THE BRITISH LIBRARY

American Collections blog

207 posts categorized "USA"

15 October 2018

‘A Triple Threat Woman’: The Letters of Sylvia Plath

Add comment

On Friday 14 December 1962, Sylvia Plath wrote to her mother: 'I can truly say I have never been so happy in my life'. Four days before she had moved to 23 Fitzroy Road in London, a former residence of Yeats, with her two young children Frieda Rebecca and Nicholas. 'I feel Yeats' spirit blessing me', she writes. After her separation from Ted Hughes, Plath had decided to leave their home in rural Devon and start a new life in London. All around she sees good omens: 'The first letter through the door was of my publishers'. Al Alvarez, poetry editor of the Observer, had told her that her next book of poems should win the Pulitzer. She gave him a dedicated fair copy of 'Ariel'.

But this is a letter to her mother, Aurelia Plath, and, like all letters, it is written with the addressee in mind. Reading the second volume of The Letters of Sylvia Plath, recently published by Faber, one is reminded of how collections of letters, more than other biographical genres such as diaries or memoirs, capture the different social selves of a writer. Plath is cheerful and enthusiastic in her letter to her mother, aiming to put Aurelia's mind at rest. Elsewhere in the collection, she is self-assured and witty in her letters to her professional contacts, written in short, sharp sentences. And then there is the correspondence with her psychiatrist Dr Beuscher, where Plath writes openly about her plans for the future, her anger and her fears.

Edited by Plath expert Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil, editor of The Journals of Sylvia Plath 1950–1962 and Keeper of Plath’s collection at Smith, the volume is meticulously annotated and contains a selection of photographs and Plath's own drawings. Among the letters there are several from the British Library’s collections of Plath’s manuscripts. The editors, together with Plath scholars Heather Clark and Mark Ford, will be discussing Plath's letters on 23 October at the British Library.

Volume 2 cover
Front cover of the Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume II (Faber, 2018)

 

The letters speak of Plath's efforts to progress her career as a poet while trying to earn enough money and care for her children, particularly in the months after her separation from Hughes. But her anxiety about the future of her career appears much earlier. In a letter written to Marcia B Stern dated 9 April 1957, months after her marriage, she writes: 'If I want to keep on being a triple-threat woman: writer, wife and teacher…I can’t be a drudge’. The correspondence also shows the extent to which Plath's and Hughes's literary careers were intertwined, and their mutual encouragement and support, celebrating each poem that gets published. The 1962 and 1963 letters are interesting to read for references to her works, including the autobiographical novel The Bell Jar, published under a pseudonym in 1963, and the extraordinary poems that appeared posthumously in the collection Ariel.

 

Sylvia_Plath
Sylvia Plath [via Wikimedia Commons] 

The fact that the end of the story is well known doesn't make the last letter in the collection any easier to read. Addressed to her psychiatrist Ruth Beuscher on 4 February 1963, she writes: "What appalls me is the return of my madness, my paralysis, my fear & vision of the worst --cowardly withdrawal, a mental hospital, lobotomies". Blinded by depression, she continues "being 30 & having let myself slide, studied nothing for years, having mastered no body of objective knowledge is on me like a cold, accusing wind". Plath committed suicide days later, leaving behind the typescript of the poems that would become Ariel. Her Collected Poems won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1982.   

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   M.Aguirre

Lead Curator, Americas

 

05 October 2018

My Ántonia – 100 year on

Add comment

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).

24 August 2018

Americas Digital Newspaper Resources

Add comment

The British Library subscribes to numerous digital databases that have both historic and more contemporary holdings from across the Americas.  Crucially, a number of these are available remotely, so registered readers can access them from home.  You can access all of the databases discussed below through the 'databases' link on the Newsroom's webpage.  The below are just a selection of what you can access through our digital subscriptions, do dig around for more, and of course there is more to be found from the rest of the world. 

