’t as bad as that makes it sound. Something about how the Jews were the favorite children of God, and were isolated from the rest of society, and…I’ll spare you the psychoanalytic logic. And there’s sympathetic discussion of anti-Jewish discrimination throughout the ages. But the article epitomizes what’s worst about 1918: the tendency to lump together entire “races” (African-Americans, Jews, Germans, Czechoslovakians, whoever) and ascribe a common set of qualities to them. Inconsistency alert: the issue also includes an admiring profile of New York Times owner Adolph Ochs, who comes across as a gee-whiz regular guy and not neurotic at all.

Best Line in an Editorial: “Vardaman Falls,” New York Times, August 22

I’m not a fan of 1918 NYT editorials, which are generally narrow-minded, prejudiced, and smug. But this one, a gloating account of the primary election defeat of Senator James Vardaman, one of the worst racists in congressional history (although that didn’t bother the Times nearly as much as his antiwar stance), has my favorite 1918 sentence so far:

Was he the victim of his own singularity, grown megalomaniacal, or did he simply overestimate the hillbilliness of his state?

Least Prescient Literary Criticism: Louis Untermeyer, “The Georgians,” The Dial,  August 15

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

It’s not really fair, with the benefit of hindsight, to poke fun at predictions by past critics about how future critics will regard their own times. But it’s fun! So let’s!

Louis Untermeyer, who was actually one of the best critics of the era as well as being a noted poet himself, ruminates on this topic in a review of the anthology Georgian Poetry: 1916-1917. He says of the anthologized poets that “these men of what he [the future critic] will doubtless call the 1920s” will say that the Georgians “produced a literature as distinctive and even more human than their [Elizabethan and Victorian] predecessors.”

No they won’t, Louis. And we don’t call the 1910s the 1920s. We call them the 1910s.

Specifically, Untermeyer predicts that the future critic

will have a vigorous chapter on the invigorating vulgarisms of Mansfield and an interesting essay on Lascelles Abercrombie, who he will find, in spite of the latter’s too packed blank verse, to be even more “modern” than the author of “The Everlasting Mercy.”

Um, not quite. What’s really going to happen, Louis, is that T.S. Eliot***** and the modernists are going to wipe these guys off of the map. Which brings us to…

Most Prescient Literary Criticism: Edgar Jepson, “The Western School,” The Little Review, September

National Magazine, April-September 1915

Continuing our September 1918 Little Review/1927 Yankees starting lineup analogy, Edgar Jepson is, say, Tony Lazzeri to Eliot’s and Joyce’s Ruth and Gehrig. In his article “The Western School,” Jepson, a British writer of detective and adventure fiction, complains about the undue accolades being given to subpar work by prominent poets. He makes his case convincingly by quoting these lines by Vachel Lindsay:

And kettle-drums rattle
And hide the shame
With a swish and a swirk
and dead Love’s name

and these from “All Life in a Life” by Edgar Lee Masters:

He had a rich man or two
Who took up with him against the powerful frown
That looked him down
For you’ll always find a rich man or two
To take up with anything–
There are those who want to get into society, or bring
Their riches to a social recognition

and these from “Snow,” a long poem by Robert Frost about some monks having a conversation in the middle of the night:

That leaf there in your open book! It moved
Just then, I thought. It’s stood erect like that,
There on the table, ever since I came,
Trying to turn itself backward or forward—
I’ve had my eye on it to make out which…

But don’t despair for poetry! For, Jepson says,

the queer and delightful thing is that in the scores of yards of pleasant verse and wamblings and yawpings which have been recently published in the Great Pure Republic I have found a poet, a real poet, who possesses in the highest degree the qualities the new school demands.

None other than…T.S. Eliot!

Could anything be more United States, more of the soul of that modern land than “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”?… Never has the shrinking of the modern spirit of life been expressed with such exquisiteness, fullness, and truth.

Jepson also praises Eliot’s “La Figlia Che Piange” (“Weave, weave the sunlight in your hair”), saying that

it is hardly to be believed that this lovely poem should have been published in Poetry in the year in which the school awarded the prize [Poetry magazine’s Levinson prize] to that lumbering fakement “All Life in a Life.”

Jepson may be overstating his role in the discovery of Eliot, who, after all, is in plain sight in that very issue. But he deserves credit for his prescience, especially since he also complains about Lindsay’s “Booker Washington Trilogy” in language straight out of the #OwnVoices movement:

I have a feeling that it is rather an impertinence. Why should a white man set out to become the poetic mouth-piece of the United States blacks? These blacks have already made the only distinctively United States contributions to the arts—ragtime and buck-dancing. Surely it would be well to leave them to make the distinctively United States contribution to poetry.

