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 August 2020

Mrs. America: Unfinished Business

One of the programmes I’ve managed to binge-watch my way through during the past few weeks is Mrs. America: an FX mini-series (currently available on BBC iPlayer) with a blockbuster feel starring Uzo Aduba, Elizabeth Banks, Cate Blanchett and Rose Byrne, to name a few.

The show depicts the battle between the feminists rallying to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment in America during the 1970s, and conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly who leads the fight against the Amendment’s passing. This two-part blog looks at some of the characters from the programme and the items they authored which are available in the British Library collections.

The airing of Mrs. America comes at a very timely point for Library colleagues – many of whom have been working tirelessly for months and years before lockdown, and continue to do so, on our next major exhibition Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Rights. The exhibition was due to open in April 2020 but is currently on hold until later in the year. From bodily autonomy and the right to education, to self-expression and protest, the exhibition will examine how feminist activism in the UK has its roots in the complex history of women’s rights. A number of Mrs. America’s themes and conversations speak to those explored in the exhibition. The closing notes of the series bring the conversation to present-day America (Virginia ratified the ERA as recently as January 2020) implying, in the same way as the Library exhibition’s name affirms, that these debates are ongoing and far from settled: the fight for women’s rights is indeed unfinished business.

The nine-part series focuses each episode on key players in the US second-wave feminism movement , and the battles that were waged by the movements’ opposing parties. Tackling issues such as reproductive rights, equal pay and girls’ education, ‘the fight to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) in the United States was one of the most conflict laden.

Some of the show’s characters I was familiar with, but many names were new to me and I wanted to find out more. Watchers of the programme will know that there are numerous pieces of literature referenced or mentioned throughout. Of course, many of us aren’t in the British Library building at the moment and seeing these foundational pieces of text on screen, or even mentioned, made me miss the office – and the collections – even more. Resources that would normally be at one’s fingertips are now slightly harder to reach. Despite the exercising of patience needed when it comes to accessing collection items at the moment, I wanted to have a root around the catalogue to see what holdings there might be that complement the stories of the main protagonists during this unforgettable moment in US history.

The following discoveries served as a wonderful and relevant reminder to me, as I hope they will for you, of what influential items the Library holds and that will available to easily consult for one’s research, inspiration or enjoyment, once a more recognisable version of reality greets us once again.

Please note that images in this article have been retrieved from online sources as I have been unable to access and photograph Library collections. Therefore there may be some discrepancy in what the Library’s holdings look like in comparison to the items pictured in this blog.

Bella Abzug

‘This woman's place is in the House—the House of Representatives.’ Bella Abzug’s bold 1971 campaign slogan declared that she was a force to be reckoned with. U.S. Representative, attorney, peace activist and gay-rights supporter, Abzug helped to advance the role of women in US politics. In 1961, Abzug co-founded the women's peace activist group, Women Strike for Peace, and during the 60s and 70s she was active in the peace movement, vehemently against the testing of nuclear weapons. Her fighting spirit and passion earnt her the nickname Battling Bella. Abzug was an early supporter of the National Organization for Women (NOW) and remained active in feminist issues until her death in 1998.

The Library holds a first edition of Bella! Ms. Abzug goes to Washington (shelfmark: 72/4051X) written by Abzug and edited by Mel Ziegler. The title was published in 1972 by Saturday Review Press – the publishing company branch of Saturday Review, which was, in contrast to this book’s subject, an American weekly men's lifestyle and health magazine, established in 1924. As the name implies, the book traces New York-born Bella Abzug’s journey to politics. The dust jacket shows her signature hat-wearing appearance in silhouette form, with her charismatic grin on the back cover – something Margo Martindale portrays brilliantly, along with Abzug’s ‘pugnacious wit’, in Mrs. America.

Photo of dust jacket for Bella! Ms. Abzug goes to Washington by Bella S. Abzug showing Bella's silhouette on the front cover and her portrait on the back
Dust jacket for Bella! Ms. Abzug goes to Washington by Bella S. Abzug, edited by Mel Ziegler. [New York: Saturday Review Press, 1972.] Image sourced from Biblio.com

Episode 7 focuses on Abzug as she is tasked with organising the National Women’s Conference in Houston following her failed run for Senate in 1977. Abzug would later be dismissed by President Carter as co‐chairman of his National Advisory Committee on Women after a heated discussion on women’s issues at the White House. In the TV show, members of Abzug’s committee resign in solidarity with Bella; making for a powerful and pertinent scene (and one of my favourites). Did this really happen? This article examines the fact vs fiction in Mrs. America and the reality behind this particularly event, one which Gloria Steinem referred to as ‘the Friday afternoon massacre.’

