New Yorkers in Uniform, this Wednesday the 15th

Should one happen to be in New York City this week you are invited to attend the showing of our World War One documentary. The event is being held at New York City College of Technology (CUNY), which is convenient to most public transportation. The program is being held in the Ursula C. Schwerin Library on the 4th floor of the Atrium. The event is free and runs from 1:00-2:30 pm. Lunch will be provided. Please RSVP to the email below or to me here at the Strawfoot.

Discovering Grosvenor Phillips Cather

A clip from the 25 June 1918 New York Times article mentioning Lieutenant Cather’s death at Cantigny. Cather served under Ted Roosevelt in the 26th Infantry Regiment.

We wrapped up the second of our two sections yesterday for the Library of America World War One module with two English classes. I will have more on that in future posts but for now wanted to share a small part of it. For the module students read excerpts from The Library of America anthology “World War I and America.” One of the readings was itself an excerpt from “Roll Call on the Prairies,” a piece that Willa Cather wrote for The Red Cross Magazine in July 1919. In my prep work for the session I learned that the novelist had a cousin who was killed in the Great War. This turned out to be one Lieutenant Grosvenor Phillips (G.P.) Cather. I did a bit more digging and it turns out that Lieutenant Cather was killed at the Battle of Cantigny on 28 May 1918.

I intend to do a deeper dive on G.P. Cather next spring on the 100th anniversary of his death. With the classes still fresh on my mind however, I wanted to share a few details about the young officer. Cather not only served in the Great War but fought in the First Infantry Division. Even wilder it turns out that Lieutenant Cather served not only in the Big Red One, but in the 26th Regiment under the command of Major Theodore (Ted) Roosevelt Jr. Major Roosevelt was gassed at Cantigny and the following month received the Silver Star for his actions there. Cather was not so fortunate and was one scores of Americans killed on the 28th of May 1918. He was posthumously award a Silver Star and Distinguished Service Cross. Lieutenant Cather was buried in France but  re-interred in Nebraska in the early 1920s. His cousin never forgot him. Willa Cather used her G.P. as the inspiration for her novel One of Hours, for which she won the Pulitzer Prize in 1923. Again, I will have more on this next spring but for now wanted to share this brief vignette.

(image/New York Times)

Sunday morning coffee

U.S. marines move through the streets of Hue during the Tet Offensive, 1968

I had an extraordinary experience this past Friday. I was at a local coffee shop after work when a man came in and sat down at the table next to me. I was looking at my Kindle and he asked me what I was reading. When I answer Michael Herr’s Dispatches he told me had been a marine in Vietnam. I asked what years, knowing full well that a Vietnam veteran’s period of service usually says a great deal about his experience and, more often than not, his outlook on his experience. He responded late 1967 through 1968, about fifteen months all told. I then had to ask where he was during the Tet Offensive, and he answered Hue. This was tough urban warfare. All of this led to an hour and a half conversation about not just Vietnam but current events and twentieth century history. Whether it was Mao’s Cultural Revolution or the World Wars, his thoughts were subtle and well-considered. Listening to him was humbling. His parents had come to Brooklyn from Great Britain in the late 1930s and he told me that his mother used to cry upon receiving letters from family back home during the Second World War. An uncle served under Montgomery in North Africa. At around ten in the late 1940s, he lived overseas with his family for about 7-8 months during the height of Austerity Britain. Really it was quite an extraordinary conversation.

When I mentioned that some colleagues and I are making a film about WW1 and veterans from today’s military he responded with enthusiasm. We got into a discussion about the GI Bill during which I mentioned that I have been discussing the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act with the classes with which I have been working as part of our Library of America/Gilder Lehrman grant. I go into the GI Bill with students to emphasize that the measure did not become reality until 1944 and was a direct result of the Bonus Army and the general poor treatment of World War One veterans in the 1920s and 1930s. He told me attended NYU Film School in the 1970s on the GI Bill. This was after several years of difficult readjustment in the wake of his return from Southeast Asia. This included overseeing the transport of his best friend’s remains from Vietnam to Arizona for burial. His friend was a Native American and the burial ceremony was conducted accordingly. They had promised each other that if one were killed the other would ensure the deceased’s safe passage home.

Naturally I gave him my phone number as well as the name and link to the website here. I have no doubt I will see him again. I really want to continue the conversation.

(image by Captain T. Cummins/United States Marine Corps Archives, Quantico)

Hemingway the Vulnerable

Ernest Hemingway, still a teenager, as he was upon his return to Oak Park, Illinois in late 1918 or early 1919. Note the cane. He had just spent the previous six months recuperating in a Milanese hospital from injuries incurred in Italy in July 1918. It was there that Hemingway fell in love with the nurse Agnes von Kurowsky, his muse for A Farewell to Arms and several short stories.

I am sorry for the lack of posts in recent days. With the semester in full swing things have been hectic. Enjoyable and busy. Yesterday the English professor and I wrapped up with one class the World War One module in which students watched our film and then read passages from the Library of America WW1 anthology edited by A. Scott Berg. Next week we continue and conclude in the other English 101 section. I will talk more about the readings after we totally finish. On the first day for each English section students read Ernest Hemingway’s “Soldier’s Home.” Hemingway has proved to be a strong thread running through the module. It worked out neatly that the class sessions ran concurrently with the writer’s stint at the Kansas City Star in 1917-18. Students were duly impressed by Hemingway’s conviction that all he needed to know as a writer he learned from the Kansas City Star style sheet. I always stress to students the importance of keeping one’s writing as simple as possible. The irony is that the reader does not see the hard work that goes into making it look effortless. Duke Ellington often spoke about this very thing as a composer. The listener doesn’t see the effort. A student came up to me after class and said she was going to read The Star Copy Style and incorporate its ideas into her own writing. I warned that, while it still has much to offer, the writing guide was written a century ago and so is a bit dated. Still, there is still much there to go on.

Earlier in October I was doing a bibliographic session for another English class with a different instructor that was also studying Hemingway. The instructor mentioned in the class that the Hemingway scholarship used to emphasize Hemingway as a masculine figure. The drinking, boxing, womanizing, war corresponding, hunting, fishing, and the rest of it. Today it is the inverse. Hemingway scholars concentrate more on Hemingway as a vulnerable figure. The family suicides, including his own. The automobile and airplane accidents that damaged him physically. The drinking, now seen from a different perspective than half a century ago. The depression. The struggle with familial relationships. Messy divorces. And love both requited and unrequited. I came across a recent article the other day in which a doctor speculates that Hemingway may have suffered from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE), the degenerative brain disease increasingly found in football players due to repeated head trauma. I suppose the intellectual shift in the Hemgingway scholarship is indicative of how every generation must interpret its historical and cultural figures for its own needs and purposes.

(image/Hemingway collection, JFK Presidential Library)


The Dirty Secret of War

This past week we showed to a class the first cut of our World War One film. For homework the students are now reading a series of excerpts from the Library of America’s World War I and America: Told by the Americans who Lived It. Historian A. Scott Berg, the author of a 2013 biography of Woodrow Wilson, edited the work. For Thursday the students read Hemingway’s “Soldier’s Home,” which appeared originally in Hemingway’s 1925 collection In Our Time. While preparing for the class I came across an essay by Philip Caputo that appeared this month in the online journal Literary Hub. Caputo was a marine who in 1965 landed at Da Nang during Lyndon Johnson’s escalation of American involvement in Vietnam. In 1977 he published his seminal memoir A Rumor of War. That book secured Caputo’s reputation as a writer. Now in his seventies he has written many more works since the publication of Rumor forty years ago. He published a new novel just this year.

Ernest Hemingway in an American Red Cross ambulance, Italy 1918. Though he spent just two weeks at the front, the intensity of the experience influenced Hemingway deeply.

The reason I say all this is because Caputo makes an interesting point in his essay: many of the best war writers actually spent only a small amount of time in combat. The reason these are the writers who write most eloquently about the combat experience, Caputo speculates, is because warfare is just that intense. Endure it too long and it becomes too much a part of you. Caputo uses Ernest Hemingway as the most striking example. For all we associate him with war, Hemingway spent just two weeks on the front lines during the Great War. He graduated high school in June 1917, wrote for the Kansas City Star from that October to April 1918, quit the paper and volunteered for ambulance duty that spring, sailed in May, worked in war torn Paris for much of June, was wounded in Italy on July 8, coalesced in a Milanese hospital for six months, and was home in Oak Park, Illinois by January 1919.

Chronologically the time may have been short, but the intensity of it led to his incredible output over the next decade. A husband and father by the early 1920s, he paid the bills as a foreign correspondent in Europe for the Toronto Star, where among other things he covered the Genoa Conference in 1922; met leaders such as David Lloyd George, Benito Mussolini, and Georges Clemenceau among others; covered the rise of Fascism and Bolshevism; and witnessed the general anomie of European society in the wake of the Great War. In this same decade he published In Our Time (1925), The Sun Also Rises (1926), and A Farewell to Arms (1929), all of which draw to greater or lesser extent on what he witnessed and experienced during his short time in the war zone.

(image/Ernest Hemingway Photograph Collection, JFK Library)

The Vietnam War: a learnable moment?

Lions led by donkeys? Despite many worthwhile books and public programs in recent years, the conventional understanding of the Great War has remained surprisingly static even during the Great War centennial.

An interesting article appeared in the New York Times a few weeks back about the Ken Burns/Lynn Novick Vietnam War documentary. Its authors, Andrew Wiest and Susannah Ural, wonder if the eighteen hour documentary will be a historiographical turning point in our understanding of the war in Southeast Asia. Or, they continue, will it be the culmination of the narrative we have been telling ourselves for the past four–five decades? The answer to that doesn’t lie with Burns and Novick, who with their colleagues have already done their part by giving us the film. As they themselves have said, the documentary’s ultimate purpose is to ask more question than provide answers.

Wiest and Ural draw an interesting comparison, arguing that the documentary might do for Vietnam what historians did for World War One historiography in the early 1990s. Others are better positioned than I am to make the call, but personally I don’t see the needle as having having moved that much over the past 20-25 years. Yes, some archives have opened up and that sort of thing, but our understanding of the Great War remains much as it has since at least the 1960s. The current narrative is still very much the “lions led by donkeys” story line that has been with us for at least half a century. Perhaps a better comparison for The Vietnam War might be The Sorrow and the Pity, the 1969 documentary that nearly thirty years after the fact led the French to more closely examine their role in the Second World War.

Wars often lead citizens to question their societies, often vehemently. Americans examined their country during and immediately after the Great War, which led Prohibition, Women’s Suffrage, and the New Negro Movement in the 1920s. The same thing happened in different ways in the 1960s and early 1970s. Civil Rights, Women’s Rights, Gay Rights, and much more all came out of the social upheaval. In addition it led to rifts that have yet to heal. So many of our current political and cultural divisions have their roots in the Vietnam War Era. Even militarily there is much that remains to explore regarding the Vietnam War. Time will tell over the next few years if we reach any new consensus on that turbulent period. Wiest and Ural make a strong case that this is the opportune time.

(image by Clara E. Laughlin from Foch: The Man)

The Ladies of the Senate

In the year of Sgt Pepper the Ladies of the Senate in dress whites rolled bandages for the wounded in Vietnam. The group was founded half a century earlier during the First Wold War for the same purpose.

I came across this fascinating photo not long ago and wanted to share. It shows the Ladies of the Senate, a volunteer organization founded in 1917 to help the Red Cross during the Great War. Here are members of that organization doing that same work in June 1967 during the Vietnam War. The image is so striking not least because it was taken in what we now call the Summer of Love. The year this photo was taken young people were listening to The Beatles’s Sgt. Pepper, The Rolling Stones’s Between the Buttons, Jimi Hendrix’s Are Your Experienced?, The Doors’s first two albums, Janis Joplin’s nascent stirrings with Big Brother and the Holding CompanyCream’s Disraeli Gears, Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow and so much more than time permits me to document here. With Psychedelia in full plumage, these volunteer bandage rollers are wearing the same white dresses and head coverings as their forbears had half a century earlier.

As mentioned, the Ladies of the Senate came into being when the United States entered the First World War. Their proper name was the Senate Ladies Red Cross Unit. During the Meuse-Argonne Offensive and other campaigns, Senate wives rolled bandages in the basement of what is now the Russell Building. The group turned into a more general charity group in the interwar years but recommitted to rolling bandages during the Second World War. Eleanor Roosevelt was an ally. Here are striking images of Jacqueline Kennedy with the group in April 1961. Some, such as Marion Ann Borris Javits, wife on New York Senator Jacob K. Javits, believed the group had become anachronistic by the late 1940s and 1950s. Most critics, including Mrs. Javits, changed their minds however by the time of the Vietnam escalation in 1965. By Vietnam the process of manufacturing bandages could have been done completely through mechanization. Some insisted however that the hand-rolled versions were more absorbent and thus helped save blood and lives. The Ladies of the Senate became the Senate Spouses Membership in the 1990s.

(image/New York Times)


Lights, camera . . .

I have not mentioned it in a while but my friends/colleagues and I are still plugging away on our Great War documentary. We intend to wrap up in the next 7-10 days, after which we will show it two two English classes at my college and at various other venues this fall. Today I met with our editor Tim, who interviewed me for the film and recorded my narration. I mentioned this in the summer but, again, I can’t express how much Tim has brought to the project. He has such professionalism in the technical aspects of the craft and an incredible sense of narrative as well. In addition to being a film editor, he is musician and novelist. We know we have to finish this one first, but as we were wrapping up today we were already talking about potentially working on another project. I hope that comes to pass.

We really think we’re on our way to tell a story about the Great War, contemporary veterans, and New York City all rolled into one. When our film is finally in the can, I will share it here and elsewhere. In the meantime, here are some photos from today’s effort.