Americas studies blog

153 posts categorized "USA"

18 February 2014

Early American Women Writers

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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

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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

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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:



21 January 2014

Slavery in America: newspapers and travellers' reports

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As mentioned in my previous blog, British and American newspapers and the reports of northern and foreign travellers also provide another fascinating insight into slavery in America.

Adverts for the sale of slaves, either privately or by auction, appear in both northern and southern newspapers. In the early eighteenth century, for example, the Boston News-Letter (available in Early American Newspapers: Series 1*) includes such ads alongside those for farm animals and equipment. In the antebellum South such notices are commonplace, alongside those concerning runaway slaves; indeed, Theodore Weld’s powerful antislavery tract, American Slavery As It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses (1839; shelfmark: 8155.d.5), is essentially compiled from the testimonies of slave owners as they appear in southern newspapers and court records. The section on ‘Brandings, Maimings and Gun-Shot Wounds’ , for example, lists notices by slave owners describing how their runaway slaves may be identified : one in the Raleigh Standard explains, ‘… a few days before she went off, I burnt her with a hot iron, on the left side of her face, I tried to make the letter M.’

Across the Atlantic, The Illustrated London News (shelfmarks: P.P.7611,  NEWS1377825, and available online in our reading rooms) reported on slavery quite frequently and includes numerous sketches of slave auctions. In one particularly interesting interview, the paper sheds light on a lesser known aspect of slavery: the urban slave. Living in Baltimore, Maryland, the well-dressed interviewee was hired out by his owner and worked as a waiter on a steamship. He gives his owner half his wages, and confides, ‘…she never asks no questions… I gets plenty of money…it’s very easy getting along when you make it a rule never to give no sass to nobody.’

The Dandy Slave
The Illustrated London News (Vol.38, April 6, 1861, p.307) 'The Dandy Slave: A scene in Baltimore.'

The anecdotes and impressions provided by northern and foreign travellers to the antebellum South are also illuminating. Jesse Torrey, an American, interviewed a large number of southerners for A Portraiture of Domestic Slavery (1817; shelfmark 1389.g.14.(1)). Not only did he affirm the barbarity of slavery to a northern audience, but he also illuminated the fragile status of southern free blacks whose liberty was increasingly curtailed as the Civil War approached.

A portraiture of domestic slavery
Jesse Torrey, A Portraiture of Domestic Slavery, in the United States....Philadelphia, 1817 Public Domain Mark 

Among British travellers to the antebellum South were Frederick Law Olsted, whose classic The Cotton Kingdom (1862; shelfmark: 1608/247) is based on three trips to the South; Harriet Martineau, whose Society in America (1837; shelfmark: 1494.d.7) includes a commentary on the South in 1834-35; and the actress Fanny Kemble, who in 1834 married a wealthy Philadelphian unaware of his family’s plantations. In 1838-39 she finally went South, ‘prejudiced against slavery, for I am an Englishwoman in whom the absence of such a prejudice would be a disgrace.’ What she found there appalled her, and she kept a detailed diary of her stay. Published during the Civil War, after her divorce, Kemble hoped her Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation in 1838-1839 (shelfmark: would diminish pro-South sentiments in Britain and deepen public understanding of the struggle being waged in the United States.

* Available online in our Reading Rooms, but also remotely for registered readers.

NB. For information on newspapers currently available, see:


09 January 2014

Twelve Years a Slave, the Narrative of Solomon Northup

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Above: a portrait of Solomon Northup from, Twelve Years a Slave. Image from Wikimedia Commons, for reasons that will become apparent below.

With Steve McQueen's '12 Years a Slave' seeing general release in the UK on Friday we in Team Americas thought we should call up the Library's copy of Northup's 1853 published account (Shelfmark: 10881.b.38). Forming part of the Library's large collection of Canadian, UK and US published accounts of slavery throughout the Americas Northup's Twelve Years a Slave is a harrowing portrayal of Northup's trials after his kidnapping in Washington DC in 1841.

Calling up the book, however, was surprising. The Library holds a microfilm copy of the New York published version and a first edition print of the London version. Unfortunately the London copy, containing a blue stamp and therefore collected via legal deposit, was submitted to the Library prior to the addition of the plates (representing incidents that also play a key role in Steve McQueen's film). There was however, the rather wonderful note (reproduced below) which states the plates, 'are not yet ready, the book is published without them'.

12 Years a Slave note

12 Years a Slave book spine
Above: the note contained in the British Library's London published copy. The rest of the book, par the spine, is free of embellishments [Shelfmark: 10881.b.38]

The rest of the book is faithful to the US version's account, depicting Northup's horrendous story in grim detail. There has been an accusation in some parts of the printed press that McQueen has over asserted the horror and violence of American slavery during Northup's time but the text contained in the book contradicts this. Northup's account is every bit as violent and terrifying as its interpretation in McQueen's film seems to be (as you'll guess, I've seen nothing but trailers, clips and interviews thus far so I'll confirm next week).

If you go and see the film and would like to know more about the book or slavery in the Americas in general then reading Northup's work is a good place to start, you can find it for free over at The Guardian also ran a fantastic article and interview with Henry Louis Gates that is well worth a read for further background and information, as is a later article by the BBC. Should you still want more after that there are a number of publications by Henry Louis Gates in the Library's collections.


22 November 2013

The Transition

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Image: 'Lyndon B. Johnson taking the oath of office, November 1963' by Cecil W. Stoughton, White House Press Office.  Usage: Public Domain.

Naturally enough, Team America's minds have today turned to US Presidents, as all US government buildings fly their flags at half-mast in commemoration of the death of John F. Kennedy in 1963.

Johnson, pictured above, took the oath of office on a cramped Air Force One in a moment of improvised constitutional continuity a little over two hours after the Kennedy assassination.  A Catholic missal stood in for a Bible, and he was sworn in by Federal Judge Sarah Hughes, making Johnson the first, and so far only, president to have his oath officiated by a woman.  Jackie Kennedy has turned from the camera to avoid the Hasselblad recording her husband's bloodstains. (If you haven't read Robert Caro's account of this transition, you're missing out.)

Johnson's presidency (like Kennedy's) continues to be reassessed; the next few years will no doubt see a series of publications, conferences and debates on the turbulent years of the mid-to-late sixties: the War on Poverty, the Space Programme, the Cold War, Civil Rights and Vietnam.  A quick search of our holdings reveals a collection of photographs of Johnson, preserved as part of the Endangered Archives project, 'Rescuing Liberian history - preserving the photographs of William VS Tubman, Liberia's longest serving President'.

President Tubman (who himself survived an assassination attempt in 1955) visited Washington in 1968 (the official toasts are recorded at the American Presidency Project) at a time when the USA saw Liberia as a useful African ally in the Cold War and Liberia sought foreign investment.  During the visit, Tubman laid a wreath at the John F. Kennedy Eternal Flame memorial at Arlington Ceremony as a mark of respect to the fallen president.  The moment is recorded in a photograph preserved as part of the Rescuing Liberian History project, and it is online at the University of Indiana.




07 October 2013

"All these books are published in Heaven"

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San Francisco: City Lights, 1956

Literary history was made on 7 October 1955, when Allen Ginsberg performed the first reading of his poem Howl (addressed to his friend Carl Solomon, “intuitive Bronx Dadaist and prose-poet”), at the Six Gallery in San Francisco. Kenneth Rexroth presided over the reading (other poets to recite their works that night were Philip LamantiaGary SnyderMichael McClure and Philip Whalen) and Rexroth's wife Marthe published a limited mimeographed edition of Howl and other poems to give to friends. This edition led to the larger selection of poems that was published in October 1956 to immediate and controversial success by Lawrence Ferlinghetti (also present at the reading) as number 4 in his City Lights Pocket Poets series. In March 1957, Customs and police seized copies of Howl when they arrived in the U.S. from their British printer, on the grounds of obscenity. Further sales were banned until a long court case, with Ferlinghetti as defendant, finally decided that material with "the slightest redeeming social importance" is protected by the First and Fourteenth amendments.  This legal precedent was to allow later publication in the U.S. of such works as Lady Chatterley's Lover and Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer.  Ginsberg’s first collection of poems remains one of the best-selling volumes of American poetry.

Bibliographies of our printed and sound Beat holdings are available on our resources blog page (including our recordings of Ginsberg reading Howl), and all our Beat-related blogposts can be found here.



11 September 2013

Rebuilding after 9/11

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Spire installed at the top of One World Trade Center by Alec Perkins Some Rights Reserved


It hardly seems possible that it’s 12 years since the horrors of 9/11. As usual, over the last week or so the TV networks have been showing numerous programmes relating to the events of that day but it’s been good to also see some stories which focus on post 9/11 developments in New York. I would recommend in particular that you try to catch Belfast-born artist and film-maker Marcus Robinson's Rebuilding The World Trade Center, an artistic project "about reconstruction, ambition and humanity."

In 2006, when Ground Zero had finally been cleared and the numerous disputes around the rebuilding resolved, Robinson was given permission to document (through film, photography, drawing and painting) construction on the  World Trade Center site, which must be one of the most scrutinised building projects in the world. Through time-lapse photography (with 13 cameras taking a frame once every 30 minutes), we get to see exactly what goes in to the construction of  a skyscraper (the focus is on Tower One), as beautifully edited sequences distill over 7 years work to almost the blink of an eye. Interspersed with the time-lapse photography are numerous interviews with the army of people who are needed for such a massive building project – surveyors, site managers, engineers, construction workers and a whole host of others, many of whom wanted to be involved in the project for very personal reasons.  And although the photography is stunning, it is the construction workers and riggers who are the real stars (and heart) of this story of epic architecture and engineering (they are aptly described as a kind of Greek chorus by one reviewer). In particular, it’s amazing to watch the legendary iron workers as they walk across open girders hundreds of feet in the air in the world's most dangerous circus. "I see a lot of things up there, I get chills, see shadows. I don’t know if you call them ghosts or whatever, but you feel stuff. They’re trying to tell you something." comments Joe “Flo” McComber, one of a long line of Mohawks who have been involved in building New York’s skyscrapers since the early twentieth century.  And look out for the wonderful Chantelle Campbell, an ex-secretary but now concrete carpenter, who isn’t content with doing "light work" but says “I want to be seen on the same level as the men… I don’t have the type of personality where I’m going to back down. That gets me a lot of respect." And you really can’t imagine anyone arguing with her.

Ending (well almost, but not quite) with a joyful party on the roof, Rebuilding the World Trade Center is an uplifting film in every sense.  The actual end and final stage of the build was in fact the incredibly complex and dangerous crowning of Tower One with a huge metal spire earlier this year. The Tower, standing at a symbolic 1,776 feet, is now the tallest building in the U.S. But it was never just going to be about building a new skyscraper - for the crew, or New York. As Marcus Robinson says, "They are healing a scar in the bedrock of the city, in its skyline, and in many ways what they are doing is part of a much greater act of rebuilding and healing."

The documentary is currently still available on the Channel 4OD website and we’ll acquire a copy on dvd for the collections when it becomes available.