The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

"Notoriously an inarticulate nation": Feeling World War II through Mollie Panter-Downes's London Letters

Sarah E. Cornish
University of Northern Colorado


This essay brings attention to the “Letter from London,” a regular column written by Mollie Panter-Downes for the New Yorker. As part of the transformation the magazine made from an aloof humor publication to a serious outlet for quality war journalism, Panter-Downes, in consultation with her editors, contributed significantly to a change vital to the New Yorker’s history. An analysis of how Panter-Downes documents the “general feeling” of the British people based on a selection of the Letters written during the Phoney War, the Blitz, and the final days of war both affirms their literary merit and reveals her critique of Britain’s propaganda methods and information dissemination practices. Further, Panter-Downes’s Letter does not participate directly in British propaganda campaigns but rather, simultaneously, uses and critiques propagandistic rhetoric to communicate to her American readers the detrimental effects of withholding truthful information during wartime. Thus, the essay provides a framework for including Panter-Downes’s as an influential voice in reassessments, both scholarly and pedagogical, of British Home Front narratives that often reproduce mythologies and nostalgia.

Keywords American readership / information / modern women writers / New Yorker / World War II

Introduction: Resisting Propaganda

In her first “Letter from London” for the New Yorker magazine, dated 3 September 1939, the very day Great Britain declared war on Germany, Mollie Panter-Downes documents a city buzzing with anticipation and collective purpose. The Letter is peppered with smart turns of phrase that animate the dullest of details as people prepare sandbags, evacuate children to the countryside, post letters, gather supplies, and circulate speculation about Hitler's plans. Panter-Downes remarks upon the sudden ubiquity of the gas masks which have “become part of everyday civilian equipment”; “everybody is carrying the square cardboard cartons that look as though they might contain a pound of grapes for a sick friend” (London War Notes, 3 Sept. 1939, 4; emphases added).1 The voices on the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), she reports, explain in “calm and cultured tones” what to do in case of an air raid (4). Women, especially, have risen to the challenge. Ladies who usually spend all their time taking turns about their gardens emerge “from the herbaceous borders to answer the call of duty” and “firm-lipped spinsters” propel vehicles for volunteer services down country roads (5). Noting that the impoverished “great unwashed” have been brought into the wealthier “bosoms of the great washed,” Panter-Downes describes the “evacuated hoards from London” who are sorted and examined by “determined ladies in V.A.D. overalls” (5). Within this first Letter, Panter-Downes manufactures a feeling of unity and a shared everyday experience that may not have existed a week earlier. In closing, she explains to her American readers, “The English were a peace-loving nation up to two days ago, but now it is pretty widely felt that the sooner we really get down to the job, the better,” even if that job leads them toward violence (6).

Because the London Letters were collected into a volume by William Shawn and are now most readily accessible removed from their original venue amongst the pages of the New Yorker, Panter-Downes’s Letters lend themselves to being read and taught alongside a vast assortment of World War II media that narrativize daily life during wartime in England: propaganda materials, novels, diaries, and feature films. Indeed, her work appears plentifully in wartime histories by Angus Calder, Juliet Gardiner, and David Kynaston, among others, to provide colorful texture and factual support to Home Front narratives.2 However, Mollie Panter-Downes’s Letters to the  New Yorker, despite their ubiquity as historical sources, have not received much attention on their own merit as literary texts that evoke the shifting feelings of British citizens during a long war. Nor have they received critical attention for their contribution to the evolving identity, mission, and eventual cultural capital of the New Yorker during wartime. This essay examines both angles to recast the Letters as significant primary source material for scholars and students evaluating the social, cultural, and political engagements of wartime women’s writing.

Panter-Downes, like many women writers of her day, has received scant attention; to some extent, this is because there is very little in the archives about her life. What we do have is an expansive body of republished work that places Panter-Downes among a pantheon of celebrated female journalists who reported for the New Yorker's American audience. Like other regular columns, including Lois Long’s “On and Off the Avenue,” Elizabeth Hawes’s “Parisite,” and Janet Flanner’s long-running “Letter from Paris,” all of which became iconic in the magazine’s early history, Panter-Downes’s Letter also became reliable and influential, making significant contributions to the magazine’s tone and its reputation in journalism during the war years. Further, these female contributors helped establish a voice that attracted and maintained a progressive female readership.3 In consultation with her editor, William Shawn, Panter-Downes cultivated a reporting style in the war Letters that documented the feelings of the people by capturing the facts of daily experience on the Home Front and delivering them with a tone that Ben Yagoda describes as “clear-eyed, good-humored, but never facetious” (171). Gardner Botsford writes, “Mollie wrote of the quotidian stream of English life, of what it was like to actually live in a war . . . In a steady flow of copy, directed to editors she had never met at a magazine she had never visited, she undoubtedly did more to explain wartime England to American readers than anyone else in the field” (30). Gregory LeStage claims that her “humanity and neighborliness quietly declare themselves in her reporting” (x). LeStage emphasizes Panter-Downes’s lack of “sentiment or melodrama” (xi), while David Kynaston reveres her for her observations that “deftly and economically make us feel present without ever resorting to purple prose” (Kynaston viii). Panter-Downes was humble about her contributions, saying of her wartime writing, “If the pieces had value, it’s because I took note of the trivial, ordinary things that happened to ordinary people” (qtd. in LeStage viii-ix). Moreover, her consistency in delivering “a steady flow of copy” connected two nations during violent political upheaval and offered dependable accounts in chaotic times (Botsford 30).

Panter-Downes’s “getting down to the job” message, delivered through that first Letter on 3 September 1939, is cheerful, resolute, and dutiful. It even evokes the same attitude about wartime duty that the Ministry of Information (MoI) sought to conjure through early propaganda posters, especially in the “Keep Calm” triad.4 Similarly, the Letters share some of the rhetorical style of state-sponsored films, like Humphrey Jennings’s and Harry Watt’s propaganda documentary London Can Take It (1940), specifically made for an American audience to encourage intervention.5 State-sponsored propaganda contributed to a long-lasting and inaccurate narrative about a wholly united British citizenry during and after wartime, often referred to by scholars as “The Myth of the Blitz.”6 Such forms of propaganda encouraged British citizens to believe they could carry on with daily life, despite inconveniences like rationing and air raids, and was crafted to reduce fear and uplift morale. The “Letter from London” existed within the same media ecology as state-sponsored propaganda and, at times, borrowed from its toolkit. The way in which Panter-Downes represents the “general feeling” of the citizenry does promote a sense of British steadfast righteousness that could easily be conflated with the tone of state-sponsored propaganda, but rather, a close reading of her Letters reveals a nuanced and potent critique of propaganda’s techniques. Often, the Letter was in tension with British government messaging; thus, this essay resists characterizing Panter-Downes’s Letters in the  New Yorker as intentionally fashioned war propaganda.

