Happy 100 posts to My Year in 1918!* In the blog world, this milestone is traditionally celebrated by indulging in some navel-gazing. So I thought it would be a good time to finally sit down for an interview with 2017 Mary Grace, who had some questions for her post-2018 self. 2017 Mary Grace expected that this interview would take place around New Year’s, but 2019 Mary Grace kept dragging her feet. Once she finally sat down with 2017 Mary Grace, though, she was quite chatty.
Tell me about your favorites among the writers you discovered, the books you read, and your other reading.
I read some great books by famous writers, like O Pioneers! and My Ántonia by Willa Cather and The Voyage Out by Virginia Woolf. But, as much as I loved these books, I had more fun discovering books that are forgotten today. One that I’ve recommended over and over is Edna Ferber’s 1912 short story collection Buttered Side Down. Ferber is best known today for the theater and film adaptations of her books, like Showboat and Giant. I wish her book themselves were more widely read. She’s funny and entertaining and empathetic toward her mostly working-class characters.
Among magazines, the biggest revelation was The Crisis, the NAACP magazine edited by W.E.B. Du Bois. It was the only national publication for African-Americans, who were non-existent in the mainstream press except as racist stereotypes. Du Bois was unsparing in covering lynching, discrimination, and other racial injustices, but the magazine also included poems and short stories and news items about achievements by African-Americans, such as 20-year-old college football star/singer Paul Robeson. And cute babies!
Another highlight was reading T.S. Eliot’s monthly literary criticism in The Egoist, the small British magazine where he served as literary editor. I’d never thought of Eliot as funny, but he wrote some hilarious takedowns of well-known writers (often under a pen name). My favorite, on G.K. Chesterton: “Mr. Chesterton’s brain swarms with ideas; I see no evidence that it thinks.”
What were your least favorites?
Hands down, my least favorite book was In Defense of Women by H.L. Mencken. It’s 218 pages of essentialist garbage: men are dreamy romantics and women are hard-headed pragmatists, too sensible to care about ridiculous pastimes like politics or to bother with the picayune details of the typical male job. That’s why more women aren’t lawyers, he says. Oh, that’s why. Mencken does take aim against some Victorian shibboleths, like the myth that women don’t enjoy sex. On the whole, though, it was infuriating, and I was glad to learn that the 1918 edition sold fewer than 900 copies. (A significantly revised edition published in 1922 did much better.)
The New York Times was surprisingly awful. Domestic news coverage was all right, but, aside from a few war reporters, the best known of whom (Phillip Gibbs) wrote primarily for British papers, there was virtually zero foreign news coverage, and much of it—especially about Russia—was highly inaccurate. The czar and his family were repeatedly reported killed when they were still alive and reported alive when they were dead. And there were some shockingly right-wing editorials, like the one saying that German accusations of American racism were unfounded because Americans are very patient with their black servants.
My go-to hate read was The Art World. The magazine detested all art from Impressionism on, which, as I’ve mentioned, was as reactionary for its time as saying today that rock and roll is just a bunch of noise. This caption to an illustration of a Cézanne painting was typical.
I kind of missed The Art World’s crazy rants when, in mid-1918, it merged into a décor magazine.
Were there any forgotten books or writers that readers of today might enjoy?
I’ve mentioned Ferber as an unjustly neglected writer. I also read a number of books that were a huge amount of fun without reaching that level of literary merit. One was Bab: A Sub-Deb, by Mary Roberts Rinehart. It’s a comic novel, told in the first person, about the hapless 17-year-old daughter of an upper-crust New York family. She’s always getting into scrapes, like when she buys a frame with the photograph of a young man in it and claims that it’s her boyfriend to shock her family, but then the man in the photograph shows up, full of endearments! Rinehart is better known today as a mystery writer, but Bab: A Sub-Deb was a huge popular and critical hit when it was published in 1917.
Another very funny book, also about a young upper-class New York woman, was Hermione and Her Little Group of Serious Thinkers, a collection of newspaper pieces by Don Marquis, best known today as the creator of the cockroach-and-cat duo Archy and Mehitabel. Hermione and her little group “take up” every fad and fashionable cause—suffrage, clairvoyance, Indian philosophy, modernist poetry, etc.—and drop them just as quickly. Here’s a typical rumination of Hermione’s:
This war is going to have a tremendous influence on Art—vitalize it, you know, and make it real, and all that sort of thing. In fact, it’s doing it already. We took up the war last night—our Little Group of Advanced Thinkers, you know—in quite a serious way and considered it thoroughly in all its aspects and we decided that it would put more soul into Art.
