Americas studies blog

148 posts categorized "USA"

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.


05 September 2013

An Incident in the Retreat at the Battle of Manassas (21 July 1861)

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Public Domain Mark
Image is free of known copyright restrictions.

A steel engraving from Bartlett Mackay's History of the United States of America (1861).  From the text: 'The Battle of the Bull Run [aka the Battle of Manassas] may be said to be the first repulse of the army of the Potomac...'.

I guess we all have days that remind us of the chap guiding the horse on the bottom right.




30 August 2013

The Art of Occupy

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Colectivo Cordyceps, Mexico City, Mexico (website: Justseeds Artists' Cooperative)

If you’ve been to our Propaganda exhibition (and if you haven't, you only have until 17 September), you might have spotted the above print. It’s in a fairly dark corner, so unless you looked at it carefully (or read the accompanying label) you might not have realised that it is a relatively recent poster coming out of the Occupy Movement. It was interesting to me that Ian, one of our Propaganda curators, should choose that particular poster out of a portfolio of prints that we acquired from Occuprint last year. Viewed up close, the text  'the 99% have no borders' is a bit of a give-away, but from a distance it looks like a fairly traditional political poster which could come from more or less anywhere (in fact it’s from Mexico) and from any period.

The use of prints and posters to disseminate views on political issues and causes is nothing new of course, – they’ve been employed pretty much ever since the invention of printing, but they really came in to their own in the early twentieth century as technological developments enabled the relatively cheap mass production of posters. And they remain a simple but effective way of reaching the public and getting a message or viewpoint across.

I’ve been fascinated by the sheer volume, diversity and creativity of printing that has come out of the global Occupy movement. The portfolio alone is a good example of this – 31 hand silk-screened prints by 31 artists/groups, chosen out of hundreds of submissions from across the world, but all reflecting the values and many concerns of the movement. A fundraising initiative for Occuprint (a non-profit group affiliated to but independent from the Occupy Movement), the portfolio has been issued through the Booklyn Artists' Alliance in an edition of 100. It is curated by Booklyn’s Marshall Weber and Occuprint organiser Jesse Goldstein, together with various other Occuprint editorial committee members. The portfolio also includes a copy of issue 4 (November 2011) of the Occupied Wall Street Journal, a special folio issue on the poster art of the Occupy movement, the curation of which led to the establishment of Occuprint itself. Occuprint’s website was also launched in November 2011 and now hosts hundreds of images, including the portfolio prints and submissions, all of which can be freely downloaded for non-commercial purposes. More posters continue to be added and the website offers not only a wide range of support materials for local activists, but a fantastic resource for studying the art of Occupy (and much more besides).


Creator: lots of people  #Occupy Wall Street NYC General Assembly

When Occupy Wall Street (OWS) sprang up in September 2011 with the occupation of New York City’s Zuccotti Park, its birth was announced with a particularly arresting and now iconic image – that of a ballerina on top of the Wall Street bull, which appeared in Adbusters, the Vancouver-based anti-consumerist magazine. The bull is just one of the many new symbols that has emerged out of Occupy graphic art, and it is joined by more traditional images (e.g. the raised fists in Fightback), plus appropriations and re-interpretations (e.g. the Guy Fawkes mask, and David Loewenstein's underground 'inverted' fist ).  As Marshall Weber has noted, there is evidence of a variety of historical art influences in the imagery -from Russian Constructivism to Latin American political graphic art to Pop. Although the quality of imagery varies enormously, there are some wonderful, memorable and humorous posters, and it is clear that poster-making is an important strategy for participants of the Occupy movement.  


David Loewenstein, Lawrence, Kansas.

Occuprint organiser Jesse Goldstein describes the graphic work coming out of Occupy as 'social movement culture,' quoting Dara Greenwald and Josh MacPhee’s definitition of this as work 'born from a context in which large numbers of people mobilized to achieve transformation goals.' He says that perhaps the single cohesive thread of Occupy’s cultural work is 'a self-assured dismissal of corporate media channels and the confidence that alternatives can be, and are being, built.' The graphic work is just one aspect of a growing number of cultural practices which include social media, public camping etc., and Goldstein goes on to say that, 'While it’s too early to tell, there does seem to be the possibility that Occupy will successfully reclaim a portion of the cultural commons from a media sphere that has thoroughly infected our everyday lives with ubiquitous branding, messaging, news cycles, and stylized uniformity.' He notes that many of the images on the Occuprint website were created for local use and then passed on to Occuprint, whilst others only exist in the virtual world -'copies without originals.'  He also emphasises the importance of the idea of imagining the future in this social movement culture. 'If anything, the work focuses on the future of the movement itself, and the constituent power that will be required to make the world anew.' - Alexandra Clotfelter’s poster The Beginning is Near, being a perfect example of this.

