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

24 March 2020

Happy birthday, Lawrence Ferlinghetti

American poet, painter, activist, pioneering figure in the Beat movement, and co-founder of City Lights Bookseller, Lawrence Ferlinghetti turns 101 on March 24 2020

The Library’s collections are rich in Beats and Ferlinghetti material (take a look at our Beats bibliography if you’re interested to see a comprehensive overview of holdings). But with so many pages of ground-breaking content to leaf through, what would be appropriate to feature to mark the artist’s 101st birthday?

Black and white photo of Lawrence Ferlinghetti reading
Photograph of poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Image taken by Christopher Michel on 2 July 2012, sourced via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Pictures of the Gone World seemed like a good option (fifth printing edition held at BL shelfmark 011313.t.3/1.). This was Ferlinghetti's first book, published in 1955 by his own City Lights Books, in a 500-copy letterpress edition (City Lights Booksellers & Publishers website). Two years earlier, he had co-founded City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco together with college professor and editor of City Lights magazine, Peter D. Martin. The store was the first all-paperback bookshop in the United States (The Guardian online, Interview with a Bookstore: San Francisco's historic City Lights) and would become ‘the launching pad for the San Francisco Writers Renaissance’ (Douglas Street in the Southwest Review, Vol. 66, No. 2 [Spring 1981], p. 228. Access via JSTOR, available in British Library Reading Rooms). For more than 60 years, City Lights “has served as a ‘literary meeting place’ for writers, readers, artists, and intellectuals to explore books and ideas.” (City Lights Booksellers & Publishers website).

Front cover of Pictures of the gone world
Front cover of Pictures of the Gone World (Fifth Printing) by Lawrence Ferlinghetti (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1955) BL shelfmark 011313.t.3/1.

Pictures of the Gone World was Number One in the Pocket Poets Series launched by the City Lights Books. One of the series focuses was to provide paperback, and thus more affordable, content to readers, and the book’s publication helped to extend Ferlinghetti’s ‘concept of a cultural meeting place to a larger arena.’ (City Lights Booksellers & Publishers website). With mentions of London, Paris and the harbour of San Francisco in the poems’ titles, the collection not only documented Ferlinghetti’s artistic development but also acted as a kind of ‘travel journal of the place in which he had lived’ and visited (Ferlinghetti: A Biography by Neeli Cherkovski, page 82), taking readers around the world as they dipped in and out of his work, while the small design allowed for them to carry Ferlinghetti around with them on their own travels.

The Pocket Poets series went on to include several Beat classics including Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and other poems (1959 edition held at BL shelfmark 011313.t.3/4) – Number Four in the series – which was published in October 1956 and met with immediate, if controversial, success. The landmark poem’s concept, together with Ginsberg’s powerful delivery at group readings, made it ‘a crucible of cultural change. Except for the response to Dylan Thomas’ readings in America, never before had a modern audience reacted so passionately, or identified so completely with a poet’s message.’ (Naked Angels: The Lives & Literature of the Beat Generation by John Tytell, page 104). You can read more about the reaction to, and impact of, Howl in our blog from 2013. Other early items in the Pocket Poets series included William Carlos Williams’s Kora in Hell: Improvisations, Marie Ponsot’s True Minds and Poems of Humor & Protest by Kenneth Patchen.

Pictures of the gone world back cover showing the price of 75 cents
Back cover of Pictures of the Gone World showing other titles in the Pocket Poets series

The little paperback held by the British Library features the unassuming, yet at the same time, striking black and yellow cover – the style of which would be replicated through the Pocket Poets series and at just 75 cents a pop, whose simplicity made it something that could be available to many. As the series’ name implies, the collection ‘can be carried in a pocket, and read in less than an hour.’ (Beat Poetry by Larry Beckett, page 17)

Between the pages readers are greeted with some of Ferlinghetti’s most memorable works including ‘The world is a beautiful place’ – a melancholy and ironic ode to one’s bittersweet existence on earth. In Ferlinghetti’s style, readers are ping-ponged across the page, yo-yoing between scenes of beauty and happiness, ‘smelling flowers’ and ‘swimming in rivers’, then thrown into despair: ‘if you don’t mind a touch of hell’ and ‘some people dying all the time’. Swayed back and forth, the reader is constantly reminded of being destabilised each time something comforting is mentioned: ‘The design… reflect[ing] Ferlinghetti’s continuing concern with the way the poem looked on the page… [he] was satisfied that the arrangement of the words enhanced the meaning of the poem.’ (Ferlinghetti: A Biography by Neeli Cherkovski, page 82)

Many of the poems in this collection are said to ‘reveal…the quiet struggle of ordinary people. The unusual distribution of lines on the page, and the inventiveness with word play and rhyme, show Ferlinghetti’s sense of freedom, itself a key notion in his work.’ (Beat Culture: Lifestyles, Icons, and Impact edited by William T. Lawlor, page 106)

‘The world is a beautiful place’ can certainly be seen to exemplify such a statement.

The world is a beautiful place first page
The world is a beautiful place…to be born into… if you don’t mind happiness…not always being…so very much fun (BL shelfmark 011313.t.3/1.)

Despite being written in the mid-20th-century, this timeless poem doesn’t feel out of place when read in 2020. It’s a testament to Ferlinghetti’s skill and intuition; to be able to tap into subject matter and raise questions that feel as relevant today as when he first wrote them some 65 years ago.

Happy birthday, Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

The British Library holds a number of items from City Lights Books Pocket Poets Series and publications from Ferlinghetti, including first editions, some inscribed by the poet himself. Below is a selection of suggested reading. Follow the link to our Beats Bibliography for a more complete overview of Library printed holdings on the subject.

[Blog by RSC]

Bibliography and suggested reading

A Coney Island of the Mind: poems by Lawrence Ferlinghetti; portraiture by R.B. Kitaj (San Francisco: Arion Press, 2005) shelfmark RF.2007.b.21. Note: A fine press special edition of Ferlinghetti’s famous work from Arion Press.

Beat Culture: Icons, Lifestyles, and Impact edited by William T. Lawlor (Santa Barbara, California; Oxford: ABC-CLIO, 2005) shelfmark YC.2007.b.56

Beat Poetry by Larry Beckett (St. Andrews, Scotland?: A Beatdom Books Publication, 2012) shelfmark YK.2014.a.4349

City Lights Booksellers & Publishers website (accessed 11 March 2020) 

Ferlinghetti's Greatest Poems by Lawrence Ferlinghetti; edited by Nancy Peters (New York: New Directions Publishing, 2017) shelfmark YD.2018.a.4686

Ferlinghetti: A Biography by Neeli Cherkovski (Garden City: Doubleday, 1979) shelfmark X.950/10246

Open eye, open heart by Lawrence Ferlinghetti (New York: New Directions, 1973) shelfmark RF.2002.a.49. Note: Inscribed by Ferlinghetti with cover photograph of Ferlinghetti by Ilka Hartmann.

Pictures of the Gone World (Fifth Printing) by Lawrence Ferlinghetti (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1955) shelfmark 011313.t.3/1.

Naked Angels: The Lives & Literature of the Beat Generation by John Tytell (New York; London: McGraw-Hill, c1976) shelfmark YA.2000.a.11944

The Guardian, Interview with a Bookstore: San Francisco's historic City Lights (accessed 16 March 2020)

The Guardian, San Francisco's City Lights: the bookshop that brought us the Beats (accessed 16 March 2020)

Review of Ferlinghetti: A Biography by Neeli Cherkovski in Southwest Review, Vol. 66, No. 2 (SPRING 1981), pp. 228-230, by Douglas Street. Accessed via JSTOR, available from Britsh Library Reading Rooms (accessed 12 March 2020)

Who are we now? by Lawrence Ferlinghetti (New York: New Directions, 1976) shelfmark YA.2002.a.19832. Note: Signed and inscribed by Ferlinghetti.

20 March 2020

Dancing in the archives...

In the early 1980s this thing called hip hop suddenly arrived in the UK from North America through videos like Malcolm McLaren's Buffalo Gals (1982) and films such as Wild Style (1983).  It marked the start of a global cultural change and, unbeknown to me, would help develop my future world as a choreographer, researcher and teacher.

In time, my curiosity would take me beyond the South Bronx of the 1970s to '50s jazz dance, Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers and, eventually, minstrelsy.

