Monthly Archives: January 2018

Our daughters’ daughters will adore us…

1918 opened with a bang in Congress. On January 10, two days after President Wilson announced the Fourteen Points at a joint sitting, the House of Representatives approved a constitutional amendment to give women the right to vote.

Jeannette Rankin.

Jeannette Rankin

Republican Representative Jeannette Rankin of Montana, the first woman member of Congress, opened the debate. “Is it not possible that the women of the country have something of value to give the nation at this time?” she asked. “It would be strange indeed if the women of this country through all these years had not developed an intelligence, a feeling, a spiritual force peculiar to themselves, which they held in readiness to give to the world.” Representative Walter Chandler, Republican of New York, reassured listeners that, despite what they might have heard, the suffragist movement was not in fact led by socialists and German sympathizers.

The public gallery was packed with women. The New York Times noted that “nearly every woman who journeyed to the House carried a knitting bag.” Most were confiscated, but a few women succeeded in knitting their way through the debate, as suffragist leaders looked on intently.

Suffragists picketing the Capitol, 1918.

Suffragists picketing Capitol, 1918 (www.loc.gov)

It didn’t look good at first. Democrat after Democrat voted against the amendment, the Times reported, seemingly dashing hopes that President Wilson’s endorsement the day before would turn the tide. “We are defeated,” suffragists in the gallery whispered. But the amendment’s supporters had mustered all of their strength. Republican leader James Mann came to the House from his sickbed in Baltimore; Thetus Sims of Tennessee, badly injured, staggered to his seat. When the final count of 274 to 136 was announced, exactly the two-thirds majority needed, “the people in the galleries arose en masse and cheered,” and “members on the floor joined in the jubilation.” A challenge to the vote count was unsuccessful. Outside the Capitol, a thousand women cheered “with all the enthusiasm of collegians after a football victory.”

While the Times reporter seems to have been swept up in the celebratory mood, the editorial page accepted the outcome with resigned huffiness. The issue, it said, was purely political. With the House almost evenly divided, and more and more states allowing women to vote, the Republicans had seen the political wisdom of taking up the suffragist cause. The Democratic Party, despite the “reasonable apprehensions” of its southern members, saw which way the wind was blowing. Wilson abandoned his long-held (and in the the Times’ opinion, correct) view that suffrage was a state, not a federal, issue. In wartime, the Times said, “woman suffrage is but a piffling and subminor matter.” Oh well. The amendment would find “harder sledding” in the Senate.

Suffragist Parade, Fifth Avenue, 1917.

Suffragist Parade, Fifth Avenue, 1917

Indeed it would. But, on the centennial of this crucial step forward, those of us who can fight sexual harassment because our great-great-grandmothers fought for the vote can, in the words of Mrs. Banks in Mary Poppins, sing in grateful chorus:

WELL DONE, WELL DONE, SISTER SUFFRAGETTE!

Wednesday Miscellany

An ad in The Egoist, the British literary journal where T.S. Eliot was assistant editor. I love how proudly they quote the criticism. Dissatisfying! Very unequal! Missing the effort by too much cleverness!

Advertisement for Prufrock by T.S. Eliot.

The Egoist, January 1918

Judge was a humor magazine that managed almost never to be funny–more on that later–but they had some great illustrators. My favorites from the January 3, 1918, issue:

Judge cartoon, what if the movie men managed your elopement, January 3, 1918

Judge Cartoon, soldiers pass through Yapp's crossing, Johnny Gruelle, January 3, 1918.

Johnny Gruelle

The 14 Points: I flunk a pop quiz

President Wilson’s speech to Congress on January 8, 1918, outlining the Fourteen Points—his statement of principles for peace—took Washington by surprise. There was barely enough time for the House and Senate to make arrangements for a joint session. I, on the other hand, knew it was coming, and for the first time My Year in 1918 felt like homework. I decided I might as well turn it into actual homework, and I gave myself a pop quiz: how many of the points could I remember? You can do this too! Just get a piece of paper, write down the numbers 1 to 14, and give it a go!

No? Okay, here they are:

  1. Open covenants of peace, openly arrived at.
  2. Absolute freedom of navigation upon the seas.
  3. The removal of economic barriers and establishment of equal trade conditions.
  4. Reduction of armaments.
  5. Free, open-minded, and impartial adjustment of colonial claims.
  6. The evacuation (by the Germans) of all Russian territory.
  7. The evacuation of Belgium.
  8. The restoration of French territory, including Alsace-Lorraine.
  9. A readjustment of Italy’s borders along the lines of nationality.
  10. Autonomy for the peoples of Austria-Hungary.
  11. The evacuation of Rumania, Serbia, and Montenegro.
  12. Sovereignty for the Turkish people and autonomy for other peoples under Turkish rule.
  13. An independent Polish state.
  14. A general association of nations.

