Field Notes: Writers at War

By Mike ChasarJuly 22, 2016

Field Notes: Writers at War

TWO YEARS INTO WORLD WAR II and facing national food shortages and an agricultural labor crisis, the US government launched the Victory Garden propaganda campaign encouraging people to grow their own food or volunteer on farms. It was an incredibly successful effort; by some estimates, more than 20,000,000 Victory Gardens would be planted at homes and schools and in community spaces across the nation, accounting by 1944 for some 40 percent of all vegetables grown in the United States. When my maternal grandmother died in 1993, we discovered her basement shelves lined with home-grown and home-canned food dating back to the 1950s — a stockpile that at the time we attributed to the frugality of her Depression-era upbringing but that, I realize now, was just as much a product of the war.

To sell the Victory Garden effort, the Department of Agriculture did what many other government agencies and some non-governmental organizations did during the war: it turned for help to the Writers’ War Board. What Thomas Howell would later call the “greatest propaganda machine in history,” the Writers’ War Board had been formed two days after the attack on Pearl Harbor to help the Department of the Treasury promote the sale of US war bonds, but it almost immediately started to serve propaganda needs elsewhere as well. In response to the Department of Agriculture’s request, the Board promptly formed a “Crop Corps” subcommittee and called on longtime (1914–1946) House & Garden Editor-in-Chief Richardson Wright to head it up. Wright jumped in with both feet.

As an April 8, 1944, letter to Program Manager John Graetzer at the Office of War Information reports, Wright began by making a “personal appeal” to 36 fiction writers “to tackle crop corps romances.” (Seriously.) He sent a letter to 56 other “top writers” asking them to write articles for their local newspapers “to foster interest in recruitment for farm labor.” With plans to publish it in 1,800 newspapers, he assigned an editorial “urging persistent and continuing interest in Victory Gardens.” And on April 10, he reached out to “17 leading light verse writers,” sending them the following letter:

Dear ———————:

If Shelley and Byron and the rest of the boys could get all stirred up to striking their lyres to help out a national crisis, there isn’t any reason why our present minnesingers can’t lend a hand in a situation that is pressing.

American farmers have been asked to produce more food this year. That means more hands to help. It means that more men and women should join up for long-term work on farms and orchards and those who can spare hours can give them to local farmers and truck gardeners to help carry the peaks of the seasonal loads.

Will you spare the time to turn out something on the joys of farm labor, or what you get from working with the green growing things of earth?

Thank you so much,

Sincerely yours,

Richardson Wright
For Committee on Victory Crops
Writers’ War Board

It’s an interesting appeal — and not just because Wright calls on the ghosts of revolutionary Romantic poets Shelley (“poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world”) and Byron (whom James Whale’s 1935 film Bride of Frankenstein had called “England’s greatest sinner”) as guiding spirits. Who were these “present minnesingers” to whom Wright appealed? Why would he think they’d “get all stirred up to striking their lyres” and consent to their talents being used this way, and why would he think the public would care what they had to say? What poems did they write? Where did they appear? If we open a magazine or newspaper from the 1940s — say, an issue of Poetry magazine — and discover a poem “on the joys of farm labor, or what you get from working with the green growing things of earth,” what is the likelihood that that poem is not just a poem about nature or flowers or onions or beets but a piece of propaganda as well?


Described by one document as a “clearing house” for writers and another as “the focal point of a group of American writers, several thousand in number, who have offered their talents to the government for the duration of the war,” the Writers’ War Board was civilian-run and answered to the 3,000-employee Office of War Information, which was then being directed by radio news reporter and eventual three-time Peabody winner Elmer Davis. The Board was led by Rex Stout, a prolific pulp detective fiction writer who, among other things, was active in the early years of the American Civil Liberties Union, a co-founder of the Marxist magazine The New Masses, and, at the time of his appointment to the Board, president of the Authors League of America. Among the people with whom he worked most closely on the Board was Clifton Fadiman, former chief editor at Simon & Schuster, book review editor for The New Yorker, emcee for the National Book Award ceremonies in 1938 and 1939, Book of the Month Club judge for 1944, and a popular radio quiz show host.

