14 February 2023
In this second installment of a series of blogs, Philip Clark shares his experience of being a 2022 Eccles Centre and Hay Festival Writer's Award winner.1 The Writer's Award offers £20,000, a year's residency at the British Library to develop a forthcoming book, and the opportunity to showcase work at Hay Festival events in the UK and Latin America. Philip’s book – Sound and the City – will be a history of the sound of New York City and an investigation into what makes New York City sound like New York City.
For a few months at the end of last year, I communed daily with Dutch colonials of the mid-1600s. In various roles, taking various responsibilities, the likes of Peter Stuyvesant, Adriaen van der Donck, Peter Minuit, Willem Kieft and Cryn Fredericks established the city of New Amsterdam which, by 1664, had become the English colonial city of New York.
Having already taken the deepest of dives into 1920s New York, through the work of the composer Edgard Varèse and the novelist John Dos Passos, I decided that my book Sound and the City – my history of the sound of New York City – needed to flip the chronology on its head. The 1930s will follow, but later, and in the meantime I engineered a flashback to the beginnings of recordable time itself, and to the Ice Age. In the span of this history, the appearance of Dutch colonials a mere three-and-a-half centuries ago feels relatively contemporary. When they turn up, their interactions with the Indigenous People, who had populated that coast for centuries, pivots the story into something more like countable time, a reassuringly familiar turnaround of years, decades and centuries again after thinking about time in units of hundreds of thousands of years.
My subject is sound. Music-writers are often called upon to speculate about where music might be heading next, although writing this section of my book made me realise that second-guessing the root sounds of the deep past is no easy matter either. How do you ‘hear’ sounds of which no recorded example exists? Listening in to the modern-day city is normally a good starting point, and one afternoon last summer I took an ‘A’ train from Penn Station in midtown Manhattan to where the line terminates at Inwood 207th Street.
A fifteen-minute walk later, I found myself in deserted woodland, the trilling of sirens cutting through from downtown the only clue I was still in New York City. I’d come to Inwood Hill Park because this park, perched on the far northern tip of Manhattan, has preserved something of its prehistory. This is where you come to look at New York’s oldest rock formations; to trace how the imperceptible tread of glaciers scooped out what would become the landmass of New York. Inwood was the place Native Americans gravitated towards over centuries, its caves and bountiful ecosystem providing shelter and sustenance aplenty.
Although probably a wishful-thinking myth, Inwood Hill Park is also purportedly where, in 1626, Native Americans sold the island of Manhattan to the Dutch colonial governor Peter Minuit for 60 guilders. More likely, this meeting actually took place farther downtown, where Peter Minuit Plaza stands today, near Battery Park. But numerous mythologies all converge around the inlet of the park where the meeting was said to take place. This was where the British explorer Henry Hudson supposedly dropped anchor in September 1609, having made landfall a couple of weeks earlier at Sandy Hook. A tulip tree started growing there a century later and, as a commemorative plaque makes clear, the tree, 280 years old when it died in 1932, represented the last living link with the Native Americans who had lived here. In a city that became celebrated for high-rise structures, the tulip tree was a pioneer. Towering over the park, its height reportedly equivalent to a seventeen-storey building, it resonated as a marker of a past that had moved beyond collective memory – a potent symbol in a city that was otherwise engaged in relentlessly inventing its future.
Almost as soon as I arrived in the park, though, a shock. The 4G on my iPhone fizzled out, then Google maps froze, and I was rudderless. In an area of the park now called ‘The Cove’, the slug-like progression of glacial erosion spooned out the innards of the earth and the glacial potholes that resulted – some 50,000 years old – look bracingly abstract to me, like sculptures by Henry Moore or Seymour Lipton thwacked into the earth. They also look unmistakably like disembowelled speakers, I thought, with their cones ripped out, but still receptible to sound. My awareness that darkness was about to fall kept me moving, pushing through the woods, using paths trampled into the ground over centuries, with a covering of tulip trees above my head. I followed the reassuring rumble of cars and, more through good luck than canny navigation, found myself staring at the Henry Hudson Bridge, which crosses the river into the Bronx. At that precise moment my iPhone pinged back to life and I located my position. I was looking across at Spuyten Duvvil Creek – where the Hudson River meets the Harlem River Ship Canal – and the rock formations I could see, which I discovered subsequently are called Fordham Gneiss, are a billion years old.
A few weeks later, back in the relative safety of the Rare Books and Music Reading Room at the British Library, I searched for sources that might help explain my afternoon in Inwood Hill Park. This has been the rhythm of writing this book so far; intense field trips followed by equally intense research binges at the Library. Unpicking the mythologies surrounding the tulip tree took hours of poring over old newspapers and contemporary reports. Mythology should never be dismissed lightly. What mythologies tell us about a city’s sense of its own history is intriguing in itself. But chipping away the layers of folklore to reveal what actually happened was important too.
