Center for Global & International Studies
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Undergraduate researchers building digital archive of WWI poetry by American immigrants

Monday, April 3, 2017

Undergraduate researchers building digital archive of WWI poetry by American immigrants

LAWRENCE – A research project at the University of Kansas will create a digital archive of World War I poetry that captures the wide-ranging sentiments of American immigrants, including those who found themselves living in a country headed to war with their homeland.

Since June 2015, KU students have been identifying, encoding, transcribing and annotating poetry about World War I written by American immigrants, particularly those from Germany. The project also includes poetry written by other ethnic groups, such as Mexican and Caribbean immigrants. So far the project includes more than 300 poems.

“For German immigrants in America, their heritage overseas and their identity as Americans came into conflict," said Andrew Crist, a senior in economics and math who is part of the team researching World War I poetry. “These are timeless questions. Even the immigrant question today reflects some of the issues we see in this poetry.”

The project grew from the KU WWI Centennial Commemoration 2014-2018, which is coordinated by the European Studies Program. Kansas State University was an initial collaborator on the project.

The KU team has been supported by a seed grant from the KU Institute for Digital Research in the Humanities, the Max Kade Center, and the Emerging Scholars Program administered by the Center for Undergraduate Research. First-year student Ashley Yoder, who was selected to participate in the program, applies her federal work-study funds to her position as an undergraduate research assistant. Yoder, who plans to complete her undergraduate degree in the School of Education, was drawn to the digital humanities project: “I love history and poetry, so I knew I would enjoy the project.”

“World War I has long been in the shadows of World War II. This is part of an effort to demonstrate why World War I is relevant for us today,” said project leader Lorie Vanchena, associate professor of German and academic director of the European Studies Program.

The American World War I poetry project will fill a gap in World War I scholarship, Vanchena said. Eventually the poems will be available online, so academics, teachers, students and the general public can access them. The digitized poems will include contextual information for historical, cultural and political references.

While “In Flanders Fields” is perhaps the most well-known poem about World War I, poems were frequently published in newsletters, newspapers, journals and books during the war years. Studying them today provides a more nuanced view of how the war touched everyday lives, the student researchers said.

“In the history courses I have taken in the past, we have learned about the mechanics of war, the soldiers and the politics involved,” said Caelan Graham, a junior in environmental studies who is also earning minors in German and sociology. “But this project has allowed a glimpse into how the war affected everyone.”

Among the immigrants most affected by the war were German-Americans.

“As an ally of Britain, Americans looked down on the German-Americans, which is interesting because today if you have German heritage it is a very celebrated thing,” said Janelle Fox, who earned her B.A. last year in history and Latin American & Caribbean studies.

In the 1880s, the United States had a mass migration of immigrants from German-speaking lands. By 1910 about 2.3 million German-born immigrants lived in the United States. 

“You had Germans here who had strong sympathies for their homeland, often because they still had family back in Europe, and German-Americans loyal to their new homeland who returned to Europe to fight against those who hadn’t migrated,” Vanchena said. “We are seeing poetry along all points of that political, historical and immigrant spectrum.”

So far, much of the poetry identified has come from German and German-American newspapers and newsletters that were published in the 1910s and are housed at KU’s Max Kade Center for German-American Studies, which has a long tradition of research on German-American exile literature.

Some of the poetry expresses pro-German and anti-British sentiment, such as “English Kultur,” a poem that points to the hypocrisy of the English notion of the barbaric German. Others are pro-American, neutral or anti-war, such as a poem by a wounded German soldier who spent time at an Allied medical camp. In it, he writes that for the people on the ground, there was no quarrel.

“These short, little poignant poems can really get the point across effectively,” Crist said. 

This is an updated version of a press released originally published by the KU News Service 12/15/2015.

The University of Kansas is a major comprehensive research and teaching university. The university's mission is to lift students and society by educating leaders, building healthy communities and making discoveries that change the world. The KU News Service is the central public relations office for the Lawrence campus.

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