 

REMOTE RESOURCES

These are perhaps the most popular of our newspaper resources, available to registered readers at just a few clicks from the comfort of your own home.  They include the following databases, each of which contains hundreds of historic titles:

African American Newspapers, Series 1 and Series 2, 1827 - 1998

Providing online access to more than 350 U.S. newspapers chronicling a century and a half of the African American experience. This collection features papers from more than 35 states—including many rare and historically significant 19th century titles.

AfAm Newspapers interface

 

Caribbean Newspapers, 1718 - 1876

The largest online collection of 18th- and 19th-century newspapers published in the Caribbean. Essential for researching colonial history, the Atlantic slave trade, international commerce, New World slavery and U.S. relations with the region as far back as the early 18th century.

Caribbean Newspapers interface

 

Latin American Newspapers, Series 1 and Series 2, 1805 - 1922

This database includes over forty titles and tens of thousands of digitised issues of Latin American newspapers from across the region – Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, Brazil and the Southern Cone.

LatAm Newspapers interface

 

Early American Newspapers, Series 1, 1690 - 1876

Includes reproductions of hundreds of historic newspapers, providing more than one million pages as fully text-searchable facsimile images.

AmHist Newspapers interface

Foreign Broadcast Information Service, which collects the records of the US government operation that translated the text of daily broadcasts, government statements, and select news stories from international non-English sources.  This is particularly interesting for researchers working on US foreign relations, but also a good record of international resources otherwise not available.

FBIS interface

 

 

Access World News/NewsBank

Another extraordinary database, though not available remotely, is Access World News/Newsbank.  This currently provides access to more than 1800 American news sources and is accessible in all British Library Reading Rooms.

On the United States ‘homepage’ the sources are listed by state but can also be searched by region. Clicking the ‘Source Types’ tab reveals the following categories, as well as the number of sources for each of them: audio, blogs, journals, magazines, newspapers, newswires, transcripts, videos and web-only sources. A summary of each source provides the date range covered, the media type, publishing frequency, circulation, ownership and – where applicable – the URL or ISSN. In addition, the news magazines can also be accessed under ‘Short-Cuts/America’s News Magazines’ on the left-hand side of the home-page. Finally, clicking the ‘Source List’ tab reveals an alphabetical list of all news sources, along with their date range, location and source type.

The database’s many notable highlights include:

Full-text coverage of more than 1300 newspapers, including: Boston Herald (1991 – );  Daily News (NY) (1995 – ); The Dallas Morning News (1984 – ); The Denver Post (1989 – ); The Detroit News (1999 – ); Los Angeles Times (1985 – ); The Miami Herald (1982 – ); New York Post (1999 – ); Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel (1990 – ); Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (1990 – ); and the San Francisco Chronicle (1985 – ).

Transcripts of features on nearly seventy news programmes, including: 60 Minutes (CBS; 2004 – ) ; CBS Evening News (2005 – ); The Charlie Rose Television Show (PBS; 2004 – ); CNN (2004 – ); Face the Nation (CBS; 2010 – ); Fox News Channel (2003 – ); Meet the Press (NBC; 2012 – ); MSNBC (2003 – ); NBC Nightly News (2014 – ); NPR (1990 – ); and PBS NewsHour (2006 – ).

Full-text coverage of more than twenty news magazines, including: The Atlantic (1994 – ); Foreign Affairs (1994 – ); The New Republic (1993 – ); The New Yorker (2012 – ); Newsweek (1991 – ); and The Saturday Evening Post (1994 – ). NB: These are all listed under ‘Short Cuts/America’s News Magazines.

Output from more than 270 web-only sources, including Accuracy in Media (1998 – ); The Centre for Investigative Reporting (the oldest non-profit investigative reporting organisation in the US) (2003 – ); The Center for Public Integrity (2007 – ); The Daily Beast (2008 – ); Newsmax.com (2002 – ); and Slate (1996 – ).

