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Saturday, 18 September 2010

Edwin Denby: On the Home Front -- 1942


Image, Source: digital file from original neg.

Grand Central Terminal, New York City: photo by John Collier, December 1941

Because Jim insulted Harry eight years previous
By taking revenge for a regular business loss
Forwardlooking Joe hints that Leslie's devious
Because who stands to lose by it, why you yourself boss.
Figures can't lie so it's your duty to keep control
You've got to have people you can trust, look at em smile
That's why we're going to win this war, I read a man's soul
Like a book, intuition, that's how I made my pile.
Anybody can make it, that's democracy, sure
The hard part's holding on, keeping fit, world of difference
You know war, mass hysteria, makes things insecure
Yep a war of survival, frankly I'm off the fence.
The small survivor has a difficult task
Answering the questions great historians ask.

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film

A sailor and his girlfriend do a bit of jitterbugging at the Hurricane, New York, New York: photo by Gordon Parks, April 1943

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film

A spectator before one of the exhibits at The Nature of the Enemy show, put up by the OWI at Rockefeller Plaza: photo by Arthur Siegel, May 1943

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film

An exhibit at The Nature of the Enemy show, put up by the OWI at Rockefeller Plaza: photo by Arthur Siegel, May 1943

Image, Source: digital file from intermediary roll film

Dairy truck on 44th Street, New York City: photo by John Vachon, March 1943

Edwin Denby: On the Home Front -- 1942: from In Public, In Private, 1948
Photos from the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Collection, Library of Congress


Anonymous said...

One of the questions I’ve asked myself since childhood concerned what World War II was really like on the US home front. Of course I heard my parents’ accounts and memories of it (my father was slightly too young for service), which always seemed incomplete to me, and the few movies I remember seeing which treated the subject of civilian life always seemed more fictional and movie-like than the actual war movies, which seemed real and fuller-blooded by comparison and animated my imagination. Denby’s strange, complicated, plainspoken, colloquial soliloquy seems to be the realest account of the home front experience I’ve ever read and to reflect and summarize actual experience of people living their lives far away from the theater of war, but agonized by its imminence and aura. To me, it seems just like today.

The photo matches are pretty much perfect in setting the scene. They still hold public exhibitions of all sorts in Rockefeller Plaza (the area has been made permanently exhibition-ready by the closing of the north-south street that ran between W. 50th and W. 48th Streets, past the front of the former RCA Building) and Grand Central Station (particularly that view) hasn’t changed at all. Xavier Cugat at the Paramount – amazing. This series tells history as it happened beautifully and in a very moving way.

TC said...


Yes, Xavier Cugat sharing the bill with Hitler's Children... and Butter, Eggs and Cream.

John Vachon, I think, gave substance in his photographic work to the prophecy of Ferdinand de Saussure:

"It is... possible to conceive of a science which studies the role of signs as part of social life. It would form part of social psychology, and hence of general psychology. We shall call it semiology (from the Greek semeîon, 'sign'). It would investigate the nature of signs and the laws governing them. Since it does not yet exist, one cannot say for certain that it will exist. But it has a right to exist, a place ready for it in advance..."

I was born a bit before the War and came to so-called consciousness during it. It occupied my imagination completely. I must have done hundreds of detailed crayon sketches of the military hardware of the various contending armies and navies. My father, who was rejected for service due to high blood pressure (runs in the family), was a draughtsman, and was for a while sent to Douglas Aircraft (located at the site that is now O'Hare airport) to help design the military version of the DC-3.

The Denby poem is remarkably tough, I think, and cuts through a lot of the standard patriotic soft-soap. His handling of this kind of poem reminds me what a wondrous vehicle the verse form can be in the hands of someone who understands it. Rhyme and metre are of course out of style now, but they had their uses (like the DC-3), and haven't yet been replaced at that. Denby understood the sonnet structure, and his final couplets really snap the whip. And I think that "telegraphese" compression he employs was/is light years ahead of its time. No one's really caught up with him yet.

Anonymous said...

I agree with the things you say about Denby's poems. I love the the rhyme, metre and sonnet structure and sort of see their use as consistent (along with the thoughts and words) with a sense of responsibility felt by Denby to art and the reader to produce something great.

I remember the Saussure passage from a long time ago (studying linguistics in college and pursuing semiology concerns in graduate school until I found what was being published in that vein in the art magazines to be incomprehensible) when things seemed to add up more and am very happy to be reminded of it. It still makes perfect sense to me.

It's so interesting to think of the O'Hare site before there was an O'Hare. I've spent so much time there waiting that I'm pretty familiar with the whole airport. Some old airfields (Floyd Bennett Field) used to exist on Long Island when I was growing up. Stewart International Airport (there are flights to Canada) in Newburgh, NY, which was an old Air Force base, still retains a little of the old time feeling. And the Willow Grove Naval Air Base in Willow Grove, NJ, which is an old place, but still active, has all of it.

TC said...


Those little airfields were something else, long before the metal detector was yet a gleam in the security expert's eye.

One thing about the DC-3, it did not require a very long runway (or even a paved one) and could put up with a few bumps and potholes. When living in England and making trips to Paris for editing business I regularly flew back and forth across the channel on little short-hop lines that took off from and landed on ordinary grass fields (and in one case a windswept, disused golf course), on which a few simple guidelights had been placed. The DC-3 rocked and rolled on the ground and in the air, but kept flying.