Here’s what I managed to come up with:

Pop quiz on the 14 Points.

Not very impressive, especially since I was a government major. 32 percent! But I did get some key principles right. On second thought, flunking seems kind of harsh. I’ll bump my grade up to a D+.

If President Wilson hadn’t forced my hand, I would have waited a while to write about World War I. I’m starting to get the gist of what was going on—mostly, totally chaos in Russia—but it’s so complicated. When I was in school, World War I was treated like World War II: The Prequel. A slightly different line-up of combatants, a less morally clear-cut conflict. Afterwards, I read about the tremendous human cost of the war in books like Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises and Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth. But I never understood the war itself very well.

Here, then, are some early thoughts. On the one hand, the American press is completely consumed by the war. Children’s magazines explain the intricacies of U-boat fighting. Women’s magazines talk about doing your bit by cutting down on butter and sugar. (I’m not sure exactly how this helps.) There’s a war-related illustration on almost every magazine cover.

On the other hand, there’s a tremendous sense of confusion and ambivalence. What exactly are we fighting for, and why? There’s lots of carping in the press about the ineffectiveness of the Allied forces. A few days before Wilson’s address, British Prime Minister Lloyd George gave a speech to trade unionists that struck me more as an effort to maintain the loyalty of his people than as a rallying cry. In this context, Wilson’s speech seems as much a justification for the war as a path to peace.

It will be interesting to see how people in 1918 respond to the 14 points. In the meantime, I’d better brush up on my European geography. You never know when there’s going to be another quiz!

An early 20th-century Bridget Jones

As I’ve mentioned, I worried about what I would do for comfort reading during My Year in 1918. Sure, I love Edith Wharton, and I look forward to discovering some of her lesser-known works. But what if I’m not in the mood for finely wrought prose? What if my brain is fried and I just want to relax?

Photograph of Bridget Jones's Diary by Helen Fielding and The Melting of Molly by Maria Thompson Daviess.

Well, having just finished The Melting of Molly by Maria Thompson Daviess, the #4 fiction bestseller of 1912, I can put that worry to rest. Molly Carter is an early 20th-century Bridget Jones, a ditzy diarist obsessed with men and weight loss. Bridget starts every diary entry by noting her weight and calorie consumption, but Molly doesn’t have to count calories, since she’s on a crash diet that requires her to eat the same thing every day. Here’s her daily fare:

  • Breakfast: one slice of dry toast, one egg, fruit and a tablespoonful of baked cereal, small cup of coffee, no sugar, no cream.
  • Dinner: one small lean chop, slice of toast, spinach, green beans and lettuce salad.
  • Supper: slice of toast and an apple. (“Why the apple?” Molly mourns. “Why supper at all?”)

Molly’s a more successful dieter than Bridget—she drops over thirty pounds in three months or so, and somehow doesn’t end up with scurvy. But she’s just as confused about her love life. Where Bridget’s romantic tribulations are modeled on Pride and Prejudice, though, Molly’s story seems to be inspired by Emma.

Married off to a rich older man at eighteen after her true love abandons her to join the diplomatic corps, Molly is widowed at age twenty-four. The story begins a year later, with her old flame announcing that he’s coming to town as she prepares to shuck off her widow’s weeds. Hence the crash diet—he expects her to greet him in his favorite blue muslin frock with the twenty-three inch waist. Meanwhile, she’s the mother figure to the five-year-old son of the widowed doctor next door, who keeps a fatherly eye on her (and prescribes the crash diet). Other suitors materialize, including a pompous judge and Molly’s rakish cousin Tom, who showers her with not-so-brotherly kisses. If you don’t see where this is going from the beginning, well, you’re not paying much attention, and you definitely haven’t read Emma.

Maria Thompson Daviess outsider her home with children, Book News Monthly, January 1914..

Maria Thompson Daviess at home (Book News Monthly, January 1914)

The Melting of Molly is no forgotten literary classic. Molly’s feelings for the doctor veer abruptly between love and hate, often in a single sentence, for no apparent reason other than to keep the suspense going. The arrival of Molly’s former beau, which the whole book builds up to, ends up being a non-event. And Molly’s ruminations can be difficult to follow at times, unless that’s just 21st-century me. The Melting of Molly was one of fifteen novels Daviess wrote between 1909 and 1918, and this torrid pace may explain the less-than stellar writing.

Still, I’m glad those other fourteen books are out there. I’ll have plenty to keep myself entertained between Edith Wharton novels.

Good-bye to All That

I fell into a reading rut in 2017. I would read a book I saw reviewed in the New York Times, or buy a new book by a favorite author. That was about it. It’s not that the books I read weren’t good. Some of them were even great. I expect that people a hundred years from now will still be reading The Underground Railroad and Between the World and Me. I only disliked one book—and I’m not going to say what it was.

Photograph of Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates and The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead.

Future classics

I checked off eight of the twelve categories in Modern Mrs. Darcy’s Reading for Growth challenge, including ten books by #ownvoices or #diversebooks authors, five immigrant stories, and six books in translation (plus one in French). I didn’t particularly care about most of the other categories: a Newbery Award honoree, a book over 600 pages, or three books by the same author.

Pile of books with Katie Kitamura's A Separation on top.

Some of my reading challenge reads

But the other category I missed…there’s where the trouble lies. I didn’t read any books published before I was born. And it’s not like I narrowly missed this goal. The oldest book I read in 2017 was Justine Lévy’s Rien de Grave, which was published in 2004. That’s right, I managed to read forty books last year without reading anything published before the millennium. The books I read in 2017 were published, on average, in 2015.

I wasn’t always that kind of reader. In 1987, the books I read were published an average of 21 years before. Henry James’s Washington Square is on that list, along with books by Philip Roth and Edith Wharton. I discovered Laurie Colwin, still one of my favorite writers, and read five of her books. I read a book on Elizabethan thought published in the 1940s and a bunch of classic mysteries. There’s junk on the list, too; Judith Krantz features prominently. But, unlike my 2017 self, I was open to anything. (Well, except when it comes to diversity. All of the books I read in 1987 were by white authors except The Golden Gate by Vikram Seth, which features mostly white characters. I can blame this only partly on a less diverse publishing market.)

Well, My Year in 1918 will solve this problem. But it won’t be easy to give up contemporary books for a year. I enjoy a challenging read, but when I want to relax I default to my comfort zone, well-written novels by writers like Elinor Lipman, Meg Wolitzer, Curtis Sittenfeld, and Marisa de los Santos. Except for Lipman, they all have books coming out this year. I was having a great time reading Kevin Kwan’s Rich People Problems, but I was only halfway through on December 31, so I’ll have to wait until next January to find out who inherits Tyersall Park. I’ll have to wait for Dinner at the Center of the Earth by my wonderful NYU professor, Nathan Englander. I got Christmas presents that will have to wait for another Christmas to roll around. The current affairs books in my to-read pile won’t be so current next January.

Photograph of Rich People Problems by Kevin Kwan.

So good-bye, crazy rich Asians and befuddled New Yorkers, painfully innocent college students and hyper-observant Londoners! Farewell, innovative economists and eccentric Japanese tidiers! See you in 2019.

The bonkers world of Marie Corelli

I promised in my first post that there would be heroes and villains. I haven’t found any heroes yet, other than the railroad workers who shot steam at locomotives to defrost them. But I’ve found my first villain: the wildly popular British novelist Marie Corelli.

1909 photograph of Marie Corelli.

Marie Corelli, 1909

According to the January 3, 1918, New York Times, Corelli was fined £71 by the Stratford-on-Avon Police Court for hoarding sugar. Authorized 32 pounds in a ten-week period, she obtained 179 pounds, plus 50 pounds of preserving sugar. The court didn’t buy her lawyer’s argument that she had acted out of patriotism in preserving fruit for future use. When the police showed up at her house, she said, “You are upsetting the country altogether with your food orders. Lloyd George will be resigning tomorrow, and there will be a revolution in less than a week.”

New York Times headline, Marie Corelli Fined for Hoarding Sugar.

New York Times, January 3, 1918

Who was this woman? I decided to learn more, and I found an article she wrote for the January 1918 issue of Good Housekeeping called “The World’s Great Need.” The world’s great need, according to Corelli, is sanity—something that is sorely lacking in this article, aside from a well-argued condemnation of corporal punishment. Corelli writes that that the desire to “wallow in blood and slaughter” has prevailed over reason. That’s an understandable sentiment in 1918; it’s her solution that’s a problem. Anyone who violates the peace and progress of the world, she says, “should either be shot like mad-dogs as incurable and dangerous, or imprisoned for life in asylums for the criminally insane.”

Corelli thinks a lot of people are insane. There’s the Scottish woman who, “after accepting many useful kindnesses from a friend” (could it have been Corelli?), cut the friend out of her prayers following a minor disagreement. Not to mention the Futurists, the Cubists, Debussy, writers of “revoltingly sexual fiction,” and other producers of art that is “utterly opposed to truth and nature.” How to return sanity to the world? Simple—just require everyone wishing to marry to submit to “a searching health examination, so that union may be forbidden to the unfit.”

Portrait of Charles Mackay.