Something else that needed to be chipped away at: those ancient rock formations scattered around Inwood Hill Park. One great pleasure of British Library research is the ease with which you can slip outside your own area of expertise, and, in Rare Books and Music, I began a fingertip search through geological and flora-&-fauna reports relating to the park. My examination of New York’s oldest rock formations was about determining how nature created this giant resonating chamber later called New York City, where all sorts of sounds would happen. Slipstreams of sound ricocheting around the city is central to my obsession, and examining how geological activity established this field of play gave my book its roots.
The moment the colonials arrive, primary sources bounce into life. Adriaen van der Donck’s A Description of the New Netherlands (1641), Daniel Denton’s A Brief Description of New-York: Formerly Called New-Netherlands (1670) and Jaspar Dankers and Peter Sluyter’s Journal of a Voyage to New York (1679-1680) are all fantastically vibrant accounts of the emerging city of New Amsterdam and the surrounding wilderness. Colonial fascination with the possibilities of this new world against the reality of what had been there before, the presence of Indigenous people in particular, leaves a bitter aftertaste. Dutch colonialism was ultimately responsible for – through landgrab and brutal repression – the decline of Indigenous Peoples. One needs to be aware of this wider historical context using this material and read with caution, but there were little clues in each journal – a sound here, a sound there – that allowed me to build a soundscape.
A few basics became crystallised; the distinction between the ‘downtown’ of the New Amsterdam, the huburb around the fort, and the streets that fanned out around it, against the bucolic peace of the bouwerie farms beyond the city walls, where the East Village and Chinatown sit now. Jaspar Dankers and Peter Sluyter – a pair of visiting priests – took the same trip to Inwood Hill Park I did nearly 350 years later. Fortified by supplies of peaches from the local orchard, they tackled the churning “eddies and whirpools” of Spuyten Duvvil Creek in a hired canoe (which they complained was over-priced). My discovery, sitting in a reading room on Euston Road, that they saw the same rock formations which had filled me with awe: “two ridges of very high rocks, with a considerable space between them, displaying themselves majestically, and inviting all men to acknowledge in them the majesty, grandeur, power and glory of their creator”, sent shivers down my spine. Shaking hands across history with fellow travellers. Who, I note, had no need for 4G.
1. Philip Clark's first Writer's Award blog may be found here.
20 April 2022
In this first installment of a series of blogs, Philip Clark shares his experience of being a 2022 Eccles Centre and Hay Festival Writer’s Award winner. The Writer’s Award offers £20,000, a year’s residency at the British Library to develop a forthcoming book, and the opportunity to showcase work at Hay Festival events in the UK and Latin America. Philip’s book – Sound and the City – will be a history of the sound of New York City and an investigation into what makes New York City sound like New York City.
At last, I’ve made it. After two years of pandemic travel bans, followed by an embarrassing gaffe with my visa back in January, I’m writing this blog sitting in the café at Barnes & Noble bookstore on Union Square in New York City. Since my arrival, I’ve checked in religiously every morning at 9am for a few hours’ writing; ingrained habits, even when in the city in which we’re told sleep is optional, die hard. Wake up, write. That’s the rhythm. The Barnes & Noble café – the equivalent of the café in Foyles, Charing Cross Road, my usual haunt – is quiet, comfortable and studious. I write surrounded by fellow scribes and ferocious readers – also a young couple gazing into each other’s eyes over a chessboard, who were here yesterday, too. This café has character, although not so much character that I’m distracted from my work. And best of all – the book I’m writing, Sound and the City, a history of the sound of New York City, will, in a few years’ time, be sitting on one of the shelves here. In this space where it was partly written, an idea which appeals to me very much.
My book opens an investigation into what makes New York City sound like New York City, a soundscape completely different from, say, London, Paris or Berlin. What my book is not is a history of music in New York. Instead, the project is to piece together interwoven histories from architecture, geology, immigration, politics and city planning to explain the unique relationship this city has with sound. Alongside, I’m exploring how writers and musicians who have called this endlessly fascinating resonating chamber home have dealt with the sound of the city – a long, impressive role-call that includes Henry James, John Dos Passos, Antonín Dvořák, Edgard Varèse, Duke Ellington, John Cage, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Philip Glass, Bob Dylan, Meredith Monk, Ornette Coleman, Debbie Harry, Lou Reed, Don DeLillo, Grandmaster Flash, Cecil Taylor, Gloria Gaynor, DJ Kool Herc and Wu-Tang Clan.
What does New York do to an artist’s sense of pacing, proportion, structure? Of the sort of material they’re minded to put into their work and the way it behaves once they’ve put it there? In his memoir Words Without Music, published in 2015, Philip Glass claimed “My music sounds like New York”. Which is undoubtedly true. But so does the bebop of Charlie Parker, the modernist composition of Edgard Varèse, the rock of Debbie Harry and the nimble vocal gymnastics of Meredith Monk – none of which sound remotely like Glass. Could factors beyond musical style and idiom knit all this work together? It is my duty to find out.
As life drifted on between lockdowns, and I wondered whether travel would ever be a realistic proposition again, a fantasy New York ran riot inside my imagination. That said, ever since I discovered modern jazz, West Side Story, Morton Feldman and Bob Dylan in my mid-teens, some thirty-five years ago, I have always carried around my own inner-New York. The environment of the city, transferred to reality, felt entirely familiar to me when I started visiting seriously around 2005, testament to how much information its sonic footprint carries within it. New York played a crucial role in my previous book, a biography of the jazz pianist Dave Brubeck, A Life In Time, but there I needed to curb my enthusiasm; editing out superfluous city history became a continual necessity. Now the time has come to fully understand my New York fixation – why that fascination with the sound of its sound, and the sound of its music, has never left me alone.
Last year was spent immersing myself in histories of the city, and also in a pair of works that I knew would give my book its starting point: Edgard Varèse’s orchestral Amériques and John Dos Passos’ Manhattan Transfer. Dos Passos’ novel was published in November 1925, with the premiere of Varèse’s composition following only a few months later in April 1926. The degree to which these panoramic captures of the city mirror each other virtually word-to-note and note-to-word is uncanny. The steamboat whistles and fire engine sirens which Dos Passos describes so vividly are not merely evoked in the fabric of Varèse’s music – he literally wrote both machines into his piece, urban objets trouvés he made sing and holler.
Surely Varèse and Dos Passos had enjoyed long discussions about the meaning of art, life and the universe itself in various hostelries around the East Village? The closeness of their art suggests they must. Having won the Eccles Centre and Hay Festival Writer’s Award at the end of 2021, and now with the whole British Library at my disposal, this was one of the first questions I set out to answer: did they ever meet? Varèse, I read, enjoyed the company of the composers Carl Ruggles and Carlos Salzedo, the conductor Leopold Stokowski, the violinist Fritz Kreisler, the artist Marcel Duchamp – and there is also a documented encounter with the writer Theodore Dreiser. Dos Passos’ associates at the time included the writers E E Cummings, Hart Crane and Dawn Powell. At the British Library, I was very happy to find an extended critique by Sinclair Lewis of Manhattan Transfer, published in 1926, in which Lewis describes Dos Passos’ novel as “the moving symphony itself” and talks up the central role sound takes in the narrative (although Lewis’ respect for Dos Passos was, sadly, not reciprocated).
Plotting the various addresses before I left home where Dos Passos and Varèse lived in the mid-1920s – and then this week walking between them – I discover that they criss-crossed each other constantly and, during different periods, lived but a few blocks from each other. The hotel in which Varèse took up long-term residence when he first arrived from his native France in 1916 – The Brevoort on the corner of 8th Street and 5th Avenue – is where two characters in Dos Passos’ novel, Elaine Oglethorpe and George Baldwin, conduct their affair.
Novelist and composer are traceable to some of the same bars and cafés. Romany Marie’s famous bistro-tavern, the place in the Village where artists, musicians and writers met to talk, was a regular meeting place of Varèse’s – and surely Dos Passos went there too. Walking a block from 188 Sullivan Street, Varèse’s home from 1925 until his death in 1965, I find Caffe Reggio – the first café to bring cappuccino to the city is the boast – which opened its doors in 1927. Given Dos Passos’ love of European culture and Varèse’s yearning to find tastes of Europe in New York, could their paths have crossed there? And then there’s McSorley’s Old Ale House, opened around 1860, and subject of a poem by Dos Passos’ close friend E E Cummings. And we know that Varèse loved ale. His wife, Louise, in her memoir, Varèse: A Looking Glass Diary, tells us how he took a shine to a barmaid – who called him ‘Dearie’ – in a London pub, near Broadcasting House, when the BBC performed his piece Hyperprism in 1924. Degrees of separation melt away by the moment.
But even if they managed never to meet, my thesis holds firm. Varèse and Dos Passos walked those same sidewalks, listening deep into the sound of the city, and you feel that kinship in the work they produced. New York works as an artistic matchmaker apparently – even when artists are not aware it is happening.
09 February 2022
Catherine Eccles is an international literary scout and council member of the Eccles Centre.
'Every library is a journey; every book is a passport without an expiry date.'
It was through the good fortune of my involvement with the Eccles Centre that last month I found myself sitting in the arcaded courtyard of the Santa Clara Hotel – originally built as a convent in 1621 - in Cartagena, Colombia. Tall palm trees and an array of the healthiest tropical plants crowded the central space, while a variety of birdsong reminded me that I was in one of the most biodiverse countries in the world.
I was there to attend the Hay Festival, which through the year holds three Latin American book festivals – one in this fortressed former colonial port town on the Caribbean coast, the others in Peru and Mexico. More specifically, I was there to talk about the Eccles Centre Hay Festival Writer’s Award.
