THE BRITISH LIBRARY

American Collections blog

What's on the mind of Team America?

Introduction

Find out more about our Americas Studies collections on the Americas blog, written by our curatorial team and guest posts from the Eccles Centre writers in residence. Our collections cover both North and South America, as well as the Caribbean. Read more

06 December 2018

Hallie Flanagan and the House Committee on Un-American Activities

Today marks 80 years since Hallie Flanagan – national director of the Federal Theatre Project – appeared before the House Special Committee on Un-American Activities to answer questions about the New Deal programme she had been leading since its inception.

In her now legendary testimony, Flanagan’s allusion to Elizabethan playwright, Christopher Marlowe – and Congressman Starnes’s rejoinder: ‘Is he a communist?’ – left the room rocking with laughter. Yet, Flanagan herself did not laugh, recognising as she did that: ‘Eight thousand people might lose their jobs because a Congressional Committee had so pre-judged us that even the classics were “communistic”’. [1]

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Hallie Flanagan speaking on CBS Radio, 1 January 1936. The Federal Theatre of the Air, under the auspices of the Federal Theatre Project, began weekly programmes on 15 March 1936. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Flanagan had been head-hunted for the Federal Theatre in 1935 by Harry Hopkins, director of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Until this point, federal relief during the Great Depression was primarily directed at manual labourers. The Federal Theatre – along with similar projects for writers, artists and musicians – was a game changer, providing federally-funded employment to skilled workers: in this case, playwrights, directors, actors, stage-hands, set-designers and costumiers.

From the outset Flanagan’s stewardship of the Federal Theatre was visionary and far-reaching. This should not have been surprising. In 1926 Flanagan became the first woman to be awarded a Guggenheim fellowship and for 14 months she had travelled throughout Europe studying new theatre. Her meetings with Konstantin Slanislavki and Vsevolod Meyerhold had illuminated radical new ways of working and in Shifting Scenes of the Modern European Theatre (London: George G Harrap & Co., 1929; shelfmark 011805.i.61) Flanagan asserts that Russia, with its workers theatres and innovative methodologies, had the most vital theatre in the world.

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Members of Meyerhold’s Theatre-Studio on Povarskaya Street (affiliated to Moscow Art Theatre). Meyerhold is back row, second left. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

After returning to Vassar College in upstate New York, Flanagan established the Vassar Experimental Theatre and soon gained a national reputation for ground-breaking productions. Notable among these was Can You Hear Their Voices? her co-adaptation of a story published in New Masses by then-communist Whittaker Chambers in which the effects of the devastating drought in Arkansas are seen through the eyes of struggling farmers and their affluent Congressman.  

With a job that she loved, a husband, a child and three step-children it is hardly surprising that Flanagan initially resisted Hopkins’ offer of a job in Washington, DC. But after several months, and with the full support of her husband, she accepted. In October 1935 – doubtless reflecting Flanagan’s passionate belief in the transformative power of theatre – the Project boldly declared that: ‘Its far reaching purpose is the establishment of theatres so vital to community life that they will continue to function after the program of the Federal Project is completed.’ [2]

A subsequent blog will explore the Federal Theatre’s accomplishments more fully. Suffice it to say here that nothing like it has been seen in the United States before or since. In its first three years, thousands of workers created 55,000 performances of more than 900 shows in front of 26 million people, many of whom attended at no cost or for less than one dollar.

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Poster for Christopher Marlowe’s Faustus. W.P.A. Federal Theatre. 8 January – 9 May 1937. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Yet, the purportedly ‘radical’ nature of the Theatre – together with Flanagan’s own background – held the seed of its undoing.

Flanagan was fully aware of the creation in May 1938 of the House Special Committee on Un-American Activities. Part of the committee’s brief – under its chair, Martin Dies – was investigating organisations suspected of having communist ties. Looking back at this time, Flanagan notes in Arena: The History of the Federal Theatre (New York: Benjamin Blom, 1965; shelfmark: X.900/3282) that while many people within the WPA laughed about the Dies Committee, to Flanagan herself ‘it never seemed funny’. [3]

And with good reason.