The historical record shows that beginning in 1940 the MoI worked carefully to cultivate relationships with American reporters, public intellectuals, and elected officials to promote a message of interventionism that would filter into the American mainstream. Susan A. Brewer’s work outlines the “strategy of truth” that the MoI propagandists developed in delivering persuasively crafted information to their American media sources in Britain and Stateside (31). Using “‘information’” that was carefully “orchestrated” to win American support, Brewer explains, the MoI hoped to “create a belief in Britain’s military, economic, and moral strength” that would pull Americans toward a common cause for a better postwar world (31-2, scare-quotes original). But one of the problems with the “strategy of truth” was the “failure of truth to illustrate strength” (31); the truth, rather, showed that Britain desperately needed American military support to bolster their own fight and successfully combat the enemy.

Panter-Downes’s Letter in a small publication with comparatively low circulation figures rests just outside of this concerted effort to influence the American people. Yagoda notes that with a circulation of under 230,000 during the war, the magazine’s war coverage constituted less than one percent of the total coverage reaching American readers, which also meant that “the magazine’s achievements were far from common knowledge” (181). In short, the New Yorker’s war correspondents were likely not on the radar of the officials from the MoI who sought to influence American media with an exaggerated narrative of strength. Additionally, Panter-Downes was hired by the New Yorker at the very start of the war, before MoI’s propaganda campaigns began. Thus, the collaborative relationship between Panter-Downes and the magazine positioned her as an authoritative and trusted British voice for American readers, albeit a very small percentage of them, when propaganda efforts to forge an Allied partnership would soon intensify.7

Panter-Downes’s Letters are part of a “modern media ecology,” to borrow Mark Wollaeger’s term (xvii). In defining the term “media ecology,” Kate Milberry explains, “In biology, a medium is defined as a substance within which a culture grows; in media ecology, a medium is a technology within which human culture grows, giving form to its politics, ideologies, and social organization.”8 The shift toward considering media objects within biological networks has widened the examination of various kinds of texts within literary and cultural studies as essential parts of networks and systems of information transfer. During the 1930s and 1940s, the shared environment of information practices would have included periodicals and newspapers, cinema, radio, creative writing, visual and performing arts, and, eventually, state-sponsored propaganda. Within these larger information systems, such as “smart set” periodicals, smaller, discrete ecologies develop within a particular publication, and within that, a signature tone begins to emerge. Essential to the  New Yorker’s role in the media ecology of American smart set periodicals is the shift between the light, humorous tone the magazine developed at its beginnings in 1925 and the tone it developed running up to and during America’s intervention into World War II in 1941. The World War II years forced the magazine into new terrains of serious war reporting and literary output, and it took intentional, deliberate work for the editors to achieve. Fiona Green observes that the New Yorker now has a “singular style and recognizable ethos” that has become culturally synonymous with its name (5), but the tonal transition from light aloofness to critical engagement in politics was not seamless. David Remnick notes the magazine’s “determined detachment” during the late 1930s as Europe’s political and humanitarian crises were unfurling and recalls a 1937 essay in the Partisan Review in which Dwight Macdonald calls the magazine “ostentatiously neutral” (xiii). Such extreme detachment put the magazine at risk of irrelevance, not to mention a dangerous disregard for human trauma.

In this light, the “Letter from London” can take a more central place in studies of World War II writing. This essay next considers the literary history of Mollie Panter-Downes’s wartime Letters within the context of the magazine’s history to better understand the contributions she made to the magazine’s shift towards serious journalism. The carefully cultivated style she developed in consultation with her own editors, especially William Shawn, over her career with the New Yorker gave readers coming from an influential American demographic (educated, middle-class, power-centric or power-adjacent) a particular perception of English character during wartime. Panter-Downes’s tone often combines factual detachment with dry humor, which aligns with what founding editor Harold Ross loved to see most in his contributors’ work (Yagoda 130). The Letter’s style varied across three discrete periods of the war to document what Panter-Downes called the “general feeling” of the British public. These phases of “general feeling” shift through three emotional registers--grit, anger, and shock--that evolves through three phases of the war. Through use of unsentimental sensory imagery to describe the ordinary, often repetitive, everyday, Panter-Downes produces an impression of a common, unified mood on the Home Front. American readers will see collective grit emerge during the Phoney War, which shifts into collective anger during the Blitz, and finally, transforms into collective shock upon seeing the images of the Holocaust near the end of April 1945 that could no longer be “conveniently” disregarded as a “newspaper propaganda stunt” (29 Apr. 1945, 371). Most importantly, by representing “general feeling” instead of the more realistic disparity of emotions among individuals, Panter-Downes constructs for her American readers a deep critique of government communications and reports a distrust of two major media outlets, the BBC and the MoI. Panter-Downes’s perfection of the New Yorker blend of detachment and humor cements her position as a trusted voice in a deliberately convoluted media landscape. To that end, Panter-Downes’s Letters produce a narrative arc useful for critiquing the development and promotion of mythologies of the war years; in fact the Letter forms a tonal counterpoint to much of that mythology. Lastly, the essay asks how myth-making and nostalgia factor into contemporary approaches to reading and teaching Panter-Downes that is often dampened in contemporary marketing of the Letters as a collected edition by considering their position in the Persephone Press canon.

The New Yorker’s Political Awakening and a Transatlantic Partnership

Panter-Downes is most recognized for her novel One Fine Day (1947), a domestic fiction that captures the aftermath of World War II through the story of a day in the life of a middle-aged woman. As the protagonist Laura Marshall worries over her children, her husband, and home, she subtly comments upon the changes to middle-class English life wrought by the war.9 But Panter Downes began her writing career much earlier, of necessity. Her first novel, The Shoreless Sea, published in 1923 when she was just sixteen, was written solely for an income to support her mother and herself after her father was killed in World War I. The book became a best-seller. Panter-Downes published short stories in Cosmopolitan and articles for News Chronicle, and she wrote three more novels: The Chase (1925), Storm Bird (1929), and My Husband Simon (1931). This last, featuring a main character who leaves her husband for a writing life, makes a plea for the essential value of writing in women’s lives.10 Panter-Downes later disavowed these early novels, believing that she had little talent for fiction (Brown, Clement, and Grundy). Anyone who reads her short fiction, also published in the New Yorker and now collected in two Persephone Books volumes, will know this not to be true. Panter-Downes turned toward journalism in 1937, sending pieces to the New Yorker and eventually having accepted a Reporter-at-Large piece on refugee Jewish children arriving in London (One Fine Day vii). Ironically, it was Panter-Downes’s novelist’s eye that led Katherine White to recommend her as a potential London Correspondent to Harold Ross in 1939.11 White, fiction editor at the magazine, saw an eye for detail and a talent for character study in Panter-Downes’s writing that the magazine would desperately need for survival as war clouds hovered. At the time of Panter-Downes’s Reporter piece, the magazine known for highbrow humor was struggling to match its style to the seriousness of the escalating crisis in Europe. World War II would be the major turning point for the magazine’s content and its circulation (McGrath 189).

