A Glimpse of War Through the Camera Lens of a Female War Correspondent

When I picked up John Garofolo’s Dickey Chapelle Under Fire: Photographs by the First Female War Correspondent Killed in Action at the Harold Washington Library yesterday morning, I intended to rifle through it quickly, grab what I needed, and move on.(1) It was simply one in a large stack of books that I wanted to get through, and one that wasn’t entirely on point for the project at hand. Best laid plans, etc. I was immediately sucked in. I had just enough self-discipline to take it home and read it later instead of squandering my treasured library day. (2)

In case it’s not clear from the title, Dickey Chapelle Under Fire is primarily a picture book. Chapelle reported on war with her camera. The photographs are powerful, painful, and heartbreaking. But it was the brief biography and the quotations from her autobiography, What’s A Woman Doing Here?, published in 1962(3), that caught my attention. She worked as a photojournalist in World War II, including the battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa— a stint that cost her her credentials as a war correspondent because she knowingly disobeyed orders not to go ashore. She reported on the reconstruction of Europe after the war. Once again accredited as a war correspondent, she covered more than 30 conflicts between 1956 and 1959. She followed freedom fighters in Hungary—where she was imprisoned for two months and came close to being executed as a spy. She followed Fidel Castro in the Cuban revolution and Algerian rebels in the war against France. In 1961, she took the first of four assignments in Vietnam, where she was killed by a grenade while on patrol with a Marine unit in 1965—the first American female war correspondent killed in action.

The Marines dedicated a field hospital in her honor, with a plaque that read “She was one of us and we will miss her.”

Chapelle’s personality jumps off the page with every quotation and every life choice. A book well worth tracking down.

(1) A process I think of as scholarly pillaging.
(2) You would think that it would be easy for someone who writes full time to arrange a full day at the library whenever she wanted. And you would be wrong.
(3) Now on my reading list.

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With thanks to friend and reader Joy McGinnis, who recommended Dickey Chapelle Under Fire in response to my request for non-fiction books about female journalists published in the last five years or so. I’d love add a few more to the stack, so if you have a recommendation send it on over.

Walter Gropius and the Bauhaus School

Lately, Walter Gropius and the Bauhaus School have been tracking me down. Actually, now that I think about it, it’s not so much that Gropius is tracking me down, but I’ve been hanging out in the places he hung out: a life of Alma Mahler, some research on the satirical artist George Grosz, some architectural history, a stack of stuff on Weimar Germany.*

They’re pretty fascinating times and places. New music, new art, and definitely new architecture.

Here’s the short version of the Bauhaus story:

In 1919, the Grand Duke of Saxe-Weimar invited German architect Walter Gropius to establish as design school in Weimar. Originally named the Staatliches Bauhaus Weimar, it became known simply as the Bauhaus. Its curriculum embraced all the applied and visual arts, linked by the root concept of structure, “bau”.

Gropius believed that the base of all art began in handcraft and he sought to create a new guild of craftsmen. In its early years, the Bauhaus specialized in teaching art, design and the applied arts in a workshop system that required students to make objects as well as design them.. The Bauhaus was unique for its time in using well-known artists, most notably Paul Klee and Vassily Kandinsky, as instructors in what was essentially a school of architecture and design, a policy intended to break down the distinction between fine and applied arts.

In 1923, the Bauhuas moved beyond its original “Arts and Crafts” roots to embrace industrial technology and explore its implications for design. The school’s workshops began to produce prototypes for mass production. This change in the Bauhaus ideology was reflected in a new motto: “art and technology–a new unity.” An architecture department was added in 1927, though architecture workshops were included in the curriculum from the beginning

In 1925, the Bauhaus lost its base in Weimar and was forced to move to Dessau when Gropius’s bold use of new building materials and innovative architectural methods was condemned as “architectural socialism.” The move provided Gropius with the opportunity to design a new building more appropriate for the school’s activities. Generally considered to be the first example of what would become International Style architecture, the white-walled building is an asymmetrical combination of “boxes” that pushed pre-war techniques of industrial construction to new limits. A glass curtain wall provided light to four stories of studios in the main block. A bridge made of iron-reinforced concrete linked the two main parts of the building.  (None of which shows clearly in the photo below, alas.)

When Hitler came to power, Mies van der Rohe, then the school’s director, moved the Bauhaus to Berlin and finally closed it in 1933 rather than submit to Nazi interference. Many teachers from the Bauhaus fled to the United States, where László Mooly-Nagy founded the New Bauhaus in Chicago in 1937, a precursor of the Illinois Institute of Technology.

The Bauhaus had an immediate effect in Germany through its method of teaching and through the production of domestic articles designed in its studios. Modernist architecture developed into the International Style, which was characterized by the use of steel, reinforced concrete, and large areas of glass, a uniform facade, and an absence of applied ornament. It became the dominant style for large-scale architectural projects after World War II. Unfortunately, the stylistic daring of Gropius’s Bauhaus often was reduced to unadorned, functional and interchangeable glass blocks in the hands of lesser architects.

*Why yes, that might be a hint.

In which I review Cecelia Watson’s Semicolon

If you’ve read much of my writing, you have probably figured out that I am not a member of the esteemed Semi-colon Haters Society. Personally, I find it a evocative and flexible piece of punctuation. So when I had a chance to review Cecelia Watson’s Semicolon: The Past, Present, and Future of a Misunderstood Mark for Shelf Awareness for Readers, I grabbed it.

It did not disappoint.

On the surface,  Watson’s Semicolon  is a rollicking history of the punctuation mark that people love to hate. She grabbed my attention immediately with the fact that not only had someone invented the semicolon—something that had never occurred to me—but that we know who he was.*

Watson places the semicolon’s creation in the broader context of Italian humanism, when punctuation was still experimental. She considers the fate and creation of other punctuation marks. She discusses the semicolon’s role in a debate over Massachusetts’s liquor laws in the early 20th century–and the larger question of the impact of punctuation on judicial rulings. She outlines arguments used by semicolon-bashers. She reviews historical attempts to define the proper use of the semicolon.

She also examines the different ways in which five skilled and very different writers–Raymond Chandler, Henry James, Herman Melville, Rebecca Solnit and Irving Welsh–use the semicolon in their work. Watson concludes that the semicolon “represents a way to slow down, to stop, and to think.” Alternatively, it can allow a writer to speed up the pace of her text. In short, the role of the semicolon is to measure time in the pursuit of meaning.

Watson’s vision of the semicolon’s purpose points toward a subversive argument that runs alongside her history of its journey from clarity to confusion. She argues that it is impossible to untangle the history of the semicolon from the history of grammar rules and guidebooks. Looking at grammar guidebooks through the lens of the slippery semicolon, she comes to the conclusion that the written rules of language are a barrier to communication rather than a support.

Well worth the read for history buggs and grammar nerds alike.

*Venetian scholar Aldus Manutius (1449-1515). He is best known for producing high-quality, inexpensive pocket-sized editions of Greek and Latin classics—a new idea at the time. In other words, a book lover’s hero.

Much of this review previously appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers.