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

22 November 2019

Literary lip warmers for Movember

Over the past few years the month of November has become synonymous with the moustache all in the name of Movember – the leading global organisation committed to changing the face of men's health.

So we thought it was only right to pay homage to some of our favourite bros with enviously good mos…

Ralph Ellison

Black and white photo of author Ralph Ellison in front of bookcase
Image of Ralph Ellison from Wikimedia Commons sourced from US National Archives and Records Administration (NARA)

As sharp as the unnamed narrator in his 1952 landmark novel, Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison's well-groomed moustache demands attention and admiration. Before embarking on a writing career, Ellison was a trumpet player and music student at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama; the all-black university found by Booker T. Washington which would become the model for the college in Invisible Man. Much attention has been paid to the links between Ellison's writing and the composition techniques used in jazz, particularly his use of solos, improvisation and movement as literary devices in Invisible Man. His pencil-thin moustache worked equally well with both of his talents; writer and jazz aficionado.

Suggested reading

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison (New York : New American Library of World Literature, 1964). Shelfmark X.907/2412.

Fascinating rhythm : reading jazz in American writing by David Yaffe  (Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press, 2006). Shelfmark YC.2006.a.7114                
 

Dashiell Hammett

Photograph of Smart Set: Hammett's first story appeared in The Smart Set magazine in November 1922
Photograph of Smart Set from the British Library's collections (shelfmark P.P.6383.ah.)

Perfectly befitting the innovative creator of hard-boiled detective fiction, Dashiell Hammett’s personal style was striking and urbane: a neat, black moustache brilliantly contrasting with a shock of white hair. Surprisingly, given the impact of his fiction, Hammett’s fiction-writing career lasted only twelve years. His first story appeared in The Smart Set magazine in November 1922. With The Maltese Falcon (1930), he became a literary sensation. But by 1934 he had essentially retired from writing.

Edgar Allan Poe(vember)

Portrait from ‘Illustrations to Edgar Allen Poe’ by Aubrey Beardsley showing Poe's black hair and moustache
Portrait of Poe from ‘Illustrations to Edgar Allen Poe’ by Aubrey Beardsley (shelfmark 7852.t.19.)

With hair as black as a raven, no one wears the lampshade moustache quite like Edgar Allan Poe. The images of Poe that I’ve seen have always seemed so melancholy and, given the nature of his tales, I assumed his character to be so too. So I was surprised to find in a short article by Mrs. Susan A. T. Weiss, in Scribner's Monthly from 1878, a description of Poe that quite counters this idea: ‘… he appeared … invariably cheerful, and frequently playful in mood … quietly amused … with a playful sarcasm.’ (p 709)  

As well as his disposition, Mrs Weiss offers quite the description of Poe’s trademark facial hair: ‘He wore a dark mustache, scrupulously kept, but not entirely concealing a slightly contracted expression of the mouth, and an occasional twitching of the upper lip, resembling a sneer … There was in it nothing of ill-nature, but much of sarcasm…’ (p 711).

Aubrey Beardsley’s trademark style captures Poe’s features in all their glory in this portrait printed in with a collection of illustrations in 1926 (7852.t.19.). The Library holds plenty of items by this moustached maverick including a first edition of Tamerlane (C.34.b.60.), which Poe authored under simply ‘a Bostonian’, rather than his real name.

Suggested reading

The Smart Set: A magazine of cleverness (New York: 1900–25) shelfmark: P.P.6383.ah.

The Dashiell Hammett Omnibus: The Thin Man, The Maltese Falcon, The Glass Key, The Dain Case, Red Harvest & four short stories by Dashiell Hammett (London: Cassell & Co, 1950) shelfmark: 12646.h.17.

Last Days of Edgar Allan Poe by Mrs. Susan A. T. Weiss (in Scribner's Monthly, Nov 1777 to April 1878; New-York: Scribner & Co, 1878; Digitised by Google, original from University of Michigan)

Illustrations to Edgar Allen Poe by Aubrey Beardsley (Indianapolis: Aubrey Beardsley Club, 1926) shelfmark: 7852.t.19.

Tamerlane, and other poems by a Bostonian (Boston: C. F. S. Thomas, 1827) shelfmark: C.34.b.60.

