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176 posts categorized "USA"

31 July 2015

Three American Libraries from Homes of American Authors (1853)

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Some real estate for Friday: Homes of American Authors (New York, 1853). A collection of somewhat florid travelogues composed by several writers and published by G. P. Putnam & Co. as a 'gift book', this work successfully began the America vogue for peeking into the homes of the talented, rich or famous. It's a habit that that is continued today in numerous glossy magazines, TV shows and popular blogs. Putnam followed up the success of this publication with Homes of American Statesmen (1854), which included the first photographic illustration in an American book.

Here are my top three descriptions of writers' libraries from Homes of American Authors.

1. Edward Everett

  Everett library

Always a favourite on this blog (mostly for his heroic, and forgotten, Gettysburg Address, hours longer than Lincoln's), Everett's 'career is most justly indicated by a view of his birthplace, which at once suggests a life of mental activity and patriotic devotion, and of the interior of the library where the best hours of an honored maturity are passed, eloquent of that wealth of attainment and literary culture, which has been the source both of his extensive usefulness and wide renown.'  

2. Ralph Waldo Emerson (summer house shown below)

FullSizeRender

 'Mr. Emerson's Library is the room at the right of the door upon entering the house. It is a simple square room, not walled with books like the den of a literary grub, nor merely elegant like the ornamental retreat of a dilettante. The books are arranged upon plain shelves, not in architectural bookcases, and the room is hung with a few choice engravings of the greatest men... It is the study of a scholar'. In here, the local villagers noted, 'he has a huge manuscript book, in which he incessantly records the ends of thoughts, bits of observation and experience, and facts of all kinds, -- a kind of intellectual and scientific rag-bag'.

 3. William Cullen Bryant

'The library occupies the northwest corner... and we need hardly say that of all the house this is the most attractive spot... because it is, par excellence, the haunt of the poet and his friends. Here, by the great table covered with periodicals and literary novelties, with the soft ceaseless music of rustling leaves, and the singing of birds marking the silence sweeter, the summer visitor may fancy himself in the very woods'. In here, the poet could turn 'from the dryest treatise on politics or political economy, to the wildest romance or the most tender poem -- happy in a power of enjoying all that genius has created or industry achieved in literature.' You will be pleased to note that the 'library has not, however, power to keep Mr. Bryant from the fields, in which he seeks health and pleasure a large part of every day that his editorial duties allow him to pass at home.'

[Matthew Shaw]

All images in the public domain, and taken from our copy of Homes of American Authors held at shelfmark 816.e.26. The Cornell University's copy is online via the HathiTrust or via Google Books.

On Putnam & Co., see Ezra Greenspan, George Palmer Putnam: representative American publisher (University Park, PA., 2000)

29 July 2015

Loyalist Lawyers: Exiles from the American Revolution

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Bostonmassacre101kb

Above: A Copy of Paul Revere's engraving of the Boston Massacre, The Massachusetts Calender, for...1772...By Philomathes [from our 'American revolution' web resource]

[This year the British Library Americas Blog and U.S. Studies Online will be publishing a series of posts as part of the Eccles Centre’s Summer Scholars 2015 series of talks. The articles are based on talks given by a range of writers and scholars conducting research at the British Library thanks to generous research fellowships and grants awarded by the Eccles Centre. This first post it by Sally E. Hadden, Western Michigan University, on part of her research into lawyers living in 18th century Boston. A schedule for the remaining Scholars talks can be found here]

For my current book project, I’m investigating lawyers who lived in 18th century Boston, Philadelphia, and Charleston. Towards the end of the century, these individuals took a leading role in conducting the American Revolution, and also in the creation of the legal structures that became new state governments and the national government of the United States. As lawyers, they were also a bit of a closed community, speaking an arcane language filled with terms that others could not understand unless they shared the same training: words like fee tail male, executrix, intestacy, writs of attachment, or tripartite bonds were their stock in trade, plus Latin tags for every occasion. Being part of this community of men trained in the same field held them apart from all others, as well as holding them together in a sort of invisible association.

