Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Recent scholarly work on Wyeth

As we mark the centennial of America’s entry into the First World War, word of John Allan Wyeth’s wartime poetry continues its gradual dissemination among American and British scholars and readers.

At the 28th Annual Conference on American Literature to be held in Boston May 25-28, by the American Literature Association, Tim Kendall of Exeter University—who needs no introduction to the readers of this blog--- will be presenting a paper, “‘We none of us savvy their lingo’: John Allan Wyeth goes to War.”

I was curious to discover the extent to which the subject of American WWI literature might be featured in a major conference on American literature occuring so close to the centennial. I counted 157 sessions, only three of which concern the First World War and, of those three, two are sessions devoted to Hemingway. Only one session actually names the First World War in its title, and it contains just three presenters, two of whom are British. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion--- Centennial notwithstanding--- that the First World War as a seminal event in American literary history is an idea which, overall, elicits little interest among American academics.

Be that as it may, and although the WWI session, with only three presenters, will be one of the smaller sessions at the conference, the quality of this particular session promises to be very high. In addition to Professor Kendall's paper on Wyeth, two distinguished scholars of women’s literature in the First World War will be presenting papers on the wartime writings of two front-line nurses.

Alice Kelly, of the University of Oxford, who has published on Katherine Mansfield and the First World War, discovered a previously unknown war story by Edith Wharton, and has written about death scenes in the narratives of First World War nurses, will be presenting “Nurse, Suffragette, War Writer: Ellen N. La Motte’s Letters and The Backwash of War.”

Margaret R. Higonnet, of the University of Connecticut (Emeritus), whose previous books include Nurses at the front: writing the wounds of the Great War (Northeastern U Press: 2001) and Lines of fire: women writers of World War I (Plume: 1999), will be presenting “Helen Mackay: Accidentals and Small Things.”

If and when abstracts of these papers become available, I will add them here.

In the meantime, one can only hope that interest in American literature of the First World War among American scholars will be spurred by the Centennial and, perhaps, by the growing interest in WWI among the general public, as evidenced by popularity of the National World War I Museum in Kansas City, and of the recent series, “America’s Great War: World War I and the American Experience,” on PBS. If American scholars fail to rise to the occasion, it appears that British scholars are more than happy to take up the slack.

As far as John Allan Wyeth is concerned, all the current work on him seems to be taking place in the UK. Professor Kendall will be presenting another paper on Wyeth in St. Andrews, Scotland, in June, and will be publishing an article on Wyeth early next year in a book by Clutag Press. In addition, the BBC is said to be planning something on Wyeth, the exact nature of which has yet to be disclosed.

If any readers of this blog are aware of other scholarship on Wyeth, in either America or the UK, published or in progress, please send word and I will acknowledge it here.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Wyeth's war sonnets illustrated:~~~ 3. "Eu to Molliens-au-Bois: Motor Convoy" (a café on the Place Sadi Carnot in Eu)

Café du Tribunaux on left; Hotel de Ville on right.

               A café on the Place Sadi Carnot,
               and crowded trucks lined up along the square.
               "Vite, dejeuner, Madame--- une ommelette
               avec douze oeufs, compreee?"
                                                                    And halfway through,
               "They're cranking up!"
                                                        "Combien, quick---"
                                                                                            "Run, there they go!"

June 21, in Eu, just a few kilometers from the coast.  It is about 8.30 in the morning and Wyeth and his fellow officers are seated at some sidewalk tables with a view of the Place Sadi Carnot. 

Their most likely location is the Café du Tribunaux (shown in the postcard above from just before the war), as it is the largest café on the square, and able to seat the most officers.  Aanother possibility is the Le Grand Café du Paris, directly across the square, but it has only a couple of sidewalk tables.   

Thirty-seven British lorries, with a capacity of twenty men each, are lined up in the square, numbered consecutively on their side panels.  

Wyeth has only just placed his order when the drivers crank up the engines on their trucks and start pulling out, compelling Wyeth and the others to leap from behind their tables and sprint across the square to catch the convoy before it rumbles away out of town to the east. 

A wider view of the Place Sadi Carnot, with the Café du Tribunaux on the left, under the awning.

