Thursday, December 25, 2014

Guy's Homage to WWI (3): Holiday Greetings from the Front

A reference in Mark Bittman's column yesterday (An Atheist's Christmas Dream) reminded me of a special World War I moment I had earlier in my life.

Here's what Bittman wrote:
Today marks the 100th anniversary of the “Christmas truce” of World War I, when soldiers from both sides left their weapons in the trenches and met in neutral territory to embrace, play soccer and no doubt drink to excess in the spirit of humanity. Although the acts were officially condemned, these “live and let live” moments were repeated throughout the war.
And here's how his comments connected in my (much more recent, of course) memory:

Among the precious little treasures I have tucked away is a group of three World War I post cards found in a shop somewhere down about Hythe or Folkestone, in the time when I lived in England. I was mostly in Canterbury (although my research work took me all over the country), and in Canterbury, my best pals were Sandra and Colin Ward. When we could, we would take a day off and drive to the sea (as the English liked to say in those days) and poke about in different shops and markets in the several seaside towns we liked to visit.

Hythe and Folkestone were favorites of mine, and I remember how pleased we were when Sandra found these cards, one cold winter day as we were walking around, mostly stopping in the shops just to get warm. We weren't really interested in buying much of anything, but Sandra had heard about these and I was very pleased when she told me the story behind them.

Apparently these cards were not all that unique, and I gather that during the 1914-1918 time period many of them were created (they show up - I understand - for sale to postcard collectors as simply "vintage sweetheart embroidered fabrication fran├žaise" Paris postcards). Of my three, one card has a company name on it ("Paul Heckscher, Paris").

I gather the designs were embroidered on a fairly lightweight, sheer fabric and inserted in a cardboard-like frame to make a postcard. The embroidery work was done - I learned - by the ladies in France, and then sold (for hardly anything, I imagine) to the English soldiers stationed in France, to send home to England.

So like the more-famous Christmas truce, the postcards represent another of those humanizing aspects of an otherwise inhumane situation, the horrible wartime environment these people were experiencing. Even today I have a few friends - my generation or a little older - who had fathers who fought in World War I and they still talk about the awful effect the war had on their parents.

So I'm happy I have these little "pieces" of sentiment, and it pleases me to share them here.

This card (above) is very special because I'm able to read the message on the back. No date, sadly, but the message - in pencil - reads:
From Dad
To Willie
Wishing him a Cheerful Xmas and a Bright New Year
     With best Love

This one (above) is another Christmas card but all the writing on the back is gone. I would love to have known what it said.

And the final one (above). Not really a Christmas card I suppose, because the embroidered design is mostly spring flowers. I'm guessing this one is a birthday card. It, too, has a message, one that is now hardly legible because it's so worn. 

I've been able to make it out, I think, and here's what it seems to say:
Dear Olive,
Just a card to wish you many happy returns of the day
With love from
It's nice to have these, now somewhere about 100 years old, and to think about what the men in the trenches and on the battlefields were thinking about. These notes now are, at least, some tiny remembrance of these men, as they wrote these messages to their sweethearts and children. Very poignant and, in a very different way, very lovely for us to have them as reminders of how much we and our loved ones mean to one another.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Guy's Homage to WWI (2): The Very Fine Exhibition at The New York Public Library

There aren't many times we get so caught up in an exhibition that we're afraid we'll get locked in.

That's what happened to me the afternoon I spent at "Over Here: WWI and the Fight for the American Mind."

And just to get my complaint out of the way first: This wonderful exhibition - one of the NYPL's best - is crammed into a tiny space, and if there are more then ten people in the room, it is really hard to move around, much less learn much from viewing the objects on display and reading the legends. The site is the Sue and Edgar Wachenheim III Gallery, on the main floor of the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building (what we used to call "The Main Building" or "The 42nd Street Building") of the New York Public Library. Many thanks to the Wachenheims and to Mr. Schwarzman for the space. It's fine for some exhibitions but, sadly, the space is really cramped for an exhibition as full of content and learning as "Over Here."

OK. Complaint over. This is truly an amazing exhibition and it's on until February 15, 2015. And from what I've written, you can see that I think it's worth the effort to get into the exhibition and spend time taking it in. Visit the exhibition, and if you're able to go when there aren't many people about, you'll find yourself caught up in massive amounts of content about what was going on in the United States in the years leading up to and during our country's involvement in World War I.

The subtitle for the exhibition tells us what it's all about, the huge public debate at the time, as Americans struggled (and argued, sometimes not very pleasantly) about whether or not the country should be involved in the war. As the exhibition guide describes what was going on, the debate "was facilitated by an unprecedented array of media and performance outlets, including such recent inventions as recorded sound and motion pictures."

The result is an intellectual exploration - using materials from the NYPL collections - that teaches us a great deal about how public relations, propaganda, and mass media were used to "shape and control" public opinion. As you spend time with these items, you get the idea that such methods had not previously been used - at least not to such an extent - in any situation in which Americans found themselves. We learn about how "100% Americanism" became the popular phrase of the time, building a "hyperpatriotic" attitude (in the words of the exhibition guide's writers), and the whole shift from absolute neutrality (personified by the activities and leadership of Jane Addams) to total involvement (led by former President Theodore Roosevelt).

And needless to say, I loved that the cover of one piece of sheet music (left) was used as the wall-size poster to lead visitors into the exhibition (right). An impressive transfer indeed.

[Note: all images courtesy of The New York Public Library.]

