Category Archives: Books

Jane Austen’s Life 100 Years Ago

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 Austen two 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.”

On Emma

“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.”

On Persuasion

“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

maggs.com

“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.*****

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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.

Oscar Firkins ca. 1920 (Minnesota Historical Society)

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.”

Oscar Firkins ca. 1868 (Minnesota Historical Society)

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.

The Weekly Review, July 21, 1921

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.”

Ina Firkins, date unknown (University of Minnesota Library)

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.”

New York Times, March 8, 1932

“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.)

University District, Minneapolis. ca. 1920s (Minnesota Historical Society)

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.********

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*The novelist Brandon Taylor, who is in my opinion the most entertaining and insightful literary critic writing right now, shared his thoughts on Mansfield Park recently 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.

****I.e. mourning.

*****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.

A Treasury of War Poetry, Second Series (1919)
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New on the Book List:

The Way of an Eagle, by Ethel Dell (1911)

Langston Hughes, Teenaged Poet

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.

Langston Hughes, The Brownies’ Book, June 1920

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.****

Toluca, ca. 1920, Hugo Brehme (mexicoenfotos.com)

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.

Langston Hughes, The Brownies’ Book, December 1921

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.*******

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*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 W. Chesnutt, ca. 1898 (Cleveland Public Library)

**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.

Children’s Books: Your 1921 Holiday Shopping Guide

Immersing myself in the children’s books of a hundred years ago has become one of my favorite holiday traditions, and it’s one that I especially appreciate during a season when many of our more extroverted traditions have to be set aside.

For my third annual children’s books holiday shopping guide (the previous ones are here and here), I turned first, as always, to pioneering children’s librarian and The Bookman columnist Annie Carroll Moore.

Who totally let me down. Her November 1921 holiday roundup starts out as a foray into incomprehensible whimsicality that seems to have something to do with an imaginary trip to France and England. Example: “Put a paper cover on John Farrar’s ‘Songs for Parents’ and paste up the title-page until you get to ‘Fairy London,’ then ask Rose Fyleman to give new titles to some of its enchanting verses and to the book itself while she autographs your last year’s copy of her ‘Fairies and Chimneys.’”

“What?” I asked in utter bafflement, and I’m someone who has actually read (some of) Fairies and Chimneys, which I recommended in last year’s holiday shopping guide.*

Moore, it transpires, actually made a trip to Europe. “I came back too late to do full justice to our own output of children’s books,” she tells us blithely, before rushing through the entire American national output, much of which she has not had time to read, on the last page. YOU HAD ONE JOB, ANNIE!**

November 5, 1921

Luckily, I had other help. Publishers Weekly’s November 5 Christmas Bookshelf issue included  an encyclopedic children’s book roundup, penned by an uncredited writer whose task of reading through dozens of children’s books had left him (or her, but it sounds like a him) entertainingly grumpy.*** The Survey magazine, which was published by the Charity Organization Society of the City of New York but is way more interesting than that makes it sound, ran an article called “The Season’s Books for Children” that includes some charity-ish selections like “a group of health rhymes and jingles written by the children of Public School Fifteen in New York,” but others that looked promising. One, which wasn’t reviewed anywhere else, turned out to be my Children’s Book of the Year. I recommend that you check it out if you’re otherwise just scrolling through and looking at the artwork (which is fine! You’re a busy person!).

Also, the Newbery Medal for excellence in children’s literature was first awarded in 1922 for books published in 1921. There were some runners-up as well (later designated as Newbery Honor Books), so that provided several good candidates.****

Without further ado, here are the books of the season.

Fables, Folk Tales, and Songs

An Argosy of Fables

Paul Bransom, from An Arbosy of Fables

Moore says that “Paul Bransom’s fine illustrations for ‘The Argosy of Fables,’***** selected by Frederic Taber Cooper, bespeak special consideration for this book, which is to be issued in two editions, both too expensive for most libraries I fear.” I fear too! When I saw the price–$7.50—in the Publishers Weekly roundup, I thought that it must be a typo. That’s $116.46 in today’s money.

The illustrations are fine indeed, but there are only 23 of them in the 500-page book, way too low a ratio of pictures to text to be worth plowing through prose like “The mouse besought him to spare one who had so unconsciously offended.”

Cantilene Popolari and Grilli Canterini

Cantilene Populari
Grilli Canterini

Moore devotes a huge amount of real estate in her column to Cantilene Popolari and Grilli Canterini, two books of children’s songs published in Italy. She says of Grilli Canterini that “the pictures are so full of the detail children love as to tell their own story to children of any race.”

These books may not be quite the thing, though, for children who (unlike me) have not been studying Italian. Also, the dedication in Cantilene Populari to the “future defenders of the rights and honor of our nation,” which Moore finds “refreshing,” is chilling in retrospect.

American Indian Fairy Tales

Publishers Weekly calls American Indian Fairy Tales “enchanting,” and John Rae’s illustrations are lovely, but I’m leery of a book that depends on the research of an “ethnologist and government agent” from 1837, as this one does.

John Rae, from American Indian Fairy Tales
John Rae, from American Indian Fairy Tales

For Young Readers

Orphant Annie Story Book

Johnny Gruelle, from Orphant Annie Story Book

Orphant Annie Story Book, written and illustrated by Johnny Gruell of Raggedy Ann and Andy fame, purports to be a collection of stories told by Little Orphant Annie, the household servant of the James Whitcomb Riley poem (and inspiration for the later cartoon character). Books featuring color pictures on every page hadn’t been introduced yet in 1921, but this one comes as close as any I’ve seen, so, even though the goblin illustrations freak me out, this is going on my list.

Bubble Books

Rhoda Chase

Bubble Books are slender books that come with records. There are fourteen so far, Publishers Weekly tells us, with two new ones out for the 1921 holiday season. Cooooooool! “The happy owner of the ‘Chimney Corner Bubble Book’ may snuggle up on a rug, close to the warm fire, and listen to the howling of the winter wind as the phonograph plays ‘The North Wind Doth Blow,’” PW says. Throw in some cocoa and some snow and you have my ideal life. The Child’s Garden of Verses Bubble Book sounds cool, too, as does the cut-out Bubble Book that you can find on this website devoted to all things Bubble Book.

For Middle-Grade Readers

Midsummer

Edward C. Caswell, from Midsummer

Katharine Adams’ Midsummer, which Moore called “a girl’s book of great charm,” seemed promising. It’s about two American children who visit Sweden, where I’ve spent a lot of time but, thanks to COVID and work, not lately. And it was a timely read, seeing that it was the summer solstice here in South Africa. But Midsummer started slowly, and also there was this,

so I was about to give up. But when a new day dawned (at 5:32, but luckily I slept later than that), I decided to give it another try. I figured that the sun might have been making me, like Audrey, our heroine, a little cranky. I skipped ahead to the chapter about the midsummer festival, and there were pancakes with strawberry jam, and slabs of sticky gingerbread, and a merry-go-round, and folk dancing, and a bonfire, and “Astrid wore her new pink and white dress and there were wide pink ribbons on her stiff little braids.” Also Swedish kids who think it would be much more exciting to visit Coney Island. I’m glad I gave it another try.

Modern Physiology, Hygiene, and Health

Survey magazine isn’t suggesting Mary S. Haviland’s Modern Physiology, Hygiene, and Health as a gift for a child; it’s more of a resource for teachers. I found it strangely compelling, though. First I checked out whether I was following the eleven steps to be a Modern Health Crusader.

  1. I washed my hands before every meal to-day. Check!
  2. I washed not only my face but my ears and neck and I cleaned my finger-nails today. Check! (Well, my finger-nails were already clean.)
  3. I kept fingers, pencils, and everything likely to be unclean or injurious out of my mouth and nose. Check!

I was on a roll!

From Modern Physiology, Hygiene, and Health

I failed a few of the later steps, though, like being in bed for at least ten hours with the windows open, drinking no tea, coffee, or other injurious drinks, and trying to sit up straight. (I am slouching on the sofa with my laptop as I write this.) And I wasn’t sure what to make of “I went to the toilet at my regular time.”

Margaret F. Brown, from Modern Physiology, Hygiene, and Health

Most of the rest of the book consists of Ruth and Paul talking to Uncle George in great detail about what should be in your house. There’s a lot of sensible talk about the need for fresh air, and some fun activities like picking out furniture for your living room from pictures in a magazine.

Still, as much as I, personally, might find Modern Physiology, Hygiene, and Health a delightful gift, it’s the book equivalent of giving a kid socks for Christmas. Even though it’s a bargain at eighty-three cents, I’m going to have to give it a pass.

Games—School, Church, Home

Survey magazine says that George O. Draper’s Games—School, Church, Home is “a convenient volume for the play director,” but, unlike Modern Physiology, I think it would be an excellent gift for children as well. They can play some of the games on their own, like Fox Den, which involves chasing each other around this diagram marked on the ground or in the snow,

From Games–School, Church, Home

and they can devoutly wish that they went to the kind of school where complete chaos reigns and games like Seat Vaulting Tag are played.

For Older Children

The Story of Mankind

Last year, I was startled by Hendrik van Loon’s contemporary-looking illustrations in his 1920 book Ancient Man, and I found the narrative interesting, if dated.

Ancient Man by Hendrik Willem Van Loon, 1920, pyramids on yellow background.
Hendrik van Loon, from Ancient Man

So I had high expectations for Van Loon’s The Story of Mankind, which was awarded the first-ever Newbery Medal in 1922.****** The illustrations were less bold and less numerous than those in Ancient Man, though, and, despite Van Loon’s claim that “this is a story of mankind and not an exclusive history of the people of Europe and our western hemisphere,” the vast majority of the book’s 465 pages are devoted to Europe and the United States.

Hendrik van Loon, from The Story of Mankind
Hendrik van Loon, from The Story of Mankind
Hendrik van Loon, from The Story of Mankind

Still, I kept coming across interesting facts as I flipped through the book, like that “Jesus” is a Greek rendition of the name that we know in English as Joshua, which is one of those things that everyone else probably knows but I didn’t. And, while I’m sure careful perusal would reveal some howlers, Van Loon’s treatment of non-Europeans is respectful by the standards of the day. Plus, no one can accuse Van Loon of dumbing down history for children. Here’s a sample:

If I ever decide to learn, for example, who exactly the Phoenicians were, I may turn to Van Loon. So might your favorite teenager, if he/she is of an intellectual bent.

The Old Tobacco Shop

Reginald Birch, from The Old Tobacco Shop

Moore assures us that William Bowen’s The Old Tobacco Shop “will give pure joy to boys and their fathers,” and it was a runner-up for the Newbery Medal. All of this did little to inspire my confidence in what I feared would be a heartwarming story about a boy’s coming of age as a smoker. The book’s opening—a father sends his little son, Freddie, out to buy tobacco for his pipe—didn’t help.

The Old Tobacco Shop turned out, far more weirdly, to be a trippy tale of why preschoolers shouldn’t smoke opium. Freddie disobeys the tobacconist’s warning never to smoke the “magic tobacco” stored in a pipe shaped like a Chinaman’s head, and tediously surreal adventures ensue. For anyone who’s on the fence as to whether to leave their head shop in the hands of a small boy, this is an instructive read. Everyone else can take a pass.

The Windy Hill

Another Newbery runner-up, Cornelia Meigs’ The Windy Hill is the story of a brother and sister who go to the country to stay with their uncle. He’s acting mysteriously, and they try to get to the bottom of it.

Edward C. Caswell, from The Windy Hill

And presumably succeed, but you couldn’t prove it by me. I wasted an hour two years ago on Meigs’ The Pool of Stars, about a girl who goes to the country and tries to figure out why her neighbor is acting mysteriously, and I’m not going to make that mistake again.

The Scottish Chiefs

The period of 1890 to the 1920s is referred to as the golden age of illustration. No one has ever accused it of being the golden age of children’s literature, though,******* so there were a lot of reissues of classic books with new illustrations. One of them Moore mentions is Jane Porter’s 1810 book The Scottish Chiefs, illustrated by N.C. Wyeth. I checked it out and it turned out to be a rip-roaring tale of Scottish nationalism, although not rip-roaring enough for me to commit to reading all 503 pages. (The Scottish Chiefs, like many books that make their way into the childhood cannon, was intended originally for adult readers.) There were a lot of “thees” and “thys” for a story that starts out in Scotland in 1296, and sentences like, “I come in the name of all ye hold dear to tell you the poniard of England is unsheathed!” But there are also strong women characters, and an Elizabeth and Darcy-like marriage between our hero, William Wallace, and his wife Marion: “Affection had grown with their growth; and sympathy of taste and virtues, and mutual tenderness, had made them entirely one.” And the Wyeth illustrations are wonderful and numerous.

N.C. Wyeth, from The Scottish Chiefs
N.C. Wyeth, from The Scottish Chiefs
N.C. Wyeth, from The Scottish Chiefs

More Newbery Runners-Up

Bernard Marshall, from Cedric the Forrester

If you don’t want your kid to grow up with a one-sided view of 13th-century English-Scottish tensions, you can add Newbery runner-up Cedric the Forester, Bernard Marshall’s tale of an English nobleman and his squire in the days of Richard the Lionheart, to your gift list. Moore says that Cedric the Forester “is written in somewhat stilted style, but the idea of freedom is admirably brought out.” Apparently forgetting that she had just reviewed The Scottish Chiefs, she adds that “the historical period represented is one for which little story writing has been done.” Perusal of the first few pages includes the inevitable faux-Shakespearean dialogue and someone saying “gadzooks.” But there are also several aperçus by our narrator, Dickon (Cedric is the squire), like “My father laughed as one laughs at the sorriest jest when he is gay,” that left me inclined to follow him on his adventures.

Willy Pogany, from The Golden Fleece and the Story of the Heroes who Lived Before Achilles

Padraic Colum’s The Golden Fleece and the Story of the Heroes who Lived Before Achilles sounded promising, seeing as it was illustrated by acclaimed artist Willy Pogany, but the illustrations are in black and white and the stories are flatly told, so I passed.

George Varian, from The Great Quest

Charles Boardman Hawes’ The Great Quest is about a Massachusetts lad’s adventures fighting against slave traders in Africa. I figured that, despite the anti-slavery message, any 1921 book on this subject was going to be super-problematic. It was.

A Princeton Boy Under the King

“If Princeton is hovering in the background of your boy’s day dreams,” Publishers Weekly tells us, “he will want to read a story of student life at the College of New Jersey in the middle of the eighteenth century.”******* The history of my graduate alma mater is an interest of mine, so A Princeton Boy Under the King sounded like just the thing. I gathered from my own reading that the university’s early years consisted mostly of drunkenness and food fights in Nassau Hall, and I wondered whether A Princeton Boy Under the King would present a sanitized version. But no, that’s pretty much what goes down. It’s like an 18th-century This Side of Paradise.

