Thursday, February 4, 2010

Burgess the Vigilante

Another poem, this one syndicated to hundreds of local newspapers in June 1917:

What is this all about? Let me try to explain.

Burgess was an active member of a large group of writers called "The Vigilantes." Associated with Herbert Hoover's wartime Food Administration, they created poetry, stories, and essays that supported the F.A.'s positions and bolstered the reputation of Hoover (thus making him a more effective leader). The positions revolved around the conservation of food and the growing of food as an important part of the war effort (indeed explicitly defining victory and defeat in terms of food supply). These writings would then be syndicated to small papers around the country.

Burgess's reputation as a writer was already established and his experience with the Pure Food Movement may have been relevant as well. His poem is a straight-forward boost for Hoover; its title would be re-used as a Hoover presidential campaign slogan later in the 1920s. In some papers Burgess's poem was contextualized within the broader framework of politics, providing more insight into its strategic value. It seems to have been designed to apply pressure on legislators to pass Hoover's wartime food bill (eventually passed in August).



As a group, the Vigilantes were virulently patriotic and do not come off well in retrospect. Part of their mission (vigorously supported by Burgess's comrade, Theodore Roosevelt) was to seek out and suppress treasonous and seditious speech. This included pro-German sentiment among German immigrant communities and anti-British sentiment among Irish immigrant communities, as well as anyone expressing pacifist sentiments in general. The fact that the Vigilantes aligned themselves with the Ku Klux Klan in some communities may say all that needs to be said here.

Here's a poem by Hermann Hagedorn, the leader of the Vigilantes, that is somewhat more extreme in its sentiments:


Burgess's contribution to the Vigilantes, as was the case with most writers in the group, seems to have been [though this deserves more research] fairly narrowly defined--simply offering his name and a few lines of verse. (This is, by the way, probably the propaganda work that Burgess obliquely mentions in his autobiography). That he was a patriot there is no doubt. But later in his life (expressed in his autobiography and his Life profiles) he would express a great deal of ambivalence about war in general.

[Note: I am grateful for Mark Van Wienen's (1995) article in American Literary History, "Poetics of the Frugal Housewife," for helping me make this connection. The New York Times covered the Vigilante group pretty extensively in 1917 and 1918.]

[UPDATE: Here's another Vigilante poem from Burgess.]


Tomorrow: Burgess and the Boy Scouts

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