American Collections blog

158 posts categorized "USA"

15 May 2014

Robert Frost in England

Add comment Comments (0)

Robert Frost (portrait)

Frontispiece from the American edition of North of Boston. New York: Henry Holt, [1919]. BL Shelfmark YA.1986.a.3199


In 1912, frustrated both by the demands made on him by teaching and the lack of response from American publishers, Robert Frost determined to leave the United States. He initially favoured Vancouver, while his wife preferred England. Apparently, a coin was tossed and within a short time, together with their four children, they were crossing the Atlantic. It proved to be the perfect gamble. 

The following year his first volume of poetry, A Boy’s Will (London, 1913; BL shelfmark C.194.a.26) was published by David Nutt and today – 15 May 2014 – marks the 100th anniversary of his second, North of Boston (London, 1914; BL shelfmark W.56/6735). Including what would become two of his best loved poems, ‘After Apple-Picking’ and ‘Mending Wall’ – in which the narrator questions his neighbour’s dogged acceptance that ‘good fences make good neighbours’ – critic and poet Edward Thomas declared North of Boston to be ‘one of the most revolutionary books of modern times’, while Ford Madox Ford described it as ‘an achievement much finer than Whitman’s’.

Such critical acclaim, together with the family’s difficult financial position and the continuing war in Europe, hastened their return to the States. Famously, within hours of their arrival in New York in February 1915, Frost was thumbing through a newsstand copy of the The New Republic (BL shelfmark MFM.MA57) when he inadvertently came across poet Amy Lowell’s pronouncement that North of Boston was ‘the most American volume of poetry which has appeared for some time’. Six months later the Atlantic (BL shelfmark P.P.6256) – which had rejected Frost’s work for years – published not only three of his poems but an essay predicting he was ‘destined to take a permanent place in American literature’. And in September, Harper’s (BL shelfmark P.P.6383.a) editor and ‘Dean of American Letters’, William Dean Howells, concurred that Frost’s volumes merited ‘the favor they have won’.

Responding to these reviews and the almost unprecedented demand they created, American publisher Henry Holt – who had tentatively bought 150 copies of North of Boston from David Nutt – hastily printed 1,300 copies of his own. A year and four printings later nearly 20,000 copies had been sold and Frost’s reputation – and his future as a poet – were finally secure.


08 May 2014

Olivia Laing: Leee Black Childers

Add comment Comments (0)


Leee Black Childers, Drag Queens, Rent Boys, Pick Pockets, Junkies, Rockstars and Punks, published by The Vinyl Factory/The Society Club

Archives are strange, and one of the strangest things about them is how lively they can be. On 6 April this year, the photographer Leee Black Childers died in Los Angeles at the age of sixty-nine. He was a legendary figure, a charming Southern gay man who captured the exuberant, seedy glamour of New York in the Sixties and Seventies, photographing drag queens, pop stars, rent boys, junkies, punks and miscellaneous downtown divas.

I first came across Childers by way of the Hall-Carpenter archive, a wide-ranging and insufficiently celebrated work of oral history about gay experience in the UK, which began in 1985 and is now housed at the British Library. Not all the participants were as talented or as well-connected as Leee, but they were meticulously interviewed and as such the archive forms a luminous portrait of queer life across a turbulent century. Still, Childers's long, roaming interview, recorded in 1990, must be among the most electrifying, providing six hours of gripping, moving and frequently scandalous listening.

Leee was born in 1945 in Jefferson County, Kentucky. At the beginning of his tape, he describes the grandmother who raised him, a puritanical figure who claimed she only had sex five times, once for each of her children, and who on seeing a woman wearing trousers remarked: 'Well look at that! They'll be gluing a doodle-whacker on next.' Leee, who began spelling his name with the eccentric extra 'e' as a small boy, fled this narrow-minded world in his early twenties, drifting to San Francisco, where he was involved in the civil rights movement and the hippy scene.

After a spell living with the Black Panthers, he moved to New York, where he began photographing drag queens and soon found himself drawn into the maelstrom of Warhol's Factory. Childers is refreshingly matter-of-fact about his old friend Andy, who he claims became an film maker in order to persuade attractive people to take their clothes off (On the subject of the 1964 Brillo Box sculpture, he comments wryly: 'It was a Brillo box. That's all it was. It was just a Brillo box.') Later, he worked as a tour manager for the likes of David Bowie and Iggy Pop, taking iconic photographs of punk and New Wave figures, among them Patti Smith, Lou Reed, and Debbie Harry in a stripy bathing suit.

He lived at the heart of what was by any standards an extraordinarily flamboyant scene, and it makes for a disorientating experience to sit in the calm surrounds of Humanities 2 in the British Library, listening to Leee describe the goings on at the Anvil or in the backroom of Max's Kansas City, where the waiters used to complain that every time they went to get fresh napkins they'd find people having sex in the linen closet. Childers is a witty, affectionate guide to this lost period, with its curious mix of innocence and wildness.

He was always drawn to drag queens and they are the subjects of some of his finest work. He was present at the Stonewall riots, an uprising that kick-started the modern-day gay rights movement. The riots began in the early hours of 28 June 1969 in New York, after police raided the Stonewall Inn. 'They were lining the drag queens up behind the bar,' Leee explains. 'This is something I think people should realise. It comes down to drag. All the gay people were walking out meekly, when the drag queens behind the bar started throwing bottles. It was the drag queens who started that riot and it was the drag queens who led it... I wouldn't have missed it for anything.'

So what happened to this electric, electrifying world? In a word, Aids. Leee, who was living in London at the time of the interview, provides an intimate, agonising history of the Aids crisis as it obliterated his community, killing friends and acquaintances and destroying an entire cultural milieu. At one point, he comments: "Every time I open the mail, someone else has died." When I first listened to his tape, I'd been researching Aids and art for two years, but there were still names among his litany I'd never heard before, including the drag queen Brandy Alexander and the beautiful Hibiscus, who went from being a Sixties flower child to a radical performer in the San Francisco dance troupe The Cockettes, performing in full make up, dress and lavish beard.

I suppose this is the point of archives, and the point too of work like Leee's: that it resists obliteration, keeping what is always threatening to disappear in view. His subjects lived at a tilt to society, transgressing social norms of sex and dress and self-presentation in ways that remain subversive even now. His portraits capture this, exuding a magical liveliness, a reckless and informal solidarity. However edgy the subject matter, they're never prurient or voyeuristic. Tennessee Williams used to say: "Nothing human disgusts me unless it's unkind." The same non-judgemental sensibility informs all Leee's work, a kind of radical broad-mindedness that's getting rarer every day.

Olivia Laing is the 2014 Eccles Writer in Residence at the British Library. She's the author of To the River and The Trip to Echo Spring and is currently working on The Lonely City, a cultural history of urban loneliness.

 See also the Lee Black Childers SaMI recording.

04 April 2014

Old bits of Trees by Andrea Wulf

Add comment Comments (0)

As a historian I get very excited about old letters, diaries, account books and inventories – but once in a while there are other ‘records’ that trump almost everything else.

I had one of those moments this week when I returned to George Washington’s Mount Vernon. Over the past six years I have been many times to Washington’s estate in Virginia (just south of Washington DC) – first to research my book  Founding Gardeners and then to give talks about the book. By now I go there to see the changes in the gardens (of which there are many, such as the fabulous restoration of the Upper Garden) and to meet my friend Dean Norton who is the Director of Horticulture there. Dean always makes a huge effort to entertain me – for example, by taking me out on the Potomac in a boat or letting me drive around the estate with a gator [A John Deere utility vehicle, not a reptile - ed.].

Last Wednesday’s visit, however, was one of the most memorable. Within a little more than a month, three very old and important trees had come down. The most visible loss is the majestic Pecan tree next to the house. It was a shock to see Mount Vernon without the beautiful tree (145 feet high). It all looked a bit naked.

Pecan low

Mount Vernon’s Pecan before it was taken down (photo by Dean Norton)

Dean explained to me that they had finally decided to take down the tree because it threatened the house. One big storm and the Pecan might have crashed onto Washington’s house. No matter how old the tree (from the 1850s), the mansion and its content was of course more important.

It took four days to take the giant down – with a crane. They did a fabulous time–lapse film of it.

Click here to see the film.

At the same time they felled a white oak that had been killed by lightening a while ago. The white oak was in a less prominent spot but it was even older – pre–1770 and most likely planted by the great man himself. Another painful loss. At least the wood is now invaluable for restoration projects at the house.

And then, on 31 March, the next tree came down – crumbling under its own weight. This was a big swamp chestnut oak which grew at the ha-ha wall on the slope towards the river. Planted in the 1760s or 1770s it was probably also placed there by Washington. It was completely rotten from the inside and just needed that last bit of wind to crash down. It's so sad to see these giants lying broken on the ground.

When I scrambled around to pick up a bit of bark to take home as a memento, Dean got a chainsaw and sliced off a bit for me. Now I have my own Washington tree in my office. That’s the kind of history that gets under my skin.

Dean Andrea low

Andrea Wulf is a Eccles Centre Writer-in-Residence emeritus.

25 March 2014

Early American science

Add comment Comments (0)

Inoculation of the Smallpox (1174 d 46) (2)
William Douglass, Boston, 1730. BL shelfmark: 1174.d.46 (3)  Public Domain Mark  

By the early 18th century the American colonies were well established along the eastern seaboard; indeed, their political, economic and cultural development had been remarkable. Yet without the libraries, universities and endowed institutions of Europe their capacity to participate in the new scientific thinking was distinctly disadvantaged. Nevertheless, the ideas of the Enlightenment enthused many throughout the colonies, and their observations and descriptions of natural phenomena – including earthquakes, meteors, comets and the 1761 and 1769 transits of Venus – supported the greater scientific community.

The cause, prevention (for example, by inoculation) and cure of a wide variety of diseases also received much attention in colonial and early American scientific tracts, particularly the Boston smallpox epidemic in 1721 and the Philadelphia yellow fever epidemic in 1793. Other topics of special interest included the climate and the natural environment, with observations about the unfamiliar weather and the challenging landscape appearing in the earliest colonial writings and being frequently linked to implications for human health and the ability to develop the land.

  Voyage from Boston to Newfoundland (8561 bb 19) (2)
Boston, 1761. BL shelfmark:  Public Domain Mark  

 A bibliography of our holdings of early American scientific writing on these and other topics may be found here.




21 February 2014

‘This is the U.S.A’ – American Propaganda in Post-WWII Bahrain

Add comment Comments (0)

Image 1

Detail from front cover of OWI-produced pamphlet This is the U.S.A. (IOR/R/15/1/377 f. 169A)

A guest post from Louis Allday, Gulf History and Arabic Specialist:

In June 1942, 'in recognition of the right of the American people and of all other peoples opposing the Axis aggressors to be truthfully informed about the common war effort', President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9182 and established the United States Government’s Office of War Information (OWI). Its job was to produce and disseminate wartime propaganda, both within the United States of America and abroad. The activities of the OWI were diverse and encompassed the production and distribution of radio broadcasts, films and posters as well as written publications including magazines, newspapers and leaflets. Internally, the OWI was focused on promoting patriotic sentiment, encouraging the recruitment of women into the workforce, warning of the dangers of foreign spies and justifying controversial government decisions related to the war (the mass internment of Japanese-Americans for instance). Externally, the OWI mass produced – and distributed – printed material that was intended to raise awareness of the United States as a global power and project an image of the country as a modern, democratic and powerful state that was fighting for the cause of liberty and freedom around the world. The OWI was disbanded in September 1945 but documents contained within the India Office Records (IOR) held at the British Library show that material it produced continued to be used in United States propaganda efforts after this date.  