The Children’s Book of the Year

Last year, I couldn’t find any books about people of color at all, so I recommended the magazine The Brownies’ Book, from the publisher of The Crisis magazine, which was described as being “designed for all children, but especially ours.” (I wrote about The Brownies’ Book in more detail during Black History Month this year.) Sadly, the magazine failed to meet its circulation goals and the December 1921 issue was the last of its two-year run.

Elizabeth Ross Haynes (photographer unknown)

As I learned in the Survey article, there’s a silver lining. “What is there in the autumn output to open up to the boy or girl any of the avenues of civic life; any of the nationalities with which we have been brought into greater contact since the war; of the Negroes, neighbors of the children of the South…?” the magazine asks. (Since almost no one else was asking this kind of question, I’ll skip over the “neighbors” issue.) The magazine points us in the direction of Unsung Heroes, by Elizabeth Ross Haynes, an African-American social worker, which was also published by The Crisis’ publishing company.

C. Thorpe, from Unsung Heroes

Each of the book’s seventeen chapters is a portrait of a notable person of African ancestry from the United States or elsewhere, including Frederick Douglas, Booker T. Washington, Harriet Tubman, Haitian general Toussaint Louverture, Alexandre Dumas, and Alexander Pushkin. (I knew that Dumas was of partly African descent, but I didn’t know about Pushkin.)

C. Thorpe, from Unsung Heroes

The profiles in Unsung Heroes start out, like the children’s biographies of my youth, with fictional scenes from the subjects’ childhoods and go on to recount their later achievements. Some of the language wouldn’t make it into a book published today (“Many years ago a keen-faced little boy with protruding lips, Toussaint by name, was busy, day by day, tending a great herd of cattle on the Island of Hayti in the West Indies”), but I don’t care. The stories are compelling, and the fact that this book was written and published at all in 1921 is a small miracle.

Judging from Goodreads (0 ratings, 0 reviews) and Google Scholar (one hit, for a 1990 article on the history of African-American children’s literature that I had already read for my post on the children’s novel Hazel), Unsung Heroes is little remembered today. Haynes is my new unsung hero, and Unsung Heroes is my choice for Best Children’s Book of 1921.

Some Final Thoughts

Moore complains in The Bookman that “in robbing fairy tales of all their terrors and poetry of all its sadness, we have let loose a new sort of made-to-order story, which needs the cleansing wind, wide spaces, and hearty laughter created by Mary Mapes Dodge in her time.” My perusal of the Publishers Weekly roundup left me with some sympathy for Moore’s argument that children’s books were becoming generic. On the other hand, after all the morbid stories I came across last year, I was relieved to see 1921’s children better protected from the horrors of the world. There are worse things for a child than blandness.

Happy holidays, and happy holiday reading, to all of you!

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*Further research revealed that 1) John Farrar, who later founded Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, was the editor of The Bookman in 1921, and 2) Songs for Parents is a truly awful book of poetry.

**I also checked out Moore’s other 1921 Bookman column, from May. It starts out with the magazine’s new editor (Farrar) saying, “Won’t you give us something new and different in place of the old omnibus review? Make it purely fanciful if you like.” Dangerous words when spoken to someone who had a puppet as an inseparable companion. My desperate cries of, “No! Do the old omnibus review!” failed to turn back time, and this column turned up nothing useful.

***1920s Publishers Weekly is one of those magazines where the ads are as good as the editorial content, and this issue had a treasure trove. This one left me scratching my head, though.

****Sadly for me, there were no more runners-up until 1925. One of the 1925 runners-up, in an act of blatant favoritism by the American Library Association, was Moore’s horrible book about her puppet.

Nicholas: A Manhattan Christmas Story, by Anne Carroll Moore
Cover of Nicholas: A Manhattan Christmas Story, by Anne Carroll Moore

*****It’s actually An Argosy of Fables, not The. 1920s book reviewers make an amazing number of mistakes with the titles of books.

******I first came across The Story of Mankind at the top of the list of Newbery Medal winners that was posted in my school library, and it totally creeped me out. The 1920s seemed like the stone age back then. Now they’re twice as far away and they seem like yesterday!

*******UPDATE 12/28/2021: Well, this syllabus for a class on the Golden Age of Children’s Literature dates it from 1865 to 1926, but the latest book on the reading list is Pollyanna, from 1913.

********Publishers Weekly’s holiday roundup includes a “Books for Boys” section and a “Books for Girls” section, along with a section for both boys and girls and others for younger readers. I was fuming about the sexism of this until I came across three books in a row on railroads in “Books for Boys.” “Fine, I admit it, I’m a girl!” I said. “Just give me a story about two friends who make a cake on a snowy day and leave out the baking powder, with disastrous consequences.”         

10 books, articles, and PhDs about the world of 100 years ago that are just sitting there

People sometimes complain that the world of a hundred years ago is so picked over that there’s nothing left to write about.* After spending a year reading as if I were living in that period, though, I can tell you that there’s a treasure trove of subjects just waiting to be turned into books, articles, dissertations, or academic projects. Here are ten topics that I’m mystified that no one has gotten to yet.**

1. Archiving Erté’s Harper’s Bazar covers

Over the (yikes!) almost four years of this project, I have spent many happy hours finding online copies of Harper’s Bazar covers by Erté, the legendary art deco artist, designer, and crossword puzzle clue stalwart who worked as the magazine’s regular cover artist from 1915 to 1936. I included him in my Thanksgiving lists of 10 1918 People I’m Thankful For and Ten 1919 Illustrators I’m Thankful For.***

But I have also spent many unhappy hours searching for Erté covers in vain. HathiTrust, the Google Books online archive, is missing some issues from 1918 and doesn’t have any at all for 1919 (or from 1923 to 1929, but I’ll worry about that in the future). I’ve found images for some, but not all, of these covers elsewhere, often on Pinterest, which is the source of most of my magazine cover images anyway. Those images that do exist aren’t at the level of quality that these important cultural artifacts deserve.

Roman Petrovich Tyrtov (Erté)
Roman Petrovich Tyrtov (Erté), date unknown

Someone needs to make high-quality digital scans of the full collection and archive them online**** before the original covers deteriorate any further. (Maybe Harper’s Bazaar—the extra A was added in 1930—has done this, but, if so, the archive isn’t available online, as Vogue’s is.) A book or scholarly article about the covers would be good, too. Get on this, digital humanities people!

2. A biography of cartoonist Percy Crosby

Rookie from the 13th Squad cartoon, Percy Crosby
From The Rookie from the 13th Squad, 1918

One of the most intriguing people I’ve written about for this blog is Percy Crosby, who penned the cartoon The Rookie from the 13th Squad. The hapless but ultimately stouthearted Rookie was the Sad Sack of World War I. Crosby, who received a Purple Heart after being hit in the eye with shrapnel, went on to create the popular cartoon Skippy, which the Charles Schulz website cites as an influence for Peanuts. He also, I kid you not, won the silver medal in the 1932 watercolors and drawing event in the 1932 Olympics.

Percy Crosby, date unknown

Crosby’s personal life was troubled, though. He ran with a hard-drinking crowd that included Jerome Kern, Ring Lardner, John Barrymore, and Heywood Broun. Following a violent episode, his wife divorced him and got a restraining order, and he never saw her or their four children again. He began taking out two-page ads in major newspapers, espousing left-wing views and taking on targets like the FBI, the IRS, and Al Capone. After a 1948 suicide attempt, he was confined to a mental hospital and diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic. One of the purported symptoms of his paranoia was his endless ranting about how Skippy Peanut Butter had violated the trademark on his character’s name. Now, I’m no intellectual property rights lawyer, but that doesn’t sound all that paranoid to me. Crosby himself believed that his left-wing views contributed to his prolonged confinement. He died in the mental hospital in 1964.

A biography of Crosby was published in 1978, but his life, and his long confinement, deserve a closer look.

3. Girl Scout badges through the ages

Cover of How Girls Can Help Their Country, Girl Scout handbook 1916

What gives you a better sense of what was expected of girls in a given era than its Girl Scout badges? Well, lots of things, probably, given that the 1920 edition of Scouting for Girls included badges for telegraphy (“send 22 words per minute using a sounder and American Morse Code”), bee keeping (“have a practical knowledge of bee keeping and assist in hiving a swarm…”), and rock tapping (“collect two or three scratched or glaciated pebbles or cobblestones in the drift”). But, as I discovered during my quest to earn a 1919 Girl Scout badge,***** Girl Scout badges do provide an interesting window into the era. I learned all about caring for sick relatives and found out what a cruel practice plucking egret feathers for women’s hats is.

Pictures of girl scout uniforms, 1960s.
Junior Girl Scout Handbook, 1960s

My own Girl Scout book was written closer to 1920 than to today (it had been around a while, but still!). There are some cool badges in that book, like Observer, where you learn about constellations and rock formations and make a conservation exhibit. Others, like Indian Lore and Gypsy, wouldn’t pass muster today.

The current badges look kind of trippy and feature topics like cybersecurity, coding, entrepreneurship, and preparing for STEM jobs. That all sounds way too stressful and careerist for me. Personally, I’d rather learn telegraphy.

Well, I’d better stop before I end up writing the book myself.

4. Did Daisy Ashford really write The Young Visiters?

Daisy Ashford, frontispiece, The Young Visiters (1919)

The Young Visiters, nine-year-old Daisy Ashford’s unintentionally hilarious account of sometimes unsavory high-society goings-on, became a runaway bestseller following its 1919 publication. The manuscript, written in 1890 or so, was discovered by the adult Daisy and circulated among her friends until it reached novelist and publisher’s reader Frank Swinnerton, who arranged for its publication, with an introduction by L. Frank Baum.

Or so the story goes. Some reviewers at the time were skeptical, and there was speculation that Baum himself was the author. When Ashford died in 1972 at the age of 90, her obituary in the New York Times mentioned the doubts about her authorship.

Here is the opening paragraph. You decide for yourself whether you buy it as the work of a preteen or if, like me, you’re with the skeptics.

Except you don’t have to leave it at that! Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, you can figure  out the authorship for yourself. In recent years, researchers have used computer software that analyzes similarities between texts to discover new sources for Shakespeare’s plays and help unmask J.K. Rowling as the author of the mystery novel The Cuckoo’s Calling, published under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. I wonder what a comparison between The Young Visiters and the works of L. Frank Baum (or maybe Frank Swinnerton) would reveal. Go for it!******

5. The Crisis Press, The Brownies’ Book, and Jessie Redmon Fauset

The life and work of W.E.B. Du Bois is not exactly lost to history. To cite only one recent example of his place in the culture, the novel The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois was an Oprah book club pick and was long-listed for this year’s National Book Award. The Crisis, the NAACP magazine that he edited, is rightly celebrated as a groundbreaking publication for and about African-Americans. Less well-known are the side projects of the magazine’s publishing company, including books like Hazel, by Ruth White Ovington, the first children’s book to figure an African-American protagonist, and The Brownies’ Book, an all-too-short-lived magazine “designed for all children, but especially for ours.” Recent high school graduate Langston Hughes published his first poems in the magazine. There have been a number of academic articles about The Brownies’ Book, as well as a 1996 anthology, but the magazine and the Crisis Publication Company’s other ventures deserve to be better known today.

Jessie Redmon Fauset
Jessie Redmon Fauset, date unknown

While you’re at it, how about a biography of The Brownies’ Book managing editor Jessie Redmon Fauset, who was a major figure in the Harlem Renaissance?

6. Women Illustrators of the 1920s

Career opportunities for talented women in the 1920s were limited, but magazine illustration was one field where women could, and did, succeed. Their work and their lives are worth revisiting.

Why did Helen Dryden, once the highest-paid woman artist in the United States, end up living in a welfare hotel?

Helen Dryden, July 1, 1921

How did Gordon Conway make it to the top of her profession without taking a single art class?

Gordon Conway, January 1918

Why did talented illustrator Rita Senger disappear from the covers of Vogue and Vanity Fair in 1919? (Well, I told you all about that here.)

Rita Senger Vanity Fair cover, April 1918, Pierrot holding unconscious woman.
Rita Senger, April 1918

As for Neysa McMein, suffragist, Saturday Evening Post illustrator, best friend of Dorothy Parker, lover of Charlie Chaplin, Ring Lardner, Robert Benchley, and others, I just want to spend a winter afternoon reading a gossipy account of her life.

Saturday Evening Post Neysa McMein cover, 1916, woman wearing hat.
Nisa McMein, May 13, 1916

And there are lots more! Edna Crompton!

Metropolitan cover, September 1920, Edna Crompton, woman serving at tennis.
Edna Crompton, September 1920

Harriet Meserole!

Vogue cover, March 15, 1920, Harriet Meserole.
Harriet Meserole, March 15, 1920

Anne Harriet Fish!

Anne Harriet Fish Vanity Fair cover, March 1920, couples dancing.
Anne Harriet Fish

More on these amazing women, please!

7. The Life of James Hall

James Hall in the Lafayette Escadrille, 1917
James Hall in the Lafayette Escadrille, 1917

In May 2018, I read a May 1918 New York Times article about the apparent death of popular aviator Jimmy Hall, who had been shot down behind enemy lines. I decided to Google him to see if by any chance he had survived. But James Hall is a common name, and I kept getting articles about the co-author of Mutiny on the Bounty. Eventually I realized that the courageous aviator and the successful writer were…one and the same!

First edition, 1932

Hall, it turned out, had been captured by the Germans. After the war, he moved to Tahiti, where he and co-author Charles Nordhoff penned Mutiny on the Bounty and other best-sellers.******* His wife was partly of Polynesian descent. Their son, cinematographer Conrad Hall, won three Oscars, including one for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

Amazingly, no one seems to have written a biography of this fascinating man. If I haven’t done enough to persuade you to take on this project, it would definitely require a trip to Tahiti, where his modest house is now a museum.

8. Edna Ferber biography and revival

Edna Ferber, date unknown (State Historical Society of Wisconsin Visual Archives)

Edna Ferber checks a number of boxes to spark contemporary interest: she took on racism and sexism in her novels and short stories, and she may have been a lesbian. On top of that, she was a wonderful writer, at least judging from the early novel and short stories that I’ve read, featuring the dreams, disappointments, and, very occasionally, triumphs of department store saleswomen and accountants and stenographers. Ferber was a regular at the Algonquin Round Table, which would make for entertaining research.********

Man talking to woman at store counter, Roast Beef Medium by Edna Ferber
Illustration by James Montgomery Flagg from Roast Beef, Medium, by Edna Ferber (1913)

Harper Perennial Classics has reissued some of Ferber’s novels, which is a good start, but she’s due the kind of revival that Tim Page sparked for novelist Dawn Powell a few decades back when he published her diaries, her letters, and a biography. Any volunteers?

