Tag Archives: W.E.B. Du Bois

My Sad Search for 1918 Love

After almost a year in 1918, I have yet to find a decent man.

If I were gay, I’d have it made—this was the golden age of (if not for) lesbian women. Amy Lowell! Willa Cather! Little Review editor Margaret Anderson! Dancer Maud Allan! Plus lots of probablys like Jane Addams and Edna Ferber. But no, I’m stuck with men.

Walter Lippmann (Pirie MacDonald, 1914)

Back in January, I checked out two prospects*, H.L. Mencken and Walter Lippmann. Mencken’s denunciation of American Puritanism and hypocrisy appealed to me, but then he started going on about the Jews and [n-word] republics and I was over him. Lippmann seemed stodgy at first, but he won me over by sneaking a bunch of double-entendres into a sober discussion on prostitution in his 1912 book A Preface to Politics.

But then he disappeared, as seemingly good men often do. Having left the New Republic to head up the War Department’s propaganda office in Paris, he was almost invisible in 1918. The only traces of him I could find (aside from a swipe from Mencken about his “sonorous rhapsodies”) were two New York Times articles from right before the armistice about an operation he was running to drop leaflets over Germany.

New York Times, November 9, 1918

So my search continued. After ruling out men who

I was left with ten men worth a closer look.

T.S. Eliot

T.S. Eliot (E.O. Hopp, 1919)

T.S. Eliot was my first 1918 love, way back in the eighties, when the internet wasn’t invented so people had to entertain themselves by memorizing The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. Or maybe that was just me. You can disturb MY universe any time, T.S., I would say to myself. Even then, though, there were warning signs. Like how in the very next poem he’s hanging out with an older woman and wondering if he would have a right to smile if she died. But what can I say? I was twenty-two.

As I read more Eliot, and learned more about him, disillusionment set in. For a lot of reasons, but the anti-semitism alone would have been enough. It’s evident already in 1918, in the poem “Sweeney Among the Nightingales,” published in the September 1918 issue of The Little Review.***

Good-bye, T.S.!

George Jean Nathan

George Jean Nathan, date unknown

If Mencken wasn’t the guy for me, what about George Jean Nathan, his best pal and Smart Set co-editor, who was also the preeminent drama critic of his time? Smart and funny and urbane, and an excellent source of theater tickets.

Digging around to find out whether he shared Mencken’s anti-semitism, I learned that he was part Jewish himself—and that he went to great lengths to hide this. Which would be a deal-breaker today, but those were different times. Case in point: movie star Lilian Gish, whom Nathan was madly in love with, supposedly broke up with him when she learned of his Jewish roots.

But have you seen All About Eve? If so, do you remember the poisonous middle-aged critic who was squiring around 24-year-old Marilyn Monroe? Turns out he was based on Nathan.

Good-bye, George!

Alan Dale

Alan Dale and his daughter Marjorie, 1900 (Library of Congress)

More than anything else I’ve written about this year, the story of Alan Dale’s play The Madonna of the Future has stuck with me. A Broadway play about a society woman who becomes a single mother by choice and acts like it’s no big deal? In 1918? How could this be? (Well, it wasn’t for long—facing obscenity complaints, the play closed after a month or so.) I was intrigued. Who was this Alan Dale person?

The hackiest of Broadway hacks, as it turns out. According to Nathan, the British-born Hearst drama critic (real name Alfred Cohen) perpetrated

the sort of humor…whose stock company has been made up largely of bad puns, the spelling of girl as “gell,” the surrounding of every fourth word with quotation marks, such bits as “legs—er, oh I beg your pahdon—I should say ‘limbs’,” a frequent allusion to prunes and to pinochle, and an employment of such terms as “scrumptious” and “bong-tong.”

I couldn’t be with someone who said “bong-tong.” Plus, might the author of the first gay-themed novel in the English language, which Dale also was, possibly be gay?****

Good-bye, Alan!

W.E.B. Du Bois

W.E.B. Du Bois, 1918

Du Bois was a brilliant thinker and a wonderful writer and his magazine The Crisis is one of my favorite discoveries of 1918. But, the world being what it was in 1918, this wasn’t going to happen.

Plus, he intimidates the hell out of me.

Good-bye, W.E.B.!