Alexandra Clotfelter, Savannah, GA  Website:

Goldstein acknowledges that 'The images on our site will one day be important, collected, preserved and themselves referenced, as the past is referenced today….The Occupy movement has become conscious of itself as an active producer of history, and this future potential permeates the social movement culture that is beginning to take shape. This, I believe makes the collection at Occuprint an archive of the future.' For me, there was never a doubt that we should have at least some of this material in our collections since it would be important for future researchers studying a whole range of subjects. Aside from the portfolio, we have collected placards, leaflets and other ephemera that help bring to life the movement, culture and a wide variety of political, social and economic issues. The images have in fact already appeared and been discussed and debated in a number of journals and blogs (see below for a few examples). So perhaps not only is the beginning near, the future is now.  

Jesse Goldstein, Occuprint: Archiving the Future, Socialism and Democracy vol.26, no. 2, July 2012 (available online in the library’s reading rooms)

Sarah Kirk Hanley Ink: Political Art for a Contentious Time art:21 September 14 2012

Nato Thompson, “Debating Occupy,” Art in America 100, no. 6, July/August 2012, pps. 99-103 (includes several images from the portfolio accompanied by statements from artists, curators, writers, and critics on the impact of the Occupy Movement).



28 August 2013

The Fierce Urgency of Now: Dr King's 'I Have a Dream' revisited

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A rather comfortable morning at the US Embassy, London: US geniality, good coffee, some pastries, and padded seats in the auditorium.  An ambassador, several professors, a lord (and director-general of the BBC), as well as students.  Outside, the sun was shining. 

We were here for a live airing of the BBC Radio 4 and World Service programme, 'I Have a Dream', a 50th anniversary tribute to Dr King's speech at the March on Washington on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Washington D.C., on 28 August 1963.  Introduced by Professor Clayborne Carson, editor of the Martin Luther King papers, the radio programme, which was broadcast around the world, began with the voice of Dr King booming out over the National Mall, and was then taken up by human rights activists from around the world: including Congressman John Lewis, Doreen Lawrence, Mary Robinson and His Holiness the Dalai Lama.  The oration was concluded by Stevie Wonder, declaiming the words much in the manner of Dr King.

The airing was introduced by Ambassador Barzun, two mornings into his new job.  As we sat in our comfy chairs, he reminded us that the full name of the March on Washington was the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, and that freedom was not possible without economic opportunity.  This, and the sadly still-present legacy of slavery and racism are likely, one suspects to be themes touched on by President Obama during today's commemorations.   As Dr King said in his great speech: '1963 is not an end, but a beginning.' 

Today's events are being live-streamed here by the State Department.


25 July 2013

The New York Cosmos

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Leyton Orient

'The last football match I saw was Everton versus Wembley.'...

I don't often go to football matches, and this was my best effort to blend in on Wednesday, when I headed to watch Leyton Orient in east London for a friend's birthday. Once it was suggested that Wimbledon was a more likely match (and it was suggested that I saw Vinny Jones [not Vince]), I realised that I really was out of my depth and kept my mouth shut.

My companions, though, had noticed, and suggested that they explain the offside rule to me (although years of hanging around goal as a 'defender' at school chatting to the keeper had already impressed this regulation on me).  How, they asked, could they put it in terms of the American Revolution? Quick as a flash, another Orient supporter in the seats in front turned round:

'It's like Washington crossing the Delaware too early.'

It was very apt, because we were watching the O's inflict a 2-1 defeat on their visitors: the New York Cosmos.

Having nothing to do with Jerry Seinfeld's neighbour, the Cosmos are a revivified version of the team that snagged Pelé in 1971 for nearly 5 million dollars, and also signed Franz 'Der Kaiser' Beckenbauer (who led West Germany to World Cup victory in 1974), Giorgio Chinaglia and Carlos Alberto during Warner Bros period of ownership. For a while, the Cosmos were 'the hottest ticket in town, with politicians and movie stars attending games. Cosmos players became mainstays of the hedonistic club scene at Studio 54' (from the blurb of Gavin Newsham, Once in a Lifetime: the extraordinary story of the New York Cosmos (2006), Shelfmark YK.2008.a.455; there is also a documentary film by the same name). It didn't last, and the glamour and turnstile takings faded after Pelé left the team in 1977. It disbanded in 1985.

