Where do booksellers go when they retire from the trade? Lawyers become consultants (ditto for doctors) and the academy has been known to accept tradespeople from all walks of life on an adjunct basis. But bookselling is not a popular college course, and the range of industries looking for freelance advice from hardened paper-traders is, so to speak, limited. Furthermore, what sort of job would be fitting for the archetypical bookseller’s personality? No other industry combines intellectual contemplation with the thrill of acquisition on such an integral, daily basis.
By early 20th century American standards, Frank, Mary, and Doris White were a remarkably adventurous family. In 1925, when less than .5 percent of the American population travelled overseas—and the majority of those who did travelled exclusively to Europe—the White family embarked on a grand tour of staggering proportions. Setting sail from San Francisco, they travelled by boat to Hawaii, Japan, Sri Lanka, India, the Middle East, and, finally, Italy. And all this when Doris was only ten years old.
Perhaps more important than the sheer novelty of the White family’s journey was the spirit in which they engaged with it. In our collection of the Doris White family papers, the Kislak Center is lucky enough to have not only extensive photo documentation of the trip (some with distinctive early colorization), but also Frank White’s careful notes on the reverse of each photograph, which demonstrate his keen interest in cultural habits. It’s hard to imagine the average American tourist of the time having an interest in the mealtime procedure of a boat crew outside Sri Lanka, for example, much less the kind of pragmatic (if slightly Eurocentric) assessment Frank White provides here. It’s true; using banana leaves saves on dishwashing!
At other times, one can detect a note of confusion in Frank’s explanations, as with this description of riding around in a rickshaw. Perhaps, if given the choice, the Whites would have chosen other transportation accommodations? And yet the accompanying note is conciliatory enough. As one would expect from the rare American family travelling across Asia, the Whites were always willing to be accommodating.
As the journey wore on, however, a certain amount of travel fatigue began to set in. Frank White was less excited about riding a small donkey than he was about riding in a rickshaw, and he was less than happy about the sheer amount of beggars crowding the holy sites in Jerusalem. Perhaps, considering the unorthodox itinerary the Whites were pursuing, some burnout was to be expected.
However, despite occasional misgivings at some of the less enjoyable parts of the journey, the White family seems to have maintained their interest in the people they met. Their guide in Egypt, Abdu Mohamed, asked for this posed picture, which Frank later sent to him, establishing a correspondence. Clearly the man had left an impression on Frank. “[H]e could look right through you and tell you all you did[…]”
Unfortunately, our collection here at Kislak contains no reflections by the family on the effect of this momentous trip—but it does contain photographic accounts of later trips by Doris White, the family daughter, who one imagines must have been inspired by this formative journey. Indeed, Doris enrolled in the Kansas City National Training School, which trained missionaries—and was, based on photographic evidence from the collection, a lively and popular student.
Later, when Doris set out on trips of her own, her family’s intrepid spirit and ability to slip easily into native custom were on full display in these photo albums of her trips through California and Mexico in the late 1940s. While North American travel was certainly much more common than the sort of trip she and her family had taken in the 1920s, the idea of an unmarried female traveler was still a novel one. It was one thing for Frank White to travel the globe with his family in tow, and another thing for his daughter to don a Sombrero and Mexican garb.
Doris White wouldn’t stay single forever. Shortly after her trip to Mexico, she married Richard Ischinger. Is he the man she’s sitting with on this shot taken atop a rocky promontory? Not according to the back of the photo, which identifies him as “J. Whitman Evans.”
Although marriage was in her future, Doris wasn’t waiting around for it to appear. She was 33 by the time she married, and—thanks to her family and to her own sense of adventure—had already experienced more of the world than most American women could have hoped to see.
Taken together, the White family were fascinating outliers: an example of early 20th century American travelers who stepped outside of their usual scripts, whether of gender, culture, or national origin, and participated in experiences totally foreign to most of their countrymen. And, as a result, these family photographs are a completely surprising series of documents, showing the limits of contemporary possibilities for American lives.