9. The Illustrators of New Rochelle, New York

Coles Phillips in his New Rochelle Studio, ca. 1921 (saturdayeveningpost.org)

High on the list of nonexistent books I’m longing to read is a group biography of Norman Rockwell, Coles Phillips, the Leyendecker brothers, and the other illustrators who turned suburban New Rochelle, New York, into one of the country’s most important artists’ colonies. If you can believe Wikipedia, New Rochelle was the source of more than half of the illustrations in major publications in the early 1920s.

I want SO much to read about J.C. Leyendecker’s romantic relationship with the model for his Arrow shirt ads

J.C. Leyendecker (vogue.com)

and about his brother Frank’s short life and tragic death.

Frank Leyendecker, June 1915

I want to read about Coles Phillips’ apparently happy marriage (one of all too few I’ve read about in the period) to his wife Teresa, who served as his primary model, “making up in keen interest and endurance what I lacked in pulchritude,” as she wrote in the Saturday Evening Post after his death in 1927 at the age of 46.

Coles Phillips, October 1916

I want to read about Normal Rockwell’s…well, I can’t think of anything I want to read about Norman Rockwell. But, if you write it, I’ll read it!

Norman Rockwell cover, Saturday Evening Post, February 7, 1920
Norman Rockwell, February 7, 1920

10. This one’s for me!

By now, you may be wondering why I’m asking the rest of the world to do all of these projects and not saving any for myself. Well, don’t worry—I’ve set aside a project, or two, or three. I’m not sure when I’ll be able to finish, or, um, start them, but I look forward to telling you more when I can.

In the meantime, get to work, everyone!

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*Actually, this is mostly an amateur opinion. The academics I know who are working on this period have more than enough to keep them busy.

**That I know if. If I’m wrong, please let me know!

***I’ve noticed recently that some of my old posts have gone all Alice in Wonderland on me, with small photos suddenly huge, like this squiggle from the Thanksgiving 2019 post.

I’ll get with WordPress to see what this is about and in the meantime am resizing the giant photos as I come across them.

****Or at least the covers (currently up to 1925) that are out of copyright.

*****Actually, a 1916 Girl Scout badge. My logic in using 1919 in the title was that this was the Girl Scout book being used 100 years ago at the time of the post. If I had known that this would go on to be by far my most popular post, read by many people who didn’t have a clue about my 100 years ago project, I would have used the 1916 in the blog post title.

******Go for it yourself, you might reasonably say. I tried once, with some different texts, and it’s kind of hard.

*******Speaking of fake child authors, Hall confessed in 1946 that he had written the critically acclaimed 1940 poetry collection Oh Millersville!, supposedly the work of a 10-year-old girl named Fern Gravel.

 ********That’s Ferber on the bottom right corner, looking like she’s wearing a skeleton mask, in the Al Hirschfeld cartoon of Algonquin Round Table members. I can’t post it here because it’s still under copyright.

Floor of Wanamaker's department store, 1920.

I Read a Random 1920 Book

In the three and a half years since I started this blog, I’ve read fifty-six books from a hundred years ago. Many of them, like The War-Whirl in Washington and Mary Marie, aren’t read much today.* But every one, no matter how obscure, was chosen by someone—me—with a contemporary sensibility. What if there were a way around this, I would occasionally wonder—a way to meet the world of a hundred years ago on its own terms, rather than through a 21st-century lens.

Last year, I thought of a way to do this: I’d read a random book. I picked up my copy of the 1920 Book Review Digest, flipped through it a few times, stopped, and, with my eyes closed, pointed to a place on the page.

And got…Elements of Retail Salesmanship, by Paul Wesley Ivey, Ph.D.!**

Title page, Elements of Retail Salesmanship by Paul Wesley Ivey

 I couldn’t have been more thrilled. I could have ended up with anything—Hugh Temple Sheringham’s Trout Fishing Memoirs and Morals, for example, or Newell Dwight Hillis’s Rebuilding Europe in the Face of World-Wide Bolshevism. But no, I got a book about a topic I find fascinating, and that I had so far encountered only in Edna Ferber’s short stories about exhausted department store saleswomen.

Plus, Elements of Retail Salesmanship got the equivalent of two thumbs up in Book Review Digest, which classifies each excerpted review as +, +-, or -. “The information is put clearly and intelligently and the book is a good one of its kind,” the New York Evening Post said.

Reviews of Elements of Retail Salesmanship in Book Review Digest, 1920.

Book Review Digest, 1920

Next step: acquiring a copy. These days, you can buy just about any out-of-copyright book online. Some companies put the text into Word documents and bind them, generally with a tiny font and/or horrible formatting. Some do OCR scans of book texts, with unintelligible results. Other companies just print out the scanned text from Google Books. This, I have learned from experience, is the best, even though you often end up with people’s underlining and marginal comments.***

That is, you can get almost anything unless it’s the first wave of COVID, which it was, plus something weird was going on in the printing industry. My favorite out-of-print publisher, Forgotten Books, finally admitted defeat and cancelled my order, so I tried again with my second-favorite, Scholar Select. Elements of Retail Salesmanship arrived in late August, just before my brother and I set off from D.C. by car for a month-long stay in Colorado.****

Book, Elements of Retail Salesmanship.

Ivey was thirty years old and just starting out his career as a professor at the University of Nebraska when Element of Retail Salesmanship was published. He sets out his ambition for the book on the first page. “If it serves to make the salesperson see the educational possibilities in her[1] work and the relation of better service to community welfare,” he says, “it will have served the purpose for which it was intended.” The “her” struck me as surprisingly woke for 1920, but Ivey explains in the footnote that “the feminine gender is used throughout this book because ninety-five percent of the customers and salespeople in department stores are women.”

Sometimes the idea of reading a hundred-year-old book is more exciting than the actual reading. And, to be honest, Elements of Retail Salesmanship dragged a bit at the start, while Professor Ivey walked us through the history of merchandising. There were some high points even here, though, like learning about how retail establishments used to employ “barkers” to lure people in from the street. Once the customer was inside, the retailer—who didn’t charge a fixed price, so every interaction was a bargaining session—was reluctant to let customers out until they bought something. I’m not sure how this was enforced, but it sounded alarming.

John Wanamaker, ca. 1890

John Wanamaker, ca. 1890 (Frances Benjamin Johnston, Library of Congress)

I was relieved, then, when John Wanamaker came along in the late 1800s, with his low-pressure sales tactics, fixed prices, and money-back guarantees. Like many visionaries, he was regarded as a lunatic at first, but eventually the mentality whereby, as Ivey puts it, “each merchant tried to climb to success over the dead body of his opponent” disappeared and the modern age of efficiency began.

In the next chapter, Ivey moves on to “Knowing the Goods.” This is, in his philosophy, the salesperson’s most important obligation. Take congoleum, for example. Few people, he says, know that it is merely tar paper printed on both sides. I consider myself one of the world’s foremost experts on congoleum by virtue of having heard of it, but I did not know this interesting fact!

Congoleum linoleum rug ad, Ladies' Home Journal, January 1921.

Ladies’ Home Journal, January 1921

Or take corsets. Ivey tells us that

during the reign of Catherine de Medici of France, no woman in her court could find favor in her eyes whose waist measure exceeded thirteen inches; that in order to reduce the waist measure to this figure corsets were laced by serving men while in some cases the figure was placed in a steel cage or corset frame which held the victim’s body in a vise-like and perfectly rigid grip; that the death rate increased among the women due to this custom, and, finally, Henry IV of France stamped out the injurious fashion by an imperial order.

Engraving of an iron corset held by the Musée de Cluny, 1893

This is a fascinating bit of history (or, actually, mythology–it’s been debunked), but it leaves me wondering what exactly the salesperson is supposed to do with it. “Did you know these things can kill you?” doesn’t seem like much of a sales pitch, as opposed to, say, claiming that women need an artificial exoskeleton to keep their internal organs in place.*****

Overall, though, Professor Ivey makes a convincing case for knowing the goods. You wouldn’t want to be like the salesperson who, asked why one pair of gloves cost $2.00 and a similar-looking pair cost $2.50, thought intensely for a few seconds and then answered, “I guess it is because they are marked that way.” Another giveaway about lack of product knowledge: excessive use of terms such as “nifty,” “swell,” “classy,” “great,” and “fine.”******

Ad for gloves, Harper's Bazar, February 1918

Harper’s Bazar, February 1918

Professor Ivey has high hopes for retail merchandising as a profession, musing that

four to six years of continuous study after graduation from high school is the rule rather than the exception for those entering law and medicine and in some cases dentistry. If a similar period of time was spent in study and laboratory work by those entering retail selling they would become just as truly expert in their line and would command incomes proportionate to their effectiveness.

I mentally debated the microeconomics of this with Professor Ivey for a while, then forced myself to move on.

Luckily, there are ways to learn about the goods even without sitting in a classroom. For example, Ivey tells us, you can take home the informational material that manufacturers send with the merchandise and peruse it in your leisure hours. Or you can go to the library and read the encyclopedia entries on textiles, shoes, household furnishings, novelties, and other goods, which, he promises us, are “both entertaining and of an educational value.”

I decided to give this a test run. I found the 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica on HathiTrust, opened the 15th volume, which luckily had the entry for “Jewelry,” and picked a passage at random.

Excerpt from entry on Jewelry in 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.

Encyclopedia Britannica, 1911 edition, vol. 15

I thought about Edna Ferber’s saleswomen, heading back to the boarding house, exhausted after being on their feet all day. My thoughts turned, too, to my younger self, tired out after a long day at the embassy in Phnom Penh, trying to read Elizabeth Becker’s When the War Was Over: Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge Revolution, and just not having it in me. And the ambassador let me sit in a chair! I had my doubts about whether the extracurricular encyclopedia reading ever actually happened.

Luckily, Professor Ivey presents us with more enjoyable ways of improving our salesmanship. You can, for example, challenge yourself to engage as many of the customer’s senses as possible. You don’t just show her the aluminum kettle, you “ring” it. In the hands of a clever salesperson, he claims, silk can be made to “talk.’”

Picture of kettle in Mirro Kettle ad, Ladies' Home Journal, 1920.

Ladies’ Home Journal, February 1920

Then there’s the psychological angle. Ivey walks us through the different types of customer: the Impulsive or Nervous Customer, the Deliberate Customer, the Confident or Decisive Customer (“she walks into the store as a general would march into the camp of a defeated army”), the Silent or Indifferent Customer, and the Distrustful Customer. Selling to each type requires different tactics. One caveat, though, applies to all types: if a customer is considering an item of clothing, don’t say that you bought it yourself and are happy with it. Because who wants to dress like a salesclerk?

Salespeople, too, can be distinguished by personality. The ideal salesperson combines the traits of Enthusiasm, Honesty, Promptness (which turns out not to mean showing up for work on time but rather hopping to it when a customer needs help), and Cheerfulness.

Man talking to woman at store counter, Roast Beef Medium by Edna Ferber

Illustration by James Montgomery Flagg from Roast Beef, Medium, by Edna Ferber (1913)

Too often, Professor Ivey tells us, salespeople ask questions like, “Is there anything today,” “Waited on?” “Do you wish anything?” “Can I show you something?” or merely “Something?” Syntax aside, these seemed to me like normal salesperson inquiries, but Professor Ivey says that they indicate suspicion that the customer is a “looker” as opposed to a serious shopper. Better: “Do you desire service?” or “Do you wish attention?”

Cheerfulness, Professor Ivey, tells us, is not merely a matter of smiling. There are smiles and there are smiles. There is “the pitying smile, when the customer signifies a desire to look at a cheaper article than the first shown her,” as well as the sarcastic, knowing, idiotic, and bored smiles, and, lastly, the “Heaven-help-me” smile, exchanged with a colleague when the customer finds difficulty in deciding between two silverware patterns. Oh, I know those smiles all too well!

Department store floor, Detroit, ca. 1910.

Department Store in Detroit, Michigan, ca. 1910 (Universal History Archive)

Enthusiasm, according to Professor Ivey, is not something that can be feigned. “All salespeople should have a feeling of admiration for the store in which they are working or else seek opportunities elsewhere,” he tells us. “Disloyalty can never be justified within an organization because sincerity would thereby be violated.”

And if you don’t wake up full of happiness? No problem. You just say to yourself, “This is a wonderful world. It’s great just to be alive,” or, “I feel fine, I feel happy.” Or you sing, or whistle.

With all due respect to Maria von Trapp, I’ve got some problems with this. I’m not expecting a marketing professor at the University of Nebraska in 1920 to be a Marxist, but seriously? “A feeling of admiration for the store in which they are working?” Have you ever HAD a job, Professor? (This is a rhetorical question–Ivey tells us that he has, in fact, worked in sales.) Also—where’s the chapter on what the salesperson can expect from her employer in exchange for all this expertise, psychological acumen, and sincere admiration?

Interior of Wanamaker's store, 1920.

Wanamaker Building, 1920 (Historical Society of Pennsylvania)

I went back to my post on “What’s Your 1918 Girl Job?” to see what the Ladies’ Home Journal had to say about opportunities for women in sales:

The average pay is low, hours long, and the work is not easy, but employment is steady for the competent worker. Hours have been shortened, however, and conditions improved by the activity of the Consumers’ League. Chances for advancement are good, however, for the ambitious girl in the employ of a good firm. (July 1918)

Jane Addams reading to children at Hull House.

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

 The National Consumers’ League was an organization, founded by pioneering social worker Jane Addams and others, that advocated for better conditions for workers. Some of their causes seem odd today, such as their defense of an Oregon law that limited working hours for women, but not men, to ten hours a day (the case went to the Supreme Court and the law was upheld), but they were effective in combating poor working conditions, especially in sweatshops. We don’t hear a word from Professor Ivey about the National Consumers’ League. Or about trade unions, either.

Paul and Stella Ivey

Paul and Stella Ivey, date unknown (findagrave.com)

Politics aside, I had developed a fondness for the affable professor, and I set out to learn more about him. He was born in Bessemer, Michigan, in 1890, and attended Lawrence College in Appleton, Wisconsin. He earned a master’s degree from the University of Illinois, with a thesis titled “The Liquor Industry and Industrial Efficiency,” and went on to the University of Michigan for his doctorate. In 1915, a year after his arrival in Michigan, he married Stella Walker, a widow whose first husband, a dentist, had died of typhoid fever in 1912 at the age of 27. Ivey completed his dissertation, “The Pere Marquette Railroad,” in 1919, and started teaching at Nebraska that year. Here he is on the business administration department’s page in the university’s yearbook, bottom right, jokily captioned “Ivey-covered column.”

Photographs of Business Administration staff, University of Nebraska, 1920.

The Cornhusker, 1920 (yearbooks.unl.edu)

A new marriage, a professorship at a rapidly expanding university, and a book that was serialized in Publishers’ Weekly: all in all, a promising start. What was next? Mostly more of the same, as it turned out. Ivey left Nebraska for Northwestern University a few years later, and by 1932 he was teaching at the University of Southern California, where he would spend the rest of his career.

More books followed: Principles of Marketing in 1921, Salesmanship Applied in 1925, Getting Results in Selling in 1934, Successful Salesmanship in 1937, and Human Relations in Banking in 1941. His work was mentioned in the sermons of Lloyd Cassell Douglas, the minister and best-selling author of Magnificent Obsession and The Robe.

Professor Ivey died in Los Angeles in 1950, at the age of 60. Stella lived until 1967. They didn’t have any children, or at least any that I was able to track down. (UPDATE 2/19/2021: A relative of Stella’s says in the comments below that they had no children but were part of a large and close extended family on Stella’s side.) Professor Ivey’s work outlived him; the fourth addition of Successful Salesmanship, updated by a co-author, was published in 1961.

As chance would have it, Lincoln, Nebraska, was my brother’s and my first overnight stop on our drive back to D.C. from Colorado, so I had an opportunity for a Professor Ivey pilgrimage. Or more of a mini-pilgrimage, rather. I hadn’t done enough research yet to find the  building where he taught,

Drawing of business administration building, University of Nebraska, 1920

The Cornhusker, 1920 edition (yearbooks.unl.edu)

and a house built in 1925 now stands at the address of his Lincoln home (which I found online and subsequently lost). Besides, it was pouring, and we needed to get a move on. I did sense Professor Ivey’s presence, though, as I had breakfast in a coffee shop in the historic Haymarket district near the university.*******

Mary Grace McGeehan at coffee shop

I’ve decided to make reading a random book an annual tradition, so stay tuned! I can’t imagine, though, that my 1921 book could possibly be as much fun as Elements of Retail Salesmanship.

Problems from Elements of Retail Salesmanship.

Problems from Elements of Retail Salesmanship

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*Although “aren’t read much” doesn’t mean “aren’t read at all.” One effect of the proliferation of free public-domain e-books is that people come across century-old books at random and post reviews on Goodreads that say things like “the writing was kind of old-fashioned.”

**I set a few ground rules: no books over 400 pages, no books I was already aware of, and no books about history, because reading a 1920 book about, say, Elizabethan England seemed beside the point. In any case, Elements of Retail Salesmanship won fair and square on the first try.

***This can actually be quite entertaining, as in this online copy of William Carlos Williams’ 1917 poetry collection Al Que Quiere!:

Al Que Quiere by William Carlos Williams, with handwritten note "Why the awful Spanish?"

HathiTrust

****This was, in case you’re wondering, a necessary trip and not an irresponsible pleasure jaunt.

*****When I was Googling around for a source for this, I found this comment from me from 2019 on witness2fashions’s website: “I just came across a fascinating article in a 1922 issue of Printer’s Ink magazine, aimed at panicky corset sellers, assuring them that going corsetless is just a fad and reminding mothers to educate their daughters on the health benefits of corsets, including supporting internal organs and strengthening back muscles.” The actual Printer’s Ink article is lost in the mists of time.

******This reminded me of the time I was trying on a dress in a Cape Town boutique and the salesperson said, “That’s a stunning dress!” I was mildly flattered, the way one is by even the most transparently insincere compliments, until I heard her say to a woman who was looking at a sweater, “That’s a stunning jersey!,” and then, to a woman standing in line to buy perfume, “That’s a stunning scent!”

*******One good thing about the Midwest (of many!) is the spaciousness, indoors as well as out. The coffee shop was huge, with tables at a safe distance from each other.

Crop from Helen Nyce, Visit to St. Nicholas, children and Christmas tree

Children’s Books: Your 1920 Holiday Shopping Guide

It’s that time of year again! The holiday roundup of children’s books is one of my favorite My Life 100 Years Ago traditions, if you can call something you’ve only done once before a tradition. (The year before last, I did a just plain holiday shopping guide.)

Illustration from children's books article, Publishers Weekly, November 6, 1920.

Publishers Weekly, November 6, 1920

Once again, I had a lot of help. Pioneering children’s librarian Annie Carroll Moore is on hand with a guide to fall books in the November 1920 issue of The Bookman,* and Margaret Ashmun has an article on Christmas books for the young and old in the December issue. Publisher’s Weekly has an expansive holiday roundup, and Literary Digest weighs in with fifty gift suggestions for children. The New York Times has an engagingly written writeup by Hildegarde Hawthorne, granddaughter of Nathaniel. (There’s also a Times article with the seemingly promising title of “Christmas in Bookland,” in which Coningsby Dawson blathers on for two pages about the wonders of motherhood and manages to only mention one book, An Outline of History by H.G. Wells.)

For the Very Young

I had an easier time finding books for very young children than I did last year, mostly thanks to Hawthorne. As far as I can tell, though, books with illustrations on every page were still unheard of.

Cover of Cinderella, illustrated by Margaret Evans Price, Cinderella with coach.

Cinderella, or The Little Glass Slipper, illustrated by future Fisher-Price co-founder Margaret Evans Price, has just seven illustrations in the 40-page text, plus some more at the beginning and end. Still, they’re charming,

Margaret Evans Price illustration from Cinderella, Cinderella doing chores.

Margaret Evans Price illustration from Cinderella, Cinderella running away from ball.

and Cinderella is going on my list.

Cover of The Night Before Christmas, illustrated by Nyce, 1920, Santa with toys.

The Night Before Christmas presents Clement C. Moore’s classic 1823 poem (actual title: “A Visit from St. Nicholas”) with illustrations by Helene Nyce.

Nyce illustration, The Night Before Christmas, 1920, children dancing in front of fire.

That’s a crop from one of Nyce’s illustrations at the top of the post.

Fantasy and Fairy Tales

Cover, Tales of Wonder and Magic, Katharine Pyle, 1920.

Tales of Wonder and Magic, a collection of fairy tales from around the world written and illustrated by Katharine Pyle, also turned out not to have many illustrations, which disappointed me at first, until I came across this one,

Tales of Wonder and Magic, Katharine Pyle, 1920, prince beating princess.

which made me wish it had fewer.

Cover, Treasure of the Isle of Mist, W.W. Tarn.

Hathitrust

Annie Carroll Moore calls The Treasure of the Isle of Mist, by the Scottish writer W.W. Tarn, “an exquisite fantasy of youth and autumn.” If your kid is transfixed by sentences like this, by all means add it to your holiday list:

Up through the calm water, to meet the eye of the gazer, came the green clearness of stone, and blinks of unveined sand showing white between the brown tangled blades of the great oar-weed; and you might see a school of little cuddies, heads all one way, playing hide and seek in the sea forest, and caring no whit for the clumsy armored crab beneath them, who crawled sideways, a laborious patch of color in the shimmering transparency. 

Cover, Fairies and Chimneys, by Rose Fyleman.

Rose Fyleman’s poetry collection Fairies and Chimneys is, in Moore’s opinion, “just the book to take up after leaving Fiona and The Student” (of The Treasure of the Isle of Mist). Since she presumably doesn’t mean after flinging the book aside in disgust, I had low hopes.

I was charmed by the poems, though. They’re told in the voice of a little girl who’s a staunch believer in fairies, who keep popping up in the midst of everyday life—on a bus on Oxford Street, for example.

Here’s one of my favorites, called “Wishes”:

I wish I liked rice pudding,
I wish I were a twin,
I wish some day a real live fairy
Would just come walking in.

I wish when I’m at table
My feet would touch the floor,
I wish our pipes would burst next winter,
Just like they did next door.

I wish that I could whistle
Real proper grown-up tunes,
I wish they’d let me sweep the chimneys
On rainy afternoons.

I’ve got such heaps of wishes,
I’ve only said a few;
I wish that I could wake some morning
And find they’d all come true!

My wish: that Fairies and Chimneys had more illustrations. There’s only one, this frontispiece,

Frontispiece, Fairies and Chimneys by Rose Fylman, two girls separated by fence.

plus this artwork on the inside cover.**

Lining pages, Fairies and Chimneys.

Still, pictures or not, this is going on my list.

Cover, Grimm's Fairy Tales, Abbott, 1920.

On to Grimm’s Fairy Tales, illustrated “delightfully this time,” according to Ashmun, by Elenore Abbott. I checked it out and found actual delightfulness—and no violent illustrations!***

Illustration by Elenore Abbot from Grimm's Fairy Tales

Illustration from Grimm's Fairy Tales by Elenore Abbott, woman in veil with long braids.

Illustration from Grimm's Fairy Tales by Elenore Abbott, women at party.

Illustration by Elenore Abbott, Grimm's Fairy Tales, 1920, woman with swans.

On the list. I’m on a roll!

The Jewish Fairy book, 1920, cover.

I had just about given up on including any kind of diversity in this roundup when I came upon The Jewish Fairy Book in Hawthorne’s Times article. This collection of traditional Jewish stories by Gerald Friedlander, with illustrations by George W. Hood,

Illustration from The Jewish Fairy Book, flying carpet.

Illustration from The Jewish Fairy Book, palace.

Illustration from The Jewish Fairy Book, girl and fairy on terrace.

Illustration from The Jewish Fairy Book, man walking out of cave.

would make a perfect (if belated) Hanukkah gift.

For Middle-Grade and Older Readers

Dr. Dolittle title page and frontispiece, 1920.

Annie Carroll Moore calls Hugh Lofting’s The Story of Dr. Dolittle “the most delightful nonsense story of the year,” and it’s the one undisputed children’s classic of 1920. I was going to buy a copy and (re)read it myself, but I bought one of the sequels by mistake and had to return it. This is just as well, because it turns out that modern editions have all the racism taken out, and I would potentially have ended up recommending a book where a Black prince tells this tale of woe:

Excerpt from The Story of Dr. Dolittle, racist passage.

The prince asks Dr. Dolittle to turn his skin white. Dr. D. works his magic, and lo and behold

all the animals cried out in surprise. For the Prince’s face had turned as white as snow, and his eyes, which had been mud-colored, were a manly gray!

Thanks to the blog Leaves & Pages for setting me straight.

L'Alsace Heureuse cover, Hansi, 1919.

Moore has high praise as well for L’Alsace Heureuse, by Hansi (real name Jean-Jacques Waltz), a French writer of Alsatian descent. “What a happy Alsace is pictured here,” she says. “No book yet written about the war will give children the interest of the pleasure of these pictures.” The pictures I found online were indeed charming,

L'Alsace Heureuse, Hansi, 1919, three Alsace women.

but given that “happy” isn’t usually the first word that early 20th century Alsace brings to mind, I had my doubts. I couldn’t find a complete copy of L’Alsace Heureuse, but the grim pictures I came across in Hansi’s 1916 children’s book L’Histoire d’Alsace leave me inclined to approach this one with caution. Plus, I see no evidence that L’Alsace Heureuse was translated into English at the time.

The Story of Our Country title page and frontispiece.

“E. Boyd Smith has written and illustrated ‘The Story of Our Country,’” is the totality of what Moore has to say about this book. I pulled it up on Hathitrust, typed “Negro” in the search bar, and found this:

Text from The Story of Our Country by E. Boyd Smith claiming Negro leaders favor segregation.

Next!

Title page and Frontispiece, Argonauts of Faith by Basil Matthews.

The 300th anniversary of the founding of Plymouth colony was celebrated a lot more enthusiastically than this year’s 400th, and there was no shortage of books about the Pilgrims. Moore’s favorite is The Argonauts of Faith, by Basil Matthews. Flipping through the illustrations, I found this one. “Would they scalp him? Would they torture him by fire?” the caption asks.

Argonauts of Faith illustration, white boy cowering from Indian.

They didn’t—they treated him kindly and he dined out on stories of his time with the Indians for the rest of his days—but I decided to give the Argonauts a pass anyway.

Sometimes, as with this reissue of H.E. Marshall’s An Empire Story, you don’t even need to go beyond the title page.

An Empire Story title page and frontispiece.

Illustrator N.C. Wyeth (father of Andrew) had a busy year,**** with new editions of Charles Kingsley’s Westward Ho!,

N.C. Wyeth illustration from Westward Ho!, bare-chested woman with dead man on her lap.

Daniel Dafoe’s Robinson Crusoe,

N.C. Wyeth illustration from Robinson Crusoe, Crusoe shooting murtherers.

and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Courtship of Miles Standish.

N.C. Wyeth illustration from The Courtship of Miles Standish, man stabbing Indian.

No, no, and no. (And in case you think I’m being a prude, it’s not the woman’s bare chest I object to, it’s the—I checked the text—dead guy on her lap.)

Cover of Some British Ballads.

Of Some British Ballads, a volume of Child ballads with pictures by Arthur Rackham, Ashmun says, “The fortunate recipient will find herself saying over and over, ‘Binnorie, oh, Binnorie!’”

If you say so, Margaret. MY prediction is that the recipient will take a quick look at the text, see that it’s in old-timey English,

Text from Yonge Andrew, Some British Ballads.

come upon this illustration from “Yonge Andrew,”

Arthur Rackham illustration of Yonge Andrew, from Some British Ballads, man with naked woman.

and stick the book into the back of his closet for further perusing.*****

Cover, Ancient Man, by Hendrik Willem Van Loon, pyramids on yellow background.

Every once in a while, I come across something from a hundred years ago that gives me a shock of recognition, seeming to come from a much later time. That’s how I felt when I saw the illustrations from Ancient Man by Dutch-American writer Hendrik Willem Van Loon.****** “Broad smears of color that tell a clear story none the less,” is how Hawthorne puts it, unknowingly summarizing the future of children’s illustration.

Ancient Man, by Hendrik Willem Van Loon, man under tree.

Ancient Man by Hendrik Willem Van Loon, 1920, pyramids on yellow background.

Ancient Man by Hendrik Willem van Loon, 1920, red towers of Nineveh.