But now they are back (and can boast a number of Brazilian, or Brazilian-born players on their roster, including the 28-times-capped-for-Spain Senna). A new 25,000-seat stadium is billed for Long Island.

Read more in Gary Hopkins, Star-Spangled Soccer: the selling, marketing and management of soccer in the USA (2010) Shelfmark YK.2012.a.8506, or visit our football pages.


21 July 2013

Ay, if I know the letters and the language: The Elements of Style

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At last, dear reader, we can announce the end of the inconsistencies that have plagued this blog since the early, exploratory days. BL or British Library; 'digitize', 'digitise' or 'digitalise'; to Oxford Comma, or not; Vampire Weekend or 'Vampire Weekend'; The New Yorker-esque coöperate or the plainer co-operate; 11, eleven or XI. Pipping to the post the Times Literary Supplement's long-awaited and updated style guide, which still remains in their basement, we are working on applying some in-house suggestions that have been drawn up. (It's British Library and 11 from the list above.  'It's-es' can flourish – but we can say farewell to 'digitize' and its longer cousin, while also shouting a welcoming 'hey!' to the en-dash).

There is a very American tradition of this sort of thing.  Noah Webster did his best to reinvigorate the language in the republican United States with his dictionary of 1806. This was a land that had need for 'squash' and 'skunk', and no truck for fancy, tyrannical (and complicated) vowels in 'color'. The MLA and Chicago Manual of Style continue to dominate the scholarly apparatus of student essays and academic monographs (as well as causing fearsome programing (or is it programming) in citation management tools such as Endnote or Zotero). But the big beast in the land of the style guide – and one that is as much loved as Big Bird or Liberty Enlightening the World – is that perennial publication: The Elements of Style, also known as 'Strunk and White' after its two authors/editors. 

This work, now used and held in affection by students and writers for a couple of generations, may be said to have had two lives, a lifecyle charted in Mark Garvey, Stylized: A Slightly Obsessive History of Strunk and White's The Elements of Style (2009).* In 1957, the New Yorker published a piece by EB White about a textbook he had used at Cornell as a student, known as the 'little book': a 'forty-three page summation of the case for cleanliness, accuracy, and brevity in the use of English'. Written by William Strunk, it had been privately printed in 1918 and reprinted and revised a few times, the last of which was published in 1935. According to the essay, Strunk had been White's 'friend and teacher' at Cornell, and the book had always made an impression on him.   White had been sent a copy of the 'little book' by a former classmate, Howard Stevenson (editor of the Cornell Alumni News), after the two had reminisced about it the previous summer. (Stevenson obtained a copy from the university library – not, as White put it, 'filched from the library', but with the permission of the librarians (Garvey: 57-59)). The New Yorker essay, published in the 2 July 1957 issue under the title 'Letter from the East', reflected on White's move from a mosquito-plagued apartment in Turtle Bay to a farm in Maine, and the need to 'simplify my life... burning my books behind me, selling the occasional chair, discarding the accumulated miscellany'. He could not, however, part with Stevenson's recent gift, in part because of his memories of the eccentric and confident Professor White, and in part because of 'its sharp advice'. Jack Case, an editor at the Macmillan Company, was struck by the piece, found the textbook, and reissued it, along with the essay and revisions and additions by White as The Elements of Style in 1959. Within a year, 200,000 copies had sold; and the injunction 'omit needless words' was drummed into the popular consciousness.

White, the author, of course, of Charlotte's Web (1952) and Stuart Little (1945) (as well as Is Sex Necessary? Or, Why You Feel the Way You Do with James Thurber (1929), has his biographers in Scott Elledge, E. B. White: A Biography (New York, 1984) and Isabel Russell, Katharine and E. B. White (1988) and has had many of his letters and essays republished; his papers are at the Cornell University Library. Strunk, on the other hand, only has 'a small number of letters to him by William Dean Howells' in Cornell (American National Biography). Neither is he similarly remembered in print if we put aside The Elements of Style and White's final version of his essay in The Points of My Compass (1962).   