Charles Mackay, Marie’s father (The Modern Scottish Minstrel, Volumes I-VI)

Corelli was an ardent spiritualist; her books deal with mystical and extrasensory phenomena. (If her predictions to the police about Lloyd George and the revolution are any indication, though, she wasn’t a very gifted prognosticator.) Ironically, she was the daughter, by a household servant, of Charles Mackay, whose 1841 classic Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds debunks hocus-pocus of all types.

It can’t have been easy to be Marie Corelli. She was born with the stigma of illegitimacy and mocked by the literary establishment. She may have had a decades-long same-sex relationship with her father’s caretaker; if so, she had to keep it secret. (UPDATE 10/31/2020: Read more about this here.) Still, she chose what beliefs to espouse, and she chose some of the worst elements of 1918 thinking—eugenics, superstition, and reactionary literary taste. Not to mention the sugar hoarding!

You think YOU’RE cold…

It’s easy for me to say that things could be worse. I’m in Cape Town, where it’s 72°F, while my friends in the United States are shivering in the bitter cold. But, as glad as I am that I’m not there, I’m even more glad not to be suffering through the December 1917-January 1918 cold spell.

The New York Times reported on January 1 that New Year’s Eve, with a low of -7°F, was the second coldest day on record in New York, surpassed only by the day before, when it was -13. It was even colder if you went by the big thermometer in front of Perry’s Drug Store in Park Row, apparently the go-to place to check the temperature.

There was a severe coal shortage, so going inside didn’t provide much relief. The Times reported on the front page that some occupants of private houses and apartments had been forced to check in to hotels to keep warm. On Wall Street, bankers were working in their overcoats. The District Attorney’s office ran out of coal, so staff members finished their work by candlelight. You had to turn to the second page to read about the twelve people, mostly in poor neighborhoods in Brooklyn, who died from exposure.

Alfred Stieglitz photograph of New York Central Yards, 1903.

In the New York Central Yards, Alfred Stieglitz, 1903 (metmuseum.org)

Rail service was paralyzed. Locomotive boilers froze solid and pistons were encased in giant slabs of ice. Rail yard workers shot jets of steam to thaw the engines, but their clothes quickly froze. Coal trains finally made it into the city on New Year’s Day, after passenger service was suspended to let them through. When trains full of coal arrived at the 119th St. rail yard near the East River, hundreds of poor men, women, and children arrived with buckets. When they were told that the coal was reserved for city government buildings, they became enraged and attacked the wagons. Several tons of coal fell into the street, and a “wild scramble” ensued. Finally, the local police captain “used his reserves reluctantly and gently to disperse the crowd.”

So keep warm, and be grateful for the miracle of electricity!

The journey begins!

Happy New Year, everyone! This is the day that I turn the clock back. The day I tune out of 2018 and into 1918. The day I’ll look back at in December and say, “I had no idea what I was getting myself into.”

For the next year, I’ll be following the news and reading books and magazines as if I were living a hundred years ago. Goodbye Jonathan Safran Foer, hello Booth Tarkington. Goodbye Buzzfeed, hello Smart Set. This will be the record of my journey to a time when the world we now know as modern was emerging, but nineteenth-century attitudes were very much alive. T.S. Eliot’s poetry shared the page with faux-archaic nature verse. Women, African-Americans, and other marginalized groups were standing up for their rights, but casual sexism and racism were everywhere.

Saturday Evening Post cover, J.C. Leyendecker, New Year's baby wearing military helmet.

J.C. Leyendecker

A few words on what this blog is, and what it isn’t.

It isn’t: A work of performance art. I’m not going to wear vintage dresses and go around saying, “O that this war would end!”

It is: An attempt to see 1918 as those who lived then saw it. When I wake up every morning, I’ll read the newspaper from a hundred years ago. Every book I’ll read would have been accessible to someone living then. I’ll read magazines, watch movies, listen to music, and cook recipes from that time.

It isn’t: A “this day in history” blog.

It is: A look beyond the 1918 news cycle. I’ll write about what was going on in the news,  but I’m just as interested in literature, popular culture, and the world of ideas.

It isn’t: An expert analysis of the literature, politics, and social forces of the era. I’m not an academic or a specialist on the early 20th century. I’m sure I’ll misunderstand things and make mistakes along the way. (UPDATE 10/31/2020: This was an accurate prediction.)

It is: An effort to learn what 1918 itself—and not the historians and critics who came later—has to tell us.

It isn’t: An exercise in moral superiority. I expect I’ll write quite a bit about attitudes on race and gender, but simple finger-pointing wouldn’t be very interesting. In any case, I don’t think that moral superiority is a particularly appropriate attitude in 2018.

It is: An attempt to get to know the period, with all its faults and virtues, all its heroes and villains. And to have fun. There will be farmerettes! And flappers! (Or at least their ancestors, known, apparently, as salamanders.) And Dixieland jazz! And did I mention recipes?

So here goes. I’m looking forward to the journey.