The award was established ten years ago, set up for authors whose works-in-progress would benefit from research in the British Library’s American collections. Initially the focus was on the North American and Caribbean collections. Then, three years ago, we journeyed south - heralded, as it turned out, by previous winner Andrea Wulf’s prize-winning biography of Alexander Humboldt - to include Spanish language writers and research in the library’s Latin American collections.1 Along with running the Writer’s Award, the Eccles Centre sponsors an event at each Latin American Hay Festival. This year the topic across the Eccles’ sponsored festivals is ‘The Value of Libraries’ - in a time when libraries have never been more relevant across the world.
The event in Cartagena took place just outside the walls of the old town of narrow streets and whitewashed houses with colourful balconies drooping with bougainvillea, in the Sala Barahona at the Centro de Convención. Cartagena is known as a party town, but at ten o’clock on a Sunday morning the room was full. Many in the audience were librarians, keen to hear from the panellists: Irene Vallejo, author of El infinito en un junco (Infinity in a Reed), and librarians and campaigners Martín Murillo, Silvia Castrillon and Luis Bernado Yepes. Murillo is a cult figure in Colombia, famous for taking books to the people in the streets in a cart similar to those used by the country’s fruit sellers. Yepes grew up in a large family in the barrios of Medellin and says books saved him from a life of crime and violence; and Castrillon creates book clubs to transform how people read. The discussion was moderated by famous children’s author and journalist, Yolanda Reyes.
Over the four-day festival I learnt there cannot be a discussion on any subject without taking into account the legacy of decades of violence suffered by the Colombian people and the sociopolitical landscape that has emerged since peace agreement was signed in 2016. Books might be seen as a privilege, but the panel at Cartagena discussed them as something essential: a tool to save the world, a reminder of humanity especially in a time of violence and a gateway to knowledge that will help close the inequality gap. There was a suggestion that access to books and libraries should be a human right and there have been attempts to legislate for this in Colombia, so far unsuccessful. The work of libraries is an ethical as well as a political responsibility. Revolution is not always dramatic. It can be slow and writers and libraries can play a part in that, gradually changing the world. Libraries hold and keep knowledge safe, persevering history and memory and serving to thwart the circle of violence. Another event I attended at the festival was a discussion about the degradation of war and the importance of breaking silence and bearing witness in order to move on without forgetting for communities caught in the crossfire of warring factions. This is at the centre of a reconciliation process that in Colombia remains fragile
While I was there I read two books to help me understand this captivating but troubled country, one fiction and one non-fiction. The first was Evelio Rosero’s hallucinatory novel Los ejércitos (The Armies).2 This is set in a community beset by violence and is narrated by an old man whose grip on the horrific reality being played out on the streets of his town is slipping. The other was honorary Colombian Wade Davis’ Magdalena: River of Dreams, a journey down the great river that runs from south to north of the country.3 The book encompasses a history from pre-Colombian times, through Spanish occupation, independence and recent times. If there is one book to read to comprehend Colombia, Magdalena is a very good bet, but it was the searing ending of Los ejércitos that reminded me of how vital fiction can be in exploring difficult subjects in a way non-fiction cannot. Each has its essential role, which is reflected in the fact that the Writer’s Award is open to both. Writers and librarians are the custodians of narratives and testimony as well as ideas for the future across the world. Books indeed can save and transform lives.
1. Andrea Wulf, The Invention of Nature: the adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, the lost hero of science. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2015. British Library shelfmark: General Reference Collection DRT.ELD.DS.39324.
2. Evelio Rosero, Los Ejércitos. México, D.F.: Tusquets Editores México, 2007. British Library shelfmark: General Reference Collection YF.2009.a.34322; The Armies. London: MacLehose, 2010. Translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean. British Library shelfmark: General Reference Collection DRT.ELD.DS.10242
3. Wade Davis, Magdalena: River of Dreams. London: Vintage Digital, 2020. British Library shelfmark: General Reference Collection DRT.ELD.DS.495199.
06 August 2021
This blog by Pola Oloixarac is part of a special Summer Scholars blog series highlighting recent research across the British Library's Americas collections by scholars and creatives associated with the Eccles Centre, including those supported by the Centre's Awards.
Travel has changed a lot since the early naturalists voyaged through the Amazonia, and it continues to change today thanks to Covid restrictions. While I’ve been unable to foray in person into the archives of the British Library as I was hoping - summer, London, arcane tomes - I’ve had the luck of encountering the mighty digital explorer, Dr Aleksandra Kaye. Dr Kaye knows her way around the British Library’s vast digital archives and like any sensible 19th century naturalist seeking help from a guide, I secured her expertise in unearthing their intricate holdings.
In the first written accounts of the Amazon, the anthropological gaze is under-developed. Though entranced by the power of landscape, the earliest naturalists typically didn’t consider the human culture they encountered. The richness of the human Amazonian world typically escape their notice. Indeed, where Amazonian people are referenced, early accounts by European naturalists are explicitly racist. One explorer, however, who did take some account of indigenous people was the French painter Hercules Florence, although how he saw them was problematic. He travelled to the Amazon from 1825 to 1829 and ended up spending his life in Brazil.
What excited Florence was undiscovered places and he was uninterested in indigenous village life. He remarked in his diary that the jungle is repetitive and that, "to see a Brazilian village, is to see them all"1. He became obsessed with capturing the unchartered territory and capturing it through sound and image with pioneering technology. Florence experimented making photographs in Brazil in 1833 and wanted to record the sounds of what surrounded him. This led him to devise a method to record wild bird song in the Amazon. While looking for a way to record sound, he stumbled into photography. Indeed, while trying to publicise his experiments in sound recording he managed to devise the first printing machine in Sao Paulo.
In the first page of his diary he mentions the expedition slaves, noting that all humans become the same bundle of flesh under the severity of the Amazonian environment. When the expedition’s commander, Gregory Langsdorff (Fig. 1, below) succumbs to yellow fever, Florence notes that illness made no distinction about social class in the context of the Amazon.
Langsdorff claimed to be the first to attempt the fluvial crossing of Brazil, from Pantanal to Belum. Until now it was believed that the first trip was in 1825 but Dr Kaye’s research has revealed a precursor: there was a previous trip funded by the Imperial Russian court and led by Adam Johan Krussertern in which Langsdorff took part. Before his trip with Florence in 1825, Langsdorff had added himself hastily and at his own expense to the Krussertern expedition as a second naturalist (the first was Wilhm Gottlieb Tilesius). Langsdorff, therefore, went into the Amazon at least two times, around 1803-1807. These earlier expeditions could explain why the subsequent Langsdorff trip a few decades later was hardly noticed by the very Russians who funded it, considering it, perhaps, redundant. Indeed, the reports of the Langsdorff investigation languished in St Petersburg for over a century largely undiscovered.
Langsdorff’s story is a reminder of how much these exploratory naturalist expeditions had in common with modern filmmaking. Langsdorff had, in effect, been to the Amazon first as a location scout (1803-1807), but his vision of the Amazon and the legacy of his expedition could not exist without artists to document the trip. For his 1825-1829 expedition - the one that would make him famous - Langsdorff only wanted the very best artists. He hired Johan Moritz Rugendas, but their relationship faltered when the Prussian commander sought to take ownership of the artist’s original works. Rugendas, however, was aware of his own worth as an artist and would not bow to Langsdorff. The Brazilian diaries of both Rugendas and Langsdorff paint the latter in a negative light: Langsdorff was controlling and wanted Rugendas to assign him copyright, but the artist resisted and ultimately deserted the expedition.
This is how Hercules Florence joined the trip as a second painter to first painter André Taunay. Traveling with Langsdorff, Hercules Florence experimented with photography (he called it “painting with light”). He claimed to be its first inventor, documenting his attempts using silver nitrate and natural acids like urea. Despite these claims, however, Dr Kaye found that Alexander Agassiz, also claimed to be the first to use photography through carbon printing for general illustrations of natural history. In 1871 Agassiz made this claim in the pages of the Bulletin of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard College (British Library shelfmark Ac.1736/26), where his father, Louis Agassiz, was an acclaimed professor. Agassiz argues that photography is likely to overtake lithography as a mode of illustrating natural history and includes two photographs with his work. His view that the new printing technology would withstand the test of time is born out by the archive; and 150 years later, we can look at these photographs at the British Library.
Did Agassiz know of Florence’s efforts to make pictures by “painting with light”? Or was Florence unknown to his contemporaries, even those working as naturalists in Brazil? These questions beg answers. For now, we can only reflect on the fact that the London edition of the early Langsdorff travels (before his trip with Florence) is much more richly illustrated and complete than the American version. In the UK edition we find a lithograph of a Brazilian house (Fig. 3, below) and a musical score called “Brazilian Air” (Fig. 4, below). Both are accessible digitally, which makes comparing them possible. The US edition from 1817 has been digitized by the British Library and is in the public domain - the UK edition from 1813 is only available digitally inside the library, but the University of Alberta digitized their copy and made it publicly available. The London edition was published in two separate volumes, while the US edition has less images, is more cramped and in smaller format and is published as a single book. As a consequence the US edition would have been cheaper to produce and therefore more accessible to bigger audiences.
Another interesting item with connections to Brazil uncovered by Dr Kaye is a 1916 book of short stories by Edith Wharton, the American author, called Xingú, and Other Stories (London; New York printed: Macmillan, 1916; British Library shelfmark NN.4057). The “Xingú” text portrays a dialogue between elite ladies who cannot fathom what is meant by Xingú. They think Xingú is something mysterious or rude, which creates quite a lot of drama among them. Eventually they discover it’s a Brazilian River. The text keeps you wondering, what would The Age of Innocence (Mrs. Wharton’s vivid masterpiece) be like, if set in the Império do Brasil? A crossover of the directors Martin Scorsese and Joaquim Machado de Assis, with vast corridors of palms, would surely depict a young emperor obsessed with becoming a masterful photographer, like Dom Pedro II of Brazil once was. He would have been especially pleased about finding the British Library's digital versions of his photographs available today.
Pola Oloixarac is the author of the novels Savage Theories, Dark Constellations and Mona. She’s the recipient of the 2021 Eccles Centre and Hay Festival Writer's Award.
1. Hercule Florence Diary: http://etnolinguistica.wdfiles.com/local--files/biblio:kossoy-1977-florence/kossoy_1977_hercules_florence.pdf
22 May 2019
Where does the personal reside in our understanding of history, social issues and human experience? And what does the form of the memoir distinctively illuminate?
In 2018 novelist Tessa McWatt used her residency as an Eccles British Library Writer’s Award holder to work on a memoir on race and story-telling which traced the hybridity of her genetic make-up and the issues of racism she has faced on both sides of the ‘divide’. Her practice-based research is engaged in issues of colonialism and the historical and structural underpinnings of the creation of race and how her personal experience has been embedded in those structures.
On 3 June, Tessa will be speaking at the British Library in conversation with two historians, Sarah Knott and Norma Clarke, chaired by Erica Wagner, to talk about how embracing their own experiences and investing in the memoir form has enabled them to develop and extend their work as scholars and writers. In preparation for their event, we asked them to given an example of how an historical item from the archive helped inform their projects: Sarah on maternity, Norma on family and Tessa on race.
1949 New York. Otis Burger wanted to stop each contraction and see what it felt like. It was odd having an entirely new sensation inside. She had been reading the English doctor Grantly Dick-Read, who thought childbirth should be painless ‒ disliking his determination to reduce women to their biology, but appreciating his tenderness. Her fear was the hospital feeling of being naked, and at the mercy of strangers, like a specimen of some sort. Male doctors were condescending; they seemed to think the difficulty was all in the mother’s mind and that birth was too much of a commonplace for the mother to make such a silly fuss.
Otis Burger wrote her remarkable maternal memoir, An Interesting Condition, some decades before the women’s liberation movement encouraged others to pick up their pens and make maternity properly visible. The book was unusual enough that it was printed not just in her New York but also in London, thus making its way into the hands of ordinary English readers as well as the collections of the British Library. That she published under a pseudonym was some indication of the taboos that needed to be broken.
In writing Mother: An Unconventional History, I plundered personal writings like these to understand past experiences of pregnancy, birth and being with an infant. And I took inspiration, too, from what happens when you think, like Otis Burger, in a memoir form. Blending memoir into history, and history into memoir, I found myself asking questions I might otherwise have overlooked. In bleary sleeplessness and with an infant close at hand, I wondered, what was the history of the maternal night? Or, what were the new sensations of feeling continually interrupted, or hearing the sound of an infant’s cry? I found answers not just in past memoirs but in a host of other kinds of materials to be found in libraries and archives, from leather-bound how-to guides to slave narratives and social scientists’ surveys, to private letters and scribbled diaries.
Sarah Knott, Mother (Penguin Viking, 2019)
Not Speaking tells the story of a family quarrel and it does so partly through conventional narrative, partly through oral history interviews and partly by means of investigations into literary subjects: Homer’s Iliad with its quarrelling heroes features throughout, Pope’s poem, The Rape of the Lock, has traction (brother hairdressers Nicky and Michael Clarke are at the heart of the story) and Robert Graves and George Sand in Majorca figure because Majorca is one of the settings, along with Athens and London. I had no intention of researching Maria Callas and it was only by accident that she became included. But asking my mother questions about her life as a girl growing up in Athens led me down unexpected byways. The mother of Prince Philip, for example, Princess Alice, had remained in Athens during the war, and spoke very good Greek; my mother admired her. Maria Callas was also in Athens. Maria left Greece in 1945 and turned her back on her mother and sister, declaring that they hated her and she them. The women were no longer on speaking terms. And then I read a quote from Callas that riveted me: ‘I know my mother wrote a book about me, but I never read it.’
Her mother wrote a book about her! Books by daughters about mothers are ten a penny, but books by mothers about daughters? I couldn’t wait to read it. I rushed to the British Library, and within 70 minutes I had in my hands, My Daughter – Maria Callas, by Evangelia Callas (1960). It’s a book that vibrates with fury, and I reflected that Maria was probably right to keep it at a distance, but for me it was revelatory.
Norma Clarke, Not Speaking (Unbound, 2019)
“What Are You?”
It’s a question I was asked as an eight-year old in a suburban Toronto classroom by my teacher, after the word “Negro” came up in a book the class was reading. It was a word that none of the kids in the room – all ‘white’ except for me -- knew the meaning of.
