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

03 October 2019

National Poetry Day

National Poetry Day is a UK-wide celebration of poetry held annually in October. The theme for 2019 is 'Truth' and this year also marks the 25th anniversary of the national event.  The British Library will be joining celebrations by hosting the Josephine Hart Poetry Hour in the evening of National Poetry Day with leading actors reading aloud the poetry of  Byron, Keats and Shelley. You can find out more information here.

On the theme of Truth, the Americas and Australasian team have put forward two of their favourite poems. The first marks truth in the sparseness of the text: a poem laid bare and stripped of punctuation and capitalisation.  The second offers truth in the language and the message: a bilingual poem for a bilingual country.

‘The Red Wheelbarrow’, found in Go Go by William Carlos Williams (New York: Monroe Wheeler, 1923), Cup.501.aa.35.

Chosen by Rachael (Curator, American Printed Collections Post 1850)

I love how Williams conveys such a vivid image with so few words in ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’, and the fact that whenever I think about the poem I’m able to picture not only the scene the words create, but the layout of the words themselves. To me, the poem is as striking to look at as its flow is to hear when you read it aloud. I can’t help but pause for breath whenever I finish it; it makes me think of how it’s possible to find beauty in even the simplest or most seemingly ‘every day’ of things. The poem first appeared in Spring and All in 1923, under the title ‘xxii’. In Go Go (pictured here) it has the title we are familiar with and is printed alongside Williams’s ‘The Hermaphroditic Telephones’, which was the first time this particular poem had ever been presented.

Tātai Whetū: Seven Māori Women Poets in Translation edited by Maraea Rakuraku and Vana Manasiadis (Wellington, New Zealand: Seraph Press, 2018) YD.2018.a.3672

Chosen by Lucy (Curator, Australasian Printed Collections Post 1850)


Cover image of book Tātai Whetū: Seven Māori Women Poets in Translation   Text of the poem Rākau by Alice Te Punga Somerville

Tātai Whetū is a delicately handbound chapbook in the Seraph Press Translation Series celebrating Māori writing and te reo Māori (the Māori language). This bilingual collection of poems from seven women writers has text in both te reo Māori and English. The featured poets are Anahera Gildea, Michelle Ngamoki, Tru Paraha, Kiri Piahana-Wong, Maraea Rakuraku, Dayle Takitimu and Alice Te Punga Somerville. Their poems have been translated by Hēmi Kelly, Te Ataahia Hurihanganui, Herewini Easton, Jamie Cowell, Vaughan Rapatahana and Dayle Takitimu

From this beautful collection, I have chosen the poem pictured above. Rākau is by Alice Te Punga Somerville, an indigenous scholar whose poem was selected for the 2018 publication of Best New Zealand Poems journal. The poem has been translated from English into te reo Māori by Te Ataahia Hurihanganui and you can listen to Rākau in both languages here on the Best New Zealand Poems site.  'Rākau' refers to both wood and a tree in the Māori language and the poem explores the link between the careful carving of wood and the acquisition of a language which has long been hidden in the learner.

Below is the poem in English.

We know that carvers coax something or someone
Who’s already there in the wood.
They remove small pieces of timber, one by one,
until it’s ready.

         
We both know a language is waiting inside my tongue.

Please put down the adze, the skillsaw, the file:
Speak gently to me so I can recognise what’s there.

No, don’t chip away at pink flesh and taste buds:
Oozing and swollen, I will choke on my blood
before you’re done.

The wood you’re trying to carve is still a tree.

 

 

25 September 2019

From the Collections: Pacific

Or_16453_plate_5 (Perry in Japan)

A Japanese manuscript illustration of Commodore Perry's ships, BL: Or.16453.

I have been fortunate in my career to be asked to write not one but two books by British Library Publishing (BLP). The second of these, released on Monday, is Pacific: An Ocean of Wonders and it draws from work on the collections I was fortunate to do while variously curating the Australasian, Canadian and United States collections.

The origin of the book lies in Lines in the Ice, my first with BLP, which raised a question, what was it about the Pacific that was so important people were prepared to risk freezing temperatures, starvation and death in order to find an Arctic passage to the ocean? During my subsequent work with the collections I had various opportunities to get glimpses into the why of this, trade, politics and power being the most significant parts of any answer. Through this research, however, something else became apparent, that the agency, influence and continuing significance of islands in and around the Pacific Ocean is often undervalued. These places, upon which narratives about sailors such as James Cook are most often constructed, should in fact be the focus of our attention in and of themselves. As with many before me, I am indebted to the writings of Pacific scholar Epeli Hauʻofa whose argument that the interconnectedness of the islands of the Pacific and their cultures is key to understanding the human history of the ocean at large.