And into life, you know.
What was your most surprising discovery?
I knew about the prevalence of eugenic thought—the belief in the purification of society through selective breeding—but I thought of it as a right-wing philosophy. So I was shocked to learn that it was embraced by progressives, including a lot of people I otherwise admire, like Daddy-Long-Legs author Jean Webster, a socialist. In Dear Enemy, the (deservedly) less well-known sequel to Daddy-Long-Legs, Sallie McBride (Daddy-Long-Legs heroine Judy’s best friend from college, who is now running the orphan asylum where Judy grew up) writes to the asylum’s doctor as follows:
You know, I’m tempted to ask you to prescribe arsenic for Loretta’s cold. I’ve diagnosed her case: she’s a Kallikak. Is it right to let her grow up and found a line of 378 feeble-minded people for society to care for? Oh dear! I do hate to poison the child, but what can I do?
On a lighter note, I always thought of 1918 as a time when the modernists (the good guys) were facing off against the Victorians (the villains). There is truth to this, but a lot of modernist art and writing was just plain stupid. The 1917 collection Others: An Anthology of the New Verse, edited by Alfred Kreymborg, included verse by T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, and Carl Sandburg, but there was also this poem by Walter Conrad Arensberg:**
Ahead of its time? Definitely. In a good way? I don’t think so.
What was the most difficult part of the project? What did you miss the most?
I thought it would be hard to set aside the light but well-written contemporary fiction that I turn to for comfort reads—writers like Elinor Lipman, Stephen McCauley, and Meg Wolitzer—but I found so much fun 1918 reading that this wasn’t much of an issue. What I did miss was the journalistic entertainment that we take for granted—advice columns, quizzes, humor pieces, crossword puzzles and the like. With a few exceptions, like Dorothy Parker’s writing for Vanity Fair and Harvey Wiley’s Good Housekeeping column Dr. Wiley’s Question-Box, that type of thing just didn’t exist. (Three was humor, but for the most part it wasn’t funny.)
What was the most fun part?
I loved writing the Best and Worst posts. It was fun to discover excellent writing, ads, and magazine cover art. Finding the worsts was even more fun. I’ll take the opportunity here to show this Life magazine cover, which I missed at the time but now belatedly crown the Worst Magazine Cover of 1918.
What did you learn about the world of 1918? What did 1918 teach you about the world we live in today?
One of my biggest takeaways was how central the role of social class was in 1918. We talk now—and rightly so—about the dangers of rising inequality, but back then social class (along with gender, race and ethnicity) determined every aspect of your life, from what you wore to who you married. In one story I read—I can’t remember what it was—an upper-class man is walking in the city and he gets depressed because, after an hour, he hasn’t seen another gentleman. It struck me as extraordinary that he could identify people’s social class with a single glance.
Someone asked me what would surprise a 1918 person who was transported to 2018 the most. I said they’d be astonished by how casually dressed most people are, and how similarly men and women dress. There are good and bad things about this—I sigh over 1918 clothes—but clothing as a marker of social class doesn’t exist in the same way anymore (leaving aside work uniforms like suits and ties).
Over the course of the project, I became much more appreciative of the world we live in today. Despite its many problems, it’s a vastly better place than the world of a hundred years ago. Of course, we’re the beneficiaries of hard-won victories by previous generations of activists on civil rights, women’s rights, and expanded educational opportunities. We need to fight just as hard as they did to ensure that we leave behind a better world than the one we inherited. Here, my views aren’t quite so rosy, particularly when it comes to climate change.
What did you learn about being a blogger?
A while back, I read a post by a successful blogger about increasing viewer traffic. The key, he said, is to write about the same things that everyone else is writing about because that’s what people want to read. Don’t think you can write about a niche topic and find your audience, he said—it’s not going to happen.
I’m glad I didn’t see this post when was starting out, because it would have discouraged me. And he’s wrong—I did find my audience. It might be small by his standards, and, sure, it can be frustrating to happen upon a blog post that says something like “I was kind of tired but I had some coffee and now I feel better” and see that it has 117 likes. But I can’t think of any other area of life with so few barriers to getting your voice heard and becoming part of a community. I’m not a historian, or an expert on 1918, but I had something to say, and people listened. That’s a wonderful thing.
How has your year in 1918 affected your reading life?
