THE BRITISH LIBRARY

American Collections blog

What's on the mind of Team America?

Introduction

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

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.

One-Third-of-a-Nation-Poster

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

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

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

One-Third-of-a-Nation-Set

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

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

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

Atomic 2

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

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

Mary Crapo smoking

References:

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

[2]. ibid., p. 109.

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

Jean Petrovic, Eccles Centre for American Studies

21 January 2019

To Edgar, from Aubrey: bringing Poe’s tales to life

Gothic author Edgar Allan Poe was born on 19 January 1809 in Boston, Massachusetts. To mark this moment 210 years ago, I took to the collections to explore some of the most iconic illustrations of his stories, and of the man himself.

For some time I’ve been rather taken by Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations of Poe’s mysterious and startling tales; his style seemingly a perfect fit for some of Poe’s most grotesque and alarming scenes. Privately printed in 1926 in Indianapolis, Illustrations to Edgar Allen Poe (British Library shelfmark 7852.t.19.) features a striking golden cover and contains an array of Beardsley’s interpretations of Poe’s work including images for ‘The Black Cat’, 'The Mask of the Red Death', and ‘The Murder in the Rue Morgue’.

Poe_blog_image_1_front_cover
Front cover to ‘Illustrations to Edgar Allen Poe’ by Aubrey Beardsley

Beardsley, born in Brighton in 1872, was said by poet, critic and friend Arthur Symons, to have had ‘a more personal originality of manner’ and ‘so wise an influence on contemporary art’ (Aubrey Beardsley by Arthur Symons, London: At the Sign of the Unicorn, 1898, page 13) than any other artist of his day (‘certainly whose work has been in black and white’ Symons states).

Maybe it’s the darkness of Poe’s twisted tales that suit Beardsley’s bold black ink drawings. One of my favourites from the book pictured above is of the unnamed narrator in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’, possibly of the scene at the beginning of the tale as he approaches the doomed house by the lake. The darkness from above encroaching into the frame (a sign of the impending tragedy perhaps) while his composed demeanour and regal dress are a stark contrast to the dishevelled character we see fleeing the scene by the end of the story.

Poe_blog_image_2_Fall_House_Usher
The Fall of the House of Usher from ‘Illustrations to Edgar Allen Poe’ by Aubrey Beardsley

As a certified cat lover (demonstrated in my previous cat blog), I tend to gravitate towards anything moggy. Despite the gruesome events of ‘The Black Cat’, Poe’s Pluto is no exception. In Beardsley’s interpretation, the feline protagonist sits atop a female – the murdered wife of the troubled narrator maybe – brazenly displaying his one-eyed face which was the result of the furious hand of his master. And, in what some would see as true cat fashion, wearing a distinctly unimpressed expression.

The evil eyebrows probably provide invaluable evidence for the ‘why cats can’t be trusted’ argument of dog people all over the globe. (Can cats be trusted? Make up your own mind with a visit to our Cats on the Page exhibition.)

Poe_Blog_Image_3b_Black_Cat
The Black Cat from ‘Illustrations to Edgar Allen Poe’ by Aubrey Beardsley

While carefully leafing through the pages of this precious item (which is one of only 107 printed for Members of the Aubrey Beardsley Club), it’s impossible not to pause on Beardsley’s portrait of Poe. Through dark and solemn eyes, to me Beardsley certainly manages to convey something of the troubles and torments Poe experienced in his lifetime.

Poe_Blog_Image_4_Portrait
Portrait from ‘Illustrations to Edgar Allen Poe’ by Aubrey Beardsley

Perhaps the most arresting of the illustrations in this book is a self-portrait of Beardsley (spelled Bearsley in the caption) with Poe’s Raven in the backdrop.

Por_Blog_Image_5_Bearsley_self-portrait
Self-portrait of Aubrey Bearsley dying from ‘Illustrations to Edgar Allen Poe’ by Aubrey Beardsley

Both author and illustrator had untimely deaths (Poe died aged 40), with Beardsley’s talents lasting only until he was 25 when he died of tuberculosis. Symons recalls meeting with Beardsley during his sickness and seeing him ‘lying out on a coach, horribly white’ (Aubrey Beardsley by Arthur Symons, page 7). A description hauntingly similar to the figure of Roderick Usher in the opening of Poe’s tale, who we’re told is ‘lying at full length’ and has ‘a cadaverousness of complexion’ (The Fall of the House of Usher and other writings edited by David Galloway, Penguin, 2003 ELD.DS.195031, pages 259.1-260.5). Even the setting here has a likeness to the House of Usher where ‘Dark draperies hung upon the walls’ and ‘Many books…lay scattered about’. (The Fall of the House of Usher and other writings, page 259.1).

