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17 posts categorized "Humanities"

07 June 2019

Is ‘America’s National Pastime’ Up for Grabs?

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Professional baseball heads to London later this month with its sacred status in American culture once more in the spotlight. While the two-day series between the historic rivals, the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees, was an instant sell-out in London, back home crowds are declining, television ratings are falling and, despite the best efforts to speed-up play, games are dragging-on for longer than three hours - an eternity in today’s era of instant gratification. Those fans that do attend games or watch on TV are older and whiter than America as a whole. On social media Major League Baseball is dwarfed by the sporting behemoths of the NFL and NBA, the fame of baseball’s elite players a fraction of that enjoyed by the global superstars of professional football and basketball. It’s not surprising that each new season begins with commentators questioning whether the so-called ‘national pastime’ is in irreversible decline.

Baseball blog June I

Ed Linn, The Great Rivalry: The Yankees and the Red Sox, 1901-1990. New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1991. British Library Shelfmark: General Reference Collection Mike Ross 281.

And yet this simple contest of pitcher and batter is this year celebrating its 150th anniversary as a professional sport with its role as an emblem for American culture still jealously defended. Indeed, that very longevity is a source of strength:  baseball’s romanticized all-American creation story, which rejects its origins in the English game of rounders, may now be acknowledged as myth, but it provides the bedrock for its many cultural claims.  Ever since 1919, when the philosopher Morris Cohen first declared baseball a ‘national religion’ which offered ‘redemption from the limitations of our petty individual lives and the mystic unity of the larger life of which we are part’, baseball-obsessed scholars and multiple purveyors of cultural output have offered the game as a lens through which to view the complexities of American history. It is a rural game popularized in America’s industrializing cities; a team sport of democratic instincts soiled by its shameful record of racial and gender exclusion. It captures the essence of American capitalism in the endless struggle between owners and players over the division of its revenues. With baseball’s twentieth century expansion south and west, and the suburbanization of its fan base, it mirrors the march of post-war prosperity into new regions of the country; and all the time it demonstrates its capacity to cater simultaneously to two conflicting strains of the national character - unbridled consumerism and anxiety-fueled nostalgia.

Baseball blog june 2019 2

Morris Cohen, 1880-1947. Painted by Joseph Margulies. CCNY Library collection. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Re-enforcing these connections, a lively stream of cultural output still flows – in literature, language, film and music – which celebrates the continuity of American life and the mythical role of fathers in the generational transmission of American values.  Baseball’s story, so the argument goes, is America’s story

Of course, not everyone accepts these sweeping metaphorical claims – the baseball historian Daniel Nathan has lamented the sentimentality, ignorance and nationalism that ‘becloud our sense of baseball history and reality’. In baseball, Nathan asserts, romance has obscured the reality of the commercial and cultural onslaught from America’s other big sporting beasts. Similarly, Edward White has complained of the ‘unfounded assertions, rampant over-generalizations and exercises in wish fulfilment’, made by baseball’s scholarly and media boosters.

So which side is right in this long-running battle over cultural inheritance? Is the label of America’s ‘national pastime’ up for grabs, or was it surrendered long ago? These issues will be debated in a special event at the British Library, Take Me Out to the Ballgame: Baseball and American Culture, on Friday 28 June, 19.00 – 20.15, the eve of the Red Sox-Yankees London series. Taking part in the panel discussion will be distinguished baseball writers, baseball historians and past-practitioners of the game, with the event chaired by Matthew Engel, the eminent cricket writer, now a wholehearted convert to America’s game. If you want to join the conversation, book your tickets here: https://www.bl.uk/events/take-me-out-to-the-ball-game-baseball-and-american-culture

Chris Birkett

The British Library is the home to the Mike Ross Collection of baseball books and memorabilia which contains more than 300 items relating to America’s national pastime.

Chris Birkett is undertaking postgraduate research on the Clinton presidency and baseball at King’s College London, where he is a Professor Sir Richard Trainor Scholar, supported by the Eccles Centre at the British Library

22 May 2019

The Power of Memoir

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Where does the personal reside in our understanding of history, social issues and human experience? And what does the form of the memoir distinctively illuminate?

In 2018 novelist Tessa McWatt used her residency as an Eccles British Library Writer’s Award holder to work on a memoir on race and story-telling which traced the hybridity of her genetic make-up and the issues of racism she has faced on both sides of the ‘divide’. Her practice-based research is engaged in issues of colonialism and the historical and structural underpinnings of the creation of race and how her personal experience has been embedded in those structures.

On 3 June, Tessa will be speaking at the British Library in conversation with two historians, Sarah Knott and Norma Clarke, chaired by Erica Wagner, to talk about how embracing their own experiences and investing in the memoir form has enabled them to develop and extend their work as scholars and writers.  In preparation for their event, we asked them to given an example of how an historical item from the archive helped inform their projects: Sarah on maternity, Norma on family and Tessa on race.

Sarah Knott:

An Interesting Condition excerpt

Excerpt from Abigail Lewis [Otis Burger], An Interesting Condition (London: Odhams Press Ltd, 1951), pp. 180-181. Shelfmark 8417.cc.29.

1949 New York. Otis Burger wanted to stop each contraction and see what it felt like. It was odd having an entirely new sensation inside. She had been reading the English doctor Grantly Dick-Read, who thought childbirth should be painless ‒ disliking his determination to reduce women to their biology, but appreciating his tenderness. Her fear was the hospital feeling of being naked, and at the mercy of strangers, like a specimen of some sort. Male doctors were condescending; they seemed to think the difficulty was all in the mother’s mind and that birth was too much of a commonplace for the mother to make such a silly fuss.

Otis Burger wrote her remarkable maternal memoir, An Interesting Condition, some decades before the women’s liberation movement encouraged others to pick up their pens and make maternity properly visible. The book was unusual enough that it was printed not just in her New York but also in London, thus making its way into the hands of ordinary English readers as well as the collections of the British Library. That she published under a pseudonym was some indication of the taboos that needed to be broken.

In writing Mother: An Unconventional History, I plundered personal writings like these to understand past experiences of pregnancy, birth and being with an infant. And I took inspiration, too, from what happens when you think, like Otis Burger, in a memoir form. Blending memoir into history, and history into memoir, I found myself asking questions I might otherwise have overlooked. In bleary sleeplessness and with an infant close at hand, I wondered, what was the history of the maternal night? Or, what were the new sensations of feeling continually interrupted, or hearing the sound of an infant’s cry? I found answers not just in past memoirs but in a host of other kinds of materials to be found in libraries and archives, from leather-bound how-to guides to slave narratives and social scientists’ surveys, to private letters and scribbled diaries.

Sarah Knott, Mother (Penguin Viking, 2019)

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Norma Clarke:

My Daugter Maria Callas cover

Evangelia Callas, My Daughter – Maria Callas, as told to Lawrence G Blochman (London: Leslie Frewin, 1967) Shelfmark W77/5490

Not Speaking tells the story of a family quarrel and it does so partly through conventional narrative, partly through oral history interviews and partly by means of investigations into literary subjects: Homer’s Iliad with its quarrelling heroes features throughout, Pope’s poem, The Rape of the Lock, has traction (brother hairdressers Nicky and Michael Clarke are at the heart of the story) and Robert Graves and George Sand in Majorca figure because Majorca is one of the settings, along with Athens and London. I had no intention of researching Maria Callas and it was only by accident that she became included. But asking my mother questions about her life as a girl growing up in Athens led me down unexpected byways. The mother of Prince Philip, for example, Princess Alice, had remained in Athens during the war, and spoke very good Greek; my mother admired her. Maria Callas was also in Athens. Maria left Greece in 1945 and turned her back on her mother and sister, declaring that they hated her and she them. The women were no longer on speaking terms. And then I read a quote from Callas that riveted me: ‘I know my mother wrote a book about me, but I never read it.’

Her mother wrote a book about her! Books by daughters about mothers are ten a penny, but books by mothers about daughters? I couldn’t wait to read it. I rushed to the British Library, and within 70 minutes I had in my hands, My Daughter – Maria Callas, by Evangelia Callas (1960). It’s a book that vibrates with fury, and I reflected that Maria was probably right to keep it at a distance, but for me it was revelatory.

Norma Clarke, Not Speaking (Unbound, 2019)

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Tessa McWatt:

Chinese Oracle Bones

Shang dynasty characters on fragments of an oracle bone dating between 1600 and 1050 BC. British Library, Or. 7694/1516

“What Are You?”

It’s a question I was asked as an eight-year old in a suburban Toronto classroom by my teacher, after the word “Negro” came up in a book the class was reading. It was a word that none of the kids in the room – all ‘white’ except for me -- knew the meaning of.

