It’s been a long time since my last post, but I have an excellent excuse. I’ve been preparing for the launch of Rereading Our Childhood, a podcast where my friend Deborah Kalb and I revisit books we read as children.
Deborah and I met in college and have been talking about books ever since. We’ll continue this conversation on the podcast, revisiting our childhood favorites (and sometimes not-so-favorites) and assessing how well they hold up from our present-day vantage point. We’ll delve into the lives of the writers, discuss what the kids in the books are reading, and weigh in on whether we’d recommend the books to children today (not always an easy call, even for some books we loved as children).
Deborah is the author of the series The President and Me, in which children travel in time and meet early American presidents. I’m not a children’s writer myself,* but children’s literature is a longstanding interest of mine, reflected on this blog with holiday children’s book roundups from 1919, 1920, 1921, and 1922 and my post on pioneering children’s librarian Annie Carroll Moore.**
We’re launching this podcast at a moment when, in the name of protecting children, books dealing with gender identity, race, and other “controversial” topics are being removed from the shelves of public libraries and school libraries around the United States. Most of the banned children’s books are relatively recent, but some date from our childhood. (A recent PEN America report provides an overview of the situation.)
On the positive side, children’s literature has become much more diverse since our childhood, when, as we’ll discuss, almost all children’s authors and almost all characters in children’s books were white. The recent graphic above shows that much has changed since that time, but that book characters are still (once you take “animals and others” out of the equation) mostly white. The lack of representation in the books of our childhood will inevitably be reflected in the books we talk about, but we’ll seek out the exceptions.
During the period when Deborah and I were growing up—the 1960s and 1970s—the shelves of school libraries and the children’s rooms at public libraries*** included a higher proportion of books that had been published a decade or more ago than seems to be the case today. Our childhood reading went back to the 1920s and 1930s, with an occasional pre-1920 classic. This gives us access, in this project, to books spanning half a century or more.
On our first episode, we discuss Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret, Judy Blume’s 1970 classic of adolescence. We talk about our opinions of the book then and now (preview: I was and am a big Blume fan but not such a big fan of Margaret herself) and its impact on our lives. We look into the Blume moment currently underway, with a feature film of Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret in theaters now and other film and TV productions in the works. We discuss Blume’s advocacy against book banning, which her own books have been subjected to.
Preparing for the podcast has been quite a learning experience. Starting a podcast turns out to be way harder than starting a blog, although my memory of the challenges that presented may have dimmed. There’s editing**** and distribution and artwork and music and show notes and—something I never used to think about at all and now think about all the time—getting your chair not to squeak.
The world of a hundred years ago and the world of twentieth-century children’s books are different, but I imagine that there’s a lot of overlap in terms of people’s interest, so I hope some of you will join Deborah and me on our latest adventure. I don’t want to give away too much in terms of specific books, but I can tell you that spying and witchcraft and crime solving and dancing and haunting will be involved!
Rereading Our Childhood is hosted at Buzzsprout, and you can listen to it on Spotify, Apple, Google, and other podcast platforms.***** The website, with show notes and links to the episodes, is at www.rereadingourchildhood.com. We’re on Twitter at @RereadingPod. We’d love to hear from you with your thoughts about the podcast or memories of your own childhood favorites.
Now that the podcast is up and running, I look forward to having more time to return to the world of 100 years ago!
*Apologies to my childhood self for not living this dream.
**The artwork for the podcast and the podcast’s website, with the girl reaching for a book, is from a 1921 Children’s Book Week poster by Jessie Willcox Smith, whose work is frequently featured here. (The same illustration was used on the poster for the first Children’s Book Week in 1919.)
***I had access to wonderful public libraries in the various places I lived as a child, but the most extraordinary one was the I.M. Pei-designed library in Columbus, Indiana, with a Henry Moore sculpture in front.
****I got extremely stressed out over this before throwing up my hands and deciding to use a professional editor, at least for now.
*****If you can’t find the podcast at your podcast platform or if you run into any technical difficulties, please let me know, here or through the podcast website.
To celebrate Black History Month, I read Claude McKay’s 1922 collection Harlem Shadows, one of the first major works of the Harlem Renaissance. Up to now, the only one of McKay’s poems that I was familiar with was “If We Must Die,” his searing response to white supremacist attacks on African-Americans. The poem was first published in the July 1919 issue of the left-wing magazine The Liberator and later appeared in HarlemShadows.
“If We Must Die” is so powerful as a clarion call that I had never paid particular attention to its traditional structure—it’s a rhyming sonnet. McKay, it turns out, was an unapologetic traditionalist when it comes to form. The British poetry, religious revivals, and African folklore he grew up with in Jamaica, he says in the “Author’s Word” in Harlem Shadows, “are all punctuated by meter and rhyme. And nearly all my own poetic thought has always run naturally into these regular forms.”
Harlem Shadows covers the arc of 32-year-old McKay’s life: his fondly remembered Jamaica childhood, depicted most memorably through his descriptions of tropical fruits; his arrival in the United States as a young man and the racism he encountered there; his observations of life in Harlem, with unsentimental depictions of prostitution and grindingly hard work; and elegiac, sensual recollections of his short marriage.*
I was curious to see how Harlem Shadows was received by critics of McKay’s own time. Given how condescending The Liberator editor Max Eastman was in his introduction to the book,** I wasn’t optimistic.
“These poems have a special interest for all the races of man because they are sung by a pure blooded Negro,” Eastman begins. He goes on to say that “here for the first time we find our literature vividly enriched by a voice from this most alien race among us. And it should be illuminating to observe that while these poems are characteristic of that race as we most admire it – they are gentle-simple, candid, brave and friendly, quick of laughter and of tears – yet they are still more characteristic of what is deep and universal in mankind.” There’s some more about the good and bad kinds of educated Negroes (McKay, of course, is the good kind), but I’ll spare you that.
Reading excerpts from reviews in Book Review Digest, I was surprised at first to see that the reviewers were generally more respectful than Eastman. This was explained in part by the fact that two of the reviews, in The Bookmanand The Nation, were written by Walter F. White, an African-American civil rights activist who would later head the NAACP.*** The Nation review is edgier than the brief Bookman writeup, concluding with the collection’s title poem, which is about a Harlem prostitute, while the Bookman review ends with an innocuous poem about feeling like a flower in a storm. It’s more nuanced as well, saying along with the praise that “there is in this volume perhaps too much sameness of form.”
In the New Republic, critic Robert Littell was lukewarm about McKay’s versifying, saying, “I feel that a hospitality to echoes of poetry he has read has time and again obscured a direct sense of life.” He praised the collection’s political message, though. “It is not a merely poetic emotion that they express,” he says, referring to McKay and other African-American poets, “but something fierce, and constant, and icy cold, and white hot.” The New York Times praised McKay too, saying that “this young negro is responsible for a bulk of poetry that seems quite new from his race.” All in all, other than some lumping together of African-American poets, it was a more respectful reception than I would have imagined.
Reading Harlem Shadows gave me an opportunity to go back to a blog post I was thinking of doing around the time of the 100th anniversary of the first publication of “If We Must Die” in 2019. I had been surprised to read in the short Wikipedia article about the poem that, in addition to its appearance in The Liberator and its republication in the left-wing African-American magazine The Messenger in September 1919, it was “read to Congress that year by Henry Cabot Lodge, the Republican Senator from Massachusetts.” The source was a a book on the Harlem Renaissance.
That sounded bogus to me, so I did some research. Other sources claimed that Lodge quoted the poem during World War II as a source of inspiration (Lodge Sr. died in 1924, so this would have had to be his grandson and namesake, who was also a senator), or that he read it as a disturbing example of black radicalism. I couldn’t find a free searchable copy of the Congressional Record online, so I e-mailed the Library of Congress, using their awesome Ask a Librarian resource.**** The librarian responded that they had been unable to locate a record of Henry Cabot Lodge reading “If We Must Die” in the House of Representatives, which I took as cautious librarian-speak for “it didn’t happen.”*****
However, the librarian informed me, Senator Truman Handy Newberry had the poem entered into the Congressional Record on September 23, 1919. Newberry didn’t actually read the poem in Congress; he submitted for the record a statement by the Commission on After-War Problems of the African Methodist Episcopal Church appealing to Congress to investigate the “race riots” in Washington, D.C., Chicago, and Knoxville, Tennessee. The statement quoted “If We Must Die” in full and said that the poem represents the sentiments of a large portion of the African-American community.
Who was this Senator Newberry, I wondered, imagining a heroic figure, a progressive and outspoken ally of the black community. I was soon disabused of this rosy view. Newberry, it turned out, was a Republican from Michigan who defeated Henry Ford (yes, THE Henry Ford) in the 1918 election. He resigned in November 1922 after being convicted of committing election irregularities in violation of the Federal Corrupt Practices Act. His conviction was reversed when the Supreme Court ruled, in the 1921 case Newberry v. United States, that the Act was unconstitutional. The Senate, after an investigation, decided that he could remain a member but criticized him for excessive campaign spending. When a new effort to unseat him began, he resigned.****** So not exactly an illustrious Senate career, but I was pleased to see “If We Must Die,” and the compelling statement that accompanied it, in the Congressional Record.
I never got around to doing this post, however. (In my defense, this is probably not the only late-2019 plan that was never carried out.) I also never got around to doing anything about the Lodge reference in the Wikipedia article, although I did correct the date of the poem’s publication in The Liberator, which some misinformed person had changed from July 1919 to July 1922.
Others were on it, though, with varying degrees of accuracy. In October 2020, someone added a sentence to the Wikipedia article saying that, in reading “If We Must Die” to Congress, Lodge intended the poem to serve as an example of “black radicalism.” Then, in February 2021, a substantially revised and expanded version was published, and the article was upgraded from its previous “stub” status. The new version refers to the claim that Lodge read the poem in Congress, but quotes a scholar as saying that there is no evidence of this. This scholar also casts doubt on similar claims that Winston Churchill read the poem in the U.S. Congress and/or the House of Commons.
I promise I’m not going to do this on every single post, but I was curious to see what ChatGPT had to say about all this, so I asked whether Henry Cabot Lodge read “If We Must Die” in Congress. Never happened, ChatGPT said. “While he was known for his eloquent speeches and strong political positions, there is no record of him ever reading or referencing the poem ‘If We Must Die’ during his time in Congress.”
I was impressed for a moment, but then I wondered what ChatGPT would have to say about Senator Newberry. “While the poem was referenced and discussed by various political figures and commentators at the time of its publication,” the bot responded, “there is no evidence that it was formally entered into the Congressional Record by Senator Newberry or any other member of Congress.”
I begged to differ, noting the date and circumstances. Within seconds, ChatGPT responded with this gracious apology:
I’m glad I finally managed to write about “If We Must Die,” and I’m glad to have read the rest of the poems in Harlem Shadows. Even though, poetically, many of them are too old-fashioned for my taste, they’ve lingered with me, leaving a vivid sense of the early years of McKay’s remarkable life.
*I assumed, reading the poems, that his wife had died. It turns out, though, she returned to Jamaica six months after their wedding. (She and McKay had been childhood sweethearts.) He never met their daughter, his only child. McKay was bisexual and had relationships with both men and women over the course of his life.
**This introduction, unsurprisingly, does not appear in the edition I read on my Kindle.
***In the two reviews, White also discusses the collection The Book of American Negro Poetry. The Nation review also discusses a book called Negro Folk Rhymes. This is the only time I can think of, now or a hundred years ago, that I’ve seen the same person write two different reviews of the same works.
****Which, I hasten to add, you should only use if you have tried really, really hard to find whatever it is you’re looking for yourself.
It’s been a while since I’ve done a magazine cover post, and last time I was kind of snarky, so I decided to set out in search of the top 10 magazine covers of January and February 1923.
Except that it was really hot outside (I’m in Cape Town), and I wasn’t feeling all that energetic, so I thought maybe ChatGPT could find them for me.
In other words, do your own blog post, I’m too busy writing term papers!
Feeling slightly chastened, I set out on my search.
I started out with a round of disqualifications, beginning with covers that reused illustrations that had originally appeared elsewhere. This led me down a rabbit hole of trying to figure out whether the Jessie Willcox Smith illustration from Little Women that appears on the cover of the February 1923 issue of Good Housekeeping is from the edition of the book that she illustrated. I tentatively decided that it isn’t.
I had an even harder time figuring out the provenance of Smith’s January 1923 cover featuring Hans Brinker. Irritated, I summarily disqualified Smith. I was looking for edgier covers in any case.
Next to go was the February Ladies’ Home Journal cover, which turned out to be a painting by French artist Gabriel Émile Edouard Nicolet, who died in 1921.
Then I eliminated covers that gave me the creeps, regardless of their artistic merit.
Ditto, covers with guns,
especially covers with babies with guns.
Next up are the covers that captured my interest for reasons other than the quality of the art, like this one from Fruit, Garden and Home, which, fascinatingly, turns out to be the original name of Better Homes and Gardens, from its founding in 1922 until August 1924, when sanity prevailed and the magazine was renamed.
And this one from Popular Mechanics, illustrating an article called “Down Popocatepetl on a Straw Mat.” As someone who rode up Popocatepetl (a volcano outside Mexico City) in a car and struggled to walk up a tiny bit of it, I have a great deal of admiration for anyone who accomplished this.*
And this intriguing cover illustrating the article “Stopped by a Pencil” in Personal Efficiency magazine. What the heck is going on here? A metaphor for bureaucracy? An actual giant pencil on the rampage? Sadly, Personal Efficiency is not available online, so I’ll never know.
And now for the Top 10! Ranking them was a challenge, not for the usual “it was so hard to decide, everyone deserved to win” reason but because of the lack of standouts. Most of the covers struck me as deserving to be ranked #5. Here’s what I came up with, after a lot of hemming and hawing.
10. Popular Science, January 1923, artist unknown
I toyed with the idea of relegating this cover to the same category as the giant pencil, but it’s just too cool. I mean, it’s a monster new airship that will carry passengers across the continent! Called the San Francisco Express! Okay, it might be a dubious bit of futurology at a time when transatlantic airplane flights had already taken place,** but still…cool!
9. Shadowland, February 1923, A. M. Hopfmuller.
I can never figure out what exactly is going on in A.M. Hopfmuller’s Shadowland covers, but I’ll miss them when the magazine ceases publication in November 1923.
8. Vanity Fair, February 1923, Anne Harriet Fish
I’m a fan of Fish’s Vanity Fair covers, and this one might have ranked more highly if I could figure what exactly was going on. A woman is looking through store receipts??? and is crying??? or holding another receipt up to her face??? while her husband smokes nonchalantly??? Or something??? Plus, what’s the deal with that chair?
7. Vogue, George Wolfe Plank, February 1, 1923
This cover, of a woman feeding a sugar cube to a dragon, is done with Plank’s usual artistry, but it just didn’t particularly grab me the way some of his other covers did.***
6. Saturday Evening Post, Coles Phillips, February 17, 1923
My love for Coles Phillips knows no bounds, and I’m always happy to see him pop up, but the Saturday Evening Post’s limited color palate doesn’t play to his strengths.
5. McCall’s, January 1923, Neysa McMein
I’m normally more of a fan of Neysa McMein as a fascinating 1920s figure (salon hostess, suffragist, Dorothy Parker’s best friend, etc.) than as an artist, but there’s something that haunts me about this woman. “Who are you?” I keep asking myself. “And what’s wrong?”
4. The Crisis, February 1923, Louis Portlock
I’m not familiar with Louis Portlock and I couldn’t find out anything about him except for one other cover for The Crisis, from 1922. I like the simplicity of this illustration.
3. Harper’s Bazar, January 1923, Erté.
Erté’s never not brilliant, but, as with Plank, I wouldn’t say he was at his best here.****
2. Motor, January 1923, Howard Chandler Christy
I was struck by this Motor cover, although I can’t figure out what’s going on in the lower left corner, where the woman’s dress seems to turn into a wall, or something. I didn’t think I was familiar with Christy, but it turns out that he was the artist behind some of the most famous World War I recruiting posters, like this one:
1. The Liberator, January 1923, Frank Walts
I almost disqualified this Liberator cover because I featured it with other New Year’s covers in last month’s top posts of 1922 post, but that just seemed unfair, especially given the lack of top-quality covers.***** It wasn’t a shoo-in for #1, but I like the simple artistry.
Even though I wasn’t wowed by this batch of covers, I had fun seeing what some of my favorite artists were up to, discovering a few new ones, and pondering the mystery of the giant pencil. In retrospect, I’m glad ChatGPT wasn’t up to the task.
*Although I have more admiration for the Mexican guy steering with the stick than for the the guy holding on for dear life in the back, who I assume is the writer of the article.
**If, like me until recently, you thought Charles Lindbergh was the first person to fly across the Atlantic, he was just the first person to do it SOLO. British aviators John Alcock and Arthur Brown made the first transatlantic flight in 1919.
***Like this one
and this one,
****As opposed to here
*****J.C. Leyendecker’s Saturday Evening Post cover was disqualified, though, because it came out on December 30. Besides, it was confusing.
Happy New Year, everyone! I’m full of New Year’s resolutions, including to do enough posts this year to actually do a Top 10 a year from now.*
Halfway through his Saturday Evening Post New Year’s baby cover run, J.C. Leyendecker weighs in with a cover that left me baffled. A prosperous gentleman with a treaty in his pocket is conversing with the baby. But the Treaty of Versailles was signed in 1919 and went into effect in 1920, so what treaty is this? A Google search revealed that the Treaty of Lausanne, which cleaned up some remaining Turkey-related bits and pieces from World War I, was signed in 1923. But the United States wasn’t a signatory, so why the U and S on either side of the baby? I have no idea.** The baby, on the other hand, seems totally up to speed.
Meanwhile, they’re ringing in the new year at Pictorial Review
and Liberator in ways that you don’t have to have a Ph.D. in history to understand.
Vogue is celebrating its 30th anniversary, with Miss 1892 and Miss 1922 holding the cake.
The Top Seven
Now on to the Top Seven! As was the case last year, they’re pretty much in chronological order, with the last post in the last spot, etc., except that the Top 10 Posts of 1921, which was the first post chronologically, politely steps back to the sixth position to make way for more substantive fare.
As I do every year, I took a look at the latest crop of children’s books. I found a few that are now regarded as classics, some more deservedly so than others, along with some intriguing lesser-known books like one illustrated by a teenaged American Indian artist and one illustrated by Freud’s gender-nonconfirming niece.
I scaled my ambition way back from my previous quest to earn all the badges from the 1916 Girl Scout book and set my sights on just one badge this time—Pathfinder, where you learn all about your community, Washington, D.C. in my case. But even that turned out to be an ambitious goal, so I focused on one requirement. Then I went to Belgium for six weeks, then back to D.C., then to Cape Town, where I am now. I’ll wrap this up with some long-distance pathfinding soon.
I loved loved loved writing this post about a 1920 book about Jane Austen by eccentric professor and critic Oscar Firkins. Firkins on Mansfield Park: “We feel that Edmund is overstarched, that Fanny is oversweetened, and that the two Crawfords are unfortunate in their resemblance to unstable chemical compounds.” For more, read the post, or better yet, Firkins’ book.
I was delighted to see this post, about Hughes’ first published writing in the children’s magazine The Brownies’ Book, in the top spot. His contributions included not just poems but also articles on Mexico, where he was living. “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” which became his signature poem, was submitted to The Brownies’ Book but ended up in The Crisis instead.
The Best of the Rest
Meanwhile, the backlist was going strong, with the top eight pre-2022 posts outperforming the top 2022 post. (This isn’t a fair comparison, though, since views of current posts are credited to the home page.) Here are the top three. The Rita Senger post, mentioned above, was the fourth most read.
This post about the eventful and tragic life of poet George Sterling, who founded the artists’ colony in Carmel-by-the-Sea, bumped My Quest to Earn a 1919 Girl Scout Badge out of its traditional top perch. Fame has its price: it also attracted my first angry reader, who didn’t appreciate my flippant tone.
This post, which started out with my idle curiosity about what happened to a young woman who won one of those star of tomorrow contests in a movie magazine, turned into an obsession as I tracked down the fate of Helen Lee Worthing and her African-American husband, Eugene Nelson. I’ve never worked harder on a post, and I’m pleased that it’s still finding readers.
The Journey Continues
This month marks five years since I set off on my journey to 1918. It’s been more rewarding than I could have imagined. I’ve made a number of online friends, including my fellow members of a 1920s bestsellers book discussion group. Some of them became real-life friends when I joined them in Bristol, UK, over the summer for a roundtable at a conference of the British Association for Modernist Studies. I spoke about Edna Ferber and Dorothy Canfield Fisher (that’s me in the mask).
*Who knows how that resolution will go—not very well, if the timeliness of this post is any indication—but I can tell you about one that’s a rousing success so far: to lift 3-pound weights every day while listening to a Taylor Swift song. This is a hybrid of my failed weight-lifting resolution of last year and my aspiration to improve my credentials as a Taylor Swift fan. I’m catching up on the pre-Red era, starting with the first song on the first album. Best song so far: Our Song.
**Apparently there was a side agreement with the United States called the Chester Concession, but my interest in understanding this magazine cover does not extend to learning what this was all about. Besides, it was never ratified by the Senate.
New on the Book List: The Secret Adversary, by Agatha Christie
Last year, I grumbled that my go-to children’s book resource, pioneering children’s librarian and Bookman columnist Annie Carroll Moore, was too busy waxing whimsical to make book recommendations. The year before, I moaned about the poor selection of books on offer.
Be careful what you wish for. This year I was hit with a veritable firehose of books. And I wasn’t the only one who felt that way: “Books for children continue to pour from the presses much faster than descriptions of them can be hammered out on the typewriter,” says the anonymous, but very relatable, writer of the Children’s Bookshelf column in the December 10, 1922, New York Times.
Over at The Bookman, Moore is back on form, wasting only the first page of her October 1922 column on flights of fancy (something about an imaginary train ride, don’t ask) before going on to six pages of solid recommendations.
Fellow children’s book columnist Marian Cutter weighs in in the December Bookman, but mostly about classics.* She and others, like Library Journaland The World’s Work,** are abuzz about a list of the best books for children that a group of librarians and educators had come up with. The idea is that, if you have a one-room schoolhouse and a limited budget, these are the books you should buy. Other than the boy-specific titles and some colonialism, the list holds up pretty well today. Little Women is the runaway winner, followed by the two Alice books, Robinson Crusoe, Tom Sawyer, and Treasure Island, followed by:
Publishers Weekly’s November 4 holiday issue has its usual extensive listing of children’s and every other kind of books, along with ads that are just as much fun. My only regret was that the snarky blurb writer of last year has been replaced with a more temperate colleagues (or else it’s the same guy and he’s recovered from last year’s burnout).
The October 1, 1922, issue of The Library Journal featured a charming article, originally published in the Manchester Guardian Weekly, called “The Books Children Like.” The writer, Evelyn Sharp, is a British suffragist and children’s book writer.*** “One has to be what is called a children’s author, perhaps, to know what it feels like, after writing a book for children, to discover that one has written a very nice story for fathers or aunts,” she sighs. The biggest mistake children’s writers can make, she says, is writing down to children, and the best children’s books are “the ones that make him feel on a level with the author, whether it is actually written for them or their elders.”
So here I am faced with an embarrassment of riches, which is great, except that the holiday season is ticking away, I have a huge (virtual) pile of books to get through, and seasonal activities keep getting in the way.**** So I’ll have to fly through the selection at a torrid pace. Here goes!
Fairy Tales, Nursery Rhymes, and Folk Tales
I was underwhelmed by Fairy Tales from Far and Near, written and illustrated by Katharine Pyle, with its muted illustrations and plethora of thous, thees, and thys.
Frances Jenkins Olcott’s retelling of Grimm’s Fairy Tales is a better choice. It’s told in refreshingly non-faux-archaic language, and Rie Cramer’s illustrations are brighter and more numerous than Pyle’s.
Back in 2020, I was charmed by Rose Fyleman’s Fairies and Chimneys, which mixed magic and city life a la Mary Poppins, but The Fairy Flutejust isn’t doing it for me. It’s just a bunch of poems about what to do if you come across a fairy (bottom line: don’t run away), with no illustrations. Plus, the first poem, “Consolation,” tells you that the fairies will love you even if you are “very ugly and freckely and small.”
Moore calls Parker Fillmore’s Mighty Mikko, a collection of Finnish tales, “a capital piece of work.” It’s an attractive volume, illustrated by Jay Van Everen, whose small wood-block drawings, like the ones on the lining pages above, I prefer to the full-page illustrations.
My most fascinating discovery of the year was Taytay’s Tales, a collection of American Indian stories collected by Elizabeth Willis De Huff. I skipped over it at first, since Moore said that “some of the tale are like Uncle Remus stories,” which wasn’t exactly a draw. It showed up on all the lists, though, so I decided to take a look. De Huff says that the book was illustrated by two Hopi teenagers, including 17-year-old Fred Kabotie. Since books by fake Native Americans are common even now, I was suspicious, but, it turns out that Kabotie not only was for real, but he went on to be a renowned artist whose honors included a Guggenheim fellowship and France’s Palme Academique. Two of his paintings are in the collection of the National Gallery of Art.
The stories in Rosetta Baskerville’s The King of the Snakes, advertised as Ugandan folk tales, also seem to be authentic—at least, the creation myth is—and E.G. Morris’s illustrations are respectfully done. On the other hand, “Ndaba kuki basebo, basebo ndaba kuki,” which is supposed to mean “The Song of the Forest Wanderer,” comes out in Google Translate as meaning “I see cookies, guys—guys, I see cookies!” in the Ganda language.
For Young Children
Luis Coloma, a Spanish priest and Royal Academy member, was commissioned to write Perez, the Mouse(originally Ratoncito Pérez) in 1894 for eight-year-old King Alfonzo XIII, who had lost a tooth. Perez lives in a box of cookies with his family and runs through the city’s pipes to the rooms of children who have lost their teeth. To this day, children in Spanish-speaking countries to this day leave their teeth under the pillows for the mouse. This 1914 version, reprinted in 1922, was adapted by Lady Moreton with illustrations by George Howard Vyse. “A great favorite with children,” Moore calls it, and I can see the appeal.
Sarah Addington’s The Boy Who Lived in Pudding Lane, illustrated by Gertrude A. Kay, is Santa’s origin story. “The younger children will be amused to read how the very fat little boy who always wore a red suit came to make toys for all children the wide world over,” Cutter tells us.
For Middle-Grade Readers
The Adventures of Maya the Bee by Waldemar Bonsels, illustrated by Homer Boss, was published in German in 1912 and (after a postwar cooling down period, presumably) first appeared in English in 1922. It’s the story of Maya, a bee who gets caught up in bee-hornet warfare. “One of the most delightful insect stories every written,” Cutter raves, which strikes me as a low bar. In any case, I’m not enthusiastic about the German militarism angle, plus the pictures freak me out, so I’m passing.*****
Kay Nielson’s illustrations for Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Engebretsen Moe’s retelling of the Norwegian fairy tale East of the Sun, West of the Moon are beautiful—she’s like the Erté of children’s book illustration—but the story itself is way longer than a fairy tale has any business being. Too bad, because I’ve always loved that title.
Ralph Bergengren’s David the Dreamer came out too late for Moore’s roundup, but Cutter gave it a rave review, and Tom Freud’s illustrations are sprinkled through the article. I couldn’t find a copy online, and when that’s the case I usually skip the book. Plus, who wants to read about someone else’s dreams? But then I found this blog post from The Marginalian (formerly Brain Pickings) about how Tom Freud started life as Sigmund Freud’s niece Martha but, at age fifteen, took on the name Tom and began wearing men’s clothes. Plus, just look at that illustration. (And lots more at The Marginalian.) Freud, sadly, committed suicide in 1930 at the age of 37.
For Older Children
Moore is quite taken with the whimsy of Gypsy and Ginger, about a carefree couple who get married right after they meet, like Dharma and Greg without the sexual innuendo. Me, not so much.
“The Southern slaves were childlike people,” Maud Lindsay says in Little Missy, a tale of life on the old plantation. And that’s just on page 1. I didn’t make it to page 2.
For Older Children
“Books written for girls present the usual problem,” Moore says, but doesn’t explain what the problem is. This is my fourth year on the beat, so I think I know what she means: they’re boring. I had high hopes for Red-Robin by Jane Abbott, though, since it had gotten rave reviews. I was sorely disappointed. If you think I’m just being grumpy, here’s the opening:
“Maybe she’s just setting the scene,” I said, trying to be fair, so I skipped to the next chapter, which started with more description. As I browsed, I encountered dialect, our heroine calling her father “Father dear,” and a young man who seemed promising at first (walking out of the store he works at, whistling, paying not the slightest attention to the sky) but then ruined everything by saying, “Giminy Gee!”
Moore says that the 1922 edition of Charles and Mary Lamb’s 1807 Tales from Shakespeare, with illustrations by Kay Nielson, is “perhaps the most distinguished in form of the books of the year,” and I can see her point. I would definitely get this for 13-year-old me.******
The standout poetry anthology for children in a season full of them, the critics say, is Rainbow Goldby Sara Teasdale. “Miss Teasdale works on the assumption that children prefer the poetry of such figures as Wordsworth, Tennyson, and Swinburne to what may be termed professional children’s poetry, and she is correct,” the New York Times reviewer says. I agree—I would buy this for thirteen-year-old me too. The frontispiece is, disappointingly, the only color illustration in the book, but, as a Dugald Walker fan from way back,******* I’m happy with his black-and-white Art Nouveau illustrations.
Oh, wait! I forgot something. As much as I balk at the gender-specific reading lists of 1922, I have to admit that there’s a good swath of the adolescent male population that isn’t going to happy with any of these choices. Well, I have just the thing for them! Won for the Fleet: A Story of Annapolisby Fitzhugh Green (Lt.-Commander – U.S.N.) is a rollicking tale of…well, I just skimmed through the beginning and there was Naval Academy hazing (with trash talk like “Oh, you slacker! Oh, you kindergarten kid!”) and someone’s father’s financial ruin and I think a battle in Cuba. It was a bit confusing, but definitely rollicking.
For Young Adults
Young adults want to read about actual adults, not about fake for-children’s-consumption adults like Gypsy and Ginger. And what could be more entertaining than reading about the out-of-control party couple Anthony and Gloria Patch in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s second novel, The Beautiful and Damned? Well, honestly, I found it a bit boring when I read it during my freshman year in college, and critics generally agree, but subpar Fitzgerald is better than peak almost anybody else.
Or, if that young person in your life needs help finding a partner (and hasn’t been scared away from the whole idea by The Beautiful and Damned), there’s always Dancing Made Easy, by Charles Coll and Gabrielle Rosiere. It is the tragedy of my life that I have never hung out with a crowd that does dances like this:
Classic or Not?
The following 1922 books make a claim for the title of “classic,” or at least fall into the category “really old but I’ve heard of it.” Let’s see how well they hold up.
I remember being so eager to get back to The Voyages of Dr. Dolittle, Hugh Lofting’s Newbery Medal-winning sequel to The Story of Dr. Dolittle, that I woke up early to read it in bed. What can I say? My racial politics weren’t very evolved when I was nine. Luckily, I don’t have to dig around in the book for all the racism because Sara Beth West did it already in this excellent blog post, part of a series on Newbery winners, She says that, while some egregious passages have been removed, “the edition I read was still thoroughly offensive.” Example: a monkey successfully disguises himself as a black woman to get passage on a ship. Not a classic!
Moore is a big fan of Carl Sandburg’s Rootabaga Stories, which plays a big part in the aforementioned incomprehensible whimsical journey. I looked at the first page, which featured characters named Gimme the Ax, Please Gimme, and Ax Me No Questions, and could get no further. Which may be unfair, but do you know of anyone who has actually read this book? I don’t. Not a classic!
The Velveteen Rabbit, by Margery Williams, is one of those books that was always lurking around when I was a child but that I never got around to. It was old and about animals, so it had two strikes against it. Adult me was charmed by it, though. It’s the story of a toy rabbit that is initially ignored in favor of flashier, but breakable, mechanical toys but eventually finds its way to a boy’s heart and, thereby, life as a real live rabbit. It has humor that I actually found funny, like the self-importance of the other toys: “Even Timothy, the jointed wooden lion, who was made by disabled soldiers, and should have had broader views, put on airs and pretended that he was connected with Government.” Finally—a classic!
So that’s it! This is definitely the best holiday children’s book selection I’ve come across. There’s something for everyone. And it’s only 9:30 p.m. at Christmas Eve Cape Town Time, which is 2:30 p.m. or earlier if you’re in the United States, which, if you’re celebrating Christmas, gives you HOURS to get your shopping done.
Best wishes for the holiday season, everyone!
*I learned from this fascinating post on the blog “Bibliophemera” that Cutter was the founder of the first children’s bookstore in New York.
**I had the idea that The World’s Work was a socialist magazine, but it turns out to be a pro-business magazine with stories like “How a Business Man Would Run The Government.”
***Evelyn Sharp gossip: She and her best friend’s husband were in love for many years. They married after the friend died, when Sharp was 63 and her husband was 77.
****I returned to Cape Town from Washington, D.C., this week, and the obligations are along the lines of picking young people up at this beach, so I’m not expecting a lot of sympathy.
*****The film industry was more enthusiastic, and Maya’s story was recently made into a series of animated films.
******14-year-old me would have turned my nose up at Lamb and plowed uncomprehendingly through the original text.
*******Although I see I misidentified him both of the times I’ve mentioned him, calling him Dugald Steward Walker one time and Dugald Stewart the other time (although I may have fixed these errors by the time you read this). His actual name was Dugald Stewart Walker.
It’s been almost three years since I set out to earn badges from the 1916 Girl Scout handbook, How Girls Can Help Their Country.* In the meantime, a 1920 edition has been published. Renamed Scouting for Girls, it’s full of new badges, as well as revamped old ones with new, generally more realistic requirements.
I’m on it! But I’m scaling back from my insanely ambitious effort last time, when I tackled all 36 badges over the course of just two posts. That was a bit much, what with all the knot tying and flower drawing and ironing and recorder playing. My poor husband! Plus, at that torrid pace I tended to give up on requirements I could have fulfilled if I’d been willing to devote more time to them, like memorizing the names of all the cabinet secretaries. I decided to take it slower this time, with one badge per post.
For my first badge, I chose Pathfinder, where you learn about your local area. I came fairly close to success last time, but I failed the requirement to know all the public buildings and public schools in my city. There’s a vastly improved set of requirements in the 1920 handbook, plus I’m in a different city—Cape Town, South Africa, then and Washington, D.C., now. (I rotate between the two.) I decided to focus my efforts, where possible, on the neighborhood of Mount Pleasant. It’s not my actual neighborhood, but it was developed in the early years of the 20th century so has a 1920s feel.**
Being a Pathfinder ended up being no simple task. At least, not in the overachiever way I decided to go about it, which included not just knowing about places in my community but photographing them and learning about their history. Where possible, I chose buildings that were at least a hundred years old. The project started to balloon out of control, so I decided to scale my ambition back further and devote this post to one particularly labor-intensive requirement. I’ll be back with additional pathfinding in a future post.
Here’s the requirement:
#4. Know the names and locations of the Post Office, Telegraph and Telephone Stations, Public Library, City or Town Hall, one hospital of good standing, one hotel or inn, three churches, one Protestant, one Catholic, one Synagogue, and the nearest railroad.***
As you see, a lot to unpack here.
Mount Pleasant doesn’t have its own post office, so I photographed the one in nearby Cleveland Park. The 1941 building was designed by architect Carroll Meigs. When I looked him up, I found (after being sidetracked by the father-son civil engineering duo of Montgomery C. Meigs Sr. and Jr.****) a request to the D.C. government’s historic preservation office by the owners of a Meigs-designed Safeway in the Palisades neighborhood not to have the store designated as historically significant. As part of this effort, the owners dump all over Meigs and the store’s builder, calling its architecture “undistinguished” and saying that “despite the fact that both men had practices based in Washington, DC, neither are considered preeminent in their field.” The review board agreed, saying, “Even if its architect had been recognized as a creative master, this is not a master work or a manifestation of artistry.” The store, which was the oldest Safeway on the East Coast, closed in 2019.*****
Telegraph and Telephone Stations
With technological progress and the breakup of Ma Bell, telegraph and telephone stations have gone by the wayside. A search for nearby cell phone towers proved unexpectedly difficult—the sites I looked at were all difficult to navigate, insecure, or lacking in information. And the reward, a photo of a cell phone tower, didn’t particularly motivate me to persevere.
However, I did happen upon this old C&P Telephone building in Columbia Heights, a few blocks from Mount Pleasant, which is now a child care center. Apologies for the photo quality—there was a lot of glare on my phone, so I was blindly snapping away.
The Mount Pleasant Public Library was built in 1925. It’s the third oldest D.C. library still in use and was the last to be built with funding from Andrew Carnegie.
This library, which was renovated and expanded in 2012, has been a constant in my life as I’ve moved in and out of Washington over the decades. I’ve checked out probably hundreds of books there and gone to a few yoga classes. During COVID, the library set up operations outdoors; you’d put a hold on a book, and when it arrived you’d give your name to a librarian sitting at a table outside the entrance and they’d go in and fetch it. That’s what I call service!
I’m nostalgic for the days when the wide set of steps in front actually led to the entrance—access is now through a flight of stairs on the side—but I’m lucky to be able to call this my local public library.******
City or Town Hall
My ambitious goal to photograph all the sites myself fell by the wayside with D.C.’s center of government, the John A. Wilson Building. It’s kind of far away, down past the White House. So you’ll have to make do with this vintage postcard.
I did learn a lot about the Wilson Building, though, starting with the fact of its existence. I realized when I saw this requirement that I had no idea where the seat of the D.C. government was—a shameful fact given that I have lived here on and off (mostly off) since 1983. This is partly due to D.C.’s neither-fish-nor-fowl administrative status, which makes City Hall less of an institution than it is in other cities. But still, shameful.******* Originally known simply as the District Building, the Wilson Building dates from 1908. It was renamed in 1994 after a former head of the city council.
The original City Hall, built in 1822, now houses the District of Columbia Court of Appeals. I was familiar with this building, since it’s right in front of you when you get off the Metro at Judiciary Square on your way to the Mall.
I will definitely keep an eye out for the Wilson Building next time I’m in the area.
Hospital of Good Standing
My effort to locate an old-timey hospital in D.C. provide futile. Several of the city’s hospitals are over a hundred years old as institutions, but all of them have relocated to modern buildings.
The closest hospital to Mount Pleasant, according to ushospitalfinder.com, is Howard University Hospital. It’s currently housed in a nondescript modern facility, but it has an interesting history, originating as the Freedman’s Hospital and Asylum in 1862. Beginning in 1863, it was headed by Dr. Alexander Augusta, the country’s first black hospital administrator and professor of medicine. After the Civil War, it became Howard’s teaching hospital but remained a federal facility.
New quarters for the hospital, previously located on a military base, were built in 1909. The hospital was transferred to the control of Howard University in 1967, and the building remained in use as a hospital until 1975. It still stands, now housing the university’s communications school.
The current hospital, built in 1975, is on the former site of Washington’s Griffiths Stadium.******** It’s been beset with scandals and financial problems in recent years, making the “good standing” criterion in the badge requirement debatable. It’s under new management now, though, and was allocated $100 million for the construction of a new facility under the infrastructure law passed earlier this year, which I’ll take as a thumbs-up.
Hotel or Inn
Finally, an easy one! The Line Hotel in the Adams Morgan neighborhood, just down the road from hotel-less Mount Pleasant, occupies a former Christian Science church that was built in 1912. The building sat empty for a quarter-century while the church retained a presence in the form of a reading room next door.
The Line opened in 2017 and quickly became a trendy hangout, with music pouring out of the building and guests and local residents relaxing on colorful cushions on the steps. It soon became embroiled in a dispute with the city government about a $46 million tax abatement related to the hiring of D.C. residents, which was eventually resolved in its favor. (Learning about your local community turns out to lead to all sorts of cans of worms). The hotel shut down for a while, along with the rest of the hospitality industry, because of COVID. A visit to the Line on a recent Sunday afternoon showed that it was, if not exactly hopping, pleasantly buzzing.
The two impressively stocked bars were deserted, but I wouldn’t necessarily call a deserted bar at 6 p.m. on a Sunday a bad thing.
Three Churches, One Protestant, One Catholic, One Synagogue
Mount Pleasant borders 16th Street NW, a boulevard that’s lined with houses of worship all the way up to the Maryland border, so I had an abundance of riches to choose from. To represent the Protestants, I selected the National Baptist Memorial Church, which is is exactly a hundred years old. Here’s President Harding at the 1921 groundbreaking.
You can see the National Baptist Memorial Church on the left in the photo at the top of this post, along with All Souls Unitarian Church and the Unification Church’s National Family Church, which was built in 1933, with granite shipped from Utah, as the Washington, D.C. headquarters of the Mormon church.
I had to go further afield to find a Catholic church and a synagogue. St. Augustine Catholic church has a storied history as the first African-American Catholic church in the District. It was founded in 1858, and its parish school was one of the first in the city to educate black children.
St. Augustine subsequently merged with St. Paul’s, which had a dwindling congregation of white parishioners. The original church was torn down, and the longtime headquarters of the Washington Post was built on the site. The current church, built in 1897, is the old St. Paul’s.
On a walk in Georgetown, I passed Kesher Israel, a Modern Orthodox synagogue that was founded in 1911. The congregation operated above a store on M Street at first, and in 1915 it moved into new quarters, pictured below. The current synagogue was built on the same site in 1931.
Prominent members of Kesher Israel have included Herman Wouk, author of The Caine Mutiny, who called Kesher Israel “the best little shul in America,” and senator and vice presidential nominee Joe Lieberman, who occasionally walked the three miles from the synagogue to the Capitol for votes that took place on the Sabbath.
Union Station is Washington’s Amtrack station—the railroad’s second busiest, I recently learned (after New York’s Penn Station, presumably). Busiest in terms of riders, that is. In terms of hustle and bustle in the station itself, not so much. I took the Metro there on my way to the Library of Congress recently and was taken aback to see how deserted the station, once a bustling shopping center, is now.
Curious about how this had happened, I did some Googling and found a recent Washington Post article about the sad state of affairs, which has to do with a drop in ridership during COVID, an influx of homeless people when libraries and other public buildings closed, and the station’s complex ownership/leasing/subleasing setup. Planning for a $10 billion renovation project is underway, but that will take a decade. I hope that the station will return to at least a semblance of its former glory well before then, and that I will once again be able to browse happily in its shops.
In the meantime, here’s a photo of the station’s lobby, taken a few years after it opened in 1908.
Whew! That was quite a requirement! It was well worth the effort, though. When I walk around my community now, I see it with new eyes and feel an increased sense of belonging.
Stay tuned for Part 2!
*How Girls Can Help Their Country was a spinoff of the British How Girls Can Help to Build Up the Empire.
**Mount Pleasant is one of Washington’s most diverse neighborhoods today, but, like many Washington neighborhoods, it has a troubling racial history. In the 1920s, almost all residents signed deeds prohibiting the sale of their homes to African Americans. You can learn more about the neighborhood’s history in this 2021 Washington Post article by a Mount Pleasant resident.
***I’m condensing this and other badge requirements, since there are separate instructions for city dwellers and residents of small towns or rural areas.
****Meigs Sr. served as the Union Quartermaster in the Civil War and supervised the construction of the U.S. Capitol. Meigs Jr. was, in addition to being a civil engineer, the father of boring children’s writer Cornelia Meigs.
*****Meigs has gotten enough grief, so I’ll refrain from commenting and let you be the judge:
******When I was a kid, they used to play a song about the “local public library” on Captain Kangaroo and show photos of the lions at the library at 5th Avenue and 42nd Street in New York. I assumed that was the name of the building, and I asked my mom if she could take me there. She pointed out that we had just gone to the library, I said, “No—the Local Public Library!” Naturally, she had no idea what I was talking about. The sad thing is that we lived in New Jersey at the time and she could easily have taken me to visit the lions (to the extent that anything is easy when you’re the mother of four small children).
*******I polled two friends and both of them knew that the Wilson building is the home of the D.C. government.
********I had to stop myself from going down a whole other rabbit hole about Griffith Stadium, former home to the Washington Senators, the Redskins (now the Commanders, although I prefer the interim moniker Washington Football Team), and the Grays, the Negro League baseball team. You can learn more about this, and about the history of Howard University Hospital, on this fascinating page on Howard’s website.
I’ve been reading a lot of children’s books lately,* and some of them feature magical adventures. This has left me longing for a magical adventure of my own. So I decided to set off on one, to the advertising pages of theJune 1922 issue of The Ladies’ Home Journal.
As my fellow magical adventurer Alice would be the first to tell you, even a magical day should start with a good breakfast,** so I’ll pour myself a bowl of Post Toasties.
I’ll celebrate my healthy food choice by having a doughnut fried in Snowdrift shortening.
After breakfast, I’ll wash up with Palmolive soap***
and dab on some some Woodbury skin products.****
Even magical adventurers have to do the laundry, but don’t worry, P and G white soap is as much fun as…arithmetic!
I’ll put on my L’Aiglon slip-over, which, get this, you just SLIP ON OVER YOUR HEAD,
walk the dog on the beach and take some snaps,
and spend a happy afternoon hanging out with friends on the Congoleum,
enjoying some Perfetto sugar wafers
and refreshing Coca-Cola.*****
Uh-oh, unexpected guests at dinnertime! No problem, we’ll scare them off by claiming that we’re having Libby’s canned meat
and then get out the real dinner, attractively served on Fry’s Oven Glass.
Washing up is a pleasure when you do it with Old Dutch Cleanser.
I’ll slip on my hair net and head out to a party.
My beauty powder is having its desired effect.
Could this be love????
I’m getting ahead of myself. For the moment, I’ll go home and, with the music still ringing in my ears, sit under the Mazda lamp with Mom****** and tell her all about my day.
She can’t believe her little girl who used to have nightmares about Jell-O is all grown up.
You might be thinking that these are not exactly Alice-level magical adventures. But I’m preparing to leave Cape Town for several months, and, although I’m looking forward to my trip, I’ve been savoring the time I have left here and thinking about how sometimes an ordinary day is the most magical thing of all.
*For a new project I can’t wait to tell you all about!
**Of course, the Queen would argue that you need to believe six impossible things first.
***Palmolive may be exaggerating the virtues of the “schoolgirl complexion” (see: Woodbury skin products).
****Note to Woodbury: you shouldn’t have to squint to see the name of the product.
*****Did it have cocaine in it, you ask? I did some research and learned that the original recipe, from 1886, did include cocaine, or more accurately a precursor chemical, although not all that much. This was reduced to a trace amount in 1902, and Coke became completely cocaine-free in 1929.
I haven’t done a post on magazine covers since last August. I tried early this year, but the covers I found were uninspiring. Has the Golden Age of Illustration come to an end, I wondered.*
I decided to give it another shot, and I spent a long time looking at covers from March and April 1922. They weren’t bad. Most of them were quite good, in fact. But nothing seemed new or fresh or different.
I expect Erté’sHarper’s Bazar covers to be attractive and haunting, but the March one is haunting without being attractive and the April one is attractive without being haunting.**
This A. H. Fish Vanity Fair cover was solid but not memorable.
Are these either houses or gardens? I think not, House & Garden!
Okay, maybe I was just in a bad mood. I’ll stop carping now and just tell you what I found.
Regular Good Housekeeping cover illustrator Jessie Willcox Smith was her usual competent, family-friendly self.
The kids were up to their usual wholesome fun at St. Nicholas.
With Ireland newly independent, St. Patrick’s Day celebrations were especially festive.
There was a newcomer, Tom Webb, at the Saturday Evening Post,
The insanely prolific Rockwell was all over the place in March and April, at The Literary Digest
and The Country Gentleman
For the Ladies’ Home Journal, N.C. Wyeth (father of Andrew) painted a boy dreaming of stolen loot.
Over at Vogue, a Helen Dryden cover featured an old-timey couple,
and there were two new-to-me Vogue cover artists, Pierre Brissaud and Henry R. Sutter.***
So, this is all very nice, and if I hadn’t been looking at hundred-year-old magazine covers for over four years I might be impressed. It’s just that there wasn’t anything that hadn’t been done before.
And then I came across this Vanity Fair cover from March 1922, by newcomer Eduardo Garcia Benito, who had arrived in New York from Spain the year before.**** I hadn’t seen anything yet like the sleek, clear lines and bold colors of this cover, which would come to typify Art Deco illustration.*****
And then I took a second look at the other March Vogue cover, by Georges Lepape, which, maybe because of the muted colors, I hadn’t paid particular attention to.
Same minimalist design. Same clear lines. Same boyish silhouette on the woman.
Two years into the decade, the twenties have begun!
**Here is an examples of an attractive and haunting Erté cover:
***UPDATE 5/1/2022: I looked into this some more and these both seem to be Vogue debuts. Brissaud went on to be a regular Vogue cover artist. Sutter only did six covers that I could find (i.e. that appear on art.com, which I think has all of them), all in 1922 and 1923. I haven’t been able to find much information about him other than that he lived in Provincetown, Massachusetts.
****This wasn’t Benito’s Condé Nast debut, though. This November 15, 1921, Vogue cover was his first (as far as I can tell) of many for the magazine.
*****I could do without the “Women can smoke too!” message, though.
Happy Women’s History Month, everyone! Celebrating isn’t generally a heavy lift for me, since I write about women a lot anyway and everything on this blog is history by definition. This year, though, I decided to take a look at someone who was already history in 1922—Jane Austen, who had died just over a hundred years before.
I ordered Oscar Firkins’ 1920 book Jane Austentwo years ago, while I was in Washington during the early months of COVID. I figured it would shed interesting light on how Austen was viewed at the time. What I wasn’t expecting was a delightful romp through her work that brightened some lonely afternoons during that terrible spring.
Our own century, of course, is not lacking in writing about Austen. There is scholarship focusing on all sorts of topics, including material culture and her depiction of slavery. There are memoirs and novels about reading Austen. What we don’t have, at least to my knowledge, is a book that makes you feel like you’re talking about Austen with a witty, perceptive friend.* So I was delighted to find that friend in Firkins.
Rather than describing Firkins’ writing on Austen, I’ll let him speak for himself. I realize the risk this poses, as does Firkins, who prefaces a long passage from Pride and Prejudice by acknowledging that “extracts, like other transplantations, are likely to be disappointing.” (If you’re not in the mood for transplantations, you can skip down to the first squiggle and read about Firkins’ intriguing life.)
If Firkins comes across as overly critical here, that’s my fault, not his—he’s an Austen fan, with plenty of good things to say, but criticism is so much more fun to read than praise. Also, admiration of Austen is a bit of a civic religion, so it’s refreshing to encounter someone who’s willing to look at her work through a non-adulatory lens.
On Sense and Sensibility
“Our liking [for Elinor Dashwood] passes through crises at every turn, and its final safety is a form of miracle. The reader is aided by the fact that under Miss Austen’s convoy he takes up his abode in the mind of Elinor, and a well-bred person feels a difficulty in quarreling with his hostess.”
On Pride and Prejudice
“When he [Darcy] first appears, he speaks insultingly of a young girl within her hearing. After that, all is over, and to search the character for virtues is to delve among ruins for salvage.”**
“A family, as Americans understand that term, they [the Bennets] are not; they are a congeries.*** They are bedded and boarded in the same enclosure, but a family life is unimaginable in their case. Even under the double disadvantage of the father’s neglect and the mother’s attention it is difficult to conceive that Kitty and Lydia should have sprung from the same stem from which Jane and Elizabeth were the primary offshoots.”
On Northanger Abbey
“I think I am drawn to Catherine by the fact that she is the only one of the heroines who acts like a young girl. Anne Elliot’s youthfulness is past; she already wears the willow,**** and her attitude imitates its droop. Emma, Elizabeth, and Elinor (they run to E’s like the early Saxon kings) are not really young. I reject the futility of baptismal registers and the vain umpireship of the family Bible. They all impress us as having sat on boards; we are lucky if we do not feel that they are sitting on boards in our very presence. Marianne’s conversation is ten years older than her behavior. I shall be told that Fanny Price is a young girl. Miss Becky Sharp was obliged by circumstances to be her own mamma; to my mind, Fanny Price is obliged by nature to be her own maiden aunt. But Catherine Morland is young in the fashion of young girls whom I actually know, simple, warm-hearted, pleasure-loving, diffident between her impulses and eager behind her shyness.”
On Mansfield Park
“Transferred to Mansfield Park, the ten-year-old girl [Fanny] grows up with the marvellous rapidity with which that operation—so tedious in real life—is accomplished by the heroines of fiction.”
“The elopement of Henry Crawford and Maria Rushworth in a story of this kind is like the firing of a pistol shot at an afternoon tea. The story, naturally enough, flees to the nearest hiding-place, crouches down, and puts its fingers in its ears.”
“We feel that Edmund is overstarched, that Fanny is oversweetened, and that the two Crawfords are unfortunate in their resemblance to unstable chemical compounds.”
“We respect [Mrs. Weston] for bearing a child; that is an act of refreshing solidity in a world in which the people are mostly idle observers of each other’s idleness.”
“He [Mr. Knightley] is almost cruel in his rebuke of cruelty; one feels that he is the sort of master who would damn a servant for a lapse into profanity. I cannot but feel that this world must be far better and far better-natured than it now is before a mere flick of satire at another person’s obvious and obtrusive folly can deserve the avalanche of reprobation which Emma receives for her treatment of Miss Bates.”
“As for her [Jane Fairfax’s] sufferings, there are people who have a talent for endurance which is little short of an entreaty to destiny to unload its carload of misfortunes at their door.”
“A doctor’s resource for a troublesome case and a novelist’s expedient for an invalid story are one and the same. They must go to Bath.”
“Even the exertions of a novelist can no longer keep the lovers [Anne and Captain Wentworth] apart, but the contrivance by which understanding is brought about is so clumsy and artificial that perhaps it ought not to surprise us to hear that it has been warmly admired.”
“For my own pleasure, I could wish that Anne was less subject to agitation. I feel the same mixture of pity and irritation before the quivers and tremors that I should feel for a woman whose veils and draperies were blown hither and thither in the turbulence of a high wind. The embarrassment may be real, but the costume seems to invite it.”
On the novels as a group
“If a novelist wants to portray many persons, he must choose between logic and nature, in other words between artifice and incoherence. Dickens, in his populously intricate fiction, to his gain and to his loss, chose artifice. But for Jane Austen the grand scale of Dickens was impracticable. Her world was a Belgium—populous but minute.”
This is just a small sample of what Firkins has to offer. If you open the book at random, there’s a good chance that you’ll come upon something as clever as what I’ve quoted here.*****
As I was reading through these passages, it flashed through my mind that Firkins, with his biting wit, might have been a worthy partner to Austen in life. I immediately swatted that thought away, though. In the first place, there’s no need to think that a single novelist must be in want of a husband. Also, pairing Austen with someone by virtue of his put-downs of her is veering into Mr. Knightley territory. And there are other obstacles that we’ll get to by and by.
Who, I wanted to know, was Firkins? I knew nothing about him when I read Jane Austen other than that he was a college professor. When I started researching this post, he proved elusive at first. No Wikipedia entry. No grave at Find a Grave. No photo. (I eventually found the ones included here on the website of the Minnesota Historical Society.)
It turned out that I wasn’t the only one who had trouble pinning Firkins down. In an introduction to his essay on O. Henry in the 1921 collection Modern Essays, literary man-about-town Christopher Morley, the volume’s editor, wrote that he had been surprised not to find an entry for Firkins in Who’s Who. “It seemed hardly credible,” he wrote, “that a critic so brilliant had been overlooked by the industrious compilers of that work, which includes hundreds of hacks and fourflushers.” Morley wrote to Firkins asking for biographical details, but “modestly, but firmly, he denied me.”
Finally, in an entry on Firkins in the SNAC Archive,****** I learned that he was a professor at the University of Minnesota and a well-known critic, and that he also wrote plays and poetry. He was born in 1864 and died in 1932.
A 1934 New York Times review of Firkins’ posthumously published memoirs and letters revealed that he suffered from severe vision problems all his life. The reviewer calls the book “the quiet record of a quiet and scholarly life,” which isn’t exactly jacket blurb material, but he ends up praising it and calling Firkins “a good citizen of the American intellectual world.”
And then I found it, the Rosetta Stone of Oscar Firkins studies: a 1938 University of Arizona master’s thesis by Lena Smith Doyle titled “Can the Plays of Oscar W. Firkins Succeed on the Stage?” Her answer, in brief, is “sort of,”******* but, more to the point for my purposes, the thesis includes a ten-page chapter on Firkins’ life.
Firkins, Doyle tells us, was described by those who knew him as a man whose “gentleness of nature but inflexibility of intellect and morals” was most “eccentric and original.” He was “capable of being both depressed and exalted.” While “a recluse when he chose,” he “could be most charmingly entertaining when he accepted social responsibility.”
Doyle tells us of Firkins’ early life that “one cannot help feeling that the twig had been severely inclined if not bent in childhood,” but, infuriatingly, she tells us nothing more of the twig-bending. (His memoirs may shed light on this, but they’re still under copyright.) With his “strange, gifted, and almost mysterious personality,” she writes, Firkins “was not of the earthly earth but lived within the cloistered circles of a constructive educational atmosphere and imposed upon himself rigid rules of living which had limiting tendencies toward the idealistic and spiritual personality.”
Soon after his graduation from the University of Minnesota, Firkins began teaching there. He was to remain at the university for the rest of his life except for the years 1919 to 1921, when, after being “called to New York,” he served as the drama critic for the Weekly Review. The prominent British critic William Archer called Firkins “the ablest of the living American critics of the drama.” The Weekly Review was absorbed into The Independent in 1921, which may have put Firkins out of a job.
In Minnesota, Firkins lived with his mother and sisters, who supported his career, reading to him to save his eyes and taking care of the practical details of life. He went to New York for Christmas every year, taking in plays and lecturing on them when he returned. A student said of his teaching that “those present could not but feel that they were listening to scholarship interpreted by wit and epigrammatic analysis of a Damascus-blade sharpness and brilliance.” Along with the study of Austen, Firkins also published books on Emerson and William Dean Howells, as well as essays, poems, and plays.
This sounds like a career to be proud of, but Firkins considered himself a failure. In a letter to a friend, he described himself as experiencing “a moral as well as a material November, a season of blankness, grayness, depressions, finalities.” He went on to say that “the sum of evils is, as commonly happens with me, far less imposing in recital than painful in experience, consisting in brief of a marked aggravation of my chronic nervous disorder, a series of vexations and disappointments in my literary and quasi-literary work, and a moral shock, the slight ground of which has been redoubled and multiplied by a sensitiveness which refuses to yield to my clear sense of its irrationality.”
Firkins’ sister Ina, who worked as a librarian at the University of Minnesota and edited his posthumous memoir, described him as suffering from “social maladjustment” and “chronic nervous exhaustion.” His emotional life, she said, was “repressed and starved.”
Firkins died of pneumonia at the age of 67, shortly before his planned retirement. After his death, a friend commented that “the deepening of character that come through marriage and the knowledge of womanhood and parenthood were not his,” yet his treatment of “the sex relations” was “rich profound, and many-sided.”
“Dare one suggest,” Doyle asks in her thesis, “that had Firkins possessed and experienced the love of an immediate family he could have reached even greater heights?”
No, Lena, one daren’t! These descriptions show us a man who was nervous and depressed, reclusive and secretive, and subject to morbid introspection and vaguely defined “moral shock.” At the same time, he was witty, companionable, and fond of travel. A modern reader—or at least this modern reader, but I doubt I’m alone here—looks at this and sees a closeted gay man. (Or maybe an uncloseted gay man whose sexual orientation his friends and family members were tiptoeing around. That could be what Doyle’s bent twig reference was about.)
Firkins, as I imagine him, had a blast during his holiday sojourns and the two years he lived in New York, finding kindred spirits and, perhaps, romance. I picture him returning reluctantly to the bosom of his family and to the university. (I think of T.S. Eliot in England, so desperate to avoid returning to his preordained life as a Harvard philosophy professor that he married a woman he hardly knew in order to be able to stay there.)
It may be, as the author of the biographical sketch in his memoir pointed out, that Firkins “loved the sparkle of a fine phrase more than he could love the somber fact behind it.” He was more of a reader than a scholar. But, like any good Jane Austen fan, I can’t resist a sparking phrase. I’m grateful that Firkins left his lively prose behind, and eager to read more of it.********
*The novelist Brandon Taylor, who is in my opinion the most entertaining and insightful literary critic writing right now, shared his thoughts on Mansfield Parkrecently in his Substack newsletter, Sweater Weather.
**In case Darcy’s take-down isn’t fresh in your mind, here it is: “She is tolerable, but not handsome enough to tempt me; and I am in no humor at present to give consequence to young ladies who are slighted by other men.”
***I.e. a jumble.
*****That’s exactly what I had to do with Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, since apparently I didn’t have my Post-It Notes on hand when I was reading these chapters in 2020.
******The Social Networks and Archival Context (SNAC) Archive is an online biographic database compiled by a consortium of archives. It’s such an amazing resource that I was embarrassed that I had never come across it until I learned, in a 2017 article on the University of Virginia website ominously titled “Digital Social Network Linking the Living and the Dead Expands,” that it’s fairly new.
*******Judging from their titles, like The Bride of Quietness and The Revealing Moment, I don’t picture Firkins’ plays packing them in on Broadway.
********His poetry, not so much. Here are the opening lines of a typical example, which was published in an anthology of war poems after appearing in The Nation.
Last year, I celebrated Black History Month by writing about The Brownies’ Book, the groundbreaking magazine for African American children that was edited by W.E.B. Du Bois. Sadly, the magazine failed to reach its subscription goals and, after a two-year run, ceased publication in December 1921. While it lasted, The Brownies’ Book not only provided young African Americans with a chance to read about young people like themselves but also gave them a chance to see themselves in print by sending in letters to the editor, photos, poems, or stories. Aspiring writer Langston Hughes did all of these things.
Hughes, who graduated from Cleveland’s Central High School in 1920,* made his first appearance in the pages of The Brownies’ Book in July of that year. Along with his graduation photo, he submitted a letter saying, “It might interest you to know that I have been elected Class Poet and have also written the Class Song for the graduates. I am, too, the editor of The Annual and am the first Negro to hold the position since 1901, when it was held by the son of Charles W. Chestnut. I thank you for the honor of having my picture in your publication.”**
After his graduation, Hughes went to Toluca, Mexico, to live with his father, who had separated from his mother shortly after he was born. Hughes was hoping to convince him to pay for his education at Columbia University. There was tension between the two, in part because Hughes’ father disliked what he thought of as his son’s sissified demeanor.*** Hughes’ father eventually agreed to pay his tuition, but only if he studied engineering instead of literature, which Hughes agreed to do.
In September 1920, Hughes submitted three poems to The Brownies’ Book. Jessie Redmon Faust, the magazine’s literary editor, wrote to Hughes accepting one of the poems, “The Fairies,” which she considered “very charming.” She asked if he had any stories about Mexico, or if he knew of any Mexican games. Hughes sent her an article about Mexican games, along with some more poems. “Fairies” and another poem, “Winter Sweetness,” appeared in the January 1921 issue of The Brownies’ Book, along with the article.
You can judge the poems for yourself, but, as something of a connoisseur, I have to say that “The Fairies” is not top-tier ca. 1920 fairy poetry. It is, however, the kind of writing that gets you published in The Brownies’ Book, which is what Hughes was aiming for.
On to the games! In one of them, called Lady White, a girl is chosen as Lady White and another as her suitor, Don Philip. The other players circle her in Ring Around the Rosie formation and sing a song about how Lady White’s suitor must break a window to behold Lady White. Some more singing goes on, and then Don Philip tries to break through the circle to get inside. Curious about this Freudian game, I Googled “Doña Blanca” and found this video from a children’s program, which I beg you to drop everything this instant to watch. In this version, the children don’t try to ram through each other’s enlaced hands, so it’s safer but makes for kind of a lame game.****
More publications soon followed. The March 1921 issue included another poem, and an article about the Mexican city of Toluca appeared in April. In the article, Hughes recounts interesting details of daily life, such as, “On the second of November, which is a day in honor of the dead, they sell many little cardboard coffins and paper dolls dressed as mourners, and if a person meets you in the street and says ‘I’m dying,’ you must give him a gift unless you have said ‘I’m dying’ first; then, of course, he has to treat you to the present.”***** Also, Hughes notes that people’s houses have hardly any furniture except chairs, 27 in the case of one of his friends. “Perhaps it is a good idea, for on holidays there is plenty of room to dance without moving anything out,” he philosophizes.
In July 1921, there was a play by Hughes about a young couple who earn a gold piece selling pigs at the market, fantasize about what they can buy with it, and end up giving it to a poor old woman with a blind son. This is as close to hack work as Hughes gets.
The November 1921 issue featured a poem by Hughes, “Thanksgiving Time,” as well as a story, “Those Who Have No Turkey,” about a country girl who, visiting her snooty city cousins on Thanksgiving, is shocked to hear from a newsboy that his family has no turkey to eat and invites him and his family to dinner at her relatives’ house. It’s an engagingly told story, although Hughes spends too much time on buildup and rushes through the dinner in two paragraphs.
Hughes’ account of accompanying a high school class on a hike up Xinantecatl, an inactive volcano near Toluca, appeared in the December 1921 issue, the magazine’s last. Again, there are lots of interesting details, like the list of items he was told to bring along: “first, plenty of lunch; then, two warm blankets because we were to sleep in the open mountains; my camera for pictures; a bottle for water; a small amount of cognac or some other liquor in case of mountain sickness in the high altitude; and a pistol. ‘But above all,’ they said, ‘take onions!” The reason, it turned out, was that smelling them helps with altitude sickness. Indeed, Hughes reports, the onions turned out to be a lifesaver in the thin mountain air.
Hughes’ work in The Brownies’ Book shows us an aspiring writer who knows his audience and has a flair for words, but there’s no evidence of budding genius. There’s more to the story, though. Early in 1921, he sent Faust a poem that he had written in July 1920, after crossing the Mississippi on his way to Mexico. She told him that she would publish it–not in The Brownies’ Book but in The Crisis, the NAACP’s magazine for adults.
The poem was “The Negro Speaks of Rivers.” It appeared in the June 1921 issue of The Crisis and became Hughes’ signature poem.******
The career of one of America’s greatest poets had begun.*******
*Hughes believed throughout his life that he was born on February 1, 1902, but, as this fascinating 2018 New York Times article recounts, a writer and poet researching his own family history came across several 1901 references to the infant Langston Hughes in the Topeka Plaindealer, an African American newspaper. February 1, 1901, is now widely accepted as his date of birth. So “Teenaged Poet” is a bit of a stretch–but he thought he was a teenager in 1921.
**Charles Waddell Chesnutt was a well-known writer and political activist. His daughter Helen Chesnutt was Hughes’ Latin teacher and a figure of inspiration to him. Chesnutt’s Wikipedia entry says that he had four daughters but does not mention a son.
***Information about Hughes’ personal relationships is scant, but many scholars now believe that he was gay.
****We used to play a version of the ramming through the hands game when I was a kid, which, like many aspects of 1960s-1970s childhood, is horrifying in retrospect.
*****I lived in Mexico City in the 1980s, but sadly never observed this particular Day of the Dead tradition in practice. I suppose it would have been impracticable in a city with a population of 20 million.
******Unfortunately in retrospect, The Crisis often used swastikas in the magazine’s graphic design. The symbol had no political significance at the time, of course.
*******Blogger/composer Frank Hudson of The Parlando Project has been focusing on Hughes’ early work this month. His post about “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” is here.