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American Collections blog

What's on the mind of Team America?

Introduction

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

09 January 2019

Cats from the stacks: The Cat in the Hat

Not that one ever really needs a reason to look at pictures of cats, but with our Cats on the Page exhibition now open here at the Library, it seemed like as good a time as ever to explore some favourite literary felines. Please prowl forward: Dr. Seuss’s ‘Cat in the Hat’…

Theodor Seuss Geisel’s (that’s Massachusetts-born Dr. Seuss to you and me) bolshie yet lovable Cat, was the result of a challenge put to the author to write a children’s book using a vocabulary of no more than 225 words. Giving Seuss a list of words, William Spaulding, director of the education division at publisher Houghton Mifflin, threw the gauntlet (or at least the children’s-book-world-equivalent):

‘Write me a story that first-graders can’t put down!’ (Judith and Neil Morgan, Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel, New York: Random House 1995, p 154, British Library shelfmark YA.1996.b.6813)    

And accept that challenge Seuss did.

Ted Geisel aka Dr. Seuss
Ted Geisel (Dr. Seuss) portrait, seated at desk covered with his books / World Telegram & Sun photo by Al Ravenna, 1957. From the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection.

A quick recap for those who don’t know: two children are left home alone one rainy day. Peering through the window and pondering what they’re to do while Mother is out, Cat’s arrival is signalled with a ‘BUMP!’. Ignoring the warnings of their pet fish (who, let’s face it, was probably never going to be a fan of a cat in the house even if he were as inconspicuous as they come), the children let Cat stay and chaos ensues. Elaborate balancing acts fail and a box of kite-flying Things cause disarray while the omniscient fish looks on despairingly.

The title itself came at a point of desperation for Seuss:

‘I was desperate, so I decided to read [the list] once more. The first two words that rhymed would be the title of my book and I’d go from there. I found ‘cat’ and then I found ‘hat’.’ (Theodor Seuss Geisel, author interview as quoted by Morgan, Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel, p 154)   

It was through the sketching of Cat that things began to fall into place for the storyteller. Cat’s upright posture, slightly protruding tum, trademark headwear and ‘red bow tie tied in three impossible loops’ (Morgan and Morgan, Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel, p 155) are instantly recognisable today. And hands up who else had never noticed that little quirk with the bowtie?

Front cover
‘The best of Dr. Seuss’ by Dr. Seuss, London: HarperCollins, 2003. YK.2003.a.15312

With Cat, it’s been said that Dr. Seuss wanted to create a character that, although was crafty and (slightly) shambolic, was still himself surprised whenever he messed up (Morgan, Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel, p 155). It’s this that gives Cat his endearing charm and keeps readers revisiting his capers.

And like all regretful moggies who come back with their tail between their legs, he does make good in the end – pootling in to speedily execute a ‘nothing-to-see-here’ clear up as Mother strolls along the garden path back to the house. Between the appealing rhythm and rhyme young readers are left with that very sagacious takeaway; you may mess up, but you can put things right again. Now there’s some wisdom to bring with you into adulthood. Thanks, Cat.

Cat_inside_pages
‘“Have no fear!” said the cat’ from YK.2003.a.15312

Speaking of that compelling rhythm that flows through the pages of Cat in the Hat, the skill in Seuss’s wordplay is made all-the-more impressive when you observe the lack of adjectives in the poem, something that Spaulding didn’t provide in great abundance when he gave Seuss the list of words to work from. ‘…[T]he limited vocabulary posed excruciating complexities in rhyming’ Morgan explains (Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel, p155) but Seuss’s ability prevailed, leaving us with that unique bounce of page-turning words that continues to entertain over half a century since they were first penned.

Within the first three years of its publication the tale had sold close to one million copies, been translated into other languages, and been produced in Braille (Morgan, Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel, p 156). Over 60 years later it remains a staple on the bookshelves of young children (and big kids) around the world.

Not one to be put off by a slightly tricky experiment, Seuss’s proficiency was pushed even further when it was later put to him to create another children’s book using a vocabulary of just 50- words. But we’ll save Green Eggs and Ham for another time.

See a bold full-colour 1957 edition Cat in the Hat, complete with Seuss’s iconic illustrations at Cats on the Page. Our free Entrance Hall exhibition celebrating cats and their capers from rhymes and stories through history is open until 17 March 2019.     

(Blog by Rachael Williams, currently on an Americas team curatorial placement and feeling rather pleased at managing to sidestep the plethora of puns that could have weaved their way into a cat-related post.)

 

Suggested reading

Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel, Judith and Neil Morgan, New York: Random House 1995, British Library shelfmark YA.1996.b.6813

Of Sneetches and Whos and the good Dr. Seuss: essays on the writings and life of Theodor Geisel, edited by Thomas Fensch, Jefferson, N.C.; London: McFarland & Co c. 1997, British Library shelfmark YC.1998.b.617

The political philosophy behind Dr. Seuss's cartoons and poetry: decoding the adult meaning of a children's text, Earnest N. Bracey, Lewiston, New York: The Edwin Mellen Press 2015, British Library shelfmark YC.2017.a.5301

 

07 January 2019

A Belated Happy Junkanoo: the Caribbean Christmas

The weather is not the only thing that separates English and Caribbean Christmas traditions. Junkanoo is the much-debated name of the syncretic festival that happens in the days following Christmas. The earliest accounts of Junkanoo date back to the eighteenth century. Celebrated by the enslaved, these festivities were performed around the planter-sanctioned Christmas holiday, which overlapped with the main annual break in the plantation cycle. A product of African and English cultural traditions, otherwise known as Creolisation, Junkanoo was and continues to be performed in the Anglophone Caribbean.

