Monthly Archives: January 2018

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

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

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

Best magazine: The Crisis

The Crisis cover, January 1918, drawing of African-American woman and daisies

The Crisis, January 1918, Frank Walts

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

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

Worst magazine: Good Housekeeping

Good Housekeeping cover, January 1918, baby wrapped in flag with starry sky

Good Housekeeping, January 1918, Jessie Willcox Smith

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

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

Headline and photograph illustration, The Way of the Transgressor, The Crisis, January 1918.

The Crisis, January 1918

I wrote about this story, which ran in the January 1918 issue of The Crisis, earlier this month. It’s vivid, unformulaic, funny, and moving. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to find out anything about Green (if that was his real name), or to find anything else that he wrote. I’ll keep looking.

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

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

Vanity fair illustration, Palm Beach Honeymoon, January 1918

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

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

Portrait photograph of G.K. Chesterton sitting at desk.

G.K. Chesterton, date unknown

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

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

Photograph of T.S. Eliot in lawn chair, Otteline Morrell, 1923.

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

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

 Best joke:

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

Judge magazine, January 5, 1918

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

 Worst joke:

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

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

or incomprehensible, like this one:

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

(Both from Judge, January 5, 1918)

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

On to February!


A 1918 story gets the MFA workshop treatment

For a recent MFA graduate like me, the 1918 writers’ market inspires huge envy. There were dozens of mass-circulation magazines, and all of them were full of short stories. Quality was a different matter—the poet and critic Louis Untermeyer summed up the critical consensus when he said in the January 17, 1918, issue of The Dial that the magazines offer the public “a series of pink and white heroines with perfume in their veins, endless variations of the Cinderella-Zenda romances, wax dummies with virile pretentions on their lips and riding breeches on their soul.” So I wasn’t expecting much. Most of the stories I’ve read have been pretty entertaining, though. The biggest problem is that, almost without exception, they end abruptly with a “surprise” twist that anyone could have seen coming.

The core of an MFA program is the workshop. Students read each other’s stories and—in my program, anyway—write letters commenting on them. I decided to give this treatment to one of the stories I read this month, “Between the Cat’s Paws,” by Elizabeth Jordan, which appeared in the January 1918 issue of Woman’s Home Companion.

Banner, Woman's Home Companion, January 1918.

Dear Elizabeth:

I enjoyed reading “Between the Cat’s Paws.” You did a good job of portraying the main character, Penfield “Penny” Hewett, a 23-year-old lover of “golf sticks and polo ponies,” who, to the unflattering astonishment of his friends and family, has found success as an architect. We see the increasing sense of entrapment caused by his long engagement to his college classmate Arabella, who’s a suffragist in the East and rarely writes these days. And we see how he’s torn apart by his feelings for Ruth, the sister of Ralph, his business partner and pal. I wish I’d learned more about Ruth, though, beyond that she’s an “awfully nice girl” who keeps Penny and Ralph “comfy.”

Illustration, Woman's Home Companion, January 1918.

The climax of the story, when Arabella shows up in town after failing to respond to Penny’s subtle (he thinks) inquiries as to whether the engagement is still on, mostly works. I would have liked to see more of the interplay between Penny, Arabella, Ruth, and Ralph at the tea he arranges at Arabella’s insistance, and at the dinner that follows. You can’t just say that “the best in each of the four at the table came out and fused into a perfect comradeship,” we need to see this happening.

The next scene, with Penny and Arabella alone in a taxi, worked better for me. I believed that Arabella, having seen through Penny’s description of Ruth as “a peach” and “the sort of girl that makes a perfect friend,” would want to check Ruth out before setting Penny free, and I smiled when, to Penny’s bemusement, she said, “Well, Penny, it’s all right. You can have her.” I didn’t believe it, though, when she said that she would have gone ahead with the marriage if she hadn’t approved of Ruth. This seems like a case of the story driving the character, rather than the other way around.

Illustration, Woman's Home companion, January 1918.

