Home

  • Authors and Alcohol

    Novels often take 2-3 years to write their works. So during the third year of Prohibition in 1922, the New York Times Magazine asked: do writers need alcohol for greatness, and was Prohibition starting to affect the quality of American literature?

    [Sir Arthur] Quiller-Couch asserted boldly that a total abstainer was imperfectly equipped for high literature. [George Bernard] Shaw took violent exception to this statement. He offered Shelley and himself as examples to prove it fallacious. He said, “If Quiller-Couch asserted that alcohol can add a single inch of gray matter to the brain, then I want to know how much he had had when he said it.”

    Altogether, it seemed too good a fight to leave tucked away in England. So a number of American writers have been asked how they felt about it. Hamlin Garland supports Shaw. Irvin S. Cobb and Charles Hanson Towne stand up for Quiller-Couch, each in his characteristic manner. So does Samuel Hopkins Adams, with certain reservations. Gertrude Atherton and Robert Chambers find the issue incapable of a general solution.

    What actually happened was a number of the most prominent American novelists of the Prohibition area avoided the question entirely by becoming expatriates living in Europe, where they could drink to their heart’s content. Notable examples include Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

    As for my personal opinion on whether drinking improves one’s writing? I’m publishing this blog post on a Sunday, after having just performed at a piano bar on Friday and Saturday night… and it’s hard for me to imagine that heavy drinking improves people’s ability to do much of anything cognitive. 

    Authors and Alcohol (PDF)

    Published: Sunday, May 7, 1922

  • From Molière to America

    In 1922, the Western writer and novelist Owen Wister postulated an interesting thesis: that America’s most famous “writers” were not primarily writers at all, not in the way that (for example) Shakespeare was.

    Wister notes that America’s most famous words globally had come from the pens of those like Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and Abraham Lincoln:

    America has produced neither a Molière nor a Shakespeare as yet… If such are to be found at all, I think we shall discover the best of them in pages written by our men of action.

    He who identified lightning with electricity changed science, and his sayings have made the Bonhomme Richard [Poor Richard’s Almanac] remembered. In his day they were translated into almost every tongue, and some still live on the tips of men. He remains our greatest intellect, and he was first and foremost a man of action.

    Then, he who wrote a certain Farewell Address which we count among our few classics, was another man of action. And he who wrote “with malice toward none, with charity for all,” left us in that, as well as in his Gettysburg address, two more classics. Each of those three has written enduring pages more widely known today outside their country, and of more intrinsic weight, than any that I can recall by our men of letters.

    In an interesting tidbit to modern eyes, Wester then references four works of American literature which had achieved some level of international acclaim, three of which are still widely known today — and one of which has been almost completely forgotten.

    It is true that Leatherstockings walked in other lands, that Hester Prynne has made her way beyond English speech, that the gambler of the California mines and the boy on his raft in the Mississippi have voyaged beyond their native shores.

    The first, second, and fourth references were to James Fenimore Cooper’s 1828 The Last of the Mohicans (“Leatherstockings”), Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 The Scarlet Letter (“Hester Prynne”), and Mark Twain’s 1884 Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (“the boy on his raft in the Mississippi”). But what is “the gambler of the California mines”?

    Googling ‘California mines gambler novel,’ the answer appears to be Bret Harte’s 1868 short story The Luck of Roaring Camp, which Wikipedia says “helped push Harte to international prominence.” Maybe at the time, but that’s the one of the four referenced works which has truly faded to obscurity over the years. You never can predict what will last in the cultural zeitgeist.

    From Molière to America (PDF)

    Published: Sunday, April 30, 1922

  • The Woman and the Stick

    In 1922, New York Times Magazine published an opinion column — written by the pseudonymous “A Barbarian Bachelor” — advocating for wife-beating. It seems a safe bet he remained a bachelor for a while after this.

    Woman feels in her natural sphere, and therefore satisfied and happy when she is controlled absolutely by a man. Therefore, for the happiness of both, it it necessary that the man be dominant.

    Outside of all this bunkum about the soul, there is only one way that the superiority of man appeals to woman — and that is physically. To make a woman happy, a man must keep fixed in her mind this physical superiority at all times. The failure of the New York man to do this is resulting in the decadence of the New York woman.

    The way for him to recover his lost position is by the use of the stick.

    By this I mean the actual physical beating of his wife.

    One wonders what the author would think of the NYT’s 2020 Democratic presidential nomination joint endorsement of Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar.

     

    The Woman and the Stick (PDF)

    Published: Sunday, March 26, 1922

  • The Wild West’s Own New York

    What place did New York occupy in the American imagination in 1922?

    This piece by Anne O’Hara McCormick acknowledged it was the highest-population city and the country’s cultural capital, but noted that in a nation so geographically large (and still expanding), it couldn’t dominate the nation as some European countries’ political and/or cultural capitals did.

    We read New York papers. We flock to New York shows. We wear New York clothes. We tremble over New York tickers in our business hours and shake to New York jazz in our hours of ease.