 

Access to 64 newswires, including: Associated Press News Service (1997 – );  AP State Wires (from all states, 2010/2011 – ); CNN Wire (2009 – ); and UPI NewsTrack, (2005 – ).

Audio of The Diane Rehm Show (2000 – ), a daily news, arts and discussion show airing on NPR since the 1970s; a transcript is available from 2010.

The newspapers and news magazines in this database are text-only – they do not include the original page-layout, photographs or advertisements.

 

We hope that this provides some insight into just how much material is available through our digital subscriptions.  We continually add to these, and will post any updates on this blog so please do subscribe if you want to keep informed on the latest available resources.

 

- Jean Petrovic and Francisca Fuentes

23 August 2018

Help in finding Americas Newspapers & Magazines at the British Library

Add comment

Continuing on from yesterday's post on the opening of the Newspaper Library at Colindale in 1932, it seemed appropriate to revisit historic posts on this topic which give very useful guidance and tips on accessing these vast and rich collections.

Tomorrow we will look at digital resources, including remote access resources that British Library registered readers can access from home.  But first up, a guide to the dailies and weeklies we currently subscribe to.

Newsroom05-s

On microfilm these titles may only be read in the Newsroom and there is usually a three month time-lag in availability; any relevant indexes are held in the Newsroom on open access. In the Reading Rooms, access to the online version of both the dailies and weeklies is variable, so please check the listing below.

DAILIES:

Chicago Tribune, 1849 –  : The microfilm shelf-mark for the Chicago Tribune is MFM.MA207, although our holdings are imperfect for the first decade or so; its Index (1972 – ) is on open access in the Newsroom at shelf-mark NRR071.94. Online access to the Tribune’s business-focused articles is provided via two databases: Gale Cengage Business & Industry (1987 – 2002), which is available in all Reading Rooms, and Factiva (from 2003) which is available in the Business & IP Centre, the Social Sciences Reading Room and two PCs in the Newsroom.

International New York Times, 2013 –  : This paper was first published as The New York Herald (European edition) on 4 October 1887. Since then it has had numerous titles, including the International Herald Tribune (1966 – 2013). In all its incarnations it has microfilm shelf-mark MFM.MA1*. Full-text access to the International Herald Tribune (1994 – 98) is available on CD-ROM in the Humanities 2 Reading Room; this may be extended to other Reading Rooms soon.

Los Angeles Times, 1881 –  : The microfilm shelf-mark is MFM.MA46 and the Index (1972 – ) has Newsroom shelf-mark NRR071.94.  Full-text online access to the LA Times (from 1985) is available in all Reading Rooms via Newsbank/Access World News; my next blog will focus on this extraordinary database.

The New York Times, 1851 –  : The microfilm version has shelf-mark MFM.MA3 and the Index (1851 – present ) has Newsroom shelf-mark NRR071.47. The New York Times, 1851 – 2010, is available as part of the ProQuest Historical Newspapers database: this provides full facsimile page and article images and can be accessed in every Reading Room. Beyond 2010, access to business-focused news is offered via Factiva (from 1980), which can be accessed in the Business & IP Centre, the Social Sciences Reading Room and two PCs in the Newsroom, and Gale Cengage Business & Industry (from 1994), which is accessible in every Reading Room.

The Wall Street Journal, 1889 –  : The microfilm shelf-mark for the American edition is MFM.MA78 and its Index (1967 – ) has Newsroom shelf-mark NNR071.47. Online access (1990 – today’s edition) is available via Factiva in the Business & IP Centre, the Social Sciences Reading Room and on two PCs in the Newsroom.

The Washington Post, 1877 –  : The microfilm shelf-mark is MFM.MA370. Full-text online access to the Post’s business articles (from 2007) is available via Factiva in the Business & IP Centre, the Social Sciences Reading Room and two PCs in the Newsroom.

  

WEEKLIES:

The New Republic, 1914 –  : Now published twice a month, for most of its life The New Republic was published weekly, hence our decision to list it here; it has microfilm shelf-mark MFM.MA57. Online access (from 1993) is available in every Reading Room via Newsbank/Access World News: once in this database, click on ‘America’s News Magazines’ which is listed in ‘Shortcuts’.

Newsweek, 1933 –  : The American edition  (1933 – 1998) has microfilm shelf-mark MFM.MA390 and the hard-copy Overseas edition (1948 – 2009) has shelf-mark LOU.A391. Full text online access to Newsweek (from 1991) is available in every Reading Room via Newsbank/Access World News: as above, once in this database, click on ‘America’s News Magazines’ which is listed in ‘Shortcuts’.

Time, 1923 –  : The microfilm shelf-mark is MFM.MA397. Online access to Time’s business articles is available in every Reading Room via ESBSCOhost Business Source Complete (from 1990) and ProQuest ABI/Inform (from 2000, excluding the last three months).

The Village Voice (New York), 1955 –  : The microfilm shelf-mark is MFM.MA481.

 

- Jean Petrovic

10 July 2018

Call for Applicants: Eccles British Library Writer’s Award

Add comment

North America (John Rocque)

Above: John Rocque's, 'A General Map of North America' [Maps K.Top.118.32]

The summer marches on and while we are all tempted to kick-back and enjoy this unusual spell of consistent sunshine the writers in our audience may, nonetheless, want to have an eye on their plans for next year. The Eccles Centre’s call for applicants to the 2019 Writer’s Award is currently open and you have until the end of August to apply. For those of you who don’t know, the Award amounts to £20,000 for a twelve month residency at the British Library. Applicants should be working on a non-fiction or fiction full-length book, written in the English Language, the research for which requires that they make substantial use of the British Library’s collections relating to any part of the Americas (North, Central and South America, and the Caribbean). We are very excited to be broadening the horizons of the Award for this year and hope authors using the wider Americas collections will apply.

Wulf ander's choice C12682-03 (lo-res)

Above: Andrea Wulf (bhoto by Ander McIntyre) and an illustration of a monkey created by Humboldt for the account of his voyage (149.h.5.(1), from BL Images Online)

Previous awardees include Benjamin Markovits, Will Atkins, Andrea Wulf and many others. Each of our Award holders has used the Americas collections of the British Library to add extra depth to their research. For example, Will Atkins used the collections to research the history of exploration of deserts in the US as well as the history of events like the Burning Man festival. Meanwhile, Andrea Wulf drew from the Library’s collections, especially our printed book and maps collections, to conduct her research into the life and travels of Alexander von Humbolt. The Americas collections are broad in scope and potentially useful items can be found in the form of printed books, manuscripts, newspapers, government documents, photographs, maps, pamphlets and many more materials types. As a result, a wide world of inspiration awaits our 2019 Award holder.

If this has inspired you to leave the sun lounger and consider putting in an application, we would love to hear from you. For more information about applying for the Award, as well as insights into the work of previous winners, please visit our website. If you have any questions or would like to talk to someone about the award you can also get in touch with us at: eccles-centre@bl.uk.

Phil Hatfield, Head of the Eccles Centre

27 June 2018

Founding Greatness: Migration on United States Postages Stamps, 1869-1987

Add comment


The central role of Migration in the development of the United States ensures it is a theme well represented upon the nation’s postage stamps. The first to tackle the subject was the United States 1869 Issue 15 cent stamp containing James Smillie’s vignette engraving depicting the landing of Columbus in the Americas on 12th October 1492. Based upon John Vanderlyn’s famous painting now displayed inside the Capitol’s Rotunda in Washington, this event is widely recognised to be a turning point in the history of migration to the Americas. Furthermore this stamp and succeeding issues all provide clear allusions to the economic, military and religious incentives behind the waves of migration to the American Continent since the closing years of the fifteenth century to the present day.