This is a shame. But we will do what we can in this post. In our office, fresh from the stacks, is a copy of J Fenimore Cooper, The Last of the Mohicans, published as a Chambers Standard Authors  in 1911.  Strunk had edited it 'for school use'. The temptation, of course, is to search Strunk's prose for evidence of his stylistic advice, and more particularly transgressions of them.* This is a little cruel; instead, there is evidence of his lively awareness of language and the effects of style.  From the first page of preface we find this: 'with this preliminary explanation of his reasons for introducing so many unintelligble words in the very threshold of his undertaking...'. A proto-'omit unnecessary words'! But, alas, this is not Strunk, but Cooper.  For the professor, we must turn to the notes at the back. Ballston gets it in the neck: 'watering-places.  Saratoga and Ballston. The latter has long lost its former prominence'. He helpfully explains to the student: 'In Coooper's day, the old practice of prefixing quotations to essays and to chapters of novels was still in voyue.' We like this efficient, and allusive, explanation: 'Horican... nearly all of their appellations were descriptive of the object. Thus, a literal translation of the name of this beautiful sheet of water, used by the tribe that dwelt on its banks, would be "The Tail of the Lake"'. Elements of the 'little book': 'children which. "Which" was formerly often used where we now say "who,W, but in other passages Cooper shows that he was careless in his use of relatives'; 'admiration. Wonder.  Now obsolete in this sense'; 'should know. Note the form'; 'they moved.  Note the unfortunate result of the carelessness in the use of the pronoun'; 'On the contrary, etc. Badly constructed sentence' [see, again, the note for p. 427].

We now jump forward from 1911 to 1936, and MGM's vision of the Italian Rennaissance: 'Romeo and Juliet', a no-expense-spared prestige adaptation of Shakespeare during Hollywood's Golden Era. Produced by Irving Thalberg, directed by George Cukor (and staring John Barrymore, Leslie Howard, Violet Kemple Cooper, Basil Rathbone and C. Aubrey Smith – and, with above the title billing, Norma Shearer, the director's wife), and with costumes by the young English designer Oliver Messel, the film made much of its attempts at authenticity, with special study guides prepared for schools.*** In order to present a genuine vision of Renaissance Verona, Jacob Burckhardt-reading researchers were employed, and genuine ducats  were even used as props. For Thalberg, it would be the play Shakespeare would have made if he had access to film, MGM's coffers and south Californian sunlight  (See Russell Jackson, Shakespeare Films in the Making: Vision, Production and Reception (Camdridge, 2007). The script was by Talbot Jennings, who had recently written Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) and went on to write The Good Earth. And, William Strunk Jr, of Cornell University, as the credits at the start of the film proudly proclaimed, acted as 'literary advisor'. Strunk, who went to Hollywood for six weeks and stayed for a year (and where he was fondly known as 'the Professor'), offered up notes on Renaissance Italian customs, and even 'additional dialogue', following Jenning's departure (quoted in Jackson: 130).  Each set is 'crammed with period detail' (Jackson: 133), suggesting that the director paid attention to the suggestions of the researchers, including Strunk. We are sad to note that the dove-house suggested for the Capulet garden did not make it into the final set. 

Here, Strunk was perhaps ahead of the game. He suggested, 'with some hesitation', whether the famous prologue might be delivered 'from the stage of the Elizabethan theatre (The Swan),' anticipating, Jackson suggests, Olivier's famous opening to 'Henry V' (1944).

The film opened in the autumn, with the press relieved that 'there is nothing deep, or classic, or highbrow about it. Nothing to frighten you away.' (New York American, 21 August; Jackson: 156).****  The film, despite a good turn of phrase, lacked what Variety liked to call 'box-office socko'.

Strunk went on to omit needless scenes elsewhere: cutting Anthony and Cleopatra to a two-act Broadway play in 1937. Theatre-goers missed Enobarbus's suicide, among other things, and the show went dark early.



* 'For an Elements of Style disciple, [the typescript of the 1959 edition] is an inspiring sight, imparting something like the electric thrill of proximity to history I felt when leaning over the Magna Carta in the subdued lighting of the British Library.'  (Garvey: 77)  [N .B., surely 'leaning over Magna Carta?' - ed]

** Do not apply this approach to this blog

*** See Romeo and Juliet.  With designs by Oliver Messel (London, 1936).  The colour plate edition is at shelfmark 11767.d.15

**** The age of the two principals caused some comment, not least by Joan Crawford: 'Christ, I couldn't wait for those two old turkeys to die, could you?' (Jackson: 160).