Ancient Man by Hendrik Willem Van Loon, man looking at horizon.

Ancient Man by Hendrik Willem Van Loon, 1920, Phoenician ship.

Ca. 1920 history is fraught with peril, though, so I downloaded the text onto my Kindle. I’m about halfway through. Some of it, like a description of African people’s woolly hair and thick lips and references to prehistoric man “and his wife,” doesn’t pass the modern sensibility test. Biblical stories are presented as literal history, and non-Western civilizations like China and Asia are completely disregarded. With these caveats, though, I’d recommend it, especially if you (like me) are hazy on who exactly the Phoenecians were.

For Young Adults

Older teens are always hard to shop for, and this year is no exception.

Story of Opal cover, 1920.

Moore, who has a habit of throwing adult books into the children’s roundup mix, has good things to say about The Story of Opal, a memoir by Opal Whiteley that was originally serialized in The Atlantic. Opal’s mom drowns on page 2 while she and Opal are boating.

Text from The Story of Opal, by Opal Whiteley

Her father dies in the next paragraph. He’s not at the logging camp with Opal and her mom at the time, which stands to reason seeing as he’s Henry, Prince of Orleans, or so Whiteley claimed (although she doesn’t mention him by name in this book as far as I can tell). I’m having just a TINY bit of trouble buying this.

Cover, The Good Cheer Book.

Ashmun says that The Good Cheer Book, compiled by Blanche E. Herbert, “will no doubt be a popular gift at Christmas.” Like everyone else, I could use some good cheer these days, so I opened it eagerly. Do you feel down in the dumps, John Edgar Park asks us in the opening essay. Well, yes, John, sometimes!

Here’s his advice:

Text of The Diagnosis, from The Good Cheer Book.

If the print’s too small for you, here’s a summary: “It’s all your fault! Suck it up!”

Cover of The Little House by Coningsby Dawson, 1920.

The Little House, Ashmun promises us, has “a real Christmas flavor.” It’s by, uh-oh, Coningsby Dawson, he of the bookless New York Times essay, and it’s told from the point of view of the house. “To have been responsible for the happy ending is pretty nearly as clever as to have made the story up out of one’s own head or, as we houses say, out of one’s own walls,” the house says.

That was this last straw. I decided to cast the critics aside and do my own search for a gift for the older teen.

Dust jacket, This Side of Paradise, first edition.

I’m reading F. Scott Fitzgerald’s This Side of Paradise at the moment, for the third or fourth time. Each time I get something different out of it. When I was starting grad school at Princeton, what I loved was Fitzgerald’s swoony take on the place. “I think of Princeton as being lazy and good-looking and aristocratic—you know, like a spring day,” says semi-autobiographical hero Amory Blaine.

This time what I love is Fitzgerald’s unsparing take on the self-invention of his protagonist, who progresses from one stage of cringe-inducing idiocy to another over the course of his young life, from this early-teen love poem

Poem from This Side of Paradise, 1920.

to his first-day-of-college posturing (“he tried conscientiously to look both pleasantly blasé and casually critical, which was as near as he could analyze the prevalent facial expression”), to, if memory serves (I’m only up to the Princeton part), a fatuous romance and a freak-out about sex.******* It’s easy to for older people to lampoon the pretensions of the young, but not so easy when you’re in your early twenties yourself, as Fitzgerald was.  

In a previous post, I quoted critic John Walcott, who said in a 1917 Bookman essay that young people turn away from books that skewer their peers, like Mary Roberts Rinehart’s Bab: A Sub-Deb and Booth Tarkington’s Seventeen.  They take themselves with deadly seriousness, Walcott says, and don’t relish being spoofed. But, as I’ve written before, Fitzgerald, for all the fun he pokes at his characters, doesn’t just send them up; he loves them too. That’s what I appreciate most about him now, and that’s why I don’t think our young friend will turn him aside.

For Children of All Ages

The Brownies' Book, December 1920, black Santa on roof.

Library of Congress

What if your children aren’t white? Or what if they are, and you want to show them that the real world is more diverse than the one portrayed in the children’s books of 1920? Bookwise, there’s almost nothing out there, other than Hazel, which I wrote about last year. But there’s one wonderful gift you can give them: The Brownies’ Book, a magazine by the publishers of The Crisis for African-American children, or rather, as they put it, “designed for all children, but especially for ours.” This is, sadly, your last chance; December 1921 marked the end of the magazine’s two-year run. (UPDATE 3/1/2021: I wrote about The Brownies’ Book here.)

The 1920 Children’s Holiday Book List********

Cinderella, illustrated by Margaret Evans Price

Cover of Cinderella, illustrated by Margaret Evans Price, Cinderella with coach.

Fairies and Chimneys, by Rose Fyleman

Cover, Fairies and Chimneys, by Rose Fyleman.

Grimm’s Fairy Tales, illustrated by Elenore Abbott

Cover, Grimm's Fairy Tales, Abbott, 1920.

The Jewish Fairy Book, by Gerald Friedlander, illustrated by George W. Hood

The Jewish Fairy book, 1920, cover.

Ancient Man, by Willem van Loon

Cover, Ancient Man, by Hendrik Willem Van Loon, pyramids on yellow background.

This Side of Paradise, by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Dust jacket, This Side of Paradise, first edition.

The Brownies’ Book

The Brownies' Book, December 1920, black Santa on roof.

Happy holidays, everyone, and happy reading!

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*I’m also reading, and loving, Roads to Childhood, a 1920 collection of Moore’s columns.

**These pages are, I learned in the New York Times roundup, called lining pages. Elaborate lining pages were, apparently, all the rage in 1920.

Lining pages, The Story of Our Country.

The Story of Our Country

Argonauts of Faith lining pages.

Argonauts of Faith

Lining papers from Westward Ho!, illustrated by N.C. Wyeth.

Westward Ho!

***Granted, I got 125 hits when I searched for “killed.” But you can’t have Grimm without the grim.

****He was also busy illustrating the advertising campaign about pancake-making enslaved person Aunt Jemima.

Aunt Jemima saves colonel's moustache, October 1920.

Ladies’ Home Journal, October 1920

*****Just as well that the young reader is likely to give “Yonge Andrew” a pass. It’s about a guy who seduces a young woman, tricks her into giving him her father’s gold and all her clothes, and sends her back to her father, who, seeing that she’s naked, locks her outside, where she dies. Or something along those lines—my old-timey English is a tad rusty.

******Van Loon would go on to win the first Newbery Award for his 1921 book The Story of Mankind, which incorporates much of Ancient Man.

Cover, The Story of Mankind, Van Loon, 1921.

*******“Did they actually do it?” my young self wondered. But my young self wondered that about a lot of people, including Madame Bovary, so is not necessarily the best guide in these matters. (UPDATE 3/1/2021: Having now reread the book, I have no idea what this was all about.)

********With the caveat that any book given to an ACTUAL CHILD should be given a more thorough read than I’ve given these.

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New on the (non-holiday) Book List:

Ten Days That Shook the World, by John Reed

A Pioneering Gay Novel of 1919

Early this year, I was reading H.L. Mencken’s fiction roundup in the January 1920 issue of The Smart Set in search of a good book. I didn’t have much hope, given Mencken’s generally dim view of the novels of the day.

Smart Set cover, January 1910

So I was pleasantly surprised to come across his review of Henry B. Fuller’s novel Bertram Cope’s Year, which he calls “a very fair piece of writing, as novels go. A bit pizzicato; even a bit distinguished.” I enjoy academic novels, and Mencken described Bertrand Cope’s Year as a comic romp featuring a young college instructor who haplessly endures various townspeople’s attempts to ensnare him into romantic and social entanglements. I Googled the book, expecting to get the usual array of low-quality Amazon reprints and not much else.* To my surprise, I found a Wikipedia entry saying that Bertrand Cope’s Year is “perhaps the first American homosexual novel.”

I immediately downloaded it on my Kindle and started reading. I made it about halfway through, but, this being early March, life and COVID intervened and I ended up putting it aside.** When I resumed, it was in the much more palatable form of this attractive annotated edition by Broadview Editions:

Photo of Bertram Cope's Year by Henry B. Fuller

Bertram Cope is a 24-year-old instructor and master’s degree student at a Northwestern-like university in the Evanston-like town of Churchton, Illinois. Cope is strikingly handsome; I picture him as a young blond Cary Grant. As soon as he shows up, the entire population of Churchton, male and female, goes into a swoon and sets out to ensnare him. Medora, a prosperous widow, installs him in her social set and, although clearly pining for him herself, throws her three young artistic protégées in his path. Much sitting in parlors ensues.

Randolph, a middle-aged businessman, schemes to become Bertram’s “mentor,” but, you know, the kind of mentor who moves to a bigger apartment so as to have a more suitable setup in case Bertram comes over for dinner and gets snowed in for the night. (This fails, but he does finagle some skinny-dipping at the Indiana Dunes.)

Postcard of Indiana Dunes, early 20th century

Postcard of Indiana Dunes, ca. 1910-1920 (rootsweb.com)

Meanwhile, all Bertram wants to do is set up housekeeping with his devoted friend Arthur, who’s back home in Wisconsin. When Randolph invites Bertram to accompany him on an overnight trip, Arthur puts the kibosh on it, even though the “fickle” Arthur (Bertram’s word) has been known to go on similar weekend jaunts himself.

(We’re getting into spoiler territory here, so if you’re planning to read the book, or just find plot summaries tedious, skip down to the photo of Henry Fuller.)

Evanston lifesaving station, 1910.

Evanston Life-Saving Station, 1910 (Chicago Daily News)

Amy, the most determined protégée, takes to stalking Bertram. One day they just happen to meet on the university campus and end up going for a sail. The boat capsizes, the two struggle to the shore, and Amy turns this into a tale of heroism on Bertram’s part even though, in Bertram’s opinion, if anyone did any saving it was Amy. This is the most exciting thing that has happened in Churchton in months, even more exciting than the time when Bertram fainted during one of Medora’s soirées. Amy starts blathering about “happiness” on their walks, and, without Bertram knowing exactly what happened, they end up engaged.

Arthur, as you can imagine, is NOT happy. Neither are Medora and Randolph, who conspire to throw a hail-fellow-well-met type named Pearson into Amy’s path. Between that and Bertram’s unavailability to see Amy ever, which even she sees as a red flag, the engagement comes to an end, to Bertram’s huge relief.

Frances Willard House, Evanston, Illinois.

Frances Willard House, Evanston, Illinois, early 20th century

Bertram and Arthur set up a home together and live in blissful cohabitation, so blissful that it starts raising eyebrows. Their PDAs prompt Medora’s disabled relative Foster, whose main activity in life is making caustic comments, to recall the time when similar behavior by a newlywed couple in Sarasota prompted an elderly woman to complain that they “brought the manners of the bedchamber into the drawing-room.”

Further complications ensue in the form of Hortense, another of Medora’s protégées, who makes a play for Bertram by painting his portrait. When Bertram, having learned his lesson from the Amy fiasco, rejects her, she flies into a fury, tears the portrait in half, and tells Bertram that his “preposterous friendship” with Arthur will not last long.

Arthur, meanwhile, has thrown himself into his female part in the campus theatricals.

Their room came to be strown with all the disconcerting items of a theatrical wardrobe. Cope soon reached the point where he was not quite sure that he liked it all, and he began to develop a distaste for Lemoyne’s preoccupation with it. He came home one afternoon to find on the corner of his desk a long pair of silk stockings and a too dainty pair of ladies’ shoes. “Oh, Art!” he protested.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, Triangle Club production, Princeton, 1915.

F. Scott Fitzgerald in a Triangle Club production, Princeton University, 1915

When the big night finally arrives, the townspeople squirm at Arthur’s all-too-convincing female impersonation at first, but his final number brings down the house. Unfortunately, Arthur doesn’t know when to stop, and his post-curtain pass at a male costar who can’t take a joke (if it was one) is met with a whack. No prizes for guessing who gets drummed out of town as a result of this incident.

Bertram, having earned his master’s degree, hightails it for the East Coast, where he has gotten a job at an “important university.” Medora and Randolph admit defeat, but Carolyn, the third protégée, is in hot pursuit. The story ends with us wondering whether Bertram ends up with her or with Arthur.

“AR-THUR, AR-THUR, AR-THUR, AR-THUR,” contemporary readers call out in unison. Given that Bertram managed to escape Amy’s clutches when she was a) right there in Churchton and b) actually engaged to him, I’m fairly confident that he’ll succeed in giving Carolyn the slip. But this wasn’t such a slam-dunk case in 1919. Once again, I picture Cary Grant’s desperate, trapped expression at the supposedly happy ending of every romantic comedy he starred in.***

Henry B. Fuller, ca. 1893

Who, I wondered, was Henry Fuller? And how did this book come to be published in 1919?

Fuller, it turns out, was a well-established 62-year-old Chicago writer when Bertram Cope’s Year was published. He got his start in his twenties with allegorical travel novels about Italy, which sound heinous but brought him attention among the genteel New England literary set. He then turned to realist novels about his gritty native city. Along the way, he wrote a play about a young man who commits suicide at the wedding of his former (male) lover.

Fuller also wrote literary criticism for The Dial and other publications. Once I looked up his reviews, I realized that I had read quite a few of them.**** If you want to save yourself the trouble of spending a year reading as if you were living 100 years ago, just take my word for it that all literary criticism, by Fuller and everyone else (except H.L. Mencken), sounds exactly like this snippet from Fuller’s review in The Dial of a book of lectures by Lafcadio Hearne:

Text from an article by Henry Fuller, The Dial, January 17, 1918.

The Dial, January 17, 1918

The depiction of homosexuality in Bertram Cope’s Year is often described as subtle, an argument I have trouble buying unless your definition of subtle is that no one marches down the street waving a rainbow flag. Judging from all the rejections Fuller received, the publishing industry had no trouble understanding what the book was about. It ended up being published, at Fuller’s expense, by a small Chicago publishing house owned by his friend Ralph Fletcher Seymour.

The Bookman headline, Good Novels of Several Kinds, May 1920

The Bookman, May 1920

The conventional wisdom, to the extent that there is conventional wisdom about Bertram Cope’s Year, is that the book was ignored or condemned by critics. However, in addition to Mencken’s write-up, it received favorable or semi-favorable reviews from The Bookman (“the kind of novel which must be enjoyed not for its matter so much as for its quality, its richness of texture and subtlety of atmosphere”), The Booklist (“live enough people and a sense of humor hovering near the surface”), and The Weekly Review (“a mild affair altogether whose sole and sufficient distinction lies in the delicate perfection of its setting forth”). This is a fair amount of press for a book from a small publisher. None of the reviews mention the homosexuality angle. Poor Arthur is nowhere to be seen, and some of the reviews portray Bertram’s desperate flight from Carolyn as a possible budding romance. It wasn’t until Carl Van Vechten published a laudatory essay in 1926 that the true subject of the book was acknowledged.

