Between 1968 and 1983, the Music Department of the University of Pennsylvania was lucky enough to employ three of the major American composers of the twentieth century: George Crumb, George Rochberg, and Richard Wernick. Nicknamed “the triumvirate,” these three men helped push American classical music out of strict adherence to the European serialist tradition and into the post-war period of heterodox experimentation. Having recently had a chance to process the Richard Wernick papers here at the Kislak Center, a collection which includes scores by all three men, I’ve been particularly fascinated by the record it provides of their productive collaboration: most specifically, marks which Richard Wernick made in his capacity as conductor on scores by Crumb and by Rochberg—as well as the beauty of the scores themselves, testament to the flee-flowing creative power of the three composers in their primes.
It seems a fair rule: artists should never respond to criticism of their work. But few artists are able to resist the temptation, and the outsized role that critics play in an artist’s success, especially in more rarified fields, makes it almost inevitable that the result will be rancorous. The critic has the privilege of print and access to a large readership. How can the artist hope to respond to opinions with which they disagree, especially when these opinions seem to present an existential threat to their reputation and livelihood?
In the case of Ian Hamilton Finlay, famous concrete poet and landscape architect—whose work I had the pleasure of archiving recently, through a collection sold by Graeme Moore, a landscape artist and Finlay’s longtime associate—the answer was a form of ideological warfare. In 1986, two architecture critics, Gwyn Headley and Wim Muelenkamp, under the auspices of the UK’s National Trust, published Follies, a guide to what they saw as eccentric buildings and gardens throughout the United Kingdom. The authors included Finlay’s Little Sparta, a garden full of sculpture and concrete poetry, in this volume. Perhaps they meant this as a harmless designation, or even a way to drum up interest in what they saw as an unfairly neglected site.
As the production of printed matter grows increasingly automated (not to mention digitized), the handwriting of the past feels more precious with each passing year. One of the great pleasures of working in an archival repository is appreciating the wild variety of human penmanship, from chicken-scratch capitals to the ornate, formal calligraphy of diplomatic documents. “He writes a fine hand” is no longer a well-understood saying, and yet I miss the physicality of the phrase: the sense of the appendage merging with the text it produces.
I was reminded recently of how fine handwriting can turn a written document into an object of beauty as I processed a collection of scores by Robert Capanna. Capanna was a Philadelphia composer and longtime Executive Director of the Settlement School, a community arts school with campuses across the greater Philadelphia area. The scores range from the early 1970s to 2016, a span that showcases interesting changes in the way music was drafted and reproduced. For the first few decades of Capanna’s career, he drafted his scores in pen and pencil on onion-skin, sending the finished versions off to the Theodore Presser Company for engraving and printing. You can see this process in Capanna’s score for “Day,” a long work for voices and chamber orchestra which he revised continually over more than ten years; the initial onion-skin draft, which Capanna’s precise penmanship, transformed into a readable (if more pedestrian-looking) printed score.
Where do booksellers go when they retire from the trade? Lawyers become consultants (ditto for doctors) and the academy has been known to accept tradespeople from all walks of life on an adjunct basis. But bookselling is not a popular college course, and the range of industries looking for freelance advice from hardened paper-traders is, so to speak, limited. Furthermore, what sort of job would be fitting for the archetypical bookseller’s personality? No other industry combines intellectual contemplation with the thrill of acquisition on such an integral, daily basis.
By early 20th century American standards, Frank, Mary, and Doris White were a remarkably adventurous family. In 1925, when less than .5 percent of the American population travelled overseas—and the majority of those who did travelled exclusively to Europe—the White family embarked on a grand tour of staggering proportions. Setting sail from San Francisco, they travelled by boat to Hawaii, Japan, Sri Lanka, India, the Middle East, and, finally, Italy. And all this when Doris was only ten years old.
Perhaps more important than the sheer novelty of the White family’s journey was the spirit in which they engaged with it. In our collection of the Doris White family papers, the Kislak Center is lucky enough to have not only extensive photo documentation of the trip (some with distinctive early colorization), but also Frank White’s careful notes on the reverse of each photograph, which demonstrate his keen interest in cultural habits. It’s hard to imagine the average American tourist of the time having an interest in the mealtime procedure of a boat crew outside Sri Lanka, for example, much less the kind of pragmatic (if slightly Eurocentric) assessment Frank White provides here. It’s true; using banana leaves saves on dishwashing!
At other times, one can detect a note of confusion in Frank’s explanations, as with this description of riding around in a rickshaw. Perhaps, if given the choice, the Whites would have chosen other transportation accommodations? And yet the accompanying note is conciliatory enough. As one would expect from the rare American family travelling across Asia, the Whites were always willing to be accommodating.
As the journey wore on, however, a certain amount of travel fatigue began to set in. Frank White was less excited about riding a small donkey than he was about riding in a rickshaw, and he was less than happy about the sheer amount of beggars crowding the holy sites in Jerusalem. Perhaps, considering the unorthodox itinerary the Whites were pursuing, some burnout was to be expected.
However, despite occasional misgivings at some of the less enjoyable parts of the journey, the White family seems to have maintained their interest in the people they met. Their guide in Egypt, Abdu Mohamed, asked for this posed picture, which Frank later sent to him, establishing a correspondence. Clearly the man had left an impression on Frank. “[H]e could look right through you and tell you all you did[…]”
Unfortunately, our collection here at Kislak contains no reflections by the family on the effect of this momentous trip—but it does contain photographic accounts of later trips by Doris White, the family daughter, who one imagines must have been inspired by this formative journey. Indeed, Doris enrolled in the Kansas City National Training School, which trained missionaries—and was, based on photographic evidence from the collection, a lively and popular student.
Later, when Doris set out on trips of her own, her family’s intrepid spirit and ability to slip easily into native custom were on full display in these photo albums of her trips through California and Mexico in the late 1940s. While North American travel was certainly much more common than the sort of trip she and her family had taken in the 1920s, the idea of an unmarried female traveler was still a novel one. It was one thing for Frank White to travel the globe with his family in tow, and another thing for his daughter to don a Sombrero and Mexican garb.
Doris White wouldn’t stay single forever. Shortly after her trip to Mexico, she married Richard Ischinger. Is he the man she’s sitting with on this shot taken atop a rocky promontory? Not according to the back of the photo, which identifies him as “J. Whitman Evans.”
Although marriage was in her future, Doris wasn’t waiting around for it to appear. She was 33 by the time she married, and—thanks to her family and to her own sense of adventure—had already experienced more of the world than most American women could have hoped to see.
Taken together, the White family were fascinating outliers: an example of early 20th century American travelers who stepped outside of their usual scripts, whether of gender, culture, or national origin, and participated in experiences totally foreign to most of their countrymen. And, as a result, these family photographs are a completely surprising series of documents, showing the limits of contemporary possibilities for American lives.
After the Comstock Act (named after famed anti-obscenity crusader Anthony Comstock) was passed in 1873, it became illegal to send any material deemed “obscene” through the U.S. Postal Service. Comstock, from his position as a special agent for the U.S.P.S., became a one-man arbiter of whether a given piece of material was or was not appropriate for transportation through the mails. Comstock was a conservative New England fundamentalist who saw evidence of sin in almost everything, from the obvious (contraception) to the less obvious (dime store novels for teenagers). He also censored any material which dealt explicitly with sex education.
From the Act’s inception, reformers petitioned for its removal. They attacked the Act on several fronts. Why was the opinion of one man (Comstock) sufficient to decide whether something was or was not “obscene?” Why should the private decisions of married people to purchase contraception be subject to invasive action by the government? And why should educational material concerning human sexuality be deemed obscene, if its intent wasn’t prurient, but instructional?
The question of intent makes this last question particularly complicated. This month, as I processed the Jay A. Gertzman research collection on censorship, a research collection focused on the prosecution of “obscene” literature, these complications came into stark relief. Because we live in a time in which censorship laws are significantly more relaxed than they were in the beginning of the 20th century—and because the Comstock Laws were also used for more sweeping repressive measures, like restricting the sale of contraception—it can tempting to view the battle over obscenity as a battle between virtuous free-speech advocates and fear-mongers. In such a narrative, Comstock’s obsession with prurience silenced many decades’ worth of common-sense sex education.
Literary translation is an art, not a science; the act of bringing a story or poem into another language is a creative act, first and foremost, and can’t be fully systematized. And yet there are rules (or, better yet, standard operating procedures) for how one produces a translation that is faithful to the original while standing as an independent work of art. The most traditional of these procedures, developed systematically by Russian and French theorists in the 1950’s, concerns equivalence: that is, the translator’s choice of the best word or phrase in the new language to correspond with each original word or phrase. (One might imagine the best version of a machine translation: Google Translate as omniscient being.)