In his early years as the creator and editor of the New Yorker, Harold Ross envisioned a magazine that embraced the Jazz Age and reflected the urban sophisticates who read it with an aloofness to the traumas of the world (Remnick xiii). The publication’s notorious immunity to shock, carefully cultivated between 1925 and 1939, could not last into the 1940s, a decade which would see the magazine evolve into one that was prepared to tackle politically heady and socially distressing issues brought by the war. Yagoda’s exhaustive research into the New Yorker archives documents how maintaining “bemused ambivalence” and “evenhandedness” became increasingly difficult, especially after the Munich Crisis in 1938 (169). In a letter to E.B. White in 1940, Harold Ross writes, “Great pressure is being put on me to have the New Yorker swing over strong to preparedness and the hop-right-over-and-aid-the-Allies viewpoint. Wish you were here” (qtd. in Yagoda 168). Ross began to ask for more “fact-writing” as war became inevitable, a choice that would push the magazine toward becoming one of the most outstanding hard-news publications in circulation (Yagoda 130). A decision to produce a shortened and smaller “Pony” edition of the publication to distribute to the troops who appreciated the magazine’s approach to war reporting engendered a loyal following well into the midcentury (Green 3). In a 2015 reflection piece in the New Yorker, George Packer explains that in 1939 the magazine became “capable of shock” and further observes that “If The New Yorker had stuck to its founding voice throughout the cataclysms of the thirties and forties, it might have faded into irrelevance” (Packer 22). “WWII took the magazine out of the city and into the world,” he writes, and female war correspondents like Janet Flanner, Rebecca West, and Mollie Panter-Downes were central in shaping a new voice for the magazine (22). David Remnick, current editor at the magazine explains, “[Ross] put the right players on the field, gave them enormous leeway, begged for copy—and when the time came they produced coverage of the war that was unmatched” (Remnick xv).

For Ross, thoughts and feelings were essential to getting at the facts of a situation. From Paris correspondent Janet Flanner, Ross wanted to know what the Parisians thought, not what she thought (Remnick xiv). Likewise, from Panter-Downes, Ross wanted to know what the British felt, not what she felt. The “fact-writers” who came to define the “New Yorker style” during the World War II years into the midcentury labored alongside their editors to achieve exactly the right tone for the subject (Yagoda 130). Achieving this tone sometimes this meant working in a closed room for days or weeks with one’s editors, as in the case of John Hersey’s “Hiroshima,” printed as the sole story in the 31 August 1946 issue,12 but most war correspondents consulted regularly with their editors via letter and cable. So it became that an English novelist who lived with her pig-farmer husband joined the aforementioned Flanner, Hersey, and West as well as A. J. Liebling, E. J. Kahn, Jr., and John Lardner in writing wartime journalism for the New Yorker. As part of the magazine’s team of war correspondents, Panter-Downes’s approach to her writing was certainly shaped by the New Yorker’s tonal evolution, but her writing combined New Yorker style with some tonal qualities of wartime messaging on the Home Front in Britain to produce a sense of allyship and shared ideology between the English community on which Panter-Downes’s Letters reported and her American readers.

Reporting the “General Feeling” from a Pig Farm in Surrey

The invitation for a contracted weekly letter came via Western Union cable from St. Clair McKelway who wrote, “Can you cable us up to two thousand words on human rather than political events London and country somewhat similar tone as Flanners [sic] study from Paris stop” (1 Sept. 1939; Cable McKelway to MPD; Box 323 Folder 7).13 Panter-Downes initially declined because she expected to be occupied with billeting evacuees. However, her country home in Haslemere, Surrey, a rambling Tudor estate called Roppeleghs, was too remote for that purpose. It was perfect for writing, though, and she later accepted. McKelway served as her editor briefly until William Shawn took over in November 1939. Letters between Panter-Downes and Shawn held at the New York Public Library’s New Yorker archive reveal the process by which she determined her topics and produced her material as well as chronicling the development of a collaborative partnership with Shawn. Panter-Downes traveled up to London each week to gather material from the most formal parliamentary proceedings to the most casual pub chats; she then returned home to compose her Letter in her writing hut (LeStage viii). On Sunday evenings, she dispatched each Letter to the offices of the New Yorker at 25 West 43rd Street in Manhattan by whatever means possible. Reflecting on Panter-Downes’s work, Gardner Botsford fondly imagines the messenger who might have delivered the pages to the train station: “It is doubtful whether the boy on the bicycle, as he mended his flat, had the slightest idea of how much pleasure and humor and feeling he had in his basket. But we knew, and know, and are grateful” (30). As the war began to compromise mail and cable services, Letter proofs were flown overseas by bombers under the guardianship of the British Press Service and the MoI.14 In her letters to Shawn, Panter-Downes expressed concern about censorship. Even the most benign references to weather would be removed, she writes: “It seems that the Nazi meteorology boys would grab the New Yorker and be able to dope out a weather chart for the bombers right away, so I promised not to upset the Censor again and the cable got sent off, cut” (26 Nov. 1939; MPD to WS; Box 323 Folder 7). She worried over repetition in her writing during periods, especially during the Phoney War, of inactivity and less excitement on the Home Front. Ironically, the repetition that Panter-Downes disliked produced a comforting consistency for readers, a salve to get through what would become a very long war.

In an early Letter, Panter-Downes describes her subject, England, as “a notoriously inarticulate nation which likes to express its feelings at home and not in public at a café table” (12 May 1940, 55). Indeed, Panter-Downes’s writing rejects overwrought details to promote shared, moderate emotion. Panter-Downes balances her critique of political decision-making with her confidence in the power of individual efforts and community engagement. No matter what her readers’ personal politics and views, the fight for democratic ideals was something Americans could get behind. Little of Panter-Downes herself is revealed in the Letters; she rarely, if ever, conveys her own emotions. Her rhetorical use of collective emotion promotes to American readers a belief in the strength of community, the very strength the MoI had difficulty conveying through their propaganda campaigns. As a reporter on the Home Front beat, Panter-Downes became a trusted and steadfast voice, an ally across the pond uniquely situated to address anxieties her American readers may have harbored about entering the war. In the Letters, Panter-Downes cultivated the British claim that Home Front strength was deeply tied to access to truthful, ample, and reliable information amidst the frustrations of daily life for the individual under blackout, censorship, rationing, and austerity measures. Panter-Downes’s reporting on the “general feeling” of the public, as we see through select Letters from the Phoney War, the Blitz, and war’s end, reveals the evolving tension between the people and those institutions of information dissemination.

1. The Phoney War and Collective Grit

Panter-Downes herself would never have used the word “grit” to describe the mood during the Phoney War months. Grit is a particularly American quality evoking perseverance, courage, endurance, strength, and conscientiousness. It requires self-awareness and connotes an ability to make good decisions for the community. Nevertheless, the mood Panter-Downes leans upon during this period emphasizes qualities Americans would recognize as grit, especially as she positions everyday citizens in tension with the government and the BBC, neither of which deliver clear information. In these early Letters, Panter-Downes imbues the everyday British citizen with a grittiness that would appeal to American readers--namely resilience, determination, and a desire for straight talk.

