Monday, May 27, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 34: Helen Lawrenson, “Damn the Torpedoes!” (#126)

Helen Lawrenson, “Damn the Torpedoes!” (1942) from Reporting World War II: American Journalism 1938–1946:

One of the great aspects of analog searching--that is, browsing the selves--is the serendipitous find, which is much harder to replicate digitally. One of the pleasures of this Library of America Story of the Week project of mine is that I find pieces to read things that I might otherwise have skipped, which is close enough to serendipity for government work.

Speaking of government work, today's entry is an article from 1942, originally in Harper's, all about the Merchant Marine, which is private work facing public dangers. That is, as Helen Lawrenson notes, all of this seamen who daily face death at the hands of uboats could just up and quit whenever they want to. They don't get money; they don't get the honor of military service; and they face all the dangers of the military. So what keeps them at their job?

I think Lawrenson's idea here is that its patriotism and honor that keep our supply ships running. She starts off with a section of authentic sailor talk on shore, which features complaints and horror stories, but ends on a little speech about how these sailors are keeping the swastika, the rising sun, and the "bundle of wheat" away from the White House, mom, and apple pie.

While it is useful to remember the non-combatants who helped America get through the war (including all the rationing and work-force-joining women), Lawrenson's piece strikes me as a particular form of war-time propaganda, an equal parts mix of "rah-rah boys" and "we can do better": the Merchant Marine don't have to face death, but they do because rah rah; and the least we can do is arm their ships and do more to patrol our ocean. It's very interesting to see that structure applied to a private industry, but it's a very familiar thematic structure.

That said, like many of the pieces I've read, this is a very interesting view of how people talked (or how their talk was recorded--no one curses or talks about sex) and possibly worth mining if you're writing something based in the 1940s.

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