H.G. Wells

H.G. Wells, ca. 1918

Wells was the alpha male of the British literary scene, regarded as one of the greatest writers and thinkers of his day. It would no doubt astonish a 1918 person to learn that he would be known in the future primarily as a science fiction writer.

As a romantic partner, though? Bad news! Married to his cousin, he was always sleeping with other women, including a Soviet spy and birth control pioneer Margaret Sanger. Who at least could be relied on not to get pregnant, unlike 26-year-old writer Rebecca West and the daughter of one of his Fabian friends, both of whom bore him children.*****

Good-bye, H.G.!

James Hall

James Hall, 1917

James Hall lied and said he was Canadian to get into World War I, was caught and got kicked out, joined the American branch of the French air force, and was shot down just after he was finally able to fly under American colors. He was feared dead but turned out to have been captured by the Germans. After the war, he moved to Polynesia and co-wrote, among other books, Mutiny on the Bounty.

A cool guy, but I’m not into the swashbuckling type.

Good-bye, Jimmy!

Christopher Morley

The Bookman, February 1918

A prolific young literary man-about-town, Morley published the popular novel Parnassus on Wheels and a book of poetry called Songs for a Little House in 1917 and an essay collection in 1918. He was also the literary editor of Ladies’ Home Journal. He married young, stayed married, and never got up to any shenanigans that I know of.

On the other hand, this is how he wrote about his wife:

Songs for a Little House

I would die.

Good-bye, Christopher!

Harvey Wiley

Harvey Wiley, ca. 1900

Harvey Wiley fought against toxic preservatives in foods and was a driving force in the creation of the FDA. He’s one of my 1918 heroes.

Most of the badmouthing I’ve read about Wiley has broken down on examination. It’s been said that he thought women were stupid, but I haven’t found any evidence.****** He’s been called a eugenicist, but the main case for the prosecution is him saying in Good Housekeeping that there’s no better genetic stock than Scots-Irish, which I think was just him being funny because that’s his background. (This is, in any case, pretty mild as eugenics goes.) I’ll have to wait until 2019 rolls around and I can read his new biography to get the lowdown.

In the meantime, though, there’s this: if you’re the kind of guy who, at age 55, is so taken with your 22-year-old secretary that after she leaves you carry her picture around in your watch for ten years until you run into her on a streetcar and marry her, you’re probably not the guy for me.

Good-bye, Harvey!

Louis Untermeyer

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

Untermeyer is one of those 1918 people I remember from when I was growing up, the editor of pretty much every literary anthology I came across. In 1918, he was all over the place, writing criticism for The Dial and The New Republic and poetry for The Smart Set and many other publications. He’s like a non-smarmy Christopher Morley. His wife, Jean Starr Untermeyer, was also a poet. I thought I might have found my man.

Then I looked into his life. He and Jean divorced in 1926, then he married someone else, then he and Jean got married again in 1929 but divorced in 1930. Then he married a judge named Esther Antin, and they lasted for over a decade, but then he got a Mexican divorce. She was presumably the wife who said in a lawsuit that he was, at 63, “still an inveterate anthologist, collecting wives with an eye always open for new editions.” His last marriage was to a much younger Seventeen magazine editor who wrote a book about their cat.

Good-bye, Louis!

William Carlos Williams

William Carlos Williams, 1921

And now for the one who broke my heart.

William Carlos Williams seemed like the ideal man. A groundbreaking poet AND a successful pediatrician. From New Jersey, like me. Part Puerto Rican, so I could practice my Spanish!

We even had a meet-cute story: In an early post, I trashed his foray into Cubist poetry. Kind of like H.G. Wells and Rebecca West, who met after she panned a book of his, except without the part where she immediately gets pregnant and they don’t admit to their son for quite a while that they’re his parents.

It was the 1917 collection Al Que Quiere! that made me fall in love. In “Danse Russe,” he dances around naked in his study, admiring his butt in the mirror, as his wife and nanny and children are napping. In “January Morning,” a poem I love so much I memorized all 500+ words of it, he takes us around Weehawken, New Jersey and environs, dancing with happiness on a rickety ferry-boat called Arden.

Here’s how the poem ends:

Well, you know how the young girls run giggling
on Park Avenue after dark
when they ought to be home in bed?
Well, that’s the way it is with me somehow.

A cheerful modernist, what a concept!

And there’s more. Judging from “Dedication for a Plot of Ground,” his tribute to his fierce, difficult grandmother, he appreciated strong women. He was attractive in a non-threatening way.******* Politically progressive without being loony. And a great family man! He married his wife Flossie in 1912 and they stayed married, stolen plums and all, until his death in 1963. Aside from the minor issue of how you could be named William Williams and then name your son William, he seemed perfect.

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

The first warning sign came at the end of Al Que Quiere!: a reference to “lewd Jews’ eyes” in the long poem “The Wanderer.” An isolated incident, I hoped. But, when I looked further, it all started to fall apart. The final blow came in a Washington Post review of a 1981 biography of Williams. The biographer acknowledges that he threw around words like “kike” but says that this wasn’t anti-semitism, it was just part of the “popular racial myths of his time.” The reviewer responds, “Exactly. ‘Popular racial myths’ are what racism consists of.”

Exactly.

Good-bye, W.C.!

At this point I threw up my hands and said,

Dada 3, December 1918

Which, if you don’t know French (and yes, Ezra Pound, there are such people), means “I don’t even want to know if there were men before me.”

There are lots of ways 1918 was better than 2018. Cars looked cooler

and magazine covers were more attractive

and, regardless of whether you’d want to marry them, these men were part of a far greater literary age than our own.

But my search for 1918 love has made me grateful that I’m living in a world of 2018 men.

Especially the one I married 15 years ago today.

Happy anniversary, S.!

Silk embroidered postcard, WWI

*I’m not being fussy here about whether people were single in 1918 (Mencken was; Lippmann wasn’t), or whether they were age-appropriate for a 100-years-older me.

**Who I just now found out was the father of Joan Aiken, one of my favorite children’s authors (The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, etc.).

***Also, Virginia Woolf called Eliot’s first wife a bag of ferrets around his neck in her journal, and I’d hate it if she said that about me.

****Judging from the photo, he had a daughter, but that didn’t mean much in 1918.

*****He also slept with the daughter of another Fabian friend, and when fellow Fabian Beatrice Webb called this a “sordid intrigue” he lampooned her and her husband Sidney in a novel.

******He did think some women were stupid, but that’s because they were.

Dr. Wiley’s Question-Box, Good Housekeeping, July 1918

*******If you beg to differ, that’s his passport photo. I got mine taken this week, and even though I made them retake it six times it still looks like the picture of Dorian Gray.

10 1918 People I’m Thankful For

1918 is a depressing year to look back on: war, influenza, rampant racism and sexism. But when something is depressing in retrospect that means we’ve made progress, right? I don’t mean to sound Pollyannaish about 2018—believe me, I’m not. For Thanksgiving, though, I decided to look at some of the people of 1918 who paved the way for the better world—and, for all its problems, it is a better world—we’re living in today.

So thank you, in no particular order, to

1. Jane Addams and the settlement movement

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

Jane Addams is one of my 1918 heroes. I had heard of her as the founder of Hull House, the famous Chicago settlement house, which I vaguely imagined as a social services center for the immigrant community. Then I listened to an audiotape of her wonderful memoir Twenty Years at Hull-House and learned that it was so much more—a playhouse and dance hall and crafts museum and lecture theater and book discussion venue and art gallery and sanitation office and whatever else Addams and her fellow settlement workers thought would uplift immigrants from their miserable living conditions. Some of her ideas worked, others didn’t (she discusses the failures with self-deprecating good humor), but she brought astonishing energy and creativity to her mission. Addams received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931 and is now known as the “mother of social work.”

The rights of immigrants are under threat today, as they were in 1918, but today, at least, there are hundreds of organizations to protect and assist them.

Thank you, Jane Addams!

2. William Carlos Williams and my new favorite poem

William Carlos Williams with his sons, Paul and William, and his mother, circa 1918 (Beinecke Library, Yale, University)

There was a LOT of bad poetry around in 1918. Or not bad, exactly, just sentimental, bland, and innocuous—sitting in the background like wallpaper. Like this poem. (In the unlikely event you want to read the rest, you can do so here.)

