Tag Archives: The Crisis

Banner with pictures of Helen Bogan, Helen Dryden, Josephine Turpin Washington, Mary Roberts Rinehart, and Susan Glaspell.

Celebrating Women’s History Month: Five inspiring women of 1919

Every month is Women’s History Month at My Year in 1918. I’m celebrating the official one, though, by taking a closer look at some women I’ve come across in my reading but hadn’t gotten to know very well until now. For each of them, I’ll share something she left behind.

The Poet: Louise Bogan

Louise Bogan, ca. 1920 (Curt Anderson)

Louise Bogan had an illustrious career. She was named to the post now known as the Poet Laureate of the United States in the 1940s and was the New Yorker’s poetry critic for over three decades. When she died in 1970, the New York Times called her “one of the most distinguished lyric poets in the English language.”

Bogan’s life was not an easy one. She was born in Maine in 1897, the daughter of a mill superintendent and a mentally unstable woman whose inappropriate sexual behavior contributed to the severe depression Bogan suffered from throughout her life. Her family moved to Boston in 1909 and Bogan attended the famed Girls’ Latin School. After a year at Boston University, she turned down a scholarship to Radcliffe and instead married a soldier. By the time she was 23, she had given birth to a daughter and separated from her husband, who died of pneumonia in 1920. Bogan lived in Vienna for a few years, leaving her daughter behind with her parents (!), and then moved to New York, where she spent the rest of her life.

In 1919, 22-year-old Bogan had already begun to make a name for herself. I first came across her work in the December 1917 issue of the experimental poetry magazine Others. In “The Young Wife,” she describes what it was like to be a woman in an age when premarital sex was forbidden for women and condoned for men.*

Here’s an excerpt from “The Young Wife.” You can read the rest here. Bogan didn’t include it in her 1923 collection Body of This Death, and it’s not widely known today, but it’s become one of my favorite poems.

Others, December 1917

The Artist: Helen Dryden

American Club Woman Magazine, October 1914

1919 was a golden age of illustration, and Helen Dryden’s cheerful, colorful Vogue covers were one reason why. Born into an affluent Baltimore family in 1882, Dryden grew up in Philadelphia and began her career as an artist there. She moved to Greenwich Village in 1909 and soon signed a contract with Condé Nast, where she worked for the next thirteen years. In later life (as I learned in a comment on this blog by fashion blogger witness2fashion) she designed Studebaker car interiors. At one point she was reported to be the highest-paid woman artist in the United States. By 1956, though, she was living in a welfare hotel. I’m not sure what happened in between, and there doesn’t seem to be a biography of Dryden. I hope someone will write one.

In the meantime, here are some Dryden Vogue covers from 1919.

Vogue, January 15, 1919

Vogue, February 15, 1919

Vogue, March 15, 1919

The Educator: Josephine Turpin Washington

The Afro-American Press and Its Editors, 1891

I first came across Josephine Turpin Washington when I read her short piece “A Mother’s New Year’s Resolution” in the January 1918 issue of The Crisis. Washington was born in Virginia in 1861, the granddaughter of a Louisiana man named Edwin Durock Turpin and a woman named Mary whom he bought as a slave and, according to a family memoir, fell in love with and married. Washington grew up in Richmond and attended Howard University, working as a clerk for Frederick Douglas during the summers. She taught math at Howard for a few years and then married a doctor and moved to Alabama, where she taught at several African-American universities and wrote on a wide range of issues of concern to the black community. It turns out that we’ll have a chance to learn more about Turpin—a collection of her essays, edited by Rita B. Dandridge, was published last month.

Here’s the beginning of “A Mother’s New Year’s Resolution.”** You can find the rest of the article here. My favorite lines:

I will live with my children not merely for them; since such companionship is worth more than divergent ways, marked by needless sacrifices on the one side and a growing selfishness on the other.

The Crisis, January 1918

The Writer: Mary Roberts Rinehart

Mary Roberts Rinehart, 1914 (Theodore Christopher Marceau)

Mary Roberts Rinehart is often called the American Agatha Christie, although she started writing mysteries more than a decade before Christie did. Rinehart was born outside Pittsburgh in 1876, the daughter of an unsuccessful entrepreneur who committed suicide when she was 19. She attended nursing college, married a doctor, and turned her writing hobby into a profession after she and her husband lost $12,000 in the 1903 stock market crash.*** In 1908, she published her first mystery novel, The Circular Staircase, which sold 1.25 million copies. Reinhart was amazingly prolific, turning out several books a year in a variety of genres—mainstream fiction, travel books, and short stories as well as mysteries. She also wrote several plays, including the 1920 Broadway hit The Bat.

First edition, 1908

Oddly, Rinehart was almost murdered herself. In 1947, while she was staying at her summer house in Bar Harbor, Maine, a chef who had worked for her for 25 years shot at her and then tried to slash her with a pair of knives. Apparently he was angry that Rinehart had hired a butler.**** Other servants subdued him, and he killed himself in jail the next day. Later that year, the house burned down in a huge fire that destroyed 250 Bar Harbor homes. Also in 1947—a horrific year for Rinehart, it seems—she revealed in a Ladies’ Home Journal article that she had had a radical mastectomy and urged women to have breast examinations.

I haven’t read any of Rinehart’s mysteries yet, but I did read, and love, her 1917 comic novel Bab: A Sub-Deb. Here’s the first page. You can read the rest here.

The Playwright: Susan Glaspell

Susan Glaspell, date unknown

Susan Glaspell first won fame as a short story writer and novelist, but she’s best known today as a playwright and as the co-founder, with her husband, of the Provincetown Players, an avant-garde theater group.

Glaspell was born on a farm in Iowa and moved with her family to Davenport when she was a teenager. After graduating from Drake College, she worked in Davenport for a few years as a journalist and then turned to writing fiction full-time. She quickly found success as a short story writer***** and published a bestselling novel called The Glory of the Conquered in 1909. After her second novel appeared in 1911, the New York Times said she was “high among the ranks of American storytellers.”

Glaspell fell in love with a married writer named George Cram Cook, married him in 1913 after his divorce came through, and moved to Greenwich Village. In 1916, she and Cook founded the Provincetown Players in Cape Cod, working alongside friends, including leftist journalist John Reed, to produce a series of innovative one-act plays. Always looking for material, Glaspell asked an acquaintance one day whether he had written any plays. He said he hadn’t, but a friend of his had. The friend was Eugene O’Neill, and the theater produced his first one-act play, Bound East for Cardiff, in July 1916. The group continued its work at the Provincetown Playhouse in Greenwich Village.

George Cram Cook and Susan Glaspell, New York Tribune, July 15, 1917

Glaspell’s success continued after her husband’s death in 1924. She was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1931 for her play Alison’s House. Her best-known work today, though, is the 1916 one-act play Trifles, which was inspired by a murder trial she covered as a journalist. As it opens, a surly farmer has been killed and his wife has been taken in for questioning. The county attorney and the sheriff are interviewing a neighboring farmer in the dead man’s house. The sheriff’s wife and the neighboring farmer’s wife have tagged along. The women make occasional comments about the murder suspect’s preserves and her quilting, and the men snicker. While the men are upstairs investigating, the women discover a dead parakeet, apparently killed by the husband. The investigators haven’t been able to find a motive, and this seems to be it. To protect the abused wife, the women hide the incriminating evidence.

Here’s the first page of Trifles. You can read the play here. (It’s really short!)

Trifles, 1916 edition

It was great to learn more about these inspiring women. But women’s history, like men’s history, isn’t just a pageant of hero(in)es. In my next post I’ll tell you about some 1919 women I’m not such a big fan of.

*Before this project, I had the impression that premarital sex for men was frowned upon in principle but tolerated. In fact, it was more or less encouraged, the theory being that men were physically incapable of abstaining from sex and were better off sleeping with prostitutes or loose women than marrying before they were ready to support a family.

**The Crisis often used swastikas in its graphic design—this was, of course, before the emergence of the Nazi party.

***As an MFA graduate, I’m envious of all those 1919-era women who turned to writing short stories to make money.

****Speaking of butlers, we have Rinehart to thank for the phrase “the butler did it,” which originated with her 1930 novel The Door. She didn’t use those exact words, but—SPOILER ALERT—the butler did do it.

*****Like I said.

Celebrating 100 Posts: 2017 Me Interviews 2019 Me about My Year in 1918

Happy 100 posts to My Year in 1918!* In the blog world, this milestone is traditionally celebrated by indulging in some navel-gazing. So I thought it would be a good time to finally sit down for an interview with 2017 Mary Grace, who had some questions for her post-2018 self. 2017 Mary Grace expected that this interview would take place around New Year’s, but 2019 Mary Grace kept dragging her feet. Once she finally sat down with 2017 Mary Grace, though, she was quite chatty.

Photograph of Mary Grace McGeehan, 2017.

2017 Mary Grace

Photograph of Mary Grace McGeehan, 2018.

2019 Mary Grace (well, November 2018, but I haven’t changed much)

Here goes:

Tell me about your favorites among the writers you discovered, the books you read, and your other reading.

Photograph of young Edna Ferber.

Edna Ferber, date unknown

I read some great books by famous writers, like O Pioneers! and My Ántonia by Willa Cather and The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf. But, as much as I loved these books, I had more fun discovering books that are forgotten today. One that I’ve recommended over and over is Edna Ferber’s 1912 short story collection Buttered Side Down. Ferber is best known today for the theater and film adaptations of her books, like Showboat and Giant. I wish her book themselves were more widely read. She’s funny and entertaining and empathetic toward her mostly working-class characters.

Cover of The Crisis magazine, January 1918, drawing of African-American woman with daisies in front of her face.

Among magazines, the biggest revelation was The Crisis, the NAACP magazine edited by W.E.B. Du Bois. It was the only national publication for African-Americans, who were non-existent in the mainstream press except as racist stereotypes. Du Bois was unsparing in covering lynching, discrimination, and other racial injustices, but the magazine also included poems and short stories and news items about achievements by African-Americans, such as 20-year-old college football star/singer Paul Robeson. And cute babies!

Photograph of T.S. Eliot by Lady Ottoline Morrell, 1923.

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

Another highlight was reading T.S. Eliot’s monthly literary criticism in The Egoist, the small British magazine where he served as literary editor. I’d never thought of Eliot as funny, but he wrote some hilarious takedowns of well-known writers (often under a pen name). My favorite, on G.K. Chesterton: “Mr. Chesterton’s brain swarms with ideas; I see no evidence that it thinks.”

What were your least favorites?

Photograph of young H.L. Mencken.

H.L. Mencken, date unknown

 Hands down, my least favorite book was In Defense of Women by H.L. Mencken. It’s 218 pages of essentialist garbage: men are dreamy romantics and women are hard-headed pragmatists, too sensible to care about ridiculous pastimes like politics or to bother with the picayune details of the typical male job. That’s why more women aren’t lawyers, he says. Oh, that’s why. Mencken does take aim against some Victorian shibboleths, like the myth that women don’t enjoy sex. On the whole, though, it was infuriating, and I was glad to learn that the 1918 edition sold fewer than 900 copies. (A significantly revised edition published in 1922 did much better.)

The New York Times was surprisingly awful. Domestic news coverage was all right, but, aside from a few war reporters, the best known of whom (Phillip Gibbs) wrote primarily for British papers, there was virtually zero foreign news coverage, and much of it—especially about Russia—was highly inaccurate. The czar and his family were repeatedly reported killed when they were still alive and reported alive when they were dead. And there were some shockingly right-wing editorials, like the one saying that German accusations of American racism were unfounded because Americans are very patient with their black servants.

