1917 was a watershed year for the United States. In April of that year the United States finally entered the First World War, which transformed the nation. By the war’s end 4,743,829 men and women were mobilized into service, 53,513 were killed in combat, and 63,195 were dead from disease and other causes. There were 204,002 wounded. After hostilities ended in November of 1918 America would have an influence on international politics and culture unlike any it had known before. Prohibition became legal in 1919 and vast social changes swept the nation in the wake of World War One, a war with reverberations that would continue to influence politics and history for the remainder of the century.
A number of prominent American writers were born in 1917, such as Carson McCullers, Robert Anderson, Gwendolyn Brooks, Peter Taylor, Robert Lowell and Louis Auchincloss.
President John F. Kennedy was born on May 29 of the year, and fellow Midwesterners Gwendolyn Brooks, a renowned poet, and singer Dean Martin were both born in 1917 on the same day: June 7.
Brooks was born in Chicago and Martin in Steubenville, Ohio. Other notables born in 1917 include June Allyson, Jane Wyman, Ernest Borgnine, Desi Arnaz, Indira Gandhi, Ella Fitzgerald, I.M Pei, Thelonious Monk, Cyrus Vance and Tom Bradley.
For the European nations involved in the Great War of 1914-1918, as it would be known for years after in Britain, the war had been a daily business since early August of 1914. It wouldn’t be until later in 1918 that significantly larger numbers of American troops arrived in Europe, but the sight of American forces on French soil was a welcome one for the Allies. The first combat for American troops occurred on November 3, 1917. Soldiers were training near the Rhine-Marne Canal in France when German forces attacked. Three men were killed, five were wounded and twelve were either captured or reported missing.
1917 was an important year for two of Britain’s great soldier poets of World War I. Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen met at the Craiglockhart Hospital in England. They often read and discussed each other’s poetry, forming a strong friendship as a result. Sassoon would survive the war, but Owen would not. He was killed on an attack near a French canal just one week before Armistice Day. The British poetry of the First World War is a rich, valuable and lasting literary legacy of that conflict, and Sassoon and Owen two of the best English poets of the war.
A number of talented writers from the United Kingdom were killed in the fighting in 1917. Edward Thomas and T.E. Hulme of England, Hedd Wynn of Wales and Francis Ledwidge of Ireland all lost their lives on the Western Front. Thomas was older than many of his fellow soldiers, a friend of Robert Frost and a married man with a son and two daughters. Walter Flex, a gifted young writer fighting with the German army, also died in action that year.
One by one men who would make their names as American writers after the war joined the service. Novelists Thomas Boyd of Ohio and William Edward Campbell of Georgia, who would use the pen name of “William March,” joined the Marine Corps in 1917. Campbell’s fellow Georgian Laurence Stallings, who became a renowned playwright, novelist and historian, also enlisted in the US Marines that year.
Scott Fitzgerald was commissioned a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army on October 26, 1917.
His Princeton friend John Peale Bishop, who later earned fame as a poet, novelist and critic, entered the U.S. Army ROTC at Fort Benjamin Harrison in Indiana in August 1917 and received his first lieutenant’s commission that November. He spent time at Camp Zachary Taylor in Kentucky, as would Fitzgerald, and then Camp Sherman in Chillicothe, Ohio before being sent overseas.
Edmund Wilson was another Princeton friend of Fitzgerald and Bishop. Wilson, who became a formidable postwar literary critic, enlisted in the U.S. Army in the spring of 1917.
All of the men noted above made it back from the war. Joyce Kilmer did not. Kilmer, known to many as author of the beloved and often parodied poem “Trees,” joined the National Guard in 1917 and later became a member of the famous “Fighting Sixth-Ninth” of New York. He died in action in July of 1918. Kilmer, like Edward Thomas of Great Britain, was older than many of his fellow enlistees, a married man born in December of 1886. He left behind four children.
Some future literary lights were en route to Europe to serve as civilian ambulance drivers not long after America entered the fray. Novelist John Dos Passos and critic Malcolm Cowley sailed for France that summer, as did Edward Estlin (e.e.) Cummings, who found himself in hot water by September of 1917 for his comments in letters home that attracted the attention of French military censors. Cummings and his friend Slater Brown, who had also run afoul of the censors, were imprisoned for a time in France before being released. Cummings later served in the American army during the war. Although best known as a poet, his most famous work of prose would stem from his prison experience: The Enormous Room, published in 1922.