In January 1946, a number of pamphlets produced by the OWI were sent via post to Shaikh Khalifa bin Mohammed Al Khalifa, the Chief of the Bahrain Police Force. At this time, the United States government wanted to establish a consulate in Bahrain and since 1942 had repeatedly asked for Britain’s permission to do so. The British, unwilling to allow any other foreign countries – even close allies – access to Bahrain, had refused the United States’s requests. The ruler of Bahrain, Shaikh Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa was also opposed to the idea, explaining to Arnold Crawshaw Galloway, Britain’s Political Agent in Bahrain, that “although the USA was a great and powerful ally, he did not desire that our [Britain’s] influence in the country should be shared with anyone”. The fact that Shaikh Khalifa’s response after receiving the OWI materials was to forward them to Galloway demonstrates the depth of Britain’s control over Bahrain during this period.

When Galloway reported the incident to Charles Geoffrey Prior, the British Political Resident in the Persian Gulf (the most senior British official in the region), he made it clear that he believed that the United States had not only targeted Shaikh Khalifa, speculating that 'in all probability similar packets have been addressed to the leading sheikhs of Bahrain and possibly also to merchants'. Galloway argued that it was likely that Parker T. Hart, the United States Consul in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia was involved in sending the packets and that the American oil company ARAMCO was probably responsible for delivering them. Prior responded to Galloway saying 'I think the only thing we can do at present is to show Hart that his efforts do not pass unnoticed, and that they are viewed without enthusiasm'. Prior had already made his attitude towards Hart clear in a letter in November 1944 in which he stated that 'we [Britain] are extremely fortunate in that Mr. Hart has no knowledge of the Arab world… so long as the United States are content to employ officers with these qualifications, the danger to our interests is minimised. When, however, they are able to post officers with experience of the Middle East and a fluent knowledge of Arabic the position will become entirely different'.

Although the USA's profile on the world stage grew dramatically as World War II progressed, during this period, the United States was not the globally recognized super-power and symbol of modernity par excellence that it later became. This was especially true in the Middle East, where the major European powers were more widely known than the United States. Therefore, a key aim of the OWI pamphlets sent to Shaikh Khalifa (and others) was simply to raise awareness of the United States in the region, especially amongst those who had been identified as key decision-makers or important in the formation of public opinion. The OWI material sent to Shaikh Khalifa – all of which is preserved in the India Office Records – consists of three pamphlets: one in Arabic entitled Child Care in the United States and two in English; The Story of the United States Government... How It Started... And How It Works and This is the U.S.A.

Image 2

Front cover of Childcare in the United States (IOR/R/15/1/377 f. 206)

The pamphlet concerning childcare, number nine in a series entitled Life in America, is of particular interest as it is an early example of United States government propaganda produced in Arabic and is clearly targeted at women. The pamphlet, published in Cairo, contains information regarding nutrition, hygiene and health care for young children including instructions on breast feeding and washing. The opening text of the pamphlet declares that ‘America is the land of smiling children and one of the reasons for their happiness is that they’re healthy’. It seeks to project an image of the United States as a modern, clean and scientifically advanced society which is the ideal environment in which to raise children.

The Story of the United States Government is a 'picture story' that uses a cartoon depicting an American citizen named John to explain 'how a citizen of the United States participates in the election of the men who are to govern him, and of how his government serves him'. The pamphlet explains the structure of the United States government and the various rights and obligations that John has as a citizen of the country including the payment of taxes, military duty and jury service. It also contains a basic – and idealized – history of the United States and a summary of the constitution and its amendments. The concluding paragraph of the pamphlet states that the United States government 'permits freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, and freedom to choose those who govern', and that John and 'millions like him all over the world are fighting to keep those freedoms alive'.

Image 3

'a people’s government requires certain obligations'. Excerpt from The Story of the United States Government... How It Started... And How It Works (IOR/R/15/1/377 f. 163v)

This is the U.S.A. is a larger pamphlet that is extensively illustrated with photos depicting the various regions of the United States and their inhabitants in a style reminiscent of a travel guide. It stresses the scale and natural beauty of the country as well as the diversity of its population and its abundance of natural resources. On the pamphlet’s final page opposite a dramatic image of the Statue of Liberty at night, the United States is described as 'a land of political, racial and religious freedom' that is currently joined together with 'people of the other United Nations in the great fight to restore liberty and justice to all conquered nations of the world'.

Image 4
Detail from the inside of the back cover of This is the U.S.A. (IOR/R/15/1/377 f.194)

The immediate impact that the distribution of this OWI material in Bahrain had upon the U.S.’s reputation and popularity in the country is not clear from the IOR files. The US and Bahrain are now close strategic allies and the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet is based in Bahrain’s capital, Manama, yet whether or not the origins of this close relationship can be traced back to these early OWI-led propaganda efforts is debatable. No official U.S. diplomatic representation was established in Bahrain until it received independence from Britain in 1971 and evidence from 1951 suggests that several years after the OWI pamphlets were produced the U.S. still had much work to do in raising its profile in the Middle East. In that year, Columbia University carried out a survey regarding ‘Communications and Public Opinion in Jordan’. Responding to a question in the survey that mentioned the United States, it transpired – much to the shock of the researchers – that 15 of the 26 respondents surveyed had ‘literally never heard of the United States, and most of the remainder had only the most naïve notions concerning its nature, distance and peoples’[1].

These OWI pamphlets and the official letters that discuss them offer a fascinating insight into U.S. propaganda activities during the era in which it emerged as a global super-power. They also highlight the growing imperial rivalry that developed between the U.S. and Britain even as the two countries were fighting together as close allies during World War Two. More broadly, the preservation of the pamphlets in the India Office Records serves to demonstrate the richness and surprising diversity of the information contained within these records and illustrates the important role that they can play in facilitating innovative historical research.

Primary Source:

London, British Library, 'File 19/261 I (C 92) Proposed Establishment of a U.S.A Consulate at Bahrain', IOR/R/15/1/377

Secondary Sources:

James R. Vaughan, The Failure of American and British Propaganda in the Arab Middle East, 1945-1957 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005)


- Louis Allday, Gulf History and Arabic Specialist, British Library / Qatar Foundation Partnership

Twitter - @Louis_Allday

[1] USNA, RG 59, Lot 53D47 Box 39, Study Prepared by Columbia University’s Bureau of Applied Social Research, ‘Communications and public opinion in Jordan’. August 1951. Quoted in James R. Vaughan, The Failure of American and British Propaganda in the Arab Middle East, 1945-1957 (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005) p.4

18 February 2014

Early American Women Writers

Add comment Comments (0)

Frontispiece from Phillis Wheatley, Poems on Various Subjects, London 1773. BL Shelfmark: 992.a.34     


A few years ago I began exploring the Library’s holdings of women writers who’d had their first work published as a single volume, under their name alone, by 1850. Recalling the solitary woman featured on my early American literature syllabus in the mid-1980s, my guess was that I would find perhaps thirty women, or forty at most. Several years later, the tally had hit more than 130 and the picture painted by their lives was fascinating.  

Perhaps not surprisingly, most of the women came from families which, although not necessarily wealthy, valued education and were highly literate: many of them could recite the works of Shakespeare, Milton and Pope from early age. It is interesting to note that among these women there are six pairs of sisters, and two pairs of mothers and daughters.

Most of the women began their literary careers by submitting poems or short stories, often anonymously or under a pseudonym, to a local magazine or newspaper. They had little expectation of getting their work published, and even less of making a living from their writing, yet emboldened by seeing their work in print, they continued. 

Yet this thrill was probably their least important impetus. Instead, most pursued publication as a means to economic security: some were young adults who had lost a parent (Anne Lynch Botta, Phoebe and Alice Cary); others were widows with children to support (Sarah Josepha Hale, Elizabeth Cheves), or wives whose husbands were either bankrupt or ill (Harriet Beecher Stowe, Anna Cora Mowatt); and some were unmarried and had to support themselves (Catherine Sedgwick). In addition, many taught or even ran their own schools, and some became magazine editors.

Having established themselves as authors, several women established successful literary salons in New York (Ann Botta, Estelle Anna Lewis), while others used their positions to support causes such as women’s healthcare (Mary Grove Nichols), prison reform (Elizabeth Oakes Smith), women’s education and property rights (Sarah Josepha Hale), domestic economy and household management (Catherine Beecher), and the abolition of slavery (Lydia Maria Child).  All of the women, without exception, pushed at the boundaries traditionally prescribed for women. A bibliography of the Library’s holdings of their work, together with a selection of their biographies, can be found here


04 February 2014

Federal Writers' Project publications

Add comment Comments (0)

Wikimedia Commons, provided by the National Archives and Records Administration

The Federal Writers’ Project was established by President Franklin D Roosevelt in 1935 – six years into the Great Depression. At its peak it provided employment for more than 7,500 writers, editors, historians and other white collar workers.

