James Weldon Johnson, Along This Way (1933): Part Two

Very few, even among the most intelligent Negroes, could find a tenable position on which to base a stand for social among the other equalities demanded. When confronted by the question, they were forced by what they felt to be self-respect, to refrain from taking such a stand. As a matter of truth, self-respect demands that no mad admit, even tacitly, that he is unfit to associate with any of his fellow men (and that is aside from whether he wishes to associate with them or not). In the South, policy exacts that any pleas made by a Negro—or by a white man, for that matter—for fair treatment to the race, shall be predicated upon a disavowal of “social equality.” (475)

In the second half of James Weldon Johnson’s autobiography Along This Way, we are first introduced to his work as United States consul to Venezuela and Nicaragua. He got these positions through the aid of Booker T. Washington, to whom he reported on the conditions of blacks in Latin America. He is not too happy with this position due to health problems and anxiety about the US involvement in Latin America. Johnson does document the revolution in Nicaragua, which the US government supported. These were actually good times. The port he was stationed at was small and uninteresting, except when the US naval ships arrived in port, which created a “social flurry” for Johnson and his wife. As a diligent consul, he worked hard to defend and expand US commercial interests as well. He had become an agent of empire.

At the end of this section of the autobiography, Johnson tries to come to terms with the US role in Latin America. He argues that empire was about more than simply defending investments, concessions, or securing debt obligations, but is rather part of a larger strategy (going back to the early nineteenth century) to protect and secure order and commerce through Central America and the Caribbean. To me these sounds to be true enough, except that the goal of smooth and peaceful trade through Central America seems to imply the access necessary to collect on those debts and obligations. I will generally agree that the major goal of empire in the modern world is the imposition of order on the fundamental “anarchy” of everyday life. This battle has been waged by governments, missionaries, capital and the other agents of empire. By 1915, he is clearly on the anti-imperialist side of things, arguing that: “For the seizure of an independence nation [Haiti], we offered the stock justifications: protection of American lives and American interests, and the establishment and maintenance of internal order. Had all these reasons been well founded, they would not have constituted justification for the seizure of a sovereign state at peace with us.” (515)

The final part of Along This Way picks up with Johnson’s return to full-time residency in the United States and his growing involvement in the civil rights movement of the day. He joined the National Association for the Advanced of Colored People and began writing editorials for the New York Age. He also took the time to continue his writing as a lyricist and develop his slowly emerging fame as the author of The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (a novel he wrote while Johnson was a US consul). His politics involved the dilemma addressed in the quote opening this post. How to move toward arguments for social equality, and indeed even defining what that might mean. Much of this work involved breaking away from the “Tuskegee Idea” of Booker T. Washington, which set social equality as an unachievable or nebulous goal. But he did take one important idea from Washington, namely that “hammering away at white America” was not enough. “I felt convinced that it would be necessary to awaken black America, awaken it to a sense of its rights and to a determination to hold fast to such as it possessed and to seek in every orderly way possible to secure all others to which it was entitled. I realized that, regardless of what might be done for black America, the ultimate and vital part of the work would have to be done by black America itself; and that to do that work black America needed an intelligent program.” (479) This seems to be an important principle predicated on direct action.

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Charles Brockden Brown: “Wieland; Or, the Transformation” (1798)

The horrors of war would always impend over them, till Germany were seized and divided by Austrian and Prussian tyrants; an event which he strongly suspects was at no great distance. But setting these considerations aside, was it laudable to grasp at wealth and power even when they were within our reach? Were not these the two great sources of depravity? What security had he, that in this change of place and condition, he should not degenerate into a tyrant and voluptuary? Power and riches were chiefly to be dreaded on account of their tendency to deprave the possessor. He held them in abhorrence, not only as instruments of misery to others, but to him on whom they were conferred. (36)

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Another unfortunate gap in this blog is now over. This one is due to my summer travels. Now, I am back in Taiwan and ready to write, beginning with the first American gothic novel: Wieland by Charles Brockden Brown. Brown was not only the first American gothic writer, he was the first professional novelist of the young American republic. A little context on this may be useful.