Other theoretical frameworks are less prescriptive on the sentence level; Skopos theory, for example, stresses that the goal of translation is the transmission of the purpose of the original work—to entertain, to inform, to warn—as opposed to its line-by-line linguistic form. This concept can feel nebulous; how is a translator to define the true purpose of a poem? And yet it does seem to reflect why a reader turns to language in the first place: to learn, to gain wisdom. If a translator achieves grammatical fidelity but fails to transmit the underlying purpose of the work, are they truly successful? What if they produce the linguistically equivalent version of a joke, but the reader doesn’t laugh?
While working on the papers of pioneering U.S. historian John Bach McMaster this past month, I found myself combing through a section of research material he used while writing about World War I: specifically, a series of documents produced during the lead-up to the American decision to join the side of the Triple Entente against the Central Powers. Although World War I occupies only a small part of our national imagination—certainly as compared to the gigantic position of World War II—this year, the hundred year anniversary of the Great War’s end, seems a particularly timely position from which to assess the causes and effects of the war, and the dialogue which grew up around it—and John B. McMaster, one if the first historians to embrace social history, provides an excellent perspective from which to examine them.
One of McMaster’s pioneering contributions to American history was his use of newspaper material to provide social context for political changes. This sort of source is so commonplace now that it hardly seems revolutionary, but for McMaster, writing about the U.S. entry into the Great War barely a few years after the event in question, providing material from the daily papers that his readers might have read themselves must have seemed remarkably forward-thinking. And the newspaper clippings showing how the war was communicated to readers at home are certainly remarkable, especially the detailed maps describing the various offensives:
But, for all the historical value that might rest in examining the maps that the American people themselves examined during the war, I was particularly interested in a much different sort of map that I discovered among McMaster’s research material: one far less interested in accurate reportage:
From the pages of Life, this highly partisan and often hilarious (Weinerschnitzelplatz? Heidelbergapolis?) map of what might happen to the United States if it didn’t enter the war on the Allied side gives a sense of how highly mobilized the pro-war propaganda effort was in the lead-up to America’s final decision.
(The use of a Germanized map of America also has disturbing resonance with the later harassment of German-Americans, who made up a large percentage of the American population, and, especially in the case of many Midwestern farming communities, gave their settlements Germanic names.)
Much of McMaster’s research file is geared towards America’s entry into the war and, more specifically, the various arguments marshaled by the Triple Entente and the Central Powers to place blame on each other for starting the conflict. Some, like this omnibus publication of national statements from the New York Times, strained to maintain some sense of objectivity, at least in presentation.
Although the papers inside of it did not, as this bold German pamphlet makes clear. (The delightful nicknames which the rulers of Europe gave each other gives this a kind of gossip-roundup flavor: the “Willy,” “George,” and “Nicky” correspondence.)
But some publications were more nakedly partisan in their intentions, like this oh-so-scarlet pamphlet produced by the Entente, which purports to parse the overwhelming evidence of wartime wickedness amongst the Teutonic hordes.
That being said, the amount of public debate regarding the preparation for war contained here is remarkable, not for its virulence (which would not be out of place today) but for its nuance. Even publications one might have expected to be partisan, like the Illustrated London News, presented several subsets of war reporting in their initial “War” issue that might seem counter-productive to national mobilization efforts, like a section on the “war cloud” over international finance and a spread on the might of the German navy.
Though a photo calling the German emperor a “war lord” might foreshadow the growing nationalist propaganda to come. (After all, the Kaiser had been relatively pacifistic in the lead-up to the war, and complained that he only heard about a major attack on Verdun from the newspapers; the myth of a uniquely belligerent and autocratic Germany would only grow after the armistice.) But even here, note the precise description of the federal military system within the German empire: clearly the readers of the Illustrated London News wanted a firm grounding in the particularities of wartime statecraft!
Overall, these materials reflect how the onset of World War I reflected a mass readership eager for as much information about the war as the newly muscular mass media could provide. Some of it was crudely propagandist, but—especially in the opening years of the war—much of it expressed a level of nuance nearly unthinkable in our current age of hyper-partisan, image-first media saturation.
Perhaps McMaster’s interest in the newspaper as a historical source reflected the state of print journalism as he was coming into his own as a historian. Certainly this small repository shows the wide variety of social and historical conclusions one could draw from the print sources of the time, especially when they trained their collective powers on the first great military conflagration of the modern era.
When the impractical and somewhat hazardous desire to write books is passed down through a family, the results are often dangerous. Consider the Wolfert family, whose papers I recently had the pleasure of processing here in the Special Collections Processing Center. The father, Ira Wolfert, was a well-known war correspondent (his coverage of the Battle of Guadalcanal won a Pulitzer) and the author of Tucker’s People, a novel concerning the numbers racket and political corruption in 1930’s New York City which was a post-war bestseller: a feat he would never again equal. The mother, Helen Wolfert, was a school-teacher, an intermittently successful poet, and a polemical essayist on a wide range of subjects, from the space program to the Song of Songs—but was beset throughout her life with rejection and persistent lack of recognition. Their son, Michael, fancied himself a novelist but could best be described as a career bohemian, turning down plum positions in UNESCO (the then-new cultural wing of the UN) and dragging numerous wives and children from Paris to Tangier to Sweden as he attempted to produce a novel that would justify these peregrinations. (Their daughter, Ruth, seems to have briefly entertained literary ambitions, but decided—in a move that seems commendable and somewhat fitting—to pursue a career in family therapy.)
The lives of writers and scholars in early 20th century Philadelphia often involved the Franklin Inn Club, the artistic society, founded in 1902, which claimed among its members a large percentage of the city’s leading cultural lights. But despite the collective intellectual and artistic intensity housed within its relatively small space, the atmosphere at the Franklin Inn was remarkably relaxed; the building on Camac Street served as a gathering place for lunch, after-work dinner and drinks, and occasional picnic outings to nearby scenic locales. It also hosted an impressive number of amateur theatricals, one of which was held yearly to celebrate Ben Franklin’s birthday—and, judging by the programs I’ve found in the papers of John Louis Haney, president of Central High School from 1920 to 1943, noted scholar of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and long-term member of the Club, these theatricals were pretty riotous affairs, and prove that a literary society of that era was never in danger of taking itself too seriously.
We begin with an evening’s entertainment from 1917: The Yellow Dye, or, the Moulting Hero: a farce tragedy in five acts, being a pirated dramatization of Jorg Jib’s popular novel The Yellow Dove. Where to begin with the many joys on display within this small piece of paper? For one thing, we have a window into the literary tastes of the Club members; The Yellow Dove, an enormously successful popular novel at the time, clearly came in for some riotous and none-too-kind ribbing for lines such “she sank low in her armchair, her senses numb from the horror of the revelation. Her thoughts became confused like that of a sick person awaking from a nightmare to half consciousness, peopled with strange beautiful images doing the dark things of dreams. Cyril—her Cyril—a spy!”
From the gently sarcastic character appellations (“the hanemic hero,” “the ‘usky ‘eroine”; clearly George Gibbs had a fondness for cockney dialect) to the name itself, one can imagine the sort of “farce tragedy” the audience would have to deal with. All this, in addition to the all-male cast (the Franklin Inn didn’t admit women until 1980) would have lent the evening an air of appealing absurdity.
But if the adaptations were charming, it was the original plays that were the most riotous. The one-act play advertised for January 6, 1921 simply entitled Hootch has no relation to any other extant literary work, and perhaps that’s all for the best—but the tantalizing glimpses provided by the program raise all sorts of questions. Who is this family, the Swags—and what are they interested in? Why is Volstead Hunter “a martyr to duty?” And—perhaps most importantly—how can anyone with the name Swag, no matter how young, truly be an “innocent child?”
(Actually, the most important question is probably how Dr. (Ellis Paxson) Oberholtzer, famed biographer and club secretary, managed the “mature but still fascinating” role of Mrs. Swag.)
Calling such a play Hootch may have had to do with the play’s contents, but it also signals the implied state of the audience attending such a performance—and indeed, we have written evidence of the fondness for alcoholic refreshment evinced by the club’s members, in the form of an ode to cultural drinking.
While undated, one can imagine, considering its inclusion in the archives among other Franklin Inn material from the period, that its ironic repudiation of demon liquor was a reaction to the rules of Prohibition. But regardless of its era, its lines—alongside the spirited amateur theatricals it complements—give a sense of the ways in which the Inn’s membership melded high culture with a high tolerance for satire and spirits.