 

Nick Cave

 

Photo of Nick Cave performing on stage
Image of Nick Cave from Wikimedia Commons sourced from Bubamara
 

The musician and author sported an enviable  moustache for the better part of a decade until, in the fog of jet lag following a long haul flight, his wife convinced him to shave it off. His moustache veered between a polished handlebar and a pure '70s sleaze 'tache during the Grinderman era; his obvious delight in the aesthetics of facial hair placed him well to judge the World Beard and Moustache Championships, held in Brighton in 2007.

Suggested reading

The Death of Bunny Munro by Nick Cave, Edinburgh : Canongate, 2009.  Shelfmark Nov.2010/137           
 
And the Ass saw the Angel by Nick Cave, London : Penguin, 1990, c1989. Shelfmark H.2001/1388
     
              

18 November 2019

British Library x Charles Jeffrey Research Competition launched: show & tell top picks from the American Studies team

Lora Afric, Languages Cataloguing Manager, reflects on some highlights from a year of fashion collaboration at the Library

For the third year running the British Library has worked with the British Council for Fashion on a Research Collaboration Project and this year radical Glaswegian designer, Charles Jeffrey, joined forces. To mark the start of this collaboration, a catwalk show of Jeffrey’s brand Loverboy SS20 collection ‘Mind’s Instructions’ was staged at the Library earlier in the year. This was followed by a Masterclass in October organised for BA final year and MA students, and a launch of the Research Competition

Charles Jeffrey considers knowledge to be a ‘form of armor’. His brief instructs students to compile a research-focused fashion portfolio inspired by the British Library resources. A show and tell is an interactive part of the Masterclass which is run as part of the project. It gives curators the opportunity to engage with students and inspire them with samples of particularly visually intriguing collection items. 

Model on catwalk showing example of collection created by Charles Jeffrey Loverboy
‘Mind’s instructions’ Loverboy SS20 collection – the British Library, May 2019, reproduced with permission

 

In this blog post the Americas team have selected some of the most popular items shown on the day. You can see the selections from the European team on their blog on the same topic. It is not surprising that items featuring colours, patterns and poetry appealed to fashion students the most. The designs will reveal whether ‘Perhaps peace can still be found in the beautiful and the unexplained?’ as Jeffrey Charles states in his brief. 

 

Opening of Kenneth Patchen's Glory never guesses & other stories showing yellow and orange pages with text and zebra and butterfly in the background
Kenneth Patchen, Glory never guesses & other stories, [United States?], 1955 (RF.2017.b.42)

 

Glory never guesses & other pages by Kenneth Patchen

Published in the United States in the summer of 1955, although the exact location and publisher remains ambiguous, this vibrant collection of 18 poems from the original manuscript pages of American poet Kenneth Patchen features decorations and drawings reproduced through silk screening.

Various flora and fauna, including birds, turtles, butterflies and a zebra, and looping elaborate script, adorn the pages of delicate Japanese paper. Only 200 copies, all hand-run, were produced by Frank Bacher. Patchen became well-known in poetry circles for reading his work with jazz as an accompaniment, and you can almost hear the colourful play and rhythm of the words jump up from the page thanks to Bacher’s lively and rich reproduction.

We chose this item for the show and tell not just for its visual appeal, but also because we thought its use of materials, textures and techniques might spur some inspiration. For those interested in the materiality of books and the book form, there is a thematic vein of such amongst a number of artists’ books held at the Library including metal books (like HS.74/2323), wax books (such as RF.2018.a.56) and even coffee-stained books (see Cup.550.g.669).

Rachael – Curator, North American Published Collections

 

Five images showing colourful cover and inside pages of Cartonera books from Latin America
Cartonera books from Latin America

 

Cartonera books from Latin America

As history has often taught, there are always unexpected opportunities that arise from moments of crisis. The Cartonera phenomenon is a happy Fenix arising from the cardboards piles of the streets.

When Argentina, experienced the great economic depression of the years 1998-2002,  with the consequence of a huge job loss, and the obvious recession of the publishing and cultural sectors,  people started pouring out the streets not only for rioting but also to find an alternative way of life.

Cardboard pickers, cartoneros, started collecting paper and cardboard from the street finding the selling profitable. Eloísa Cartonera, became the first Cartonera publisher that, from 2001-2, started producing books “con cartón comprado a los cartoneros en la vía pública” (with cardboard bought from the cardboard pickers from the streets), although this is not a completely new phenomenon since it arguably takes its primordial roots from the 70’.