Shirley Chisholm

The first Black woman elected to the United States Congress in 1968, Shirley Chisholm represented New York's 12th congressional district for seven terms from 1969 to 1983. Chisholm was also the first woman and African American to seek the nomination for president of the United States from one of the two major political parties. ‘Unbossed and unbought’ was her motto, showing her outspoken advocacy for both women and minority groups. In this Washington Post article, Vanessa Williams explores how Chisholm “described herself as ‘the people’s politician,’ fighting for higher wages for working people and more money for public education and demanding respect for black Americans and women.”

The Library holds a first edition of Chisholm’s 1970 autobiography, which took its name from her slogan: Unbought and Unbossed (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1970, shelfmark: W44/9078). In the book, Chisholm writes about her life, growing up as a young girl in Brooklyn, through her journey into politics, and her experiences of the American political system. It examines her long political struggle and the problems which plagued the American system of government.

Cover for Unbought and Unbossed by Shirley Chisholm showing Chisholm in various stances
Cover for Unbought and Unbossed by Shirley Chisholm. [Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1970.] Image sourced from goodreads.com

Episode 3 of Mrs. America focuses on Chisholm as the congresswoman and presidential candidate vows to stay in the race for nomination come the 1972 Democratic National Convention. She is a recurring character and steadfast force, and through her story the series ‘points out how the obstacles Chisholm face[d] as a liberal black woman differ[ed] from those facing the white co-founders of the National Women’s Political Caucus.’ This recent Washington Post article includes a fascinating interview with Uzo Aduba, who plays the iconic role of Chisholm.

The next Mrs. America blog instalment will feature works by Betty Friedan, Phyllis Schlafly and Gloria Steinem.

[Blog by RSC]

04 August 2020

Reactions to HIV in the 1980s and COVID-19 stigma

This post by Carmen Logie is part of a special Summer Scholars blog series highlighting the recent research Eccles Centre awards have supported across Caribbean, Canadian and US  collections.

My work in the field of HIV began in the early 1990s, before we had effective anti-retroviral therapy.  I had just moved from small town Ontario, to a big Canadian city - Toronto.  It was the first semester in my undergraduate degree when a fellow student asked me if I wanted to volunteer with her on what was then called the ‘AIDS’ floor of a local hospital.  Always interested in learning about something new, I agreed.  Little did I know that would change the course of my life.  The floor was sectioned off for only people with HIV, and by the time people reached the stage of being hospitalized, for many they were in the last stages of life.  As a volunteer my job was anything that the patient wanted—to run and grab a newspaper, to escort them to the smoking area (when there was such a thing), or to help the nurses feed someone.  Sometimes I would just sit and hold someone’s hand.  Myself and other volunteers were often the only visitors some patients had, having been abandoned by their friends and family due to HIV-related stigma alongside with homophobia, as many at the time (as today) living with HIV in Canada were gay and bisexual men.  Knowing that people were sick and alone due to stigma sparked my passion on stigma in the field of HIV and sexual health.

Fast forward 26 years and it is my first week at the British Library for my Eccles Fellowship in March 2020.  A new virus—COVID-19—had recently emerged and was stirring global fear and panic.  A few weeks prior to arriving in London I had conducted a media interview on stigma directed toward persons of Asian descent in Toronto, Canada related to COVID-19. I reflected on the roots of this stigma, and its parallels to HIV-related stigma.  While at the British Library I was inspired to re-read books on HIV-related stigma from the beginning of the epidemic.  Classics like Susan Sontag’s AIDS and Its Metaphors led me back to her earlier work, Illness as Metaphor.1 I also revisited D. Crimp’s AIDS: Cultural Analysis/Cultural Activism.2

A photo of Susan Sontag sitting in her own home. Her left arm rests on a table and the right rests on the arm of the chair. Her dark hair is loose. She is wearing an open-necked striped shirt and a dark waistcoat. There are floor to ceiling bookcases in the background.
Susan Sontag, photographed in her own home. 1979. Copyright Lynn Gilbert.  (Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0.)