For me, there were three special conclusions I took from the exhibition. The first - which I had not realized before - was that idea of "100% Americanism" I referred to above. Again taking a leaf from the exhibition guide, I was surprised to learn that "never before in the country's history had Americans been so widely, and energetically, courted. And never in its history had the concept of Americanism - of what it means to be an American - been so hotly contested." Is there, I might ask, some sort of connection between what in our time we hear referred to as American "exceptionalism" and this extreme pro-and-con discussion about patriotic loyalty? Did this sort of thing start with our citizens up to and during World War I? Certainly that subtitle ("WWI and the Fight for the American Mind") clues us in that this sort of thing had not been done before. And look where we are now, in the "fight" for the American mind.

The second conclusion I reached has to do with the amazing role of advertising, public relations, and similar citizen-influencing activities. While many of these started out - as noted - as individual or group activities taking advantage of the various new communications techniques, the effort became "official" on April 14, 1917 with the establishment of the Committee on Public Information (known as "the CIP"), created to bring the American people - willing or not - into supporting and participating in the war effort. And a result of this effort - again a new revelation for me, as I had not known this before - was the birth of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Founded in 1917 as the National Civil Liberties Bureau (CLB), the organization's main purpose was freedom of speech, especially anti-war speech, and on defending conscientious objectors. I had no idea this was where ACLU came from, but after viewing "Over Here" and learning about the particular tenor of the times, it's no surprise.

And the third thing that impressed me? No surprise here. I just hadn't thought about it before: the amazing growth and influence of posters as a means of communicating a particular point of view. The exhibition notes point out that the American government became especially proficient in communicating "targeted information to large numbers of people," using such artists as James Montgomery Flagg, Joseph Pennell, and Howard Chandler Christy. Not only proficient but prolific: by the end of the war, more than 20 million copies of some 2,500 distinct poster designs had been produced. As George Creel explained it in his 1920 book How We Advertised America, even those of us of a later era can see why posters were so important:
I had the conviction that the poster must play a great part in the fight for pubic opinion. The printed word might not be read, people might not choose to attend meetings or watch motion pictures, but the billboard was something that caught even the most indifferent eye.
So I suppose visiting "Over Here: WWI and the Fight for the American Mind" supports what I learned at the program (described here on December 11) at the Morgan Library and Museum, that World War I - despite what we think about it and read about and attempt to learn about, that war really did move us as a society from a way of life to one that was totally different after the war. Nothing was to be ever the same anymore, especially - as evidenced in this fine exhibition - how we've learned to live with a vastly different way of life as we moved toward and into the 21st century. Lots to think about.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Guy's Homage to WWI: Starting with "The Piano in Wartime: 1914-1918"

It has been a month now since we had what we used to call Armistice Day, and I have decided the conduct my own homage (if that word isn't a little overblown) to World War I. There isn't any particular reason. It's just that - in my opinion - this amazing and horrible event in Western history had such influence on our collective experience that it seems appropriate to stop and think a little about what it meant to us as people. How did the World War I affect us, as human beings? How have we spent the past 100 years? Has anything been gained from lessons learned from World War I (and, of course, what about the lessons learned but ignored)?

It's an awesome subject, isn't it? And none of these questions can be answered, not even - with any satisfaction - by the historians and the scholars who pour so much time and attention into their efforts. And certainly non-specialists like most of us can't add anything to the mix. We studied it, we read about it, we watched the films, but we amateurs can't really figure out what went on or what the results have been. But we can - if we pause a bit - pay our respects and try to connect what came from World War I with what we learned about humanity's history before 1914 and where we've come since 1918.

The Morgan Library & Museum
My own little tribute begins with an appealing program announced for last Tuesday at The Morgan Library and Museum. The Morgan happens to be around the corner from where I live, and anyone who knows me knows the role music plays in my life so I could not resist The Piano in Wartime: 1914-1918. Fifteen students from The Julliard School gathered to perform music composed during World War I, and these performances were interspersed with dramatic readings by actors from the school. It was an altogether satisfying evening, and I'm happy I had the opportunity to experience it.

The program was put together by Aaron Wunsch, Julliard faculty member and director of the PianoScope, the Julliard Piano Department's program that enables performances and other activities around a particular theme. Certainly that format came together for this program, with Wunsch providing a fine pre-performance talk on "Making Music during the Great War" and the performances of the splendid group of pianists and two actors (Therese Barbato and Max Woertendyke) grabbing (and keeping) our attention throughout the entire evening.

As it happens (as noted in the program notes) the period covered was a little more than the dates 1914-1918 usually associated with World War I because, as Wunsch pointed out, it was the overall era that provided the "range of creativity" that the program invoked. What was really being described (as pointed out also by Andrew as we were leaving the hall) was the impact that, a hundred years later, seems to be somewhat forgotten, that the war not only brought about "a gradual aesthetic change" (as Wunsch put it) in the creative endeavors of artists and like-minded people. The war, truly, changed how society was structured, with a totally different way of life emerging after 1918.

Because of the number of selections - both musical and written (poetry and letters) - it isn't possible to list everything and everyone involved, but I can provide a flavor of the program by mentioning the we heard performances of works as varied as Alexander Scriabin's Vers la Flamme ("Toward the Flame") of 1914, Igor Stravinsky's Souvenir d'une marche boche ("Souvenir of a German March") of 1917, and wrapping up with an almost-unbelievably athletic performance of Maurice Ravel's La Valse of 1919-1920. The readings, too, were equally varied, from the Anonymous "Shattered Illusions," from The BEF [British Expeditionary Force] Times of December 25, 1916 to an excerpt from Edith Wharton's Fighting France (1915), to Wilfred Owen's "Anthem for Doomed Youth" (1917).

A remarkable program, and I am happy to record here my gratitude to the PianoScope Program of the Julliard School's Piano Department and the Public Programs Department of The Morgan Library and Museum.