The aim of the Cartonera publishers was, since the beginning, to spread poetry and literature at a mass level in Latin America, and at a very low price.

Since then very well established writers, artists and poets, have donated or created for the cause, such as Washington Cucurto. A founder of Eloisa Cartonera and cult author whose realism compositions feature negritude, poverty and homosexuality in Latin America. 

I selected the hand-made Cartonera books for the show and tell for the visual aspect of their recycled appeal alongside their inspiring potential to open the scope for creativity.

Annalisa – Cataloguer, American Collections

 

The Fashion Research Competition and the staff favourite winners will be announced on 31 January when, during a reverse show and tell, students will reveal/show their work inspired by the British Library collections. 

For featured European collection items please see the parallel European studies blog.

 

Blog by Lora Afric, Languages Cataloguing Manager

 

Suggested reading

Kenneth Patchen, Glory never guesses: & other pages. [United States?] : [publisher not identified], [1955] RF.2017.b.42

Ricardo Piglia, The pianist (Buenos Aires, 2007) YF.2011.a.2591

Carlos D'Angelis, No ve la mía (Buenos Aires, 2007) YF.2010.a.6178

Dulcinéia Catadora [ed.], Em mãos ([Brazil], [2013]) RF.2019.a.343

Yarezi Salazar, El secreto de mi tía abuela ([Monterrey, Mexico], [2010]) RF.2019.a.328 

Carlos Emílio Corrêa, A outra forma da ilha de goa (Lima [Paraguay], [2018]) RF.2019.a.330

14 November 2019

Women and Buddhism in the United States

As many readers will know, the British Library’s Buddhism exhibition has just opened to hugely positive reviews. More than 120 items are on display, ranging from sacred texts written on tree bark, palm leaves and gold plate to stunning silk scrolls, illuminated books, historical artifacts and ritual objects used in Buddhist practice today. The items span 2000 years of history and, not surprisingly, most of them are Asian in origin.

Yet, the history of Buddhism in the United States is also fascinating and multi-layered. On one hand it includes traditional narratives of migration and assimilation on the part of those who moved there first from China, and then later, Japan, Korea and other countries in East Asia. On the other, it is also intimately – and perhaps, uniquely – entwined with the counterculture and ‘alternative’ Americas; with Transcendentalism, the Beats and hippies.

One little known story involves Elizabeth Palmer Peabody’s translation into English of passages of the Lotus Sutra; one of the most revered and important texts in Mahayana Buddhism. Published in the January 1844 issue of the Transcendentalist magazine, The Dial, it is possibly the first-ever translation into English of a Buddhist text.

Dial preaching of buddha

['The Preaching of Buddha', The Dial, January 1844, Vol. 4, no. 3, p. 391; British Library shelfmark: P.P.6376]

Perhaps not surprisingly, this was not the first time that The Dial – founded in 1840 and subtitled ‘A Magazine for Literature, Philosophy, and Religion’ – had published extracts from non-western writings. In July 1842, with Ralph Waldo Emerson at the helm, the journal had launched a column it later called ‘Ethnical Scriptures’. Jointly organised with Henry David Thoreau, the purpose of the column was to share ‘a series of selections from the oldest ethical and religious writings of men, exclusive of the Hebrew and Greek scriptures.’ 1 In his announcement, Emerson fervently expresses his hope that the world's bibles will soon be collated, thereby bringing together ‘the grand expressions of the moral sentiment in different ages and races, the rules for the guidance of life, the bursts of piety and of abandonment to the Invisible and Eternal.’ 2 

‘Ethnical Scriptures’ appears in The Dial nine times between July 1842 and April 1844 and includes selections from Indian, Persian, Chinese, and Egyptian sources. Unlike these other selections, however, the passages from the Lotus Sutra are not preceded by a commentary by Emerson or Thoreau. Instead, under the title ‘The Preaching of Buddha’, they begin with an extract from an article about the origins of Buddhism by the French scholar, Eugène Burnouf.

Burnouf, who is now regarded as the founder of Buddhist Studies, was at this time working on a translation of the Lotus Sutra from Sanskrit into French. To do so, he was using Nepalese manuscripts that had been sent to him by Brian Hodgson, a pioneer naturalist and ethnologist and an officer in the British East India Company. Burnouf's complete translation of the Lotus Sutra was published posthumously in 1852. However, in April and May 1843 he submitted two essays about Buddhism to La Revue Indépendante, a periodical edited in Paris by George Sand. Both essays included extracts from his translation, and it is these that provide the source material for ‘The Preaching of Buddha’.

Until quite recently, The Dial's translation of this material from French into English had been attributed to Thoreau. Now, however, it is widely credited to Elizabeth Palmer Peabody.

Elizabeth Peabody

[Elizabeth Palmer Peabody; date unknown. Image courtesy of WikiMedia Commons]

Scarcely known today, Elizabeth Peabody was born into one of New England’s oldest families. Like her sisters, Sophia and Mary – who respectively married Nathaniel Hawthorne and Horace Mann – she had a reading knowledge of multiple languages, including Greek which she learned as a teenager alongside Emerson. She was an early advocate of Transcendentalism and one of only two women in The Transcendental Club; the other being Margaret Fuller. She also pioneered the kindergarten movement in the United States and was one of the nation’s first female book printers.

In 1840, supported by a wealthy backer, Peabody founded the ‘E. P. Peabody Book Room and Foreign Library’ at the family home on West Street, in the South End of Boston.

E Peabody library

[The Boston Almanac, Vol. 3, no. 2, 1846, p.84; British Library shelfmark: P.P.2524.c.]

The Book Room quickly became a rendezvous for the Transcendentalists. Many of Margaret Fuller’s ‘Conversations’ were held here, and it was from here that Palmer printed later issues of The Dial and fought to keep the magazine financially afloat. The Book Room was also the first store in the United States to handle French and German periodicals and the first to establish a circulating library of foreign books and periodicals. For $5 per annum, subscribers would receive access to more than 900 titles.

Both as a business woman importing periodicals such as George Sand’s Revue, and as talented linguist at the heart of the Transcendentalist community and Boston’s cultural elite, Elizabeth Peabody was perfectly placed to translate a Buddhist text into English, possibly for the very first time in the world. That she is now receiving credit for have done so, is a surely a cause for celebration.

(1) The Dial, July 1842, Vol 3., no. 1, p. 82.

(2) ibid.

31 October 2019

Poe, pumpkins and parades – it must be Halloween

It’s 31 October so seems appropriate to take a look at a few items from the collection perfect for All Hallows' Eve.

Poe

It seems that both Halloween (and a blog written by me) wouldn’t be complete without a nod to Edgar Allan Poe. The Library holds a number of volumes of the Southern Literary Messenger, a 19th-century literary magazine ‘Devoted to Every Department of Literature and the Fine Arts’. It was Poe’s friend, novelist John Pendleton Kennedy, who encouraged him to write for the Messenger. Poe both edited and had some of his works included in the periodical.

Photograph of the title page of The Southern Literary Messenger
Title page of The Southern Literary Messenger (shelfmark: P.P.6380)

Berenice – A Tale was first published in the March 1835 edition of the Messenger. Richard P. Benton writes that this is ‘one of Poe’s most sensational and horrible tales. Some readers have found it too horrible, and Poe himself confessed it to be such’ (page 123, ‘The Tales: 1831 – 1835’ in A Companion to Poe Studies, YC.1997.b.2189). Indeed, the story caused quite a stir when it appeared in the Messenger, which was considered a ‘refined’ kind of reading.

And it’s not surprising why. Even by today’s standards it’s grotesque. Egaeus, a man driven by his head over his heart, becomes fascinated with his beautiful cousin, Berenice. In contrast, Berenice is a loving woman guided by her emotions. When Berenice falls sick, her beauty fails and Egaeus is gripped by her demise: ‘An icy chill ran through my frame … a consuming curiosity pervaded by soul … my eyes rivetted upon her … My burning glances at length fell upon her face.’ (page 334, Edgar A. Poe ‘Berenice – A Tale’ in the Southern Literary Messenger, P.P.6380) He recounts her sunken eyes, her darkened hair and her thinned lips – a picture ‘lifeless and lustreness’ (page 334, ibid). It is her teeth that he becomes obsessed with. He gradually slips in and out of consciousness picturing the teeth and imagining holding and studying them.