14000_i_zoophytes_plate_4 (Dana corals)

Above: One of J. C. Dana's many plates depicting Pacific corals, from the atlas of the United States Exploring Expedition, BL: 14000.i.

Hauʻofa’s work shaped the focus of Pacific and led to its broad scope which traces a history through and around islands across the whole expanse of the ocean. What made this possible, ultimately, is the collections of the British Library. The book does use materials from elsewhere, generously provided by the Library of Congress, David Rumsey Map Collection and other institutions, as well as extremely helpful individuals, not least Bob Patterson and Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun, but the core of the book draws from the Library. As the old promotional line used to say, the British Library is, ‘The World’s Knowledge’, a vast, polyglot and interconnected collection that provides access to myriad historical and cultural perspectives. Pacific therefore draws not just from the printed books, manuscripts, maps and other collections from North America and Australasia, it also utilises collections relating to China, Japan, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Netherlands, Russia, Spain and many others.

Which brings me, eventually, to the point of this post. Despite my career as a curator I would not have been able to find many of the wonderful, insightful items used in Pacific without the help of my curatorial colleagues. That being the case, this post is a public thank you to them. Very (and I mean very) few things in a public collection are ‘discovered’, almost everything held has been through the hands of cataloguers, stampers, conservators, curators and many other colleagues who, in different ways, know these collections intimately. Non-specialists in their areas (myself included) may often forget or miss what is held in institutions like the British Library, but they know the collections intimately and are our remote (through catalogue records, and so on) and direct guides. For Pacific, I am particularly grateful to Hamish Todd and colleagues for their help with the Library’s Japanese collections, as well as Nick Dyke for the tireless cataloguing work he and his team have done on modern maps. On top of this, colleagues across the Western Heritage, Asian and African and Americas and European Collections, as well as our teams working on cataloguing, placing and in the reading rooms all had a hand in making this book possible.

Kalakaua and Grant (v2)

President Grant receives King Kalākaua of the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi, Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, 2 January 1875.

All of which is to say that this book, like most other research conducted in libraries, archives and so on, is a huge work of collaboration that would be impossible without all the often unattributed hands that go into making the research underpinning it possible. And it doesn’t end there, the British Library Publishing team, including editor Abbie Day and picture editor Sally Nicholls, their designers, copy editors and proof readers, the Library’s Events team, our Shop and many, many others all played a huge part in getting the book made, completed and into the hands of the public. So, really, this is less a post to promote Pacific and more an acknowledgement of all the people who bring a project like this to completion. Everyone who worked on the book and cares for the collections it displays had a role in bringing it to completion and we should all have our names on the front cover.

[PJH]

23 September 2019

‘To Robert Frank I now give this message: You got eyes’

And who would disagree with Jack Kerouac’s assessment of the Swiss-born American photographer, who died at the age of 94 on 9th September. There have already been numerous obits etc on Frank by others more expert on the subject than me, so I thought I would just take a brief look at the publishing history of Frank’s most well-known book -The Americans.

Frank was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship in 1955 for his project 'to photograph freely throughout the United States, using the miniature camera exclusively…,' his application having gained support from a number of photographer luminaries such as Walker Evans and Edward Steichen. The funding enabled him to make several trips from New York over 1955/56, including one 8 month trip to the West Coast in a 1950 Ford Coupe. Frank took over 20,000 images on nearly 800 rolls of 35 mm film, many of them being processed and contact printed en route, which no doubt enabled him to more easily review and develop some of the themes which recur in his work – symbols of popular culture, race and class, religion, music etc. Frank later wrote “I have attempted to show a cross-section of the American population. My effort was to express it simply and without confusion. The view is personal….” (quoted in The Book of 101 Books, edited by Andrew Roth, PPP Editions, New York, 2001, p.150).

Thirty-three of these photos appeared at the end of 1957 in US Camera Annual, but Frank's intention had always been to produce a book. From his huge collection of images, he somehow managed to select just eighty-three photos, but finding a publisher proved to be even more difficult. It was Frank’s friend Robert Delpire, the influential Paris-based art publisher, editor and curator, who was eventually to publish ‘Les Américains’ in 1958. It’s interesting to take a closer look at this first edition since it’s a very different book to the later and much better known American edition, even though the photos and the sequence of them is exactly the same. Delpire had a strong interest in documentary photography - and his own distinct vision for the book. In addition to contributing his own writing, Alain Bosquet (poet, novelist and translator) gathered together texts by writers as diverse as Simone de Beauvoir, Erskine Caldwell, John Dos Passos, Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, Richard Wright, Walt Whitman and many many more to accompany the photos. Appearing in Delpire’s Encyclopédie Essentielle series in 1958, Les Américains also includes sections on significant dates in US history, population statistics, and encompasses themes such as politics, religion and so on. Frank’s photographs therefore become more like illustrations to a sociological and political text. Each photo faces a page of text and our reading of the photos is inevitably influenced by what appears in that text. As David Levi Strauss has commented, ‘That powerful image from Dolores Park in San Francisco where the African American couple turns toward the camera in anger is wholly influenced by the facing page quotes from Faulkner and John Brown (The Book of 101 Books as above). As you will also see from the below image, no photograph was included on the cover, rather it has some drawings by Saul Steinberg.

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Les Américains. Photographies de Robert Frank [RF.2017.a.63]

It’s not surprisingly that Frank wasn’t overly happy about this edition, and sought to persuade Grove Press to publish an American edition. Fortunately he was successful and this time all the texts were removed, not least because some of them were considered too critical of the US, un-American in fact. For this we can be thankful. As already mentioned, the eighty-three photos and their sequencing remain the same, but now each photo is opposite a white page, blank save for a small caption which provides the location of each image (much like the format of Walker Evans’ earlier and influential American Photographs, which Frank so admired). Now we have the space to appreciate the photographs and we can interpret just as we want all those images of flags, funerals, cars, jukeboxes and so on. The one other difference is that this edition, of course, carries an introduction by Jack Kerouac. The two men had met at a party in 1957 and Frank had shown Kerouac some of the photos from his road trips. It’s not hard to imagine why they had appealed to Kerouac, whose novel On The Road appeared in September of that year. ‘The humor, the sadness, the EVERYTHING-ness and American-ness of these pictures!’ The introduction is an almost perfect accompaniment, and also helped to situate Frank as a part of the Beat Generation. In fact, by the time the edition appeared in 1959, Frank was already exploring the medium of film and was making Pull My Daisy with Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso et al.

Surprising as it might now seem, the reception of The Americans on publication was quite mixed. Some people loved it, but it also attracted a lot of criticism, both for the quality of the images (described as blurry and grainy) but also some considered it to promote a too negative view of America. It is also hard to believe that the MOMA bookshop even refused to stock it at first. Of course now it has become one of the most influential and celebrated photobooks of the Twentieth Century. As David Campany has written, it was a survey of ‘all that seemed uncomfortable in the American psyche, captured by a photographer with a rare ability to turn the most unpromising moments into new symbols,’ describing it as the ‘visual equivalent to jazz’. (David Campany, The Open Road, Aperture, 2014, p.25). The jazz analogy often appears in writing on the book, and I particularly like this sentence on the sequencing of the photos from Martin Parr and Gerry Badger’s The Photobook: a history, vol. 1. ‘Ideas ebb and flow, are introduced, discarded, recapitulated, transfigured, transposed, played off and piled up against each other with the exuberant energy of a Charlie Parker saxophone solo.’ (Phaidon 2004, p.247).

Sadly the BL does not have a copy of the first edition of The Americans since what we now refer to as photobooks were usually not considered for acquisition for the old reference collections in the past. Consequently, the only copies of many American photobooks that we have are often in what used to be the old lending collections. Some gaps have been filled more recently but first editions are usually too expensive these days as they have become so collectable. At the end of the day, it’s the images that you want so reprints still work for many purposes.  In this case, the Library has an Aperture edition from 1969 (shelfmark AL69/4991) which includes a section of filmstrip images at the end (Frank comments that they ‘represent for me the continuation of my work’) plus several later reprints and editions. We do, however, have Les Américains (Shelfmark RF.2017.a.63). David Levi Strauss has said that ‘The French edition is sociology, the American edition is poetry.’ You can look at them both and decide for yourself.

I started with Kerouac so I’ll end with him too:

‘Robert Frank, Swiss, unobtrusive, nice, with that little camera that he raises and snaps with one hand he sucked a sad poem right out of America onto film, taking rank among the tragic poets of the world!’

1IMG_20190916_1353407

(above copy of The Americans is my own copy of the 50th anniversary edition, published by Steidl in 2008)

 

By Carole Holden