Letters written during the Phoney War (September 1939-May 1940) report equally on anticipation of what could come and the mounting boredom of the wait. On 1 October 1939, Panter-Downes observes, “Criticism is in the air these days, after pretty nearly a month of this curious twenty-five percent warfare. Everyone is slightly fed up with something or other: with the Ministry of Information, which doesn’t inform; with the British Broadcasting Corporation, which is accused of being depressing and—worse—boring . . . the war of nerves has degenerated into a war of yawns . . . the Englishman grumbles, but to be long on patience is one of the traditional strengths of the British” (1 Oct. 1939, 14-15). Two weeks later she states, “Everything about this war is shrouded in a thick hush-hush fog confusing and irritating to a people who are accustomed to take their wars straight and imperialistic, with plenty of flag-waving and patriotic fervor” (15 Oct. 1939, 19). By alerting readers to the difference between this war and those of the past, Panter-Downes implicitly acknowledges the long history of British imperialism for readers who may be cagey about going to war to support a nation rooted in Empire-building to fight another with similar aspirations. But she also attempts to differentiate British imperialism from what Germany is doing by stating this war is “something every sensible person realizes he must tackle if the house is ever going to be set in any sort of order” (15 Oct. 1939, 19). According to Panter-Downes, the British citizen’s approach is, and will continue to be transparent, unflappable, and defiant—gritty qualities needed to win the peace. The trouble getting in the way of tackling the problem is that this war is shrouded in secrets. “Information” from the government is not informative.

While Panter-Downes promotes a general sense of collective grit, grit alone does not lead to an informed public. She uses the Letter to critique the government’s efforts and implicit assumptions about British readiness and morale, and she is especially hard on the MoI’s censorship of valuable information. When war broke out, American periodicals were “stopped at the docks for reasons which have not been clearly stated” and the periodicals at home, such as Tatler and Sketch “are carrying on gamely, though in somewhat leaner form, since the death of the social season did them out of most of their glossy prey” (15 Oct. 1939, 19). Her implication is that no one is getting any real news from periodicals, and the irony is that she is delivering what little news she can discover to an American periodical that does not circulate widely in Britain.15 Panter-Downes reports that newspapers like the Times reprimand Winston Churchill for his “bluff [uncensored] broadcasts” rather than reporting actual news (22 Dec. 1939, 32). The BBC is so censored that when it makes, for example, “coy announcements about something that sounded like gunfire having been heard by the residents . . . in a southeast coast town” (22 Dec. 1939, 32), it produces news without facts. Worse still, the BBC relies on “breezy” and, more often than not, “antiseptic” tones to convey its non-information, which is offensive and patronizing to listeners (27 Oct. 1940, 111).

Such aloof reporting from central media outlets, according to Panter-Downes, creates a distance between the public and serious matters of war so that when significant events occur, the people are not equipped to do anything more than speculate and generate rumors. For example, with sarcastically sporting description, her Letter gleaned from the scarce news to which she has access on an attempt on Hitler’s life conjures images of being at a country estate hunting party:

            The attempted assassination of Hitler caused great excitement here and some disappointment, which is being summed up in a calm British “Bad luck,” as though someone had missed a pheasant. Everyone thinks that They will try again and that They may easily be a little quicker on the trigger next time. . . . Whichever way it goes, England is ready to meet it with resolution and good humor. (12 Nov. 1939, 25)

This caricature of upper-crust English behavior castigates media outlets for misleading an oblivious, trusting public; however, Panter-Downes’s sarcastic tone is deeply critical of the media’s dismissive tone. She does not target a particular media outlet but blames instead the lack of dependable news; rumor on the street prevails over fact throughout this period of Letters. Despite government warnings to avoid discussions of “national importance” in public, “no one discusses anything else” and without reliable news, the people are left to speculate (24 Nov. 1939, 27). Panter-Downes’s description of exiting a pub into the blackout—“like falling into an inky well”—is certainly metaphorical as well as literal (24 Nov. 1939, 27). Such comments reveal her fear that misinformation will lead to a public unprepared for future horrors and her awareness that she is often unable to access enough validated information to make a Letter substantive. In a letter apologizing for not running one of her Letters because editors found to be “too thin,” Shawn states, “The big problem for both you and our Paris correspondent [Flanner] is how to get around the queer, static conditions of this war and the shortage of actual news” (25 Mar. 1940; WS to MPD; Box 344 Folder 2). The lack of dependable news during the Phoney War months leads to a national blind spot that will later surface in her assessment of the shocking impact of the Holocaust images.

While Panter-Downes suggests that evasiveness from the BBC and the MoI’s leads to a dismissive and ill-prepared public, she also condemns American media for sensationalizing rather than reporting the truth when there is a lack of reliable information:

Many astonished Britons, taking time off from the war to read how American editors think it’s going, have felt like protesting . . . that the reports of their death have been greatly exaggerated . . . Even the New York Times came out recently with the surprising statement that “over the island kingdom flew scores of German planes dropping tons of bombs that ripped apart English towns and farmsteads.” (12 Aug. 1940, 89)

With this example, Panter-Downes alerts readers to be careful about trusting what they read. Her sarcastic phrase, “taking time off from the war to read how American editors think it’s going,” indicates that the British care how media shapes the Americans’ perceptions and worry that those editors not directly involved cannot possibly understand the high stakes. By this point in 1940, the MoI and the BBC had been working with American media partners to deliver carefully crafted and censored narratives of both readiness and destruction into American households. The MoI embedded journalists on RAF tours and asked Edward R. Murrow to report on bombing raids from the rooftop of the Broadcasting House (Brewer 37). These influencing efforts were not common knowledge amongst the public in Britain or America, but the MoI’s study of American beliefs and values, with a view to influencing American journalists and public intellectuals who could sway American opinion, was taking root (Brewer 6). It is unclear whether Panter-Downes was aware of these efforts, though correspondence with Shawn shows that she attended an escorted press tour of bomber squadrons and that he was suspicious of the event’s objective.16 However, the Letter referenced above counters propaganda efforts by insisting on the importance of a truthful cross-cultural media exchange by calling out the “surprising statement” that towns and farms had been destroyed, the Letter nudges readers to ask more from what should be trustworthy information systems. This particular Letter warns American journalists to avoid sensationalizing war even if access provided by British media gatekeepers encourages it. Factual—gritty—reporting is what is needed.

2. The Blitz and Collective Anger

As the war’s ill-effects mount both abroad and at home and as the months drag on, the Letter never strays from its focus on “the general feeling,” the details of which do become redundant. Letters published between 8 September 1940 and 15 June 1941, the period of the Blitz, seem to reinforce the now-debunked myth of collective unity; many are the mentions of plucky, brave, courageous responses to the nightly bombings, especially in the early weeks. In early Blitz Letters, Panter-Downes patiently records the “calm behavior of the average individual” (8 Sept. 1940, 97), “the cheerfulness and fortitude with which ordinary individuals are doing their jobs under nerve-wracking conditions” (14 Sept. 1940, 98), and “the courage, humor, and kindliness of ordinary people” that “continue to be astonishing” (29 Sept. 1940, 105). The repetition of references to what has been argued above is collective grit eventually becoming labored. By the end of the Blitz months, many of the Letters end on a morale-boosting high note. These frequent reminders of chin-up resilience can be read as a code that indicates Panter-Downes’s battles with censors who remove any references to ill-will about how the war is being handled by the government. The very repetition of these sentiments grates against conditions that demand such wearing good cheer.