Spoiler alert. It is only at the end of the story that Egaeus comes back to some kind of reality. He is told by a servant that a grave and body – still ‘palpitating’ – has been found. Egaeus notices his clothes are ‘muddy and clotted with gore’ (page 336, ibid), and that there is a spade in his room along with ‘instruments of dental surgery, intermingled with thirty-two small, white and ivory-looking substances’. (page 336, ibid)

Darkness. Monomania. Bloodshed. If you’re looking for a tale with bite, look no further than Berenice.

Black and white illustration by Henry Clarke showing Egaeus holding the frail body of Berenice
It was a fearful page in the record my existence: illustration by Henry Clarke for Berenice (shelfmark: 12703.i.44.)

Pumpkins

Rather get your teeth into something less revolting? We don’t blame you, so we’ve turned to Betty Crocker for some inspiration. You’ve made your Jack-o’-lantern, now what to do with the flesh you’ve scooped out from your pumpkin?

Betty Crocker’s New Picture Cook Book was printed in 1961 by the McGraw Hill Book Company, Inc, in New York. Designed as a guide for making both simple and sophisticated ‘foreign-inspired food and old-fashioned American dishes’, the opening pages boast that each basic recipe in the book ‘has been tested at least 100 times’. As well as being fool proof, the added bonus of calorie charts and ‘celebrities’ favorite menus and recipes’ are also included. Who knew President Eisenhower was a fan of sirloin steak followed by apple pie?

When it comes to pumpkins, the General Mills Betty Crocker Kitchens in the Golden Valley (amazing photos of said kitchens can be found on pages 2 and 3) are not short on ideas. Pumpkin muffins, pudding and, of course, pie (both autumn and spicy options), are all on the menu. Needless to say evaporated milk and sugar are vital components. We’re told that “Pumpkins, or ‘pompions,’ were a standby of the early New England settlements” and an old poetic verse is included with the recipe for those gifted enough to able to sing and bake simultaneously.

Photograph of inside spread of Betty Crocker book. Full-colour picture shows the pie in all its glory while the right-hand page shows the recipes with small illusrated characters.
One slice or two? Pages 350 – 351 Betty Crocker's New Picture Cook Book (shelfmark: 07938.cc.33.). The book contains an impressive 48 full-colour pages of food to show a number of culinary delights in all their glory.

And it’s not just pumpkins Betty’s got covered: Jack-o’-Lantern popcorn balls with gumdrops and candy corn and Batter Franks with catsup are also recommendations for a 1960s Halloween party.

Of course, pumpkins aren’t just for Halloween, also being key players on the Thanksgiving menu. The pumpkin is an unmistakable symbol of fall in the US. Whether as a Halloween prop or part of a Thanksgiving dessert, it is now so much more than the unassuming vegetable it once was: Jacqueline Mansky affirms that ‘the orange field pumpkin, especially the giant version, [has] became wrapped up in the American agrarian myth’ (How the Great Pumpkin Became Great, Oct 21 2019) and is an icon of key US holidays. Why? Read this very enjoyable article on JSTOR to find out.  

Parades

This broadside from 1932 promotes the all-important components for Halloween in the aptly named Wildwood, New Jersey: ‘FUN… GOBLINS… WITCHES’. Attendees are told to ‘Be prompt’ for the 8pm parade and that only decorated vehicles are permitted.

Photograph of broadside for Hallowe'en Parade
Hallowe’en Parade broadside. Currently being catalogued and available in Reading Rooms soon.

Traditionally in Europe in the 12th century, criers would parade the streets on Halloween in memory of lost souls. Yet the parades that we may be more familiar with today and that became popular in the US during the 20th century include fancy dress, music and elaborately dressed floats. Events like the well-known Village Halloween Parade in New York City, one of the largest in the world, is now in its 46th year and attracts tens of thousands of spectators to the night-time spectacular.

The Halloween parade referred to on this broadside is held ‘Under the Auspices of Wapella Tribe, 238, I. O. R. M’, the IORM being the Improved Order of Red Men. Despite its name, the group was for white men only. Their membership was at its peak in the 1930s when this item was made. The event was organised by this men's fraternal group that claimed descent from the Sons of Liberty and the Boston Tea Party and based itself on a stylized but problematic interpretation of Native American culture.