Early colonial society in British North America quickly became both diverse and quite different from England. This was due to the unique conditions, varied economies, and diverse ecologies of mainland North America. Some of the basic examples of this are planation slavery in Virginia and the Puritan town in New England. Over the course of the first half of the eighteenth century, as the colonies developed, they retained some of this uniqueness but became more alike and also more culturally tied to England. The evidence for this is in architecture, furniture, the books colonists read, and fashions. In short, the American educated elite created simulacra of English society, often on a smaller scale. Look at Jefferson’s home, Monticello. The American Revolution revealed the limits of this trans-Atlantic culture. Although independence was won politically and militarily, American culture was still tied to England. The early republican period was concerned not only with establishing the political foundations of American government, but also with establishing cultural independence. The most well-known example of this was Emerson’s call for a distinctive American culture, but the efforts preceded his declaration by decades. The quote above, from the early parts of Wieland show Charles Brockden Brown engaged in an effort to establish—in the written word—what made America different from Europe. Overall, despite the fact that Brown was importing the gothic tradition to America—he was clearly influenced by William Godwin, something even more apparent in Arthur Mervyn—he struggled to make it fresh and American. In this work, it comes across most clearly in the trans-Atlantic geography of the novel. Characters move across a wider canvas. (I am suddenly thinking of Lovecraft’s writing which was both intensely local but at times global in scale.)

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Wieland is narrated by Clara Wieland and follows her life on a farm with her brother Theodore. Theodore Wieland married Catherine Pleyel. They maintain a close friendship with Catherine’s brother Henry. They live a quiet life of filled with conversation and intellectual fulfillment. Again, expressing a American sentiment, the Wielands are not wealth estates holders. They have a humble background, complicated by their father’s oddities and bizarre death. He was a follower of a strange religion, which he attempted to deliver to the Indians. He died suddenly of spontaneous combustion. This left the Wielands as orphans. When Theodore is given the chance of claiming an inheritance in Europe he refuses, choosing the more simple life. So, unlike in much of British gothic writing, we are not looking at the elite. However, in sentiment, custom, and morality the narrator Clara reveals a level of humble virtue that was so much a part of the early American ideal.

Their life is disrupted by the arrival of Carwin. He is physically mysterious and the details of his past are only revealed in fragments. Clara comes to know that he is wanted in Europe for robbery, but escaped to America. She is—it seems—attracted to Carwin despite the threat he poses to her virtue. Clara often claimed she felt he was a risk to her life as well, but the subtext is much more sexualized it seems to me. With his arrival Clara—and more importantly Theodore—start to hear voices. Many of these are produced by Carwin who has the ability to throw his voice, a skill he mastered and uses for his own benefit. Pleyel, who is preparing to marry Clara, overhears a conversation suggesting Clara had a sexual relationship with Carwin. Pleyel leaves after confronting her on this. Clara denies having this conversation. It was created by Carwin, who had his own designs on Clara. Later, Theodore killed Catherine and his children, claiming that he was ordered to by voices he has heard. Clara immediately blames Carwin for creating these voices. Carwin confronts Clara, confessing his malevolent uses of his ability, but denies ordering Theodore to kill anyone. Carwin saves Clara’s life from Theodore who escaped from jail. At the end, Clara leaves America for Europe, following Pleyel.

Death of Elder Wieland (spontaneous combustion)

Death of Elder Wieland (spontaneous combustion)

In order to interpret this, I want to go right to the question of human freedom. In the opening parts of the novel, America is presented as a land of equality and freedom. It gives opportunity to orphans and allowed social mobility. Nevertheless, we find our characters quite trapped. Clara is trapped by the sexual politics of the time, expectations of virtue, and general pertinence. Theodore, it turns out, is trapped by a madness that seems to run in the family. Perhaps his father’s religious delusions were rooted in the same madness that caused him to kill his family. Pleyel is much like Clara in his fidelity to social expectations. Carwin is the free agent that disrupts this system. As a consequence he may have driven Theodore over the edge with his use of his ability to create ominous voices. If we look closer, many of the chains that the characters feel are rooted in the Old World. Theodore’s inheritance threatens to transform him into an aristocrat. Carwin himself escaped from Europe and survives on remittances from Europe. Theodore’s philosophy, which is often tinged with fatalism, comes from books imported from Germany. We are presented with a type of chaos caused by the social and political disruptions of the American Revolution. Clara and Theodore seem to us like the United States, orphaned and set on their own, but traumatized by Old World burdens. Theodore reflects the madness of slavery, religious zealotry, and other more schizophrenic aspects to American life. Clara is filled with properness and virtue (what early American republicans thought Europe lacked) but ends up settled in Europe after coming to face with a certain madness of the frontier life. The death of her sister-in-law forced the break. “But now, severed from the companion of my infancy, the partaker of all my thoughts, my cares, and my wishes, I was like one set afloat upon a stormy sea, and hanging his safety upon a plank.” (141)