I also didn’t buy it when Arabella and Ralph fell in love. Arabella seems too sophisticated and ambitious for Ralph. And Ralph is clearly in love with Penny. You say that his eyes “usually rested on Penny with the deep, dumb devotion that shines in the eyes of a splendid collie,” and that Ralph “adored his chum and did not care who knew it.” I can imagine Arabella (who may be gay as well, given that, pre-Ralph, she was planning to devote her life to her career once she was free of Penny) forming an alliance of convenience with Ralph. But true love? I don’t think so.

Thanks for a good read, and I look forward to more of your stories.


Mary Grace

Portrait photograph of Elizabeth Jordan, 1901.

Elizabeth Jordan in 1901

Elizabeth Jordan is—like practically everyone I’ve come across in 1918—an intriguing character. In addition to being a prolific short story writer, she was a noted journalist and editor. She accepted and edited Sinclair Lewis’s first novel for the publishing house Harper & Brothers (now HarperCollins), and she was the long-time editor of Harper’s Bazaar. She was a close friend of Henry James, and she convinced him to contribute a chapter to a 1908 round-robin novel called The Whole Family.

Cover of The Whole Family, 1908.

Jordan was a suffragist herself, and one of my favorite things about “Between the Cat’s Paws” is that ambitious, socially engaged Arabella isn’t a villain or figure of fun, as some writers might have made her. She’s the smartest character in the story (okay, that’s not saying a whole lot), and she pulls all the strings. As for the homoerotic subtext, this is something I’ve seen a surprising amount of, even in The Melting of Mollyespecially in The Melting of Molly. More on this subject later.

I enjoyed “Between the Cat’s Paws.” If Jordan had been free to write a story about the world as she really lived in it, though—now, that’s a story I’d like to read.

Who do you love? Walter Lippmann vs. H.L. Mencken

There’s a short story by the wonderful, much-missed writer Laurie Colwin called “An Old-Fashioned Story.” It’s about a rebellious young woman named Elizabeth whose horrible rich parents decided when she was a child that she should marry Nelson, the upstanding son of their equally horrible best friends. Elizabeth isn’t having any of it. Nelson’s ne’er-do-well older brother James sounds more up her alley, but he’s always off somewhere and she hasn’t seen him since she was a child. He finally shows up at his family’s holiday party, and she leaves with him, scandalizing everyone. But, as she sits in a bar listening to him drone on about his wicked ways, she realizes he’s a bore. A few weeks later, Nelson shows up at her apartment when she’s suffering from a cold. He turns out to be a secret rebel, and to be the one for her.

I thought of this story after reading (or listening to) social commentary by Walter Lippmann and H.L. Mencken, two of the top pundits of the 1918 era. I’ve tuned out of 21st century podcasts, and the audio accompaniment to my walks lately has been Lippmann’s 1912 book of essays A Preface to Politics. In it, Lippman, who was only twenty-three when the book was published, goes on sensibly about what’s wrong with politics in the United States: basically, that our system is organized around a notion of how people should be, rather than how they really are. He builds his case methodically, quoting William James and Nietzsche and G.K. Chesterton. He’s sensible, persuasive, and intelligent—Harvard Phi Beta Kappa intelligent. He’s the golden boy. Your mom would love him. But you wouldn’t say he was exciting.

Portrait photograph of Walter Lippmann, 1914.

Walter Lippmann (Pirie MacDonald, 1914)

Then, in the January 1918 issue of Smart Set, I came across H.L. Mencken. Mencken was the magazine’s co-editor, and after 136 pages of jocular stories of varying quality there’s a piece by him called “Seven Pages about Books.” Reviewing a book called Success Easier than Failure, by E. W. Howe, he writes that it’s “the first forthright exposure, so far as I know, of the working philosophy of the American people—not the moony philosophy they serve with the lip, but the harsh, realistic, Philistine philosophy they actually practice.” He goes on:

This fundamental dualism, this disparity between what is officially approved and what is privately done, is at the heart of the American character; it sets our people off from nearly all other peoples. It is the cause of the astonishing hypocrisy that foreigners see in us, and it is the cause, too, of our constant failure to understand those foreigners and their ways.