Whilst most accounts from the days of slavery describe Jamaican performances, it was practised in many places – and, today, remains a vital part of contemporary Bahamian culture. A masked performance with a central figure – John Canoe or Pitchy Patchy – Junkanoo has been characterised as ‘ritual of conflict’ by Michael Craton. Frequently censored or banned in the post-Emancipation period, the planter-class feared the rebellious elements of this festivity, especially during moments of weakened power. Shortly after the abolition of slavery, attempts made to ban Junkanoo in Kingston during the 1840s led to the outbreak of riots.

This blog post explores some of the traces, memories and sounds that Junkanoo has left in the American Collections and beyond. One of most referred to accounts of these festivities comes the diary of Lady Nugent, who recorded her time spent in the Caribbean at the turn of the eighteenth century. 

Junkanoo 1
Lady Maria Nugent, A Journal of a Voyage to, and residence in, the Island of Jamaica, from 1801 to 1805, and of subsequent events in England from 1805 to 1811 (London, 1839)

In an article for Public Opinion – the literary and politically progressive mouthpiece of the People’s National Party – Archie Lindo went in search nineteenth-century Jamaican Christmas traditions, compiling a collection of book excerpts. Lady Nugent’s diary was his first point of call:

“the whole town and house bore the appearance of a masquerade. After church, amuse myself very much with the strange processions, and figures called Johnny Canoes. All dance, leap and play a thousand anticks. Then there were groups of dancing men and women. They had a sort of leader or superior at their head … The instrument to accompany them was a rude sort of drum, made of bark leaves. …What a melange!”[1]

Junkanoo 2
Public Opinion, 26 March 1938, p.6

Similarly, Philip M. Sherlock, an expert and enthusiast of Jamaican folk culture, wrote an article called ‘John Canoe Dance’ for Public Opinion. Questioning its origins, Sherlock quoted Monk Lewis’s description of John Canoe dancers at Savannah-la-Mar, a coastal town in Jamaica, before explaining the Creolized quality of this performance:

‘Whatever the origin, in its development the dance has undoubtedly been modified and adapted … in these dances we find, as in other forms of our folk-lore, the mingling of African and European influences, and the creation of something distinctive and vital: there is no imitation but rather adaptation, adoption, and creation. Certainly this is what has happened with the John Canoe dance. Of course it varies with each district and with each performer.’[1]

In slight challenge to this traditional creole understanding of Junkanoo, Michael Craton – who has written extensively on cultural resistance and performance in the Caribbean – emphasises the African elements more strongly. Drawing connections between Junkanoo and the ‘secret masked societies of the Sierra Leone Wunde and the Ibo Mmo, and the Yoruba Eguugun and Ga Homowo festivals,’ Craton argues that the central masked figure embodies and facilitates spiritual continuity, roots and pride.[2]

Junkanoo 3
Public Opinion, 14 December 1940, pp.6-7

Why was Public Opinion so concerned with paying tribute to nineteenth-century Jamaican Christmas traditions? The 1930s, which were home to labour rebellions, the centenary of Emancipation and the outbreak of WW2, saw a surge in anti-colonialism and nationalism. Cultural nationalism – the recovery and promotion of folk traditions – was a critical mode of this movement. Folk traditions, like Junkanoo, were a useful tool in this quest for national history, identity and drive. As Elizabeth Cooper argues, masquerade and stilt-dancing, both key elements of Junkanoo, became ‘centrepieces of anti-colonial and nationalist cultural discourse in the twentieth century.’[1] In ‘Tales of Old Jamaica,’ Lindo wrote,

‘Today, after more than one hundred years, it seems a pity that most of these old customs and celebrations have almost been lost to us. In certain parts of Jamaica we still have our John Canoes and ‘Masquerades’ but they make a poor showing compared to those of olden days … Perhaps something can be done before it is too late, to recapture these brilliant and merry festivities so that … we do not lose for all time these quaint and invaluable customs.’[2]

Portrayed as an ‘invaluable’ but dying black folk tradition, the article was promoting a reinvigoration of a Jamaican folk Christmas.

Junkanoo 4
Arlene Nash Ferguson, I Come To Get Me! An Inside Look at the Junkanoo Festival (Nassau: Doongalik Studios, 2000)

Moving into the contemporary period and away from Jamaica, Bahamian Junkanoo has retained its vigour and authenticity. With two parades, one on Boxing Day and another of New Year’s Day, the Bahamian festivities attract local and tourist attention. Very much articulated as a performance of African cultural retention and enslaved resistance, Junkanoo is a generator of popular culture, tourist money and, crucially, national pride.

[1] Public Opinion, 14 December 1940, pp.6-7.

[2] Public Opinion, 26 March 1938, p.6.

[3] Michael Craton, ‘Decoding Pitchy-Patchy: The Roots, Branches and Essence of Junkanoo’, Slavery & Abolition, 16 (1995), 14-44 (p.34).

[5] Elizabeth Cooper, ‘Playing against Empire’, Slavery & Abolition, 39 (2018), 540-557 (p.549).

[6] Public Opinion, 14 December 1940, pp.6-7.

- Naomi Oppenheim

@naomioppenheim


Naomi Oppenheim is an AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Student at the British Library and UCL. She is researching Caribbean print cultures and the politics of history in post-war Britain.

With apologies to Naomi for the late posting of this post, which was due to a technical problem we were unable to resolve before the Christmas holidays.

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