The Writers’ War Board quickly established an Advisory Council that included Stephen Vincent Benét, Edna Ferber, Dorothy Canfield Fisher, Langston Hughes, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Edward R. Murrow, Eugene O’Neill, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Walter Francis White, and Thornton Wilder. Apparently, it kept files on 4,000 writers and their specialties, contacting them to write for any number of campaigns. Need to recruit nurses? Here’s a pulp fiction writer who will make a nurse the heroine of a story. Need an editorial on rationing rubber? We have a writer who can do that for you. Want “an excellent poetic script” on Nazi book-burning? Here’s one by Benét. Or how about one featuring “the story of the building of the Alcan Highway in Alaska, where men of all races worked shoulder to shoulder through shared perils and hardships”? Here’s one by Langston Hughes.

Some of the Board’s efforts were small and ephemeral and woven into everyday life, but some were more monumental. After Nazi forces destroyed the Czechoslovakian town of Lidice in June 1942, for example, the Board formed the Lidice Lives Committee and reached out to Edna St. Vincent Millay, asking her to write a poem that “might crystallize for us all the horror and the iron hatred we feel for such barbarism.” In less than three months, she wrote The Murder of Lidice, a long poem that is now rarely studied or read but that, thanks to the Board’s efforts, went on to become what was perhaps the most widely distributed American poem up to that point in history. Following the logics of present day transmedial marketing campaigns, the Lidice Lives Committee dedicated a week in October 1942 to disseminating Murder as widely as possible. It first appeared in abridged form in the Saturday Review of Literature. Then a longer abridged version laid out over seven not-always sequential pages went out to the more than three million readers of Life magazine. Then, with writer, critic, and radio personality Alexander Woollcott serving as emcee, and Academy Award-winning actor Paul Muni playing the narrator, it was given a live NBC radio broadcast that drew 1,400 people to NBC’s Studio H and opened with an hour-long ceremony featuring the NBC Symphony Orchestra plus Czech dancers and instrumentalists.

NBC’s broadcast not only aired coast to coast in the United States, but it and simultaneous performances in Spanish and Portuguese were shortwaved to Latin America, Australia, New Zealand, India, the UK, and the Middle East. The following day, Murder was released in book form by Millay’s publisher Harper & Brothers and sold nearly 20,000 copies in the next 10 weeks. A few months later, it would be recorded for a three-record set from Columbia records featuring a performance by Sherlock Holmes actor Basil Rathbone. Today, the Poetry Foundation website calls Murder “a trite ballad on a Nazi atrocity,” but for Poetry’s Eastern Business Representative Amy Bonner, who was one of the 1,400 people who attended the live performance at Studio H, the poem was “moving and eloquent and true beyond words.” Indeed, in addition to the canned food my grandmother left behind when she died, she also left among her belongings one of the 25,000 or so Harper & Brothers copies of Murder that would sell by war’s end.


When Wright took the reins of the Victory Garden subcommittee in 1944, he was therefore joining — if he hadn’t already participated at some earlier point — a massive movement that saw writers of diverse political stripes, talents, and backgrounds contributing to the war effort and accepting state direction and sponsorship in a way that is perhaps unlike anything we can imagine taking place today. It was thus probably without fear of scorn or refusal that Wright wrote to the “17 leading light verse writers” on his list: Franklin Adams, Berton Braley, Russel Crouse, Howard Dietz, Margaret Fishback, Ira Gershwin, Alan Green, Edgar A. Guest, Oscar Hammerstein, Newman Levy, Millay, Phyllis McGinley, Ogden Nash, Cole Porter, Frank Sullivan, E. B. White, and Margaret Widdemer.

For a group of “light verse writers,” this was pretty distinguished company. Gershwin, Millay, and Widdemer had already won Pulitzer Prizes. (Widdemer received hers in 1919 when it was still called the Columbia University Prize.) Crouse would go on to win in 1946 and Hammerstein in 1944 and 1950. McGinley would win in 1961. (She would also appear on the cover of Time in 1965.) White would receive a Pulitzer Special Citation for Letters in 1978. Hammerstein and Porter were, well, Hammerstein and Porter, and Nash has since appeared on a US stamp. Guest — who had been writing a nationally syndicated poem for the Detroit Free Press seven days a week since the 1910s and was thus known as the “people’s poet” — may have had the highest name recognition of all; his poetry was so popular that his books were printed in editions of 100,000, an eye-popping figure that makes sales of Murder look like a flop.

As this group suggests, poetry — as an idea and as a reality — occupied a much different place in US culture during World War II than it does today. Outside of High Modernist and avant-garde contexts, the dividing lines between highbrow and lowbrow — or “serious” and “light,” or “lyric” and “occasional” — genres of verse were porous and not mutually exclusive. Lines between song lyrics and poetry were similarly vague or unimportant. Not only did newspapers and popular mainstream magazines print poetry, but so did magazines that we would be hard pressed to imagine connected to poetry. Braley, for example, published in The Atlantic and Harper’s but also in Forbes, the American Machinist, and Coal Age. None of these writers were graduates of creative writing degree-granting programs, nor were they teachers. Fishback was an incredibly successful advertising copywriter who also published poetry in The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Life, Ladies’ Home Journal, Good Housekeeping, and Women’s Wear Daily. Levy was a lawyer who worked as an assistant district attorney for New York City. Perhaps not all the “institutors of laws, and the founders of civil society” that Shelley imagined poets to be in his famous 1821 essay “A Defence of Poetry,” they nonetheless had a different relationship with the larger culture — or perhaps I should say that the larger culture had a different relationship with them — than they would have today.


So how many of these minnesingers took action, and what did they write? It’s difficult to say for certain. Like other writers working with the Writers’ War Board, they were encouraged and even expected to write and place material independently — on their own recognizance, one might say — without submitting anything to the Board for approval or archiving. When McGinley responded to Wright’s “request for some Crop Corps poet laureating” by sending in a poem, for example, the Board’s Executive Secretary Frederica Barach wrote back explaining, “What Mr. Wright had in mind was that you would market such a poem yourself if you wrote one, through your usual outlets.” To be sure, Barach added, “we can always get it published and before a wide audience — but as a free contribution. I am sure this is what you had in mind, but we see no reason why the poem should not be released through the usual commercial channels, if possible.”

Most writers donated their time and work to the Writers’ War Board, so we should read Barach’s letter less as an attempt to avoid becoming a literary agent for McGinley and the Board’s 3,999 other writers and more as a way to make sure McGinley got paid if she wanted to. The downside of this is that the Writers’ War Board Records at the Library of Congress are short on the actual manuscript material that writers produced. As a result, anything that our 17 minnesingers produced during the war touching “on the joys of farm labor, or what you get from working with the green growing things of earth” could, in theory, be a product of Wright’s solicitation and thus propaganda, not just the following (and charming) lines of McGinley’s verse, excerpted from the poem she sent in, “Song for Summer, 1944”:

Across the foreign waters, beneath the foreign suns,
Your brothers hold the beach heads, your comrades man the guns.
But here at home the bugle as debonairely calls
For the soldier on the mower in his denim overalls.