Among the books published in 1917 was a Midwestern classic: Hamlin Garland’s autobiography A Son of the Middle Border. Garland was born in Wisconsin in 1860 and grew up on hardscrabble farms in Wisconsin, Illinois and the Dakota Territory. He graduated from the Cedar Valley Seminary in Osage, Iowa and left the heartland for the east coast where he taught at the Boston School of Oratory. After a return home, in which he saw with fresh eyes the poverty and bleakness of life on the Plains, he wrote a memorable collection of short stories called Main-Travelled Roads (1891). Garland composed a number of stories of Midwestern farm life that were published in collected editions, and also wrote novels on similar themes, including a well known novel in its time called Rose of Dutcher’s Coolly. This novel, published in 1895, tells the story of a Wisconsin farm girl who leaves her home to go to college and eventually become a writer in Chicago.
In the early 1900s Garland turned from his realistic mode and began writing fiction in a more popular, romantic vein about western life that was financially successful for him. One of the most successful of these works is The Captain of the Gray Horse Troop (1902). During the 1910s he began to compose autobiographical works, with A Son of the Middle Border likely being the best known. This volume is a powerful autobiography chronicling Garland’s upbringing in Illinois and on the Great Plains of the Midwest and his journey east.
Sherwood Anderson’s second novel Marching Men appeared in 1917. He broke into print in 1916 with his autobiographical first novel Windy McPherson’s Son. Marching Men tells the story a man named Beaut McGregor from a poor coal mining town who becomes a lawyer and creates a labor movement with fascist overtones. The novel was not successful. Anderson followed this novel in 1918 with a collection of poetry called Mid-American Chants. One year later, in 1919, he broke through with his classic short story collection Winesburg, Ohio.
1917 was the year when an important American novel appeared concerning Jewish and immigrant experience in the United States. Abraham Cahan, who wrote The Rise of David Levinsky, had fled Russia during a period of Czarist persecution and helped found the Jewish Daily Forward (now known simply as the Forward) in New York City in 1897, becoming its editor-in-chief five years later.
Prior to The Rise of David Levinsky, Cahan had published The Imported Bridegroom and Other Stories of the New York Ghetto in 1898 and Yekl, a Tale of the New York Ghetto in 1896. Cahan was a dedicated socialist, and his 1917 novel concerns garment industry workers and union activity. One of the earliest critics to recognize the value and importance of Cahan’s writing was William Dean Howells of Ohio.
A giant of the Modernist movement in literature published an important collection in 1917: T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock and Other Observations. The collection includes his famous poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” a groundbreaking portrait of alienation, neurosis and fading youth. Eliot was actually a Midwesterner. He was born and raised in St. Louis, Missouri, the descendant of New Englanders who emigrated westward and become part of the city’s cultural elite. I’ve read this poem numerous times and always find it fascinating and evocative. Eliot captures a sense of desperation and melancholy appropriate to the era of the First World War. One of my favorite lines is “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.”
Sinclair Lewis of Sauk Centre, Minnesota saw two novels appear in print during 1917. One of these is The Innocents, a sentimental tale of an older couple who move to Cape Cod and open a small business. His other work from 1917 is The Job, a story of a working woman. The protagonist of The Job is a young woman named Una Golden. The book tracks Golden’s progress from a young woman enduring the workaday world to one who becomes more aware of women’s needs and issues and identifies with the women around her.
She eventually acquires a greater degree of sophistication and culture, becomes a successful real estate agent and participates in a suffragist parade. A number of central figures in Lewis’ novels are women—his most famous woman character, Carol Kennicott, appeared in his breakthrough novel Main Street in 1920. Two other Lewis novels with central female characters are Ann Vickers (1933) about a social worker, and Bethel Merriday (1940) about an actress. Ann Vickers was adapted for the screen in 1933 and starred Irene Dunne in the title role.
The poet Vachel Lindsay of Illinois was riding high in the 1910s. The Chinese Nightingale and Other Poems by Lindsay appeared in 1917. Two of Lindsay’s most famous poems, “General William Booth Enters Into Heaven” and “The Congo” had appeared in 1913 and 1914 respectively. Lindsay was famous for his performances in which he recited his poems dramatically and encouraged audience response and participation. He toured the country and drew large crowds, but his popularity waned during the 1920s.
The ever feisty Henry Louis Mencken was as busy as ever disturbing the peace in 1917. The renowned Baltimore writer and editor, famous for his takedowns of all that was sacred in American culture and his promotion of innovative American writing, saw his A Book of Prefaces appear that year.
In A Book of Prefaces he examines the work of novelists Joseph Conrad and Theodore Dreiser and critic James Gibbons Huneker. Mencken has praise for these three men, although Dreiser takes some lumps from the Sage of Baltimore. Mencken was fond of savaging whatever people, trends, movements and ideas he believed deserved excoriation, and reading these can be entertaining and fun, although I prefer him in small doses. He could be incredibly unfair, yet much that he attacked deserved ridicule and exposure, such as pomposity, charlatanism and narrow-mindedness. He is a complex and contradictory figure, a writer controversial in his own time and now.
A Book of Prefaces can be read online. I’ve enjoyed reading selections of it recently. Here’s a typically audacious bit on Theodore Dresier: “One half of the man’s brain, so to speak, wars with the other half. He is intelligent, he is thoughtful, he is a sound artist—but there come moments when a dead hand falls upon him, and he is once more the Indiana peasant, snuffling absurdly over imbecile sentimentalities, giving a grave ear to quackeries, snorting and eye-rolling with the best of them.”
Anyone reading Mencken is hereby warned they will encounter this kind of thing, a kind of invective that was not unusual among partisan journalists and critics of the time. What would today’s readers make of Mencken’s statement, regarding the puritanical nature of American intellectual life, that “the normal American book reviewer, indeed, is an elderly virgin, a superstitious bluestocking, an apostle of Vassar Kultur; and her customary attitude of mind is one of fascinated horror.” Egad! Mencken would likely find himself drawn and quartered on the airwaves and Twitter in our own time for his caustic approach, but I appreciate his often ruthless wit and biting honesty: I know where I stand with him.
And there is often some morsel of truth even in his harshest comments. At one point in A Book of Prefaces he describes Ohio-born writer and critic William Dean Howells, a powerful literary arbiter who became known as “the Dean of American Letters,” as “kittenish.” There is some substance here. Howells was a good man, a good writer and an important critic—he played a vital role in the maturing of American letters—but there was a streak of timidity in him, a wariness about a literary realism that moved too far away from what Howells called “the smiling aspects of life.” I would also have to say, after reading one of the knuckleheaded anonymous early reviews of Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, that Mencken has a point about the general approach of some reviewers in his time, regardless of gender. The often-blinkered reactions of critics to groundbreaking American writing vexed Mencken greatly. Philistines and censors had no place in his world.
Dreiser still comes in for plenty of praise from Mencken, and I was impressed that Mencken gives so much time and attention to Dreiser’s travel book A Hoosier Holiday, which is about an automobile trip Dreiser made to Indiana in 1915. I read A Hoosier Holiday several years ago, greatly enjoyed it and look forward to writing about it here on Buckeyemuse. “I know, indeed, of no book which better describes the American hinterland,” wrote Mencken about A Hoosier Holiday in A Book of Prefaces. The concluding essay is on what Mencken believes is the baneful influence of Puritanism in American life and culture, and attacks on the Puritanical strain appear in the other essays in the volume.
One of the most renowned poets of the early to mid twentieth century saw her first book published in 1917: Renascence and Other Poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay. She showed promise as a poet early on and saw some of her first poems published in the famous magazine for young people called St. Nicholas. “Renascence,” the title poem, appeared in a poetry anthology called The Lyric Year in 1912.
Millay had grown up in poverty and likely wouldn’t have gone to college, but her poetic talent attracted the attention of a family friend, a woman named Caroline Dow who worked for the YWCA. She helped finance Millay’s education, and Millay graduated from Vassar in 1917, the same year Renascence and Other Poems appeared.
She became more widely known with her volume of verse entitled A Few Figs From Thistles, which appeared in 1920, and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1923 for her volume called The Harp Weaver And Other Poems. Millay became especially popular during the 1920s. She is also known for her excellence in the sonnet form. The title poem “Renascence” is a lyric poem of more than two hundred lines addressing issues of nature and mortality.
Merlin is the first volume in a trilogy on Arthurian themes by the noted poet Edward Arlington Robinson that appeared in 1917. He isn’t familiar to many readers today, which is unfortunate as his poetry is still interesting and worthwhile. He was a three-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Some may know him from his poem “Richard Cory,” famously adapted as a song by Simon and Garfunkel.
In addition to his works of narrative poetry, Robinson wrote lyric poems, many of them about isolation and the darker sides of community life. Robinson was a native of Maine. The second and third volumes of his Arthurian trilogy are Lancelot (1920) and Tristam (1927).
Five years after anonymously publishing his novel The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, James Weldon Johnson saw his first collection of verse in print appear in 1917: Fifty Years and Other Poems. Ten years later, in 1927, his most famous poetry collection appeared: God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons In Verse. James Weldon Johnson had a number of impressive careers. In addition to being a poet and novelist, he was also a lyricist and songwriter—he composed the song “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” often considered the black national anthem. He was also a lawyer, a professor and a diplomat—he had served as U.S. Consul to both Venezeula and Nicaragua, and it was in 1917 that he began working for the NAACP, an organization he served into the 1930s. In the 1920s Johnson claimed his authorship of The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man. He had published the book anonymously as he feared it would hurt his career, especially as he was in the public eye as an African-American man in the U.S. foreign service.
Upton Sinclair’s King Coal appeared in 1917, just a couple of years after the labor unrest occurred in the Colorado coalfields that forms the background of this novel. Sinclair had made his name eleven years before with the publication of his famous muckraking novel The Jungle in 1906. The Jungle wasn’t Sinclair’s first novel. Sinclair began writing at the age of fifteen, composing pulp fiction during college. His first serious novel, Springtime and Harvest, later renamed King Midas, appeared in 1901.
The years 1914 and 1915 were a time of bitter unrest in the Colorado coalfields, culminating in an event known as the “Ludlow Massacre” in which miners and their families, many of them recent immigrants to the U.S., were killed by Colorado National Guardsmen and private security forces employed by the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company, owned by the Rockefeller family. The hero of King Coal is a young man of wealth and education who goes to the coalfields to study conditions and becomes a miner and union leader.
As is the case with so many of Sinclair’s works, the fictional framework serves as a device by which Sinclair examines pressing social problems. He would go on to write many other novels, including the series about the adventurous young man named Lanny Budd who travels the world and confronts many of the dangers and challenges of the Depression and World War II. One of these novels, Dragon’s Teeth, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1943. Sinclair also made a failed run for Governor of California in 1934.
Edith Wharton had already published many of her best known books before 1917, such as The House of Mirth (1905), Ethan Frome (1911) and The Custom of the Country (1913). Wharton was living in France and aiding the war effort when Summer was published.
Summer is the story of a young woman named Charity Royall who is a librarian in a New England town, her affair with a visiting architect who impregnates her and her eventual abandonment by the same man. A number of characters, including a female doctor, exploit Charity Royall. The book has received increased critical attention in recent decades as it examines women’s sexuality and social roles, sexual awakening, poverty and small town life. The book is sometimes mentioned in the same breath as Ethan Frome as both concern regimented lives in small community settings.
David Graham Phillips is little known in our time, but he is an interesting writer who deserves reexamination for his intense involvement in both fiction and nonfiction with the social issues of his era. He was born in Indiana and worked on newspapers in Cincinnati and New York. He became known as both a muckraking journalist and as the author of a number of “problem novels:” works that examined some vital issue of the day. What is probably Phillips’ best known novel appeared posthumously in 1917: Susan Lenox: Her Fall and Rise, the story of a country girl who becomes a prostitute. Phillips was shot dead in New York City in 1911 by a deranged man who believed that a character in Phillips’ novel Joshua Craig (1909), was based on the man’s sister, and that Phillips’ portrayal had damaged her reputation.
Phillips deserves credit not only for his novels and journalistic work, but also because he made a contribution to participatory democracy in the U.S. His exposure of Senate corruption was part of a greater movement that helped bring about passage of the Seventeenth Amendment, providing that Senators are elected directly by the people. It’s hard to believe now, but state legislators used to elect U.S. Senators.
1917 was also the year than an important work of poetry emerged from one of Ireland’s greatest poets: W.B. Yeats’ The Wild Swans at Coole. The book consisted of twenty-nine poems and one play entitled “At the Hawk’s Well.” The U.S. edition, which omitted the play, appeared in 1919. Besides the title poem, one of Yeats’ best and most well known works, are two others that often appear in anthologies of Yeats’ poetry: “In Memory of Major Robert Gregory” and “An Irish American Foresees His Death.”
Eugene O’Neill deserves mention in connection to 1917. The man generally considered America’s greatest dramatist was busy creating some of his first plays during this year. His groundbreaking Bound East For Cardiff was first performed by the Provincetown Players at Cape Cod’s Wharf Theater on July 28, 1916. During 1917 O’Neill wrote the following plays: The Sniper, which was produced that year, In the Zone, Ile, and The Long Voyage Home.
Later in the year I will take a look at the books and literary culture of 1918. There’s an important Midwestern literary anniversary this year: the centennial of the publication of Willa Cather’s classic My Antonia. I know I’ll be celebrating!
Copies of many of the works discussed.
American Literary Almanac: From 1608 To The Present. Edited by Karen L. Rood. Bruccoli Clark Layman. Facts on File: New York, Oxford, 1988.
Annals of American Literature 1602-1983. Edited by Richard M. Ludwig and Clifford A. Nault, Jr. Oxford University Press: New York and Oxford, 1986.
Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia edited by George Perkins, Barbara Perkins, and Philip Leininger. Harper Collins, New York, 1991.
Upton Sinclair: American Rebel by Leon Harris. Thomas Y. Crowell Company, New York, 1975.
What Happened When: A Chronology of Life and Events in America by Gorton Carruth. Signet (the Penguin Group–Penguin Books USA), New York, 1991.
Great Poets of World War I: Poetry from the Great War edited by Jon Stallworthy. Carroll& Graf Publishers, New York, 2002.
Wikipedia: 1917 in Poetry; “The Wild Swans at Coole.”