These days I feel like diving into the trenches to avoid the centenary of World War I — and all the rehashing of its causes and consequences. Was the assassination in Sarajevo really the tripwire? Did Germany’s incessant militarism make the conflict inevitable? Would Russia’s earlier exit have prevented the Revolution? How harmful was America’s isolationism?
Take a quick detour to other events of 100 years ago — some of them nearly as seismic as the conflict that ground on for four years and cost 17 million or so lives. 1914 was an astonishingly productive year for commerce. Most of the 80-plus startups launched then are long gone. Among them: American Licorice Co., The Oz Film Manufacturing Co., Keystone (auto) and Mother’s Cookies. But a few names have survived, in memory, if not in fact: Greyhound Lines, Puig (the fragrance and fashion company, still family-owned), Booz Allen Hamilton, Chicken of the Sea, Dodge, Maserati, Merrill Lynch, Russ & Daughters (a deli that New Yorkers consider one of the eight wonders of the world), Stop & Shop and Yellow Cab Co.
That same year, Thomas J. Watson Sr. was hired as general manager of Computing Tabulating Recording Co., which had pitched in during the 1900 U.S. Census. An ambitious 40-year-old, Watson rose to the top of CTR and a decade later renamed the company … International Business Machines.
There were critical breakthroughs in science in 1914. Nobel laureate Ernest Rutherford postulated that the atomic nucleus contained positively charged particles called protons (the year before, Niels Bohr had offered up a quantum model of the atom). Robert Goddard patented both liquid-fueled and multi-stage rockets. And, in a procedure that would prove grimly apposite, Albert Hustin, a Belgian sawbones, managed the first successful indirect blood transfusion with anticoagulates (he would soon go on to create the first blood bank, while serving in France during the war).
But perhaps the biggest explosions of creativity occurred in the arts (a little license here: artists are entrepreneurs of sorts). It was hard to top an astonishing 1913. There was the premiere of Stravinsky’s never-heard-anything-like-it Rite Of Spring and a performance by the Ballet Russe that blew the proscenium off the Parisian stage. The Armory Show in New York City brought together the greatest western artists of the late 19th and early 20th century, and introduced a lot of the world to the jarring lens of cubism. Late that year, Marcel Proust produced Du côté de chez Swann (“Swann’s Way”), the first installment of his most remarkable opus, À la recherche du temps perdu (“In Search of Lost Time”).
Even Stravinsky couldn’t blare out significant contributions by other composers in 1914 — Frederick Delius, Charles Ives, Carl Nielsen, Sergei Prokofiev, Maurice Ravel and Ralph Vaughan Williams among them. Along with cubism, new artistic movements burst forth: futurism, led by Umberto Boccioni’s Manifesto, which celebrated speed and industrialism, scented by a whiff of fascism; and surrealism, with its eerie forms, terrifying loneliness and wit.
1914 was also a year of extraordinary literary output. Tossed from one publisher to another for a decade, James Joyce’s Dubliners, short stories that offered a brilliant cracked mirror of middle-class Irish lives, finally made it into print. That year Joyce also completed his quasi-autobiographical novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (published in 1916), and began work on the most innovative example of 20th century fiction, Ulysses (published in 1922). Franz Kafka harnessed his tortured imagination to hack through much of his masterpiece Der Prozess (“The Trial,” published posthumously in 1925), and agonized over the publication of another notable nightmare fantasy, Die Verwandlung (“The Metamorphosis,” issued in 1915), begging the publisher not to put an illustration of Gregor Samsa, turned hideous vermin, on the cover.
The war years also launched the exceptional careers of poets Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, T.S. Eliot and Siegfried Sassoon, as well as D.H. Lawrence, Jean Cocteau, Luigi Pirandello and Guillaume Apollinaire. Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Faulkner, along with the best works of Virginia Woolf, would wait for the haunting post-war perspective of the ’20s.
This year, as we relive the carnage that began a century ago — in shaky moving pictures and in countless books and essays — it’s important (and comforting) to focus on what mankind can create, as well as destroy.