Reading these pieces from early in the AIDS pandemic was striking.  I was inspired to write two commentaries on parallels between HIV-related stigma and COVID-19 stigma.  Sontag had warned about using military metaphors to describe the HIV and AIDS pandemic decades ago: “We are not being invaded.  The body is not a battlefield.  The ill are neither unavoidable casualties nor the enemy.  We—medicine, society—are not authorized to fight back by any means whatever.”3  Yet the panic and fear regarding COVID-19 was palpable.  While this fear was understandable, the use of military metaphors in framing COVID-19 exacerbated the xenophobic responses, including hate crimes, toward persons of Asian descent in Canada and other global contexts.  Othering—distinguishing oneself as ‘normal’ in comparison with the ‘abnormal’ other—has been a central part of understanding and approaching illness throughout history.  Crimp reminds us from his discussion of the framing of HIV in the early days as impacting the ‘4-H’s’ (Haitians, haemophiliacs, heroin users, ‘homosexuals’) that illnesses are often blamed on the racial, foreign or otherwise ‘immoral’ other.  Although COVID-19 was named to avoid association with a place of origin, even in July 2020 world leaders continue to refer to it as the ‘China virus’.  People who are not following public health measures have been labelled ‘super spreaders’ and even ‘intentional murderers’.  This blaming of individuals leaves the larger social and structural factors contributing to COVID-19 vulnerabilities—including racism, poverty and insufficient access to PPE—unaddressed.

Yet reading Sontag’s and Crimp’s work more than 30 years after it was written also provides me with hope.  They both underscore the solution to stigmatizing and blaming groups of people for illnesses lies in strengthening communities.  We need to remind one another of our shared humanity in order to build solidarity and caring networks that support one another to engage in COVID-19 preventive practices and care for one another when we are sick.  These networks have already been formed; for instance, across the globe people are sewing hand-made masks to share with others, and some are shopping and checking in on the wellbeing of the elderly.  Sontag powerfully reminds us that we are unified in our vulnerability to acquiring illness:

“Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship.  Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick.  Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.” (Sontag, 1978, p. 3).

I disappointingly had to leave my Eccles Fellowship early, after the Prime Minister in Canada requested Canadians return home as the border was closing.  Being at the British Library when this pandemic was spreading inspired me to go back to the books on early HIV and AIDS activism, to reach back in history and learn from the way we stigmatize new infections—and from the way we can challenge this stigma and build stronger communities.  My research has now expanded to understanding and tackling COVID-19 stigma across the globe, hoping we can learn from the past to dig out the root causes of stigma and plant seeds of solidarity and care.

Carmen Logie, Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow 2019, is Associate Professor, Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work, University of Toronto, Toronto, Canada.

For further discussions of stigma, listen to Carmen’s podcast series, ‘Everybody Hates Me: Let’s Talk About Stigma’. This podcast invites a range of weekly guests to talk about all different kinds of stigma. Why does it matter? What does it look like? What can we do about it? https://www.buzzsprout.com/1024792

References:

1.  Susan Sontag, AIDS and its metaphors. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1989. General Reference Collection: YK.1993.a.100;  Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1978. General Reference Collection: X.329/11987.

2.  D. Crimp,  AIDS: cultural analysis/cultural activism. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press; 1987. p. 3–16.  General Reference Collection: YC.1992.b.5679.

3.  Sontag, 1989. p. 180.

Articles supported by this Eccles Fellowship:

C. Logie, 'Lessons learned from HIV can inform our approach to COVID-19 stigma.'  Journal of the International AIDS Society. 2020, 23:e25504

C. Logie and J. Turan, 'How do we balance tensions between COVID-19 public health responses and stigma mitigation? Learning from HIV research.'  AIDS & Behavior. 2020, 24: 2003-3006.

30 July 2020

Exploring Robert Lowell's English years in the Sound Archive

This blog by Grzegorz Kosc is part of a special Summer Scholars blog series highlighting the recent research Eccles Centre awards have supported across Caribbean, Canadian and US collections.

Robert Lowell stands in front of a wall of books, wearing a light jacket, dark tie, striped shirt and glasses.
Robert Lowell at the Grolier Poetry Bookshop in Harvard Square, 1965, by Elsa Dorfman. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The British Library has a truly unique collection of recorded interviews with friends, associates, and spouses of the celebrated American confessional poet Robert Lowell (1917–1977) (the collection can be most effectively searched through the Sound and Moving Image Catalogue, C939/01–53).  The interviews were conducted and recorded in 1979 by poet and editor Ian Hamilton in preparation, first, for a BBC2 television programme about Lowell in the Lively Arts series, broadcast in February 1980, and, second, for Robert Lowell: A Biography (1982).  The interviewees include, for instance, Frank Bidart, his close friend and assistant who was to become a famous poet himself; his editor at Faber and Faber, Charles Monteith; Jonathan Raban, Frank Parker, William Alfred, and Eugene McCarthy.  The subjects even include Mrs Dignam, a cleaner in Castletown House where he and his third wife, Lady Caroline Blackwood, moved shortly before they broke up, and who was the last person to see Lowell before his death.  Two interviews Hamilton conducted with Lowell’s two wives, Elizabeth Hardwick, and Blackwood herself, crown the collection.