Shame on Me began as a journey to understand how to answer the question. It looks at all of the strands of my genetic make-up – Scottish, African, English, Irish, Chinese, South Asian -- to find some kind of meaning in biology. But when I began to research the history of race, of the particular ‘miscegenations’ that formed me, it occurred to me that it’s all down to story-telling. I might as well ask an oracle.

Then I came across the Chinese Oracle Bone (dating from between 1600 BC and 1050 BC) in the British Library. I was hooked. I started to frame my book around the idea that ‘knowing’ is storytelling. I saw the Chinese oracle bone as an ancient 23&Me. Diviners used them to answer the elite’s questions about health, birth and death; about crops, the weather; about the outcome of battles or simply whether a particular ancestor was causing a king’s headache. The shoulder blades of ox, sheep, boars, horses and deer, or the shells of tortoises were cleaned of flesh, scraped, polished, and then diviners carved questions into them using a sharp tool. During a divination session, the bone was anointed with blood before questions were posed to ancestors. The diviner then applied such intense heat that the bone or shell cracked, and he interpreted the pattern of the fractures to answer the questions posed.

A bone with the power to provide these kinds of answers would surely provide an answer to ‘What are You?’

If only.

Tessa McWatt, Shame on Me: An Anatomy of Race and Belonging (Scribe UK, forthcoming, October 2019)

***

Mother and Not Speaking covers

To find out more, join Sarah, Norma and Tessa in conversation with Erica Wagner at the British Library on Monday 3 June. More details: https://www.bl.uk/events/memoir-identity-experience

 

 

 

 

 

 

30 April 2019

The New York World's Fair, 1939

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Today marks 80 years since the Official Opening by President Franklin D Roosevelt of the 1939 New York World’s Fair.

First conceived by New York City business leaders in the midst of the Great Depression, the Fair was intended to raise the spirits – and economic outlook – of the city and the nation. Located at Flushing Meadows, Queens, on land that had been part salt marsh, part ash dump, the 1,200 acre site was three times the size of the Chicago World’s Fair, held just six years earlier. Indeed, the amusement park alone was larger than the entire Paris Exposition of 1937.

World fair cookbook 3

The New York World's Fair Cook Book: The American Kitchen. By Crosby Gaige. New York: Doubleday, Doran & Company, 1939. (Shelfmark: 7944.t.37) 

Although the Official Opening commemorated the 150th anniversary of George Washington’s inauguration in NYC (then the nation’s capital), this Fair was all about looking forward. With its hugely optimistic, yet commercially minded theme – 'Building the World of Tomorrow' – nearly 45 million visitors were encouraged to see themselves as co-creators of an exciting, progressive and essentially urban future. Yet, unlike previous world expos, which had tended to celebrate technological, scientific and medical innovations in their own right, this fair wholly embraced the vision and output of corporate America.

Perhaps one of the most captivating early exhibits – unveiled in 1938 to help publicise the Fair – was the Westinghouse Time Capsule. With contents ranging from Camel cigarettes to the works of Alfred Einstein, and Life magazine to corn and tobacco seeds, it was plunged 15 meters below ground with instructions not to be opened for 5000 years.

Time capsule 4

The Book of Record of the Time Capsule of Cupaloy. New York: Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company, 1939. (British Library shelfmark: 20033.d.15) 

The Fair itself was organised across seven vast 'zones', including Communication and Business, Production and Distribution, and Transportation. Huge pavilions were sponsored by the giants of American industry and manufacturing - Ford, Chrysler, National Cash Register, General Electric, Lucky Strike, Kodak and others. Here they showcased current and soon-to-be released consumer products, including television, air conditioning, washing machines and nylon. Yet many also offered imaginative, even breath-taking conceptions of the future, perhaps none more so than Norman Bel Geddes's 'Futurama'; a unique exhibit and ride, it offered a tantalising view of the city in 1960 and was sponsored by General Motors.

In the Government zone, 60 nations – more than at any other US fair – created and curated their own unique pavilions, enthusiastically embracing Andre Maurois’s faith in their being 'excellent publicity albums.' The British Pavilion included Lincoln Cathedral's copy of the Magna Carta, 'an object of interest and indeed of reverence,' which left Britain for the first time in its history.