What was going on here? Did the reviewers just not get it? This seems impossible, but it’s hard, looking back from the knowing present, to see things through the lens of another era.***** Maybe they were just protecting the delicate sensibilities of their readers? But, in that case, why bother to review the book at all?

Title page, Bertram Cope's Year, by Henry B. Fuller, 1919.

HathiTrust Digital Library

It was a moot point in the end. Bertram Cope’s s Year sold very few copies. “My disrelish for the writing-and-publishing game is now absolute,” Fuller wrote to his friend Hamlin Garland in May 1920. ”There seems to be no way for one to get read or paid, so—Shutters up.” Fuller continued writing non-fiction, but he abandoned fiction for almost a decade, before writing one last novel that was published posthumously in 1929.

Fuller fell into obscurity after his death, but Bertram Cope’s Year has found a new life in the 21st century. The book was republished in 1998, with an afterword by Andrew Solomon, and a critical edition (the one I read) was published in 2010.

Wikipedia’s assertion that Bertram Cope’s Year is the first gay American novel falls apart upon examination. There is, for example, Bayard Taylor’s Joseph and His Friend, published in 1870, about a young Pennsylvania farmer who falls in love with a man who cares for him after a train crash. Edward Prime-Stevenson’s 1906 novel Imre: A Memorandum, is arguably the first American novel to depict an actual gay relationship, although some claim that it doesn’t count because it was published in Europe, where New Jersey-born Prime-Stevenson lived. Alan Dale, the hack drama critic whose play about an unrepentant unwed mother I wrote about a while back, published the gay melodrama A Marriage Below Zero in 1889, two years after he left Britain for the United States.

Vintage photo, young male couple.

boobob92******

So I guess the best claim we can make for Bertram Cope’s Year is that it’s the first novel by an American writer that was published in the United States, features a loving gay couple, and doesn’t end in a tragic death.******* Which is a bit of a mouthful as firsts go, but still one worth celebrating.

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*Don’t get me started on the shady business of print-on-demand. Four-point font! Typos on the cover! The totally wrong book (I’m talking to you, Robert Chambers’ The Tree of Heaven labeled as May Sinclair’s The Tree of Heaven)!

**Which is what I do with almost every book I start reading on my Kindle in any case.

***I didn’t actually re-watch every Cary Grant romantic comedy to fact-check this assertion, so I’m open to correction here. Still, I do get a “gay man trapped by determined women” vibe from his oeuvre as a whole.

****Among other things, Fuller started a heated debate about whether novels were too long or too short that I came in in the middle of. (No one thought that they were the right length, apparently.)

*****It wasn’t until probably my fourth reading of The Great Gatsby a decade or so ago that it struck me that the scene at the end of the second chapter where Nick is in Myrtle’s neighbor’s apartment is the aftermath of a gay sexual encounter. It seemed so unmistakable that I marveled that I could ever have missed it. I’ll try to remember to put in a link when the copyright expires at the beginning of 2021. If I forget, remind me. (UPDATE 6/4/2021: Here it is.) (P.S. If you didn’t look at the caption below the photo of the person wearing the hat, go back and check it out!)

******This photo was posted on the Flickr site of a collector of vintage postcards who thinks it looks a lot like Bertram and Arthur. I agree!

*******Although I worried a little, given that Bertram, in addition to his fainting episode, was constantly getting sick.

Crop of illustration from Bernice Bobs Her Hair, F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Bernice Bobs Her Hair–and I Bob Mine!

In 1920, 23-year-old F. Scott Fitzgerald was flying high. His first novel, This Side of Paradise, the story of a Princeton student who’s a lot like F. Scott Fitzgerald, was published in March. Reviews were glowing* and sales were strong.

Dust jacket, This Side of Paradise, first edition.

He married Zelda in April.**

F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald on their honeymoon, 1920.

F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald on their honeymoon, 1920 (Library of Congress)

The real money was in short stories, and his were starting to sell.*** “Bernice Bobs Her Hair” appeared in the May 1 edition of the Saturday Evening Post.

Saturday Evening Post cover, Norman Rockwell, May 1, 1920, man and woman at Ouija board.

Norman Rockwell

Meanwhile, back in 2020, my hair was getting long. Not this long,

Shampoo ad showing woman with long red hair, Ladies' Home Journal, April 1920.

Ladies’ Home Journal, April 1920

but long.

Mary Grace McGeehan with long hair, May 2020.

It could be months before the salons opened in D.C. Something had to be done.

Hey, I thought, how about a bob of my own to celebrate Bernice’s centennial? I had read the story in college and vaguely recalled it as the jolly tale of a popular young woman who gets her hair bobbed to the shock of all around her, but then all her friends decide she looks fantastic and they all go dance a celebratory Charleston.**** Or something along those lines.

Headline, Bernice Bobs Her Hair by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Saturday Evening Post, May 1, 1920.

The real story turned out to be nothing like that at all.***** Here’s what really happens.

Bernice, who hails from Eau Claire, Wisconsin, is visiting her aunt and cousin Marjorie, who live in an unnamed city that that could be Fitzgerald’s home town of Minneapolis-St. Paul. Bernice is attractive enough, but she’s a total buzz-kill. No one ever cuts in on her at dances. (She’s more popular in Eau Claire, but it hasn’t dawned on her that this might have something to do with her father being the richest man in town.) Warren, who’s miserably in love with Marjorie, has the misfortune of sitting with Bernice on the veranda at intermission at a country club dance. “He wondered idly whether she was a poor conversationalist because she got no attention or got no attention because she was a poor conversationalist,” Fitzgerald writes.

“She’s absolutely hopeless,” Marjorie complains to her mother one night. “I think it’s that crazy Indian blood in Bernice. Maybe she’s a reversion to type. Indian women all just sat round and never said anything.”

Marjorie’s mom calls her “idiotic,” more fondly than you should when your daughter’s being racist.

Bernice, you will not be surprised to hear (especially if you looked at the picture), has been standing behind the door the whole time. The next day at breakfast, she tells Marjorie that she heard everything. If that’s the way things are, she says, she might as well go back to Eau Claire. Marjorie is not as horrified by this concept as Bernice had expected, so she goes off and cries for a while.

Then she goes to confront Marjorie. She has barely gotten three words into her little lecture on kindness when Marjorie cuts her off, saying, in essence, “Cut the Little Women crap.” Bernice ponders this while Marjorie’s off at a matinee and when Marjorie returns she proposes a new plan: she’ll stay, and Marjorie will give her popularity lessons. Marjorie agrees—IF Bernice promises to do every single thing she tells her to. Deal, says Bernice.

Pillsbury ad, Saturday Evening Post, May 1, 1920.

Saturday Evening Post, May 1, 1920

The Eliza Dootlittle-ing of Bernice begins. There’s some eyebrow-tending and remedial dancing, but most of the focus is on repartee. A few days later, Bernice tries out her new line at a country club dance. “Do you think I ought to bob my hair, Mr. Charley Paulson?” she asks. “I want to be a society vampire, you see.” Mr. Charley Paulson has nothing useful to say on this subject, but Bernice announces that the bobbing is on. Servier Barber Shop. The whole gang’s invited.

Glidden ad, men on scaffolding, Satruday Evening Post, May 1, 1920.

Saturday Evening Post, May 1, 1920

Of course she’s not really going to have her hair bobbed. Short hair on women is considered immoral in respectable circles in 1920 (or 1919, if you allow for publication lead times). It’s just a line. But it works! The new Bernice and her inane babble are the toast of the town. As the weeks go by, she compiles an impressive list of admirers. Including—uh oh!—Warren. Remember him? Marjorie’s admirer who got stuck with Bernice on the veranda? Marjorie, who is not as indifferent to Warren as she lets on, is NOT amused.

At a bridge party, Marjorie confronts Bernice. “Splush!” she says. The hair bobbing business is just a line—admit it! Bernice is out of her league here, and next thing she knows the gang is at Servier Barber Shop. “My hair—bob it!” she says to the nearest barber.

Bernice at barber shop, Bernice Bobs Her Hair, F. Scott Fitzgerald.

And the barber does. Or, rather, he hacks it off. And…disaster! It turns out that Bernice’s lustrous brown locks were a major element of her attractiveness. Now, with her hair hanging in lank lifeless blocks, she looks, she thinks, “ridiculous, like a Greenwich Villager who had left her spectacles at home.” Warren and the other guys are instantly over her.

But Bernice has more spirit than we’ve given her credit for. That night, as Marjorie lies sleeping, her blond hair in braids, Bernice steals into her room and picks up a pair of shears. Snip snip, good-bye golden locks! As Marjorie sleeps on, Bernice heads out for the train station, braids in hand, and flings them into Warren’s front yard.

“Ha!” she giggled wildly. “Scalp the selfish thing!”
Then picking up her suitcase she set off at a half run down the moonlit street.

Hartford Fire Insurance ad, red wolf, May 1, 1920.

Saturday Evening Post, May 1, 1920.

All of this left me cheering for Bernice but second-guessing my choice of her as a tonsorial role model. The barber at Servier might not have been a bobbing expert, but at least he was a hair-cutting professional. Maybe I should leave well enough alone. Hardly anyone ever sees my hair these days, and when they do it’s tied up under a mask.

Mary Grace McGeehan outdoors in mask, May 2020.

But I have to look at my hair constantly, what with all the hand-washing while reciting 20-second snippets of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. I can’t take it anymore, I decide. Steeling my courage, I set a towel on the floor, wet my hair, and prop up my iPad to use  as a mirror.

Towel around my head, I tell myself it’s not too late. I can still back down. But Marjorie’s mocking voice says in my head, as it said in Bernice’s, “Give up and get down. You tried to buck me and I called your bluff.”

Mary Grace McGeehan, head in towel, May 2020.

Am I going to take that from a twit like Marjorie? No, I’m not! I lift the scissors****** to my head and start to snip.

Mary Grace McGeehan cutting hair, May 1920.

Halfway through, no turning back now. I smile bravely.

Mary Grace McGeehan halfway through haircut, May 1920.

Finished!

Mary Grace McGeehan haircut, May 2020.

I show myself the back, like a real hairdresser. A little crooked, but not too bad considering the awkward angle and lack of visibility.

Mary Grace McGeehan haircut from back, May 1920.

But the blow-dry is the true test. Which will it be? Limp, lifeless blocks, or chic new do?

Mary Grace McGeehan haircut horror, May 2020.

Just kidding. That’s Bernice. I love it!

Mary Grace McGeehan haircut thumbs-up, May 2020.

When the decade changed, a few friends asked me if I was excited to be moving into the 1920s. The answer was no, not really. Everyone knows about the Jazz Age and the Lost Generation. The 1910s felt more mine, somehow. But, as I read “Bernice Bobs Her Hair” in its original setting, with the illustrations and the ads and this photo stuck under the end of the story,

Photograph of house in country, Saturday Evening Post, May 1, 1920.

I felt like I was discovering Fitzgerald–not the canonic writer everyone reads in high school, not the man who knew so much disappointment and misery in his short life, but an ambitious and promising young man who brilliantly skewers the young people in his privileged social circle but rises above satire because he loves them too. I’m in at the beginning of something exciting and important, and I’m looking forward to seeing it unfold.

Stay safe, everyone, and don’t fear the scissors!

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*Here’s the opening of the New Republic review:

New Republic review, This Side of Paradise, F. Scott Fitzgerald, May 12, 1920.

The New Republic, May 12, 1920

**The timing was not a coincidence. The sale of This Side of Paradise sealed the deal on the engagement.

***Fitzgerald’s first published short story, “Babes in the Woods,” appeared in The Smart Set in September 1919. Summary: popular boy and popular girl meet at a party. Will they kiss? (UPDATE 12/20/2020: I realized while rereading This Side of Paradise  that “Babes in the Woods” is an excerpt from the novel. In the Smart Set version, Amory Blaine is still called Stephen Palms, Fitzgerald’s original name for him.)

Smart Set cover, September 1919, woman in hat.

****Yes, I know, the Charleston wasn’t actually a thing until 1923.

*****In my defense, college was quite a while ago.

******Presciently ordered way back in March.

Children’s Books: Your 1919 Holiday Shopping Guide

Happy holidays, everyone! This year’s Holiday Shopping Guide is devoted to books, because who doesn’t love a book? Well, lots of people, but, when I looked for gift ideas in the December 1919 issue of Vanity Fair, this monogrammed humidor ($30.00)

Humidor, Vanity Fair, December 1919.

and this kit bag ($118.50)    

Kit bag, Vanity Fair, December 1919.

and this vicuna bath robe ($70.75),

Vicuna bathrobe, Vanity Fair, December 1919.

to say nothing of this solid platinum opera watch with gold hands and numerals ($800.00, plus $96.00 for the chain),

Platinum watch and chain, Vanity Fair, December 1919.

all cost more than the average weekly wage  of $25.61. I’m feeling more egalitarian than that this season, so books it is.

My original plan was to review books for all ages, but the children’s books ended up taking up a whole post. I have the books for grown-ups all picked out and will try to write about them as well, but I’ve learned not to commit myself to future posts because they hardly ever happen. (UPDATE 12/13/2020: This one didn’t either.) 

Banner, Bookman, From the Child's Holiday Books of 1919, November 1919.

I had a lot of help with this gift guide. New York chief children’s librarian Annie Carroll Moore, whom I wrote about earlier this year, has a holiday book roundup in the November issue of The Bookman. Boston chief children’s librarian Alice Jordan* has recommendations in House Beautiful, and Elementary School Journal and Literary Digest chime in as well. Library Journal, taking its sweet time about it, published the results of a vote among children’s librarians on the best children’s books of 1919 in its December 1920 issue.

Books With Color Illustrations

Children’s picture books as we think of them today, with a color illustration on every page, didn’t exist in 1919. Even books for very young children consisted mostly of text, with occasional line illustrations and a few color plates. If my own experience of reading to children is any guide, small children of a hundred years ago would push the pages impatiently to get to the pictures, leaving the adult reader to come up with a highly abridged version of the story on the fly. So the pictures are the key.

Cover, The Firelight Fairy Book, Henry Beston, illustrated by Maurice Day, 1919.

Moore was so entranced by The Firelight Fairy Book by Henry Beston, with illustrations by Maurice Day, that she went to Boston to meet Beston. He turned out to be a World War I veteran who started writing one of the tales, “The City Under the Sea,” IN A SUBMARINE IN ACTIVE PURSUIT OF GERMAN SUBMARINES, which is a great story, if not exemplary military tradecraft.

Maurice Day illustration, boy and girl with dragon, The Firelight Fairy Book.

Maurice Day, The Firelight Fairy Book

Illustration by Maurice Day, boy and old man, The Firelight Fairy Book.

Maurice Day, The Firelight Fairy Book

Moore wasn’t as big a fan of Day’s illustrations in a new edition of Horace E. Scudder’s Fables and Folk Stories—“his animals might be stronger”—but I was quite taken with this one:

Fables and Folk Stories, illustration by Maurice Day.

Maurice Day, Fables and Folk Stories

Some other illustrated books Moore discusses with varying levels of enthusiasm:

Czechoslovak Fairy Tales by Parker Fillmore, with illustrations by Jan Matulka,

Illustration by Jan Matulka for Czechoslovak Fairy Tales

The Last of the Mohicans by James Fenimore Cooper, with new illustrations by N.C. Wyeth,

Illustration by N.C. Wyeth, The Last of the Mohicans

At the Back of the North Wind by George MacDonald, with new illustrations by Jessie Willcox Smith,**

Illustration by Jessie Willcox Smith from At the Back of the North Wind.

a new edition of The Water Babies by Charles Kingsley, also illustrated by Jessie Willcox Smith,

Illustration by Jessie Willcox Smith from The Water Babies.

Saint Joan of Arc by Mark Twain, with new illustrations by Harold Pyle,

Illustration by Harold Pyle, Saint Joan of Arc by Mark Twain.

and Mother Goose Nursery Rhymes, with illustrations by Boyd Smith.

Illustration by Boyd Smith, Mother Goose Nursery Rhymes.

Caveat emptor on this last one. As I was perusing Smith’s illustrations, finding them quite charming, I came across this one,

Man shooting duck, illustration by Boyd Smith, Mother Goose Nursery Rhymes.

which turns out to illustrate this poem,

There Was a Little Man from Mother Goose Nursery Rhymes, text.

which I don’t recall my mother ever reciting as she lulled me to sleep.

Cover, The Burgess Bird Book.

I imagined Thornton Burgess’s The Burgess Bird Book for Children as a reference for budding Audubons. It turned out to be full of twee tales, such as one in which Jenny Wren meets up with Peter Rabbit, who was Beatrix Potter’s intellectual property, right? The pictures by the Dutch-Puerto Rican artist Louis Agassiz Fuertes*** are wonderful, though.

Illustration by Louis Agassiz Fuertes from The Burgess Bird Book for Children.

Illustration by Louis Agassiz Fuertes from The Burgess Bird Book for Children.

Alice Jordan had good things to say about A Chinese Wonder Book by Norman Hinsdale Pitman, illustrated by Li Chu-T’ ang. I was intrigued, especially because Jordan said that Li was Chinese. I loved the illustrations,

Illustration by Li Chu-T' ang, A Chinese Wonder Book.

Illustration by Li Chu-T' ang, A Chinese Wonder Book.

Illustration by Li Chu-T' ang, A Chinese Wonder Book.

but I wondered whether Pitman was one of those people who make up stories and claim they’re foreign folk tales. He turned out, though, to be an American professor who spent many years teaching in China and won several awards from the Chinese government, so presumably he knew what he was talking about.

This is as multicultural as children’s books get in 1919, so I was inclined to declare it my #1 recommendation in this category. To make sure I wasn’t leading you astray, I read one of the tales, “Lu-San, Daughter of Heaven.”

Illustration by Li Chu-T' ang, A Chinese Wonder Book.

What young person wouldn’t relate to the story of a girl whose parents don’t appreciate her (that’s putting it mildly—they’re always trying to sell Lu-San into slavery or kill her) but end up having to kiss her feet and watch as she ascends to heaven on a golden throne? I liked the girl-power theme (Lu-San’s brothers are treated like kings) and the realistic way her parents respond after Lu-San is transformed into a radiant princess and their dingy houseboat into a majestic ship:

At first they did not know how to live as Lu-san had directed. The father sometimes lost his temper and the mother spoke spiteful words; but as they grew in wisdom and courage they soon began to see that only love must rule.

So it’s official: A Chinese Wonder Book is my #1 recommendation.

For Middle-Grade Readers

There is a lot of blurring between these categories; many of the books mentioned above are appropriate for middle-grade readers as well. Here are some selections specifically for this age group.

Or not. Sometimes Moore just makes me scratch my head.

For example, what is Susan Hale’s Nonsense Book doing in a children’s book roundup? That the handwritten limericks are illegible is the best thing that can be said about them.**** Would you read this tale of death by jumping out a window

Illustrated limerick from Nonsense Book by Susan Hale.

or this one of suicide by exposure

Illustrated limerick from Nonsense Tales by Susan Hale.

to your favorite nephew?

Cover, John Martin's Annual, 1917.

Moore pans John Martin’s Big Book for Little Folks, No. 3. I couldn’t find it, but I did find the 1917 volume. It starts out with this poem,

Dedication to a Little Friend from John Martin's Annual, 1917.

which reminds me of the fairy tales that simpering old ladies inflict on the kids in the Edward Eager books (now THERE are some great books for middle-grade readers).

Next up is the world’s least challenging riddle.

Riddle from John Martin Annual, 1917. Answer is rabbits and there are pictures of rabbits.

So I’m on board with Carroll even before she quotes from Martin’s story about Thoreau:

He was so kind! and he was a busy man too. He built his own house. He had a garden. He made lead pencils. He wrote books. Most likely we never did know a busy man who was more kind than he was to everybody—animals and all—children and all. No wonder he became a very famous man.

As we will see below, kindness to animals and fame do not always go hand in hand.

Cover of What Happened to Inger Johanne by Dikken Zwilgmeyer.

Moore describes What Happened to Inger Johanne, a translation of an 1890 book by the Norwegian writer Dikken Zwilgmeyer (UPDATE 12/22/2019: who turns out to be a woman, real name Barbara Hendrikke Wind Daae Zwilgmeyer),  

Cover of Inger Johanne Bokene by Dikken Zwilgmeyer.

as “alive from beginning to end.” It’s a miracle that Inger herself is alive from beginning to end. In the illustrations by Florence Liley Young, she and her friends fall out of a boat,

Illustration by Florence Liley Young from What Happened to Inger Johanne.

get stuck in a barn window when the ladder breaks,

Illustration by Florence Liley Young from What Happened to Inger Johanne.

smash a window with a book,

Illustration by Florence Liley Young from What Happened to Inger Johanne.

and get lost in the woods.

Illustration by Florence Liley Young from What Happened to Inger Johanne.

The chapter on Christmas mumming is less harrowing. My favorite part is where the children speak P-speech, which turns out to be a Norwegian version of Pig Latin. It goes (in the English translation) like this: “Can-pan you-pou talk-palk it-pit?”

A “child of ten”—who I assume is our old friend Edouard from last year’s holiday roundup—says that Inger sounds more like Tom Sawyer than anyone else. I trust Edouard’s judgment, and a girl Tom Sawyer is just the thing. So What Happened to Inger Johanne is my #1 recommendation for middle-school readers.*****

For Older Children

Theodore Roosevelt and sons, from Theodore Roosevelt's Letters to his Children, 1919.

Frontispiece, Theodore Roosevelt’s Letters to His Children

 The children’s book of the season is Theodore Roosevelt’s Letters to his Children. It’s the only unanimous choice on the librarians’ list, and it did sound promising: whatever you think of Roosevelt, he had (according to my childhood reading, anyway) some of the most fun presidential children in history. I was merrily scrolling to get to a letter about Christmas in the White House when I was stopped in my tracks by the words “kill” and “stabbed.” They turned out to be from a 1901 letter to Roosevelt’s twelve-year-old son Theodore III, titled “A Cougar and Lynx Hunt.”  

Theodore Roosevelt with hunting party, Colorado, 1905.

Theodore Roosevelt hunting in Colorado, 1905 (Denver Library Digital Collections)

Theodore (père) is out hunting with his friend Phil in Colorado when their dogs run up a tree after a cougar. Theodore has a clear shot at it, but Phil is taking a picture. The cougar jumps out of the tree, the dogs chase it and get into a big fight, and the cougar

bit or clawed four of them, and for fear that he might kill them I ran in and stabbed him behind the shoulder, thrusting the knife you loaned me right into his heart. I have always wanted to kill a cougar as I did this one, with dogs and the knife.

Banner, Reviews of New Books, Some of the Seasons Best Juvenile Books

After that, I just wasn’t feeling the Christmas in the White House spirit. I decided to move on to Literary Digest and “Some of the Seasons [sic] Best Juvenile Books.”

Title page and frontispiece of Full-Back Foster by Ralph Henry Barbour.

Full-Back Foster by Ralph Henry Barbour: “Describes how a ‘sissy’ is turned into a most serviceable full-back.”

Pass!

Cover, The Boys' Airplane Book, A. Frederick Collins.

The Boys’ Airplane Book by A. Frederick Collins. “It…behooves all ambitious boys to know the mechanism of the airplane, and to be able to construct one which not only will fly but will carry a human passenger….One feels that it would be impossible to go astray under such guidance.”

One would just as soon not test this theory. Pass!

Cover, Uncle Sam: Fighter, William Atherton DuPuy.

Uncle Sam: Fighter by William Atherton DuPuy. “Describes graphically how we prepared our draft army in the recent war, and how we mobilized our energies efficiently for the most expeditious service to ourselves and our allies. Navy purchases, railroad administration, the minimizing of waste…”

Yawn! And all lies—the U.S. war mobilization was totally inept. Pass!

Title Page, Daddy Pat of the Marines, Lt. Col. Frank E. Evans.

Daddy Pat of the Marines by Lieut. Col Frank E. Evans (U.S.M.C.) “Even the six-year-olds must have their war books.”

Begins thus:

Text from Daddy Pat of the Marines referring to "the old Kaiser and his long-legged rat face son."

 Pass!

Illustration, Rosemary Greenaway.

Rosemary Greenaway by Joslyn Gray. “The sentimental spirit which pervades this story will be liked by a certain type of girl reader.”

Pass!

Cover, The Heart of Pinocchio, Collodi Nipote.

The Heart of Pinocchio by Collodi Nipote. The author of the original Pinocchio “is dead, but fortunately another member of the Lorenzini family has skillfully introduced Pinocchio into a story of war.”

Pass!

Cover, Joan of Arc, Laura E. Richards.

Joan of Arc by Laura E. Richards. “She has entered more thoroughly into the historical aspects of her heroine than most writers for girls and boys; her sources are carefully noted throughout.”

I’ll stick with Mark Twain. Pass!

These are the best juvenile books? I’d hate to see the worst.

Cover of Hans Brinker or the Silver Skates, illustrated by Maginel Wright Enright.

Then I checked out a new edition of Mary Mapes Dodge’s 1865 children’s classic Hans Brinker, or, The Silver Skates, described by Elementary School Journal as a “beautiful gift ed.”

I had thought of Hans Brinker as a middle-grade book. The story turns out to be more harrowing than I imagined, though, with an amnesiac father and a doctor with a dead wife and a missing son. There’s also a scene in which someone draws a knife across a robber’s throat and threatens to kill him. Weary of violence by now, I almost disqualified it. But it has ice skating! And wooden shoes! And the Festival of Saint Nicholas, during which Dutch children become “half wild with joy and expectation”! And tulips! (A footnote about tulip mania quotes from Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds.****** You can’t accuse Dodge of talking down to children.)

Not to mention the wonderful new illustrations by Maginel Wright Enright, who turns out to be the sister of Frank Lloyd Wright and the mother of children’s writer Elizabeth Enright, author of Gone-Away Lake and The Four-Story Mistake.

Maginel Wright Enright illustration, Hans Brinker, people skating on canal.

Maginel Wright Enright illustration, Hans Brinker, people around table.

Maginel Wright Enright illustration, Hans Brinker, people standing next to house.

So, finally, a book to recommend to older readers!

Not all children are alike, though. What to give to the kind of child (often a boy) who would open a book, even one as amazing as Hans Brinker, with a wan thank you and a sigh?

Cover, American Boys' Book of Signs, Signals and Symbols, by Daniel Beard.

Well, you (and he) are in luck! There’s American Boys’ Book of Signs, Signals and Symbols, by Daniel Carter “Uncle Dan” Beard, a founding figure in American Boy Scouting.******* According to Elementary School Reader, it

explains simply all kinds of signs including danger signs, trail signs, signs of the elements, secret writing, gesture signals, deaf and dumb alphabet, signal codes, railway signals, hobo and Indian signs, and Boy Scout signs and signals.

This book is guaranteed to have your child running outside as soon as the presents are opened to set trail signs and communicate with his friends in steamer toot talk.

Signs from American Boys' Book of Signs, Signals, and Symbols.

Automobile signs from American Boys' Book of Signs, Signals, and Symbols.

Illustration from American Boys' Book of Signs, Signals, and Symbols.

(Be forewarned that the book includes swastika-like symbols and hobo signs to note the presence of “white, yellow, red, and black men,” along with some discussion of American Indians that, while intended to be respectful, wouldn’t pass muster today.)

So that’s it—a gift for every kid on our list.

Oh, wait! What about that dreamy teenaged girl who’s longing for a good book to curl up with while her siblings are outside drawing hobo signs?

Henri Matisse, Young Woman in the Garden, 1919.

Henri Matisse, Young Woman in the Garden, 1919

Betty Bell by Fannie Kilbourne sounded promising at first. Moore describes it as “a very readable, thoroughly sophisticated, and well written analysis of a cross-section of Betty Bell at sixteen.” She warns, however, that “we do not recommend the book for children’s reading. In the libraries its title would immediately attract girls from ten to twelve whose mothers would object to it.”

Naturally I immediately downloaded it and started skimming to find the objectionable parts. The book is indeed an exceptionally accurate description of what goes on in an adolescent girl’s brain, but I was soon reminded that inside an adolescent girl’s brain is not a place anyone except the owner of that particular brain would want to spend much time.

Page from Betty Bell by Frances Kilbourne, with "kiss" highlighted eight times.

Our dreamy young woman would think Betty was an idiot.********

Frontispiece of The Pool of Stars, illustration by Edward C. Caswell.

Frontispiece of The Pool of Stars, Edward C. Caswell

There was a lot of buzz around The Pool of Stars by Cornelia Meigs, which Moore calls “a very well-written story.” I remembered Meigs from those lists of Newbery Award winners they were always inflicting on us in elementary school,********* so I spent an hour reading it on my Kindle.

Betsey, our heroine, is agonizing as the book begins about whether to go to college next year or go to Bermuda with her rich aunt, which would (for reasons that are not explained) permanently put the kibosh on college. Studying is so EXHAUSTING, Betsey keeps thinking. All those geometrical shapes and Barbary pirates! I’d rather go to the beach!

I’m starting to suspect that Betsey is not a true intellectual.

She does decide to go to college, though, and spends the rest of the book pondering the mystery of why a young woman living nearby always looks so sad. I. DO. NOT. CARE., I kept saying, before finally giving up.

Cover of Rainbow Valley, Anne of Green Gables No. 7, L.M. Montgomery.

There’s also Rainbow Valley, the fifth volume in L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables series. (Now it’s considered the seventh, but two volumes covering earlier parts of Anne’s life were published in the 1930s.) It didn’t appear on any of the best-of-1919 lists, maybe because it was published late in the year, but, hey, it’s Anne of Green Gables, right?

Except that Anne has, in the two years since Anne’s House of Dreams was published, somehow been transformed from a newlywed (and, by the end of the book, mother of two) to a mother of six who spends all her time thinking about the problems of the town’s new minister.**********

Note to children’s authors: happy newlyweds are one thing, but mothers of six are (to young girls) just squalid.

So what to give to our dreamy girl? In desperation I turned to H.L. Mencken, even though I knew perfectly well that books for girls are not his thing.

And there, miraculously, it was, in a November 1919 Smart Set article called “Novels for Indian Summer.”

Cover of Smart Set, November 1919.

The best of them, and by long odds, is “The Moon and Sixpence” by W. Somerset Maugham,

Mencken begins.

It has good design; it moves and breathes; it has a fine manner; it is packed with artful and effective phrases. But better than all this, it is a book which tackles head-on one of the hardest problems that the practical novelist ever has to deal with, and which solves it in a way that is both sure-handed and brilliant. This is the problem of putting a man of genius into a story in such fashion that he will seem real—in such fashion that the miracle of him will not blow up the plausibility of him.

The Moon and Sixpence is the story of Charles Strickland, a middle-aged British stockbroker who abandons his family and goes to Paris and then to Tahiti to pursue his dream of becoming a great artist. He succeeds (the story is based loosely on the life of Paul Gaugin), but at a tremendous cost to those around him, and, ultimately, himself.

Sacred Spring, Paul Gauguin, 1894.

Sacred Spring, Paul Gauguin, 1894.

Really? you may be thinking. Your top recommendation for a dreamy teenaged girl is about an egocentric middle-aged stockbroker? Based on the life of a painter who was so reprehensible, even by the standards of 19th-century painters, that the New York Times ran an article last month headlined, “Is It Time Gaugin Got Cancelled?”

All I can tell you is this: I was that dreamy girl, and I loved The Moon and Sixpence.

Happy holiday reading, everyone!

squiggle

*I pictured Moore and Jordan as bitter enemies, but Moore turns out to have described Jordan as the best librarian-reviewer, which is especially gracious considering that Moore invented the profession.

**Moore mentions, apropos of nothing, that Smith also designed the color poster for Children’s Book Week in 1919, which, as I’ve mentioned, is the first time Children’s Book week was celebrated.

Children's Book Week Poster, 1919, Jessie Willcox Smith, children with bookshelf.

***Fuertes (who was only named after, not related to, famed but racist naturalist Louis Agassiz) was one of the most prolific bird illustrators of his time. Two bird species were named after him, including the Fuertes’s parrot, which is now critically endangered.

Illustration of Fuertes parrot from American Museum Journal, 1918.

American Museum Journal, 1918

****Hale’s brother Edward Everett Hale of “The Man Without A Country” fame clearly got all the literary talent in the family.

*****Note to Norwegian readers (okay, reader): Is this book still famous? And is P-speech an actual thing?

******Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds was written by Charles Mackay, the father of our old friend Marie Corelli.

*******Beard was the founder of the Sons of Daniel Boone, which merged into the Boy Scouts in 1910.

Ernest Thompson Seton, Robert Baden-Powell, and Dan Beard, date unknown.

Ernest Thompson Seton, Robert Baden-Powell, and Dan Beard, date unknown

********Much in the way I couldn’t stand the supposedly universally beloved but, to me, vapid heroine of Judy Blume’s Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret.

*********Meigs won for her 1933 book Invincible Louisa, a biography of Louisa May Alcott.

**********Could this have been related to problems in Montgomery’s own marriage to a depressed minister, who, she complained in her diary in 1924, would stare blankly into space for hours with a “horrible imbecile expression on his face”?

Nobel Prize Laureate Selma Lagerlöf: A Swedish storyteller whose own story couldn’t be told

Hello from Sweden, the land of ubiquitous candy

Candy in a store in Uppsala, Sweden.

and adorable groceries

Swedish groceries.

and clothes made of garbage

H&M label for pants made of recycled household waste.

and quaint swear words (“Devil!”)!

I’m spending September in Uppsala, half an hour outside Stockholm. The town is home to a 500-year-old university, so history is ever-present.

Sketch of Gustavianum at Uppsala University by Gustaf Johan Härstedt

Gustavianum, Uppsala University, Gustaf Johan Härstedt, ca. 1800

To get a sense of what was happening in Sweden a century ago, a relative blip in this ancient town, I turned to my trusty Reader’s Guide to Periodical Literature, 1915-1918. It pointed me in the direction of an article in the February 1918 issue of the women’s magazine The Delineator called “Women All Too Womanly – In Sweden.” The problem with Swedish women, it turns out, is that they’re not sparkling enough in society. They walk behind their husbands all self-effacing like this

Illustration of a Swedish woman entering a hotel behind her husband.

Rea Irvin, The Delineator, February 1918

instead of making a grand entrance like this

Illustration of a woman in an evening gown entering a room.

Rea Irvin, The Delineator, February 1918

and enchanting their dinner companions with bon mots.*

Not being convinced that skin exposure = emancipation, I decided to look elsewhere for insights into ca. 1919 Swedish women.** An article in the April 1915 issue of the children’s magazine St. Nicholas called “Selma Lagerlöf, Swedish Genius” seemed like just the ticket.

Portrait photograph of Selma Lagerlof, ca. 1915.

Selma Lagerlöf, St. Nicholas magazine, April 1915 (Brown Bros.)

Lagerlöf, I learned, was born in 1858 and grew up on an estate called Mårbacka in west central Sweden. A semi-invalid as a child, she sat at home listening to visitors’ stories while her siblings played outdoors. She heard about wolves chasing sea captains across the snow and the Devil*** paying social visits, rocking in a rocking chair while the lady of the house played the piano.

Portrait photograph of Selma Lagerlof, 1881.

Selma Lagerlöf, 1881

The family experienced financial setbacks that eventually forced them to sell Mårbacka, and  Lagerlöf set off for Stockholm to study teaching. While she was there, she started writing down those childhood tales. In 1891 she published her first novel, Gösta Berling’s Saga. It’s the fantastical story of a Lutheran minister who is sacked for drinking and carousing, takes up with a group of eccentric vagrants, and eventually comes to see the error of his ways.**** “And in less time that it takes to get around it,” St. Nicholas tells us, “the world hailed the writer as a genius.” Other novels, and other accolades, followed.

Like, for example, the Nobel Prize in Literature, which Lagerlöf won in 1909, beating out other contenders such as Leo Tolstoy and Mark Twain, both of whom died the next year. She was the first woman to be awarded the prize.

Illustration of Selma Lagerlöf receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature from King Gustav V.

Selma Lagerlöf receiving the Nobel Prize from King Gustav V (Svenska Dagbladet, December 11, 1909)

If you’re thinking something sounds off here, there are a few things you need to know about the early days of the literature Nobel, which was first awarded in 1901. One is that writers from the Nordic countries had a distinct home field advantage, winning seven of the first 18 awards.*****

Also, the award in its early days bore the stamp of the Swedish Academy’s conservative permanent secretary, poet Carl David af Wirsén, who thought Nobelists should display “a lofty and sound idealism.” This, in his mind, disqualified not only Tolstoy and Twain but writers closer to home such as playwrights Henrick Ibsen of Norway and August Strindberg of Sweden.******

Photograph of Carl David af Wirsén with signature, 1877.

J. Wolf (from Literärt album, 1877)

And also, for a while, Selma Lagerlöf, whose characters, redeemed in the end or not, weren’t wholesome enough for af Wirsén’s liking. Whenever her name came up as a possible Nobelist, he would put forward other candidates, sometimes equally “unwholesome” writers who at least weren’t Swedish. But his fellow Swedish Academy members finally had their way in 1909, leaving af Wirsén a broken man.******* He died in 1912.

With her Nobel Prize money ($40,000, St. Nicholas informs us), Lagerlöf bought back Mårbacka, where she lived for the rest of her life.

Selma Lagerlof at her desk in her library in Marbacka.

Selma Lagerlöf at Mårbacka (Dan Gunner, date unknown)

St. Nicholas tells us that

With all her fame and fortune, Selma Lagerlöf remains the pleasant, unpretentious, fun-loving, kind-hearted woman of her school-teacher days. She has never married, and, since she is now about fifty-six years old, she will probably remain a spinster. But her friends are thick as the leaves in her beloved forest in full summer.

A spinster! Fun-loving! Friends thick as leaves in the forest! What could this mean? Having been through this before, I had my suspicions. I Googled “Selma Lagerlöf lesbian,” and the true story of her life emerged.

Portrait photograph of Sophie Elkan, ca. 1893.

Sophie Elkan, ca. 1893

A few years after the publication of Gösta Berling’s Saga, Lagerlöf met fellow writer Sophie Elkan, who became her lifetime friend and companion. The daughter of German Jewish immigrants, Elkan had lost her husband and only daughter to tuberculosis in 1879, and she dressed in mourning for the rest of her life.

Lagerlöf, apparently, was smitten from the beginning. At their first meeting, she lifted up Elkan’s widow’s veil, unbidden, and said, “You are very beautiful. I know we will become friends.” In a letter to Elkan, she wrote,

These kisses of yours that you convey in your letters, they are a great puzzlement to me. How am I to understand such merchandise? Are they promissory notes, or ‘samples without value’? Are such debts to be repaid in rooms milling with people, or in the greenhouse at Nääs?…In Copenhagen I see so many relationships between women that I must try to comprehend in my own mind what Nature’s intention is with this.********

Posed photograph of Selma Lagerlof leaning against Sophie Elkan.

Selma Lagerlöf and Sophie Elkan, date unknown

Lagerlöf’s desire for physical intimacy seems to have been unrequited, though. In a letter written before a planned meeting, Elkan wrote, “Hands off!”

Still, the two remained devoted friends, traveling together to Italy and to Egypt and Palestine, the setting for Lagerlöf’s successful novel Jerusalem, which was published in parts in 1901 and 1902, with this dedication:

To Sophie Elkan, my comrade in life and literature

In 1902, Lagerlöf met Valborg Olander, an educator and suffragist, and the two began a passionate affair. Life became complicated. Elkan may not have wanted a physical relationship with Lagerlöf, but that doesn’t mean she wanted someone else filling this void.

Swedish educator and activist Valborg Olander.

Valborg Olander, date unknown

Jealousy and subterfuge ensued. Olander’s letters brimmed with passion, and Lagerlöf apparently destroyed many of them so that Elkan wouldn’t find them. Her own letters to Olander were equally ardent. “Every time you are here, I try to kiss you so I can be happy for a few days, but I long for you even before you are out of the gate,” she wrote in July 1902. In another letter, she expressed the wish that Olander would stay overnight—“that would be divine.”

Elkan grew desperate, writing, “Oh dear, you won’t take Valborg—is it Valborg?—instead of me, will you?”

Selma Lagerlöf and Valborg Olander in the 1930s.

Selma Lagerlöf and Valborg Olander, 1930s (Skodsborg Badesanatorium, Copenhagen)

Olander became deeply involved in Lagerlöf’s literary affairs as well, and Lagerlöf wrote to her saying that “you are becoming a real writer’s wife.” Eventually the trio reached an uneasy peace, which lasted until Elkan’s death of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1921.

Lagerlöf remained devoted to Elkan after her death. Toward the end of her life, she started writing down the stories that Elkan had told her about growing up as a Jewish girl in Sweden, thinking of tales of Vikings and kings as her own heritage until a schoolmate mimed a long nose and said, “Jew kid!” Lagerlöf never finished the project, but the stories she completed were published after her death, in 1940, at the age of 80.

I’ve found Lagerlöf’s books on sale at every bookstore I’ve visited in Sweden,

Books by Selma Lagerlof on a bookshelf.

Akademibokhandeln, Uppsala

but beyond her native country she’s a literary footnote, a hometown favorite who won the Nobel in the years before the award broadened its geographic and literary horizons. If she were alive today, she wouldn’t be a contender. On the other hand, if she were alive today, she would be able to live her life openly, and with pride.

Carlonia Rediviva, Uppsala, with pride flags

Carolina Rediviva, Uppsala

*The illustrations are by future New Yorker cartoonist Rea Irvin.

**In fairness, the writer of the article, American suffragist Frances Maule Björkman, does end up with a more nuanced view of Swedish women, who turn out to have not the slightest interest in sparkling in society but interesting things to say under other circumstances.

Photograph of Frances Maule Bjorkman with a suffragist banner.

R.C. Beadle, A.H. Brown, and Frances Björkman, 1913 (Bain News Service)

***Oops, sorry, I mean the Evil One.

****It was Greta Garbo’s performance in the 1924 film adaptation of this novel that brought her to the attention of Louis B. Mayer and launched her American career. You can watch some scenes from the film, with commentary, in this interesting five-minute clip.

Greta Garbo in Gösta Berlings saga

*****This was partly because, during most of World War I, the prize was awarded only to writers from non-combatant countries. To this day, only France, the United Kingdom, and the United States have more literature Nobelists than Sweden, which is tied with Germany at eight.

******The Nobel Prize website fesses up to the errors of its ways: “As to the early prizes, the censure of bad choices and blatant omissions is often justified.”

*******Or, as a vivid if probably not very accurate Google Translate translation from this essay in Upsala Nya Tydning puts it, “a lonely and isolated loser.”

********This translation is from a fascinating article called “Selma and her Lovers” in the June 2007 issue of Scanorama, the SAS inflight magazine (!). Other translations are mine, with the help of Google Translate.