Home run for Tony Lazzeri!

Best Magazine Cover of a Woman Swimming with a Red Scarf on Her Head:

In this surprisingly competitive category, here are the runner up

and the winner.

Best Ad Depicting the Advertised Item as Humongous

Winner:

Harper’s Bazar, September 1918

Runner-up:

Good Housekeeping, August 1918

Worst Magazine Cover:

At the risk of sounding like a Boche sympathizer, this is just mean.

Screenshot (1116)-1

Everybody’s, September 1918

Best Magazine Cover:

There are a lot of worthy contenders, like this

Screenshot (1137)

St. Nicholas, August 1918

and this

Screenshot (1118)-1

Vanity Fair, August 1918

and this startlingly modern-looking one

Screenshot (1131)

House & Garden, August 1918

and this, which, in another month, might have won.

Screenshot (1128)-1

Vogue, August 1918

But the war was intensifying, American casualties were mounting, and it seems wrong not to recognize that. So here’s the winner, a soldier saying good-bye to his farmerette sweetheart.

August - Life cover - couple kissing-1

Life, August 22, 1918

On to October!

*Of course, I might feel differently if I had to wear a corset.

**Although not as exhausting as working in a Lower East Side textile factory all day and then going to night school.

***Ford Madox Hueffer is Ford Madox Ford, remember.

****To her female lover. Which may not have been clear to her audience, although does “quiet like the garden/And white like the alyssum flowers/And beautiful as the silent spark of the fireflies” sound like a man to you?

*****Whom, to be fair, Untermeyer mentions later in the article. He says that the future critic will realize “in the light of the new psychology” how much prose writers like J.D. Beresford, Gilbert Cannan, A. Neil Lyons, Rebecca West and Thomas Burke had in common with “such seemingly opposed verse craftsmen” as Edward Thomas, W.W. Gibson, Rupert Brooke, James Stephens, T.S. Eliot. If you blah-blah-blah out the writers no one reads today, we’re left with “Rebecca West has something in common with Rupert Brooke and T.S. Eliot.” I’ll give him that. Kind of.

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.

Thursday Miscellany: All-moms edition

Continuing our belated Mother’s Day festivities, here’s an all-mom miscellany.

With musical accompaniment!

Good Housekeeping, May 1918

…asked no daughter, ever.

I think I’m doing vacuuming wrong.*

Good Housekeeping, May 1918

For the aspiring mother.

The Independent, May 4, 1918

And for the aspiring non-mother.**

Finally, some modernists and their moms:

T.S. Eliot and Charlotte Champe Stearns Eliot, date unknown (tseliot.com)

Ezra Pound and Isabel Weston Pound, 1898

Julia Jackson Stephen and Virginia Stephen (Woolf), 1884

And this is a repeat from my last post but I love this picture.

William Carlos Williams with his sons, Paul and William, and his mother, Raquel Helene Rose Hoheb Williams, ca. 1918

*To which I hear a chorus of voices of people who actually know me saying, “When was the last time you did vacuuming in any way whatsoever?”

**If she can get a copy–the Postmaster General banned it from the mails.

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.

Oh snap! The modernists’ cringe-inducing criticism

The writers who were reviewed in the modernist journals of 1918 are all long dead. But, when I read what T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, and their fellow critics had to say about them, I can’t help cringing on their behalf.

Take this review, in the March 1918 edition of The Egoist, of a collection called Georgian Poetry, 1916-1917. The reviewer, who calls himself Apteryx but is really T.S. Eliot, sums up the work of five contributors as follows:

Mr. Graves has a hale and hearty daintiness. Mr. Gibson asks, “we, how shall we…” etc. Messrs. Baring and Asquith, in war poems, both employ the word “oriflamme.” Mr. Drinkwater says, “Hist!”

Robert Graves (First World War Poetry Digital Archive, University of Oxford)

These few sentences give us a good sense of what’s in the poems. Under the circumstances, though, this criticism seems a bit cruel. Robert Graves, who would go on to fame as a poet, novelist, and memoirist, was a 23-year-old soldier in 1918. “David and Goliath,” written in memory of his friend David Thomas, is a reversal of the Bible story, ending:

‘I’m hit! I’m killed!’ young David cries.
Throws blindly forward, chokes…and dies.
And look, spike-helmeted, grey, grim,
Goliath straddles over him.