Although Symons goes on; despite his illness Beardsley was still ‘full of ideas, full of enthusiasm’ (Aubrey Beardsley by Arthur Symons, page 7) something perhaps illustrated in this self-portrait – the wine on the table a sign of life’s little indulgences and the scattering of books on the floor and Raven appearing at the back of Beardsley’s mind implying that his lust for art, reading and writing was far from dying even as his physical health deteriorated.

Our friends over in the European Collections have more on some of the flights of Poe’s Raven and Beardsley, ‘the British master of Art Nouveau’.

Suggested reading

Illustrations to Edgar Allen Poe by Aubrey Beardsley, Aubrey Beardsley Club, 1926 (7852.t.19.)

Aubrey Beardsley: A Biography by Matthew Sturgis, Pallas Athene, 2011 (YK.2018.a.1551)

Aubrey Beardsley by Stephen Calloway, V & A Publications, 1998 (YC.1999.b.3863)

Aubrey Beardsley by Arthur Symons, Baker, 1966 (X.429/1677.)

Aubrey Beardsley by Arthur Symons, London: At the Sign of the Unicorn, 1898

Tales of Mystery and Imagination by Edgar Allan Poe, Readers Library Publishing Co, 1940 (012206.ee.1/87.)

The Fall of the House of Usher and other writings: poems, tales, essays, and reviews by Edgar Allan Poe edited with an introduction and notes by David Galloway, Penguin, 2003 (BL Online Resource DRT ELD.DS.195031)

 

Written by Rachael, Americas Curatorial Placement

 

 

 

 

 

 

17 January 2019

New Collaborations: Announcing the Eccles Centre & Hay Festival Writer’s Award

Reading Room image

Researchers in Humanities 1 Reading Room.

As many Americas blog readers know, the Eccles Centre works to support access to the British Library’s North American collections, facilitating the development of new ideas by anyone with a research need of these collections. Since 2012 the Eccles Centre has awarded two authors a year with a unique and highly prestigious prize. The Writer’s Award bestows winners with £20,000 for a book in progress, to support a year’s residency at the British Library and privileged access to the Library’s world-class Americas collection and its curatorial expertise. Open to both fiction and non-fiction authors the prize is unique in the UK publishing industry as it champions a work in development, rather than awarding upon publication. In so doing, it has helped numerous authors produce richer works for their readers.

In 2018 we were delighted to expand the original remit of the award – previously focussed on books with a North American setting – to include all of the Americas. In advance of opening the call for the 2020 Writer’s Award, we are delighted to announce a further and significant change to the award; this year we are going global.

From 2020 onwards, we will be delivering the Writer’s Award in partnership with Hay Festival, opening it up to a new cohort of authors around the world.   Many of the conditions of the newly named Eccles Centre & Hay Festival Writer’s Award remain the same as before, as we continue to support access to the British Library’s Americas collections, but there are also notable changes. In particular, for the first time applicants from the Americas will be welcome to apply and we will also be accepting applications in Spanish and languages indigenous to the Americas. This last change feels particularly relevant this year; given 2019 is UNESCO’s International Year of Indigenous Languages.

Hay Festival are perfect partners for this award, their aim to, “inspire, examine and entertain, inviting participants to imagine the world as it is and as it might be” compliments the Centre’s mission to support research, innovation and creative insight through the British Library’s Americas collections. The partnership also significantly increases the reach and potential of the Writer’s Award, as well as offering new opportunities for events linked to the award. Starting this month, at Hay Festival Cartagena, the Eccles Centre and Hay Festival will be producing an exciting programme of events that highlight Writer’s Award holders and puts their winning works in front of more people than ever.

This exciting new partnership builds on a long-standing relationship between Hay Festival and the British Library, which have collaborated for a number of years, most notably through Living Knowledge Network livestreams and the Library’s recent acquisition of the unique Hay Festival archive.

The latest collaboration will see the Eccles Centre & Hay Festival Writer’s Award champion new authors, writing and thinking from both sides of the Atlantic. Future winners will join an exciting group of Award alumni, including this year’s holders, Rachel Hewitt and Sara Taylor, and contribute to an exciting new phase of Hay Festival programming in Wales and the Americas. Find out more and look out for the formal call for applications in spring 2019.

Phil Hatfield, Head of the Eccles Centre for American Studies.

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

 

04 December 2018

American Cooking for English Kitchens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                M.Aguirre

31 October 2018

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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h.3825.rr.(28.)

 

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

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

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

 

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

Here there are no heroic palaces

Nettled in sea-green vines or built

On maize savannahs the cat-thighed, stony faces

Of Egypt's cradle, easily unriddled;

If art is where the greatest ruins are,

Our art is in those ruins we became,

You will not find in these green, desert places

One stone that found us worthy of its name,

Nor how, lacking the skill to beat things over flame

We peopled archipelagoes by one star.

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

- Francisca Fuentes Rettig

 

Wider reading/listening:

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

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

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

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

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

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