Image 1

The main objective of Columbus’ voyages was to establish maritime trading routes to the East Indies; instead he discovered the New World. The wealth accrued by consequent Spanish colonial, military and economic in the Americas in turn encouraged mercantile classes from rival European nation states to try and emulate such economic success. The French, English, Swedish, Dutch and others all established colonial settlements within North America from the sixteenth century onwards. The United States 13 July 1984 20 cent stamp commemorating the 400th Anniversary of the First Raleigh Expedition to Roanoke Island depicts the Elizabeth Galleon, one of the vessels involved in establishing the famous Roanoke Colony which vanished under mysterious circumstances.

Image 2

More successful was the establishment of England’s first successful permanent Colony established at Jamestown, Virginia by the Virginia Company in 1607, an event commemorated on the United States 1907 Jamestown Exposition Issue 2 cent stamp.

  Image 3

 The United States 27 June 1938 Issue 3 cent stamp commemorating the tercentenary of Scandinavian Settlement in America depicts the establishment of a colonial settlement by Swedes and Finns on the lower reaches of the Delaware River in present day Delaware, New Jersey and Pennsylvania in 1638.

Image 4

Religious and political persecution in Europe during the early seventeenth century also led to migrants settling in various parts of America. The United States 18 December 1920 Issue 2 cents stamp commemorates the tercentenary of the migration of a group of religious dissenters known as the Pilgrim Fathers who established Plymouth Colony, Massachusetts in 1620.

  Image 5

In 1624 Huguenot-Walloon migrants also migrated to the United States to escape religious persecution forming the first permanent Dutch Settlement known as Fort Orange or New Netherland in present day Albany an event celebrated on the United States 1 May 1924 Issue 2 cent stamp.

Image 6

Missionary activity also resulted in migrants settling within America, individuals like a major the French Jesuit Missionary Father Jacques Marquette (1637-1675) established settlements at Michigan and was one of the first Europeans to explore and map the northern portion of the Mississippi River. His exploits commemorated on both the United States 10 June 1898 issue 1 cent and 20 September 1968 Issue 6 cent stamps.

 

Image 7

Image 8

After the War of Independence, the territorial extent of the fledgling United States was largely confined to the eastern seaboard of America. As an independent nation the government initiated a continued policy of westward expansion into the hinterland of North America. This expansion extended the Nation’s boundaries to the Pacific coastline. One of the earliest of such migrations into the North-West Territories now known as Ohio, Indiana and Illinois conducted by veterans of the War of Independence and the Ohio Company has been commemorated on the United States 15 July 1938 Issue 3 cent stamp.

Image 9

Further South, Daniel Boone’s famous explorations in Virginia resulting in the establishment of the Kentucky Settlement in 1792 has also been depicted on the United States 1 June 1942 Issue 3 cent stamp to commemorate Kentucky’s 150th Anniversary.

Image 10

The United States Government also acquired territory for settlement via diplomacy and financial transactions with foreign colonial powers. A good example is the acquisition of lands acquired from the Spanish and French which formed parts of the Mississippi Territory, a precursor to the State of Mississippi established in 1798. The various stages of this expansion are depicted on the United States 8th April 1948 Issue 3 cent stamp commemorating the Territory’s 150th Anniversary.

Image 11

Pioneers and settlers involved in such migration and settlement faced significant dangers and hardships in the form of starvation, disease and violence. Such conditions are alluded to in the United States 10 June 1898 Trans-Mississippi Exposition, Omaha Issue, 8 cent stamp depicting troops guarding a pioneer train from attacks whilst the 10 cent  depicts a dead horse on a pioneer wagon.

Image 13

With such privation in mind, the Government introduced financial incentives for westward migration in the form of various Government Acts offering land parcels at favourable prices or for free. The United States 20 May 1962 Issue 4 cent stamp commemorates the 1852 Homestead Act passed by Abraham Lincoln offering public land in the west to any US citizen, including free slaves, who was willing to settle, farm and improve the land over a period of five years.

Image 14

The forced migration of African slaves to America is unrepresented on the library’s United States philatelic holdings. Nevertheless one particular issue which demonstrates its importance in shaping America is the United States 20 February 1987 Black Heritage Issue 22 cent stamp depicting an idealised portrait of Jean Baptiste Pointe du Sable and some of his property and lands during the late eighteenth century which helped found modern day Chicago.

Image 15
 

Richard Scott Morel

Curator, Philatelic Collections

 

Images from the British Library, Philatelic Collections:  The Tapling Collection and UPU Collection material for the  United States of America.

 

 

14 June 2018

Call for Applicants: Fulbright-British Library Eccles Centre Scholar Award

Add comment

Above: Klondiker's buying mining licenses in Victoria, BC. J. W. Jones, 1898 [Picturing Canada project on Wiki Commons]

Summertime is always exciting for the Eccles Centre as we announce new calls for our various awards and fellowships. Keep an eye on the Americas blog for news of our various award schemes over the coming months but today I wanted to write about our US-UK Fulbright Commission Scholarship. This is a relatively new part of our programme and is a partnership with Fulbright to bring a US-based scholar to the Library so they can work on the North American collections held here. Work can be on any area of the collections relating to Canada, the Caribbean and / or the United States and applications connected to the Centre’s research priorities are encouraged.

The Fulbright-Eccles Scholarship is a unique opportunity for a US-based scholar as it provides a significant award (£12,000) to cover a dedicated research trip of twelve months. As well as using the collections of the Library our Scholars are encouraged to take part in our events programme, including our evening lectures and Summer Scholars season, and present about their work with partner institutions outside of the Library, such as the Rothermere American Institute at Oxford. This provides a rich set of opportunities to develop ideas and discuss them with a variety of audiences during the scholarship. We are also happy to facilitate a Scholar in conducting wider work with the Library and helping them get to know other parts of the Library’s operation, such as our innovative Learning Team, British Library Publishing and others.

Our 2018-19 Scholar will be Professor Andrew Hartman who will be using the British Library’s collections to conduct further research on the influence of Karl Marx on American political thought. The research will form part of Professor Hartman’s upcoming book, Karl Marx in America, which is contracted to University of Chicago Press. The Fulbright-Eccles Scholar is one of over 800 U.S. citizens who will teach and conduct research abroad for the 2018-2019 academic year through the Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program; if you would like to apply to be our Scholar in the 2019-20 academic year please do see our website for further information and get in touch with us.

Phil Hatfield, Head of the Eccles Centre

16 May 2018

Over There, All Over Again: American Sheet Music, World War 1 and Nostalgic Musicals

Add comment

It is always a great pleasure when you find your research coinciding with that of your colleagues. There has been a recent spike in discussions around American music and World War I in the Eccles Centre as Jean Petrovic is currently developing an online exhibition showcasing the British Library’s excellent collection of American sheet music, whilst I am researching American musicals of the early 1940s which looked back at World War I and vaudeville. 

As part of her project, Jean has been focusing on World War I, which saw an explosion in printed music. At the turn of the twentieth century – prior to the rise of radio and the phonograph – pianos were still the main source of home entertainment. Recent innovations in production had bought about a sharp decline in prices and an inevitable rise in demand. Not surprisingly, this was a boom-time for song-writers and music publishers. Print runs of top-selling songs frequently exceeded hundreds of thousands and between 1900 and 1910 more than 100 songs sold over one million copies.

More than 10,000 songs about World War I were published in the United States during 1914-18. In the early days, many of these songs echoed the non-interventionist stance of President Woodrow Wilson and most Americans.

