I love the blog Socks for the Boys! Here Alison ponders what role the imagination plays in the diary format and our interpretation of reading others’ diaries. A lovely post!
Elsewhere I have written about Joan’s visit to the NY World’s Fair that first week of the war in September 1939.
Her poem, New York World’s Fair 1939, commemorates that visit and ponders the peace at home.
We shall remember this peace -
This caught moment of half-night beauty
Music – and a night bird blinded by the spotlight
That same light which has just flashed
Following it as it moves….
You can read the rest of the poem here.
The New York Times today writes about how the war disturbed the World’s Fair, including what food to serve. As the Times in 1939 reported:
“Foremost was an alarm from chefs of several outstanding foreign restaurants that some delicacies heretofore transported from Europe might have a little trouble getting by the submarines….The Polish restaurant said its famous hams would last through October. The British Buttery, however, faces a shortage in its Cheshire, Cheddar and Stilton cheese….[T]he Finnish Restaurant is worried about its smoked reindeer meat supply.”
There were many spectacular performances at the Fair. Johnny Weissmuller of Tarzan fame appeared, according to Brooks Atkinson in the Times.
Atkinson wrote how you can enjoy “Aquadonis Weissmuller, baring his wide breast to the breezes….and you can also have the pleasure of seeing a fat man splash, although not in civil attire, which is the basic philosophy of fat comedians in a swimming tank.”
Here you can see the trailer to the original 1932 movie Tarzan the Ape man.
There was also a Hedy Lamarr film, “Lady of the Tropics,” that opened.
The Fair appealed to the viewer’s sense of adventure, the exotic, and remote. But those lands would become all too familiar to those who had to fight in the war…..
September 1, 1939, the day Germany invaded Poland, conventionally has been called the day World War II began. Of course, the roots of the war lie much deeper and further back, as Joan’s diary illustrates.
In honor of the 75th anniversary of the start of the war, today’s post looks at an unusual topic, but one which Joan uses to ground a poem commemorating the start of World War II.
Catalpa Trees and Out of Fashion Vegetation
I had never even heard of a catalpa tree before I read my mother’s diaries from the period before and during World War II. Today this species is making headlines. A recent article, “You’re Planting That Old Thing?”, extols old vegetative species, while pointing out their deficiencies and drawbacks.
First, for those who, like me, are new to the glories of catalpa trees, here’s a photo.
And do view this slideshow of “old-fashioned” plants.
There is even a (“non-existent”) Catalpa Tree Appreciation Society.
The author of the Times article, Michael Tortorello, writes that “Almost no one appreciates the catalpa tree, and few gardeners have planted one since the financial crisis. The one in the 1930s.” Exactly when my mother was writing about catalpas. Two of the 19th-century catalpa enthusiasts came from the midwest: Ohio and Illinois where Joan grew up.
Catalpa came out of fashion — even though it was beautiful and the wood was vital for railroad ties — because it could be messy with its seedpods.
Perhaps what we need now is an analysis of the catalpa in literature and war. For Joan, it was a symbolic tree, linked irrevocably with the start of World War II.
In Memory – August 31, 1939 [Age 16]
I remember standing in the crooked shadow of the Catalpa tree
The August-September night it started.
White moon on the grass and moon mist over the fields.
Even then. It was so still.
The crickets sang farewell to summer.
And the smell of a golden reaping
Was rich in the air.
Even then. While we were so still
Somewhere the guns were beginning to boom
And another crop was being harvested.
Joan’s diaries add to history by giving a personal point of view at a time of political upheaval. Granted, some of her insights are light-hearted. Here’s her self-reflection at age 14.
Monday, May 3, 1937
Got my hair set today. In my opinion, if I had hollower cheeks, I’d be a perfect double for Garbo.
As a fellow Swede (well, half-Swede–Joan’s father had come from Sweden in 1913), Joan certainly paid attention to the most famous Swedish actress in Hollywood!
But Joan also had profound insights that defy her young age. Here she is at age 16, writing comments ranging from fashion to woes with her mom to politics.
Easter Day, April 9, 1939
High—! Well, I went to 11:00 service [in church] with George Hodge this morning. Actually was on time. Wore my new tweed swagger coat and powder blue hat.
This afternoon spent at home . . . Mom and I in our separate cells . . . I was lucky, I had the living room with the radio. Heard “Träumerai.” Such haunting music, but I can’t even hum the tune now.
Well, it seems my prophecy about Easter 1939 [that the war would begin] is wrong but perhaps the world is to go to pieces today. Well, “Peace on Earth, good will to men.”
Father Carr in his sermon lambasted Hitler and Mussolini. It’s easy to accuse them now, but he wouldn’t accuse the greedy statesmen who laid the foundations for the next war at Versailles.
The importance of diaries in history has been fully acknowledged at the National Diary Archive Foundation in Pieve Santo Stefano, the so-called “City of Diaries,” in Italy.
As Elizabetta Povoledo writes in her New York Times article, the founder, Saverio “’Tutino believed that everyone is one of many, and together we become history.'” As Loretta Veri, “the archive’s former director who now raises funds to support it,” says, Tutino “’used to say that we are privileged to hear the rustle of others, that paper voices always made a sound.’”
Povoledo writes that artists and playwrights have been inspired by “the 39 scraps of paper scribbled in a Rome jail by 18-year-old Orlando Orlandi Posti during the last six weeks of his life. Arrested on Feb. 3, 1944, for warning his friends about an impending roundup by German soldiers, Mr. Orlandi Posti managed to smuggle his thoughts — mostly expressing his devotion to a girlfriend — out of prison, rolled up in the collar of shirts destined for the laundry. He became one of the 335 Italians who died on March 24, 1944, at the Ardeatine Caves in Rome in reprisal for the killing of 33 German policemen by Italian partisans.”
As the Archive’s director, Natalia Cangi, says, “‘Diaries go on to have other lives.'”
Joan would never have expected people to read her teenaged diaries, though she does welcome that option. As she writes at age 19,
Tuesday, January 20, 1942
Mr. Benét was talking about diaries in history and I believe I have written mine with the intention of having it read someday. As a help, not only to the understanding of my time—but to the understanding of the individual—not as me—but as character development. Things we forget when we grow older—are written here to remind us. A help not only in history but in psychology (I can’t even spell it). If I can do that I believe I shall have done all that I could wish to. I rather like the idea of social archeologist pawing over my relics.
More from Joan’s UK diary-keeping “twin.”
Originally posted on Socks for the Boys!:
Jim’s requests for schoolgirl photos go unnoticed or at least unremarked upon by Norah and they settle into a fun and flirtatious correspondence through the summer of 1941. For now, there are no more worrying letters, just the complicating factor that is Danny, Jim’s younger brother, who is now on the scene.
Remember it is Jim who first puts Norah and Danny in touch. A trainee officer in the RAF, Danny is on a course at Loughborough College, the Leicestershire town where Norah has just finished her schooling. Jim arranges their first meeting for the 5th July, but Danny fails to turn up. The following week he sends Norah a ‘beautiful letter’, informing her that he is going to a RAF base in Wiltshire. He writes again from there, another grand letter, to say he is going home for seven days (‘on a motorbike’, Norah adds). 30th July: Went to Forester’s Sale. Ma bought coal bucket etc. Received letter…
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Here is more about Norah, Joan’s English “twin”–whose diary has recently been found. It provides insight into World War II on the home front–and we hear about the adventures of “dearest dimples”…..
Originally posted on Socks for the Boys!:
After a difficult few months with very little time in which to write, I now have space ahead of me in which Norah’s story can unfold at the pace it requires.
We are now well-acquainted with our feisty schoolgirl heroine. We have seen her at home – a loving daughter, a squabbling sister, living from the summer of 1938 in a brand new council house in a village in the English East Midlands. We have met most of her family: her gentle mother Milly, bellicose father Tom, her married sister Helen and little niece Jeannie, and older brothers Birdy and Frank.
From one of her contemporaries, we have learned about her life as a scholarship girl at Loughborough High School and have witnessed a whole lot of schoolgirl giddyness in her diaries. We have noted her interests: reading novels and Picturegoer magazine, walking, blackberrying and mushrooming in the nearby…
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