An African American woman and man Lindy Hopping; the woman is wearing a long sleeved blouse, a striped skirt and white plimsolls while the man is wearing a long sleeve shirt and dungarees that are tight at the waist and full in the leg
Willa Mae Ricker and Leon James dancing the Lindy Hop, Life Magazine, 23 August 1943; shelfmark P.P.6383.cke

Minstrelsy and blackface was something I was aware of growing up in the 1970s as a mixed race child in the North East of England: The Black and White Minstrel Show was still on TV and racial relics were never far away.  Years later I began looking past the racially charged media of minstrelsy, seeing instead an innovative dance form which laid the foundations not only for hip hop dance but for entertainment as we know it today.  And so I began to ponder on the question: What happened before minstrelsy?  Which is what brought me to the Eccles Centre and the British Library.

My approach at the Library was to explore African diaspora dance practices in the United States from the early 1800s.  My prior knowledge of African based social dances was mostly limited to the 20th century and I knew there was so much more: More threads and meeting points detailing the myriad ways in which the African diaspora experience was carried to the US, became fractured and disrupted through slavery, and morphed into gospel, blues, ragtime, jazz, funk and hip hop.  My research enabled me to understand how African dance, including Gelede and Calenda, were exchanged and disrupted through gatherings such as corn shucking meets, leading in turn to secular dances like the turkey trot and the camel walk. 

An advert for a minstrel show, depicting a group of around 15 people singing and dancing in the moonlight by the side of a river
The Big Black Boom. Her Majesty's Theatre, Westminster c. 1878. Shelfmark: Evan.273 (Image taken from a collection of pamphlets, handbills, and miscellaneous printed matter relating to Victorian entertainment and everyday life. Originally published/produced in London, 1800 - 1895)

The key thing I realised through this research, however, wasn't even about dance.  It was about how information was passed, gathered and coded through slavery.  It was about the interactions between different African practices. I began looking beyond West African traditional dance forms to broader African practices.  This led me to explore the Muslim experience within Africa, the United States and slavery.  One story I came across was that of a 35-year old male Muslim slave in Sierra Leone during the eighteenth century. Waiting in irons for departure, sometimes he would sing a melancholy song and sometimes a Muslim prayer.  The song would eventually arrive in America to be heard by other Africans who may not have understood Arabic. Yet the cadence, experience and emotion enabled an experience of empathy that transcended words.  It was decoded through human consciousness as emotional unity through sound and movement.  It was understood, or misunderstood, and developed identity, social communication and African American culture.  These rhythms and experiences would resurface and be remixed into early blues; a remix that I suggest echoes into the sampling culture of hip hop.

Traces of Muslim practice may also relate to the Ring Shout (ceremonial dance) and the Kaaba and walking anti clockwise as prayer.  These exchanges of different African cultures, through shared experience and slavery, led me to think more about the subtleties and nuances of human exchange, gesture, symbolism and the cadence of both sound and movement: how scales of emotion and the body being read and misread is very much part of human learning, social patterns and coded cultures.

The African diaspora experience of slavery is one of the most heartless in human history and yet people survived, grew and emerged.  Of course, resilience in itself is a built-in human trait but how many times must it be tested and inflicted from one human to another to the degree of slavery and many other forms of violence, where carried trauma and disrupted African experiences seem to be in constant recovery and where culture acts to navigate and find better ways of living.

I think this research more than anything has led me to a deeper understanding of cultural development, human exchange, histories (my own) and the traces of experience that we carry and that are passed through generations.  Which brings me to the present, to my own creative practice and towards Afro futurism and how one can begin to develop African diaspora history(s) through speculation as a way to navigate future possibilities.  My hope is to develop projects embedded in my Eccles Centre research through dance, hip hop, visual art and education, exploring the question: What is hip hop's place in the twenty first century?

Robert Hylton, Eccles Fellow, 2019

Suggested Reading:

Abbott, L and Seroff, D. Ragged but Right: Black Traveling Shows, "Coon Songs," and the Dark Pathway to Blues and Jazz. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2007. (Shelfmark: m07/.15598 DSC)

Austin, A. African Muslims in Antebellum America: Transatlantic Stories and Spiritual Struggles. New York; London: Routledge, 1997. (Shelfmark: YC.1997.a.3453) 

Diouf, S. Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in The Americas. New York University Press, 1998. (Shelfmark: YC.1999.a.80)

Emory, E. Black Dance: From 1619 to Today. London: Dance, 1988. (Shelfmark: YM.1989.a.111) 

Gay, K. African American Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations: the History, Customs, and Symbols Associated with Both Traditional and Contemporary Religious and Secular Events Observed by Americans of African Descent. Detroit, MI: Omnigraphics, 2007. (Shelfmark: YD.2007.a.7641)

Glass, B. African American Dance: An Illustrated History. Jefferson, N.C; London: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2007. (Shelfmark: m07/.12508 DSC)

Hammer, J. Safi, O. The Cambridge Companion to American Islam. Cambridge University Press, 2013. (Shelfmark: YC.2014.a.828)

Robinson, D. Modern Moves: Dancing Race During the Ragtime and Jazz Eras. (Oxford; New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2015) (Shelfmark: YC.2015.a.12024)

Thompson, K. Ring Shout, Wheel About: the Racial Politics of Music and Dance in North American Slavery (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2014) (Shelfmark: m14/.11623) 

Visual References:

Ring Shout: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NQgrIcCtys0

Buzzard Lope: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3dGamWaYcLg

Audio Reference:

Alan Lomax Recordings - Levee Camp Holler: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5EH3jsnUo38

 

25 February 2020

From the collections: A Streetcar Named Desire

Thomas Lanier Williams III, perhaps better known by his pen name Tennessee Williams, passed away on 25 February 1983. I’ve turned to the Library’s collections to take a look at our holdings around one of Williams’s most popular and timeless works, A Streetcar Named Desire.

As some of our Readers may be well aware, due to conservation and preservation over the years, not all of the books held at the British Library still have their original dust jackets, covers or bindings. So it’s always a joy to call up an item from the basements which still retains its original frontage in full, glorious technicolour.

Front cover design of A Streetcar Named Desire by Lustig. Pink cover with black and white figures.
New Directions front cover for A Streetcar Named Desire, designed by Alvin Lustig (YA.1996.b.5800)

I discovered that we’re fortunate enough to hold a first edition of A Streetcar Named Desire (YA.1996.b.5800) published by New Directions in 1947, complete with the lavender pink cover design by Alvin Lustig. Showing three figures entwined, almost dancing, on the front, the image is a striking one among, what can be, shelves of dark spines. An imposing male stands in the centre, in a puppeteer-like poise, commanding two females either side of him: seemingly a picture of the tempestuous and forceful Stanley Kowalski, with his wife, the meek Stella, on one side, and his struggling sister-in-law, Blanche, on the other.

New Directions Books were published by American poet, James Laughlin, who started the publishing house after seeking career advice from none other than Ezra Pound. “He had been seeing my poems for months and had ruled them hopeless. He urged me to finish Harvard and then do ‘something’ useful.” Laughlin recalls. Bestsellers from New Directions, an imprint largely devoted to Modernist writers, include works by Lawrence Ferlinghetti (A Coney Island of the Mind, EMC.2011.a.174), William Carlos Williams (Selected Poems, 75/17337) and Ezra Pound himself (The Cantos, W55/3062). Of Tennessee Williams, the New Directions website states:

‘As well as being astonishingly talented and prolific, Tennessee Williams was a man of considerable personal courage, willing to be open about being a gay man at a time when few were. Tennessee Williams is a cornerstone of New Directions, as we publish everything he wrote in his storied career. He is also our single bestselling author.’

Many of the early New Directions covers feature artwork by Denver-born designer, Alvin Lustig (1915 – 1955). A rigorous graphic designer who forayed into architecture, interior and industrial design, ‘Lustig’s opportunity to use the book cover as a vehicle of bold graphic experimentation and innovation was provided by James Laughlin…a collaboration that flourished throughout the 1940s until Lustig’s early death in 1955… [they] prodded, cajoled, and quibbled their way through a virtually unprecedented partnership…’. (page 7, Purity of Aim: The Book Jacket Designs of Alvin Lustig by Ned Drew and Paul Sternberger, YC.2017.a.13503) In each other they recognised ‘a sense of uncompromising principles and a tenacious drive to make a mark on contemporary society’ (page 13, ibid).

Black and white portrait photograph of Alvin Lustig
Black and white photographic portrait of Alvin Lustig, with one of his ‘eye’ designs used on New Directions covers (image from YC.2017.a.13503)

Laughlin’s publication choices together with Lustig’s eye for colour, graphic systems and bold juxtapositions, resulted in sure-fire ways to stop readers in their tracks in the mid-20th century, beckoning them, as the names implies, to traverse New Directions. And it worked; ‘Lustig’s jackets had a quantifiable impact on the book-buying public; they enormously increased the sales…’ (page 49, Born Modern: the Life and Work of Alvin Lustig by Steven Heller and Elaine Lustig Cohen, LC.31.b.7733). Laughlin confirmed that Lustig’s artwork and ‘beautiful designs…help[ed] to make a mass audience aware of high quality reading’ (James Laughlin, “The Book Jackets of Alvin Lustig”, Print, Oct/Nov 1956, as quoted on page 50 in Born Modern by Heller and Lustig Cohen, LC.31.b.7733). Though one should never judge a book by its cover, it’s easy to see the appeal of these designs in a shopfront even today. This is something Laughlin acknowledged also: ‘People should buy books for their literary merit. But since I have never published a book which I didn’t consider a serious literary work – and never intend to – I have had no bad conscience about using Lustig to increase sales.’ (ibid)

Examples of Lustig’s work for New Directions images from LC.31.b.7733
Examples of Lustig’s work for New Directions (images from LC.31.b.7733)

Beholding a green Library stamp, signifying a donation, my interest was also piqued at seeing two handwritten inscriptions signed ‘Sidney Lanfield’ on the inside cover of this edition. Lanfield was an American director (1898 – 1972) whose work included the 1941 film You'll Never Get Rich starring Fred Astaire and Rita Hayworth. As beautiful as this book is, the director’s signature serves as a reminder that A Streetcar Named Desire is in its most perfect form when performed on stage, as was its intention.

Signatures of Sidney Lanfield
Two for the price of one: Sidney Lanfield’s name on the inside cover (YA.1996.b.5800)

And what better illustration is there of this than the original playbill for the Ethel Barrymore Theatre where Streetcar was first performed? This programme (RB.23.b.7714) for the original Broadway production of the play is from 9 February 1948; the play premiered at the theatre just two months earlier on 3 December 1947. The Pulitzer-Prize winning drama, directed by Elia Kazan, still featured the original stars including Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter and Jessica Tandy. The New Directions edition of the book also lists the star-studded cast that were part of the premier run of the production. As well as giving early portfolios for the cast in lead roles, the playbill is dispersed with advertisements, including plenty for cigarettes (Camel) and alcohol (Carstairs whiskey), and is a great primary resource for researchers. Others may also interested in reading The New Yorker’s Wolcott Gibbs’s slightly scathing, and controversial, review of an early performance of this production from 6 December 1947: an article that closes with ‘I’m sorry to say there isn’t much room left for the compliments’.

Cast list and playbill for early performances of A Streetcar Named Desire
Cast list for the premier Broadway performance of Streetcar (YA.1996.b.5800) and the original playbill for the Ethel Barrymore Theatre performance of Streetcar (RB.23.b.7714)

73 years on from the New Directions publication of the play, and its premiere performance, and 37 years since Williams’s passing, it’s incredible to see A Streetcar Named Desire in its initial guises. A reminder that the British Library has endless avenues to pursue when it comes to fresh research around even the most seemingly well-established of subject matter.

[Blog by RSC]

Suggested reading

A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams (Mount Vernon, New York: New Directions, 1947) YA.1996.b.5800

The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams (Norfolk, Connecticut: New Directions, 1949)

Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flash by John Lahr (London: Bloomsbury Circus, 2014) ELD.DS.73184

Memoirs by Tennessee Williams; introduction by John Waters (New York: New Directions, 2006)

A Streetcar Named Desire: The Playbill, (New York: Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 1948)

The New Yorker, articles available at www.newyorker.com and BL holding Mic.B.64/1-45., P.903/858., 6089.821000

Born Modern: the Life and Work of Alvin Lustig by Steven Heller and Elaine Lustig Cohen (San Francisco: Chronicle, c2010) LC.31.b.7733

Purity of Aim: The Book Jacket Designs of Alvin Lustig by Ned Drew and Paul Sternberger (Rochester, N.Y.: RIT Cary Graphic Arts Press, c2010) YC.2017.a.13503