Café du Tribunaux on left; Hotel de Ville on right.

 Le Grand Café du Paris

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Previously unknown wartime photograph of Wyeth and his brother comes to light

Thanks to Ms. France Sloat for this recently discovered photograph of her grandfather, Marion Sims Wyeth, and her grand-uncle, John Allan Wyeth, showing both men in uniform and probably taken sometime in late  1917 or early 1918..

The service records for each man, copied from Princeton in the World War (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1932), are as follows: 

MARION SIMS WYETH (Class of 1910).  Entered army October 30, 1917, Garden City, New.York, 1st lieutenant, Air Service; stationed Garden City, October 30, 1917 to January 7, 1918; Camp Servier, South Carolina, January 7 to February  18, 1918; Kelly Flying Field, San Antonio, Texas, February to May 1918; commanding officer, 238th and 244th Aero Squadrons, Waco, Texas.  May to June 1918;  commanding officer, Aero Construction Company, Garden City, June to August 8, 1918; sailed for England, August 1918; American Rest Camp, Knotty Ash, Winchester, England; American Aviation Camp, Emsworth, Sussex, England, September to November 14, 1918; returned to U.S., November 21; discharged January 1, 1919.

JOHN ALLAN WYETH, Jr. (Class of 1915):  Entered army December 28, 1917, New York, NewYork, 2nd lieutenant, Corps of Interpreters; assigned 33rd Division, Divisional Headquarters, Camp Logan, Texas, January 3 to May 1, 1918; Camp Upton, N.Y., May 1 to 6, 1918; sailed for france May 1918; operations with British on the Somme until August 20, 1918, then at Verdun; Army of Occupation, Germany and Luxembourg; detached from 33rd Division and stationed at Paris, April 1919; returned to U.S. July 1919; discharged October 23, 1919.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Wyeth's war sonnets illustrated:~~~ 2. "Huppy"

An aerial view of Huppy with the church clearly visible
in the center of the village, and one end of the chateau
emerging from trees to the right.

 33rd Division Headquarters are established in the chateau in Huppy on the afternoon of 31 May, 1918, described by a field clerk with HQ as “a chateau, pleasantly situated amid trees, shrubbery and flowers.”

The speaker in Wyeth’s sonnet is evidently positioned somewhere just outside the park-like environs of this chateau, within sight of the “slim white belfry” of the village church, located close to the chateau entrance.

"... the slim white belfry by the park."


So many shadows that the air is green . . .
Light catches in the upper leaves and dies
along the slim white belfry by the park.
Ducks waddle home, self-conscious on the ground.
Some trim young Red Tabs in a limousine
scatter a drifting dust cloud in our eyes.
A soldier blithely whistles Joan of Arc.
Gates shut and jangle . . . Bugles thinly sound . . .
Twilight, and after mess a round of ‘fine.’

They’re bombing Abbeville!  Lights crack, searchlights rise---
A woman runs and screams “Jules--- Jean--- ou etes-vous?
They fill the road . . . one hails me in the dark,
her five grandchildren pressing close around---
“Qu’allons-nous faire?--- Nous avons peur chez nous!”.

 The two postcards below show the chateau where Headquarters 33rd Division was established during its stay in Eu.

The postcard below provides a view of the road leading northward out of Huppy towards Abbeville, which was bombed by German Gothas every evening. As recorded in The History of the 33rdDivision,
“At this time the town of Abbeville was so severely bombed almost every night by enemy aeroplanes that slow evacuation was begun. The German preparation for their anticipated drive to the sea via Amiens and Abbeville was apparently well underway.”

The road leading north out of Huppy to Abbeville.

Wyeth's war sonnets illustrated:~~~ 1. "Oisemont: Place de la Mairie"

The "blank Mairie" and "the gaunt old belfry".

From time to time, as I come across appropriate period photographs, I will post descriptive passages from Wyeth’s war sonnets together with photographs that illustrate the same scenes. First up, the “Place de la Mairie” in Oisemont.

OISEMONT: Place de la Mairie
The shadows slant along the dusty square
that tilts haphazard past the blank Mairie.
Grey timid little houses hand in hand
step gingerly downhill. A yellow wall,
branded Hotel du Soleil d’Or--- down there
the zinc and tinware sign Quincaillerie.
Up from the rest camp swings a Highland band
and people swarm and clutter . . . children call.
The pipers drone a shrill nostalgic air
below my window in the Mercerie,
kilts flapping while the drumsticks thump and fly.
The gaunt old belfry tolls a reprimand,
and as the drums stop and the bagpipes squall
a long slow dingy funeral crawls by.

It is the evening of May 26th,1918. Lieutenant Wyeth and his fellow officers have been on board a series of troop trains since mid-afternoon of the previous day, travelling from Brest on the coast to Paris to Beauvais, arriving in Oisemont in the early evening, after nearly 30 hours of travel. 

Wyeth has been given a room in the Mercerie and is able to look down on the city square from his window, with still enough light remaining to see a Scottish band marching through the square, followed by a funeral procession. 

 This same Scottish band will be observed several days later, on June 2, by the men of the 131st Infantry, 33rd Division, as they pass through Oisemont on their way to the nearby village of Huppy, and it will be seen yet again, on the evening of June 6th, in Huppy itself, by a field clerk on the 33rd Division Headquarters staff, who notes in his diary that some of the kilted pipers have tattooed knees. 

The two landmarks mentioned in the sonnet, the “blank Marie” and the “gaunt old belfry” of the church, can be seen in the postcard above. The subsequent postcards show the same scene from several different angles. All the postcards date from shortly before the war.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Tim Kendall to present paper on John Allan Wyeth at British Academy conference, "The First World War: Literature, Culture, Modernity"

Tim Kendall
As part of a two-day conference in London on 12-13 November at the British Academy on The First World War: Literature, Culture, Modernity, Professor Tim Kendall, University of Exeter, will be presenting a paper on Wyeth, entitled "John Allan Wyeth’s War in Fifty-Odd Sonnets".  Kendall's abstract for his paper is as follows:

"During his lifetime, John Allan Wyeth (1894-1981) won a minor reputation as a painter: his obituary in the Trenton Times was perfunctory in praising a ‘noted area artist’. The newspaper should be forgiven for making no mention of Wyeth's verse. Even his close family had no idea that he had published a book of poems, This Man's Army, in 1928.

This Man’s Army is a sequence of 55 sonnets mapping, often in documentary detail, Wyeth’s experiences as a second lieutenant in France during the second half of 1918. Although it received several positive notices, the book soon disappeared from view, only to be rediscovered and reprinted eighty years later by the military historian B. J. Omanson. Its significance is gradually becoming recognised: Dana Gioia calls it ‘probably the only volume [by an American] that stands comparison with the work of the best British soldier poets’.

I will explore the radical strangeness of Wyeth's best sonnets as they string snatches of vernacular dialogue across lines. He has been associated with Modernism, for which there is a biographical prompt: based in Rapallo during 1926, Wyeth seems to have counted Ezra Pound as a friend. Yet Wyeth’s knack of catching speech rhythms and bringing them into complex relation with formal and metrical traditions shows a greater debt to Robert Frost. Wyeth, like Frost, seeks to ‘drag and break the intonation across the meter’, creating a sequence both garrulous and precise as it picks its way through troop trains, hospitals, trenches and brothels towards an understated and ambivalent victory."

 The aim of the conference as a whole is to "... bring together some of the world’s leading experts and emerging scholars to reassess [the Great War's] literary and cultural impact and explore its vexed relationship to modernity..."   A more complete description of the conference, with a list of the presenters and a copy of the conference programme, can be found here.

Tim Kendall is Professor of English at Exeter.  He edited Poetry of the First World War, Modern English War Poetry, and The Oxford Handbook of British and Irish Poetry, and presented Ivor Gurney: The Poet Who Loved the War for BBC TV. He is President of The War Poets Association, and owner of the blog War Poetry. Links to several of his other essays on John Allan Wyeth can be found in the "Wyeth Links" section of this site.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Newly discovered letter discussing Wyeth's sonnets

Just today I received in the mail a copy of the rare 1928 Harold Vinal edition of Wyeth's This Man's Army.  The copy was inscribed to a "Mr. White" by one Craig Wylie who, at the time, was a student at Harvard and who, in the 1950s, would serve as editor in chief at Houghton Mifflin.