Yet while its primary aim was to provide economic relief, the Project’s highly ambitious first Director, Henry Alsberg, regarded it as a means by which to vividly document America’s rapidly changing cultural landscape.

Today, the Project is perhaps best known for its American Guide Series – a set of travel guides to the 48 states, plus Alaska territory, Puerto Rico and Washington, DC. Unlike traditional guides, these included not only driving tours documenting what could be found at every stop, but long photographic essays detailing the economic, cultural and historical resources of each state. All but a few of these are held by the British Library, as are many of the regional, county, city and town guides that were also produced.

Festivals in San Francisco

Festivals of San Francisco,  James Ladd Delkin [in association with] Stanford University, 1939. Printed at the Grabhorn Press. This particularly fine edition was part of a gift of 90 American imprints to the Eccles Centre in 2002 from Princeton University Library to celebrate the 90th birthday of Lady Eccles.

In addition to the guides, the Project produced ethnic studies such as The Italians of New York (shelfmark: L.70/641) and The Armenians of Massachusetts (shelfmark: YA.1991.a.15502); urban and rural folklore collections, including Nebraska Folklore (shelfmark: X.700/21082) and Drums and Shadows: Survival Studies among the Georgia Coastal Negroes (shelfmark: 010007.h.70); and nature studies.

The Project also collected the narratives of more than 2,300 former slaves in seventeen states, although most of these remained unseen until the multi-volume The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography was published in the 1970s (refer to guide below).

The Library’s extensive holdings are listed in The Federal Writers' Project: a guide to material held at the British Library.


23 January 2014

Slavery in America: anti-slavery pamphlets, newspapers and magazines

Add comment Comments (0)

American Anti Slavery Society
Constitution and Declaration of Sentiments, 1833

The pamphlets, newspapers and magazines issued by anti-slavery societies provide another means for exploring American slavery and the movement for its abolition. The British Library has a rich collection of these publications.

Organised activity against slavery, especially among the Quakers, dated back to the eighteenth century. Pressure from anti-slavery groups helped to achieve an end to slavery in the northern states, and in the 1820s, a manumission movement – which worked towards the release of slaves by their owners – began in the Upper South.

Benjamin Lundy, a New Jersey Quaker, was responsible for the organization of local societies in Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina and Virginia. He also established several anti-slavery newspapers, including the National Enquirer (shelfmark: MFM.MMISC321), and The Genius of Universal Emancipation (shelfmark: Mic.A.270.(2)).

It was as a reporter for the latter that William Lloyd Garrison began his abolitionist career. In Boston in 1831 Garrison launched his own weekly paper, The Liberator (shelfmark: NEWS1390199 & Mic.A.3758-3766), which ran until 1865. The following year he organised the New England Anti-Slavery Society, and in 1833 he helped establish the American Anti-Slavery Society. Among the publications issued by the latter and held by the Library are its weekly newspaper, the National Anti-Slavery Standard (shelfmark: Mic.A.16213), which included news items, essays, speeches and letters documenting the abolitionist cause; its Constitution and Declaration of Sentiments (shelfmark: 1389.a.45.(1)); and The Slave’s Friend (shelfmark: 8156.u.48), which was published in 1836 especially for children.

The Slave s Friend

The Slave’s Friend (1836)

Due to internal tensions, the abolitionist movement was only loosely organised at a national level after 1840; hereafter, the state and local societies became the driving force. Not only does the Library hold many of their publications, but it also possesses those of numerous British organisations dedicated to abolition  in the United States; these include The Anti-Slavery Watchman (shelfmark: P.P.1046.i), which was intended to supply ‘such facts and information, as will show what the British people can do towards the overthrow of American slavery.’

For information on newspapers currently available, see: