Knowing More Wins the War

World War II is usually remembered as a war of lethal weapons—great powers using bombs, artillery, and other weapons to win victory. But the war was also a struggle for information. Knowing what the enemy knew and what plans were being laid was crucial. Up until World War II, America had no organized structure for gathering information from foreign sources, but as the Nazis gained power in Europe, the need to know became imperative. Franklin Roosevelt recognized this need and appointed William “Wild Bill” Donovan to head up a new operation, which became known as the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). It was an office that became a crucial part of the war effort.  

Fortunately, the need for increased information occurred at a time when scholars were discovering how to preserve and share documentation in dramatic new ways. Microfilm was a new medium that could record information in a format that could be hidden in diplomatic pouches and shipped overseas cheaply without attracting much attention. Although we now remember microfilm as a dull and outdated medium, during World War II and the Cold War, it became a vital weapon against threats from foreign governments.  

In her recent book, Information Hunters: When Librarians, Soldiers, and Spies Banded together in World War II Europe, Kathy Peiss tells us about some of the people who participated in the hidden war for information. Donovan turned to Archibald MacLeish, the Librarian of Congress, who recruited librarians and scholars from across the country to hunt out and transport papers, journals, and books from Europe to the United States. Their efforts during the 1940s and early 1950s shifted the balance of information between Europe and America and shaped the postwar information revolution that has changed our world. 

Peiss’s book is crowded with stories about individuals who made a difference to the war and to the postwar society that developed out of it. We learn about their activities as they pursued leads to bookstores, publishers, and libraries seeking written records of the events and publications that led up to the war. Even Nazi propaganda and popular books designed to encourage loyalty to the Nazi regime were collected and shipped to the United States. The book tells a fascinating story of a band of brave and dedicated men and women who were willing to carry out this dangerous work.   

We can easily understand how all these sources of knowledge became important historical records, but for those of us who have no firsthand knowledge of how chaotic Europe was during those years—what the streets and shops these information hunters visited were like—it is hard to visualize what the information hunters were up against during their searches. There is something about a visual reconstruction of the scene that makes it come alive. And as I read Peiss’s book, I discovered that visual reinforcement in a movie—Orson Welles’s classic The Third Man.   

Although the plot of the movie had nothing to do with the librarians and scientists who inhabit the Information Hunters, the movie shows us the rubble-strewn streets of Vienna and the weary and frightened people who inhabit the city. Seeing those streets makes the adventures of the information hunters come to life. We can feel the chill of fear that visited each of them as they sought documents and books that had been hidden away in cellars, buried under the rubble of bombed out churches, and stored in warehouses through the war years.  

Sometimes it takes more than one medium to make history come alive. For anyone who is interested in understanding World War II and the impact it had on the world we live in today, I strongly recommend reading Peiss’s book and perhaps supplementing it with the movies, pictures and music that make history come alive. 

Zora Neale Hurston—speaking for the unheard

What determines whether an artist’s work will be remembered? No one seems to have the answer to that. Some books drop from sight a few months after publication, others disappear for a while and then resurface when times change. Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God did not make much of a splash when it was first published in 1937, but that was only the beginning of a long story. The fate of the book has become so mingled with the life and death of its author, that it is difficult to know which is the major cause of its longevity—the book or the intriguing life of its author.

Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston was born in Alabama in 1891, but her family soon moved to Eatonville, Florida, where she grew up. Eatonville was one of the first African American communities in America and Hurston’s father became mayor. After Hurston’s mother died in 1904, her father quickly remarried, and family tensions led Hurston to leave home before she finished high school. She studied at Howard University, but later moved to New York where she attended Barnard College and began writing fiction. She also studied with the anthropologist Frans Boaz as well as Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead. The recent book Gods of the Upper Air by Charles King recounts how Hurston became interested in studying and recording the language and culture of African Americans.

Their Eyes Were Watching God, published in 1937, is enriched by Hurston’s background in both literature and anthropology. The narrator, Janie, tells the story her life in the rhythmic dialect of Southern Florida. She recounts how her grandmother pushed her into an early marriage with an older man, how she left that unsatisfactory marriage in order to find a better life only to discover that her new husband wanted her to be simply a passive ornament for his life. The book springs to life in its later sections after Janie is freed from her second marriage by the death of her husband. Hurston’s vivid prose make the final section of the book both dramatic and satisfying as Janie’s search for happiness reaches its conclusion.

Even though Their Eyes Were Watching God is now regarded as a classic novel of the 20th century, it did not receive an overwhelming success from critics when it was published.  In his review, Richard Wright wrote: Miss Hurston voluntarily continues in her novel the tradition which was forced upon the Negro in the theatre, that is, the minstrel technique that makes the ‘white folks’ laugh. Her characters eat and laugh and cry and work and kill; they swing like a pendulum eternally in that safe and narrow orbit in which America likes to see the Negro live: between laughter and tears …  Other reviews were more appreciative, including this from the New York Times : …from first to last this is a well nigh perfect story–a little sententious at the start, but the rest is simple and beautiful and shining with humor. In case there are readers who have a chronic laziness about dialect, it should be added that the dialect here is very easy to follow, and the images it carries are irresistible. (Both of these reviews are available on the Bookmarks website.)

Like all important novels, Their Eyes Were Watching God, will give you plenty to think about. The story of how Nora Zeale Hurston and her books were rediscovered after years of obscurity is as fascinating as the book itself. My suggestion would be to read the novel first and then go on to investigate more about the author. Gods of the Upper Air is one good starting point, but there are other sources to explore. You will find yourself on a fascinating journey.

Revisiting Favorite Books–May Sarton

Now that Christmas and the other gift-giving holidays are over, it is time to look back on the gifts we received and savor them. For me, this was a very book-heavy year. One of the books I received was a collection of essays and reviews by Ursula Le Guin called Words Are My Matter: Writings on Life and Books (2016). The essays cover a wide range and reintroduced me to several writers I had read in past years but had not revisited. To start the year off, I decided to go back to some writers I remember enjoying years ago. One was May Sarton, a favorite of earlier years, who has faded from public notice since her death in 1995. She is well worth revisiting.

May Sarton

Reading Faithful Are the Wounds (1955) now is like revisiting another world. I felt as though I was watching an old movie; cigarettes are lit every few pages, people drink cocktails before meals and wine at dinner while wives uncomplainingly cook and serve meals to preoccupied academic husbands. At Harvard, where this story takes place, students revere their professors, male students humbly call for the female students at their dormitory doors, and the suicide of a literary scholar is front-page news across the country.

But behind the propriety of this quiet life, political issues are as divisive as they are today. The time is the late 1940s and the scholars are deeply involved in the postwar struggles between Russia and the West. Sarton mentions the tremendous shock to American intellectuals caused by the suspicious death of Jan Masaryk, president of Czechoslovakia. His death—which could have been either suicide or murder—led to Czechoslovakia’s fall into Russian-style communism. The disillusionment of American liberals at the country’s fall from democracy is a potent force in this story.

Jan Masaryk

A dramatic clash at a quiet meeting of the local Civil Liberties Union signals the beginning of a painful confrontation between the close-knit group at Harvard. Edward Cavan, a professor of American literature, refuses to sign a letter certifying that all the leaders of the group are free of Communist taint. His refusal leads to arguments and threatens long-standing friendships. When Cavan commits suicide, his friends and students try to discover why they could not understand his pain and were unable to help him.

Most of the story is told through conversations between friends of Cavan and his sister who comes from California to arrange his funeral. The contrast between academia and the world of successful medical doctors appears very sharp. How much does family background and childhood experiences influence Cavan’s political ideas and personal decisions? Every reader will have to decide individually. Sarton includes a postscript chapter covering the day five years after the suicide when unforeseen political changes shed new light on the feelings of Cavan’s old friends and the direction of the country.

Faithful Are the Wounds is more relevant than ever in these times of clashing political loyalties. Reading about a different but equally bitter historical period in our country helps us to understand what is going on now. Sarton wrote a story that many readers will think about long after the reading is finished.