Shame on Me began as a journey to understand how to answer the question. It looks at all of the strands of my genetic make-up – Scottish, African, English, Irish, Chinese, South Asian -- to find some kind of meaning in biology. But when I began to research the history of race, of the particular ‘miscegenations’ that formed me, it occurred to me that it’s all down to story-telling. I might as well ask an oracle.
Then I came across the Chinese Oracle Bone (dating from between 1600 BC and 1050 BC) in the British Library. I was hooked. I started to frame my book around the idea that ‘knowing’ is storytelling. I saw the Chinese oracle bone as an ancient 23&Me. Diviners used them to answer the elite’s questions about health, birth and death; about crops, the weather; about the outcome of battles or simply whether a particular ancestor was causing a king’s headache. The shoulder blades of ox, sheep, boars, horses and deer, or the shells of tortoises were cleaned of flesh, scraped, polished, and then diviners carved questions into them using a sharp tool. During a divination session, the bone was anointed with blood before questions were posed to ancestors. The diviner then applied such intense heat that the bone or shell cracked, and he interpreted the pattern of the fractures to answer the questions posed.
A bone with the power to provide these kinds of answers would surely provide an answer to ‘What are You?’
Tessa McWatt, Shame on Me: An Anatomy of Race and Belonging (Scribe UK, forthcoming, October 2019)
To find out more, join Sarah, Norma and Tessa in conversation with Erica Wagner at the British Library on Monday 3 June. More details: https://www.bl.uk/events/memoir-identity-experience
09 May 2018
Above: John Rocque's, 'A General Map of North America' [Maps K.Top.118.32]
Our colleagues from the Americas Collections have kindly allowed us a slot on the blog, so we thought we would let you know about some changes that are coming to the Eccles Centre. Spring is a particularly exciting time of year for the Eccles Centre as we welcome our new Visiting Fellows. Our Fellows are drawn from across the UK, Europe and North America and the Centre provides them with a financial award to support research using the North American collections of the British Library, plus a one-year membership of the Library.
Our Visiting Fellowships announcement marks the end of our 2018 awards and so our attention is now turning to calls for applications for our 2019 cohort. An invitation to apply for the Centre’s Fulbright Scholarship is now available on the Fulbright website and we will soon be advertising the next round of our Writer’s Award. Those of you who read The Bookseller will have seen Catherine Eccles’s recent piece about the award and noted that the scope of works eligible will stretch across the whole Americas during 2019. Watch this space for more details.
Further changes to our awards will be obvious when our call for 2019 Fellows comes out this summer. We are keen to help applicants see the potential of the Library’s collections more clearly and so from 2019 there will be a series of research priorities championed by the Centre. These are not meant to be exclusive, we still want to hear about all research the Library’s North American collections can support, and instead provide a window into areas where the collections are particularly strong. The priorities will also shape the Centre’s events schedule for the coming year and, hopefully, create a cohort of fellows working in similar areas. With this in mind the priorities for April 2018 – April 2019 will be:
- North American and Caribbean Indigenous Studies
- Literary, theatrical and artistic connections in Canada, the Caribbean and the US
- Book history and arts in North America
- Pacific politics and geopolitics
- Migration in/from/through Canada, the Caribbean and the US
- LGBTQ histories and culture in Canada, the Caribbean and the US
Should anyone wish to discuss possible research projects, collaborations or events that tie in with these priority areas please get in touch with us at [email protected].
Evidence of our research priorities can be seen in the Centre’s upcoming events for the spring and summer, with ‘Buffalo Bill Goes to China’ and ‘The Death of Captain Cook’ speaking directly to our new priorities. So too does the Centre’s support of the British Library’s, ‘Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land’ and the season of events that accompanies the exhibition. We are also excited to be supporting an, 'In Conversation' with The Last Poets; Sarah Churchwell’s critical history of ‘America First’; and our two Black Lives Matter events, ‘From Black Lives Matter to White Power Presidency’ and ‘Black Lives Matter in the US and UK Today’, amongst our packed schedule
We hope the changes to the Centre excite you as much as they do us and we look forward to seeing you at one of our events soon.
Phil Hatfield, Head of the Eccles Centre for American Studies
25 September 2017
In 1849, Sarah Royce left her Iowa home and set off with her husband and daughter for California. Reading Royce’s stoic memoir, A Frontier Lady (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1932; shelfmark: 010409.ee.40) I wondered how she really felt as she crossed America in pursuit of her husband’s dreams. My curiosity evolved in my second novel, which follows two women from Chicago to California during the Gold Rush.
Sarah Royce. A Frontier Lady: Recollections of the Gold Rush and Early California. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1932. (Shelfmark: 010409.ee.40)
I’ve been studying first-hand accounts of other women who made that very journey—from the good-natured letters of Mary-Jane Megquier to the pessimistic journal of Mary Bailey. But though these accounts are often vivid, I’ve struggled to imagine the landscapes they describe—the blankness of the plains, the bitter waste of the desert, the steep green relief of the Sierras. So, with the support of the Eccles Centre, I decided to make the journey myself.
