THE BRITISH LIBRARY

American Collections blog

What's on the mind of Team America?

Introduction

Find out more about our Americas Studies collections on the Americas blog, written by our curatorial team and guest posts from the Eccles Centre writers in residence. Our collections cover both North and South America, as well as the Caribbean. Read more

23 August 2016

New Gods and Old

In some ways, the “discovery” of America opened the mental horizons of Europeans: Montaigne’s essay “On Cannibals” (1580) was a landmark in relativism.

In others, the discoveries confirmed what Europeans had long thought but not actually been able to prove.

Pliny was full of tall tales of dog-headed men and men with one huge foot. When the explorers arrived in the Americas, they “found” what they always knew: the name of Patagonia derives from these monsters. The Amazon was populated by warrior women.

Fantastic beings Cosmographia 1297m6

Monstrous beings from distant land. From Sebastian Münster, Cosmographia (Basel, 1545) [British Library 1297.m.6.]

It’s well known that the Spaniards applied the names of European fauna to American animals: tigre (in Spain, tiger) became the jaguar, león (lion in Europe, puma in America), zorro (fox in Spain, skunk in the New World).

Early modern authors viewed America through Pliny (see Lacarra and Cacho Blecua). But Urdapilleta shows that writers who actually lived in the Indies soon cast off these old ideas and relied much more on the evidence of witnesses or indeed their own eyes.

Now, iconographical handbooks originated in the Middle Ages, and derived their pictures largely not from extant works of visual art but from verbal literary descriptions. 44 of these are reproduced in facsimile in the series The Renaissance and the Gods ((London, 1976-; X.425/5375).

The most famous is probably Cesare Ripa’s Iconologia (first edition 1593; first illustrated edition 1603). Writers and painters alike drew on such sources (see Rosa López Torrijos). In this tradition was Vincenzo Cartari, Le imagini de i Dei degli antichi. The first edition (1556) stuck to the gods and allegories of Greece and Rome.

Imagini de i Dei 704.d.10

Title page of Vincenzo Cartari/Lorenzo Pignoria, Le Vere e noue imagini de gli dei delli antichi ... (Padua 1615) [704.d.10].

But in 1615 a Second Part was added by Lorenzo Pignoria, with gods of the Indians and Chinese. His source for the American gods was the Mexican Codex Vaticanus 3738. In his prologue, Pignoria follows the argument that paganism alias idolatry (whether Greco-Roman or contemporary) is a foreshadowing of Christianity, because these false religions derived from the Christian truth. He was not a believer in polygenesis: 350 years before Thor Heyerdahl, he maintained that the Egyptians had the seafaring skills to reach Mexico: after all, many accounts of America were thought mere fables until Columbus went there and proved them true.

Quetzalcoatl 704.d.10.

The God Quetzalcoatl from Le Vere e noue imagini de gli dei delli antichi [704.d.10]

 

Here is a case in point: the god Quetzalcoatl. His attributes parallel those of the ancients: on his head he bears the pointed stone, related to the knife used by the Devil in the rites of Cybele; in his right hand the lituus (curved wand) as used by the augurs; at his feet the cornucopia; and (the clincher) the Christian Cross on his cloak and on the cornucopia.

What better proof that all religions were one?

 

Barry Taylor, Curator of Romance Collections

References/further reading:

Sonia Maffei, ‘Le imagini de i Dei degli antichi di Vincenzo Cartari: Dalla poesia all’archeologia’ http://dinamico2.unibg.it/cartari/leimaginideiDei.html

Marco Urdapilleta Muñoz, ‘El bestiario medieval en las crónicas de Indias (siglos XV y XVI)’, Latino América, Revista de Estudios Latinoamericanos, 58 (2014), 237-70. 5160.235500

Miguel A. Rojas Mix, América imaginaria (Barcelona, 1992) LB.31.b.10858

Rosa López Torrijos, La mitología en la pintura española del Siglo de Oro (Madrid, 1985). YV.1988.b.1010 María Jesús Lacarra, Juan Manuel Cacho Blecua, Lo imaginario en la conquista de América (Zaragoza, 1990). YA.1997.a.7376

19 August 2016

Dialogue with a Dead Poet: Jack Spicer's After Lorca

This week marks the 80th anniversary of the death of the the poet and playwright Federico García Lorca, murdered by a Nationalist firing squad at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War. One of the best known European poets of his time, he soon became a martyr for the international anti-fascist cause. Lorca’s poetry and drama have influenced the works of many American poets, including Allen Ginsberg, William Carlos Williams and Langston Hughes, who translated his play Blood Wedding into English. Leonard Cohen based the lyrics for his song ‘Take this Waltz’ on Lorca’s poem ‘Pequeño vals vienés’, and named his daughter Lorca after the poet.