After the Comstock Act (named after famed anti-obscenity crusader Anthony Comstock) was passed in 1873, it became illegal to send any material deemed “obscene” through the U.S. Postal Service. Comstock, from his position as a special agent for the U.S.P.S., became a one-man arbiter of whether a given piece of material was or was not appropriate for transportation through the mails. Comstock was a conservative New England fundamentalist who saw evidence of sin in almost everything, from the obvious (contraception) to the less obvious (dime store novels for teenagers). He also censored any material which dealt explicitly with sex education.
From the Act’s inception, reformers petitioned for its removal. They attacked the Act on several fronts. Why was the opinion of one man (Comstock) sufficient to decide whether something was or was not “obscene?” Why should the private decisions of married people to purchase contraception be subject to invasive action by the government? And why should educational material concerning human sexuality be deemed obscene, if its intent wasn’t prurient, but instructional?
The question of intent makes this last question particularly complicated. This month, as I processed the Jay A. Gertzman research collection on censorship, a research collection focused on the prosecution of “obscene” literature, these complications came into stark relief. Because we live in a time in which censorship laws are significantly more relaxed than they were in the beginning of the 20th century—and because the Comstock Laws were also used for more sweeping repressive measures, like restricting the sale of contraception—it can tempting to view the battle over obscenity as a battle between virtuous free-speech advocates and fear-mongers. In such a narrative, Comstock’s obsession with prurience silenced many decades’ worth of common-sense sex education.
Literary translation is an art, not a science; the act of bringing a story or poem into another language is a creative act, first and foremost, and can’t be fully systematized. And yet there are rules (or, better yet, standard operating procedures) for how one produces a translation that is faithful to the original while standing as an independent work of art. The most traditional of these procedures, developed systematically by Russian and French theorists in the 1950’s, concerns equivalence: that is, the translator’s choice of the best word or phrase in the new language to correspond with each original word or phrase. (One might imagine the best version of a machine translation: Google Translate as omniscient being.)
Other theoretical frameworks are less prescriptive on the sentence level; Skopos theory, for example, stresses that the goal of translation is the transmission of the purpose of the original work—to entertain, to inform, to warn—as opposed to its line-by-line linguistic form. This concept can feel nebulous; how is a translator to define the true purpose of a poem? And yet it does seem to reflect why a reader turns to language in the first place: to learn, to gain wisdom. If a translator achieves grammatical fidelity but fails to transmit the underlying purpose of the work, are they truly successful? What if they produce the linguistically equivalent version of a joke, but the reader doesn’t laugh?
While working on the papers of pioneering U.S. historian John Bach McMaster this past month, I found myself combing through a section of research material he used while writing about World War I: specifically, a series of documents produced during the lead-up to the American decision to join the side of the Triple Entente against the Central Powers. Although World War I occupies only a small part of our national imagination—certainly as compared to the gigantic position of World War II—this year, the hundred year anniversary of the Great War’s end, seems a particularly timely position from which to assess the causes and effects of the war, and the dialogue which grew up around it—and John B. McMaster, one if the first historians to embrace social history, provides an excellent perspective from which to examine them.
One of McMaster’s pioneering contributions to American history was his use of newspaper material to provide social context for political changes. This sort of source is so commonplace now that it hardly seems revolutionary, but for McMaster, writing about the U.S. entry into the Great War barely a few years after the event in question, providing material from the daily papers that his readers might have read themselves must have seemed remarkably forward-thinking. And the newspaper clippings showing how the war was communicated to readers at home are certainly remarkable, especially the detailed maps describing the various offensives:
But, for all the historical value that might rest in examining the maps that the American people themselves examined during the war, I was particularly interested in a much different sort of map that I discovered among McMaster’s research material: one far less interested in accurate reportage:
From the pages of Life, this highly partisan and often hilarious (Weinerschnitzelplatz? Heidelbergapolis?) map of what might happen to the United States if it didn’t enter the war on the Allied side gives a sense of how highly mobilized the pro-war propaganda effort was in the lead-up to America’s final decision.
