Perhaps even more than their male colleagues, actresses are often treated like cultural icons dangerously running on the sharp edge between scandal and sanctity, supported and haunted at the same time by an endless flow of more or less authorized anecdotes, interviews, photographs, Instagram posts, Facebook likes, and Twitter followers. But a century ago, in an age in which theater districts still served as meeting places between prostitutes and their clients, the reputation of actresses, especially in the earlier stages of their careers, was often considered dubious unless otherwise proven. In Philadelphia, a group of wealthy theater-lovers thought that young actresses should at least have the right to escape “the brothel-like atmosphere of cheap hotels and the rude stares of corset drummers;” and in 1907, they opened a new organization, the Charlotte Cushman Club, to provide them respectable lodging while performing in the city.
The prints in the Helfand collection of medical quackery ephemera (Print coll. 34) deliver a strong dose of medical skepticism. The eclectic collection spans chronologically from 1736 to 2006 (with some undated materials) and ranges in genre from toothpaste advertisements to hymn sheets distributed on saints’ feast days. This printed ephemera speaks to the public perception of medicine in an era of very minimal professional regulation. Until the last century, patients had to be wary about charlatans in order to guard themselves against financial exploitation and threats to their physical wellbeing from fraudulent or unqualified healers.
Perhaps the best-represented type of medical quackery ephemera in the collection is an assortment of caricatures and political cartoons from nineteenth century French periodicals and satirical newspapers. A print from one such publication shows three predatory looking doctors, with the heads of leeches, explaining to their frail and wide-eyed grasshopper patient that they will bleed him tomorrow. This is a reference to the once-popular practice of phlebotomy, an intentional withdrawal of blood to cure diseases or promote general health. Another comical print titled “Les Hydropathes” shows a man shivering under a torrent of ice water, part of a trendy health regimen meant to cleanse the body of impurities.
Other caricatures strike a political tone. A print published in 1831 shows Marshall Lobau, who had recently used fire hoses to intimidate protestors, perched atop a giant, flying clyster syringe. In a caricature published in Le Charivari in 1850, the politically active entrepreneur Louis-Desire Veron is depicted as a pharmacist, as he attempts to pulverize the newspaper’s mascot, a jester, with a mortar and pestle. Another image features an allegorical France being force-fed “un remede pire que le mal” (“a treatment worse than the disease”) by Veron. In these prints, medicine is employed as an expressive metaphor through which to comment upon politics: dissatisfaction with one sphere can be illustrated (literally) through derision of the other.
While political commentary and criticism are still alive and well, the sentiment that carries through the Helfand collection –one of extreme distrust towards the medical establishment- is encountered much less frequently today. Part of this may be because of the great improvements in medicine that have taken place over the last three centuries. Where a physician might once have drained a pint of blood from an ill patient, today’s practitioner will prescribe antibiotics. Furthermore, the medical system has evolved. “Quackery” is now much less of a threat because medicine is strictly regulated. Doctors have to go through years of standardized training, and drugs are rigorously tested in clinical trials.
Yet the historical events that have elevated the sphere of medicine may also have carried a few disadvantages. While the process of medical professionalization (which took off in the early twentieth century) has created new kinds of scientific authority and expertise, it has probably also blocked some avenues for productive criticism of the field. Medicine today is not perfect, nor is our national healthcare system. As I look through the prints in the Helfand collection I am deeply appreciative of the quality of medicine available in the twenty first century – but also a little wistful for a type of lively, popular critique that seems to have fallen out of date.
Samuel Roth (1893 –1974) was an American publisher and writer. Yet, he was so much more, as I discovered when I processed the Jay A. Gertzman collection on Samuel Roth, 1926-2014, Ms Coll. 1315. Jay A. Gertzman, Professor Emeritus at Mansfield University, describes Roth:
“Samuel Roth publicized himself as a literary Johnny Appleseed, bringing to ordinary Americans the modern literature of two continents, despite its sexual explicitness. He was also a master of prurient advertising of borderline mail order sex pulps and sensational human interest stories. He put himself in the direct line of fire that municipal, state and federal law enforcement officials and moral entrepreneurs reserved for pariah capitalists.”
Roth faced many legal battles and short periods of jail time over the course of his career. He is most well-known for his unauthorized publication of excerpts from James Joyce’s Ulysses in the periodical Two Worlds Monthly. This unauthorized release of Ulysses provoked an International Protest organized by Joyce and Joyce’s publisher, Sylvia Beach, in 1927.
The minority ruling from his 1957 Roth v. United States case provided the precedent for the 1959 case Grove v. Christenberry, which changed the definition of obscenity, making it easier to publish explicit material if it had artistic, literary, political, or scientific merit.
This collection features research that Jay A. Gertzman conducted in preparation for writing his book, Samuel Roth, Infamous Modernist, which was published by University of Florida Press in 2013. There are photocopies of Roth’s publications, prison letters, and legal documents, as well as original research notes by Gertzman. Roth’s other publications included Bumarap: The Story of a Male Virgin, published in 1947 (below left), and the periodical Good Times: A Revue of the World of Pleasure, published from 1954-1956 (below right).
Among the most entertaining correspondence in the collection is from “anthologist of erotic humor” Gershon Legman (1917-1999) to Gertzman, a sample of which is below.
This collection of research on Samuel Roth– aka the “Prometheus of the Unprintable,” as writer Robert Antrim referred to him in 1973– is now open for use. Researchers may also want to check out the Columbia University Rare Book and Manuscript Library, which has in its holdings the Samuel Roth papers, 1907-1994.
Somewhere in the New England countryside, first half of the nineteenth century. It is a cold winter night. In a lonely home on the side of a mountain, a young woman named Charlotte is dressing up to go to the ball. Only, the ball will be held in an inn fifteen miles away, and the only available means of transportation is the open sleigh of Charlotte’s boyfriend Charles. “Be careful,” says Charlotte’s mother to her daughter, “make sure to wrap up in a warm blanket, if you don’t want to freeze out there!” “There is no way, mom,” Charlotte responds, “how can I expect my splendid dress to be seen if I muffle myself up in that ugly blanket? My silken cloak will be quite enough.” The bottom line: Charlotte is found frozen to death by her beloved Charles at the end of their ride on the snow.
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.
Printing annual reports and other publications is a long-standing tradition for American corporations. Providing the basic financial information of an annual report is typically mandated, but all of the extras – the year in review, the exciting updates, personnel announcements, and plans for the future – these all present opportunities for corporations to define and disseminate their company message.
This is particularly important during a time of war and we see this evident in the materials in the Lippincott Library collection of World War II corporate wartime publications. For the most part, these wartime publications are not annual reports. Many of them are special publications produced for employees and the general public with the goal of publicizing the work the company was doing for the war effort. These publications worked as a sort of advertisement or testimonial to the company’s craftsmanship and also highlighted the need for everyone to do their patriotic duty.
Companies took a variety of approaches in these publications, but it always came back to patriotic duty and the company’s contributions to the war effort. For example, the Gulf Oil Corporation’s publication, Power to Win, gave details on what the company was making and how the products were being used in the war. There is also a fascinating page where they tried to put rationing into perspective for people on the home front by explaining how much oil all of their military equipment used.
Another great example comes from the GMC Truck & Coach Division of General Motors. This publication, entitled A Report from the Front, is entirely about the amphibious vehicles (also known as Ducks) and how their use aided forces in campaigns.
It intersperses information about the machinery and manufacturing with details from the war and even excerpts of news reports about their use. This piece is unusual in the collection in that it is about a single kind of machinery, while most of the others gave updates on a range of products and events.
The Delco-Remy Division of General Motors includes descriptions of work it was doing on the home front in its publication, Our War Job. This included volunteer efforts, blood drives, holding victory revues, and campaigns for war bonds.
In World War II, the United States’ superior manufacturing capabilities helped to tip the odds in the Allies’ favor. These publications praised American production and almost made it synonymous with patriotism during the war. In them, companies expounded on the virtues of their newest products and how they would help in the fight for victory. They celebrated when plants were awarded the Army-Navy “E” for “Excellence in Production” and congratulated employees on reaching participation milestones in war bond programs.
These publications buoyed employee morale, boosted the corporate image, and served as a kind of continued advertisement of the company’s work in a time when they weren’t producing for the public. They are a fascinating example of the blending of patriotic messaging with corporate public relations.
Now that the worth of literary Modernism has become a commonplace within academic circles, one can forget how hostile most American academics were to experimental work in the first part of the 20th century. How delightful, then, to stumble, in his papers, across a handwritten note by Arthur Hobson Quinn, longtime professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, assessing the early work of T.S. Eliot:
“He can work phrases that are bitter and at times clever, and he has become very superior to all forms of life; he does not hesitate however to speak of his aunt as living in a fashionable neighborhood, and he betrays other signs of arrested development, such as a belief that being up at dawn is an achievement.”
No contemporary academic would dare treat an iconic Modernist with such flippancy! But even by 1950, when this note was written, the place for the movement within the academy was by no means clear, despite Eliot’s preeminent position of influence; traditional scholars like Quinn were still openly hostile to what others saw as innovations. That academics like Quinn ended up the losers in the debate only makes their reactions fascinating, fruitful, and often quite funny; the way he treats contemporary writers who exhibit Modernist (or even moderately experimental ) tendencies represents just how wide the chasm really was, even twenty years after the movement’s height.
In Quinn’s lecture notes, one can see this hostility expressed over and over again, especially in his assessment of contemporary poetry. For example, his dismissal of Marianne Moore’s 1944 collection Nevertheless as “only 7 poems on Elephants, etc – not important,” and his inclusion of her in a folder called “Contemporary Poets, B Grade.”
What, exactly, did Quinn present in opposition to such experiments? His aesthetic perspective is laid out well in a lecture entitled “Eliot and Others,” the notes for which are contained in this archive. “The best definition of poetry is that it is rhythmical language containing the elements of truth and beauty,” Quinn writes. “Contemporary American poetry has given up all three of these qualities to a marked extent.” Perhaps fittingly for a scholar of American theatre, Quinn sees the only hope for contemporary American poetry in musical theater, where “there are verses often of an unusual quality.”
Clearly, Quinn felt that contemporary American poetry was taking a turn for the worse—or, perhaps more importantly, a turn away from his own comprehension. In reading Quinn’s notes, one can sense a frustration with his inability to penetrate verse which seemed to him purposefully obscure, and his hostility to “difficulty” as an aesthetic project. In his assessment of Wallace Stevens, for example, he writes: “In his verse ‘Man Carrying Thing’ [Stevens] says, ‘the poem must resist the intelligence / almost successfully,’ which explains why he is not a poet.” The definition of who is (and, more importantly, who is not) a poet is one of Quinn’s rhetorical commonplaces. In order to reject the Modernist project, it was necessary to exclude them from the poetic canon entirely.
But what did it mean to be a poet? To Quinn, poetry was meant to be expressive, clear, and above all populist, even nationalist. In his lecture “The Magnificent Phrase,” he claims that the easy transmission of a phrase—its memorable nature, its accessibility—is what allows for poetry’s greatness, and its greatness is linked to a project of national identity. It’s telling that the contemporary poet Quinn references in this lecture, Edwin Arlington Robinson, is featured for his stanzas on Lincoln: “The face we see was never young / nor could it ever have been old.” Clearly poetry is particularly successful when wedded to an iconic representation of political power.
Considering this positivist, patriotic conception of poetry, it’s no wonder that the particular combination of pessimism and ambiguity that unified disparate strands of Modernism would be so difficult for Quinn and other traditional academics to accept. It was more than simply an aesthetic challenge; it was an assault on an entire worldview. (At the same time that he was writing these notes on contemporary poetry, Quinn was overseeing the creation of a massive textbook of American Literature entitled The Literature of the American People, and had already undertaken a vast socio-historical investigation of national identity entitled The Soul of America.) In the wake of World War II and the beginning of the Cold War, academics like Quinn, invested in the idea of American Literature as a viable, coherent academic discipline, would find little common cause with the late Modernists, for whom fragmentation and ambiguity were the rule. Consider Quinn’s judgment of the work of William Carlos Williams: “no poetry=no unity or coherence.”
But even this seemingly ironclad judgment on Williams contains a kernel of self-doubt: “the Wanderer is a narrator—seems to be symbolic but I can’t tell about what.” This inability to comprehend, to make sense of the fractured nature of late Modernism, represented a threat to Quinn’s position as an authority. To add insult to injury, Quinn’s eyesight was fading, which made repetitious reading literally painful. Several times in his notes, Quinn reminds himself to ask his wife, Helen, to read the poems and see if she can make anything of them; whether this is a reference to physical or metaphorical legibility is impossible to say.
This brings us back to Quinn’s attacks on Eliot. As a poet/critic who managed to move from the vanguard of Modernist experimentation to a more comfortable position as one of the main critical influences of New Criticism, Eliot represented a much greater threat than Moore or Stevens or Williams. It was easy enough for Quinn to repudiate the work of individual Modernist poets, and exile them to the land of “not-poetry,” but Eliot seized the power of definition for himself. His work represented a reorientation of poetics towards a kind of academic Classicism, the antithesis of the broadly populist and even nationalist vision which Quinn championed. “It is an example of the semi-profound type of criticism,” Quinn writes. “very positive in statements, at times discriminating, but constantly shedding implications of profound depths of knowledge on Eliot’s part, especially of Foreign Literature and criticism, usually of books which the general reader would certainly not know, and which impress him or not, just as he is impressionable or not by that ex cathedra criticism.” For Quinn, interested in a common cultural legacy for the U.S. reader, prizing clarity and transmissibility above all things, Eliot’s insistence on difficulty and on European cultural tradition seemed an elitist boondoggle.
In hindsight, one can see in Quinn’s reaction to Eliot certain commonalities with the very poets he maligned. In his blanket hostility to Modernist experimentation, Quinn failed to realize that there were many practitioners who disliked Eliot’s academic orientation just as much as he did. Of his first reading of “The Waste Land,” William Carlos Williams wrote: “I felt at once that it had set me back twenty years, and I’m sure it did. Critically Eliot returned us to the classroom just at the moment when I felt we were on the point of an escape to matters much closer to the essence of a new art form itself—rooted in the locality which would give it fruit.” Indeed, with a work like Paterson, Williams’ practice of historical quotation as method of establishing an American “voice” hewed more closely to Quinn’s conception of clarity and accessibility than he might have realized, albeit in a fragmented, anguished form. But Quinn’s anti-experimental perspective couldn’t allow for such nuances. He seemed to feel that the very idea of experimentation was a fad: an aberration in the development of cultural understanding. “Perhaps he wants simply to be fashionable,” he writes of Eliot, in the last in a series of notes in response to “Four Quartets.”
In response to this dangerous fad, Quinn—ever the scholar of drama—turned away from written poetry and towards the Broadway stage, where he could still find the sort of direct, plainspoken lyricism that he felt epitomized the “spirit of America”: most notably, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma. In this, he prefigured some of the interest Postmodernist critics would have in popular culture as a whole—though not in the manner Quinn would have liked. The sort of unified nationalist cultural project he trumpeted was soon lost forever, a casualty of the 60’s, and the ironic gaze of Postmodernism, which turned the tools of the Modernists onto the very pillars of American popular culture that Quinn championed.
All this makes Quinn’s notes seem like something of a last stand. When looking over the production of his favorite poets from the early 20th century, his notes bemoan that so many of them simply stopped producing work as the century moved on. Seeing examples of the work he champions, one can easily see why. The strict meter, clear rhymes, and somewhat simplistic images contained in “Lilacs of the City,” by Brian Hooker, one of the librettists who Quinn claimed “surpasses anything I have seen by contemporary poets,” are so out of step with what has happened to poetry in the second half of the 20th century that we can see, in hindsight, that Quinn was right to make the terms of the argument “poetry v. non-poetry.” The whole nature of the form was being redefined before his eyes, and Quinn was on the losing end.
Working on this collection was an absolute delight, peppered with bits of personal frustration – why, oh why, had I neglected to learn Hindi and Urdu? The Kathryn Hansen collection of Nauṭankī chapbooks is incredibly visually appealing; I enjoyed looking through the different cover designs as I processed the collection, and yet I couldn’t read any of them! Still, I was able to pick up on some interesting patterns just from the information that Kathryn Hansen provided when she donated this fantastic collection to the Kislak Center.
The chapbooks in this collection are Indian folk tales and plays. They include Ālhās (oral epics); Gīt and Bhajan (songs); Nāṭak (theatrical plays); Qissās (tales); and Sāngīts (printed Nauṭankī play scripts). Some re-tell local legends and folk tales, while others tell popular romances or new stories in poetic language.
While they do not have any internal illustrations, many of the chapbooks in this collection have intricate and colorful cover art. Certain publishers seem to be more likely to have included vibrant cover illustrations. Some of my favorites come from Agraval Book Depot and N. S. Sharma Gaur Book Depot. Though it’s difficult to say without being able to read them, some of the cover illustrations appear to relate to the story being told in the chapbook, while other covers are more decorative.
Other publishers seem to have taken a single cover design and applied it across the board. Dehati Pustak Bhander used a somewhat intricate design featuring four swans on a colored background, with detailed line work. The design stayed the same, but the background color changed with each chapbook. Other publishers like Shyam Press or Shrikrishna Pustakalay/Shrikrishna Khatri used a photograph and border design on every cover. All of these reused designs were likely both cost-effective and good branding. Dehati Pustak Bhandar’s swans, Shyam Press’s portrait of a man in a turban, and Shrikrishna Pustakalay/Khatri’s photo of a standing man all appear repeatedly throughout the collection.
It was really interesting to see the variety of cover art and decoration on these chapbooks. Since I couldn’t read any of them, the cover art was my only point of reference for what one might find within. Considering the use of publisher cover images, as well as what I know about modern day cover art, I don’t know how much the illustrations can really tell me about the contents, but it is still fun to speculate, and it was an enjoyable collection to work on.
The Kathryn Hansen collection of Nautanki chapbooks is now open for researchers.
In 1840, during the peak of the ennuie of the bourgeois society of King Louis-Philippe, the body of the French hero Napoleon Bonaparte was returned to France, reigniting the fire and patriotism of his many admirers. This effect took hold in French supporters of Napoleon all over the world and, more specifically, this moment resonated deeply with Joseph Martin du Colombier, as evidenced by his writing of the play Napoleon Bonaparte, Martyr of St. Helena.
Joseph Martin du Colombier was the son of Martin du Colombier, a native of Lille, France who emigrated to San Domingo under patronage of the French government in 1737. du Colombier was his youngest son, born in 1760. He was educated in Paris until his father’s death, at which time he was sent by his mother to a seminary to become a priest. He quickly left and returned to run his father’s plantation in San Domingo. During the American Revolutionary War, du Colombier served as a surgeon in the French army who offered his services to the Americans fighting against the British. He was a captive on the British prison ship Jersey, a ship known for certain death for its prisoners. However, du Colombier was saved from that fate by his musical abilities, playing guitar and singing for the British officers on deck. This ability allowed him enough fresh air and food to survive. After a career in the French military, he amassed a fortune by trading with San Domingo from his new home in America. He also became a trained physician and devoted himself to taking care of victims of Yellow Fever and offered free medical attention to anyone in need. As for his death, The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography (Vol. V No. 2, 1881. 122-125) describes it as such, “Driving out with his daughter on the 16th of November 1846, as they returned in the evening and were beholding the glory of the stars, gently bowing his head on her arm, the aged man said, ‘How beautiful is Venus!’ and in the same instant found peace in death.”
In this ode to Napoleon, it seems to me that du Colombier revered Napoleon as the more epic version of himself – adventurer, homme militaire, prisoner of the British, and a displaced Frenchman. Much like Napoleon, his heroics were the product of being perfectly situated in the moment and eloquently recounting his own story. This is a man who, like many, idolized Napoleon, and looked to him as inspiration for a full and exciting life. In the manuscripts, he declared that heroes and villains are brought to justice on the stage, and in this play, du Colombier wishes to properly honor Napoleon while simultaneously condemning the actions of the British. His reverence for Napoleon seeps into every line of this play, most clearly in the epilogue where du Colombier addresses Napoleon as if he were one of the soldiers fighting under him, “Farewell, great chieftain; thy immortal name – stands you unrivaled on the rolls of fame – lorn is the rock and boundless is the wave – yet glory’s sunbeams rest upon thy grave.”
If nothing else, this play highlights the stereotypical hatred of the French for the British throughout history. Du Colombier repeatedly noted the cruel actions of the British, their lack of eloquence, and above all else, their pettiness. For example, one instance appears in a scene on page 4 where the British soldiers recount their time in America saying, “Wherever we went we laid our hands on the Yankee stocks, their valuables – their women – and after having gorged ourselves with their best, for our diversion we burnt their cities, their monuments, their libraries.” This disdain for the British by du Colombier further evolves in the relationship between Governor Hudson Lowe and Napoleon. Lowe is characterized as a petty power hungry man who is obsessed with his authority and dominance over Napoleon. Throughout the play, he is nothing less than wholly consumed by Napoleon’s comical lack of respect for him.
The play as a whole offers an engaging, though entirely biased, historical fiction of the last phase of the French hero’s life. Further, it is documentation of the feelings that many French people harbored towards Napoleon during and just after his life. He was the hero of the French, the exciting whirlwind character that sprung out of the little island of Corsica when the French most needed him. It is a very different perspective of Napoleon that most American (and most certainly British) students are presented in schools. Far from the pompous short man, the unwilling creator of the Napoleon complex, this Napoleon is larger than life and the figure the French craved in the boring post-revolutionary period.
Stationed overseas in small towns surrounding Dijon, France, David Rosenblum was far from the front line during World War I. Rosenblum described his time in the United States military from 1918 to 1919 as being “just like a vacation and a little hard work.” In his letters home, he talks about girls and ‘grub,’ about missing home, his odd jobs, and stories of his military experience.
The David Rosenblum World War I letters offer an alternative perspective of overseas service during WWI, far from the frequently recounted horrors of the front line. Rosenblum was stationed outside of Dijon, France which was inland of the southernmost portion of the front line between France and the German Reich by 1918, when he began his service. Working for the Mobile Ordnance Repair Shop around 200 kilometers behind enemy lines, Rosenblum assembled Fords and lead pipes.
He went on to work as a stenographer, joking, “Our hero, undaunted braves the storm and fights on for liberty. Yes, verily he fights on pounding this cute little typewriter…It seemeth strange that the government can’t find more use for our hero other than the delicate task of typing.” Rosenblum frequently poked fun at his role in the war, with a full understanding that his conditions were quite pleasant (and un-heroic) compared to his fellow soldiers fighting on the front lines. Finally, in these letters, he discusses his time as an official military entertainer, playing piano for soldiers, nurses, and officers in various Red Cross locations in France, and of course, “getting fat and lazy.”
Rosenblum’s humor is evident throughout the letters. He takes every opportunity to gently poke fun at the French and their pace of life. On October 11, 1918, he informed his family of the attitudes towards the French among the soldiers, “Oh: yes, we call the French frogs and France is called Frog country and the boys are not one bit keen about the frogs. Golly, but they are slow. How they ever stopped Germany is a mystery. We do more in a minute than the frogs in a month…they are slow and way behind the times; the engines and railroads and conveniences are medieval.” He continues the use of the term frog until his departure from France. Despite his joking, Rosenblum had clear affinity for certain aspects of French culture. He frequently notes the charm of the towns and expresses a liking for the children who were enamored with the American soldiers.
But, above all else, in his letters Rosenblum expresses a love for the ‘grub’ and girls of France. Of the 26 letters in this collection, every single one mentions food. Be it the underwhelming food of the station, or his wonderful culinary experiences in town, Rosenblum was focused on the grub. He frequently talked about the bread, cheese, wine and jam that he would purchase or be gifted in the towns, and about the restaurants he would visit with his military buddies. He also mentions the French women several times, most fondly, the one who made him an omelet and the several that offered him bread, cheese, wine, jam and sweets. He also recounts the French love of American cigarettes, and how this love helped him initiate conversation with French women, “I saw a beautiful looking young lady looking out the window. She smiled friendly, everyone does – perhaps it’s the U.S. uniform or the thought of a cigarette – I guess the latter.”
Rosenblum’s experience was far from the heroic and glorified stories of boys being sent overseas and returning as weathered men. Rosenblum retains a sense of innocence. During the war, he is well fed, works in a protected and comfortable environment, and has plenty of opportunity for enjoyment. That being said, this collection offers vibrant description of small-town France and its people in the early 20th century, first-hand reports of the morale of soldiers at the end of World War I, and a look into the charming and humorous attitude of a young man, like many others, who was thrust into a less-frequently recounted military experience.