AfterLorca_cover

Cover of Jack Spicer, After Lorca (San Francisco: White Rabbit Press, 1957) [YA.1994.a.5955]

In 1957, the American poet Jack Spicer (1925-1965) published After Lorca, a book containing his translations into English of several poems by Lorca alongside his own work. One of the key texts in the collection is Spicer’s translation of Lorca’s ‘Ode to Walt Whitman’, suggesting Spicer’s intention to outline a genealogy of queer poetry.

After Lorca plays with post-modern theories about authorship. Spicer’s translations appear together with his own poems written in Lorca’s style, but the book presents all works as translations and does not provide any indication of their original author. In addition, Spicer intercalates a series of conversational letters to Lorca discussing poetry writing.

Amusingly, the book contains an introduction by Federico García Lorca himself, who at the time of publication had been dead for more than 20 years. Writing from his grave located ‘Outside Granada’, the ‘Lorca’ invented by Jack Spicer appears bemused by the project, and warns the reader that this is no ordinary poetry collection:

 The reader is given no indication which of the poems belong to which category, and I have further complicated the problem (with malice aforethought I must admit) by sending Mr. Spicer several poems written after my death which he has also translated and included here. Even the most faithful student of my work will be hard put to decide what is and what is not Garcia Lorca as, indeed, he would if he were to look into my present resting place. The analogy is impolite, but I fear the  impoliteness is deserved.

 

Mercedes Aguirre

 

27 July 2016

Operation Crossroads: 70 Years on from the Bombs at Bikini

Mark Eastwood is a PhD candidate at the University of Nottingham. He is currently undertaking a PhD placement with the Eccles Centre at the British Library. Mark will be producing a series of blogs which will explore aspects of the Cold War through the American Collections at the British Library.

July 2016 marks the 70th anniversary of the United States’ first atomic tests outside of World War Two. In July 1946, a joint U.S Army-Navy task force staged two atomic weapons tests at Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands. The operation was designed to test the effects of an atomic bomb on naval vessels at sea. Consisting of tests Able and Baker, Operation Crossroads marked the first of over 1900 nuclear tests staged since the end of World War Two.

Seventy years on, what can we learn from Operation Crossroads?

 

Cold war1

Figure 1: "A Tree Grows in Bikini" Image of the Baker Bomb Test

Joint Task Force One. Operation Crossroads: The Official Pictorial Record. New York: Wm. H. Wise & Co. 1946, p.199 (Shelf mark: W67/5211)

Cold war cover

Operation Crossroads, front cover

 

The US collections at the British Library house one of the UK’s only copies of the official photographic record of the operation. Official Pictorial Record of Operation Crossroads, published in 1946, contains a collection of more than 200 photographs documenting all stages of the operation. Not only does the collection offers a unique insight into the operation, but it demonstrates the emergence of the nuclear political culture which dominated the Cold War and can be felt even today.

The first lesson to draw from Operation Crossroads is to understand the sheer scale of the nuclear-industrial complex. The tests involved more than 200 ships, 42000 men and women and 150 aircraft gathered from both the Navy and Army Air Force. A significant number of civilian scientists from fifteen universities and many more individuals from private business and NGO’s also took part. The tests would mark pioneering breakthroughs in the use of remotely piloted boats and aircraft.

Coldwar2

Figure 2: "Radio Controlled Flying Fortress"

Operation Crossroads p.50

To ensure the operation was reported around the world, a huge legion of domestic and international press representatives were invited as observers. Many of the journalists were offered passage aboard the U.S. Navy vessel ‘Appalachian,’ dubbed, ‘the press ship.’ Technological innovation and cross-sector involvement, relayed globally by the press, underlined the significance of the nuclear-industrial complex which would come to dominate the Cold War years and beyond.