Within days of the US declaration of war in 1917, George M Cohan, already one of the country’s most successful songwriters, penned ‘Over There’. With its patriotic call to arms, its optimism and its references to liberty and the American flag it went on to become the nation’s favourite war song. It was performed and recorded by many artists and eventually sold more than two million copies.

Over There - LOC photo

Above: George Michael Cohan. Over There. New York: Wm Jerome Publishing Corp., c1917.  British Library shelfmark a.318.(5) (other versions, h.3825.z.(52); h.1562; H.1860.i.(8); h.3825.ff.(7)); image courtesy of the Library of Congress https://www.loc.gov/item/ihas.100010518

In 1936, President Franklin D Roosevelt presented Cohan with the Congressional Gold Medal in recognition of his contribution to US morale during World War I.  He was the first person in an artistic field to receive this honour.

And this is where I come in. During America’s participation in World War II, a notable body of musical films were produced which reflected on the current crisis through the historical metaphor of America’s role in World War I. By binding these wartime stories with settings concerned with vaudeville and performance, these films conveyed patriotic messages and made entertainment culture central to American values. 

Yankee_Doodle_Dandy_poster

Above: promotional poster for Yankee Doodle Dandy (dir. Michael Curtiz, 1942, Warner Brothers)

In 1942, director Michael Curtiz made Yankee Doodle Dandy, a biopic about Cohan’s life. The narrative is framed by Cohan, in the present day, going to visit President Roosevelt at the White House where he discusses his career and receives the Congressional Gold Medal (despite the award actually being made 6 years previously). In the urgent context of World War II the film places Cohan (but also by extension Hollywood itself) as vital agents in America’s cultural mythmaking: the inclusion of his famous, popular songs (‘Over There’, ‘Give My Regards to Broadway’, ‘The Yankee Doodle Boy’ and ‘You’re a Grand Old Flag’) and production numbers involving a lot (and I mean A LOT) of flags, allow the fictional President Roosevelt to comment to Cohan that “your songs were weapons as strong as cannons and rifles in World War I."

Interesting, whilst the film was certainly an important part of Warner Brothers Studio’s commitment to the war effort, aimed partially at legitimizing their own work in the context of the war, the unashamedly patriotic film also served an interesting purpose for its star, James Cagney, who had personally struggled to deny Communist links.

Cagney had initially been opposed to making a Cohan biopic as he’d disliked Cohan since the Actor’s Equity Strike in 1919 when Cohan had sided with the producers. However, during the late 1930s and early 1940s Cagney had run-ins with the Dies Committee (the House Un-American Activities Committee): in 1940 he was named along with 15 other Hollywood figures in the testimony of John R Leech (an LA Communist Party leader) and the New York Times printed the allegation that Cagney was a Communist on its front page (August 15, 1940).

Although Cagney refuted the allegations and Martin Dies made a statement to the press clearing him, his brother, William Cagney, who managed his business affairs is reported to have said that “we’re going to have to make the [most] goddamndest patriotic picture that’s ever been made. I think it’s the Cohan story.”[1] The film certainly achieves this aim: Cagney went on to win an Oscar for the role (and the film was a huge box office success for Warners).

For those interested in learning more about the American sheet music collection at the British Library, Jean’s web exhibition will go live later this summer.  In the meantime, an older incarnation of the project can be found here.

I will be discussing ‘American Film Musicals and the Reimagining of World War I’ as part of the British Library’s Feed the Mind series on Monday 21 May at 12.30 in the Knowledge Centre. I can promise clips of Gene Kelly, which must rate as one of the best ways to pass a lunch break. I hope you’ll be able to join me.

By: Dr Cara Rodway, Deputy Head of the Eccles Centre for American Studies, with thanks to Jean Petrovic, Bibliographical Editor.

 

[1] Patrick McGilligan, Cagney: The Actor as Auteur (New York & London: Tantivy Press, 1975), pp145-8 [shelfmark: General Reference Collection X.981/20794]