Pete Seeger in New York City: Outsider and Insider to The American Folk Revival

Pete Seeger, born to two highly musical parents, grew up in a house full of instruments, so deciding which one to play was not easy. When Pete asked for advice on this matter, his father decided to plan a trip to take Pete to Asheville, North Carolina to see a folk musician named Lunsford play the five-string banjo.[1] “The Seegers “loaded up their big blue Chevy and headed South to meet “the folk.”[2] Seeger, a kid who went to boarding schools in New England for his entire childhood, was in awe of the vitality and authenticity of both folk music and culture, especially in comparison with the cheesy pop music he was used to in the northeast.[3] Lunsford lent Pete his five-string banjo, and over the course of Pete’s career, that seemingly exotic kind of banjo would become nearly synonymous with the name Pete Seeger.

Pete Seeger and his banjo. (

Pete Seeger and his banjo. (

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Welcome to New York

L Model Running Legs NY 1940

Lisette Model, “Running Legs, 5th Ave., New York”


Hi, and welcome to ENGL 284: New York City in the 1940s (Fall 2014).  For students enrolled in the course, I’ll be using this blog to post occasional interesting materials and information about some of the historical context for our reading and viewing.  Come the end of the semester, I’ll also ask you to post your research projects to the blog. (You can see examples of student research projects from previous semesters by clicking on links above or to the left.)  In the meantime, you may want to scroll through some of the archives to get a sense of the kinds of things we’ll be discussing this semester.


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From the “necessary murder” to The New Yorker

Auden, as photographed in 1939 by Carl van Vechten

W. H. Auden was one of the major literary personages in New York in the 1940s. He was highly influential on his contemporaries, but he was also representative in some ways of the intellectual and political journey that many of his contemporaries took over the course of the latter thirties and 1940s. Continue Reading »

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A geography of its own

The publication of John Hersey’s Hiroshima was a significant event in the history of American journalism and also in the history of the magazine in which it first appeared–The New Yorker. Hersey’s chronicle was a sensation when it appeared, as the entire editorial contents of one issue. (For more information on this famous issue, see this older post.) In addition to marking the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, the event signalled the new stature that The New Yorker had assumed over the course of WWII. The magazine had now become a defining voice of postwar, metropolitan liberalism. Continue Reading »

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Weapons in the War of Ideas

Last week I mentioned that Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn probably owed some of its success to the fact that the book had been published in an Armed Services Edition and was one of the 1300 such books that were distributed for free to members of the military during WWII. Continue Reading »

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Ann Petry’s Street

An absurdly inapprorpiate paperback cover for Ann Petry's novel--typical of the great days of the "paperback revolution"

This image doesn’t have much to tell us about Ann Petry’s The Street. Continue Reading »

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A New Deal in journalism . . . and its end

The other day in class we briefly discussed Weegee and his distinctive way of depicting New York city in the 1930s and ’40s. Walker Evans gives us a somber, underground world, and his portraits show us usually solitary, often introspective and frequently bedraggled looking New Yorkers. Weegee, by contrast, portrays a vivid and dramatic–or, perhaps, melodramatic–city. Continue Reading »

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On a slightly different town

Paul Cadmus, The Fleets In -- produced under the New Deal Public Works of Art Program and rejected from the PWAP exhbition at the Corcoran Gallery in 1934

Rick has sent along some fascinating info about a key backstory for On the Town. Apparently, the Paul Cadmus painting above was the original inspiration for the Jerome Robbins ballet Fancy Free, which gave rise to the Bernstein-Comden-Green-Robbins Broadway production of On the Town, later to be adapted for the Hollywood Stanley Donen/Gene Kelley movie version. Continue Reading »

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“I ran away to Greenwich Village . . . where the people I met had sprung from their own brows”

Anatole Broyard, likely in the 1950s--"I was alienated from alienation."

In our discussion the other night, we didn’t get the opportunity to talk much about Anatole Broyard’s memoir of living in Greenwich Village in the late 1940s. Before the moment’s left behind, I just wanted to draw your attention to one important element of his story that you might easily have missed. Continue Reading »

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“The great American epic of upward progress toward education, freedom, self-respect, and accomplishment”

The dust jacket fior the first edition of Smith's novel

That’s how New York Times reviewer Oliver Prescott described Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Continue Reading »

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