Friday, October 3, 2014

In D.C. with Edna St. Vincent Millay, Langston Hughes, and the Writers' War Board

This week, P&C is blogcasting to you from Washington, D.C., where we're in the process of wrapping up a short research trip to the Library of Congress and enjoying getting to know the city. We've been here twice previously—once for a couple of days back in the late 1990s for an AWP conference, and once around 2003 when we were visiting friends in Baltimore and took the train to the National Gallery of Art one afternoon—so we don't know the city very well. Suffice it to say, though, that we're totally lovin' it. Every day we get up early and head to the Library to do research on Edna St. Vincent Millay's relationship to the Writers' War Board. Then, come evening, we pack things up, return to our one-bedroom pad in Capitol Hill, change our socks and mindset, and head out for the night. We've enjoyed walking the H Street Corridor, the Eastern Market area of Capitol Hill, Dupont Circle, Foggy Bottom, the National Mall, the Shaw neighborhood, and Columbia Heights where we came across the section of V Street (pictured above) named "Langston Hughes Way."

So, here's the gist of our research. During World War II, the Office of War Information operated an outfit called the Writers' War Board, which was charged with recruiting American writers of all stripes for domestic propaganda efforts. Poets. Playwrights. Fiction writers. Journalists. Editors. Radio writers. Speech writers. Song writers. Cartoonists. Screenwriters. You get the idea. A propaganda campaign of one sort or the other—More Nurses Needed! Conserve Oil and Gas! Use V-Mail! Don't Waste Food! Join the Merchant Marines!—would come down the pike, and the WWB would find writers to help make it go. Need a fifteen-minute radio play pitching the way your average American can contribute to the war effort? Well, the WWB's got not just one but fifteen for you to choose from. But get this. Not all writers working for the WWB wrote explicit propaganda. The WWB archives show that office staff wrote to poets and pulp writers encouraging them to take up particular topics that would tie in with—and thus bolster the credibility and appeal of—current campaigns. When the WWB was tasked with encouraging Americans to do volunteer work on farms and orchards and thus increase food supplies, for example, it wrote to Berton Braley, Ira Gershwin, Edgar Guest, Oscar Hammerstein, Phyllis McGinley, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Ogden Nash, Cole Porter, E.B. White and others asking them to write about food and farming. "Will you spare the time," the WWB asked, "to turn out something on the joys of farm labor, of what you get from working with the green growing things of earth?"

P&PC has a specific story it's looking for—the story behind Edna St. Vincent Millay's long poem The Murder of Lidice that Millay wrote at the bequest of the WWB, that was published (in two different abridged forms) in the Saturday Review of Literature and Life magazine, that was broadcast nationally on NBC radio and translated into Spanish and Portuguese for shortwave broadcast to Europe and South America, that was issued in "pamphlet" form by Millay's publisher Harper & Brothers, and that was eventually put on vinyl as part of a three-disc set. After a week of looking through the WWB archives and Millay's own papers, we've now got scads of material to return home with and coax into some sort of coherent, white-knuckle story of how The Murder of Lidice came into being and unexpectedly went on to became what might have been up to that point the most widely circulated American poem of the century. Stay tuned, dear readers. You likely haven't heard the last from us on this topic.

As you can imagine, though, we're running across all sorts of other goodies. When the WWB wrote to George Bernard Shaw asking him to join the "Lidice Lives" campaign for which Millay wrote her poem, he replied, "No. I am not such a mischievous fool as to waste time in preserving the memory of atrocities of which we are all equally guilty." There are materials pertaining to Thurgood Marshall (then at the NAACP), Margaret Mead, Upton Sinclair, Archibald MacLeish, Arthur Miller, H.L. Mencken, Bernard Malamud, and more. One of our favorites? The letter from Langston Hughes pictured here. Based on what we've seen in the WWB archives, we think that by the time he wrote this, Hughes had been involved with the WWB in other capacities as well, as he's listed as author of two radio plays ("Brothers" and "In the Service of My Country") in a lot of fifty such plays being circulated at one point by the WWB. (Other plays, btw, were contributed by Stephen Vincent Benet, Margaret Sangster, and Pearl Buck.) We love the idea that Hughes was collaborating with W.C. Handy, and wouldn't you have loved to have been there when the Benny Goodman Quintet introduced the "Go-and-Get-the-Enemy-Blues" and Jimmy Rushing of the Count Basie Band let 'er rip?

It's an interesting little letter, too, isn't it? Consider how Hughes makes sure that the WWB's Clifton Fadiman knows the difference between a concert baritone and a blues singer. Even more interesting is how Hughes skews the letter away from the subject of race and toward both "folk" and U.S. national identities. Indeed, he mentions the "folk quality" of Joe Turner in paragraph one, and the "folk manner" of "That Eagle" which he pitches to Fadiman in paragraph two. And is that "Theme for English B" we hear echoing in the background of the second paragraph? Whereas "Theme for English B" (which wouldn't be written until after the war, we believe) concludes
As I learn from you,
I guess you learn from me—
although you're older—and white—
and somewhat more free
the rhetoric in this letter focuses on "how that eagle of the U.S.A. has got his wings over you and me." The poem makes race a constitutive part of the relationship between "you" and "me," but, as with Hughes's use of "folk," the letter to Fadiman elides explicit mention of race in favor of an American folk identity as the common ground of the WW II effort.

Of course, Hughes's willingness to contribute to the WWB can't but be made ironic by the fact that over a decade later (in 1953), Hughes would be called to testify before Senator Joseph McCarthy—testimony that Hughes began with the sentence, "I was born a Negro." As we all know, Hughes's interest in communism stemmed in part from the color-blind view of the world it promised—a color blindness that Hughes also imagines in his letter to Fadiman about the "folk-ness" of American identity out of which his song lyrics emerge and to which they appeal. As the beginning of Hughes's speech before the Senate suggests, the crime Hughes was called to account for may not in fact have been his affiliation with communism but of imagining a color blind America. Indeed, in his speech to McCarthy's Senate subcommittee, Hughes doesn't begin by explaining his connection to the WWB or his activities working on behalf of U.S. interests in WW II—both of which could have been used (in theory) to demonstrate his red-blooded American-ness. Rather, he begins ("I was born a Negro") by acknowledging race as central to American identity, inserting himself back into the dominant rubric of American culture and effectively renouncing or repudiating his former views, his dreams of a color-blind nation.

At 73,000 items, the WWB Archives are pretty huge. They're disorganized. They're sometimes mislabeled. But we think that for people interested in the role of the writer working on what the WWB sometimes called the second cultural front during WWII, they're just waiting for someone with less of a targeted agenda than P&PC has to come along and make something big out of 'em. We'll be back here for certain, as there's more about Millay to explain. But who knows what other stories are also waiting to be told?