    New York has not, it may be, the charm to evoke emotion in the provinces as do older national metropolises. We do not love New York as the English love London. We are not proud of it as the French are proud of Paris. We do not thrill to it as the Italians thrill to Rome.We do not weep over it as the Austrians weep over Vienna.

    Her article also predicted that New York state was perhaps losing its stronghold in that another metric: producing U.S. presidents. Although there was a period where three out of five consecutive presidents counted New York as their political home state — Chester A. Arthur, Grover Cleveland, and Theodore Roosevelt — by 1922:

    We watch the political spectacle in New York and Philadelphia and Boston and rejoice in our emancipation from the corrupt and stupid civic slavery of the east. We used to resent it, but since we have abandoned the east to its sins, since we have chosen four out of the last five presidents of the United States from small towns and three from Ohio, since we have enthroned the small town in the Senate and in the White House, and have given Congress over to the west.

    She was wrong: New York’s own Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected 10 years later. As for Ohio, it actually hasn’t produced a president since the incumbent in 1922: Warren G. Harding.

    As for the last five presidents, they’ve really hailed from all over the map: Arkansas, Texas, Illinois, New York, and Delaware.

    The Wild West’s Own New York (PDF)

    Published: Sunday, March 5, 1922

  • Our All-American Aliens

    From 1907 to 1931, an American woman would lose her citizenship if she married a non-American man, taking the husband’s nationality instead — even if she’d never visited the country in question or spoke the language.

    This 1922 New York Times Magazine article explained the situation: 

    Few people realize that there is in this country a group of individuals born here of native stock, many of whom have never left the shores of the U.S.A., even for a Cook’s tour, and who are, nevertheless, aliens. They are classified as such in the census returns. They cannot vote. They cannot take the civil service examinations. They cannot fill municipal, state, or federal positions. If they left this country it might be difficult for them to return. Some of them may not have moved from the village of their birth. They are indeed as American as the president himself, and yet overnight they have become German, Austrian, English, Russian, Italian, French, or Swedish.

    No similar rules applied vice versa to American men who married non-citizen women.

    Although the Supreme Court upheld the law’s constitutionality in 1915’s MacKenzie v. Hare, after women gained the right to vote nationwide in 1920, the loss of citizenship was being felt more acutely. In September 1922, a few months after this February 1922 article, Congress enacted the Cable Act which partially reversed the rules, though still leaving several exemptions in place allowing some married women to lose their U.S. citizenship upon marrying a foreigner. The law would be fully overturned in 1931.

     

    Our All-American Aliens (PDF)

    Published: Sunday, February 26, 1922

  • Putting the Music Into the Jazz

    In 1922, bandleaders like Paul Whitehead were transforming jazz from an art form some considered unrefined, into more classical-infused symphonic jazz like Rhapsody in Blue, the iconic piece Whitehead commissioned two years later.

    Racial subtext was at play here, with “unrefined” and “refined” often serving as euphemisms for what was really going on: jazz originated in the black community and was altered to become more amenable to white sensibilities. As this 1922 New York Times Magazine article explained:

    Jazz was offensive to the trained musical ear. The new dance music does not produce discords, because it is constructed in accordance with the laws of harmony. It might be called good music in slang — as O. Henry was good literature in slang.

    Suddenly the flexible saxophone supplies a gay note of humor — but there is no tossing of instruments in the air. Nobody calls “O Boy!” Instead, color and contrast and rhythm are playing on the senses of the dancers by the perfectly good scientific rules of music.

    Just speaking for myself, I would rather see the performance in which musicians tossed their instruments in the air.

     

    Putting the Music Into the Jazz (PDF)

    Published: Sunday, February 19, 2022

  • The Old Pope and Papal Prestige

    In February 1922, there was a new pope: Pius XI. The man born Ambrogio Damiano Achille Ratti would serve for 17 years and lead Vatican City’s creation as a sovereign state in 1929, separate from Italy.

    This New York Times Magazine article wrote in February 1922 of the new pope, comparing and contrasting him with his just-deceased predecessor:

    Benedict was less understood but better liked than Pius. In a Roman society, both ecclesiastical and secular, that loves a diplomat better than anything on earth, and an aristocrat next to a diplomat, the combination of the two is irresistible! Yet Rome, outside of the officials of his household, knew no more of the Pope than New York knew of him. He was more retiring than Popes must be by the restrictions of circumstance, but he went about his business — his business of knowing this rent and ragged world, of patching it up and drawing the seams together by small stitches wherever he could, of strengthening always the power of that spiritual kingdom which he ruled — with a skill and imperturbable concentration.

    If the new Pope is as skillful as the last, the “Roman question,” which at present seems to bar non-Italians from the supreme office in the Catholic church, may be [dead].

    In 1978, the Polish John Paul II would become the first non-Italian pope in 456 years — still several decades and five more popes after Pius XI, though. The current pontiff, Francis, is Argentinian, the first-ever pope of that nationality.

    Fun fact: the first pope to visit the U.S. wouldn’t come until Paul VI made the trip in 1965.