Magna carta hall

The Magna Carta Hall, British Pavilion. London, 1939. (British Library shelfmark: 7960.df.12) 

Yet, for all these displays of international friendship and diplomacy, the Fair opened at the most perilous of times. The French Pavilion programme notes: At the time when the present volume leaves the printers, [France], has entered upon war, as a result of Germany’s brutal aggression against Poland. All the more stirring will be its message to America and the world…'

When the Fair opened for its second six-month season in April 1940, its theme had changed to 'For Peace and Freedom' and numerous countries, including the Netherlands, Norway and Poland did not take part.

World fair france

France. Paris: Art Printing and Packaging Works, 1939. (British Library shelfmark: 7745.a.10)

The Fair closed in October 1940 millions of dollars in debt and having failed to attract the visitor numbers that had been hoped for. Yet, it lived on in the imagination of those who attended and its vision and hope still resonates today.

The British Library holds a unique and eclectic collection of materials from this – and all other – US hosted Fairs.

Jean Petrovic, Eccles Centre

 

 

03 April 2019

América Latina: Artists’ Books at the British Library

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In early February the British Library held its third hugely successful Artists’ Books Now event: América Latina. The evening brought together artists, collectors, academics and curators to consider the multiple dynamics at work in the creation of Latin American artists’ books. It also enabled the audience to handle and explore the works on display and to discuss them with the contributors and each other.

Jerry - group shot

Artists, curators and members of the audience engaging with the artists' books. Image: Jerry Jenkins.

Amongst the items considered were cordel literature and cartonera, both of which are richly represented in the Library’s collections. Cordel literature are popular and inexpensively printed booklets or pamphlets containing folk novels, poems and songs which often have decorative covers printed from woodcuts.

Jerry book

Brazilian woodcut prints illustrating cordel publications from Connie Bloomfield’s collection.  Image: Jerry Jenkins.

Cartonera is a publishing movement which originated in Latin America in the early 2000s and which employs recycled material to make literary works. Historically these works have social, political and artistic significance. The British Library holds cartonera from Argentina, Uruguay, Peru, and Mexico. Beth Cooper, Curator for Latin America and Caribbean collections, has been working with Lucy Bell and Alex Flynn on an AHRC funded cartonera research project ‘Precarious Publishing in Latin America: relations, meanings and community in movement'.

The Library also holds works from Ediciones Vigía, an independent publishing house located in Matanzas, Cuba. Vigía originally opened as a space for writers and artists to gather and discuss their work. Participants began creating single-sheet flyers that advertised meeting times for interested artists, and eventually they evolved into a book publishing house. Many of their works are produced in coarse paper from substances including sugar cane, offcuts of cardboard and other leftovers. They are decorated with drawings, cut by hand and enhanced with material objects: scraps of tissue paper, cloth, cord, as well as less likely ornaments including sand, twigs, leaves and nails. The maximum number of any work produced by the house is two hundred. Clearly there is an intersection with the cartonera, although the roots of each movement are differentiated by time, with Vigías being a backlash to the uniformity of Cuban printing and publishing of the 1980s.  

Jerry woman speaker

Artist Francisca Prieto discussing her work The Antibook [British Library shelfmark: RF.2003.a.233]

América Latina offered a wonderful opportunity to explore and unpick the ways in which  artists’ books can be seen as a transnational and international medium which does not respect boundaries or borders.

Huge thanks are due to all of the contributors: Michael Wellen, Curator, International Art, Tate Modern; researchers and collectors Lucy Bell and Connie Bloomfield; artist book and zine maker Rafael Morales Cendejas; visual artist Francisca Prieto; and Beth Cooper, Curator, Latin America and the Caribbean, The British Library.

Jerry Jenkins, Curator Contemporary British Publications, Emerging Media

 

01 February 2019

The Federal Theatre Project's 'Living Newspapers'

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Last month we celebrated the life of Hallie Flanagan, director of the ground-breaking Federal Theatre Project (1935-39). This blog will look at one of the Federal Theatre’s most innovative and controversial accomplishments: the ‘Living Newspapers’. It will also share our realisation concerning the connection between Hallie Flanagan and Mary Eccles, co-founder of the British Library’s Eccles Centre for American Studies.

Flanagan first encountered living newspapers – in which social and political issues were given theatrical form – while visiting the Soviet Union in 1926. Such productions had emerged during the Russian Civil War as a means of promoting a pro-Soviet version of the news to the largely illiterate Red Army troops. Following the Bolshevik victory, this agitprop art form continued developing and expanding. In 1923 the hugely influential collective 'Blue Blouse' was founded under the auspices of the Moscow School of Journalism. By 1928 more than 7,000 Blue Blouse troupes had been established across the nation. Performances typically opened with a parade of ‘headlines’, followed by a dozen or so humorous or satirical  sketches on topics as diverse as trouble in a local factory to religion and international relations. Siniaia Bluza (Moscow, 1924-28; shelfmark ZA.9.d.615) - the irregularly published Blue Blouse periodical - supported these performances, containing suggestions for staging, sets and costumes as well as librettos for skits.  

Blue Blouse 1927

Siniaia Bluza, 71-72 (1927): 32. Moscow, 1924-28. Shelfmark: ZA.9.d.615

Flanagan attended several Blue Blouse productions in Moscow. In Shifting Scenes of the Modern European Theatre (London, 1929; shelfmark 011805.i.61) she notes: 'At Trade Union or Factory theatres, the Blue Blouses, workers by day and actors by night, perform original acrobatic plays'. She particularly recalls attending a production in which ‘three men and three girls glorify workers of the Army, the Navy, the farms, and factories’. [1] Rejecting elaborate props and sets, the actors energetically climbed imaginary rigging, planted imaginary crops and controlled imaginary machinery: 'Each motif reached its climax in a refrain taken up by the audience, a refrain consisting of the repetition of a single word, Comrade – half sung, half shouted: Tovarish! Tovarish! Tovarish! The effect of this exuberance was an amazing impression of having seen, not three men and three girls in an amateur song and dance, but a forest of ships with sailors in the rigging, a battalion of soldiers, a commonwealth of farm and factory hands all linked in a comradeship of work.' [2]

A decade later, in one of her earliest conversations with WPA director, Harry Hopkins, Flanagan suggested the Federal Theatre could produce a series of living newspapers involving many people taking on small parts. Hopkins immediately concurred and the Federal Theatre's principle Living Newspaper Unit was established in New York City soon after. Headed by playwright Elmer Rice – who, like Flanagan, had visited the Soviet Union – the Unit included theatre professionals and out-of-work journalists. From the outset it attracted controversy. Its first production – Ethiopia, about the recent invasion by Mussolini – was issued with a federal censorship order, prompting Rice’s resignation. And its third – Injunction Granted, with its pro-union/anti-big business stance – was criticised by federal government officials and closed early. Several living newspapers were hugely successful, however; most notably, One-Third of a Nation.

One-Third-of-a-Nation-Poster

Poster for One-Third of a Nation at the Aldelphi Theatre, New York City, 1938. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Inspired by President Roosevelt's second inaugural address in which he recognised that one third of the nation were ‘ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished’, the play dramatized the living conditions – the crime, disease, and powerlessness – endured by those in urban slum tenements. It also offered some solutions. After being workshopped at Vassar under Flanagan's direction in the summer of 1937, it was staged in cities across the United States, with revisions reflecting local conditions. In Philadelphia, for example, reference was made to a city tenement house that had collapsed two days before opening night.

Everywhere, reviews of One-Third of a Nation were positive. The Detroit Tribune declared it to be: ‘… of vital interest to every Negro living in Michigan’. The New Orleans Times-Picayune called it ‘timely and shrewdly staged’. In San Francisco it ran for nearly two years. And at New York’s Adelphi Theatre over 200,000 people cheered as the life-like slum housing went up in flames and the ‘The Consumer’ cried out to the government: ‘Can you hear me, Washington? Give me a decent home!’

One-Third-of-a-Nation-Set

Photo of the New York set of the Federal Theatre Project's One-Third of a Nation, 1938. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

And it seems that Washington did hear, but in both a positive and negative way. Eleanor Roosevelt believed One-Third of a Nation achieved more than any speeches by her, Langdon Post (Head of the New York City Housing Authority), or even her husband ever could. But numerous senators were offended that their views on housing – taken word-for-word from the Congressional Record – were included in the play.

Flanagan later reflected in Arena: The History of the Federal Theatre (New York: Benjamin Blom, 1965; shelfmark X.900/3282) that: ‘Enemies made by the living newspaper were, I believe, powerful enemies, instrumental in the final closing of the project.’ [3] Yet, she never regretted her decisions. And she never lost her conviction in the power of this art form. Indeed, in 1948 she co-wrote a new play - E = mc2: A Living Newspaper about the Atomic Age - boldly declaring in its foreword: ‘The theatrical effectiveness of the “living newspaper” was conclusively demonstrated in the productions of Power and One-Third of a Nation. This latest edition of the "living newspaper" compares most favorably with the previous ones.' (New York: Samuel French, 1948; shelfmark 011791.c.47) 

Atomic 2

Hallie Flanagan, E = mc2: A Living Newspaper about the Atomic Age.  New York: Samuel French, 1948. Shelfmak: 011791.c.47

Finally, we wanted to share our recent realisation that Mary Eccles – co-founder of the British Library’s Eccles Centre for American Studies – was a student at Vassar College at the very time that Hallie Flanagan established the Vassar Experimental Theatre. Colleagues at the Centre knew about Mary's doctoral  thesis, 'Playwriting for Elizabethans, 1600-1605'. We were also aware anecdotally of her interest in avant-garde theatre. Yet, we had never connected Mary with Flanagan. With hindsight, it seems inconceivable that Mary would not have worked with, and surely been influenced by, this extraordinary, ground-breaking woman. In this vein, we will conclude with this wonderful, scandalous newspaper clipping about Mary (née Crapo) breaking conventions and enjoying a 'healthy drag' on a cigarette during her college years! 

Mary Crapo smoking

References:

[1]. Hallie Flanagan, Shifting Scenes of the Modern European Theatre. London: George G Harrap & Co., 1929, p. 108. Shelfmark: 011805.i.61.

[2]. ibid., p. 109.

[3]. Hallie Flanagan, Arena: The History of the Federal Theatre. New York: Benjamin Blom, 1965, p. 221. Shelfmark: X.900/3282.

Jean Petrovic, Eccles Centre for American Studies

06 December 2018

Hallie Flanagan and the House Committee on Un-American Activities

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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]

Flanagan-Federal-Theatre-Radio

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.

Theatre-Studio_on_Povarskaya_Street_1905

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.

Faustus-FTP-Poster

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

 

05 October 2018

My Ántonia – 100 year on

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I recently discovered that this year marks the 100th anniversary of Willa Cather’s My Ántonia.  This novel was the final part of Cather’s ‘prairie trilogy’ – following O Pioneers! and The Song of the Lark – and it remains one of her best-loved works.

My Antonia

Willa Cather, My Ántonia. London: William Heinemann, 1919. Shelfmark: NN.5641.

Given that we try to keep these blogs somewhat timely, my hope was that it had been written towards the end of 1918! A quick Google search failed to confirm or disprove this, so I turned instead to Book Review Digest Retrospective, 1903-1982. This fantastic electronic database cites (and sometimes provides excerpts from) reviews of adult and children’s fiction and non-fiction in over 500 English language magazines, newspapers and academic journals.

The earliest contemporary review it lists for My Ántonia appears The New York Times on 6 October 1918. It also cites reviews from The Nation, The New York Call, The Bookman, Booklist, The Dial and The Independent (a weekly magazine published in New York City).  Most of these publications are held at the British Library. Their reviews of My Ántonia are overwhelmingly positive. The Nation calls Cather ‘an artist whose imagination is at home in her own land, among her own people’ and notes the novel is 'among the best of our recent interpretations of American life' . The Bookman declares the story to be ‘true to the Nebraskan soil of [Cather’s] own childhood, and therefore true to America and the world’. And for The Independent, Ántonia's struggle on the frontier is ‘full of human appeal and the fascination of the making of Americans from the foreign born.’

Willa Cather House II

Willa Cather House, Red Cloud, Nebraska. Image: Ammodramus, 2010. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons. 

Throughout the early twentieth century, Cather continued to be well-regarded by the majority of critics and authors. In 1923 she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for her fifth novel, One of Ours (1922). And in 1930 – while accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature – Sinclair Lewis famously declared that Cather, Theodore Dreiser, Ernest Hemingway and Sherwood Anderson were the only contemporary vital forces in American letters. Indeed, Lewis ‘salutes them with joy’ for giving to the United States – a nation ‘which has mountains and endless prairies, enormous cities and lost farm cabins’ – a literature worthy of its enormity. (New York Times, 13 December 1930). 

In spite of Lewis’s enthusiasm, however, Cather’s focus upon these very same endless prairies and lost farm cabins doubtless contributed to her later being periodically marginalised as a regional writer and omitted from discussions about 20th century literature in the decades that followed.