This invisible association of men traveled together for weeks at a time, four times per year. Colonial lawyers who wanted to earn their livings could not stay in their offices and expect clients to always find them—they needed to travel on circuit, going from town to town as the judges did, visiting the far-flung parts of a county to bring justice with them. Imagine this cluster of men, traveling as they did on horseback for a grimy day or two, then setting up camp in the taverns and inns of a new place. It was a sort of traveling circus, and within the circus, the men who were judges and lawyers formed a tight-knit group, with friendships formed there that often lasted a lifetime. Even after the Revolution, John Adams still spoke with fondness about Jonathan Sewall, a man he shared a bed with while traveling on circuit, his friend of many years—who became a loyalist.

It was the friendships within this group that first drew my attention to loyalist lawyers. I began to turn up the names of individuals who had been part of this tight-knit invisible association, but whose politics led them to part from their friends, their profession (as they knew it), and take refuge during the American Revolution. As part of the exodus of (we estimate) over 50,000 individuals from the colonies, these men have sometimes been lumped in and studied with other loyalists—but they were a breed apart. Unlike the shoemaker or blacksmith, they could not readily find work in just any old town: they needed one with a courthouse, and enough people, to sustain their legal practices.

Redline89kb

Above: drawing lines after the war, Mitchell The Red Lined Map, 1775, K.Top [from our 'American Revolution' web resource]

My work at the British Library involves tracking Boston men like Andrew Cazneau, Samuel Fitch, Benjamin Gridley, James Putnam, Ward Chipman, Daniel Leonard, Rufus Chandler, Abel Willard, Daniel Bliss, and even law student Jeremiah Dummer Rogers. Of the 47 lawyers working in Boston at the time of the Revolution, they split roughly down the middle in terms of their choices: about 20 stayed and took up the patriot cause, while about 20 left with the British and went overseas seeking to remain loyal. From Philadelphia, the sons of Chief Justice William Allen in Philadelphia, Andrew and James, trained in the law and wanted to continue practicing, but not under the new American regime. James Allen wrote in his diary June 6, 1777 that the laws of Pennsylvania were disregarded, the assembly was ridiculous, and the courts were not open. All of this made “a mockery of Justice.” He and others in his family took refuge with the British, and then eventually left America for good. Still, it was a smaller number of loyalist lawyers who left Philadelphia than in Boston. And in Charleston, the number of departing men was smaller still. Only eight or nine of the most prominent lawyers of the city chose to depart, most of whom were middle-aged, and inclined to conservatism, like their fellow loyalists. James Simpson, the attorney general, William Burroughs, the head of chancery, and Egerton Leigh all had large practices and departed, Charles Pinckney took protection under the British while they occupied Charleston—but the remainder of the men with the most numerous clients remained behind as patriots. One big question my study will eventually address is, why did so many more Boston lawyers leave for England than men in those same professions in Philadelphia or Charleston?

These men fled to a variety of destinations, including modern-day Canada, the Caribbean, and France. Most went to London. Clubs sprang up to provide these London exiles with conversation, a network of information, and recreation. By the summer of 1776, they had formed the “Brompton-Row Tory Club” or “Loyalist Club” which met for dinner, conversation, and backgammon on a weekly basis, in homes that lined the current day Brompton Road. They made claims to the Parliament loyalist commission, seeking compensation for their lost homes, libraries, and incomes. Thomas Hutchinson, whose diary and correspondence from this period are housed in the manuscript collections of the British Library, provides insight into the changing prospects of these men. Many of them had less and less hope that their former lives would be restored, as the war dragged on. They moved out of London for less expensive towns like Bristol, Sidmouth, Exeter, Bath, even South Wales.

A very few, like Daniel Leonard, chose to take up the practice of law again in London, though for Leonard it required undergoing the various meals and moots associated with student life at the advanced age of 37 to join the Middle Temple before he could do so. Most colonial lawyers—aside from those in Charleston—had not completed their legal training in London. Leonard became a barrister and in 1781 was appointed Chief Justice of Bermuda, where he lived for several years, prior to retirement and death in London.

Recapturing what happened to these men as they scattered to smaller cities, or spread out to other parts of the British Empire, forms an important part of my larger project. The riches at the British Library will undoubtedly reveal more about their choices, once the Revolution had turned in favour of the Americans in 1778.

[SH. More on Summer Scholars here]

04 July 2015

Celebrating Independence Day

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Redline89kb

Above: 'The Red-Lined Map' [BL shelfmark: K.Top 118.49.b'

It's a Saturday so this one is short and sweet. Happy Independence Day from all in Team Americas, we hope it's suitably sunny and barbeque filled before being rounded off with the obligatory fireworks. For those who don't know the Library holds more than a few important items relating to the American fight for independence, from the British government's 'The Red-Line Map' to some of those notorious tax stamps, so we're worth a visit if you are after some early American history research.

Stampact

Above: stamps designed for use under the 'Stamp Act' [more here]

Meanwhile, we off to enjoy the day's festivities. See you on Monday.

[PJH]

24 June 2015

Reading the #Charlestonsyllabus

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The_steeple_of_Emanuel_African_Methodist_Church,_Charleston,_SCAbove: steeple of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Charleston, SC. Image from Wikipedia.

As you will no doubt know by now, the British Library holds a vast collection of written material from all of the world. It is historically deep and continues to grow to this day and our North American collections are no exception to this. Why do I mention this now? Well, you might have seen on the web and social media the #Charlestonsyllabus circulating and you may have thought, 'it's an important reading list but how do I get access to its sources in the UK?'

Team Americas have been saddened by the tragic events of last week and we would like to do our bit to show solidarity with the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the families affected and the community of Charleston in general. We can't do much, but we can give access to books and materials to help people learn more about the context behind this crime - and this brings me back to the #Charlestonsyllabus.

The Library is one of the few locations in the UK where a reader can get access to many of the books, papers and articles listed in the syllabus, by virtue of our long history of North American collecting. There are gaps (and I've been busily finding them today) but we will try and fill them as best we can in the coming weeks and months.

So, should you wish to know more about the history of the American South, Charleston and the context behind last week's events the British Library is open to all who provide the appropriate forms of identification (more info here) and many of the books in the list can be found using our catalogue. If you have any questions, you know where we are.

[PJH]

10 June 2015

An Oil Creek Valley Diary: a guest post by Janet Floyd

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Diary cover

This is a diary kept for four months during 1873, between August and December. The bills tucked into its pocket tell me that it belongs to one Thomas M. Patterson. The notes accompanying it describe this man as an engineer in the petroleum industry in Pennsylvania. To have a precise time, a name, a profession and a setting is to have the sense of a solid starting point for diving into the contents.

Yet encountering diaries is always an uncertain business. They may be difficult to decipher. They stop and start according to events we know nothing about. We’re faced with questions about why they’ve been written and for whose satisfaction. Some are immersed in private affairs and written with a sympathetic audience in mind. Others are penned with an eye to posterity, a confident conviction that the diary will set the record straight, that the writer’s walk-on part in history will give a fresh and vivid insight into matters that he or she recognises as historically significant: wars, major political events, emigration.

This diary does none of these things. It tells us almost nothing about the private emotional world of its writer, although the item itself has been produced to evoke secrecy and containment. It is small, three inches by five, folded like a wallet and it has a faux clasp made of brass. The black leather, discreetly decorated with a few gold flourishes, has a little pocket into which papers can be slipped. Patterson has tucked some bills into it. But there are no secrets revealed here. On two occasions he refers to feeling ill. On December 20th he expresses loneliness:

felt rather out of heart today had nothing to do all week wonder how my wife and boy are today

 Thomas Patterson is not given to recording his feelings, never mind exploring them.

Nor does he have any comment to make on ‘news.’ No reference is made, for example to the major stock market crash in New York on 18 September that year, an event that produced financial panic and a serious depression. The diary helpfully provides its owner with a printed list of important events in world history (at least from the point of view of an Anglo-European American from the Northern states), as well as the dates of the births and deaths of a range of British and American writers. This little volume has actually set the stage for the writer to take his small place in history. But Thomas M. Patterson has not used the little volume to make claims for the importance of his experiences. And yet he was undoubtedly undergoing something of a personal adventure, and at major turning point in what we might argue to be the defining American industry, petroleum: defining in the sense that the modern industry was born in Pennsylvania in exactly the place in which this diary was written, and also in relation to the nation’s modern history and international relations.

Patterson was an engineer, and the backdrop for his entries was the petroleum industry in the area of Pennsylvania known as Oil Creek Valley. Drilling for petroleum was the new extractive industry of the age, the focus of all the excitements of strikes, rushes, huge fortunes and dirty tricks that we associate with the gold, silver and diamond strikes of the era. Newspaper and magazine readers couldn’t get enough of these stories or of details of the boomtowns, the chaotic scenes or indeed of the new technologies that made these industries so profitable. Perhaps petroleum’s particular fascination lay in its gushing plenitude and in its newness as a commodity. When petroleum first flooded out of the ground in Titusville in 1859, it was mostly being used as a medicine. It took time to work out how to deal with it all: how to collect and transport it as well as how to process it into something profitable, a source of lighting for lamps, as well as a machine lubricant.

By the time Thomas Patterson wrote his diary in the village of Tarr Farm, Pennsylvania, these early problems had been partially resolved. According to the historians, 1873 was a climactic year for Oil Creek Valley: ten million barrels of oil were produced, though prices plummeted as a result. At the same time, the early 1870s saw the industry on the cusp of profound change: in the process of shifting from a situation where there were multiple stakeholders (workers, land owners, mine owners, wildcatters, speculators, mining professionals – such as Patterson – dealers, refining and transportation companies) jostling for survival or dominance, towards an industry dominated by the austere figure of John D. Rockefeller, whose achievement of a monopoly on oil refinery famously enabled him to dominate the industry. There was certainly a tale for a diarist to tell.

As an engineer, our diarist had a pivotal role in an industry that was making the running in terms of production, profit, business practice and cultural visibility, not to mention environmental destruction. Engineers were at the heart of the extractive industries powering the late nineteenth century American economy (as well as making vast profits for European and especially British investors). They were the ones who assessed sites, wrote reports for the corporations and investors who employed them, who could plan the work and manage the operation, who thought through and instituted improvements. Before coming to Tarr Farm, Patterson had invented an improved method for removing drill bits and extensions that had become stuck deep underground, a major impediment to the smooth running of the drilling process. These improvements were much written about in the press during the 1870s and 1880s, while the engineers themselves were considered rather glamorous and modern. It was a profession for an educated man of ambition, even a well-connected man.

Diary text

Returning to our diary, then, the possession of an engineer at the cutting edge of a high profile industry, and turning the blank pages till we reach Thursday August 21st, here is how Patterson begins at the top of the page (filling the full eleven lines of the entry space with his neatly slanting writing):

Walked to Marrs[?] and Hardison well and run the mill about an hour when Jim came and I walked to [?]. after dinner walked to Lawrence by the way of Petersburg and the Hop Farm. seen Innis at his house and then went to the Station and took the cars for home found all well

The day clear and warm

What can we make of this? Not much, but then beginning a diary is a difficult thing to do. Inevitably it raises a testing question about what (and how much) is worth setting down and, a stickier question still, what the diary is going to be for. Does Patterson wish to use his diary to record his movements, to remind himself of what he has undertaken or achieved, to set out the topography of the area? Is it that he needs to justify his use of time to himself or perhaps, implicitly, to his employer? Or is this a way of making notes of a particular episode? As he began, had he already decided how to write this diary?

I think he had. The next day has a shorter entry, this time filling only nine out of the thirteen available lines. But Patterson settles down to usingthe form of unpunctuated notes that he adopts for the rest of the diary, using, once again, and as he continues to do, a separate line at the bottom of the entry to record the weather. On Friday 23 August he adds two new forms of content that occur throughout the diary: train times and sums of money paid:

Stayed at home till 11.38 went to Oil City to Boices Office recd $100.00 of him then on the 4 O’clock train to the center went to Fishers house paid him $100, 00 and walked back to Tarr Farm

The day clear and warm

Patterson covers a narrow range of his daily experience, then. And this brings us to one the great challenges that diaries (perhaps all private writing) present to the reader. How can we use these entries to grasp something of this key episode of industrial history? What might be the relationship between the record we’re reading here and the history we read elsewhere? Is it possible, for example, to enmesh the two in a narrative about an unpredictable and still, at this juncture, relatively unplanned and unregulated industry, a setting in which populations mushroom and disappear, a landscape and an agricultural economy in turmoil, and, at the heart of the matter, a substance scarcely understood? So should we guess that it is the chaos of the industry or its shifting state that inspires Patterson’s rather haphazard, scarcely punctuated notes? Can we say that the experience of work in a place like Tarr Farm that cannot be plotted or told as an unfolding story in a diary in the way that an experience of war or a love affair can?

Another possibility is that working lives are actually like this in the nineteenth century; indeed perhaps many working lives are still like this. We associate the late nineteenth-century with routinized work, the rise of mass production and time and motion studies. Much of Patterson’s diary, though, is about work encountered on the spot, organised daily or over a few days; experienced, perhaps, as many, perhaps most, of us experience our work. He is clearly being directed to undertake the tasks he records (moving money, attending meetings, checking wells, trouble-shooting problems, writing reports), and he sometimes indicates how he is informed of the need to do a task. But he does not refer to or write about his employer, their relationship or the way in which his working life is shaped or organised. Rather – increasingly as the diary goes on – he just writes down exactly what he has worked on. Here for example, on Thursday 16 October, he writes about a recurring task: dealing with the iron casing surrounding the tubing that brought out the oil:

Went to the well tyed the casing it would not come. Drew up tried to make another cut but the cutter would not work tried it higher would not work drew it out sharpened upright wheels put in again cut 300 ft drew out took out casing. first in cutter could not enter the casing drew out called it done got to town 9PM clear pleasant

Patterson is not working to a routine. He is well aware of train times and records precisely the times of the trains he catches around the valley. But in his working life, meeting people and achieving ends is a rather untidy affair:

Rec’d a Postal Card from M to meet him at Oil City went down on the 8.38 train went to Brice’s Office then across to M house but he was not at home. came back to the depot and Boice’s office looking for Mr Drake. Then to Innis shop to see his new Engine. Then on the 2PM freight train and cut wood.

We think of this period at the moment when work and leisure are decisively separated. But across Patterson’s week, time is divided unevenly between work and home. In the first week of September, for example, on Monday (1 Sept) he writes:

Walked to Pitthole and picked berries all day

Picked about 10 quarts got home about 8PM                                                                   

There is no entry for Tuesday. On Wednesday he receives money and pays it to someone else and then returns home. On Thursday 4th:

At home all day making 

Blackberry wine

 Patterson doesn’t ‘balance’ work with ‘life’ or favour one above the other.

Perhaps it is the diary rather than his practices of work that evade the routines of work and a separation between home and job? In the 1970s Stanley Cohen and Laurie Taylor wrote a study of ‘resistance to everyday life’ called Escape Attempts in which they described how, when we are oppressed by relentless routines, we invest in particular activities that create a sense of distance from the habitual. Was this why Thomas Patterson filled each small daily space in his diary?

At the end of every entry, Patterson made a comment on the weather, frequently using the same words. They are not especially descriptive:

cloudy to cold

Cool and Pleasant

Forenoon rain afternoon clear

Rained til about four, then cloudy 

Where possible, he left a space between his notes on the day and his comment on the weather. When he had filled the space with his notes, he squeezed his weather report into a corner at the top of the entry. Why does he do this? Why does he create this routine in a diary that evokes a life of dealing with unpredictable events?

There’s no guessing an answer to this. Thomas M. Patterson’s small, compact diary keeps its secrets after all.

 

A guest post by Janet Floyd

Reader in American Studies

King’s College London

Patterson's diary was recently acquired by the Library, and can be made available via the Manuscripts Reading Room

 

09 June 2015

Searching for Saul Bellow

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SaulBellowAndKeithBotsford

Above: a photograph of Saul Bellow with Keith Botsford, at Boston University, c. 1992. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

To commemorate the centenary of Saul Bellow’s birth – on 10 June 1915 – we thought we’d highlight two excellent sources of information about the life and work of this Canadian-born American writer: first, the world’s best database for tracking down works by and about Bellow (and every other American author); and second, recordings in the Library’s Sound Archive that either feature Bellow himself or take him as their main subject.

The database in question is MLA International Bibliography which can be accessed on the PCs in any of the Library’s Reading Rooms. Having begun life more than a century ago as a hard-copy periodical index, this extraordinary resource now indexes books, journals, dissertations and websites covering modern literature, literary theory and criticism, linguistics and folklore. It holds more than two million records, adds more than 66,000 items a year and is an indispensable tool for anyone working in American literature.

DanglingMan

Above: first edition cover for Saul Bellow's 'Dangling Man' [BL: X.950/3239]. Image from Wikipedia.

A simple MLA search for Saul Bellow currently retrieves over 1500 items. These can then be narrowed down into: works by the author; works about the author; source type (books, dissertations, articles, edited volumes); source title (including Saul Bellow Journal (251 items), Studies in Jewish American Literature (35) and dissertations (69)); and publication date. There is also a graph indicating how many items have been written every decade: the 1980s wins with 392. While most citations need to be cross-referenced in ‘Explore the British Library’ to see whether or not we hold them, the full-text of some items can be accessed immediately online. 

Our second source – the Library’s Sound Archive – holds numerous substantial interviews and discussions with Bellow as well as items about him. Highlights include: a PEN Writers Day conversation with critic Francis King, ‘American Writers and their Public – The American Public and its Writers’ (1986); a 30 minute interview by Jonathan Raban on BBC Radio 4 (1989); a 1970 interview about Mr Sammlers Planet; a 25 minute interview on BBC Radio 4 focusing on his depiction of  the 1960s (1997); a BBC Two Bookmark profile of his life and work (1998); a Royal Society of Literature lecture by James Wood, ‘Saul Bellow: English Influences, American Rhythms’ (2004); and a BBC Radio 3 feature, ‘Saul Bellow and the Latter-Day Lean-To’, which includes contributions by John Updike and Alfred Kazin (1982).   

[JP]

12 May 2015

The Many Uses of Whiskey: a Bryant Lecture roundup

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Whiskey and Wather (LC23c5 57)Above: a poetic tribute to Captain John Palliser, who explored the (admittedly, Canadian) Rockies. The spelling of water suggests it was for reciting in a Lancashire dialect [BL: LC.23.c.5(57)]

The utility of whiskey is impressive, it can function as an enjoyable beverage, social facilitator, medicinal syrup and, as of last night, an impressive metaphor about the evolving significance of Magna Carta. Monday saw this year's Douglas W. Bryant Lecture celebrated at the Library, the 20th in all, and we were fortunate to be host the US Ambassador to the Court of St. James's, Matthew Barzun, for the evening.

