American Collections blog

19 posts categorized "Humanities"

01 August 2019

Herman Melville at 200

Today – 1 August 2019 – marks 200 years since the birth of Herman Melville.

To celebrate we are sharing a few images from Lakeside Press’s beautiful 1930 edition of Moby Dick (British Library shelfmark: L.R.50.b.1) illustrated by artist, printmaker, writer and voyager, Rockwell Kent. 

Moby dick title III  Moby dick real tale 2 Moby dick tail 3

(Herman Melville, Moby Dick. Chicago: Lakeside Press, 1930. 3 Vols. (British Library shelfmark: L.R.50.b.1)) 

While now regarded as a masterpiece and one of the greatest American novels of all time, such acclaim could never have been predicted for Moby Dick when it was first published in 1851. Unlike Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847) in which Melville exploited his own sailing and whaling adventures to critical acclaim and commercial success, his sixth novel - published as The Whale in London and as Moby Dick; or, The Whale in New York shortly thereafter - garnered mixed reviews and poor sales. Indeed, Melville published his final work of prose just six years later and by his death in 1891 his reputation was in the doldrums.

Thankfully, his centenary in 1919 prompted a reappraisal of his work, so much so that in 1926 R. R. Donnelley and Lakeside Press chose Moby Dick as part of its 'Four American Books' campaign - the other three being Poe's Tales, Thoreau's Walden, and Richard Henry Dana Jr.'s 1840 memoir Two Years Before the Mast, which whilst little known today was one of America's first literary classics and a work Melville himself declared to be 'unmatchable'. 

For Donnelley and Lakeside Press, 'Four American Books' represented an opportunity to demonstrate the capacity of its modern machinery to produce fine press editions that would capture the imagination of the mass market. William A. Kittridge, the company's Head of Design and Typography who commissioned Rockwell Kent, believed their three volume version of Moby Dick to be 'the greatest illustrated book ever done in America' and nearly a century later it is still regarded as one of the finest books printed in the United States. Only one thousand copies of the three volume edition were published. However, a few months later Random House issued a one volume trade version that included all of Kent's illustrations, thereby bringing this incredible work to a wider and hugely appreciative readership. 

Moby dick smash 2 Moby dick ahab 2

(Herman Melville, Moby Dick. Chicago: Lakeside Press, 1930. 3 Vols. (British Library shelfmark: L.R.50.b.1)) 

Finally, and somewhat as an aside, readers might like to know that while Lakeside Press is included in Modern British and American Private Presses (1850-1965): Holdings of the British Library (London: British Museum Publications, 1976; shelfmark 2708.aa.36), the Eccles Centre is currently compiling a list of American fine presses established since 1965 that have works held by the British Library. Updates to follow in due course. 

30 July 2019

James Knight’s “History of Jamaica”

We are delighted to share this blog by Jamie Gemmell. Jamie is a third year undergraduate at the University of Edinburgh and was awarded a Carnegie Vacation Scholarship to produce a partial digital edition of James Knight’s “History of Jamaica”, focussing on its account of the social and cultural aspects of enslaved Africans. He recently presented his work at the British Library as part of the Eccles Centre's Summer Scholars season.

When I first came across James Knight’s “History of Jamaica” (1742) I was unsure what I would find. Historians have often neglected British Jamaica during the early eighteenth century. Instead, they have focused on the later seventeenth century, when the British conquered and established themselves on the island, or the later eighteenth century, when the slavocracy was at its peak. This meant it was difficult to have any expectations about Knight’s manuscripts, although it did provide an opportunity to develop new insights.

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James Knight, "History of Jamaica". Vol. 1, title page. (Add MS12415)

My primary concern was to see whether Knight could provide new information on the debate surrounding the origins of enslaved people’s cultures. Following a first read, I was disappointed. Like most European planter-historians, Knight’s primary focus was on the political debates between the metropole and colony or great acts of piracy committed by the likes of John Davis or Henry Morgan. I began to realise why most historians of Atlantic slavery begin their analyses by discussing the fragmentary nature of the evidence.

However, whilst Knight was by no means concerned with enslaved people, they appear throughout the manuscript. In the first volume, predominantly a narrative history of the island dating from the Spanish discovery, Knight described several rebellions by enslaved people as well as a relatively detailed account of the Maroons, communities of people who had escaped slavery. For Knight, the leader of the Leeward Maroons, Cudjoe, was a “very sensible fellow,” whilst the enslaved people who rebelled at Guanaboa in 1685 were “desperate Villains.”

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Edward Long's letter collection. (Add MS 22677)

The second volume takes the form of an ethnography, covering subjects ranging from the climate to the legal system in Jamaica. Knight dedicates a significant portion to his views on enslaved people within the chapter describing the inhabitants of Jamaica. He discusses enslaved physicians, and advices Europeans to learn their “many secrets.” He embarks on a long discussion of slavery, fighting accusations of the “Inhumanity of and Cruelty of the planters,” which may prove useful to scholarship in the way that it deals with early criticisms of slavery. For my own research, Knight’s description of the traits of the various African ethnic groups proved most pertinent.

Despite not being Knight’s primary focus, his manuscript raises new questions about enslaved cultures. Currently, the historiography has been primarily concerned with tracing cultural connections between enslaved groups in the Americas and specific regions of Africa. Over time significant research has been undertaken, such as James Sweet’s work on Portuguese Brazil.[1] After reading Knight’s manuscripts, I believe new questions can be raised. It seems inappropriate to accept Knight’s links between ethnicity and behaviour. Instead, further work must be done to understand the origins of these stereotypes and how they functioned in the European worldview. If we can grasp why Knight thought it pertinent to associate “particularly Eboes” with suicide or “Angolas” with the consumption of human “flesh,” we may come to a greater understanding of how the system of Atlantic slavery maintained itself.

Jamie Gemmell

 

http://www.jamesknightjamaica.com/

[1] Sweet, Recreating Africa (2003).

 

07 June 2019

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

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.

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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

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)

***

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)

***

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

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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.

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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.

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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.  

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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'

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.

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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

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

 

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