What I am trying to suggest is that the major theme of Wieland is separation and the division between the Old World and the New. Brown is uncertain quite where that takes him or what to do with it. Unlike a more vulgar work like The Contrast, which places American virtue and European hypocrisy in stark terms. In Brown’s Wieland the divisions are confused, chaotic, and traumatic. This makes it a more realistic tale.                                                                                                       

Tennessee Williams, “Spring Storm” (1937)

One of my goals for this year in my blog is to expand types of writing. Up to now, I have focused on non-fiction writing, novels, and short stories. I think my coverage has been diverse, there are two areas of writing that I have neglected: poetry and the stage. To begin correcting this, I will take the next two weeks or so reading the collected plays of Tennessee Williams, collected in two volumes. An immediate problem that comes up is that my normal strategy of gobbling around 150 pages a day will not work if I want to give each work the attention it deserves. These two volumes collected over 20 of Williams’ plays. If I take it a work at a time, I will risk writing a longer series than even my lengthy looks at Philip K. Dick and Mark Twain. For now, I plan to post everyday one or two plays to keep pace.

Tennessee Williams wrote Spring Storm for a playwright course at the University of Iowa. He had previously seen a handful of his works staged by amateur and student groups. Spring Storms was a failure in his course and the St. Louis theater troupe, “the Mummers,” refused to perform it despite putting on some of his other works. He was twenty-six when this was written and he has spent most of his adult life facing the Great Depression. Spending most of that time writing, he attended journalism school and performed various jobs, including working at a branch of the International Shoe Company, which his father manages. His career had a slow start and he attended various colleges. Spring Storm was never performed during Williams’ lifetime.

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The social context of Spring Storms is an old Southern aristocratic family—the Critchfields—in a decline accelerated by the Great Depression. As the older generation of the family sees it, their last asset is their daughter Heavenly. By marrying the son of a well-off family, Arthur Shannon, the family’s financial future can be improved. As with much Great Depression literature, class exists at the center of this play. It runs through all relationships between the characters and drives the major action. None of the younger generation are particularly interested in the class divide, however. Whether this is due to their youthful naivety or a more progressive attitude toward class due to the Depression is open to interpretation. In the background of the Critchfield family is the historical legacy of Colonel Wayne, a Confederate officer who fought at Gettysburg. His portrait hands in the background and is commonly discussed. Heavenly even has conversations with him.

Young Tennessee Williams

Young Tennessee Williams

Four young men and women form the center of the story. Heavenly Critchfield has recently begun a sexual relationship with Richard (Dick) Miles. She suggest to her parents that she is pregnant by him, but this could be a means to avoid marriage to Arthur. Dick is presented as a working class dreamer. Arthur is well-off and has spent some time in Europe, where he sowed his wild oats and enjoyed various privileges that money provides. He is having a relationship with Hertha. Williams describes her as follows. “Hertha is thin and dark, about twenty-eight. Without money or social position, she has to depend upon a feverish animation and cleverness to make her place among people. She has an original mind with a distinct gift for creative work. She is probably the most sensitive and intelligent person in Port Tyler, Mississippi.” (13–14) Unlike Dick, Hertha is smart enough to engage with the world on its own terms. Dick, from a similar class background is more reckless. The initial pairings break class assumptions about who should be with who, but the young people’s indifference to class runs deeper. Arthur holds a grudge against Dick and Heavenly for the insults they lodged at him in school. His money did not translate into class privilege in the context of the playground.

Pushed by her family, Heavenly begins a courtship with Arthur, but she is quite cold and coy with him. She is much more interested in Dick but knows he is unstable. Arthur is filled with jealousy and resentment toward Heavenely and Dick. In a type of misdirected vengeance he focuses on seducing Hertha. His monologue, directed toward Hertha in an attempt to seduce her, is central to the play.

Yes. I told her that I was in love with her, and she said that I should go out and get drunk because that was the only thing that would do me any good. So I got drunk. It’s the first time I ever got drunk in my life and it was swell. Till I started thinking of her making love to Dick Miles. . . . I can forget all that with you, can’t I? You’re a girl, too. You could make love as well as she could. But not with Dick Miles. With me. What are you backing away for? Are you scared? That’s flattering. Nobody’s ever been scared of me before. I was like you, Hertha. I hid behind books all the time because they used to call me sissy when I was a kid in school. I never got over that. Not till tonight when I got drunk. God! I never knew it could be so good to get drunk and feel like a man inside. Literature and the arts. Stravinsky, Beethoven, Brahms. Concerts, matinees, recitals—what’s all that? If I told you you’d blush. You don’t like that kind of language. Sure, I sat through all that stuff and thought it was great. Got much stuff publishes in those little magazines with the big cultural movements. Art for art’s sake. Give America back to the Indians. I thought I was being highbrow. Intellectual. The hell with that stuff. Dick Mile’s go the right idea. He was one that she gave herself to, not me, not me. The one that got drunk and had himself a good time, he was the one that got Heavenly, and me with my intellectual pretensions, my fancy education, and my father’s money—what did I get? Pushed in the face! (76–77)

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In this monologue, we see Arthur’s class resentment come forth. Whatever freedom his wealth gave him—evidenced by some trysts in Europe and his social clout in the town—he still experiences frustration over the experiences and social circle that his wealth excludes him from. Williams may be feeding into the cultural movements of the Great Depression that focused on the exclusionary nature of class and the divide across America people “the people” and the elite.

Arthur’s sexual aggression toward Hertha leads to her suicide, which his interprets as a murder that he is responsible for. (The stage notes were a bit opaque for me about how she died, whether it was murder or suicide.) Dick, ever a dreamer, quits his work as a local courier and flees both the town and Heavenly. All the characters are thus left alone, their different class backgrounds and perspectives on life making them incompatibles.

Ah, there is much more that could be touched on, most significantly the division between the ages groups and the values changing from nineteenth century to twentieth century America.

Henry Adams: “History of the United States of America: During the First Administration of Thomas Jefferson” (Part Two)

We consider ourselves so strongly founded in this conclusion, that we are of opinion the United States should act on it in all the measures relative to Louisiana in the same manner as if West Florida was comprised within the Island of New Orleans, or lay to the west of the River Iberville. . . The moment is so favorable for taking possession of that country that I hope it has not been neglected, even though a little force should be necessary to effect it. Your minister must find the means to justify it.” (Robert Livingston, pp. 350–351)

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In the second half of Thomas Jefferson’s first term, the specter hanging over the country was whether the United States would come out as an empire. This the feeling I got from reading the second volume of Henry Adam’s massive history of the Jeffersonian “revolution.” The United States was an empire by birth, but like any child that just emancipated itself from a cruel parent, it did not want to confess that it was of the same ilk. Out of the victory in the revolution, the United States inherited all the lands to the Mississippi. Simultaneously, the young nation claimed all the people in those places defeated and conquered, including the more or less undefeated Iroquois. In the first years of the independent republic, the government oversaw a brutal dispossession of these Indians, although it would take a half a century to be completed.

What forced the issue of empire out into the open was the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, which almost doubled the size of the nation. As we know, the direct cause of this was the Haitian Revolution and the loss of the French position in the Caribbean, combined (we guess) with a desire to keep the territory out of the hands of the British. Although Adams is careful to note that due to commercial ties between the United States and Britain this would have just given Britain indirect access to Louisiana. I doubt it has any impact on the outcome of the Napoleonic wars. The sale was a straight forward diplomatic affair that emerged out of the Monroe mission to ensure open access to New Orleans for American shipping. Adams dwells on the hand-wringing among Americans that followed the sale. While on the surface it was a debate about Constitutional powers, if Americans had been more honest they would have known they were debating openly for the first time if the nation would be an empire or not.

Here is Adams on Jefferson’s clever dance around the issue:

Jefferson took a different view. He regarded, or wished to regard, the Louisiana treaty and legislation, as exceptional and as forming no precedent. While he signed the laws for governing the territory, he warmly objected to the establishment of a branch bank of the United States at New Orleans. (389)

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He even earlier tried a focused Constitutional Amendment that would have made it clear that such a purchase was a one-time deal. At the same time, we see that annexation through purchase (or conquest, as the nation would learn 45 years later) is perilous because it places on the central government a duty to administer the territory. Simply stating that the Bank of the United States cannot operate there is a ridiculously narrow excuse. There was nothing that could be done but behave imperially in Louisiana, although time would ensure that the heavy lifting of this would be done by other presidents less anxiety-ridden over America’s identity as an empire.

The fact that Louisiana opened up an epic question of the national identity is seen in the almost immediate discussions about Florida and its place in an expanding United States. The first step toward the conquest of Florida may have been the Mobile act, which declared the “shores, waters, inlets, creeks, and rivers, lying within the boundaries of the United States” to be within the taxation zone of the United States. While the territory was still fairly well-defined, commerce would necessarily cross over into Spanish Florida, leading to future decisions to annex the territory by treaty.

Sometimes Adams does not talk much about is the violence that all of this entailed. He can avoid it for two reasons. First, he is interested in the diplomacy above everything else. Second, the territories were largely left alone. From the perspective of an Indian living in Dakota or the Rocky Mountain areas, the second boot would not drop for years or decades. The wars Jefferson’s decision to purchase Louisiana would come and they would be his doing, after a fashion. Now perhaps is not the place to discuss this, as they are outside of Adam’s story, but I would like to challenge Adams on his blinders. Writing at the turn of the century he must have known the result of these decisions and the imperial nature of the Louisiana Purchase. Had he written this tale a bit differently perhaps more Americans would be learning about the purchase as a prelude to genocide rather than as the great achievement of the Jefferson administration.

With the Constitutionality of the Louisiana Purchase assured, the United States entered the world stage as a formal empire. Adams devotes the remainder of second volume of his history to three issues: warming relations with England, the Tripoli incursion as part of the ongoing war with the Barbary pirates, and the re-election of Jefferson. As to our theme, the second battle of Tripoli Harbor is the clearest evidence of the young republic acting with an imperial will. Ultimately, Adams is more interested in what this meant for international diplomacy and the relations between England, France, and the United States, but there it is. In the name of suppressing piracy, Jefferson was all too comfortable with empire. Around the time that Jefferson gave his second inaugural address, an American unit under the leadership of William Eaton, the consul of Tunis, was fighting America’s first overseas land battle against Tripoli.

A. J. Liebling, “Normandy Revisited” (1958): War and Nostalgia

The film The Best Years of Our Lives famously explored the trauma of returning from war to a working class community that no longer understood you. The war gave a sense of meaning, a community, and a purpose that could not be recreated in one’s banal hometown. Marriages broke up and veterans took to drink. Others came back less than whole and found additional challenges. If A. J. Liebling’s Normandy Revisited is a guide, this was in some ways the experience of war correspondences. Perhaps this is why so many journalists move from war to war and never settle for working for a local newspaper, reporting on the fair.

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Normandy Revisited has more in common with Liebling’s book on food Between Meals than some of the other war writings I have been looking at. He often looks back with nostalgia at the war and his exciting experiences covering the war (with a knowledge that such events will never come again), but much of this nostalgic musing is done at French cafes in Normandy. It is hard not to wonder whether this book was an excuse for Liebling to enjoy consumption and conversation in his second home of France. It is a work of leisurely tourism and thus cannot be fully separated from the privilege someone like Liebling enjoyed at the birth of American hegemony. While I do not find much useful in nostalgia (I prefer a Prometheanism) and when that nostalgia is for a war that one did not need to fight except in print it should trouble us, there is perhaps something to the human preference for action to banality. I suspect many leftists look at revolution (or the high point of the I.W.W. or a particularly inspirations strike) with a similar nostalgia.

What I find sad in the juxtaposition of his war memories with his experiences touring Normandy a decade after D-Day is the apparent loss of the leftist potentialities that formed a crucial part of the anti-fascist struggle. (See my earlier posts on Liebling for more on these.) Instead we are given Liebling’s participation in a culture of affluence. The following comes after a two page description of a meal.

This has developed from a merely culinary into a geographical digression, but I can never approach the memory of that meal without wanting to go into it. It has the same attraction for me as Costello’s saloon. I seldom encounter a pheasant nearly so good nowadays, and when I do, an hour d’oeuvre and possible a tripe is all I can manage at one meal besides the bird. (I am writing this on a lunch exclusively of turtle soup, as I am trying to take off weight.) (913)

Perhaps a more useful reading of Normandy Revisited is to set it next to Between Meals and take another look at the Dionysian pursuit of pleasure. In my post on Between Meals, I argued for a more sympathetic view of Liebling’s quest for pleasure as a reaction against a capitalist culture of scarcity and restraint. The reason more of us cannot consume epically is due to the even more grotesque consumption and accumulation by the ruling class. We should not confuse Liebling’s obesity and fondness for food with the obesity of the millionaires and billionaires. Perhaps my brief moral outrage has to do with his enjoyment of these pleasures on a graveyard of soldiers and radical dreams. I had forgotten that in the context of the Nazi occupation of France, merely keeping a harvest or enjoying a surplus was not allowed.

 

From the perspective of human freedom, perhaps it is also good that the wounds of war were so easily healed. Signs of war, of course, could not so easily forgotten. Some buildings were left in partial repair. Widows had to come to terms with dead husbands. Liebling’s report from the Hôtel du Cheval Blanc shows little evidence of the previous conflict, except the proprietor’s dead husband and the fact that the hotel had to be rebuilt. Instead of trauma we get:

When I came downstairs to await the Le Cornecs in the cafe that evening, the chromium-florescent bait had brought in two couples who sat up at the bar. The women’s tight, round little bottoms perched up on the bar stools like the tops of swizzle sticks. The V-backs of their motoring dresses started just above the caudal cleft, their hair was rose platinum, and their voices suggested they wore microphones in their garter belts. They and the men, who looked like comperes in a marseilais road show, were drinking Scotch, as everybody does in France now who does not wish to be taken for a tourist. (917)

One quickly notices in this book (if not in his earlier projects) that Liebling always saved one eye for the ladies and his books would have been much shorter had an editor removed these descriptions. I wonder how many of these women he discusses knows they have been so immortalized for sitting at a barstool, riding a bicycle or showing off their “French frame” (no time to look up page number for that reference but it is there).

Where does this obligation to feel nostalgia, grief, and trauma for a war come from? I am pondering a fictional visit to Normandy made by the titular character in Saving Private Ryan. For that character the war was a life of guilt and torment. The film-maker, and I suspect the nation as a whole, demands this emotion from its people. Considerable energy is spent in memorials, films, holidays, parades, and speeches. Lincoln passed over the suffering and sacrifice of soldiers in one line to get to the real significance of Gettysburg, the war as social revolution. In contrast, the cult of war memorials wants a nation who thinks opposition to the state is somehow opposition to the war dead. This is a profoundly reactionary sentiment and had no place in a projectural life and a politics of the future. We should let the dead be dead.

Tyranny of historical memory

Tyranny of historical memory

Liebling’s reports form his trip show that the Parisians did not remember the war with guilt. Perhaps it is an American obsession. Liebling does describe a charity event for veterans, but it was apparently not drown in tears, bad patriot music, and political leaders calling on our divine duty to the war dead.

As Liebling suggested in The Road Back to Paris, he could not really cover the war from cafes, but we should be fortunate that is may turn out to be a very good place to cover the aftermath of the war. So let me suggest: Down with nostalgia and guilt when it comes to the great wars of the past and our own lives. It has no place in the world we want to build.

A. J. Liebling, “Uncollected War Journalism” (1939-1963): Infrapolitics and Resistance

Haven’t they any cooperatives? It is to the interest of the dairies to be clean. Then they would get a premium for the milk. It is just like the ships. If you have a good ship, with the proper number of watertight compartments and all new safety things, then you pay such a low insurance rate, you know. And if you treat the crew right, it is a good crew, and then you don’t have to pay so many men. In Denmark it has all worked out beautifully. In a cooperative one bad one hurts all the others. (596)

Is it not amazing that we find in a small report by an overweight American journalist about the fate of the Danish navy during World War II, such a concise argument for anarchist principles of organization? I argued in my last posts on A. J. Liebling’s World War II writings that we see in the fighting of the war plenty of unrealized potentialities. Here, perhaps, is another one. In any case, readers of the New Yorker cannot say they were not by none other than a Danish sailor.

Liebling’s reports from the Second World War are insightful on many levels. They speak of the experience of common soldiers, the character of commanders, and the perceptions of war from the home front. Of most long-term significant is what his stories reveal about the winning of the war and the power of vernacular forms of protest. As important as the military was to the victory, the painting Liebling presents of occupied Europe is one a Gulliver being tied down by thousands of little strings. Liebling had a fascination and love for France, which comes through in his writings. He even wrote an entire book on the French resistance, The Republic of Silence (of which two selections are included in this collection). Their contribution was not simply armed resistance, but a great diversity of infrapolitics (a term coined by James Scott for unseen and underground political action).

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One of the most memorable in this collection of war reports to the New Yorkers (pp. 573–815 in World War II Writings) is about the “V” campaign. The campaign used radio to encouraged people in occupied territories to write the letter “V” on public buildings with chalk. The letter was given different meaning depending on the local language. When transformed into morse code, it became the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. In effect, this turned a piece of German music into an international symbol of resistance (to the great annoyance of the Germans). Liebling estimates that this cheaply run campaign kept two German divisions from the front in attempt to suppress graffiti, but the use of a musical phrase for resistance was impossible to repress.

The radio broadcasts encouraged other forms of day to day resistance to the occupation, which may have had a cumulative effect that shaped the war’s outome. The colonel in charge of the program said in one broadcast:

This week I’m asking you to buy anything and everything and leave nothing for the Germans. Buy before your money becomes worthless. . . . Farmers, soon you’ll be getting your harvests in. The Germans want to get their hands on your crops, but there are ways to hide them. You will neede to keep your families from starving during the winter, and if you can save a little more than you need for yourself, it will be worth its weight in gold. . . . A lot of you city people have insurance policies. Nearly all the insurance companies have been bought up by the Germans, so every time you burn a hole in your carpet or break some china, don’t forget to claim; bury the Germans in paperwork. And if you can’t do any of these things, mark up the V where they’ll see it. Beat out the V rhythm. (608–609)

Of course, the effectiveness of this sort of thing could not be determined by the bureaucratic institutions that ran the war, but they likely helped cultivate an anti-fascist ethos in these countries and may have helped prevent its reemergence.

“The Lancaster Way” shows how small industries in small towns in England became critical production centers in for the war effort, while also sustaining a strong working class culture and spirit of autonomy. The vernacular ingenuity of these smaller urban spaces was, according to Liebling, nothing short of stunning.

Another set of articles I would like to highlight are those dealing with the French press under Nazi occupation. Liebling was interested in how the press in a city could keep its independence while also suffering from increasing corporate centralization. His 1964 book The Press is about the threat to democracy by centralized media ownership. While we might think that the press was completely restricted under the Nazis, we find the opposite was the case. “The only great nation with a completely free press today is France. All valid French newspapers are illegal.” (653) The press, in open rebellion of this censorship flourished. I suppose by the same logic, the most repressed spouse is the most likely to seek out affairs. Liebling describes the various major underground newspapers, their varied perspectives, and how they got into print. Repression created a solidarity of varied perspectives, which ultimately proved a boon to the left. “The Gestapo called them all Communists. This is an example of Nazi and collaborationist propaganda that had boomeranged. . . . the words ‘Communist’ and ‘patriot’ in the French popular mind. . . became synonyms, which gives an increased impetus to the Leftward tendency caused by the treason committed by the great industrialists.” (655) Had the Germans allowed some press freedom, what may have emerged was a waffling “neutral” newspaper that was politically anodyne and a complicit supporter of the occupation. Through censorship, the Germans created a radical French media culture. Later, Liebling suggest this contributed to the post-war alliance between the French working class and the intellectuals.

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Liebling’s Second World War writings teaches us that the people can trap the state in its own rhetoric, immobilize it through non-participation, and silence it. The tools and strategies used by the European resistance are still available to us even if they will look different in application. The power of infrapolitics has never really declined.

A. J. Liebling: “Mollie and Other War Pieces” (1964)

Besides the Jews, the Corps [Franc] had hundreds of political prisoners from labor camps in southern Algeria—Spanish Republicans who had fled to Africa in 1939, anti-Nazi Germans who had come even before that, and French “Communists and de Gaullists,” to employ the usual Vichy designation for dissidents. . . In the Corps Franc, they were at liberty to march and fight until they dropped. They were also a fair number of Mohammedans, good soldiers, who had joined to earn the princely wage of twenty-three francs a day. . . I remember a former carabinero who had fought in the Spanish Loyalist Army, and a baked of Italian parentage from Bone, in Algeria, who said, “I am a Communist. Rich people are poison to me.” 320–321

Corps Franc

Corps Franc

This passage from A. J. Liebling’s Mollie and Other War Pieces reminds us of how broad the anti-fascist alliance was in the 1930s and 1940s. Leibling focused a great deal on the French resistance and the French home front in his World War II writings. France was his second home after New York City and he seemed to never tire of going there. The fall of France and the return to Paris (The Road Back to Paris) defined the major arc of the conflict. A group like the Corps Franc was made up of thousands of the defeated and colonized, but participated in this anti-fascist struggle. Although Liebling does not quite get to this point, I do think there were the seeds planted for some alternative post-war worlds. One thing that is clear in this reading is that it was by no means the will of many of the participants on the allied side that capitalism would emerge from the war triumphant. It was not the values of empire and capital that won the war (although sometimes their mechanized logic did seem to shape the conduct of the war).

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Mollie and Other War Pieces came out in 1964 and, along with The Press, was one of the works left incomplete at his death. Mollie and Other War Pieces is mostly collection of his war correspondence, picking up where The Road Back to Paris left off, starting in the North Africa campaign, continuing to D-Day and the defeat of Germany in France, and ending with a lengthy description of a war crime in rural France that seems small when compared to the scale of the war, but summarizes Liebling’s view about the moral necessity of fighting fascism. The story on the soldier Mollie open the book. “Mollie” was a Russian-American soldiers who was killed in action in North Africa. He was a memorable soldier, given the handle Molotov by his comrades. He was a good solider, a bit extravagant in his living, but also politically radical and often in trouble (one report has him court-martialed a couple dozen times but always getting off). Liebling goes back to New York and digs up the personal history of Mollie and finds that he was a union man (but negligent about his dues) and sustained a rather infamous life. I think this piece is important to read for its insight into the diverse points of view that made up the US Army during the war and the radical politics of so many soldiers coming out of the Great Depression.

It cheers me to think there may be more like him all around me—a notion I would have dismissed as sheer romanticism before World War II. Cynicism is often the shamefaced product of inexperience. He has become a posthumous pal, thought I never knew him when he was alive. He was full of curiosity—he would have made a great explorer—and fond of high living, which is the only legitimate incentive for liking money. He had faith in the reason of his fellow-man, as when he sensed that the Italians at Sened were no more eager to fight than he was. The action that earned him his Silver Star cost no lives. It saved them. (342)

Several soldiers pass through Liebling’s narrative of the war which values perhaps similar to those of Mollie. Liebling spends a great deal of time looking at the French home front where we similarly find a great diversity of political perspectives, but a strong tendency toward the left among the anti-fascist forces. He discusses collaborators as well, but his focus is on the resistance. His section on the free French press during the occupation is wonderfully fascinating if only for the evidence that it was largely a movement of the left. These resistance movements against the Germans fed into traditional French revolutionary politics.

In another village, also in Brittany, an officious gendarme tried to make the farm wives stop baking, because the farmers are suppose to deliver all their flour to the government. Enraged women dumped him into a horse trough. In the Yonnee departments, farmers hide requisitioned horses and cows; in Loir-et-Cher, the farmers deliver no eggs, insisting that the hens stopped laying in 1940. In Seine-et-Oise, the peasants have formed committees to demand high grain prices. Everwhere the peasants unite to hunt informers, just as farmers in Iowa, not long ago, used to chase process serves. La Terre holds up the example of the scorched earth set by the Russian peasants. (452–453)

Liebling builds up these stories about the French resistance to the fight to liberate Paris on the eve of the American arrival to the city. This did not prevent appreciation for the Americans who helped make the liberation possible but did allow the Parisians to “feel they earned it [liberation].” (524)

Libération, 23 août 1944

The book also contains Liebling’s description of D-Day, which he observed from a boat in the English channel. While of interest to those who want to see another perspective on that big battle, I am more interested in seeing the war from the margins, fought not by generals and states but by the motley crew of anti-fascists. This side of the war—the one that did not just fight for the idea of liberty but tried to live in their actions during the war—needs to be told more often.