The slogan “Keep calm and carry on” is now appearing on everything from coffee mugs to note pads. I have both. But where did it come from?
As this PBS video shows, the slogan originated on a propaganda poster during World War II, but the poster itself was never displayed publicly.
Watching this video led me to think about Virginia Woolf and propaganda, and that thought led me to Mark Wollaeger’s book Modernism, Media, and Propaganda: British Narrative From 1900 To 1945 (2006). It provides an excellent discussion of Woolf’s views on the subject — and the ways she struggles with propaganda in her novels.
As Wollaeger puts it, Woolf thought of modernism as antithetical to propaganda, and her goal was to steer clear of it. He mentions, for example, that while writing “The Pargiters,” she wrote that “this fiction is dangerously near propaganda, I must keep my hands clear” (D4 300).
Woolf avoids polemic when she explores the subject of war in Mrs. Dalloway (1925) and To the Lighthouse (1927), but in his book, Wollaeger focuses on a seemingly unlikely choice for an exploration of Woolf and propaganda, her first novel, The Voyage Out (1915). In this novel, according to Wollaeger, Woolf is engaged in a developing struggle between her own emerging modernism and “the propaganda of everyday life,” also known as the “propaganda of conformity” (73). It is a struggle in which Rachel Vinrace engages as she endeavors to discover a pure native culture in South America while still being mentally immersed in the colonial culture — and popular culture — of England.
Wollaeger explains the difficulty Rachel would have had in thinking for herself — and differentiating between national identity as reinforced by her community and calculated manipulation as perpetrated by powerful institutions — after having grown up in an environment saturated by the propaganda disseminated by mass media. In this category he includes picture postcards, which became a craze at the turn of the twentieth century, along with ads; cigarette cards; newspapers and posters.
So while Woolf directly engages with the idea of war propaganda in Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, in The Voyage Out, she does something different. She explores the subtly intrusive ways that modern propaganda invades everyday life in ways one does not consciously recognize.