Coldwar3

Figure 3: "Gentlemen of the Press"

Operation Crossroads from top to bottom: p.41

The mass of cameras used at Bikini solidified the iconic imagery at the centre of today’s nuclear imaginary. More than 50000 still images and 1.5 million feet of film roll were taken during Operation Crossroads. For the global public, the images from Bikini offered their first engagement with the reality of the bomb. The photographs from Operation Crossroads demonstrated the awesome power of the atom which they could only read about previously. The image of the mushroom cloud rising high above the Bikini Lagoon became fixed in the public imaginary and in turn secured its status as the most potent and evocative image of the nuclear age.

ColdWar4

Figure 4: "Test Able Panorama"

Operation Crossroads: pp. 138-139

Operation Crossroads also marked the beginning of what we might call nuclear colonialism. Part of the preparation for Operation Crossroads involved the removal, or ‘evacuation’ as the U.S. government termed it, of 167 islanders from their ancestral home. They were relocated first to Rongerik Atoll and then some 250 miles away to the island of Kwajalein.

The islanders believed the relocation to be temporary but, seventy years later, the Bikini Atoll remains far too radioactive for their descendants to return to. The environmental conditions on Kwajalein were not the same as at Bikini and the islanders suffered from a lack of resources and fishing grounds once their U.S. supplied provisions ran out. The islanders are largely written out of the official pictorial record. Whilst reference is made to the beauty of Bikini itself, the inhabitants are largely an afterthought. Less than 1% of the photographs in the collection document the presence of indigenous inhabitants. Those which do exist focus on the ‘happy native,’ thankful to the kind and benevolent American colonialist. The treatment of the islanders and their almost complete erasure form the official record highlights the colonial trend in nuclear testing. From the islands of the Pacific to the Aboriginal lands of Australia, nuclear tests have ravaged indigenous lands around the globe.

Cold War 5

Figure 5: "At Home Abroad" King Juda (far left), of the Bikini islanders, pictured at Kwajalein enjoying the radio given to him as a gift by the U.S. Navy. One of the few photographs of the islanders contained in the record.

Operation Crossroads p.17

Finally, one may argue that Operation Crossroads picked up where Hiroshima and Nagasaki left off in fuelling the arms race which came to dominate the Cold War. The original idea for the operation grew out of a militarised mind-set and fear over the vulnerability of the naval fleet to a nuclear attack. The tests were designed to study the effects of the atom bomb and also to provide studies in how to defend against it.

 

Cold war 6

Figure 6: "General Damage on Stern Deck, Nevada"

Operation Crossroads p.167

Opposition to the tests did manifest, largely from the Manhattan Project scientific community who warned that the local Pacific waters were likely to become a ‘witch's brew’ of radioactivity. Ignoring such warnings, which turned out to be extremely accurate, the government pressed ahead. In demonstrating their commitment to continued atomic testing in the post-war era, it could be argued that the United States threw down the atomic gauntlet to the rest of the world. Furthermore, alongside U.S. vessels, Operation Crossroads included Japanese and German ships which had been surrendered after the War. The symbolic destruction of these ‘prizes’ did little to undermine the perception of U.S. imperialistic power.

Cold war 7

Figure 7: "Bomb vs Metropolis" A composite comparing the size of the explosion of the Baker test with the Manhattan skyline

Operation Crossroads p.215

Seventy years and nearly 2000 tests on from Operation Crossroads, whilst the Bikini Atoll still feels the ecological impact of nuclear testing, the cultural and political ramifications of the first post-war tests remain rather potent.

P.S. Did you know that the tests at the Bikini Atoll were responsible for the introduction of the word ‘bikini’ into the common lexicon? It was adopted to describe the invention of the new two-piece bathing suit and was derived “from the comparison of the effects wrought by a scantily clad woman to the effects of an atomic bomb.”[1]

 

[1] Jonathan M. Weisgall, Operation Crossroads: The Atomic Tests at Bikini Atoll. Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1994, p. 4