Portrait photograph of H.L. Mencken.

H.L. Mencken, date unknown

Mencken, the high school-educated son of a cigar factory owner, is as scruffy as Lippmann is urbane, as direct as Lippmann is deliberate. Reading him after weeks of 1918 journalism felt like stepping out into the fresh air from an overheated parlor. Finally—a writer who felt contemporary.

Then I read on. Mencken complains about how we “save the [racial slur] republics from themselves” and then try to turn them into democracies. In a supposed tribute to the Jewish people, he says that any flaws they may possess are due to “corruption of blood” through intermixing with Greeks, Arabs, and Armenians. “The shark that a Jew can be at his worst is simply a Greek or Armenian at his best,” he says.

Meanwhile, in A Preface to Politics, Lippmann has turned his attention to a report on vice in Chicago. Prostitution, he says, isn’t a problem that takes effort to focus on, like trusts, or the poor. Instead, it “lies close to the dynamics of our own natures. Research is stimulated, actively aroused, and a passionate zeal suffuses what is probably the most spontaneous reform enthusiasm of our time.” Get it? Stimulated? Aroused? Passionate? Lippmann has sex on the brain! (I wonder if his editor noticed the puns. They might have slipped by me if the otherwise sedate narrator hadn’t had such a good time with them. He does all but say “heh heh heh.”)

It’s not just the puns. Lippmann argues that the preventive approach the Chicago commission advocates—more enforcement, putting lights in public parks, etc.—will never work. The only effective solution to prostitution, he says, is to get rid of the stifling morality that forces sex underground—to allow it to be enjoyed by people other than couples in lifelong monogamous marriages. Now that’s contemporary.

Mencken, as he winds up, takes a direct swipe at Lippmann, mocking his “sonorous rhapsodies.” Maybe he has a point.

But sorry, H.L., it’s too late.

Walter, you’re the one.

Wednesday Miscellany: Oh and by the way we’re publishing Ulysses

I can’t wait to find out what surprise the Little Review has in store for February 1918 that’s so huge that they can casually toss off “oh, and we’re publishing the first installment of Ulysses in March.”

The Little Review announcement of Ulysses publication, 1918

The Little Review, January 1918

The best art of 1918 is found in some surprising places. For example, ads for constipation medicine.

Nujol constipation ad, painting of mother holding baby. 1918.

Woman’s Home Companion, January 1918

Support the troops! Send them cigarettes from the enemy!*

*Actually just pretend-Turkish: really Liggett & Myers tobacco.

When half the country shut down

There seems to be a pattern: when something bad happens in 2018, it turns out that a similar, but way worse, thing happened on the same day in 1918. First the cold weather, now the shutdown.

Believe me, I know how bad a government shutdown is—I went through several of them during my Foreign Service career. But on January 21, 1918, half the country shut down.

The problem: ships full of war supplies destined for Europe were sitting idle because they didn’t have coal to fuel them. The fuel couldn’t get through because of congestion on the railways. So, on January 16, Fuel Administrator Harry Garfield ordered manufacturers east of the Mississippi and in Louisiana and Minnesota to shut down for five days beginning on January 18. In addition, all business establishments, with a few exceptions, were ordered to shut down for the next five Mondays.

posted photo of Harry Garfield, ca. 1911

Harry Garfield, ca. 1911

The order, according to the New York Times, “came with an abruptness which left official Washington gasping.” Surprisingly, not many people asked, “What gives you the right to do this? You’re the fuel administrator, not the economic commissar.” But there were a lot of objections. The Times editorial page questioned Garfield’s competence, saying that “chloroforming a nation to spare it the pangs of hunger is not good therapeutics, it is malpractice.” The Senate, which was controlled by the Democrats but you’d never know it by the way they treated President Wilson, voted 50 to 19 in favour of a resolution requesting suspension of the order for five days to allow time to evaluate it. Too late! By the time the resolution was approved at “6:05 o’clock,” Garfield had signed the order and it “was flashed to every city in the country.” The Times noted that, after a day that “had been enough to try to nerves of every one,” Garfield seemed unperturbed. (It could be that, having been an eyewitness to the assassination of his father, President Garfield, at age 17, nothing seemed all that bad after that.)

In response to objections that workers would lose their wages, Garfield suggested that their employers could pay them. The board of U.S. Steel, though, decided that this was not such a good idea. Chairman E.H. Gary, who, according to the Times, “did one of the hardest day’s work in his busy life,” said that to pay idle workers “would establish a precedent that would eventually be unfair to the employer and the employe.” The New York State Federation of Labor estimated that 80 percent of the state’s 600,000 workers would lose their pay during the shutdown.

photograph of train in rail yard

Railway Age

For the first few days, things went all right. More coal was making its way to the ports, despite freezing temperatures and snowstorms. But then came the first Monday shutdown. Disaster! Federal officials had mobilized longshoremen to unload the thousands of tons of coal that had been rushed to the piers, but they were stopped by police and soldiers because they didn’t have photo IDs. The rule requiring the IDs wasn’t supposed to go into effect until February 1, but it was implemented early because of bomb threats. By the time it was lifted, most of the workers had gone home. Meanwhile, merchandise that arrived by train couldn’t be moved out of the rail yards to make room for the coal because, oops, the department store warehouses they were destined for were closed under Garfield’s order. The result of all the chaos: less than half the normal daily supply of coal arrived in New York.

Some theatrical fare on offer (January 22, 1918)

At least the idle workers had something to entertain them. Theaters had been given permission to stay open on Mondays and close on Tuesdays instead. On the first workless Monday, it was standing room only in the theaters and the vaudeville, motion-picture, and burlesque houses.

How to be a New York Times war correspondent, 1918-style

So you got hold of a time machine and you want be a New York Times war correspondent in 1918? Here are some tips.

1. If the British Prime Minister gives an important speech on the war, don’t worry about analyzing it. Just send in the official report.

New York Times text, January 6, 1918

New York Times, January 6, 1918

2. To be on the safe side, you might also want to quote a British newspaper’s analysis of the speech in its entirety.

New York Times text, January 6, 1918

New York Times, January 6, 1918.

3. If you don’t know what’s going on, open with a vague statement.

New York Times text, "Judging from most recent reports from Berlin..." January 15, 1918.

New York Times, January 15, 1918

4. Or just come out and admit that you don’t have a clue.

New York times text, "it is fairly clear that something of considerable importance is going on in Berlin."

New York Times, January 16, 1918

5. If you manage to talk with someone who’s actually involved in the war but all he does is spout generalities, throw in lots of atmospherics.

New York Times text, "Yesterday I met the Gordons in their billets and took tea..."

New York Times, January 14, 1918

6. Don’t worry about sending in war news. This will be provided by your colleagues, like a reporter covering the unveiling of a plaque at the Biltmore Hotel honoring its employees at the front, who will come across a letter from one of these employees containing actual war news.

New York Times text, January 1918.

New York Times, January 14, 1918

7. Human interest is also good! If the German press reports that the mistress of the former German emperor has died, write about that. Don’t worry about getting confirmation. The Times can just run another obituary in 1940, when she actually does die.

New York Times headline, Katharina Schmitt of Court Fame Dies.

New York Times, January 12, 1918

I know that reporters in Europe faced censorship and restrictions on their movements. And the Western Front was quiet in January 1918. Still, I have to believe it was possible to do better than this. I can see now why the public was so eager for soldiers’ personal accounts of life at the front, provided in books and public lectures. I hope that, as the war heats up and American lives are increasingly on the line, the Times will provide the public with better information.

Wednesday Miscellany: Women’s clothing, or lack thereof

She: What do you think, Kate–shall I take off another stitch or two?
He (sotto voce)–Take off another stitch! Dear, dear! I had better absent myself without delay!

This is about as racy as 1918 gets.

Judge, January 12, 1918

Note to advertisers: if you want to get a half-naked woman into the New York Times, make her an Egyptian goddess.

From the New York TImes rotogravure: the “new wartime evening gown” with a knitting pocket. Waltzing…sharp needles…what could go wrong?

New York Times, January 13, 1918 (All the photos in the rotogravure were this bad.)

Call me a philistine: bad modernism and bugle poems

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

Table of contents, The Egoist, December 1917.

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

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

Cover banner, The Little Review.

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

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

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

Banner, St. Nicholas League, St. Nicholas Magazine, 1918.

Meanwhile, St. Nicholas magazine was having a contest where children wrote poems about bugles. Genevra Parker, age 13, got a silver medal. Here’s the first verse of her poem, which appeared in the January 1918 issue:

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

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

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

Okay, you can call me a philistine now.

African-American voices of 1918

The Crisis editorial page, January 1918.

In 1918, African-Americans were almost invisible in the mainstream press. The New York Times, in a January 6 story called “Problems in Training Negro Soldiers,” groused that the “friends of the negro” were pressuring the War Department, which had drafted 83,600 black soldiers, to solve the “so-called race question in America.” The only other reference to African-Americans I’ve seen so far in the Times was the inclusion of an “unidentified Negro woman” on a list of New Yorkers—the rest were all named—who died of exposure during a cold snap.

I sought out African-American voices in honor of Martin Luther King Day, and found them in the January 1918 edition of The Crisis, the NAACP magazine, which was edited by W.E.B. Du Bois. It’s the best-written and most interesting magazine of the time that I’ve come across, and it feels the most contemporary.

An article by Lindsey Cooper on the 1917 East St. Louis race riots is the closest thing I’ve seen to modern long-form journalism. Framed as a report on the congressional investigation into the riots—which was conducted, of course, exclusively by white men—it provides an in-depth discussion of the social forces that sparked them. Across the Mississippi from St. Louis and home to many of the area’s African-Americans, East St. Louis, Illinois, was a cesspool of vice. The city subsided mainly by means of saloon licenses (376 saloons for a population of 75,000) because a separate municipality—the nation’s richest per capita—had been carved out for nearby factories.

When the white workers of St. Louis tried to unionize, factory owners thwarted their efforts by hiring black workers arriving from the South. This led to a cauldron of racial resentment that boiled over in an explosion of violence in May and July 1917. At least forty African-Americans were killed as police stood by ineptly or indifferently; some encouraged the violence. The National Guard was called, to little effect.  Cooper recounts the story of a man and his son who were dragged out of a car and killed as they passed through East St. Louis on the way home from a fishing expedition. A member of Congress, told of the incident during the hearing, commented, “Indians could have done no worse.”

Headline and photograph illustration, The Way of the Transgressor, The Crisis, January 1918.

The Crisis also includes the best short story I’ve seen so far, “The Way of the Transgressor,” by Wallace Green. Green doesn’t try any fancy literary tricks, but the story is refreshingly lacking in the archness and overwriting of the day. It tells of a rural square dance that ends in a blaze of violence, but the best part is the depiction of the dance before the guns come out. I felt like I was there at Uncle Tom Morgan’s two-room log house, watching handsome Jack Sutton and tender-eyed Sealy Green walk down the center of the yard arm in arm “like two monarchs upon streets paved with gold, singing ‘You can’t turn the tea like me.’” Young men longed to swing in the beautiful arms of Pet Henderson, in “a red garment that fit her so well that she seemed to have been just taken out of the melting pot.”

And there’s more. A blazing indictment of the hypocrisy of racist white Christians. A letter from “A Voice from the Orient” calling Wilson out for racism. Another letter, apparently from a white Cuban-American soldier, telling of his experience under the inspiring leadership of the Afro-Cuban general Antonio Maceo in the Cuban Army of Liberation. And a refreshingly unsentimental “Mother’s New Year’s Resolution”: “I will live with my children, not merely for them; since such companionship is worth more than divergent ways, marked by needless sacrifices on the one side and a growing selfishness on the other…I will impart to my children the facts of life, that they may look with reverence upon their bodies.”