Laid into the book is a hand-written letter from Mr Wylie to a Mr White, discussing Wyeth's sonnets.  In the letter, dated March 6, 1929, Wylie recommends the sonnets and refers to a conversation he had with Wyeth about the sonnets' unusual rhyme-scheme, as well as their unorthodox subject matter.  Wylie writes:

"Here is the long-promised copy of John's book.  They really should be read through, though the more conventional ones, I think, form very lovely single sonnets.  I wish you'd let me know what you really think of the book.  ... 

I particularly like the sonnets on pages 1, 3, 4, 6, 12, 16, 18, 21, 23, 25, 27 (which, John says, happened word for word), 37, 45, 46, 47 (?), 54.

What do you think of the less orthodox ones and of the rhyme-scheme?  The latter, John said, he used instead of a regular one because they were supposed to be read through and the closely-recurring rhyme would become monotonous.  I don't know whether I think he's justified in calling them sonnets-- do you?  And he admits that many of these are not sonnet subjects, but he thought, on the whole, that a modified sonnet form was the best for the sequence.

On reading these again, I really get a great kick out of many of them-- he surely has talent, don't you think? .. "


The sonnets singled out by Wylie and designated by page number are as follows:

1: Camp Upton: Sailing Orders
3: The Transport, I
4: The Transport, II
6: The Waterfront (twice underlined)
12: Huppy
16: The Seashore (thrice underlined)
18: Molliens-au-Bois
21: Molliens-au-Bois: Air Raid
23: Molliens-au-Bois: The Village Road  (once underlined)
27: Molliens-au-Bois: Home Mail (which Wyeth said happened word for word)
37: Chipilly Ridge: Through the Valley
45: Tronville-en-Barrois: Night Watch  (twice underlined)
47: Fromereville: War in Heaven (followed by a parenthetical question mark)
54: Souilly: Hospital

On the whole, Wylie's favorite sonnets are the more conventional, less experimental ones.  He tends to favor the more lyrical sonnets tinged with pensiveness, but he also singles out several in which the war is starkly displayed.

As to the identiy  of the book's owner, the mysterious "Mr. White"--- without an address or Christian name, or any other clue, his identity must remain unknown for now.  If anyone knows more about the friendship of John Wyeth and Craig Wylie, or about Craig Wylie's circle of literary friends at Harvard in 1929, please leave your comments here.

Craig Wylie died in 1977.  His obituary, published in the Harvard Alumni Horae, (Volume 57, Issue 1, Spring 1977, page 42), reads as follows:

1926-Craig Wylie, retired managing and executive editor of Houghton, Mifflin Co., book publishers, died at his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, December 6, 1976. He was sixty-eight years old. He was born in Washington, D. C., and came to St. Paul's in the Third Form in 1922. A self-assured and convincing speaker, he became a member of the Cadmean debating team and was treasurer of the Missionary Society. He was also on the Isthmian track team and football squad in his Sixth Form year. After graduating from St. Paul's and Harvard, he joined the School faculty in 1930 as a teacher of French. He stayed on the faculty for twelve years, but from 1935 to 1939 was given leave of absence from teaching to serve in the New Hampshire State Legislature. From 1942 to 1945, he served in Naval Intelligence in Washington, in antisubmarine warfare duty in the North Atlantic, and as executive officer at the antisubmarine warfare training center at Pearl Harbor. He was detached from active duty after the war with the rank of lieutenant commander. His first position in civilian life after the war was field secretary of the Massachusetts Commission for World Federation. In 1946 he joined Houghton, Mifflin, and for the next twenty-seven years served successively as a general editor, managing editor, executive editor, editor in chief, and vice-president and director of the trade book division. He retired in 1973. He was a member of the Tavern Club and the Club of Odd Volumes, both of Boston; the Century Club of New York City, and the Massachusetts and New Hampshire Historical Societies. In addition, he was a trustee of the Boston Atheneum and was a member of the corporation and vestry of the Church of the Advent in Boston. He was a loyal alumnus of St. Paul's, a man of high personal standards and generous spirit who had many friends among his schoolmates, students and co-workers.