Scribner’s, November 1916

Then the modernists came along and changed everything. They threw aside Victorian notions of beauty and upliftment, as well as meter and rhyme, and wrote about the world they actually saw. The poet I’ve come to know best over the year (after a rocky start) is William Carlos Williams. I recently memorized his relatively little-known but wonderful poem “January Morning,” an account of his early-morning amblings on a winter day. Here’s how it begins:

I have discovered that most of
the beauties of travel are due to
the strange hours we keep to see them:

the domes of the Church of
the Paulist Fathers in Weehawken
against a smoky dawn–the heart stirred–
are beautiful as Saint Peters
approached after years of anticipation.

(And yes, I typed that off the top of my head. You can check for mistakes, and read the rest of the poem, here.)

Thank you, William Carlos Williams!

3. W.E.B. Du Bois, the NAACP, and The Crisis

Portrait of W.E.B. Du Bois on the cover of The Crisis, February 1918

W.E.B. Du Bois is up there with Jane Addams in my 1918 pantheon. He gave up a successful academic career to edit The Crisis, the NAACP’s magazine for the African-American community. The Crisis took on discrimination and lynching and other horrors, but it also celebrated the achievements of the community’s “Talented Tenth” (like scholar-athlete Paul Robeson) and printed pictures of cute babies.

Thank you, W.E.B. Du Bois!

4. Harvey Wiley, the FDA, and healthy food

Dr. Wiley in his USDA lab (FDA)

If your turkey dinner isn’t full of dangerous preservatives, you have Harvey Wiley to thank. From his lab at the USDA, Wiley pioneered food safety by testing chemicals on a group of young volunteers known as the “Poison Squad.” While his methods wouldn’t get past the ethics committee today, his efforts on behalf of passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act earned him the nickname “Father of the FDA.”

Thank you, Harvey Wiley!

5. Anna Kelton Wiley and women’s suffrage

Anna Kelton Wiley with her sons

Anna who? you may be asking. Anna Kelton Wiley wasn’t America’s most famous suffragist. That would be Alice Paul. Paul deserves our thanks as well, but I thought of Wiley—Harvey Wiley’s much younger wife—because it’s not just the leaders who matter, it’s all the people in the rank and file who fight locally, day by day, for a better world. Women’s suffrage wasn’t a single victory, won in 1920, but a battle fought and won, state by state, over many years. Now more than ever, this is a lesson we need to remember.

Wiley wrote in Good Housekeeping that she and other suffragists decided to picket the White House—a highly controversial move—after less confrontational methods had failed. The demonstrations, she said, were

a silent, daily reminder of the insistence of our claims…We determined not to be put aside like children…Not to have been willing to endure the gloom of prison would have made moral slackers of all. We should have stood self-convicted cowards.

Thank you, Anna Kelton Wiley!

6. Mary Phelps Jacob and comfortable underwear

Mary Phelps Jacob, ca. 1925 (phelpsfamilyhistory.com)

Segueing from women’s suffrage to underwear might seem like going from the sublime to the ridiculous, but it’s all part of the same thing. Disenfranchisement was one way to keep women down; corsets were another. Corsets were still very much around in 1918, but they were on their way out, partly due to wartime metal conservation efforts. And bras were on their way in, thanks to Mary Phelps Jacob, a socialite who, putting on an evening gown one night in 1913, found that the whalebone from her corset was sticking out from the neckline. With the help of her maid, she improvised a garment out of two handkerchiefs and a piece of ribbon. She patented it the next year as the “Backless Brassiere,” and the rest is history.

Brassiere patent drawing, Mary Phelps Jacob, 1914

Thank you, Mary Phelps Jacob!

7. Amy Lowell and LGBT pride

Amy Lowell, ca. 1916

Amy Lowell wrote about love as she experienced it—with her partner, Ada Dwyer Russell, in the Boston home they shared. They weren’t able to live openly as lovers, and Dwyer destroyed their correspondence at Lowell’s request, but their love shines through in Lowell’s poems. Here’s one of my favorites:

North American Review, February 1918

Thank you, Amy Lowell!

8. Katharine Bement Davis and sexual freedom

Katharine Bement Davis, 1915 (Bain News Service)

We think of sexual freedom as the right to sleep with whoever we want, inside or outside marriage. It is that, of course, but it also involves rights that we take so much for granted today that we don’t even think about them. Like the right of a wife who has contracted a sexually transmitted disease from her husband not to be lied to by her doctor. The right of a young woman to know the facts of life rather than being kept in ignorance to uphold an ideal of “purity.” The right of a teenager not to live in fear that masturbation will lead to blindness and insanity. The right of a couple to practice birth control without risking prison.

Poster, War Department Commission on Training Camp Activities, ca. 1918

Katharine Bement Davis, a settlement worker and social reformer, was at the forefront of the fight against sexual ignorance. When the United States entered World War I, venereal disease turned out to be rampant among recruits. Davis wrote in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science that combating this epidemic required efforts—and knowledge—on the part of “both halves of the community which is concerned.” Davis and her team at the Section on Women’s Work of the Sexual Hygiene Division of the Commission on Training Camp Activities educated women on sexual issues with publications, films, and lectures by women physicians.

Okay, Davis’s solution was that no one, male or female, should have sex outside of marriage. And she, like so many progressives, was a eugenicist. Still, breaking down the walls of ignorance was an important step.

Thank you, Katharine Bement Davis!

9. Dorothy Parker and humor that’s actually funny

Dorothy Parker, date unknown

1918 humor was, for the most part, not funny. There were racist and sexist jokes, faux-folksy tales, and labored puns. Here is a joke I picked at random from Judge magazine:

Judge, November 9, 1918

Then Dorothy Parker came along, filling in for P.G. Wodehouse as Vanity Fair’s drama critic, and changed everything. The best way to make a case for Dorothy Parker is to quote her, so here are some excerpts from her theater reviews:

On the musical Going Up, April 1918: It’s one of those exuberant things—the chorus constantly bursts on, singing violently and dashing through maneuvers, and everybody rushes about a great deal, and slaps people on the back, and bets people thousands of stage dollars, and grasps people fervently by the hand, loudly shouting, “It’s a go!”

On the farce Toot-Toot!, May 1918: I didn’t have much of an evening at “Toot-Toot!” I was disappointed, too, because the advertisements all spoke so highly of it. It’s another of those renovated farces—it used to be “Excuse Me,” in the good old days before the war. I wish they hadn’t gone and called it “Toot-Toot!” When anybody asks you what you are going to see tonight and you have to reply “Toot-Toot!” it does sound so irrelevant.

Thank you, Dorothy Parker!

10. Erté and gorgeous magazine covers

Roman Petrovich Tyrtov (Erté), date unknown

Okay, this doesn’t fit into my theme, because 1918 was the golden age of magazine covers and I get depressed whenever I pass by a 2018 magazine rack. But the beautiful cover art of the era is worth celebrating anyway. There were many wonderful artists, but the master was Erté, who turned twenty-six on November 23, 1918.

Thank you (and happy birthday), Erté!

The common thread on this list, I see, is freedom. Freedom for women, immigrants, people of color, and the LGBT community, but also less obvious but still important types of freedom: to wear clothes you can move around in, to know the facts of life, to eat healthy food, and to write about and laugh about the world as it really is.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone! And thanks to all of you out there who, in large ways and small, are working to make the world of a hundred years from now better than the one we live in today.

The best and worst of October 1918: Beautiful children, dubious remedies, and (sigh) fall colors

In the past, I’ve reflected cheerfully on how fast 1918 is flying by. Now, with two months to go, I do so with a sense of panic. I haven’t read The Magnificent Ambersons, or The Education of Henry Adams,* or any South African books, or anything in a foreign language except some French poems in The Little Review, or any children’s books except E. Nesbit’s disappointing The Railway Children. I blithely promised in my first post that “I’ll read magazines, watch movies, listen to music, and cook recipes from that time.” Well, I’ve read a lot of magazines. Much to be done in the next sixty days!

But first, the best and worst of October.

Best news:

It’s a tie among pretty much all of the front-page New York Times headlines of the month, with the Germans retreating so fast that in some places the Allies can’t keep up with them.

New York Times, October 31, 1918

Worst news:

Authorities keep saying that the worst of the Spanish influenza epidemic is over, but they keep being wrong. This is a hard story to follow if you’re not reading historical accounts, but my fellow 100-years-ago blogger Whatever It Is, I’m Against It is on the job. He’s been tracking the coverage of the epidemic in the New York Times from the beginning, as well as highlighting the ridiculous ads touting the purported flu-preventing qualities of various products, like this one, which I saw in the Times and was going to use myself so it isn’t copying:

New York Times, October 23, 1918

Best magazine: The Crisis

For its annual children’s issue, The Crisis asked readers to send in pictures of their children. 70 of them appear in the magazine. Under one group of pictures is the caption, “Would not the world be richer if the Gates of Opportunity were flung wide before these children as they grow?”

The Crisis, October 1918

In a story called “Race Purity,” a little boy, apparently African-American, hits a little girl, apparently white, in the face. A man passing by calls him a “d-mn little [n-word] and gently tells the girl to go home, saying, “I’d like to see that mother of yours that allows you to play with—.” The girl gasps through her tears, “he’s my bru-vv-er.”

W.E.B. du Bois, his wife Nina, and their son Burghardt, ca. 1898

Du Bois imagines his only son, Burghardt, who died as an infant, as “a ghost boy—just twenty-one he would have been last May,” gone off to the war. “It was not given to this my boy nor yet to me to go in the flesh; but he went dead, yet dreaming, and I dream-drunk, and yet alive, albeit with twitching, hanging hands.”

Best-sounding new novel: Strayed Revellers, by Allan Updegraff

The Bookman says of this book by Updegraff, a college buddy of Sinclair Lewis, that

his theme is very new, showing what the war did to a group of Greenwich villagers, extremely gay ones, who kill themselves, admit carelessly to illegitimate parents, get drunk on water and gelatin and lead a wild life generally.

 I’m sold!

 Worst new novel: Strayed Revellers, by Allan Updegraff

But then I pulled up the book on Hathitrust and flipped to the last page, which features a guy mansplaining anarchism to our heroine, Clothilde:

“The name’s filthied by men who care more for their individual stomachs and unwashed hides than they do for No-Rule. And it’s Socialism, too,–since they have a regard for the social will, as well as for their own individual wills—even though the name ‘Socialist’ has been so dirtied by men whose social instincts stop with the attainment of personal safety and a two-cent drop in the price of soup-meat, not to mention the dirtying done by rank pro-Germans, that real Socialists will probably take a new name after the war.”

No amount of getting drunk on gelatin is worth this. Run, Clothilde!

Worst headline:

Woman’s Home Companion, October 1918

So smack them!

Best ad:

This is one of the least attractive ads I saw all month. But it caught my attention, all right. And it represents the direction advertising is moving in–good-bye beautiful artwork, hello gimmicks!**

Delineator, October 1918

Worst ad: 

Hey, little kids! Murder! Rape!***

St. Nicholas magazine, October 1918

Best magazine cover:

Lots of worthy candidates.

I always have a weakness for a hardworking farmerette.

An appeal to kids’ patriotism at a time when the government seemed worried that the Allies were winning the war so fast that people wouldn’t want to fund it.

This because it’s, well, beautiful:

As is this.

In the end, I had to declare a tie, because I couldn’t bear to choose between this one

and this one, which makes me wistful from my perch in Cape Town, where it’s spring now. And even our backwards April autumns don’t have colors like this.

Worst magazine cover: Maclean’s

 Not doing much to counter the boringness image, Canada!****

On to November!

*Not my fault because, annoyingly, both of these American classics were published in late October.

**This is also, as it turns out, the cover image on the Spanish translation of Ring Lardner, Jr.’s memoir I’d Hate Myself in the Morning.

***Besides, the ad is all about how horrible the Turks are. It’s as if the copywriter forgot that that the U.S. never declared war on Turkey and then when he remembered hastily stuck something at the end about how the Germans are even worse.

****Especially since the most prominently featured boring story isn’t even in this issue, it just “starts soon.”

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.

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.

“I Am a Jew”: A story of assimilation and identity in 1910s New York

If all you knew about Judaism came from the 1918 mainstream press, you’d think that every Jewish person in the world lived in a colorful village in Europe or worked the soil in Palestine or sewed shirtwaists in the Lower East Side. You might see this picture of the De Pinna family, department store owners, strolling down Fifth Avenue in their spring finery in Harper’s Bazaar, but you wouldn’t necessarily know they were Jewish. Depictions of American Jews outside the tenements were almost nonexistent.

Harper’s Bazar, April 1918

Well, there was “The Little Mixer,” in the January 1918 issue of Good Housekeeping. In this story by Lillian Nicholson Shearon, little Hannah Joseph longs to celebrate Christmas like her Christian friends. Chanukah, in her opinion, is a poor substitute. “Mama, I’m so tired of tales about the children of Israel,” she says. “They never did anything funny.” She listens with envy to her family cook’s reminiscences about about Marse and ole Mis’ going to town and buying Christmas presents for all the slave children.

Good Housekeeping, January 1918

Hannah’s friend comes to the rescue, donning a long black raincoat and performing an emergency baptism. Hannah writes to Santa informing him of her conversion and instructing, “Bring me any nice things you got left.” Her parents find the letters pinned to the wall next to a stocking she’s hung. Her mother cries, but her father thinks it’s hilarious. “Every child who has heard of Santa Claus deserves to enjoy the myth,” he says. He rushes downtown, and, on Christmas morning,

it seemed that Santa Claus, never having visited Hannah before, had a mind to make up for lost time. An overflowing stocking hung from the mantel; a tree loaded with presents and tinsel stood by her bed; about the room were placed larger gifts, everything a little girl might look for.

Hannah searches for a way to express her thanks, and finally “bowing her little bronze head reverently, she made the sign of the cross—upside down!”

You know what? I have a feeling that Lillian Nicholson Shearon wasn’t Jewish. The author of the article “I Am a Jew” definitely was, though. We know this because the article, which appeared in the North American Review in December 1917, opens with a note that says:

Because of the intimate character of this poignant disclosure, the author prefers to withhold his name. It is, however, known to the Editor of the REVIEW, as is the writer’s authenticity as an American Hebrew.

Upper East Side brownstone, ca. 1911 (oldnyc.org)

The writer tells us that he was born into “that pallid and genteel limbo, an uptown side-street in New York City; one of those colorless and respectable streets whose denizens are neither rich nor poor, neither good nor bad, neither all Jews nor all Gentiles.”

For the Jews in this neighborhood, being Jewish was

the rock bottom of their lives, never to be blasted away. Yet hardly less fundamental was the conviction that it was well not to insist too strongly on their Jewishness; not to flaunt it before strangers; not to be “too Jewish.”

He was raised outside the Jewish tradition, but he longs to find his God.

I did not know the name of my God, but I knew that He was there. I did not know the prayers which the people of my race prayed to him; so I prayed the prayer which I learned from my Gentile nurse…I prayed in secret, even as my father had, in secret, refrained from prayer.

For years he drifts through life unhappily.

And then one day I met a Negro, one of the leaders of his race, in whose veins, mingling with the blood of Africa, there flowed some of the best white blood of America, and of France. He looked—but for his golden-brown skin—like those patricians of the seventeenth century whom Van Dyck loved to paint.

W.E.B. Du Bois, ca. 1919 (Library of Congress)

This man—who must have been W.E.B. Du Bois—had a great reputation as a scholar and a writer.

Had had chosen to live in France, where he would have been looked upon as an individual, he might have had a respected and a leisured life. But he chose America. He chose persecution. He chose the black blood in his veins, instead of the white.

Pushcart, Lower East Side, date unknown

He asks himself, “If a Negro is proud of being a Negro, shall not a Jew be proud of being a Jew?” So he goes to seek his people, on the streets of the Lower East Side.

In the thunderous murk of Allen Street I came to feel at home, and on Houston Street, and where the pushcarts of Bleecker Street form long, motley lines, and on East Broadway, and where the fish and vegetable vendors set up their stands under the East River bridges. The reek of pickled fish and pickles ceased to offend my nostrils. Nor did I turn my eyes from the dirty bedding and the dirty children hanging over rusty fire-escapes which made the hideous fronts of tenements still more hideous. They were my people. They were Jews—undiluted, unAmericanized.

Lower East Side, ca. 1915 (Library of Congress)

But it was not as simple as that.

I had been taught to despise them. I now learned to admire them.

But I could not become one with them.

They would not accept me.

To them I was a Goy.

Lower East Side, ca. 1910

He closes with words from the Song of Solomon.

I opened to my beloved;
But my beloved had withdrawn himself and was gone.
My soul had failed me when he spake
I sought him, but I could not find him;
I called him, but he gave me no answer.

I hope that somehow, somewhere, he found his people.

Happy Passover to all who celebrate!

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

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

Judge magazine, March 2, 1918

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

Judge magazine, March 9, 1918

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

Turkish cigarettes join the fight against…the Turks.*

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

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

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