Indeed, who’s to say these poets didn’t circulate the invitation to friends and colleagues, and that any poem about nature or flowers or onions or beets printed — or even reprinted — during this time might thus be read as a part of the Victory Garden or Crop Corps campaign? Had Stout and Richardson perused the November 1943 issue of Poetry, for example, how would they have read Theodore Roethke’s “Florist’s Root Cellar” (“Nothing would give up life: / Even the dirt kept breathing a small breath”)? Indeed, I wonder what they would have made of the following lines had they appeared, as they frequently do today, separate from the surrounding prose and poetry of William Carlos Williams’s Spring and All:

So much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white


Context, as they say, is everything. From August through December 2015 — thanks to the support of a Kluge Fellowship at the Library of Congress and a semester-long leave from my teaching responsibilities at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon — I lived in Washington, DC and worked with material in the Writers’ War Board Records, mainly as those materials pertain to The Murder of Lidice and the Edna St. Vincent Millay Papers, which are also at the Library of Congress. DC is different from Oregon in many ways. For one, it’s a military town with the signs, symbols, rituals, monuments, memorials, buildings, and institutions of war and its various businesses in plain sight. Washington Nationals baseball games routinely take time between innings to recognize the service of military personnel. The free Labor Day concert on the Capitol lawn was full of patriotic music. I attended the Marine Corps Barracks Friday sunset parade and visited the Pentagon, the African American Civil War Museum, Arlington National Cemetery, and the Vietnam, Lincoln, Roosevelt, and Korean war memorials. The park across the street from where I lived was once the site of a Civil War hospital that Walt Whitman visited; so was the US Patent building, which is now the National Portrait Gallery. And before the cold set in, there was even a little garden with herbs and Swiss chard growing outside the Library of Congress’s Jefferson Building within a stone’s toss of the Capitol — a reminder, however slight, of the Victory Gardens planted during World War II.

At first I chafed under all of this weight. And yet within the world of American poetry in which I teach, research, and write, there is virtually no mention of the Writers’ War Board or the role that poets played in the war. After the war, partly to salvage some of the damage it had done to her literary reputation, Millay would attempt to explain away the verse she wrote on behalf of US intervention and participation in the war, writing of Murder in particular, “This piece should be allowed to die along with the war which provoked it. I only hope its death will not be so lingering as that of the war itself.” After the war, despite his work with the Writers’ War Board and the 62 wartime radio broadcasts he did countering Axis propaganda on CBS, Stout was accused of being a communist and put under surveillance by the FBI. So was Langston Hughes, who was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1953. Not even 10 years after the end of the war, the project of erasing writers’ contributions was well underway.

What would it mean to bring this historical moment back into view? To a certain extent, my grandmother never let the moment go, keeping Murder and her canned goods for the rest of her life. I don’t know if she ever opened any of the canned goods. But I do know that at least one time after the war— in 1946 — she reopened Murder to slip between its pages a newspaper photograph showing the postwar hanging of one of the Nazi leaders responsible for the atrocities at Lidice that precipitated Millay’s poem. As I handled Millay’s drafts and correspondence from the Writers’ War Board to other poets, and as I reread my grandmother’s copy of the poem and unfolded that photograph yet another time, I wondered — and still wonder — what I would have done had I received Wright’s letter. Would I have gotten all stirred up to striking my lyre and turning out something on the joys of farm labor? I’d like to think I would have said yes. And then I would have gone out back to the garden I would have already been keeping and worked on making it a bit larger.


Author's mother, Ann Chasar (née Salvatore), at the age of three with Ann's aunt, Helen Danca (later Toeppe), in a Detroit war garden, probably photographed by Ann's mother Sophia Salvatore (née Danca)


Author's mother Ann with Ann's grandmother Bertha Danca


Mike Chasar is the author of Everyday Reading: Poetry and Popular Culture in Modern America (Columbia University Press, 2012).

LARB Contributor

Mike Chasar is an associate professor of English at Willamette University, the author of Everyday Reading: Poetry and Popular Culture in Modern America (Columbia University Press 2012), and co-editor of Poetry after Cultural Studies (University of Iowa Press, 2011). His essays (scholarly and otherwise) are in Poetry, Poets & Writers, PMLA, American Literature, and a variety of anthologies, and he has received fellowships from the Library of Congress (2015) and the National Endowment for the Humanities (2016).


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