The interviews have never been published or transcribed for a print publication.  It’s unclear how their revelations informed or impacted Hamilton’s final narrative for, when one listens to them, they continue to sparkle with surprises.  They can be accessed only by visiting the Library.  Though they are fully digitized from original compact cassettes, they can be heard out only from the Library’s computers and therefore are not easily accessible to Lowell scholars usually swarming on the other side of the Atlantic where all the major Lowell archival collections are housed—that is, at the Houghton, Harvard and the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas.  Hamilton’s tapes in London remain largely unexamined.  Lowell scholars make a mental note of their existence but few seem to have made the journey.  Only the most painstaking of researchers—like Saskia Hamilton, the editor of Lowell’s letters, or Kay Redfield Jamison, the author of his psychobiography Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire—got around to listening to them.

Cover of The Dophin including an illustration of a fish-like shape.
The Dolphin by Robert Lowell, 1973. British Library shelfmarks: General Reference Collection X.989/21486; Document Supply 73/5755; Document Supply 73/6262.

The continuing neglect of the recordings by researchers is regrettable because they are rich in more ways than one.  It’s a trove of portraits of people from Lowell’s circle and of revelations about the poet’s late life in England.  One is struck, for instance, by the personality and the peculiar, odd conversational talent of Francis Stanley Parker, one of Lowell’s closest and oldest friends, a Cambridge, Mass.-based artist who did all of the frontispieces for Lowell’s volumes.  One is drawn into Jonathan Raban’s detailed and intimate account of his days he spent with the Lowells at Blackwood’s mansion Milgate Park in Kent.

Robert Lowell, wearing a dark jacket and tie, and Elizabeth Hardwick, wearing a dark summer dress or blouse, sit on wooden chairs in a sunny park.
Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Hardwick. Photograph courtesy the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin.

However, the most haunting are the monologues, of several hours each, by Elizabeth Hardwick and Lady Caroline Blackwood.  Blackwood is very casual, matter-of-fact, dividing her attention between Hamilton and her daughters, very honest about the divorce deal Lowell made with Hardwick and about her growing realisation of the terrors she would have deal with in Lowell’s manic phases.  Convivial and perhaps slightly lubricated with a drink, Elizabeth Hardwick, too, is forthright and unreserved in her conversation with Hamilton.  One wants to listen to the recordings for hours for her personality, her special mood that day, and most importantly, for her complex attitude to “the real [. . .] Aspern Papers”--that is, despairing letters which she was sending to Lowell in the early 1970s when they were breaking up and he was turning his attention to Caroline and which he versified into sonnets for The Dolphin (1973).  The story has recently received a full treatment in The Dolphin Letters, 1970-1979 and The Dolphin: Two Versions, 1971–1973, both volumes edited by Saskia Hamilton (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019).  And yet Hardwick’s rich monologue continues to be fresh and surprising.  She monologizes at length about the letters, telling Hamilton, among other things, that what really angered her was that her husband had misrepresented her words and tone, making her letter seem “flat and dull.”  She was most irritated by the sonnet “In the Mail” intoning lame decencies, allegedly coming from under her pen, about her daughter being “normal and good because she had normal and good parents.”  She also told Hamilton an unknown story which I think is a research lead, about how one day she and Lowell went over the Selected Poems in hardcover and she made him review the selection and tweak the Dolphin sonnets once again to address her complaints.  How the paperback edition of the Selected differs from the original hardcover will be the next step in my research.

The recordings of Ian Hamilton’s interviews at the British Library remain a rich resource to the students of Lowell’s late career.  They offer memorable portraits of Lowell’s loved ones and of several talented writers and intellectuals from his circle.  Whilst the Hamilton tapes are only accessible in the Reading Rooms, a later interview with Elizabeth Harwick is available on the British Library Sounds webpages, as part of the ICA talks series.  In this interview she discusses her life and works.  Interestingly, she comes across as a little haughty and blasé in this public forum, quite different in her manner from the way she behaved with Hamilton.

Grzegorz Kosc (University of Warsaw) was an Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow 2018. He is co-editing, with Steven G. Axelrod of the University of California Riverside, Robert Lowell’s Memoirs to be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2021. He is also a co-editor, with Thomas Austenfeld of the University of Fribourg, of Robert Lowell in Context for Cambridge University Press, slated for 2022. His own research work is focused on the question of how Lowell’s late financial problems affected his poetics.