Maurice Baring, Wilfrid Wilson Gibson, Herbert Asquith (the son of the Prime Minister), and John Drinkwater were older, in their thirties or forties, but they were all in uniform except Gibson, who tried to enlist but was turned down because of ill health.

Alan Seeger

Even dying in the war didn’t spare a writer from The Egoist’s sharp scrutiny. The December 1917 issue included an unsigned review of a book of poems by Alan Seeger, who had joined the French Foreign Legion and died in the Battle of the Somme in 1916. Seeger, best known now for the poem “I Have a Rendezvous with Death,” was a Harvard classmate of T.S. Eliot, who may have written the review.* According to the Egoist,

Seeger’s poems are not unworthy of the attention they have attracted. The book has not much to offer to the small public which wants nothing twice over, but it has a good deal to give to the public which will take what it likes in any amount.

The Egoist was dismissive toward popular novelists. In a discussion in the February 1918 issue of James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, reprinted from an Italian publication and apparently translated by Joyce himself, Diego Angeli says:

To tell the truth, English fiction seemed lately to have gone astray amid the sentimental niceties of Miss Beatrice Harraden, the police-aided plottiness of Sir Conan Doyle, the stupidities of Miss Corelli or, at best, the philosophical and social disquisitions of Mrs. Humphrey Ward.**

Across the Atlantic, The Dial, which wasn’t a modernist journal but had modernist sympathies,*** shared The Egoist’s contempt for popular novelists. You don’t really have to read further in B.I. Kinne’s review of Hugh Walpole’s The Green Mirror than the title: “If This Be Literature Give Me Death.” If you do, you’ll read that

Mr. Walpole’s most irritating fault is his adherence to the court reporter’s method of observing and recording. This is the fault of many of the contemporary novelists. It is their belief, apparently, that the mere writing down of lists of things, whether dishes of food, toilet articles on the heroine’s dressing-table, books and objects d’art on the drawing-room tables, or the furnishings of a room, constitutes vivid literature.

Hugh Walpole, 1915 (The Independent)

The modernist critics reserve their most scathing criticism for literary luminaries. In an article in the January 1918 Egoist on Henry James (whom he admired), Eliot writes that G.K. Chesterton’s “brain swarms with ideas; I see no evidence that it thinks.” Ezra Pound, also writing admiringly about James in the same issue, says of recent writing that

we may throw out the whole [H.G.] Wells-[Arnold] Bennett period, for what interest can we take in instruments which must of nature miss two-thirds of the vibrations in any conceivable situation.

The modernists’ criticism may be harsh, but, unlike H.L. Mencken’s, it doesn’t seem mean-spirited. Eliot and Pound and the other modernist critics took their work with tremendous seriousness. They thought that the ossified literary world of their time had to die, and that it was their job to kill it. They didn’t just rip into bad writing; they explained how it exemplified what was wrong with the literature of the day. And they had a vision of what should come in its place: modernist writing by the likes of Joyce, Wyndham Lewis, and of course themselves.

This wasn’t exactly trench warfare, but it had its risks. Eliot reported in the March 1918 Egoist that the October 1917 issue of the American modernist journal The Little Review had been declared obscene and seized by the post office, the offending item being a story by Wyndham Lewis. The journal’s legal complaint against the post office had failed.****

The March 1918 issue of the Egoist contained the following announcement:

 That is, no printer in England would touch it. But it was scheduled to be serialized in the Little Review as well.

Bigger battles lay ahead.

*He was also folk singer Pete Seeger’s uncle.

**See! I told you!

***It later became a modernist journal, and was the first place “The Waste Land” was published in the United States.

****The story was called “Cantleman’s Spring-Mate.” Naturally, I immediately tracked it down. Summary: a young man about to go to war sees animals rutting all around, joins in the action with a village girl, and feels that he has defeated death. (Except that makes the story sounds life-affirming, which it’s not. It’s modernist!)

The best and worst of January 1918: Magazines, stories, thinkers, and jokes

 I made it! One month of reading books, magazines, and the news as if I were living in 1918. It’s been even more fun than I expected. The 1918 New York Times at breakfast, printouts of The Dial and The Egoist for on-the-go reading, and Edith Wharton at bedtime. I don’t miss 2018 at all.

Here are some of the month’s highs and lows.

Best magazine: The Crisis

I expected the NAACP’s magazine, edited by W.E.B. Du Bois, to be historically interesting. It was–and it also turned out to be the month’s most compelling read, full of top-quality explanatory journalism, social criticism, personal essays, and fiction.

Runner-up: The New Republic. When I’m befuddled by something I read about in the New York Times—like, was the American war effort as pathetic as Wilson’s critics make it sound, or did Harry Garfield really have to shut down the entire East Coast—all I have to do is wait a few days and the New Republic will provide a clear, convincing explanation. And then explain it again. And then, in case I still don’t get it, spend another couple of pages making the same point. Illuminating? Yes. Concise? No.

Worst magazine: Good Housekeeping

Good Housekeeping was already in the lead for this category because of the horrible Marie Corelli article about cleansing the world through eugenics. Then I read “Mirandy and the One We Didn’t Marry,” by Dorothy Dix. I knew of Dix as a pioneering advice columnist. I’m a big fan of advice columns, and I was eager to find out what she had to say to the women of 1918. But Mirandy turns out to be Dix’s monthly impersonation of an African-American woman who provides her views on life in heavy dialect. “Ef you ’grees wid a woman ‘bout her husban’s faults an’ weaknesses she is lak enough to up an’ lambast you wid de fust thing dat is handy,” Mirandy says. There’s an illustration of a kerchiefed woman with an umbrella giving a talking-to to her pop-eyed friend. If you want to hear a real African-American woman’s take on family life, check out the lovely “A Mother’s New Year’s Resolutions” by Josephine T. Washington, in, where else, The Crisis.

 Best short story: “The Way of the Transgressor,” by Wallace Green

I wrote about this story, which ran in The Crisis, earlier this month. It’s vivid, unformulaic, funny, and moving. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find out anything about Green (if that was his real name), or to find anything else that he wrote. I’ll keep looking.

Runner up: “The Policewoman’s Daughter,” by Ben Hecht (Smart Set, January 1918). Agatha is an innocent young woman with a domineering mother (a figurative, not a literal, policewoman), and the story takes place entirely in her head as she waits in the parlor of a seedy hotel for an assignation with a violinist. As the minutes tick by and it becomes clear that he isn’t going to show up, she falls into a state of anguish, followed by relief that God has saved her from ruin. Then she realizes that she got the date wrong, and her joyful anticipation returns. Hecht, who was twenty-three when this story was written, would go on to be one of Hollywood’s top screenwriters. His many credits include His Girl Friday, which is one of the talkiest films ever made. In “The Policewoman’s Daughter,” no one says a word. Talk about versatility!

Worst short story: “A Palm Beach Honeymoon,” author unknown

Vanity Fair, January 1918

I opened up Vanity Fair and, after 23 pages of ads, seven of them for dogs, finally got to some editorial copy. Or so I thought. “A Palm Beach Honeymoon” is the story of, well, a Palm Beach honeymoon. Robert is smitten with Mabel, his stunning bride, but he gradually becomes aware that, from her perspective, something in the marriage is amiss. Desperate to find out what it is, he asks his friend, who has been flirting with Mabel’s maid, to see what he can find out. His friend reveals that, during the train ride down, the porter threw away Mabel’s copy of Vanity Fair. Really, Vanity Fair? That’s what I get after all those ads? An advertorial?

 Most famous thinker no one cares about today: G.K. Chesterton

G.K. Chesterton (photographer unknown)

 1918 was a bad year, great thinker-wise. Mark Twain died in 1910. So did William James, followed by his brother Henry in 1916. Walter Lippmann was starting to make his mark, but he was still in his twenties in 1918, and in any case he was on hiatus from journalism, working as an assistant to the Secretary of War. So that leaves…G.K. Chesterton. He’s probably best known today for his Father Brown detective stories, but back then he was known for, well, everything. He was a critic and a historian and a theologian and a bunch of other things. Everyone was always quoting him or criticizing him or reviewing his books. There could be a reading-in-1918 drinking game where you take a shot every time someone mentions him. Luckily there isn’t, because I’d be sozzled all the time.

 Least famous thinker everyone cares about today: T.S. Eliot

T.S. Eliot (Lady Ottoline Morrell, 1923)

 Okay, Eliot, who was 30 in 1918, wasn’t completely unknown. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” had been published in Poetry magazine in 1915, and The Egoist, where he was assistant editor, put together a small collection of his poems in 1917. He was publishing reviews in The Egoist and elsewhere. But he was still working as a banker, and no one, except maybe Ezra Pound, suspected that he’d end up as the century’s most important poet and critic.

 Best joke:

 Geraldine—Why didn’t you enlist?
Gerald—I had trouble with my feet.
Geraldine—Flat, or cold?
(Judge, January 5, 1918)

Judge magazine, January 5, 1918

I know what you’re thinking: “This joke is not funny at all. I wish I could go back in time and never have heard this joke.” But, believe me, this is the best joke I could find. I know. It’s sad.

 Worst joke:

It’s pretty much a tie between all the other jokes  I read this month. They’re either corny, like this one:

“I’d like to have Simpkins’ yellow streak.”
“Why you coward!”
“It’s in a gold mine.”

or incomprehensible, like this one:

He—What music are you going to have at your dance?
Other he—The fraternity hat-band.

(Both from Judge, January 5, 1918)

Okay, I can’t end on that note. As I’ve noted before, Judge did have excellent illustrators. I’ll close out the month with another Yapp’s Crossing illustration from John Gruelle, who, it turns out, was the creator of Raggedy Ann and Raggedy Andy.

On to February!

Call me a philistine: bad modernism and bugle poems

When I started this blog, I imagined myself drifting through 1918 on a cloud of superiority, watching appreciatively as modernism flowered in the small journals and rolling my eyes at the sentimental tripe in the popular press. (When I promised not to engage in moral superiority, I didn’t say anything about aesthetic superiority.)

That’s not what has happened. When I eagerly picked up the December 1917 issue of The Egoist, the British journal where T.S. Eliot was assistant editor, the first thing I saw was an article called “XIII. Notes of a Theory of Memory and Will,” by D. Marsden. It began like this: “(1) If one were required to name the most basic characteristic of experience, choice would have to fall upon that of progressive economy of effort in respect of activities which are repeated.” That’s hard to argue with; I’m getting much faster at uploading photos on WordPress. But D. goes on like this for four pages, and I wasn’t sure what the point was. (I found out later that the point was that D(ora) Marsden was the editor of The Egoist, and, while she deserves credit for recognizing the genius of Eliot and Pound, she significantly overestimated the genius of D. Marsden.)

The Egoist gets better after that. T.S. Eliot discusses the role of a critic in a review of a book on Turgenev, and Ezra Pound writes in an article about the Elizabethans that in each great age “a few poets have written a few beautiful lines…and ten thousand people have copied them.” An editorial note informs readers that the first edition of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (“which, it will be remembered, was printed in America owing to the refusal of British publishers and printers to handle it”) has sold out, but a British edition is on the way. So there are some fascinating historical nuggets, but if I had happened to put down Vanity Fair and pick this up in 1918, it wouldn’t have converted me instantly to modernism.

That’s for sure.

Undeterred, I dove in just as eagerly to the January 1918 edition of The Little Review, an American literary journal. It opens with a seven-page prose poem by William Carlos Williams called “Impressions.” Here’s a typical passage:

What can it mean to you that a child wears pretty clothes and speaks three languages or that its mother goes to the best shops? It means: July has good need of his blazing sun. But if you pick one berry from the ash tree I’d not know it again for the same no matter how the rain washed.

After two or three pages of this, I said to myself, “This is nothing like the plum/icebox poem that everyone’s putting on Facebook! Was WCW drunk?” It turns out that he was flirting with poetic Cubism—a style of deliberate disjointedness in imitation of the Cubist painters. Well, it was disjointed all right. After the Williams poem, there was a long essay about the sexes by Ford Madox Hueffer (later known as Ford Madox Ford) that was deliciously gossipy but didn’t have much of a point.

Meanwhile, St. Nicholas magazine was having a contest where children wrote poems about bugles. Genevra Parker, age 13, got a silver medal. Here’s the first verse of her poem:

Blow, blow, blow—
To the murm’ring streamlets blow!
To the sparkling dew, and the roses, too,
And the echoes long and low;
To the clover-tops and the early bees;
Blow through the quiet lanes—
Sing to me of the silver sea
And the horseman on the plains.

Okay, Genevra isn’t breaking any new ground here, poetry-wise. But it’s a cool poem! And she was thirteen years old! And I can tell what it’s about: a bugle!

There’s some beautiful imagery in Williams’ poem, and I admire the spirit of experimentation behind his effort to bring Cubism from painting to verse. But, as a reading experience, I enjoyed “The Bugle-Call” a lot more.

Okay, you can call me a philistine now.