As our research continues, the Century America project is starting to take shape, and it’s exciting to see themes and stories emerge from piles and piles of archives.
In our Skype sessions, the Century America project has been discussing David M. Kennedy’s work Over Here, and it has provided a strong context for understanding the American home front experience during World War I. As I’m working through the themes he discusses, I’m starting to apply some of the national trends locally to Fredericksburg, and I love seeing the connections between names we’ve found at the Central Rappahannock Heritage Center or the UMW Special Collections and the broader historical understanding of World War I. I’m excited to delve more into the specific Fredericksburg experience, now better prepared to place it in a national context.
Dark and Light- Research Continues
One theme in particular I’ve been mulling over: the contrast between darkness and light associated with the war, as first mentioned by Professor Ellen Pearson. On the one hand, American men who went abroad were almost like tourists: their time in Europe was short, and often marked by long period without any action. They experienced the old world, and wrote back home in romantic language about the cathedrals and countrysides they’d touched and seen. At home, the American spirt thrived as communities made joyful sacrifices, like conserving food, to support the war effort. Rallies and campaigns brought people together in patriotic display, and within months, the war was over. But behind the banners and poetry was of course a darker side of war, particularly the modern warfare that World War I has introduced. Soldiers returned home disillusioned, and writings turned to the dark realities they faced. Influenza had gripped the nation, taking more lives than the far-away war.
From our research thus far, it appears the narrative of Fredericksburg and of the State Normal School was dominated by the light. We’ve seen food conservation classes and war effort clubs and patriotic rallies and posters. Though two faculty members served in the war, they were ultimately celebrated, not mourned; in fact the greater loss from the period was certainly the influenza epidemic. How was the State Normal School’s experience different because it was a school for women? I’m curious to see how we will address this theme in our digital project, to communicate the story of the time and place as it was and as the records show, but thinking critically about the sunny glow that seems to radiate from 1914-1918. As we begin the process of organization, these questions of interpretation will be further developed.
Designing the Site
For now, some of the ideas for organization we’re discussing:
- By place: The State Normal School, Fredericksburg, and national themes
- By theme: Home front culture, influenza, military, academic experience
- an interactive map that includes all the schools in the Century America project, with links to their individual projects
- a comprehensive timeline, including major events in the war nationally and in all the towns and schools of the Century America project
- short, documentary-style introduction videos at each major section
- an archive of significant images and scanned documents