You can find The Crisis online, thanks to the Modernist Journals Project, at It’s well worth a read, on Martin Luther King Day or any day.

Factory work by day, Yiddish drama by night: the Lower East Side life of Elizabeth Hasanovitz

Headline, One of Them, Elizabeth Hasanovitz, Atlantic, January 1918.

It’s only been two weeks, but I already hate 1918 rich people. They’re imperious, self-absorbed, and shallow. When a New Jersey judge makes an incognito coal delivery during a cold snap, the lady of the house threatens to have him fired if he doesn’t take it up to the second floor. (He does, and dumps it in the parlor.) Vanity Fair praises the unsurpassed valor of soldiers from “great schools like Exeter, St. Paul’s, and Groton.” Rich characters in short stories yammer endlessly about their personal dramas, and I say, “You know what you need? A job.” So it was refreshing to come across decidedly-not-rich Elizabeth Hasanovitz, whose serialized autobiography “One of Them” begins in the January 1918 Atlantic.

Born into a large and loving family in Russia, Elizabeth began teaching in her father’s Hebrew school at fourteen—illegally, since she lacked a teaching certificate. All she wanted in life was to go on teaching with her father, but it wasn’t to be. When she took the teachers’ exam, fifty-five of the sixty Yiddish candidates failed, including Elizabeth; all nine Russian candidates passed. Meanwhile, the family fell on hard times because of the police chief’s frequent demands for bribes. And there was the constant danger of anti-Jewish violence from drunken peasants.

One night, as the family sat down for the Sabbath meal, Elizabeth said, “I have been thinking and I have decided that—that—I—shall go—to America.” Her mother and sisters burst into tears, and her father rejected the idea out of hand. Elizabeth pleaded with her parents for days. She could send for the rest of the family, she said. “Think of the children going to free schools, growing up free citizens!” But her father wouldn’t budge. Finally, she resorted to a hunger strike. After three days, her father got her a passport.

Lower East Side street, ca. 1910

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

Elizabeth ended up in Canada, where she got a factory job. The pay was decent, but she left because of the country’s “provincial mental atmosphere.” Chicago was no more to her liking, so she set out for New York. There, things went well at first. She was making ten dollars a week at a knitting mill and saving five for her brother’s ticket. She joined the Dramatic Club, which aimed to provide higher fare than the “trash” that most Yiddish theaters fed the public. All was well, except for the “common and vulgar” atmosphere in the factory. The other girls’ “frankness in manner and speech would make me blush, and I became an object of their teasing.”

But the good times didn’t last. Business slowed, and Elizabeth was laid off. Luckily, a fellow member of the Dramatic Club had a home textile enterprise, and he took Elizabeth on as a trainee. The atmosphere was congenial—the family members sang merry Russian songs as they worked—but Elizabeth was a hopeless seamstress, constantly sewing a front where a sleeve was supposed to be. Eventually she improved, but she was slow, and she earned only five or six dollars a week, barely enough to live on. Exhausted at night, she abandoned her dream of studying. When she was down to her last two dollars, she fell into despair.

Posed photo of striking shirtwaist factory workers, 1910.

Striking shirtwaist factory workers, 1910 (Library of Congress, public domain photo)

Elizabeth went to a flower shop and bought a funeral bouquet for $1.50. Back at her rooming house, she turned on the gas. To speed her death along, she soaked matches and drank the liquid. She woke up in the hospital, her friend Clara from the Dramatic Club at her side. Clara invited Elizabeth to live with her, and out of options, she agreed.

To be continued!

Elizabeth has her flaws. She’s a terrible snob, with her haughty dismissal of Canada and her airs and graces on the factory floor. She claims to have almost starved to death on the ocean journey because the other passengers grabbed all the food, but her real problem seems to have been with their disgusting table manners. And she’s quite the drama queen. The hunger strike! The funeral bouquet!

Still, she’s a compelling heroine, and she paints a vivid picture of immigrant life in the Lower East Side. I look forward to reading her further adventures. If you want to know more, you can find her entire autobiography online. Just don’t tell me what happens!