As I’ve mentioned, I had a rocky transition at the beginning of 2019, similar to the reverse culture shock I used to experience when I got back to the United States from a diplomatic posting. It took me several weeks to go back to reading contemporary books and news. Now that I have, I’ve become fussier about what I read. Everything I read in 2018 had a larger purpose as part of the project, and I try to bring a similar sense of purpose into my reading now. I read less day-to-day news and more explanatory journalism. I read less journalism in general, for that matter, and more poetry. And I’m more tenacious about sticking with challenging reading, like this 800-page French book that I started four years ago and am finally close to finishing.
That said, I’m only human. The day I got back from my recent trip to Ethiopia, having taken six plane flights in eight days, I read five articles (here’s one) about how the cast of Crazy Rich Asians owned the red carpet at the Oscars.
Who was your most admired figure from 1918? Your least admired?
For Thanksgiving, I wrote a post on 10 1918 People I’m Thankful For. Of these ten, I’d say that Jane Addams and W.E.B. Du Bois are my most admired.
There were lots of villains. One of the worst is Senator James Vardaman of Mississippi. He was known as “the Great White Chief” and lived up to this moniker with comments like “the only effect of Negro education is to spoil a good field hand and make an insolent cook.” He was defeated in the Democratic primary when seeking a second term in 1918. Not for being a racist, though—it was because he had voted against the U.S. entry into World War I. The New York Times had this to say after his defeat: “Was he the victim of his own singularity, grown megalomaniacal, or did he simply overestimate the hillbilliness of his state?”***
What did you learn about marginalized voices from 1918?
I learned that the word “marginalized” barely does justice to how African-American writers and members of other racial and religious minorities were treated in literature. “Erased” would be a better word. Jewish immigrant writers were starting to appear, though, and I read two fascinating memoirs by Lower East Side textile workers—One of Them by Elizabeth Hasanovitz (whom I wrote about here and here) and An American in the Making by Marcus Eli Ravage. Along with Edna Ferber’s short stories, Ravage’s memoir is the forgotten book I most enthusiastically recommend to readers today.
Is there anything you wish you had done that you didn’t have a chance to?
So many things!!! I didn’t listen to much 1918 music or watch 1918 movies except one short one. I totally fell down on the job when it came to 1918 cooking, partly because wartime food restrictions made for awful-sounding recipes. And I didn’t spend a day wearing a corset, as I planned to.
How does 1918 writing compare to today’s writing? What was better? What was worse?
Short stories were big business in 1918, but, aside from Edna Ferber’s, they were terrible. I bought The Best Short Stories of 1918 but didn’t make it through a single one. A critic at the time complained that everyone was trying to be O. Henry, and he was right.
On the other hand, it was a golden age of poetry. Poets like T.S. Eliot and William Carlos Williams and Marianne Moore and Louise Bogan were just starting their careers. (Yeats was more established.) Of course, there was a lot of terrible poetry too. Sadly, I haven’t been able to find the worst poem I read, toward the beginning of the year. It was about little baby Judas’s mommy wondering why he was so tormented.
As far as fiction goes, Ulysses appeared in print for the first time, serialized in The Little Review, and My Ántonia was published. In non-fiction, Eminent Victorians and The Education of Henry Adams transformed how biography and memoir are written. All in all, I doubt 2018 will leave as great a mark in literary history.
What were some of the underlying, unquestioned assumptions that you found? How does that shed light on the underlying assumptions that we might hold today?
People = men was a big one. It wasn’t just the generic use of “men” to mean human beings. Writers defaulted to the assumption that their readers were men and that, basically, anyone who did anything of any importance would be a man. This was hard-wired into the language.
It’s not possible to know which of our current unquestioned assumptions will seem as antiquated in a hundred years (if it were, they wouldn’t be unquestioned), but I’m constantly thinking about what they might be. There was a New York Times essay on this topic early this year that I found fascinating.
Did you cheat? How, and how often?
I went into the project with some unrealistic plans that went by the wayside almost immediately. The original idea was that I wouldn’t read anything contemporary at all, other than the minimum required to be a good citizen (information about candidates in the midterm elections, for instance).
Then, on January 3, I read an article in the New York Times about the British writer Marie Corelli being arrested for hoarding sugar. I had never heard of Corelli, and I realized that I wouldn’t be able to write about her without doing some research. I looked her up on Wikipedia and discovered that she was one of the best-selling writers of her day, that she was the illegitimate daughter of the author of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, which I had heard of, and that she was probably a lesbian. Fortuitously, she had written a totally bonkers article about eugenics in the January 1918 issue of Good Housekeeping, so I wrote about that too. The small amount of background reading I did made the story a much richer one, and it ended up as one of my top 10 posts of the year.
From then on, my rule was that I’d treat research the way Catholics treat lustful thoughts—they’re inevitable, but don’t dwell on them. I’d go to (usually) Wikipedia, get the information I needed, and get out quickly.
Once the guidelines were set, I was pretty good about sticking to them. I got news alerts on my iPad, so I knew what was in the headlines. If a news event was important enough that I felt I needed to know about it (like the Trump-Putin summit, the Kavanaugh hearings, and the midterm election results) I’d read an article about it—just one. No editorials, op-eds, or features. I did make some exceptions: I read blogs because it was only fair since I wanted people to read my blog; I read a few articles written by friends from my MFA program, like this one; and I exchanged fiction writing with a few friends. That’s about it. 99% of my reading was from 1918.
Did you come across any interesting (contemporary) people over the course of the project?
Yes, I did. I’ve mentioned some of them before: history writer Pamela Toler, whose new book Women Warriors: An Unexpected History is waiting for me in Washington, D.C.; Connie Ruzich, who writes about World War I poets on her blog Behind Their Lines; Ph.D. student Leah Budke, who is researching modernist anthologies; the unnamed person behind the blog Whatever It Is, I’m Against It, who writes every day about what was in the New York Times a hundred years ago; Frank Hudson of The Parlando Project, who writes about poets, many of them from the 1918 era, and puts their words to song; and Sheryl Lazarus of the blog A Hundred Years Ago, who is cooking her way through the 1910s (putting me to shame). More recent discoveries include two wonderful fashion blogs, Femme Fashion Forward, Danielle Morrin’s blog about fashion from 1880 to 1930, and Witness2Fashion, reflections on everyday fashion through the ages . Getting to (virtually) know these people was one of the best parts of the year.
What’s next? Where will you take the project from here?
When I started, I envisioned this as strictly a one-year project. But, although I’m no longer reading only as if I were living in 1918, that period is like a second home to me now and I plan to go back often. So I’ll keep going with my blog, although I won’t post as frequently. At some point I’ll need to figure out what to do about its now out-of-date title!**** (Update 1/11/2020: This blog used to be called My Year in 1918.)
Do you have any advice for anyone considering a project like this?
Do it! I had high hopes for the project, but it was even more rewarding than I expected.
But don’t let it take over your life. Once in a while, particularly during the first half of the year when I kept to a strict three posts a week schedule, I would be working late at night to get a post up, stressing out over picture file size reductions (something I spent way more time on than I could have imagined), and I’d have to remind myself that, hey, it’s just a blog.
Anything else you want to add?
In E.L. Konigsberg’s 1967 children’s classic From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler—one of my favorite books of all time—Claudia Kinkaid, who has run away to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, says that she wants to “come back different.” When I decided to spend a year in 1918, I wanted to come back different, too. But, like Claudia, I didn’t know exactly what this meant.
After my year in 1918, I know that period in a way that no one else in the world does. Not that I know more about it than anyone else–for example, many people were, unlike me, aware that they didn’t have helicopters back then. But no one else, I am sure, has experienced the year in real time as I did. And I have come back different, in ways that I’m still figuring out. It was a remarkable journey, and one I’ll always be glad I made.
Thanks for joining me.
Thanks for having me!
*If you want to get technical, this is actually my 101st post. I spent much of February traveling in Ethiopia and Zanzibar, which was a great way to celebrate Black History Month but not a very good way to write about it. When I got back to Cape Town I had to rush to get out my post on the first book about an African-American child while it was still February. That was my 100th post.
**Don’t feel too sorry for Arensberg. He was very rich and later became a prominent collector of modern art.
***There is a building at the University of Mississippi named after Vardaman. Wikipedia says it was renamed, but as far as I can tell this is in the works but hasn’t happened yet.
****As I was preparing for this blog in 2017, I asked my friend Emily, she of the DietBet, for advice. As a veteran of several location-related blog name changes (her husband is in the Foreign Service), she warned me against choosing a title that would go out of date. But did I listen? No. You were right, Emily! Her blog is now (and forever) named The Next Dinner Party.
New review on the Book List:
February 27: The Education of Henry Adams by Henry Adams (1918) (audiobook).