My go-to hate read was The Art World. The magazine detested all art from Impressionism on, which, as I’ve mentioned, was as reactionary for its time as saying today that rock and roll is just a bunch of noise. This caption to an illustration of a Cézanne painting was typical.

Photograph of Cezanne landscape in Art World magazine, January 1918, with caption reading in part, to a normal mind significant of childish incompetence.

The Art World, January 1918

I kind of missed The Art World’s crazy rants when, in mid-1918, it merged into a décor magazine.

Were there any forgotten books or writers that readers of today might enjoy?

Cover illustration of Bab: A Sub-Deb by Mary Roberts Rinehart, first edition, 1917.

I’ve mentioned Ferber as an unjustly neglected writer. I also read a number of books that were a huge amount of fun without reaching that level of literary merit. One was Bab: A Sub-Deb, by Mary Roberts Rinehart. It’s a comic novel, told in the first person, about the hapless 17-year-old daughter of an upper-crust New York family. She’s always getting into scrapes, like when she buys a frame with the photograph of a young man in it and claims that it’s her boyfriend to shock her family, but then the man in the photograph shows up, full of endearments! Rinehart is better known today as a mystery writer, but Bab: A Sub-Deb was a huge popular and critical hit when it was published in 1917.

Cover of Hermione and Her Little Group of Serious Thinkers by Don Marquis, first edition, 1916.

Another very funny book, also about a young upper-class New York woman, was Hermione and Her Little Group of Serious Thinkers, a collection of newspaper pieces by Don Marquis, best known today as the creator of the cockroach-and-cat duo Archy and Mehitabel. Hermione and her little group “take up” every fad and fashionable cause—suffrage, clairvoyance, Indian philosophy, modernist poetry, etc.—and drop them just as quickly. Here’s a typical rumination of Hermione’s:

This war is going to have a tremendous influence on Art—vitalize it, you know, and make it real, and all that sort of thing. In fact, it’s doing it already. We took up the war last night—our Little Group of Advanced Thinkers, you know—in quite a serious way and considered it thoroughly in all its aspects and we decided that it would put more soul into Art.

 And into life, you know.

What was your most surprising discovery?

Cover of Dear Enemy by Jean Webster, first edition, 1915.

 I knew about the prevalence of eugenic thought—the belief in the purification of society through selective breeding—but I thought of it as a right-wing philosophy. So I was shocked to learn that it was embraced by progressives, including a lot of people I otherwise admire, like Daddy-Long-Legs author Jean Webster, a socialist. In Dear Enemy, the (deservedly) less well-known sequel to Daddy-Long-Legs, Sallie McBride (Daddy-Long-Legs heroine Judy’s best friend from college, who is now running the orphan asylum where Judy grew up) writes to the asylum’s doctor as follows:

You know, I’m tempted to ask you to prescribe arsenic for Loretta’s cold. I’ve diagnosed her case: she’s a Kallikak. Is it right to let her grow up and found a line of 378 feeble-minded people for society to care for? Oh dear! I do hate to poison the child, but what can I do?

On a lighter note, I always thought of 1918 as a time when the modernists  (the good guys) were facing off against the Victorians (the villains). There is truth to this, but a lot of modernist art and writing was just plain stupid. The 1917 collection Others: An Anthology of the New Verse, edited by Alfred Kreymborg, included verse by T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, and Carl Sandburg, but there was also this poem by Walter Conrad Arensberg:**

Text of poem Ing by Walter Conrad Arensberg, from The Others, An Anthology of the New Verse, 1917.

From The Others: An Anthology of the New Verse (1917)

Ahead of its time? Definitely. In a good way? I don’t think so.

What was the most difficult part of the project? What did you miss the most?

 I thought it would be hard to set aside the light but well-written contemporary fiction that I turn to for comfort reads—writers like Elinor Lipman, Stephen McCauley, and Meg Wolitzer—but I found so much fun 1918 reading that this wasn’t much of an issue. What I did miss was the journalistic entertainment that we take for granted—advice columns, quizzes, humor pieces, crossword puzzles and the like. With a few exceptions, like Dorothy Parker’s writing for Vanity Fair and Harvey Wiley’s Good Housekeeping column Dr. Wiley’s Question-Box, that type of thing just didn’t exist. (Three was humor, but for the most part it wasn’t funny.)

Header for Dr. Wiley's Question-Box, Good Housekeeping magazine, 1918, with instructions for submitting questions.

What was the most fun part?

 I loved writing the Best and Worst posts. It was fun to discover excellent writing, ads, and magazine cover art. Finding the worsts was even more fun. I’ll take the opportunity here to show this Life magazine cover, which I missed at the time but now belatedly crown the Worst Magazine Cover of 1918.

Life magazine cover, July 4, 1918, boy pointing toy gun at dachshund wearing German helmet, shadow of soldier with sword.

Life, July 4, 1918

What did you learn about the world of 1918? What did 1918 teach you about the world we live in today?

 One of my biggest takeaways was how central the role of social class was in 1918. We talk now—and rightly so—about the dangers of rising inequality, but back then social class (along with gender, race and ethnicity) determined every aspect of your life, from what you wore to who you married. In one story I read—I can’t remember what it was—an upper-class man is walking in the city and he gets depressed because, after an hour, he hasn’t seen another gentleman. It struck me as extraordinary that he could identify people’s social class with a single glance like that.

Drawing of the De Pinna family, owners of the De Pinna department store, wearing Easter finery, Harper's Bazar, April 1918.

Harper’s Bazar, April 1918

Someone asked me what would surprise a 1918 person who was transported to 2018 the most. I said they’d be astonished by how casually dressed most people are, and how similarly men and women dress. There are good and bad things about this—I sigh over 1918 clothes—but clothing as a marker of social class doesn’t exist in the same way anymore (leaving aside work uniforms like suits and ties).

Over the course of the project, I became much more appreciative of the world we live in today. Despite its many problems, it’s a vastly better place than the world of a hundred years ago. Of course, we’re the beneficiaries of hard-won victories by previous generations of activists on civil rights, women’s rights, and expanded educational opportunities. We need to fight just as hard as they did to ensure that we leave behind a better world than the one we inherited. Here, my views aren’t quite so rosy, particularly when it comes to climate change.

What did you learn about being a blogger?

Copy of My Year in 1918 blog header with five 1918 magazine covers.

A while back, I read a post by a successful blogger about increasing viewer traffic. The key, he said, is to write about the same things that everyone else is writing about because that’s what people want to read. Don’t think you can write about a niche topic and find your audience, he said—it’s not going to happen.

I’m glad I didn’t see this post when was starting out, because it would have discouraged me. And he’s wrong—I did find my audience. It might be small by his standards, and, sure, it can be frustrating to happen upon a blog post that says something like “I was kind of tired but I had some coffee and now I feel better” and see that it has 117 likes. But I can’t think of any other area of life with so few barriers to getting your voice heard and becoming part of a community. I’m not a historian, or an expert on 1918, but I had something to say, and people listened. That’s a wonderful thing.

How has your year in 1918 affected your reading life?

 As I’ve mentioned, I had a rocky transition at the beginning of 2019, similar to the reverse culture shock I used to experience when I got back to the United States from a diplomatic posting. It took me several weeks to go back to reading contemporary books and news. Now that I have, I’ve become fussier about what I read. Everything I read in 1918 had a larger purpose as part of the project, and I try to bring a similar sense of purpose into my reading now. I read less day-to-day news and more explanatory journalism. I read less journalism in general, for that matter, and more poetry. And I’m more tenacious about sticking with challenging reading, like this 800-page French book that I started four years ago and am finally close to finishing.

Cover illustration of La Valse Lente des Tortues by Katherin Pancol.

OK, it’s not Balzac

That said, I’m only human. The day I got back from my recent trip to Ethiopia, having taken six plane flights in eight days, I read five articles (here’s one) about how the cast of Crazy Rich Asians owned the red carpet at the Oscars.

Who was your most admired figure from 1918? Your least admired?

Portrait photograph of W.E.B. Du Bois, 1918.

W.E.B. Du Bois, 1918

Photograph of Jane Addams reading to children at Hull House.

Jane Addams reads to children at Hull House. (Jane Addams Memorial Collection, University of Illinois at Chicago)

For Thanksgiving, I wrote a post on 10 1918 People I’m Thankful For. Of these ten, I’d say that Jane Addams and W.E.B. Du Bois are my most admired.

New York times editorial headline reading Vardaman Falls.

New York Times, August 22, 1918

There were lots of villains. One of the worst is Senator James Vardaman of Mississippi. He was known as “the Great White Chief” and lived up to this moniker with comments like “the only effect of Negro education is to spoil a good field hand and make an insolent cook.” He was defeated in the Democratic primary when seeking a second term in 1918. Not for being a racist, though—it was because he had voted against the U.S. entry into World War I. The New York Times had this to say after his defeat: “Was he the victim of his own singularity, grown megalomaniacal, or did he simply overestimate the hillbilliness of his state?”***

What did you learn about marginalized voices from 1918?

Street scene, Lower East Side, New York, ca. 1910.

Lower East Side, ca. 1910 (New York Times photo archive)

I learned that the world “marginalized” barely does justice to how African-American writers and members of other racial and religious minorities were treated in literature. “Erased” would be a better word. Jewish immigrant writers were starting to appear, though, and I read two fascinating memoirs by Lower East Side textile workers—One of Them by Elizabeth Hasanovitz (whom I wrote about here and here) and An American in the Making by Marcus Eli Ravage. Along with Edna Ferber’s short stories, Ravage’s memoir is the forgotten book I most enthusiastically recommend to readers today.

Is there anything you wish you had done that you didn’t have a chance to?

 So many things!!! I didn’t listen to much 1918 music or watch 1918 movies except one short one. I totally fell down on the job when it came to 1918 cooking, partly because wartime food restrictions made for awful-sounding recipes. And I didn’t spend a day wearing a corset, as I planned to.

 How does 1918 writing compare to today’s writing? What was better? What was worse?

Cover of The Best Short Stories of 1918, edited by Edward J. O'Brien.

Short stories were big business in 1918, but, aside from Edna Ferber’s, they were terrible. I bought The Best Short Stories of 1918 but didn’t make it through a single one. A critic at the time complained that everyone was trying to be O. Henry, and he was right.

On the other hand, it was a golden age of poetry. Poets like T.S. Eliot and William Carlos Williams and Marianne Moore and Louise Bogan were just starting their careers. (Yeats was more established.) Of course, there was a lot of terrible poetry too. Sadly, I haven’t been able to find the worst poem I read, toward the beginning of the year. It was about little baby Judas’s mommy wondering why he was so tormented.

Cover of The Little Review, March 1918, with text reading Ulysses by James Joyce.

As far as fiction goes, Ulysses appeared in print for the first time, serialized in The Little Review, and My Ántonia was published. In non-fiction, Eminent Victorians and The Education of Henry Adams transformed how biography and memoir are written. All in all, I doubt 2018 will leave as great a mark in literary history.

What were some of the underlying, unquestioned assumptions that you found? How does that shed light on the underlying assumptions that we might hold today?

People = men was a big one. It wasn’t just the generic use of “men” to mean human beings. Writers defaulted to the assumption that their readers were men and that, basically, anyone who did anything of any importance would be a man. This was hard-wired into the language.

It’s not possible to know which of our current unquestioned assumptions will seem as antiquated in a hundred years (if it were, they wouldn’t be unquestioned), but I’m constantly thinking about what they might be. There was a New York Times essay on this topic early this year that I found fascinating.

Did you cheat? How, and how often?

I went into the project with some unrealistic plans that went by the wayside almost immediately. The original idea was that I wouldn’t read anything contemporary at all, other than the minimum required to be a good citizen (information about candidates in the midterm elections, for instance).

Portrait photograph of novelist Marie Corelli, 1909.

Marie Corelli, 1909

Then, on January 3, I read an article in the New York Times about the British writer Marie Corelli being arrested for hoarding sugar. I had never heard of Corelli, and I realized that I wouldn’t be able to write about her without doing some research. I looked her up on Wikipedia and discovered that she was one of the best-selling writers of her day, that she was the illegitimate daughter of the author of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, which I had heard of, and that she was probably a lesbian. Fortuitously, she had written a totally bonkers article about eugenics in the January 1918 issue of  Good Housekeeping, so I wrote about that too. The small amount of background reading I did made the story a much richer one, and it ended up as one of my top 10 posts of the year.

From then on, my rule was that I’d treat research the way Catholics treat lustful thoughts—they’re inevitable, but don’t dwell on them. I’d go to (usually) Wikipedia, get the information I needed, and get out quickly.

Once the guidelines were set, I was pretty good about sticking to them. I got news alerts on my iPad, so I knew what was in the headlines. If a news event was important enough that I felt I needed to know about it (like the Trump-Putin summit, the Kavanaugh hearings, and the midterm election results) I’d read an article about it—just one. No editorials, op-eds, or features. I did make some exceptions: I read blogs because it was only fair since I wanted people to read my blog; I read a few articles written by friends from my MFA program, like this one; and I exchanged fiction writing with a few friends. That’s about it. 99% of my reading was from 1918.

Did you come across any interesting (contemporary) people over the course of the project?

Cover of Women Warriors by Pamela D. Tonder.

Yes, I did. I’ve mentioned some of them before: history writer Pamela Toler, whose new book Women Warriors: An Unexpected History is waiting for me in Washington, D.C.; Connie Ruzich, who writes about World War I poets on her blog Behind Their Lines; Ph.D. student Leah Budke, who is researching modernist anthologies; the unnamed person behind the blog Whatever It Is, I’m Against It, who writes every day about what was in the New York Times a hundred years ago; Frank Hudson of The Parlando Project, who writes about poets, many of them from the 1918 era, and puts their words to song; and Sheryl Lazarus of the blog A Hundred Years Ago, who is cooking her way through the 1910s (putting me to shame). More recent discoveries include two wonderful fashion blogs, Femme Fashion Forward, Danielle Morrin’s blog about fashion from 1880 to 1930, and Witness2Fashion, reflections on everyday fashion through the ages . Getting to (virtually) know these people was one of the best parts of the year.

What’s next? Where will you take the project from here?

When I started, I envisioned this as strictly a one-year project. But, although I’m no longer reading only as if I were living in 1918, that period is like a second home to me now and I plan to go back often. So I’ll keep going with my blog, although I won’t post as frequently. At some point I’ll need to figure out what to do about its now out-of-date title!****

Do you have any advice for anyone considering a project like this?

Do it! I had high hopes for the project, but it was even more rewarding than I expected.

Portrait of Annie Sadilek Pavelka, the real-life My Antonia, and her family.

Annie Sadilek Pavelka and her family, date unknown. (A photo file that was really, really hard to reduce.)

But don’t let it take over your life. Once in a while, particularly during the first half of the year when I kept to a strict three posts a week schedule, I would be working late at night to get a post up, stressing out over picture file size reductions (something I spent way more time on than I could have imagined), and I’d have to remind myself that, hey, it’s just a blog.

Anything else you want to add?

Cover of From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsberg.

In E.L. Konigsberg’s 1967 children’s classic From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweilerone of my favorite books of all time—Claudia Kinkaid, who has run away to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, says that she wants to “come back different.” When I decided to spend a year in 1918, I wanted to come back different, too. But, like Claudia, I didn’t know exactly what this meant.

After my year in 1918, I know that period in a way that no one else in the world does. Not that I know more about it than anyone else–for example, many people were, unlike me, aware that they didn’t have helicopters back then. But no one else, I am sure, has experienced the year in real time as I did. And I have come back different, in ways that I’m still figuring out. It was a remarkable journey, and one I’ll always be glad I made.

Thanks for joining me.

Thanks for having me!

*If you want to get technical, this is actually my 101st post. I spent much of February traveling in Ethiopia and Zanzibar, which was a great way to celebrate Black History Month but not a very good way to write about it. When I got back to Cape Town I had to rush to get out my post on the first book about an African-American child while it was still February. That was my 100th post.

**Don’t feel too sorry for Arensberg. He was very rich and later became a prominent collector of modern art.

***There is a building at the University of Mississippi named after Vardaman. Wikipedia says it was renamed, but as far as I can tell this is in the works but hasn’t happened yet.

****As I was preparing for this blog in 2017, I asked my friend Emily, she of the DietBet, for advice. As a veteran of several location-related blog name changes (her husband is in the Foreign Service), she warned me against choosing a title that would go out of date. But did I listen? No. You were right, Emily! Her blog is now (and forever) named The Next Dinner Party.

New review on the Book List:

February 27: The Education of Henry Adams by Henry Adams (1918) (audiobook).

Harry Roseland illustration in Hazel by Mary White Ovington, captioned She stopped to listen to the riot of song.

The first African-American heroine in children’s literature

For Black History Month this year, I decided—knowing how few novels by or about African-Americans existed a hundred years ago—to look into whether there were any stories about black children.*

There was one, it turns out: Hazel, by Mary White Ovington, a white social activist. It was published in 1913 by the Crisis Publishing Company, which was associated with The Crisis, the NAACP magazine edited by W.E.B. Du Bois. (The first children’s book by an African-American writer was Mrs. A.E. Johnson’s 1890 Clarence and Corinne: Or God’s Way, but the characters aren’t identified as African-American.)

Photo portrait of Mary White Ovington, ca. 1910.

Mary White Ovington, ca. 1910

Ovington, who was born in 1865, was a socialist and a co-founder of the NAACP. Over her long career, she started a settlement in Brooklyn, studied employment and housing issues among African-Americans in Manhattan, campaigned for women’s suffrage, held several senior positions in the NAACP, and wrote numerous books on race and gender. Reading about Ovington convinced me that she was an admirable person, but it didn’t give me high hopes for Hazel. I figured the story would be worthy and right-minded but preachy and boring. The sole Goodreads review (2 stars) reinforced this preconception.

Advertisement in The Crisis for Hazel: The Story of a Little Colored Girl by Mary White Ovington, 1913.

Advertisement in The Crisis, November 1913

I was pleasantly surprised. Hazel has plenty to say about racism, but it’s also full of adventure and friendship and adversity and humor and all the things a children’s book should have.

Hazel isn’t your typical early-20th-century African-American girl. For the first decade of her life she lives in middle-class comfort in Jamaica Plain in Boston, the beloved only child of a lawyer and his wife. She goes to the Congregational church and attends an integrated school, where, Ovington tells us, she and the other black students are “staunch little New Englanders, with the same speech, the same dress, the same ambitions as their white classmates.” And check out Hazel’s picture in the ad, which also appears as the frontispiece in the book—she looks like a black person drawn by a white person who has never seen a black person.**

Then Hazel’s father dies and she and her mother move to an apartment in a poor neighborhood in the South End, where her mother works a hairdresser and laundress. When the story starts, Hazel has been experiencing health problems and her mother decides to send her to spend the winter with her husband’s mother in Alabama.***

Illustration by Harry Roseland from Hazel by Mary White Ovington, subtitled Granny.

Illustration from “Hazel” by Harry Roseland

The trip is an eye-opener for Hazel, who has never experienced racism. To travel in the same train car as her white escort, eleven-year-old Hazel has to pretend to be her maid. Once she arrives in Alabama, a pair of white sisters her grandmother, Ellen, does laundry for don’t know what to make of her, with her well-spoken ways and fancy wardrobe. They pepper her with questions:

“Is your pa living?”
“What does your ma do?”
“How is she buying you such clothes?”
“How long have you been to school?”
“Are you reckoning to stay here this winter?”
“Are you working for Aunt Ellen?”

After they leave, Hazel complains that, if her mother went to visit these ladies, she “wouldn’t ask about every teenty thing they did.”**** Her grandmother tells her not to worry about it:

“These people here are just naturally curious, sugar. Don’t you get put out at ’em…Nothing much happens except the hoeing of the corn and the picking of the cotton; and when a little girl with soft eyes and a pretty dress and sweet ways comes among us, we’s just naturally curious. We wants to see her and learn all about it.”

Illustration by Harry Roseland from Hazel by Mary White Ovington, captioned She still picked her cotton in the autumn...

Illustration from “Hazel” by Harry Roseland

Later in the story, Hazel gets lost and, with night falling, stops at a house to ask directions. The occupants turn out to be the same two ladies. “Sister,” one of them calls to the other, “here’s Aunt Ellen’s child come to ask her way, and if the little [n-word] didn’t knock at the front door!” But they invite Hazel in, marveling at her elegant little blue coat with a red lining. They ask her how much it cost, and Hazel says it was a gift from a friend of her father’s. The women tut with sympathy over her father’s death, saying that he was a “right nice boy.” When Hazel mentions that he was a lawyer, they say, “A [n-word] lawyer! That beats all.” They feed her coffee and biscuits and Hazel talks about life back in Boston. She’s planning to go to college, she says.

“What will you do with all your learning?” Miss Jane asked.

“I’ll teach.”

“[N-words]?”

Hazel did not want to answer, but sitting very erect, with a precision that would have done any teacher credit, she replied: “Everybody goes to school in Boston, every single child. And the teachers don’t ask whether they are black or white, or rich or poor. There are Turks, and Arabians, and (switching to the map of Europe as safer ground) Hungarians and Bulgarians, and Norwegians, and Swedians, (doubtfully) and Greeks, and Spaniards, and Romans, and Germans and Irish.”*****

“You don’t say!” exclaimed Miss Laura, “all those heathen!”  

Then Hazel, responding to another in the volley of questions, replies, “No, Miss Fairmount,” and is told,

“My name is Jane. You should call me Miss Jane.”

“Not Miss Fairmount?”

“Certainly not. It is impertinent in a [n-word].”

Hazel, who has had enough by now, says she has to go, and the ladies stroke her coat, tell her to come again, and escort her out the back door, where their servant is waiting to walk her home.

I had expected that Hazel would encounter 1910s Alabama racism at its most vile. After all, she had been warned by her friend Charity in Boston that “there’s two kinds of white folks down there: those that hates you and those that calls you ‘a cute little [n-word].'” This is as bad as the white people around her get, though. Her experiences with her black neighbors are more traumatic. The little Boston Congregationalist freaks out the first time she attends the local church, where the preacher, after a cursory description of heaven, depicts his parishioners

standing in the lake of fire and brimstone, burning, burning, not for a day but forever and ever. The flames seemed to leap up as the minister shouted: “And the devil will reach out for you, ye generation of vipers, he’ll reach for you across the flames, and he’ll catch you and draw you into the burning lake.”

“Lord save us!” “Please have mercy, Jesus,” came from the moaning crowd.

Hazel was aghast.

Illustration by Harry Roseland from Hazel by Mary White Ovington, captioned Scipio Lee. African-American boy in a field.

Illustration from “Hazel” by Harry Roseland

With her grandmother caught up in the service, Hazel tells her friend Scipio that she wants to leave. He takes her hand and leads her out, as the preacher shouts, “The heathen are burning, and every day the devil pours on fresh oil and the flames mount higher and higher to the sky.” (WARNING: THE UPCOMING EXCERPT INCLUDES DISTURBING MATERIAL.)

“Scip,” said Hazel with a quick breath, “do you believe in hell?”

“Yes, ma’am,” said Scipio.

“You don’t believe what he is saying? You don’t believe God will put us in fire to burn forever and ever?”

“I seen a lynching once,” Scipio replied. “It were just like that, they poured on oil.”

“Oh, don’t,” Hazel gasped. She seized his arm with her two hands; “don’t” she cried.

After a moment she whispered, “But it didn’t last forever. He died?”

“Yes, ma’am. He died.”

“And wicked men burned him, and it was only for a few minutes. God wouldn’t make him burn forever and ever.”******

Scipio is the antithesis of Hazel, the illiterate son of a drunken sharecropper. Hazel, who doesn’t go to school in Alabama, takes him up as her project, meeting him in a pine grove every evening for reading lessons. Often, he is often battered and bleeding from his father’s beatings. One day, Hazel sees him beating his younger brother and breaks off their friendship, but eventually all is forgiven.

In the end, Hazel returns to Boston, promising to return. As she and her mother head up to spend the summer in Maine, where there is money to be made shampooing white people’s hair, she receives a letter from Scip:

Dear Sister:
Aunt Ellen has took me in.
I am going to help her pick cotton when it ripes.
The cat is playing by the fire.
Scipio Lee

Handbill for Zeke by Mary White Ovington, 1931

Handbill for “Zeke,” 1931

In 1931, Mary White Ovington published another children’s book, called Zeke. It’s about a boy—Scipio’s younger brother, apparently, but not the one he beat up—who, with the encouragement of the adult Hazel, becomes the first African-American in his area to attend college. I guess I’ll have to wait another twelve years to see what happens.

Hazel might be considered more historically significant today if its author had been black, or if its heroine had been less privileged. Still, it deserves to be better known. I’m glad I read it. Much more than that, I’m glad it was there for African-American children to read in 1913.

*There’s the notorious Story of Little Black Sambo, of course, but that book’s history turns out to be complicated. Author Helen Bannerman, a Scottish woman who lived in India, intended Sambo to be Indian (hence the tigers). Here’s how he appeared on the cover of the original 1899 edition, which Bannerman illustrated.

Cover of The Story of Little Black Sambo by Helen Bannerman, 1900. Cartoon of dark-skinned boy with umbrella.

Cover illustration, “The Story of Little Black Sambo,” Helen Bannerman, 1899

It was only much later, notably in a 1927 American edition with illustrations by Frank Dobias (also used decades later in a wildly popular Japanese edition), that Sambo was depicted as African. The illustrations remain under copyright, but if you’re curious you can see some of them here.

**Which, to be fair, wasn’t the case at all. Illustrator Harry Roseland was a well-known artist who specialized in paintings of poor African-Americans.

***Going on a long, arduous journey being the universal solution to serious health problems in the 1910s.

****“Teenty” is my new favorite 1910s word. Here it is in a poem called “When Baby Slept,” by Hoosier Poet James Whitcomb Riley, best known for “Little Orphant Annie.” (Date unknown, but he died in 1916.)

WHEN weenty-teenty Baby slept,
With voices stilled we lightly stepped
And knelt beside the rug where she
Had fallen in sleep all wearily;
And when a dimpled hand would stir,
We breathlessly bent over her
And kissed the truant strands that swept
The tranc’d lids and the dreams that kept
When Baby blinked her Court and slept.

 *****This might be a teenty bit idealized. I went to college in the Boston area in the 1980s, and the educational system there wasn’t exactly a post-racial utopia.

******UPDATE 3/2/2019: Reading the post over, I realize that I didn’t address this aspect of the book sufficiently. While historically accurate, the lynching reference is too intense for a child of Hazel’s age, and for that reason I wouldn’t recommend Hazel (or this part of the book, at least) for a middle-school child of today. I’ve added the warning in the text of the blog to alert readers to the sensitive content.

Still more beautiful images–but there will be words soon!

Happy February! I can say this without irony because I live in the southern hemisphere, where it’s like this:

Photograph of beach in Muizenberg, Cape Town, South Africa.

I had a rocky entry into 2019. I had fantasized about all the great new books I’d be able to read once I rejoined the 21st century, but when January 1 rolled around I couldn’t stop reading as if I were living in 1918. The whole idea just freaked me out. It was like reverse culture shock when you return home from overseas, which anyone who’s experienced it can tell you is the worst kind of culture shock. Then there was a transition period when I read “The Waste Land” and other non-contemporary but post-1918 poetry. Now I’ve (mostly) gotten over it and am happily reading Stephen McCauley’s 2018 novel My Ex-Life. In the meantime, I just finished the last 1918 book that I started in 2018 (although I’m still listening to the audiobook of The Education of Henry Adams). As soon as I read the last page, I metaphorically jumped up and said, “I’m ready to go back to blogging!” (Real blogging, not just posting pictures like this.) And I will soon. In the meantime, here are more of the images I’ve posted on Twitter during the hiatus.

During WWI, Americans were warned to “Hooverize,” or conserve food. (The future president was the “Food Czar” and a huge celebrity.) This poster by John Sheridan was one reminder.

Poster by John Sheridan, 1918, showing basket of vegetables in front of and soldiers. Caption: Food is Ammunition: Don't waste it.

U.S. Food Administration poster, John Sheridan, 1918

For those of you suffering through the cold spell in the U.S., here’s a reminder of spring from The Liberator’s wonderful Hugo Gellert.

May 1918 Liberator cover by Hugo Gellert. Illustration of jumping deer on abstract background.

Variations on a theme, February 1918: Helen Dryden (Vogue) and Erté (Harper’s Bazar).

February 1918 Vogue cover by Helen Dryden. Illustration of woman in pink hoop-skirt dress looking in mirror.

February 1918 Harper's Bazar cover by Erté. Masked woman with man hiding inside her hoop skirt.

The Crisis, the NAACP magazine edited by W.E.B. Du Bois, took on discrimination and lynching and other horrors, but it was black America’s community newspaper too. There was an annual children’s issue, with lots of pictures of cute babies. Here are some from October 1918.*

Photographs of nine babies in October 1918 issue of The Crisis.

Another luminous William Edouard Scott painting, on the cover of the December 1918 issue of The Crisis. In his editorial, W.E.B. Du Bois poetically identifies African-Americans’ flight north with Joseph and Mary’s flight to Egypt.

The Crisis cover, December 1918. William Edouard Smith painting The Flight into Egypt. African-American family in field.

See you soon!

*Surprise surprise: people love cute babies. This was by far my most popular tweet of the week, although not as popular as the constipation ad.

More beautiful images from 1918

As I mentioned last week, I’ve been posting some of my favorite images from 1918 on Twitter while I regroup after spending 2018 reading as if I were living in 1918. Here’s this week’s batch.

On Martin Luther King Day, I posted the April 1918 cover of The Crisis, featuring a painting by William Edouard Scott of a couple making their way to a new life in the north. The painting is now in the Huntington Museum of Art in West Virginia (although not currently on display).

April 1918 Crisis cover, William Edouard Scott painting Lead Kindly Light. Man and woman riding ox cart with lamp.

Poet George Sterling posed for this illustration in an edition of the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam featuring photographs by Adelaide Hanscom (later Leeson). The original 1905 edition was in black and white; the photographs were tinted in a 1914 reissue. I wrote about Sterling, who founded Carmel, California as an artists’ colony and was known as the “Uncrowned King of Bohemia,” here.

Tinted photograph of poet George Sterling, Rubaiyat illustration. Photograph of poet George Sterling, Rubaiyat illustration, 1905.

I’m intrigued by the short-haired, drop-waisted woman on the cover of the July 1918 issue of Vanity Fair. She looks like a time-traveling flapper from 1923. The artist is Georges Lepape.

George Lepape July 1918 Vanity Fair Cover. Startled flapper looking at caterpiller on wall.

“Haunting” isn’t a word we typically associate with cleaning products, but I was haunted by the tiny cleaners in the Old Dutch Cleanser ads. Here are two of my favorites, from the February and May 1918 issues of the Ladies’ Home Journal.

1918 Old Dutch Cleanser ad. Tiny hooded woman washing floor. 1918 Old Dutch Cleanser ad. Hooded women leaving employment bureau.

Women in 1918 were apparently easily startled by insects. This one’s from George Wolf Plank’s cover for the August 1 issue of Vogue.

George Wolfe Plank August 1, 1918 Vogue cover. Startled woman with flowered hat looking at butterfly.

I’m not a car person, but I love 1918 cars (and car advertisements). The Marmon 34 set a coast-to-coast speed record in 1916: 5 days, 18 hours, 30 minutes. This ad is from the February 1918 issue of Harper’s Bazar.

1918 Marmon 34 ad. Green automobile on black background.

I found the word “farmerette” hilarious when I started my reading-in-1918 project, but now I see a picture of a woman in overalls and think, “Oh, a farmerette.” Italian-American painter Matteo Sandonà drew the farmerette on the Sunset cover; I couldn’t find the artist for the Life cover.

1918 Life magazine cover, farmerette kissing soldier in field.

October 1918 Sunset magazine cover, farmerette in overalls wiping brow.

Maybe I’ll be ready to move on to 1919 soon. If not, there are lots more great pictures from 1918.

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 April 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 straw 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.

On a sad 50th anniversary, inspiration from 100 years ago

Thinking about Martin Luther King on the fiftieth anniversary of his death, it occurred to me that he hadn’t even been born a hundred years ago. I decided to look at The Crisis, the NAACP magazine edited by W.E.B. Du Bois, to look for something from that bleak time that pointed forward in a positive direction.

And I found it: 19-year old Paul Robeson.

The Crisis, March 1918

The March 1918 issue’s “Men of the Month” feature tells us that Robeson is a football All-American and a star student at Rutgers, winner for two consecutive years of the class oratorical prize.  In addition, he “is a varsity debater, plays guard in basketball, throws weights in track, catches in baseball, and is a baritone soloist.”

Robeson went on to play in the NFL (while studying law at Columbia!), but it was his work as a singer and actor, and his political activism, that won him lasting fame. During the McCarthy era, he was blacklisted and denied a passport, to the detriment of his career.

But times change, and in 2004 the U.S. Postal Service issued a stamp honoring him.

I was familiar with Robeson, but I hadn’t heard of Frederick Douglas “Fritz” Pollard, who is standing with Robeson in the photo. It turns out that he, too, entered the history books. He was a star player at Brown, went on to play professional football, and was the first black head coach in the NFL. In addition, he founded the first black-owned newspaper in New York. He served as a pallbearer at Robeson’s funeral in 1976.

Fritz Pollard (Brown University)

Pollard was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1954, where he was joined by Robeson in 1995. He was awarded an honorary doctorate by Brown University in 1981, five years before his death at the age of 92. In 2005, he became a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. His grandsons represented him at his induction.