The California Zephyr train travels the 2,438 miles from Chicago to San Francisco. It broadly follows Royce’s route; but where Royce’s journey took six months, the train takes fifty-two hours. It was a thrill to watch scenery I’d previously encountered only in books—the lonely prairies, the great bloody sunsets, the strange sunken rivers of the high desert.
The prairies of Iowa. Image, author's own.
Seeing the landscape first-hand made a journey that was previously only an idea, a reality. And while I often encountered the unexpected—I hadn’t grasped that the trail was continuously flanked by mountains from the onset of the Rockies, nor had I anticipated that the Utah desert would look so like the moon—much of the landscape was as I had pictured it in the library.
A sunken river in Utah. Image, author's own.
The trip was revelatory; but it also gave me confidence to write what I’d already imagined. For me, confidence is one of the most important outputs of researching fiction. As Zadie Smith said, “It’s such a confidence trick, writing a novel. The main person you have to trick into confidence is yourself.”
Hannah is a joint winner of this year's Eccles British Library Writer's Award. More information about this Award, and all of the Eccles Centre's activities, can be found at www.bl.uk/eccles-centre
Sources: Apron Full of Gold: The Letters of Mary Jane Megquier from San Francisco, 1849-1856, edited with an introduction by Polly Welts Kaufman. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1994 (shelfmark: YA.1995.a.22660); Ho for California!: Women's Overland Diaries from the Huntington Library, edited and annotated by Sandra L Myres. San Marino: Huntington Library, 1980 (shelfmark: Document Supply 80/24701).
02 May 2017
I’m using my 2017 Eccles British Library Writer’s Award to research and write my second novel, Catspaw, which follows two women from Chicago to the Sierra foothills during the California Gold Rush. Women are largely excluded from the mythic-historic narrative of the Gold Rush. Those that do appear are marginal, stereotypical characters: the long-suffering, godly pioneer mother (Sarah Royce), or the savvy prostitute (Belle Cora). I want to tell a story of two women who don’t conform to these stereotypes.
Portrait of Helen Carpenter (Courtesy of the Edward E. Ayer Collection, the Newberry Library, Chicago), from Ho for California!: Women's Overland Diaries from the Huntington Library, edited and annotated by Sandra L. Myres. San Marino: Huntington Library, 1980 Shelfmark: 80/24701
Women were in the minority in the 1849 migration west; but they were there, and they encountered difficulties and opportunities that were unimaginable back east. I wanted to understand the experiences of these women in their own words. Sarah Royce’s renowned memoir, A Frontier Lady (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1932; shelfmark 010409.ee.40) left me with more questions than answers. Written at the urging of her philosopher son Josiah Royce, it tells the story he wanted her to tell—one of Christian fortitude as foundational to California. It left me wondering how she really felt as she left Iowa with her somewhat hapless husband and toddler daughter, bound for the unknown. John Irving wrote that "all memoir is fiction"; but I wanted to read female first-hand accounts that weren’t so starkly in service of a higher narrative.
Portrait of Mary Jane Megquier, from a daguerreotype about 1853, from Apron Full of Gold: The Letters of Mary Jane Megquier from San Francisco, 1849-1856. Edited by Robert Glass Cleland. San Marino: Huntington Library, 1949. Shelfmark: W.P.9803/40
The Eccles Centre’s bibliographical guide, Women in the Trans-Mississippi West, 1840-1900 (London: British Library, 1999; shelfmark YC.2000.a.575 ), helped me locate these accounts. From the letters of the outspoken Mary Jane Megquier, with her longing for "a line" from home and her good-natured complaints of "jiggers in [her] feet, a small insect that lays its eggs in your flesh"; to the witty journal of Helen Carpenter ("there is nothing in sight to merit the name Rocky Mountains—no rocks"); to the letters of Louise Clappe, with her sheer enchantment with "this solemnly beautiful wilderness"—these first-hand accounts are invaluable in helping me develop the voices of my female protagonists. I can’t imagine writing my novel without them.
References: Apron Full of Gold: The Letters of Mary Jane Megquier from San Francisco, 1849-1856. Edited by Robert Glass Cleland. San Marino: Huntington Library, 1949. (Shelfmark: W.P.9803/40); California in 1851: The Letters of Dame Shirley, introduction and notes by Carl I. Wheat. San Francisco: Grabhorn Press, 1933. 2 vols. (Shelfmark: YD.2004.a.1634 & YD.2004.a.1493); Ho for California! Women's Overland Diaries from the Huntington Library, edited and annotated by Sandra L. Myres. San Marino, CA: Huntington Library Press, 1980. (Shelfmark: 80/24701
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