American Collections blog

What's on the mind of Team America?

Introduction

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

11 September 2019

Five reasons why we can’t wait to read The Testaments

Of course there are far more than five reasons why The Testaments has jumped to the top of our reading list and why its publication was among one of the most eagerly anticipated of 2019, if not the decade. But along with the other eight million people around the globe who own a copy of The Handmaid’s Tale, we are more than a little excited for the follow up to arrive at the Library.

Last night I went to the National Theatre’s live screening of Margaret Atwood in conversation with journalist Samira Ahmed, an event that was streamed to 1,400 cinemas of Handmaid fans all over the world.

Screen from In Conversation with Margaret Atwood, Tuesday 10 Sept 2019, showing the lead image from the book's cover - a handmaid dressed in green
Photograph from 'In Conversation with Margaret Atwood' showing the lead image from the book's cover - a handmaid dressed in green (image courtesy Vintage and Vane Productions)

The atmosphere of the crowd was one of eagerness and total awe as Atwood spoke of her journey to writing The Testaments, and as she recalled the world setting which brought about the idea for The Handmaid’s Tale almost four decades ago. Atwood’s ability to turn the answer to every question into a carefully considered and utterly compelling story never ceases to amaze me. Her historical, literary and worldly observations from the past and present entwine with her fiction to create stories that readers embark on with a kind of dreaded excitement; part of you can’t wait to open the book, while the other knows it’s almost too frighteningly close to reality to want to step into.

So as we patiently wait for The Testaments to arrive for the Library's collection, here’s a very brief reflection of five of my takeaways from last night’s launch event – and the things I’m most looking forward to encountering in the reading of the novel.

Three new voices

While The Handmaid’s Tale was told solely from the perspective of Offred, The Testaments, as the name implies, includes the testimonies of three different voices. One we are familiar with from The Handmaid’s, that of the formidable Aunt Lydia. Then we are introduced to two new young women – one rescued from Gilead while still a baby (Daisy), and Agnes, who grew up in Gilead and knows no other way of life. We learn of what drove Lydia to her position of power and of her life before Gilead, and of the parallel lives the Daisy and Agnes have led. The evening’s event featured readings from the book by Ann Dowd (who plays Aunt Lydia in the TV adaptation), Sally Hawkins and Lily James. Atwood hinted that their separate tales may be more connected then first meets the eye…

Historical nods

History has a funny way of repeating itself. Many of the issues raised in The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments, such as men abusing positions of power, rules and laws being created and imposed by those who will never be impacted or effected by their force, the restriction of free speech, episodes of violence and mass execution, ‘are not new motifs’ Atwood said on more than one occasion. When asked about how Atwood conjures up her dystopian worlds, she very matter-of-factly stated that ‘these are not made up’, instances of all have taken place in the real world over the course of time, and continue to do so. Atwood mentioned historical figures and events that had influenced her writing: Henry VIII, Thomas Cromwell, Mary Queen of Scots, Stalin, Pinochet, the division of Germany, extreme Puritan traditions in America, the fear of 70s cults, and a disturbing story from the Old Testament (the concubine of a Levite), to name but a few. Literary influences from Vasily Grossman and George Orwell also resonate through her pages.

A slide from the event showing book covers of The Handmaid's Tale from around the world
The iconic Handmaid's Tale book covers from around the world shown at the event (image courtesy Vintage and Vane Productions)

Equality Now

Through her writing and public eminence Atwood continues to strive for equality for women and the launch of The Testaments is run alongside a campaign with Equality Now, an organisation supporting ‘a just world for women and girls’. When asked about how Atwood felt about the use of the Handmaid’s outfit by political activists in recent years, particularly around the abortion debate in the US, Atwood highlighted its silent power – women wearing the attire can’t be penalised for any reason – they have their heads down, they are quiet, they are covered to the ankle – yet their visual protest speaks volumes. An element of pride was detected in Atwood’s voice when she spoke of how her timeless creation has become such a cult image and sign of resistance.

Atwood’s dark optimism

 ‘The Handmaid’s Tale is optimistic’ Atwood told us with a wry smile. Of course the audience laughed. The fact that it ends with a symposium shows that humanity has survived the atrocities of the Gilead regime. When we survive history we do what we always do with it, ‘turn it into something studied in schools, a symposium, or a theme park’ Atwood joked (but we all know it’s true). She insinuated that the same element of hidden optimism is buried within The Testaments too; we know that some children are rescued, Daisy is the living proof. But what lasting damage is done? And what becomes of Aunt Lydia and Agnes?

Climate change

In a world that seems on the brink of collapse ‘what can we do to save humanity?’ Atwood was asked by one of the audience members. Her response: the number one thing we need to address right now is the issue of climate change.

In a passage from the voice of Aunt Lydia, a world ravaged by extreme weather and its disastrous effects is described; a frightening echo of the pictures we see on the news today with more and more frequency. ‘When the environment is disturbed, you get more social unrest’ Atwood proclaimed. She spoke of her admiration for activist Greta Thunberg and of her optimism around young people and the Extinction Rebellion campaign. 50 years ago when scientists foresaw the climate crisis no one listened, Atwood remembered, but now we have people paying attention, and acting, and who will soon be able to vote on these matters. It seems even the green figure on the front cover of the book could be a nod to Atwood’s concern on this subject – the daughter of an entomologist, Atwood grew up frequenting the forests of Quebec and Ottawa, even living in them in a tent as a young child while her father built their log cabin home.

Image of Margaret Atwood and her father in the Canadian woods in 1942
Photograph from the slides at the launch event showing a young Margaret Atwood and her father in the Canadian woods in 1942 (image courtesy Vintage and Vane Productions)

‘You don’t believe the sky is falling until a chunk of it falls on you’ were the last words Ann Dowd as Aunt Lydia read at the event and the youthful looking silhouette of the girl on the book’s cover, arms outstretched, is the figure of hope on which the evening’s focus ended. Atwood maintained that climate change needs to be the primary focus for politicians today and we are not too late to address this.

[RSW] (overjoyed that her copy of The Testaments arrived by the time she finished writing this blog) 

Suggested reading

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood (Heinemann New Windmills, 1993), General Reference Collection Nov.1993/888

Wilderness Tips by Margaret Atwood (Bloomsbury, 1991), General Reference Collection Nov.1992/377

Strange Things: the Malevolent North in Canadian Literature by Margaret Atwood (Clarendon Press, 1995), General Reference Collection YC.1997.a.983

Margaret Atwood edited and with an introduction by Harold Bloom (Chelsea House, c2000), Document Supply m00/27831

Mary Queen of Scots (Pitkin Pictorials, 1973), General Reference Collection YK.1993.b.3611

The rise & fall of Thomas Cromwell: Henry VIII's most faithful servant by John Schofield (The History Press, 2011), General Reference Collection DRT ELD.DS.321626

Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman (Vintage Classic, 2011), General Reference Collection DRT ELD.DS.190531

Nineteen eighty-four: a novel by George Orwell (S. J. Reginald Saunders and Company Limited, 1949), RF.2018.a.197

Daniel Deronda by George Eliot (William Blackwood & Sons, 1876), General Reference Collection 20098.bb.21.

The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. Le Guin (Gateway, 2015), General Reference Collection DRT ELD.DS.12524

12 August 2019

Eisenhower to Obama and beyond: new US political material now available to researchers

While many may be captivated by the US political scene today (and its constant evolution), I recently lost myself in over 60 years of American electoral history while working on a new donation to the Library.

Philip J Davies (Professor Emeritus of American Studies, De Montfort University and Former Director for the Eccles Centre for American Studies here at the British Library) has donated a rich collection of material which can now be viewed in our Reading Rooms. Featuring promotional political material for US presidential election campaigns from 1952 to 2018, the collection is an invaluable new resource for researchers. With material right up to the Obama, Clinton and Trump eras, it’s sure to provide an interesting and intriguing picture of the current political landscape for years to come.

Jesse Jackson election poster
An example of the material available: 1988 Jesse Jackson poster © Jesse Jackson for President ’88 Committee (Add MS 89357/1/7)

On donating the collection Philip said: ‘It is a pleasure to see this small collection reach the British Library.  When I started teaching US politics at Manchester University in the 1970s only a few students had been able to visit the USA.  I found that using a few real campaign items helped our discussions and gave more tangibility to the subject.  I hope that the materials give some sense of the three-dimensional, ground-level reality of US presidential campaigns at a time when we have grown used to experiencing them on the TV and through computer screens.’

There are over 100 items available to explore from a giant Obama inauguration placard and video content encouraging young people to vote (featuring the likes of John Legend) to through-the-door propaganda collected from a number of US states. Sifting through this vast collection it’s amazing to see how the promotion and slamming of electoral candidates has changed over decades and into new millennia – while in some ways not changed at all.

A handful of the topics covered amongst the plethora of material are gun crime, same-sex marriage, war veteran care and climate change. While just some items researchers may find of particular interest include a nomination petition form for Dwight D. Eisenhower from 1952, a 1988 Jesse Jackson poster (pictured above), a 1980 Reagan Campaign Leadership Manual including volunteer phone script (pictured below), and an (unused) official invitation to the inauguration of President Donald Trump.

Example telephone script from Reagan campaign
“Put a ‘smile’ on your voice”: 1980 Reagan Campaign Leadership Manual © Reagan for President – Committee of Maryland (Add MS 89357/1/5)

Too many to name individually, but on examining this treasure trove of historical and political paraphernalia I was particularly struck by a few items:

The power of Lenora Fulani

As part of the New Alliance Party in the 1988 presidential elections Fulani was the first woman and the first African American to achieve ballot access in the fifty states. The archive contains Membership cards for the Party, a pamphlet for the campaigning committee for fair elections, and leaflets on The Black Agenda and Independent Politics.

Lenora Fulani campaign leaflet
1988 New Alliance Party material featuring Lenora Fulani, leaflet © Lenora B. Fulani’s Committee for Fair Elections (Add MS 89357/1/7)

Political lampooning

This placard designed for front yard display reads ‘Ovide End Public Kindergarten’. You might think this is a rather negative promotion of one’s policies. And you’d be right. Ovide Lamontagne was a Republican candidate for Governor in New Hampshire in 2012. This poster was produced by the Democrats in Ovide's style to lampoon his politics (by their interpretation). Ovide lost the vote.

Placard reading 'Ovide End Public Kindergarten'
2012 ‘Ovide End Public Kindergarten’ placard © New Hampshire Democratic Party, Raymond Buckley, Chairman (Add MS 89357/4/21)

Make your own… Obama paper doll

Who says American politics is no place for fun and games? Marking the moment in history when Barack Obama won the 2008 election this collectable booklet lets you dress the President, the First Lady and their two daughters in an array of outfits worn throughout the campaign. My personal favourite: Barack in his best basketball gear.

Front cover of the Obama paper dolls booklet featuring cartoons of Barack and Michelle Obama
2008 Obama paper dolls booklet © 2009 Tom Tierney (Add MS 89357/1/11)
Cartoon of Obama in basketball clothes with a basketball - an example of the dolls from the book
Casual Obama. 2008 Obama paper dolls booklet © 2009 Tom Tierney (Add MS 89357/1/11)

The Philip Davies Collection of US election archive material (Add MS 89357) is now available to view in Reading Rooms at St Pancras and Boston Spa. Find out more by searching for ‘89357’ in our Archives and Manuscripts catalogue. If you use any of the items for your research, we’d love to hear about it. Let us know using @BL_Americas.

[RSW] (resisting the temptation to actually dress the Obama paper dolls)

09 August 2019

Book Lovers Day

It turns out there really is a celebratory day for everything (yes, we’re still enjoying yesterday’s International Cat Day moment), and 9 August is no exception. Happy Book Lovers Day!

To pay homage, Team Americas, Australasia and Eccles has picked a few much-loved books to share. Some have played an admirable role in guiding us on the various paths that have led us to the mothership that is the British Library, while others have been part of the discoveries made journeying through, and adding to, the vast and varied collections held here. Of course some heads starting to smoke at the thought of picking just one favourite book each, so this is a carefully selected array of those we love from our individual, rather long (and always growing) lists.

We’re confident that there will be another book-related annual festivity just beckoning for a blog in the not-too-distant future – look out for it as we shoehorn in the ‘ones that got away’ from today’s offering.

Book: Populuxe by Thomas Hine

British Library holding: Populuxe by Thomas Hine (London: Bloomsbury, 1987) YV.1988.b.2193

‘I came across Populuxe as an MA student and found it completely alluring. It has a beautiful pink binding and silvery blue lettering. Not many of the academic books I was reading at the time had such welcoming covers! The book is an examination of American material culture in the 1950s and ‘60s. As someone long fascinated by popular culture, its analysis was a revelation to me and helped me understand how everyday objects could be imbued with meaning. I had a literature, rather than a design or art history background, and Hine’s book helped me develop my critical thinking about material culture and the built environment. But also, it is just so much fun to read and I love poring over the fabulous illustrations.’

Book lover: Cara, Eccles Centre for American Studies

Pink front cover of Populuxe with shiny turquoise lettering
Pretty in pink. Populuxe by Thomas Hine (London: Bloomsbury, 1987) YV.1988.b.2193
   Colourful spread of cars with tailfins from Populuxe
King of the tailfin. A colourful spread from Populuxe by Thomas Hine (London: Bloomsbury, 1987) YV.1988.b.2193

Book: A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

British Library holding: A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole (Louisiana State Univ Press, 1980) 81/6110

‘There are few books which make me laugh out loud, fewer still that make me cry with laughter. A Confederacy of Dunces is one of these books. The main character, the irascible, gluttonous, and completely hilarious Ignatius J. Relly, is a wonderful creation, and following his picaresque search for truth, meaning, and the perfect hotdog is an unrivalled delight. There are all sorts of literary and philosophical allusions to unravel if you so wish, including references to the works of Boethius, Aquinas, François Rabelais and Jonathan Swift. If, however, you just want to sit back and enjoy the ride through the backstreets and dive bars of 1960s New Orleans, there is no better driver than Ignatius and his creator, John Kennedy Toole.’

Book lover: Philip, Eccles Centre for American Studies

Front cover of A Confederacy of Dunces including illustration of detective with sword in one hand and a hotdog in the other
Hotdog with a side of sword. A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole (Louisiana State Univ Press, 1980) 81/6110

Book: Elogio y paisaje by Nancy Morejón

British Library holding: Ciudad de La Habana: Ediciones Unión, c1996. (YA.2000.a.31155)

‘I like to read poetry in the summer holidays, especially after lunch when time goes slower and you can put the book down after each poem and leave the words floating in the air. This year I have loved Nancy Morejón’s Elogio y Paisaje, a book containing two poetry collections, Elogio de la danza (Ode to Dance) and Paisaje célebre (Famous Landscape).  Morejón (Havana, 1944) is perhaps the most prominent voice of Cuban poetry today, as well as a translator and a scholar of the poetry of Nicolas Guillén. For English speakers, a bilingual edition of her poems, Looking Within: Selected Poems, 1954-2000 = Mirar adentro: poemas escogidos, 1954-2000 is available at YC.2003.a.20176.’

Book lover: Mercedes, American and Australasian Collections

Pink front cover of Elogio y paisaje by Nancy Morejón with illustration of faces and trees
Words floating in the air... Front cover of Elogio y paisaje by Nancy Morejón (Ciudad de La Habana: Ediciones Unión, c1996) YA.2000.a.31155

Book: Restricted Images: Made with the Warlpiri of Central Australia by Patrick Waterhouse

British Library holding: London: SPBH Editions, 2018. (YC.2019.b.1013)

WARNING – Members of Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities are respectfully advised that a number of people mentioned in the text and depicted in the images of this publication have died.

‘This book has always stuck in my mind and is one that has since influenced my own practice as a curator. Over many trips to Warlpiri country in Central Australia, British artist, Patrick Waterhouse, photographed members of the Yeunduma and Nyirrpi Aboriginal communities, and then invited them to restrict and amend their own images using traditional dot painting. The project was an attempt to return the agency of their representation to the Warlpiri, whose images were used without consent and regard to their cultural beliefs in the 1899 book, The Native Tribes of Central Australia. The result is a compelling conversation about the power dynamics in photography, particularly in the colonial narratives which still dominate our library collections today.’

Book lover: Lucy, Australasian Published Collections

Front cover of Restricted Images by Patrick Waterhouse
Front cover of Restricted Images: Made with the Warlpiri of Central Australia by Patrick Waterhouse (London: SPBH Editions, 2018) YC.2019.b.1013
An example of a portrait from Restricted Images
A portrait from Restricted Images: Made with the Warlpiri of Central Australia by Patrick Waterhouse (London: SPBH Editions, 2018) YC.2019.b.1013

Book: New England’s Rarities Discovered by John Josselyn

British Library holding: London: For G. Widdowes, 1672. (435.a.5)

‘One of my favourite items is John Josselyn’s New England’s Rarities Discovered, which was published in London in 1672. Josselyn first visited New England in 1638 and, armed with the 1633 edition of John Gerard’s Herball, he spent a decade examining the “birds, beasts, fishes, serpents and plants of that country”. He was particularly interested in the plants used by the native population to “cure their distempers, wounds and sores”. Although its small size and rough and ready woodcuts give the impression of rather rustic work, Rarities was cited by Linneaus. Together with Josselyn’s second work, Account of Two Voyages to New England (1674), it remained the most complete summary of North American flora for more than a century.’

Book lover: Jean, Eccles Centre for American Studies

An illustration of flora from New England’s Rarities Discovered by John Josselyn
Flora: an illustration from New England’s Rarities Discovered by John Josselyn (London: For G. Widdowes, 1672) 435.a.5

Book: The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

British Library holding: Second edition, Boston: Ticknor, Reed & Fields, 1850. (12701.i.12)

‘I resisted the temptation of pointing to Edgar Allen Poe again and have chosen to shine a light on The Scarlet Letter. It was during my first semester as an undergraduate that I was introduced to this book. It opened my eyes to a whole new world of historical American fiction. Enraptured by the story of Hester, and how her experience grapples with the ‘romance’ the novel claims to be on its title page, my love of North American literature stems, in part, from this book. Some years later I read The Handmaid’s Tale and was struck by the similarities you can draw between the two – it’s probably no surprise that this is also a favourite on my bookshelf (but we can save that for another day). This second edition has the opening note from a previous owner: “You will be much pleased with Hawthorne.” And much pleased I was.’

Book lover: Rachael, N American Published Collections

Title page of The Scarlet Letter, A Romance
'A Romance': title page from The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne (Second edition, Boston: Ticknor, Reed & Fields, 1850) 12701.i.12
A note from an owner of this edition – it reads ‘You will be much pleased with Hawthorne.’
'You will be much pleased with Hawthorne': a note from the previous owner