In July 1938, a Committee member declared the Federal Theatre to be a branch of the Communist Party, offering plays with communist leanings and limiting jobs to members of the Workers’ Alliance. Flanagan immediately issued a press release denying this and spent the next five months trying to appear before the Committee in order to set the record straight.

Finally, on the morning of 6 December she was called to testify. However, unlike Hazel Huffman – a disgruntled Federal Theatre mail clerk who believed herself qualified to denounce Flanagan for being ‘known as far back as 1927 for her communist sympathy, if not membership’ and who received ample time to air her views on the Theatre’s activities – Flanagan, the Theatre’s national director, was allocated just a few hours.

Yet, what a few hours they were. And this extraordinary testimony can be read in full online at the British Library using Congressional Hearings, Digital Collection, 1824-1979.

Within moments of taking the stand, Flanagan flummoxed the Chair with a declaration of her dedication to combating ‘un-American inactivity’:

Flanagan and Chair dialoge excerpt

Desperate to re-gain control, the Congressmen quizzed Flanagan on her trips to Russia, her communist sympathies, her belief in theatre as ‘a weapon’, the Federal Theatre’s productions, its workforce, their ties to the Workers’ Alliance and more. For much of the time, Flanagan remained on the front foot. And when she asked if she could return after the recess for lunch, Congressman Thomas replied: ‘We don’t want you back; you’re a tough witness and we’re all worn out.’ [4]

Yet in spite of Flanagan’s best efforts, the national mood was changing. A recent Gallup poll had shown that more than half of all voters were aware of the Committee hearings, and of those, 75% wanted the investigations to continue. [5]

On 3 January 1938 the Committee concluded that: ‘A rather large number of the employees on the Federal Theatre Project are either members of the Communist party or a sympathetic with the Communist Party’. [6]  And five months later, on 30 June 1939, an Act of Congress denied the Federal Theatre Project further funding thereby bringing an end to an unprecedented national experiment and ‘the creative energy that it so miraculously generated’. [7]

To be continued…

Footnotes: 

1. Hallie Flanagan. Arena: The History of the Federal Theatre. New York: Benjamin Blom, 1965. Shelfmark: X.900/3282.

2. Manual for Federal Theatre Projects of the Works Progress Administration. October 1935. https://www.loc.gov/item/farbf.00010003/ accessed 5/12/2018.

3. Flanagan, Arena. p. 335.

4. ibid., p. 346.

5. Joanne Bentley, Hallie Flanagan: A Life in the American Theatre. New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1988, p. 326.

6. Flanagan, p. 347

7. John Houseman, quoted in John O’Connor. The Federal Theatre Project: ‘Free, Adult, Uncensored’. London: Eyre Methuen, 1980, p. x. Shelfmark: 81/13870.

Further Reading:

Joanne Bentley, Hallie Flanagan: A Life in the American Theatre. New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1988. Shelfmark: 88/22242

 

04 December 2018

American Cooking for English Kitchens

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Cover of American Cooking for English Kitchens by Grace Hogarth (1957) 7939.b.47.

In 1928, Edith Fulcher published American Cooking for English Homes, a recipe book 'sent into the world as a home missionary to fill a long-felt want': to modernise British cooking. The cookbook aimed to provide simple and economical recipes, bringing American recipes to English households. Fulcher advises housewives tired of cooking the same thing every day to explore the cookery of other nations for inspiration and for money saving tips. 

In her preface, Fulcher argues that America's cuisine is varied and cosmopolitan thanks to its immigrant population, and describes the growing importance of vegetables in the modern American diet: 'The modern tendency is toward lighter meals and a vegetable diet, substituting salads, eggs and vegetables for meat. It is certainly more economical and a pleasant change from the once ubiquitous hot joint'. Reproduced below is an intriguing recipe for banana salad sandwiches with mayonnaise:

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From Edith Fulcher's American Cooking for English Homes (1928). 7941.df.6.

Three decades later, in 1957, Grace Hogarth embarked on a similar mission with her book American Cooking for English Kitchens, adapting American recipes for English homes, measurements, and ingredients. The book was the result of culture shock. Hogarth opens her book by stating: 'My first sight of the English kitchen that was to be my own filled me with panic'. Having got used to using a larder rather than a refrigerator, Hogarth writes about the art of using leftovers, explains the difference between American cookies and British biscuits, and outlines the many uses of aluminium foil, 'now obtainable in England'.

I have reproduced her recipe for Boston baked beans. As Hogarth puts it 'The result is as different from the product sold in tins as good from evil!'. Let us know if you agree!

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                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                M.Aguirre

31 October 2018

Putting to Ruins the Absence: Jason Moran, James Reese Europe, and Orlando Patterson

Last night, I had the distinct pleasure of joining the audience for the first performance of Jason Moran's latest work James Reese Europe and the Absence of Ruins at the Barbican.  The project is the third in a 'trilogy' which Moran has described as a 'long portrait of Harlem'.  All three have revisited key figures in the jazz history of the neighbourhood: Thelonius Monk (IN MY MIND), Fats Waller (Fats Waller Dance Party) and now James Reese Europe.  While the first two are familiar names to most people, few will recognise the latter.  This is an oversight that becomes increasingly disquieting the more one learns about Europe's musical, social, and military accomplishments.

At the British Library last week, Moran spoke with fellow jazz musician Soweto Kinch about his motivations for looking closer at James Reese Europe, and the many ideas that emerged in the process. 

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Jason Moran at the British Library. Photo credit: Francisca Fuentes Rettig

 

He highlighted how Europe is a pivotal figure in discussions of so-called 'proto-jazz'.  As well as being an exceedingly popular composer and bandleader, he was also an organiser and proponent for African American musicians.  His belief in and support for his professional community, and the nascent form of music that was emerging from it, was unwavering.  In 1910 Europe incorporated the previously informal Clef Club, which functioned as a venue and a society that supported the rights of professional black musicians. 

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h.3825.rr.(37.)

 

Two years later, he organised a concert at Carnegie Hall for the Clef Club Orchestra to raise funds for the Colored Music Settlement School at which solely music by black composers was performed.  By 1918, when he enlisted to serve in WWI, Europe was a well-recognised popular figure, whose musical scores sold in large quantities (the Library holds 70 of these).

 

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h.3825.rr.(28.)

 

During his military service, Europe served as the bandleader for the 369th regiment who were deployed in France.  In a related symposium earlier in the day, Revisiting the Black Parisian Moment 1918-19, we had heard how US generals refused to deploy African Americans for active service, instead segregating personnel into supportive roles such as building camps and retrieving the bodies of fallen soldiers.  By contrast, the French had deployed colonial African soldiers and were prepared to fight alongside African Americans, especially as the casualty rate grew.  Consequently, Europe and the 369th saw action in France, for which many of them received the Croix de Guerre.  The music they performed took the country by storm, and a wave of professional musicians from both the US and the Caribbean (for example, Alexandre Stellio) were able to capitalise on this.

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G.1520.gg.(22.)

Returning home in 1919, the 369th received a hero's welcome with a parade along fifth avenue which saw hundreds of thousands turn out for the occasion.  With clear admiration of their professional ability and tenacity, Moran recounted how for the length of 80 blocks the 369th played as they marched in the New York February cold.  They played popular tunes that would be recognised by the mostly-white crowd, however upon reaching Harlem the music changed and they played in a style familiar to their fellow community members.  Moran highlighted how this encoded double-performance, that uses different styles and carries separate meanings for different audiences, has long been a strategy of black music which was historically used as a covert means of communication.

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"Parade of Famous 369th Infantry on Fifth Avenue New York City. Colonel "Bill" Hayward's famous "Hell Fighters" of the 369th Infantry march by crowds at the New York Public Library 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue." Source: Library of Congress

 

This observation sheds some light on the subtitle of Moran's project: An Absence of Ruins.  We were told how this emerged during an early conversation with filmmaker John Akomfrah, while Moran was in Rome with 'ruins everywhere'.  Akomfrah signalled the work of Caribbean-born sociologist, Orlando Patterson who has published widely on the historical and social legacies of slavery and underdevelopment.  Additionally, Patterson has authored three novels which explore these issues from a first person perspective.  His second novel is titled 'An Absence of Ruins' and itself borrows its title from the poem The Royal Palms... an absence of ruins by Nobel laureate Derek Walcott, quoted in the epigraph to Patterson's novel:

Here there are no heroic palaces

Nettled in sea-green vines or built

On maize savannahs the cat-thighed, stony faces

Of Egypt's cradle, easily unriddled;

If art is where the greatest ruins are,

Our art is in those ruins we became,

You will not find in these green, desert places

One stone that found us worthy of its name,

Nor how, lacking the skill to beat things over flame

We peopled archipelagoes by one star.

 

For both Walcott and Patterson, the term 'an absence of ruins' becomes a cipher for the Caribbean's colonial legacies of racial violence.  Walcott makes allusions to how this is lived in experience ('Our art is in those ruins we became'), and Patterson takes this further.  Through the character of 'Alexander Blackman', Patterson describes the existential experience of living in a permanent condition of exile in order to ask what does it mean to have a history when that history is characterised by the ruptures of violence, oppression, and temporal and geographical dislocation?

In a central passage in the novel, Blackman experiences a crisis in which he fantasises about a Kingston built on ancient ruins rather than the bodies of slaves and the genocide of indigenous peoples.  This induces him to seek out his mother with the hope that she can perform a 'replanting of roots' by singing him songs.  Indeed, the novel proposes music as a potential solution to this problem of historical rootlessness associated with New World black memory.  The syncopation, improvisation, and encoded messages of jazz in particular are proffered as a language for modern black memory that isn't based on the traditional 'archaelogies' of knowledge and memory.

Weaving together these various concerns - black memory, historical absences, James Reese Europe's overlooked legacy, the black language of jazz in its social context - Moran followed  in Europe's footsteps as bandleader and educator by working with young musicians from London based community music education group Tomorrow's Warriors.  Jointly, they paid tribute through a deeply moving and joyful call and response to this extraordinary man, the musicians of the 369th infantry, and to jazz in an evening of musical evocation, transmission, and evolution.

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Soweto Kinch, Jason Moran, and John Akomfrah at the British Library. Photo credit Francisca Fuentes Rettig

 

Jason Moran will be performing James Reese Europe and An Absence of Ruin at Cardiff on the 31 October and Paisley on the 4 November.

- Francisca Fuentes Rettig

 

Wider reading/listening:

Horace Orlando Lloyd Patterson An Absence of Ruins, BL shelfmark: Nov.9783. 

Horace Orlando Lloyd Patterson and Andrew Salkey, The Children of Sisyphus, audio recording, BL shelfmark:  C134/470 and C134/71;

R. Reid Badger, "James Reese Europe and the Prehistory of Jazz", American Music, Vol. 7, no. 1 (Spring 1989), pp.48-67.

Peter N. Nelson, A more unbending battle : the Harlem Hellfighters' struggle for freedom in WWI and equality at home, BL shelfmark: Document Supply m09/.24328 

Stephen L. Harris, Harlem's Hell Fighters : the African-American 369th Infantry in World War I , BL shelfmark YC.2005.a.11047

Jeffrey T. Sammons and John H. Morrow Jr.,  Harlem's Rattlers and the Great War : the undaunted 369th Regiment and the African American quest for equality, BL shelfmark YD.2015.a.1091