Womens War on Whiskey (cover 8435b55)  Womens War on Whisky (internal 8435b55)
Above: one of the few American tracts on whiskey turns out to be a temperance tract [BL: 8435.b.55]

The Ambassador's talk, titled, 'Magna Carta, 1776 and All That', hinged on the metaphorical relationship between whiskey and the Magna Carta - more on which in a moment. On the way home a thought occurred to me, 'what do we have in the collection regarding whiskey and the Americas?' Turns out the answer is, 'not a great deal that's interesting' (meaning rare and insightful historic publications) but, spread across the Library's manuscripts, newspapers, microfilms and printed books there is a smattering of items.

BarzunspeechAbove: Ambassador Barzun giving his lecture (image copyright Ander McIntyre)

Admittedly, a lot of it is temperance material but, as the wonderful poem in the first image shows, there are also items defending the drink's virtues. For Ambassador Barzun, the link between the Magna Carta and whiskey is based on the method by which the drink is made. A complex process, with deceptively simple ingredients, whiskey takes time to mature and produces strikingly different results depending upon the raw materials used and the geography within which it is produced. The Ambassador argued that Magna Carta and its legacy, in the rule of law and political freedom, can be viewed the same way; just look at how it has influenced the UK and the US. If this piques your interest, the lecture has been posted online by the US Embassy and can be read in full here.

AudienceAbove: audience questions for Ambassador Barzun (image copyright Ander McIntyre)

While the Library may not be the best place to find unique resources pertaining to whiskey in the Americas we are well placed to facilitate research and interest in the Magna Carta. Our exhibition runs until September, we have a whole series of events coming up (including another on Magna Carta in America) and there's a good deal of material in the collections too.

[PJH]

07 May 2015

Inventing The Great Gatsby

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Careless People (cover)

Above: The cover for Careless People, by Prof. Sarah Churchwell (2013).

[As a prelude to an upcoming Eccles Centre event, Prof. Sarah Churchwell writes for us on 'The Great Gatsby'. You can hear more at her talk, 'Inventing the Great Gatsby: 1922 - 1925' on May 18th]

The Great Gatsby has made countless readers feel as if the Jazz Age were a party to which they have not been invited. Like the party-goers at Gatsby’s revels, the reader of Gatsby is drawn there by word of mouth, looking for glamour and personality, in search of celebrated and interesting people. We want to know F. Scott Fitzgerald, whom we have met through his books: we want to meet his wife, and know whether she was really mad, or destroyed him, or whether he destroyed her. We want to know how much she made herself up, or he made her up, or we've made them both up. Although many literary critics still insist that this impulse is unworthy, a deplorable preference for gossip over art, it is also true that our social personality is a creation of the minds of others, as Proust observed. Scott Fitzgerald understood that better than most, and it is one of the themes of The Great Gatsby. 

Many people respond by throwing their own Gatsby-themed parties, a response with which I sympathize. But because I am an academic (i.e., a professional geek), my idea of throwing a Gatsby party is not to mix a few tasty cocktails and suggest that people put on a pretty dress that approximates one that might have been worn in the 1920s. No, my response is to spend years and years intensively researching what life would have been like in 1922, what Scott Fitzgerald could have known when he was sat down to write the novel, what he guessed—and what he had no way of knowing.

In April 1925, when Gatsby was published, it was a contemporary novel. It had been written in 1924 and set in 1922: so it would work in exact parallel if we imagine a novel published this year, that was written in 2014, and set in 2012. It would be a contemporary novel: we would understand all of its references, without need of translation, explanation, or glossary. The Great Gatsby was certainly a “modern” novel—so modern that its first readers could not see any meanings beyond the ones that were entirely manifest in 1925. Most of these meanings are entirely lost upon us now—but it turns out that they are not entirely lost to us. They are there, waiting to be found, if we’re patient, or dogged, or both. And it is those meanings—the meanings that would have been available to Fitzgerald, and his readers, in 1925—that I set out to recover in researching my book about Gatsby, if I could. The analogy, to my mind, is like trying to do an historically sympathetic renovation of a beautiful old art deco house. Of course you can cover it over with all kinds of layers from other eras, and there are arguments to be made in favor of updating (just as few of us would want to actually live with an historically authentic bathroom from 1925, so few of us would want to return to an historically authentic 1925 attitude toward, for example, anti-Semitism). But there are also arguments to be made in favor of creating something historically sympathetic, and aesthetically consonant, and that’s what I tried to do in the book I eventually wrote, called Careless People.

Gatsby 1925 (CUP406I13)

Above: first pages of the 1925 New York edition of The Great Gatsby [BL:Cup.406.I.13]

One of the unexpected results of this research project was that I came to see much more clearly than I’d ever predicted why The Great Gatsby was not a great critical or commercial success when it was published in 1925; it didn’t flop, but its sales were sluggish, its reviews largely uncomprehending. Along the way I learned a great deal about what New Yorkers in 1922, when Gatsby is set, actually wore (skirts were much longer than we think), what they drank (bathtub gin and bootleg gin are not the same thing), what they danced (not the Charleston), what they listened to, what they ate, even what perfumes were available. (The great French house of Caron produced both Narcisse Blanc and Nuit de Noël in 1922, for example; both are still available for any historical die-hards who do not have to survive on an academic salary.)

Such a critical, and I hope creative, endeavor necessarily raises a series of question about what it might mean to try to recover the past. And as fate would have it, this is the great question asked by the great Gatsby, and by The Great Gatsby. “You can't repeat the past,” Nick Carraway warns Jay Gatsby. “Can't repeat the past?” Gatsby responds, incredulously. “Why of course you can!” And then Fitzgerald adds, with one of the hundreds of touches of mordant humor that pepper the novel, that Gatsby “looked around him wildly, as if the past were lurking here in the shadow of his house, just out of reach of his hand.”

Is the past just out of reach of our hand? For Nick, as for Fitzgerald, this is a facetious remark—and yet the idea that it might be is just the response that the novel has inspired in thousands of readers since Fitzgerald’s death in 1940. But in 1925, as I’ve said, Gatsby was a purely contemporary novel: its ideas about the past were negligible, and its vision of the future was indiscernible, undetectable to jazz-age eyes, as blind as the eyes of Dr. TJ Eckleburg, pointlessly lording it over the ashes of history.

What past we have is an invention. There was a past, and we certainly did not invent it, although other people did; but that past has made its exit and it will not return. Our myths, our legends, our false memories and mistaken historical assumptions, our anachronisms, our egotistical projections of our own values—these are the invented past.

What I discovered is that the hectic absurdity of the past takes us by surprise; we are accustomed to invent only that past that seems useful to us, by and large: rare is the effort to accommodate the present to the past, rather than the other way around. We may not believe that we can repeat the past, but we do tend to believe that we can recover it, although God knows what havoc we would wreak if we found ourselves accidentally grasping it.

Gatsby 1925 cover (CUP406I13)

Above: cover and modern preservation box for the 1925 edition of The Great Gatsby [BL: Cup.406.I.13]

I think most of us expect history to display a certain dignity, as befits its age; but what I learned is that the past is not a venerable old man, an eminence grise: it is an unabashed adolescent, with no understanding or fear of the consequences of its own idiotic behavior. Its carelessness proves, in the end, rather winning, but we should not mistake a survivor’s instinct for sanity.

The history of 1922 reads not like history, but like a rather madcap novel—and that novel is by Scott Fitzgerald, because it was his novel that taught us how to read this story. The sources turn out to have a tremendous story to tell themselves: but we would not know what it was about if Fitzgerald had not told us how to read it in the first place.

Memory is an imaginative reconstruction of the facts. So is history. So is The Great Gatsby. They are not the same things, of course, memory, history, fiction. But they have more in common than we like to think. They’re all a story about the art of exhilaration, about a glittering, gin-drenched, time-drenched world, whether we are dealing with fiction or with history. In either case the theme is the peril and brevity of such vision—that is the theme of Gatsby, and it is the starting point for any serious conversation about it.

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[Prof. Sarah Churchwell will be speaking about 'The Great Gatsby' at the British Library on May 18th, you can find more information here]