    The Old Pope and Papal Prestige (PDF)

    Published: Sunday, February 12, 1922

  • Italy’s Frankenstein and His Monster

    A January 1922 New York Times Magazine article described Benito Mussolini as a rising figure in Italy. By October, he would be Prime Minister.

    Mussolini had helped birth the Italian fascists (Fascismo) who used rough tactics, up to and including extrajudicial killings, in the name of law and order. As the article explains:

    After the close of the war, Italian Socialists and Communists got out of hand… In Italy, as elsewhere in the distracted post-war world, it was the extremists, the preachers of change, who were the militant party; the conservatives, the believers in law and order, vehement as their words might be, were not conspicuous for action… Then — suddenly — these extremists found themselves face to face with something quite as bellicose and lawless as themselves.

    A new element of violent action stepped into the field. It presented the strange anomaly of men banded together to uphold law and order and conservatism by methods undistinguishable from those of bank robbers and hold-up gangs. This new element was Fascismo. It was the creation, primarily, of Benito Mussolini.

    This January 1922 article can be compared to the June 1921 article in the same publication about Gandhi, discussed here on SundayMagazine.org 100 years later in June 2021. Both men were only just starting to make waves in the early 1920s, although both would become primarily remembered by history for what they did 15 to 20 years later. (One of them, of course, being much more positively recalled than the other.)

    For Mussolini, the events were truly set in motion about nine months after this article was published. Tens of thousands of his followers marched in Rome to demand the resignation of the current Prime Minister, Luigi Facta, who indeed resigned under pressure. King Victor Emmanuel III gave Mussolini the job, against the unanimous recommendation of his entire cabinet, since he feared a civil war if he did not.

    After Mussolini helped overthrow his predecessor, what goes around comes around. Mussolini himself was deposed by that very same king, who was still in the position, in July 1943, as a result of Italy losing the war by that point and mass national discontent with his policies.

    A few months later in September 1943, Italy declared an armistice with the Allies, led by the U.S. and Britain. Then in October 1943, Italy officially switched sides and declared war on its former ally Nazi Germany. Mussolini himself was shot and killed in April 1945.

     

    Italy’s Frankenstein and His Monster (PDF)

    Published: Sunday, January 29, 1922

  • Free Union of Hughes and Harding

    After President Warren G. Harding publicly contradicted his Secretary of State Charles Evans Hughes on an issue related to Japan, rumors swirled of bad blood between the two men:

    Why should Mr. Harding interpret the pact one way when Mr. Hughes had more than once interpreted it the other way, unless the president wished to rebuke the overweening ambition of his secretary?

    Clinton Gilbert, author of 1921’s The Mirrors of Washington, disputed the idea.

    Mr. Harding’s administration is not a personal government. There is room in it for a Cabinet officer who achieves more prominence than the president… They must get the treaties through the Senate by mutual applause. They must stand hand in hand before the country when it votes next fall.

    It’s hard to claim that Hughes was “more prominent than the president,” although he had additionally previously been both a Supreme Court justice and the 1916 Republican presidential nominee.

    Yet Hughes was never fired nor did he ever resign for interpersonal reasons, and indeed served out the remainder of Harding’s short-lived presidency until Harding’s death from a heart attack in August 1923. Hughes continued to serve under Calvin Coolidge through the remainder of Harding’s would-be first term.

    If you want to see actually bad blood between a president and a Secretary of State, it’s hard to beat Donald Trump and Rex Tillerson:

     

    Free Union of Hughes and Harding (PDF)

    Published: Sunday, January 22, 1922

  • After Two “Dry” Years

    Two years after Prohibition was enacted via the Eighteenth Amendment, this New York Times article called it “practically irreversible.”

    You can see why, in January 1922, such a phrase would be used. The legislative branch didn’t seem to be budging on the issue.

    Still more significant has been the fact that the new Congress has in the autumn of 1921 strengthen the Volstead Act [the law which actually enforced the 18th Amendment] in important particulars. It is the claim of the drys that their cause is more strongly entrenched at the Capitol than ever before, and if we are to judge by the Congressional Record, the claim would seem to be justified.

    Neither was the judicial branch budging, either.

    Apparently, there were those who expected that the Supreme Court would come to the rescue with some legal technicality which would mitigate the impending drought… But a consideration of the many decisions of the Supreme Court shows that this tribunal has assumed that the people of the United States knew what they were doing when they passed the Eighteenth Amendment, and that in any event, if they did not, they must bear the consequences. It was not for the judges to rectify the enthusiasms or the negligence of the electorate. The Supreme Court has in the main upheld the authority of Congress to interpret and of the federal offices everywhere to enforce the amendment.

    Well, that didn’t last. In 1933, the Twenty-First Amendment repealed Prohibition once and for all. One wonders which “practically irreversible” aspects of modern American politics, life, or society may similarly fail to last even a dozen more years.

     

    After Two “Dry” Years (PDF)

    Published: Sunday, January 15, 1922

     

Leave a comment

Written by Jesse Rifkin

April 22nd, 2022 at 9:08 pm