(The use of a Germanized map of America also has disturbing resonance with the later harassment of German-Americans, who made up a large percentage of the American population, and, especially in the case of many Midwestern farming communities, gave their settlements Germanic names.)
Much of McMaster’s research file is geared towards America’s entry into the war and, more specifically, the various arguments marshaled by the Triple Entente and the Central Powers to place blame on each other for starting the conflict. Some, like this omnibus publication of national statements from the New York Times, strained to maintain some sense of objectivity, at least in presentation.
Although the papers inside of it did not, as this bold German pamphlet makes clear. (The delightful nicknames which the rulers of Europe gave each other gives this a kind of gossip-roundup flavor: the “Willy,” “George,” and “Nicky” correspondence.)
But some publications were more nakedly partisan in their intentions, like this oh-so-scarlet pamphlet produced by the Entente, which purports to parse the overwhelming evidence of wartime wickedness amongst the Teutonic hordes.
That being said, the amount of public debate regarding the preparation for war contained here is remarkable, not for its virulence (which would not be out of place today) but for its nuance. Even publications one might have expected to be partisan, like the Illustrated London News, presented several subsets of war reporting in their initial “War” issue that might seem counter-productive to national mobilization efforts, like a section on the “war cloud” over international finance and a spread on the might of the German navy.
Though a photo calling the German emperor a “war lord” might foreshadow the growing nationalist propaganda to come. (After all, the Kaiser had been relatively pacifistic in the lead-up to the war, and complained that he only heard about a major attack on Verdun from the newspapers; the myth of a uniquely belligerent and autocratic Germany would only grow after the armistice.) But even here, note the precise description of the federal military system within the German empire: clearly the readers of the Illustrated London News wanted a firm grounding in the particularities of wartime statecraft!
Overall, these materials reflect how the onset of World War I reflected a mass readership eager for as much information about the war as the newly muscular mass media could provide. Some of it was crudely propagandist, but—especially in the opening years of the war—much of it expressed a level of nuance nearly unthinkable in our current age of hyper-partisan, image-first media saturation.
Perhaps McMaster’s interest in the newspaper as a historical source reflected the state of print journalism as he was coming into his own as a historian. Certainly this small repository shows the wide variety of social and historical conclusions one could draw from the print sources of the time, especially when they trained their collective powers on the first great military conflagration of the modern era.
When the impractical and somewhat hazardous desire to write books is passed down through a family, the results are often dangerous. Consider the Wolfert family, whose papers I recently had the pleasure of processing here in the Special Collections Processing Center. The father, Ira Wolfert, was a well-known war correspondent (his coverage of the Battle of Guadalcanal won a Pulitzer) and the author of Tucker’s People, a novel concerning the numbers racket and political corruption in 1930’s New York City which was a post-war bestseller: a feat he would never again equal. The mother, Helen Wolfert, was a school-teacher, an intermittently successful poet, and a polemical essayist on a wide range of subjects, from the space program to the Song of Songs—but was beset throughout her life with rejection and persistent lack of recognition. Their son, Michael, fancied himself a novelist but could best be described as a career bohemian, turning down plum positions in UNESCO (the then-new cultural wing of the UN) and dragging numerous wives and children from Paris to Tangier to Sweden as he attempted to produce a novel that would justify these peregrinations. (Their daughter, Ruth, seems to have briefly entertained literary ambitions, but decided—in a move that seems commendable and somewhat fitting—to pursue a career in family therapy.)
The lives of writers and scholars in early 20th century Philadelphia often involved the Franklin Inn Club, the artistic society, founded in 1902, which claimed among its members a large percentage of the city’s leading cultural lights. But despite the collective intellectual and artistic intensity housed within its relatively small space, the atmosphere at the Franklin Inn was remarkably relaxed; the building on Camac Street served as a gathering place for lunch, after-work dinner and drinks, and occasional picnic outings to nearby scenic locales. It also hosted an impressive number of amateur theatricals, one of which was held yearly to celebrate Ben Franklin’s birthday—and, judging by the programs I’ve found in the papers of John Louis Haney, president of Central High School from 1920 to 1943, noted scholar of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and long-term member of the Club, these theatricals were pretty riotous affairs, and prove that a literary society of that era was never in danger of taking itself too seriously.
We begin with an evening’s entertainment from 1917: The Yellow Dye, or, the Moulting Hero: a farce tragedy in five acts, being a pirated dramatization of Jorg Jib’s popular novel The Yellow Dove. Where to begin with the many joys on display within this small piece of paper? For one thing, we have a window into the literary tastes of the Club members; The Yellow Dove, an enormously successful popular novel at the time, clearly came in for some riotous and none-too-kind ribbing for lines such “she sank low in her armchair, her senses numb from the horror of the revelation. Her thoughts became confused like that of a sick person awaking from a nightmare to half consciousness, peopled with strange beautiful images doing the dark things of dreams. Cyril—her Cyril—a spy!”
From the gently sarcastic character appellations (“the hanemic hero,” “the ‘usky ‘eroine”; clearly George Gibbs had a fondness for cockney dialect) to the name itself, one can imagine the sort of “farce tragedy” the audience would have to deal with. All this, in addition to the all-male cast (the Franklin Inn didn’t admit women until 1980) would have lent the evening an air of appealing absurdity.
But if the adaptations were charming, it was the original plays that were the most riotous. The one-act play advertised for January 6, 1921 simply entitled Hootch has no relation to any other extant literary work, and perhaps that’s all for the best—but the tantalizing glimpses provided by the program raise all sorts of questions. Who is this family, the Swags—and what are they interested in? Why is Volstead Hunter “a martyr to duty?” And—perhaps most importantly—how can anyone with the name Swag, no matter how young, truly be an “innocent child?”
(Actually, the most important question is probably how Dr. (Ellis Paxson) Oberholtzer, famed biographer and club secretary, managed the “mature but still fascinating” role of Mrs. Swag.)
Calling such a play Hootch may have had to do with the play’s contents, but it also signals the implied state of the audience attending such a performance—and indeed, we have written evidence of the fondness for alcoholic refreshment evinced by the club’s members, in the form of an ode to cultural drinking.
While undated, one can imagine, considering its inclusion in the archives among other Franklin Inn material from the period, that its ironic repudiation of demon liquor was a reaction to the rules of Prohibition. But regardless of its era, its lines—alongside the spirited amateur theatricals it complements—give a sense of the ways in which the Inn’s membership melded high culture with a high tolerance for satire and spirits.
Now that the worth of literary Modernism has become a commonplace within academic circles, one can forget how hostile most American academics were to experimental work in the first part of the 20th century. How delightful, then, to stumble, in his papers, across a handwritten note by Arthur Hobson Quinn, longtime professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, assessing the early work of T.S. Eliot:
“He can work phrases that are bitter and at times clever, and he has become very superior to all forms of life; he does not hesitate however to speak of his aunt as living in a fashionable neighborhood, and he betrays other signs of arrested development, such as a belief that being up at dawn is an achievement.”
No contemporary academic would dare treat an iconic Modernist with such flippancy! But even by 1950, when this note was written, the place for the movement within the academy was by no means clear, despite Eliot’s preeminent position of influence; traditional scholars like Quinn were still openly hostile to what others saw as innovations. That academics like Quinn ended up the losers in the debate only makes their reactions fascinating, fruitful, and often quite funny; the way he treats contemporary writers who exhibit Modernist (or even moderately experimental ) tendencies represents just how wide the chasm really was, even twenty years after the movement’s height.
In Quinn’s lecture notes, one can see this hostility expressed over and over again, especially in his assessment of contemporary poetry. For example, his dismissal of Marianne Moore’s 1944 collection Nevertheless as “only 7 poems on Elephants, etc – not important,” and his inclusion of her in a folder called “Contemporary Poets, B Grade.”
What, exactly, did Quinn present in opposition to such experiments? His aesthetic perspective is laid out well in a lecture entitled “Eliot and Others,” the notes for which are contained in this archive. “The best definition of poetry is that it is rhythmical language containing the elements of truth and beauty,” Quinn writes. “Contemporary American poetry has given up all three of these qualities to a marked extent.” Perhaps fittingly for a scholar of American theatre, Quinn sees the only hope for contemporary American poetry in musical theater, where “there are verses often of an unusual quality.”
Clearly, Quinn felt that contemporary American poetry was taking a turn for the worse—or, perhaps more importantly, a turn away from his own comprehension. In reading Quinn’s notes, one can sense a frustration with his inability to penetrate verse which seemed to him purposefully obscure, and his hostility to “difficulty” as an aesthetic project. In his assessment of Wallace Stevens, for example, he writes: “In his verse ‘Man Carrying Thing’ [Stevens] says, ‘the poem must resist the intelligence / almost successfully,’ which explains why he is not a poet.” The definition of who is (and, more importantly, who is not) a poet is one of Quinn’s rhetorical commonplaces. In order to reject the Modernist project, it was necessary to exclude them from the poetic canon entirely.
But what did it mean to be a poet? To Quinn, poetry was meant to be expressive, clear, and above all populist, even nationalist. In his lecture “The Magnificent Phrase,” he claims that the easy transmission of a phrase—its memorable nature, its accessibility—is what allows for poetry’s greatness, and its greatness is linked to a project of national identity. It’s telling that the contemporary poet Quinn references in this lecture, Edwin Arlington Robinson, is featured for his stanzas on Lincoln: “The face we see was never young / nor could it ever have been old.” Clearly poetry is particularly successful when wedded to an iconic representation of political power.
Considering this positivist, patriotic conception of poetry, it’s no wonder that the particular combination of pessimism and ambiguity that unified disparate strands of Modernism would be so difficult for Quinn and other traditional academics to accept. It was more than simply an aesthetic challenge; it was an assault on an entire worldview. (At the same time that he was writing these notes on contemporary poetry, Quinn was overseeing the creation of a massive textbook of American Literature entitled The Literature of the American People, and had already undertaken a vast socio-historical investigation of national identity entitled The Soul of America.) In the wake of World War II and the beginning of the Cold War, academics like Quinn, invested in the idea of American Literature as a viable, coherent academic discipline, would find little common cause with the late Modernists, for whom fragmentation and ambiguity were the rule. Consider Quinn’s judgment of the work of William Carlos Williams: “no poetry=no unity or coherence.”
But even this seemingly ironclad judgment on Williams contains a kernel of self-doubt: “the Wanderer is a narrator—seems to be symbolic but I can’t tell about what.” This inability to comprehend, to make sense of the fractured nature of late Modernism, represented a threat to Quinn’s position as an authority. To add insult to injury, Quinn’s eyesight was fading, which made repetitious reading literally painful. Several times in his notes, Quinn reminds himself to ask his wife, Helen, to read the poems and see if she can make anything of them; whether this is a reference to physical or metaphorical legibility is impossible to say.
This brings us back to Quinn’s attacks on Eliot. As a poet/critic who managed to move from the vanguard of Modernist experimentation to a more comfortable position as one of the main critical influences of New Criticism, Eliot represented a much greater threat than Moore or Stevens or Williams. It was easy enough for Quinn to repudiate the work of individual Modernist poets, and exile them to the land of “not-poetry,” but Eliot seized the power of definition for himself. His work represented a reorientation of poetics towards a kind of academic Classicism, the antithesis of the broadly populist and even nationalist vision which Quinn championed. “It is an example of the semi-profound type of criticism,” Quinn writes. “very positive in statements, at times discriminating, but constantly shedding implications of profound depths of knowledge on Eliot’s part, especially of Foreign Literature and criticism, usually of books which the general reader would certainly not know, and which impress him or not, just as he is impressionable or not by that ex cathedra criticism.” For Quinn, interested in a common cultural legacy for the U.S. reader, prizing clarity and transmissibility above all things, Eliot’s insistence on difficulty and on European cultural tradition seemed an elitist boondoggle.
In hindsight, one can see in Quinn’s reaction to Eliot certain commonalities with the very poets he maligned. In his blanket hostility to Modernist experimentation, Quinn failed to realize that there were many practitioners who disliked Eliot’s academic orientation just as much as he did. Of his first reading of “The Waste Land,” William Carlos Williams wrote: “I felt at once that it had set me back twenty years, and I’m sure it did. Critically Eliot returned us to the classroom just at the moment when I felt we were on the point of an escape to matters much closer to the essence of a new art form itself—rooted in the locality which would give it fruit.” Indeed, with a work like Paterson, Williams’ practice of historical quotation as method of establishing an American “voice” hewed more closely to Quinn’s conception of clarity and accessibility than he might have realized, albeit in a fragmented, anguished form. But Quinn’s anti-experimental perspective couldn’t allow for such nuances. He seemed to feel that the very idea of experimentation was a fad: an aberration in the development of cultural understanding. “Perhaps he wants simply to be fashionable,” he writes of Eliot, in the last in a series of notes in response to “Four Quartets.”
In response to this dangerous fad, Quinn—ever the scholar of drama—turned away from written poetry and towards the Broadway stage, where he could still find the sort of direct, plainspoken lyricism that he felt epitomized the “spirit of America”: most notably, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma. In this, he prefigured some of the interest Postmodernist critics would have in popular culture as a whole—though not in the manner Quinn would have liked. The sort of unified nationalist cultural project he trumpeted was soon lost forever, a casualty of the 60’s, and the ironic gaze of Postmodernism, which turned the tools of the Modernists onto the very pillars of American popular culture that Quinn championed.
All this makes Quinn’s notes seem like something of a last stand. When looking over the production of his favorite poets from the early 20th century, his notes bemoan that so many of them simply stopped producing work as the century moved on. Seeing examples of the work he champions, one can easily see why. The strict meter, clear rhymes, and somewhat simplistic images contained in “Lilacs of the City,” by Brian Hooker, one of the librettists who Quinn claimed “surpasses anything I have seen by contemporary poets,” are so out of step with what has happened to poetry in the second half of the 20th century that we can see, in hindsight, that Quinn was right to make the terms of the argument “poetry v. non-poetry.” The whole nature of the form was being redefined before his eyes, and Quinn was on the losing end.
One should never measure great institutions merely by how well they put on a party. When it comes to the American literary scene of the twentieth century, however, one could be forgiven for correlating success in the book trade and success by the open bar. In this, the Gotham Book Mart – the NYC bookstore typically considered the leading booster of literary modernism in the United States – is no exception. As one of the archivists tasked with organizing Penn’s collection of papers from the Book Mart, it was my pleasure to experience a vast treasure trove of documents related to such leading literary lights as James Joyce, Allen Ginsberg, Tennessee Williams, Anais Nin, and Marianne Moore – and, perhaps more importantly, to get my hands on photographic documentation of just how rollicking these literary figures could be, given copious amounts of liquor and a suitable forum to impress the crowd. (In the beginning I was surprised at how much literary correspondence consists of simply setting the alcohol budgets for these sorts of events – but no longer.)
How does an editor convince a writer that their book isn’t worth publishing? In the case of William Wister Haines and his editor, Edward Weeks, the answer can be found in the submission draft of Haines’ second novel, Standard of Living and the recently processed William Wister Haines papers. Not that Weeks ever directly conveys this opinion to Haines, of course; instead, the conversation takes place in the margins, between Weeks’ increasingly strident comments and Haines’ weakening attempts to address his criticisms. Taken as a whole, this conversation represents a fascinating portrait of editorial persuasion, as Weeks’ initial open-mindedness gives way, and he begins to lay the groundwork for rejection.
No longer a well-known figure in American letters, in his time William Wister Haines was best known for writing two novels about working-class railway linemen, Slim and High Tension, as well as Command Decision, a book (and play) about the latter days of World War II. For all three of these books, Haines’ editor at Atlantic Monthly Books was Edward Weeks, with whom he had a working relationship for over two decades.