THE SPANISH-AMERICAN WAR, WWI, AND LITERATURE OF THE GREAT DEPRESSION

This last Saturday was yet another busy day at The Wolfsonian-FIU with more than 120 Florida International University Honor’s College, History, and English Literature students roaming the art galleries, coming up to the library for presentations, and sitting in the auditorium to watch a silent-era slapstick.

At 10:00 AM, eighteen students from FIU Professor Carmela McIntire’s English literature class arrived in the library to view some items from our rich collection of depression-era books, periodicals, and ephemera. We began our discussions with the Stock Market crash of 1929 and looked at pamphlets that criticized Herbert Hoover from a leftist perspective as the country descended into the depths of the depression. While the caricature of President Hoover conjured up images of Charles Philpon’s caricature of the “Metamorphosis of King Louis-Philippe into a Pear” in my head, several of the students thought it had been designed to make him literally look like an ass–noting its similarity to the artwork from Pink Floyd’s “The Wall.” I guess each generation will continue to judge, make sense of, and redefine the past according to contemporary visual reference cues!

As millions of Americans lost their jobs and livelihoods, lost their farms and homes to foreclosures, and experienced a real crisis of confidence and faith in the future in the early 1930s, some began to question their faith in the system and became susceptible to Communist propaganda claims that Capitalism was moribund and Socialism on the ascendency.

 

The library, for example, holds several works illustrated by Hugo Gellert, an unapologetic Communist activist. Hugo Gellert supplied the artwork for the dust jacket of a songbook compiled by his brother, Lawrence, who visited African-Americans working on plantations and lumber camps, or doing hard time laboring on Southern chain gangs and collected and preserved the lyrics of their plaintive tunes.

Other Gellert illustrations adorn the pages of a book and portfolio of prints entitled Comrade Gulliver.  Gellert’s “Gulliver’s Travels” was an illustrated account of travel by a Soviet citizen to that “strange country” of the United States, and used episodic stories to highlight deplorable economic and social conditions in depression-era America. The accompanying images sharply condemn corporate corruption and influence-peddling, racism, lynching, prison chain-gangs, and other social ills.

The library also holds other works pertaining to Southern chain gangs, including a copy of Robert Eliot Burns’s I am a Fugitive from a Georgia Chain Gang, a “startling biography of a man who was twice sentenced to the terrors and hardships” of this peculiar institution. The autobiography was published in serial form in the popular Macfadden periodical True Detective and in 1932 was made into a Warner Brothers motion picture starring Paul Muni.

GIFT OF FRANCIS XAVIER LUCA & CLARA PALACIO-DE LUCA

The class also looked at the large body of art and artifacts that extolled the virtues of labor and working class persons, ironically reaching the height of popularity during the decade that saw one-quarter of America’s “bread-winners” (and fifty-percent of African-Americans) getting cut from the payrolls and joining the ranks of the unemployed.

GIFT OF FRANCIS XAVIER LUCA & CLARA PALACIO-DE LUCA

Other works on view were items that pointed out the problems faced by the country and lauding President Roosevelt and his New Deal Administration for putting Americans back to work.

GIFT OF CHRISTOPHER DENOON

Other works written by partisans on both the left and the right strongly condemned the president either for attempting to fix an economic system unworthy of repair, or else for leading the country down the path towards governmental bureaucracy, Communism, and ruin.

GIFT OF FRANCIS XAVIER LUCA & CLARA PALACIO-DE LUCA

During the lead-up to the 1936 presidential election, the rhetoric grew more intense as Huey Pierce Long of Louisiana put forward a “Share the Wealth” platform, sponsored songs like “Every man a king,” and even penned a presumptuous book in which he imaginatively described, My First Days in the White House. Small wonder that the patrician President Franklin D. Roosevelt considered Huey to be the most dangerous man in America!

LOANED BY MITCHELL WOLFSON, JR.

Although one might have expected the Socialists to have embraced Huey’s “Share the Wealth” platform and jumped on the Huey Long bandwagon, Comrade Gellert instead punctured his pretentions as a populist by pointing out the grinding poverty and dismal position of labor in the state of Louisiana. Ultimately, an assassin’s bullet brought a premature end to Huey’s candidacy.

GIFT OF FRANCIS XAVIER LUCA & CLARA PALACIO-DE LUCA

The professor and students were also excited by some of the depression-era literature of the period, part of The Christopher DeNoon Collection for the Study of New Deal Culture. Included in this collection are novels and anthologies like Albert Halper’s Union Square, Fred Rothermell’s The Ghostland, and John Faulkner’s Men Working and Dollar Cotton, Michael Gold’s 120 Million, the Federal Writers’ Project These Are Our Lives, and I Like America and Proletarian Literature in the United States: an Anthology respectively written and edited by renowned Marxist literary critic, Granville Hicks, et al.

UNION SQUARE

THE GHOSTLAND

I LIKE AMERICA

GIFTS OF CHRISTOPHER DENOON

THE GRAPES OF WRATH, GIFT OF IDEAL GLADSTONE, IN MEMORY OF HER HUSBAND, JOHN

As soon as Professor McIntire’s class left the library, it was time to clear and reset the tables with items selected for my own class on war propaganda presently focused on the Spanish-American War and the First World War. Prior to Mr. Sharf’s donation, our library had very few works documenting the war with Spain in the Caribbean and Pacific that launched America as a great military and naval power.

GIFTS OF JEAN S. AND FREDERIC A. SHARF

The victory in the conflict with Spain (and the subsequent Philippine Insurrection) provided the United States with her first colonial territories. Filipino natives were exported to Buffalo, New York to people the native huts and buildings erected at the Pan-American Exposition in 1901 with the aim of instilling a sense of pride in America’s new colonial possession. Thanks to the Sharf’s generosity, our new Associate Librarian Rochelle Pienn has sufficient materials with which to organize a modest exhibition scheduled to open in our fifth floor galleries in time for May 20th, the day that the exile community in Miami celebrates as Cuba’s Independence Day.

GIFT OF JEAN S. AND FREDERIC A. SHARF

After a review of these materials, the class went on to analyze the designs and to deconstruct the visual messages imbedded in some of our First World War propaganda that included broadsides, book bindings, children’s books, editorial cartoons, postcards, sheet music covers, and other printed ephemera. Some of the materials dating from 1914 to 1917 were designed to encourage the United States to enter the war by ridiculing the Kaiser and his “goose-stepping” German aggressors; others vilified the Germans by playing up atrocity stories on the theme of the “Rape of Belgium” or the drowning of innocent women and children in the wake of the sinking of the Lusitania.

 

Of course, Americans remained divided on the issue of intervention in the war, a fact that was both apparent from the covers and content of some of the vintage sheet music covers in our collection.

Once America entered the war, however, the U.S. government worked hard to recruit all sectors of society, including African-Americans.

 

 Immediately following the presentation in the library, the students marched downstairs to the auditorium for a screening of the silent movie, Yankee Doodle in Berlin (1919). Even as America emerged from the war into a “savage peace” at home—punctuated by labor strikes and strife, lynchings and race riots, anarchist bombings and Communist agitation—film producer Mach Sennett and director F. Richard Jones produced a hilarious slapstick designed to remind Americans of her victory oversea against the autocratic German Kaiser and to give them something to laugh at. Bothwell Browne, Europe’s most famous female impersonator, stars in the comedy as Captain Bob White of the American expeditionary forces. In the film, Captain White sheds his uniform and crosses enemy lines in a dress in order to seduce and to spy on the Kaiser, the Crown Prince, and General Hindenburg.

YANKEE DOODLE IN BERLIN (1919)

The students in my America and Movies class will be returning later in the semester to look at some World War Two propaganda, and particularly at some of the items recently donated to the institution as part of the Victory Gold Levi Collection. Here’s a sneak peak at some of the things they will be seeing.

 

~ by "The Chief" on February 2, 2012.

2 Responses to “THE SPANISH-AMERICAN WAR, WWI, AND LITERATURE OF THE GREAT DEPRESSION”

  1. Reblogged this on parkergarden.

  2. What a great blog! I loved all the pictures of the items!

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