Taken as a set and read closely, the 21 letters from the beginning of the Blitz until Germany invaded Russia—the end of the nightly campaign over the United Kingdom—reveal Panter-Downes’s critical engagement with collective anger. The collective feeling of the Blitz, in her representation, becomes one of rage. There is rage over Wren’s England being destroyed, rage at the Germans, cloaked rage at isolationist Americans, and rage over the great loss of homes and lives. The imagery of anger in these letters shows Panter-Downes’s attention to class disparities buried within the myth of the Blitz. She writes in her 8 September 1940 Letter following the first night of intense attacks:

It is yet too early to report on the full extent of the damage, which has certainly been considerable, especially in the dwelling-house sections of the East End. Observers of the Spanish War methods of terrorizing civilian populations have frequently remarked that in Spain the heaviest bombardments were directed on Working-class districts—structurally more vulnerable and emotionally more prone to panic than less crowded areas of a city. (95)

Four hundred people lost their lives in bombings that struck the crowded, impoverished East End, Panter-Downes tells her readers.17 Her comparison to the Spanish Civil War, which had been well-documented by American foreign correspondents reporting from Spain between 1936 and 1939, highlights the vulnerability of the perceived weakest parts of any society as entry points.18 Bolstering these weak spots, she will argue, is essential.

The next week she features the East End again, as it has been repeatedly targeted for nightly bombings:

Social workers who may have piously wished that slum areas could be razed had their wish horribly fulfilled when rows of mean dwellings were turned into shambles overnight. The Nazi attack bore down heaviest on badly nourished, poorly clothed people—the worse equipped of any to stand the appalling physical strain, if it were not for the stoutness of their cockney hearts. (14 Sept. 1940, 99)

Panter-Downes, using cliched phrases like “the stoutness of their cockney hearts,” could be criticized for her awkward inability to deal with issues of class and status. However, she aptly condemns the MoI’s continued assertions that readiness and morale will keep people from dying in air raids. Through the very cringe-worthiness of her phrasing that the East Enders can handle whatever comes at them because of this “stoutness,” Panter-Downes says the exact opposite: the lower classes have been literally laid bare as the sides of their homes have been ripped away, and now no one can ignore the squalid living conditions or the social structures that persist in keeping them there. Panter-Downes registers the possibility that the government views the East Enders as acceptable collateral damage; in so doing, the British are inadvertently reinforcing Fascist ideology that the lower classes are disposable. Many of the Letters address class issues as a weakness upon which the Nazis build their strategy. For her American audience living in a society where mass unemployment and poverty left by the Great Depression are at a peak, Panter-Downes highlights that it is imperative to address weaknesses in social networks and, importantly, in infrastructure. By targeting sites of industry and production, like the East End, Nazi strategy was to break the morale of British people. The fact remains that many of London’s impoverished resided in the East End and subsequently lost their lives. Panter-Downes’s attention to class disparities urges American readers to acknowledge and remedy their own pockets of social and ideological weakness lest the Nazis turn their strategy toward breaking down American morale by bombing impoverished regions.

In addition to the terrible blows to the families of the East End, Panter-Downes draws important attention to essential workers, many of whom are working-class people. Nurses, firefighters, railwaymen, relief and factory workers, taxi-drivers, and shopkeepers keep necessary services moving at great personal risk. Panter-Downes humanizes their experiences to counteract the sterile damage reports favored by the MoI and the BBC. Panter-Downes reports:

The bravery of these people has to be seen to be believed. They would be heart-rending to look at if they didn’t so conspicuously refuse to appear heart-rending. Their reaction has taken the form of anger, and there is a good deal of hopeful talk about smashing reprisals on Berlin. Anger has probably been responsible for a recent rise in munitions production. Hundreds of men and women are working a bit faster as they think of those heaps of rubble. (21 Sept. 1940, 102)

While the MoI would have liked to believe that their morale-boosting domestic propaganda campaigns were doing the trick of motivating an increase in munitions production, it seems that anger is what fuels war productivity and engenders the stamina that eventually makes a Blitz routine possible amidst daily loss of life. Panter-Downes’s own anger is directed toward the MoI for its “unnecessary refinement of torture” when releasing information about air-raid damage to specific squares and stores that “cruelly agitate[s] the thousands of people who have friends or relations living on squares or working in London stores” (27 Oct. 1940, 111). By emphasizing damage to buildings and streets over the bodies within those urban spaces, central media outlets avoid addressing the emotional toll on the public. What irritates Panter-Downes most here is that the language used by both the MoI and the BBC, participants within the media ecology of which she is both a part and a critic, rhetorically flattens the experiences of the individuals affected. Her Letter reminds readers that beyond the statistics and geographic locations, injury, death, and grief are lodged. About the BBC, working closely with the MoI, Panter-Downes reports:

Another piece of gratuitous jarring of the nerves is the wording of the official communiqués, which are apt to sound offensive when read by one of the B.B.C.’s breezy young men at an hour when people are just struggling up from air-raid shelters. It is hardly consoling to those who have been through a terrifying night to hear an antiseptic voice assuring them briskly that enemy action was “on a smaller scale than on previous nights.” To someone newly facing grief, the chirpy statement that “casualties were slight” has a way of sounding callous. (27 Oct. 1940, 111)

With an adjectival onslaught of "chirpy" and the like, the letter condemns dominant media outlets for insensitive reporting that is likely a result of the constant messaging of citizens united in cheerful bravery and resolve. Panter-Downes’s attention to anger punctures the state-generated narrative of national unity and replaces it with communal anger that explicitly directed at government agencies and operations.

The Letter published in the 20 April 1941 issue marks the beginning of the end of the Blitz period, though, of course, Panter-Downes and her readers would not have known it. The letter conveys resentment toward media outlets disinclined to offer much information, lest the Nazis catch hold of it—“Although it is gratifying to know that the British press is free, unhappily it is often through the brisk statements of the notoriously shackled enemy that Londoners first get wind of some setback, which is announced here only after the sacred pause for official cud-chewing” (20 Apr. 1941, 143). Nearly two years into the war, reliable information is still lacking. The sarcastic comparison of the censors to cattle chewing cud captures brewing anger at press censorship in times when clear and truthful information is most needed.

The effects of excessive censorship breed public resignation, which Panter-Downes sees as a dangerous sign when Britain faces military challenges. Her remarks in the letter chronicling a substantial attack sustained by the city imply the costs of losing touch with public feeling. Bombing began on the evening of April 16th and lasted until dawn on April 17th where 890 tons of high explosive and 151,000 incendiaries were dropped, killing 1,000 people (Thomas para. 47). Panter-Downes reports:

It would be useless to minimize the fact that the past week has been a bad one for the British—probably the worst since the collapse of France. People say, “We got over it then. We shall get over it again,” which isn’t a hopeful statement but just a statement. Already the national talent for standing disappointment better than any other nation in the world is stiffening the public to meet further sharp losses, which seem to be regarded as practically inevitable. (20 Apr. 1941, 144)

The removal of any emotional markers from peoples’ statements to suggest the “general feeling” readers would have come to expect is jarring; it indicates something more threatening, a widespread desensitization to destruction. Anger is replaced by fatigue and numbness. The Letters suggest the lack of substantive information is the culprit. The following week’s Letter asks, “Why has the public here been left in complete darkness concerning developments which, if made known, could hardly have helped the enemy since press and radio elsewhere had already freely reported them?” (4 May 1941, 146). As the lines of the world map are redrawn each week, Panter-Downes’s Letters register that anger is losing its potency; thus, the public’s motivation to fight may be dwindling.

3. The Holocaust and Collective Shock

Between the spring of 1941 and spring of 1945, from the end of the Blitz through Germany’s invasion of Russia through the bombing of Pearl Harbor and subsequent years of American involvement and the death of President Roosevelt, Panter-Downes’s Letters continue to indicate the public’s frustration with the persistent lack of sufficient access to information. However, the full impact on the public of the government’s information and propaganda practices comes into view with the shock people felt upon seeing the photographic evidence of the Nazis’ death camps. The practice of under reporting and the smoothing of horrific details leaves the public unprepared for what they will see in print. This section attends to the last two Letters included in Shawn’s edited collection, those of 29 April and 12 May 1945, to examine the public’s shock at the Holocaust images when, for years, foreign correspondents were attempting to get the truth of the camps to their readers.

Panter-Downes’s perpetual worry over the blind spots created by media censorship comes to a head at the war’s end when she reports on reactions to German concentration camps: “It has taken the camera to bring home to the slow, good-natured, skeptical British what, as various liberal journals have tartly pointed out, the pens of their correspondents have been unsuccessfully trying to bring home to them since as far back as 1933” (29 Apr. 1945, 371). Panter-Downes does not need to provide any explicit detail about what truths the Holocaust images show because her depictions of the feeling of “shocked British minds” (372) across the nation capture the horror powerfully. People stand in long queues to look silently at displayed photographs, to capture for themselves the truths they had “conveniently looked upon as a newspaper propaganda stunt” and were “too kind and too lazy” to believe (371). This Letter’s reporting on the public’s shock at seeing images from the camps introduces the troubling fact that people had heard a good deal about what the Nazis were doing but could not reconcile it as truth. Perhaps domestic propaganda’s emphasis on collective unity and working together to win the peace did succeed in effectively redirecting the public’s attention away from comprehending that millions of lives were being systematically destroyed. But more significant and upsetting for Panter-Downes, not to mention the legions of foreign correspondents who collected the stories of the camps from their sources, was that the combination of censorship and some news editors’ insistence on confirming facts left the horrors of the Holocaust unconfirmed. Panter-Downes records that the “shock to the public has been enormous,” a “violent revulsion” that impedes anyone’s ability to envision peace (371). Simply put, it was not until Allied reporters were able to see for themselves and report back with photographs was the public able to believe what had occurred.

While Panter-Downes begins the April 29th Letter with a reference to the public’s concern over details emerging out of the San Francisco Conference where delegates were agreeing upon the Charter of the United Nations and the Statute of the new International Court of Justice, the central focus of the Letter is to question how anyone might imagine a peaceful post-war relationship with nations whose actions include the attempted erasure of entire populations. The reporting on anger that featured in the earlier Letters returns here, but for reasons for which words do not suffice. Panter-Downes bluntly describes the “angry Englishmen” who “would like to know that German prisoners of war here would no longer draw double the rations a civilian gets” (371-2). The vengeful response emphasizes the shock brought by incomprehensible visuals: “After photographs of Buchenwald’s walking skeletons, Britons were understandably incensed by the thought of Nazis growing plump in English prison camps” (372). In this Letter, what she documents as anger placed onto Nazis being fed amply while British citizens remain under strict rationing, might more readily be understood as collective shock, which will eventually evolve into collective guilt in the post-war years for not hearing, seeing, and comprehending the warnings journalists were shouting out beginning in 1933.19 Panter-Downes conveys a society unified against the Nazis, as is evident in the Letters from the Phoney War period; however, the reckoning of the guilt that will permeate everyday living for generations after the revelations of the photographs from the camps is still yet to be named.

In sharp contrast to the penultimate Letter, Shawn’s collection ends with a May 12th Letter reporting on V-E Day. Panter-Downes’s prose creates tension between the terror of seeing the Holocaust images and the glee of victory. It is important for the historical record that in a Letter describing relief at the war’s end, that the undercurrent of shock remains. Panter-Downes reports, “the deadly past was for most people only just under the surface of the beautiful, safe present” (376). What she does not state, but is embedded in her prose, is a future of painful revelations that lies just ahead. The eye for detail that attracted Katherine White initially to Panter-Downes’s writing is abundant in the catalog of people who take to the streets to celebrate. As in her first Letter, with which this essay opens, the narrator is a detached observer, floating above or wandering the streets collecting details across the vast expanse of the city. The day had “a flavor of its own, an extemporaneousness which gave it something of the quality of a vast, happy village fête” (374) It must be noted that Panter-Downes refrains from her usual technique of creating caricatures to represent the general feeling; in this Letter, the descriptions of the people emphasize actions and reactions over types. Radiant girls smile, uniformed boys hold them around their narrow waists, elderly couples walk hand in hand, and everyone breaks into spontaneous, non-hysterical, dancing and singing (374-5). The sense of calm in the celebration, Panter-Downes suggests, signals uncertainty under the surface; it is not yet possible to trust that the war is over. Once again, Panter-Downes resists homogenizing even as she emphasizes general feeling. She reports that “Each group danced its own dance, sang its own song, and went its own way as the spirit moved it” (377). The emphasis on disparate groups making their own choices within the larger crowds metaphorically captures both the power and the pain of each individual’s part in the war effort. Panter-Downes’s focus on individuals creates a countermeasure against the government produced mythology of idealized collective unity and reminds her readers that through personal loss and devastation, each person’s efforts matter for the security of a future. In this last war Letter, the focus on the many individuals who have made it to V-E Day generates a way for contemporary readers nearly 80 years on to resist feeling nostalgia for those “better times” when the world was united against Fascism.

CODA: Countering Myth and Confronting Nostalgia

There are many potential avenues for further work on the way the “Letter from London” interacts with the New Yorker’s various features.20 Over her 50-year writing career with the New Yorker, Panter-Downes composed 852 Letters amid numerous short stories, “Reporter at Large” pieces, and reviews. Some notable later pieces include a 1977 review of Samuel Hynes’ collected works of Rebecca West, with whom Panter-Downes had been friends; a 1980 piece on Virginia Woolf’s 1925-1930 diaries; and a 1983 piece on fellow New Yorker contributor Sylvia Townsend Warner’s personal letters. Her last piece for the magazine appeared on 18 August 1986: a profile of Charleston House and her conversations there with Bloomsbury chronicler Quentin Bell, Virginia Woolf's nephew. Panter-Downes’s long writing life creates paradoxes: on one end, she documents the World War II period along with famous contemporaries like Rebecca West and Sylvia Townsend Warner; on the other, she reviews the edited volumes of those who predecease her. For this reason, Panter-Downes is an important figure as both a producer and a preserver of memory.

Of particular interest, however, is the Letter’s endurance as part of the New Yorker’s history through their appearances as edited volumes apart from the publication’s contexts. First collected into London War Notes (1971) by William Shawn and re-released in 2014 by Persephone Books with a preface by David Kynaston, 153 of the war period Letters are available as a historical record independent from the contexts of layout, form, and editorial guidance from the “Letter from London” column. The editors of the Orlando database report on the respect Patnter-Downes earned from her contemporaries: Rebecca West wrote to Panter-Downes that she was “a craftsman such as they don't make nowaday [sic]”; Noël Coward, a subject in several of the Letters, claimed that reading them made him feel “sodden with nostalgia”; and critic Nicola Beauman extols the letters as “some of the most memorable pieces ever written about civilian life in Britain at this period” (qtd. in Brown, et al.). Each of these commentators brings a kind of revisionist warmth to the Letters, a warmth which, as we have seen, neglects Panter-Downes’s often piercing critique. In the recuperation of Mollie Panter-Downes’s work, reader nostalgia could lead to misreading the original texts.

To further theorize the potential value or danger of nostalgia, we ought to consider Persephone Books’s role in the recovery narrative of Mollie Panter-Downes, a writer who spent her entire career writing for an American readership, for a British audience. In an assessment of Persephone’s pivotal role in recovering women writers, Urmila Seshagiri claims, “By promoting under-read twentieth-century literature through the dynamic modes of twenty-first-century publishing, Persephone Books reminds us that the ongoing process of canon-formation cannot be disjoined from feminist inquiry, and that the apparently simple designations ‘important’ and ‘insignificant’ retain a complex sway over female authorship” (242). Seshagiri’s essay explores the role of contemporary feminist publishing within modernist studies’ preoccupation with defining who is in and who is out and is a vital touchstone for scholars working on issues of recovery that seek to reach beyond claims of importance.

Persephone markets explicitly to British and Anglophilic readers who are probably upper middle-class. Their shop, located on the narrow and quaint Lamb’s Conduit Street in London, attracts a devoted clientele not with flashy book covers--indeed all their covers are uniformly dove grey-- but with their mission of recovering lost (mostly female) voices to enrich a narrative of British identity in the twentieth century. The publisher’s welcome statement suggests its appeal to a particular sort of reader, not unlike readers of the New Yorker: “All of our 135 books are intelligent, thought-provoking and beautifully written and are chosen to appeal to busy people wanting titles that are neither too literary nor too commercial” (Persephone Books). The shop maintains a vibrant schedule of formal book events such as talks and film screenings at which customers are served wine and cheese and enjoy discussions with experts. But customers may also pop into the shop anytime for tea and conversation with knowledgeable and passionate staff. While purchasing books is essential to contributing to the publisher’s survival, being a Persephone customer can be experienced as communal and deeply feminist rather than transactional.

Persephone’s ethos of building a community of readers with material neither too literary nor too commercial matches that of Panter-Downes’s who sought to engage the question of what community meant through localized descriptions of Home Front life and transatlantically through offering them to an American readership. The 2014 Persephone edition of Shawn’s collection preserves his decision to not annotate the Letters and provides only skeletal timelines at the beginning of each year, leaving the depth of research to the reader and foregrounding Panter-Downes’s as the primary voice. The decision to republish Panter-Downes, a writer who existed on the fringes geographically and ideologically and who was hardly embraced by her British contemporaries,21 has the potential to assert her into both the vital discussion of a more nuanced women’s modernity and the larger and increasingly complex narrative of wartime experience in Britain. Wartime mythologies that promoted unity and sacrifice for the good of the nation were designed and propagated by partnerships between media outlets and government agencies in Britain and America with the hope of gaining the public’s trust. But Panter-Downes’s reporting reveals how the production of these narratives impacted the public throughout the war years leading them to, at times, distrust information systems and authority figures, and at other times be incapable of believing the truth of war’s horrors.

What is clear from exploring Mollie Panter-Downes’s Letters is that her voice maintains a critical distance, which is both a product of her geographic distance from London and guidance from her editors at the New Yorker. This distance is useful in piecing together a more nuanced understanding of the ways wartime media ecology developed with transatlantic and transnational implications. In 2010 Guardian reviewer Annabel Wynne wrote that it would be “a terrible shame to risk losing a writer who makes searingly accurate yet poignantly subtle observations about human beings and how they deal with life” (para. 7). There is more work to be done to plant Panter-Downes within the canon of World War II literary and journalistic output, both so that she is not left by the wayside all over again and receives attention as more than a Blitz-myth endorser.

In 2020, with a global pandemic surging through our communities, Panter-Downes’s Letters about how human beings “deal with life” were relevant once again as many comparisons were made between the Blitz and lockdown. A similar call for collective unity for the greater good was asked of us during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic. The New Yorker’s archive editor, Erin Overbey, reprinted the 14 September 1940 letter for an April 2020 issue. Overbey contextualizes the Letter as proof of a city’s resiliency:

Reading these pieces while living under quarantine, one can stumble upon surprising, uncanny moments of familiarity . . . A city in shock can bear a lot, she seems to be saying, yet even the quiet moments are never completely quiet. If we listen closely, they bristle and hum with a resilient energy, as the city’s heart—the constancy of its people—continues to beat. 

Overbey’s claim that resilience and constancy have the power to overcome a great shock does run parallel to the themes present in Panter-Downes’s wartime Letters, and in returning to the Letters while preparing this manuscript, I was both challenged and comforted by descriptions of shortages, rationing, and austerity measures as they rang similar to some of our own experiences where toilet paper became the holy grail and hand sanitizer was sold on the black market. In Panter-Downes’s meditations on families split apart and children sent away, I found a painful similarity as we were asked to stay away from our loved ones to keep them safe. But over time, the comparisons between lockdown and the Blitz, two starkly different events, have become less sound. What will stand out most for a contemporary reader is Panter-Downes’s frequent criticism of the dangerous effects of disinformation, censorship, media sensationalism, and domestic propaganda, all of which have the capacity to distract and redirect the public from the truth. Panter-Downes’s Letter from London, operating within the wartime media ecology, yet critical of wartime systems of information transfer, ultimately provided readers of the  New Yorker with a reliable set of facts and figures and rich observations collected from her “notoriously inarticulate” fellow citizens that continue to offer us significant narratives of both individual and collective wartime experiences.


1. All Letters cited in this essay are drawn from the original version of London War Notes edited by William Shawn (1971). Dates of the Letters have been added for clarity.

2. See Calder; Gardiner, Wartime Britain 1939-45; and Kynaston, Austerity Britain, 1945-51.

3 . About readership and gender, Ben Yagoda explains, “From the beginning, female and male writers were published in th New Yorker in roughly equivalent number. The entire magazine, in fact, was solicitous of readers of both genders—an unusual stance, then as now. Columns about motorcars and sports coexisted peacefully with ones about fashion and shops, and the range of advertisements reflected the sense that both men and women were in the reading audience” (77-8).

4 .In addition to the unused, though now-famous “Keep Calm and Carry On” poster, the MoI made two other posters, which were more ubiquitous: “Your courage. Your cheerfulness. Your resolution. Will Bring Us to Victory” and “Freedom is in Peril. Defend it with all your might.” Once the MoI began using social data collected by Mass Observation to help shape campaigns, the organization refined its messaging to be less patronizing. In a video lecture about the history of the three early posters, Claire Brenard, curator at the Imperial War Museum, explains that propaganda’s success depends on three criteria: it must be equally noticeable, persuasive, and memorable. While these posters now meet all three criteria, at the time of their production, Britons found them patronizing and ineffectual. For more on recently recovered history of the MoI, see Eliot and Wiggam.

5. Throughout this essay, I refer to American isolationism and anti-interventionism as a contentious socio-political stance held by an unspecified number of Americans, just as it is presented in the Letters. Likely, many of her readers would not have called themselves isolationists, and while the New Yorker did not take a public stance, there is evidence that central figures such as E.B. White and William Shawn supported intervention, while Ross tended toward anti-intervention (Yagoda ch. 4). Political scientists have long debated the meaning and myth of American isolationism in the interwar period. For a helpful and rigorous literature review, see Braumoeller.

6. Calder, Robert Mackay, and Gardiner (The Blitz) each intervene in wartime mythologies--which persist today--developed to create unity, promote morale, and build a shared national identity during the crisis of World War II. For studies of literary responses and modes of resistance to development of war culture’s narratives, see Marina MacKay; Deer; Miller; Spiro.

7. For information about transatlantic propaganda efforts after 1940, see Dinsman, "Mrs. Miniver."

8. Coined by Neil Postman in a 1968 lecture and codified in a 1970 essay, media ecology is “the study of media as environments” and is a flexible and interdisciplinary concept (qtd. in Milberry).

9. Easily compared to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (1925) and Storm Jameson’s A Day Off (1933), One Fine Day is a circadian novel that follows the central character’s consciousness while she goes about doing everyday tasks like shopping for food, tending to the needs of her neighbors, reflecting on the security that peacetime brings, and wondering about the thoughts and needs of her husband and daughter. For discussions of One Fine Day, see Adolph; Briganti.

10. The Orlando Textbase includes a summary of the book worth reprinting in full here: “Nevis Falconer, an English woman writer who feels that anyone must be unintelligent who ‘did not know who Virginia Woolf was,’ is unable to cope with domesticity and household chores when she marries Simon Quinn, who never reads books and ‘didn't give a damn who Virginia Woolf was.’ When Nevis finally decides to move to New York in order to concentrate on her writing, she berates her husband: ‘Simon, you don't understand how much this ridiculous business of writing things down on bits of paper means to me’” (Brown et al.).

11. Katherine Seargent Angell was hired by Harold Ross as a fiction manuscript editor in 1925. She quickly proved her value to the publication and within a year became the New Yorker’s top literary editor (Yagoda 77). In 1929, she married E.B. White, who was a staff writer at the magazine. Over her 35-year career, Katherine White significantly influenced the shape and style of American literature.

12. In Fallout (2020), Lesley M.M. Blume documents the ten days of writing, from ten a.m. to two a.m. daily, that John Hersey, William Shawn, and Harold Ross spent sequestered in Ross’s office to edit and rewrite the top-secret story that would become “Hiroshima” (109-14).

13. My deepest thanks to Melissa Dinsman for sharing with me (during the lockdown months of the pandemic when access was impossible) archival materials she collected from the New York Public Library. Such collaborative generosity is what undergirds feminist scholarship.

14. In 1942, the MoI arranged transport of Panter-Downes’s Letters as evidenced by cablegram and letter exchanges among Rene MacColl (MoI’s Director of British Press Service in New York), Panter-Downes, and Shawn. The correspondence is held in the New Yorker Archives at the New York Public Library.

15. While the exact subscription figure is not available, Shawn wrote to Panter-Downes in 1941 that the New Yorker’s “thousands of English subscribers are doubtless more interested in your Letters than anything else we run” (8 Apr. 1941; Box 363 Folder 13).

16. Shawn suggests he is aware of the propaganda efforts embedded in reporting opportunities the British offer to journalists: “If you had been alone, rather than on an escorted tour with other correspondents, and if you had been able to work in some informal interviews with members of the squadron . . . These organized press trips put a writer, from our standpoint, at a big disadvantage” (8 Apr. 1941; Box 363 Folder 13).

17. The first day of the London Blitz, 7 September 1940, began at approximately 4pm when German bombers targeted the city for two hours. Returning several hours later, the bombers continued the campaign for an additional eight hours leaving 430 people dead and 1,600 gravely injured. This first day is known as Black Saturday (Ray).

18. Nearly 1000 foreign correspondents reported on the Spanish Civil War and among them notable American female reporters include Virginia Cowles (Hearst Publications), Janet Flanner (New Yorker), Martha Gellhorn (Collier’s Weekly), and Josephine Herbst (freelance). For a history on foreign correspondents in Spain, see Preston.

19. Panter-Downes’s own Reporter-at-Large piece on Jewish refugee children arriving at Victoria Station could be included in this category, though it was read predominantly by Americans.

20. Since the initial development of this essay, two new essays about Panter-Downes and the New Yorker have been published by Derdiger and by Dinsman, "Marketing Masks."

21. Panter-Downes was not well-received by the British readers of the New Yorker, who felt she unfairly stereotyped Britishness. In at least one instance, Panter-Downes showed herself unruffled by such accusations. A letter to Shawn includes this postscript: “P.S. Joe [Liebling] was delighted, just before he left because he sat at dinner one night next to what he described gruesomely as ‘an intellectual Left Wing Englishwoman’, who just could’nt [sic] bear my stuff. She fumed about it a good deal to him, and finally snorted ‘Exactly what one would expect a flippant American woman to write’” (Letter to William Shawn 15 Dec. 1942). An obituary in the New York Times notes, “With only about 5,000 of The New Yorker's half-million or so readers living in England, Miss Panter-Downes became more famous in the United States than in her own homeland” (Thomas, “Mollie Panter-Downes, 90”).

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——. Letter to Mollie Panter-Downes. 8 Apr. 1940. The New Yorker Archives, New York Public Library, box 363, folder 13.

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Yagoda, Ben. About Town: The New Yorker and the World it Made. Scribner, 2000.


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