Willa Cather with necklace fom Sarah Orne Jewett

 Willa Cather, ca. 1912. Wearing a necklace given to her by Sarah Orne Jewett. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Yet, Cather’s own take on the importance of place in My Ántonia is interesting. In an interview in 1924 she acknowledges that the title character is tied to the soil. But she also asserts that she could just as well have written a story of a Czech baker living in Chicago ‘and it would have been the same.’ The story in Chicago would, Cather concedes, have been ‘smearier, joltier, noiser, less sugar and more sand’. But still it would have been a story that expressed the mood and spirit of the people that she knew; the immigrant families from Scandinavia, Russia and Bohemia who were forging a new life in a new land.  (New York Times, 21 Dec. 1924).

17 August 2018

Canada and Its Literature: A Tale of More Than Two Cultures 2/2

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Language has inevitably played a significant role in Canada’s immigration patterns. Reflecting the country’s colonial history and occupation by both the French and the English, the two most commonly-spoken languages in Canada remain English (the mother tongue of 56% of Canadians) and French (that of 21% of Canadians). Of course, other factors influence human relocation, but it is easy to see the attraction of such a linguistic context for immigrants from former colonies. The Haitian-Canadian community is an especially good illustration. According to the 2011 Census, 97% of Haitian immigrants live in Quebec – the second most populous region of Canada, but more crucially, home to the largest French-speaking community in the country, and with French as the official language. The attraction is clear for people from Haiti, a former French colony that has retained French as the language of education and bureaucracy. And the Haitian community in Quebec has produced a significant amount of prominent migrant writers, such as Emile Ollivier, Marie-Célie Agnant, Gérard Etienne, Joël des Rosiers, Gary Klang and Anthony Phelps, many of whom are published by Mémoire d’encrier.

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Dany Laferrière. Wikimedia Commons. 2014.

 

But the best-known of them worldwide is Dany Laferrière, a political refugee of the Duvalier regime who has lived in North America since the 1970s. Born to a politician and an archivist, Laferrière worked as a journalist before fleeing Haiti soon after a colleague and friend of his was found murdered on a beach – most probably by the government. His autobiographical novel, Le Cri des Oiseaux Fous (2000) [The Cry of Mad Birds] narrates this event, its impact on him and the horrors of the Duvalier dictatorship in more detail. After moving to Montreal as a 23-year-old, he spent several years scraping a living from insecure jobs, living in cheap flats and reading novels. His first novel, provocatively entitled Comment faire l’amour à un nègre sans se fatiguer (1985) [How to Make Love to a Negro without Getting Tired] was a resounding international success. The story followed the lives of two Haitians sharing a flat in Montreal, and satirically engaged with racist stereotypes. A film adaptation followed four years after but was censured in the U.S, revealing the country’s continuing discomfort with racial issues. Over thirty years on, and with over thirty books to his name, Laferrière will be honoring the Institut Français of London with a visit on 24/09/2018 as part of the British Library’s French Caribbean Study Day.

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Kim Thúy at the Salon international du livre de Québec 2011. Wikimedia Commons.

 

Another important migrant writer from Quebec is Kim Thuy. Born in Vietnam, her family escaped the communist regime in her homeland when she was ten years old and she spent several months in a refugee camp in Malaysia before being relocated to Quebec where she had to learn French, the language in which she now writes. First working as a translator and later as a lawyer, Thuy never severed her links with her homeland. As a lawyer for example, she went on an advisory assignment to Vietnam with a group of Canadian experts. Back in Montreal, she also opened a Vietnamese restaurant called Ru de Nam. She then turned to writing and explored themes such as Vietnamese immigrant women, the culture shocks of immigration, the mother-daughter relationship and Vietnamese food. Her latest publication, Le Secret des Vietnamiennes (2017) [Vietnamese Women’s Secret] is actually a cookbook of Vietnamese recipes handed down from mothers to daughters. Her first novel, Ru (2009) was a bestseller in Quebec and France, won prestigious awards worldwide and was translated into over twenty-five languages. It tells the story of a family’s journey from Vietnam to Quebec and their difficult adaptation to Canada. Loosely based on her experiences, it tackles the Vietnamese “boat people” refugee crisis involving dangerous escapes from Vietnam on over-crowded boats to refugee camps. Significantly, more than 50% of the Southeast Asian boat people came to Canada as a result of a government program.

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A small selection of our holdings by French-language Canadian migrant writers (from left to right): Mona Latif-Ghattas (from Egypt), Abla Farhoud (from Lebanon), Hedi Bouraoui (from Tunisia), Ying Chen (from Shanghai), Naim Kattan (from Iraq), Régine Robin (from France), Sergio Kokis (from Bresil), Kim Thuy (from Vietnam), Blaise Ndala (from Congo), Marco Micone (from Italy), Dany Laferriere (from Haiti) and Aki Shimazaki (from Japan).

 

As you can see, Laferrière and Thuy are just two of the many French-language Canadian writers and the British Library holds books many more Canadian multicultural writers than I can even allude to in this post. Now let’s have a quick look at what we hold in terms of English-language migrant writing:

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A small selection of our holdings by English-language Canadian migrant writers (from left to right): Kim Fu (of Chinese descent), Esi Edugyan (of Ghanaian descent), Austin Clarke (from Barbadia), M.G Vassanji (from Kenya, of Asian descent), Shani Mootoo (from Trinidad), Michael Ondaatje (from Sri Lanka), Madeleine Thien (of Chinese descent), Shauna Singh Baldwin (of Indian descent), Dionne Brand (from Trinidad and Tobago), Olive Senior (from Jamaica) and Neil Bissoondath (from Trinidad).

 

Although technically speaking still a newcomer to the international literary scene, Lebanese-born writer and photographer Rawi Hage has been particularly in vogue since the publication of his first novel in 2006.  Hage witnessed the civil war in his homeland and moved to Canada in the early 1990s where he had to work as a security guard and taxi driver to pay his way through university. Hage wasn’t the only person to relocate because of the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990). In fact, as the war dragged on, Canada and Australia were the only Western countries to set up special programs to welcome Lebanese refugees. The 2011 census shows that Lebanese-Canadians still form the largest Arabic-speaking group in Canada. Language certainly had a role in this too, as 45% of Lebanese nationals can speak French. While Hage writes in English – his third language – up to quite recently he lived in Francophone Montreal, like about half of the Lebanese-Canadian population. His award-winning debut novel, De Niro’s Game (2006), tackles the hard choices that young Lebanese people faced during the civil war. His second novel, Cockroach (2008), charts the trials of an impoverished Middle Eastern immigrant in Montreal through his sessions with his therapist after a failed suicide attempt, leading the reader to question the success of Canada’s multiculturalism ambitions.

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Rawi Hage at Quebec Writers Federation, 2012. Vimeo.

 

Hage’s colleague writer and common-law partner Madeleine Thien has rightly argued that the Canadian literary prize-awarding establishment generally prioritizes white writers over nonwhite ones). And when “multicultural”/minority writers are included, they generally tend to be men. Evoking the prestigious Giller Prize, she remarks that only 12 nonwhite writers were shortlisted over a ten-year period, and that “this number includes twice each for Rawi Hage, M.G. Vassanji, and Michael Ondaatje”. Thien’s point is all the more significant considering the extent of nonwhite and multicultural women’s writing in Canada’s literary history. The Caribbean feminist and/or queer women writers Dionne Brand, M. Nourbese Philip, Olive Senior, Lorna Goodison, Shani Mootoo, Makeda Silvera and Nalo Hopkinson are only a few examples.

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Esi Edugyan. A portrait by Johann Wall, reproduced with his kind permission.

 

But in 2011, Esi Edugyan made history by being the first black woman to win the Giller Prize. Her novel, Half-Blood Blues, followed the lives of Afro-German and African-American jazz musicians fleeing the Gestapo in 1930s Berlin and Nazi-occupied Paris. Edugyan’s parents left Ghana in the 1970s, during a period of drastic change and political unrest following independence. Like many of their compatriots, they moved to Canada, where Ghanaians became the second-largest African immigrant group. Her family’s first-hand experiences of racism and difficulties adapting to life in Canada has inspired much of her writing. Her first novel for example, The Second Life of Samuel Tyne (2004), shows the disillusionment of a Ghanaian immigrant living in Alberta in the late 20th century, a character loosely based on her father. In the past few weeks, Edugyan has made the news again, by being long-listed (for the second time!) alongside Ondaatje for the Man Booker Prize. Her competing novel, Washington Black (2018), is an unconventional slave narrative which charts the life of a twelve-year-old slave working in a Barbados sugar plantation before fleeing an unjust execution in the 1830s, travelling to America, Canada, England, the Netherlands and Morocco. Good luck to her!

Laura Gallon.


Laura Gallon is a PhD placement student at the British Library where she is working on a project assessing holdings of migrant narratives in the North American collections. She is in the second year of her PhD at the University of Sussex which is looking at contemporary American short fiction by immigrant women writers. Her placement is supported by the Eccles Centre for American Studies.