(Blog by RSC)

Suggested reading

Officially Indian: symbols that define the United States by Cecile R. Ganteaume; foreword by Colin G. Calloway; afterword by Paul Chaat Smith. (Washington, DC: National Museum of the American Indian, 2017) Shelfmark: YD.2019.b.673

Southern Literary Messenger (Richmond, Va: J. R. Thompson, 1848-1864) Shelfmark: P.P.6380

A Companion to Poe Studies edited by Eric W. Carlson (Westport, Conn.; London: Greenwood Press, 1996) Shelfmark: YC.1997.b.2189

Tales of Mystery and Imagination by Edgar Allan Poe, illustrated by Harry Clarke (London: G. G. Harrap; New York : Brentano's, 1923) 12703.i.44.

Betty Crocker's New Picture Cook Book. Decorations by Joseph Pearson (New York: McGraw Hill Book Co, 1961) Shelfmark: 07938.cc.33.

Death Makes a Holiday: a Cultural History of Halloween by David J Skal (New York, N.Y.: Bloomsbury, 2002) Shelfmark: m02/39931

Celebrating Ethnicity and Nation: American Festive Culture from the Revolution to the Early Twentieth Century edited by Geneviève Fabre, Jürgen Heideking and Kai Dreisbach (New York, NY: Berghahn Books, 2001)

Object Analysis of the Giant Pumpkin by Cindy Ott from Environmental History, Vol. 15, No. 4 (OCTOBER 2010), pp. 746-763 (18 pages)

How the Great Pumpkin Became Great by Jacqueline Mansky, Oct 21 2019

17 October 2019

Black History Month

October is Black History Month in the UK and has been celebrated here for nearly 40 years. The month marks an annual commemoration of the history, achievements and contributions of black people in the UK. Originally founded to recognise the contributions made by people of Caribbean and African backgrounds, the focus of Black History Month has now expanded to include the history of African, Asian and Caribbean peoples and the importance of their contributions to the culture of the UK.

To mark Black History Month, we have selected a few items from our collections which highlight significant moments in black history around the world. The British Library will also be hosting Caribbean Fest events on Saturday October 19th including poetry, food and performance.

 

Ottavia Salvador, Fabrizio Denunzio, Morti senza sepoltura. Tra processi migratori e narrativa neocloniale (Ombre corte, 2019) YF.2019.a.14806
 
Chosen by Valentina Mirabella, Curator Romance Collections (Italian)
 
Front cover of 'Morti senza sepoltura. Tra processi migratori e narrativa neocloniale'
Cover of: Ottavia Salvador, Fabrizio Denunzio, Morti senza sepoltura. Tra processi migratori e narrativa neocloniale (Ombre corte, 2019) YF.2019.a.14806

 

Migrations in the Mediterranean are the subject of a lot of Italian books at the moment. I chose this title because the authors don't shy away from holding neo-colonialism responsible for the immigration process. The title 'Dead without Burial' evokes the horror of dying in a foreign country, in exile, often without a grave with a name on. Like French sociologist Abdelmalek Sayad (more from him, also in English in our collections) says in the essay in the appendix, the way a country treats a foreigner who dies on its soil says a lot.

 

John Michael Vlach, Back of the Big House: The Architecture of Plantation Slavery (Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press, 1993). q93/15775

Chosen by Cara, Deputy Head, Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library

Cover of 'Back of the Big House'
Cover of: John Michael Vlach, Back of the Big House: The Architecture of Plantation Slavery (Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press, 1993). q93/15775
Book open to show photographs and plans of buildings
Inside pages of: John Michael Vlach, Back of the Big House: The Architecture of Plantation Slavery (Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press, 1993). q93/15775;

 

This book made a deep impression on me when I first came across it as part of an MA course on the built environment in America.  I was impressed by how thoroughly Vlach managed to bring the lived experiences of the enslaved into sharp focus through the architectural landscapes they had inhabited.  As he says himself in his Preface his “main objectives here are first to describe, in broad terms, the architectural settings of plantation slavery and then to suggest some of the ways in which black people may have transformed those architectural settings into places that best served their social needs” (p.x).  The major source for the visual material in the book is the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS).  Originally founded in 1933, it still operates as a division of the National Parks Service.  During the 1930s and later, HABS teams documented large numbers of slave buildings and associated spaces and Vlach uses these photographs and plans to great effect in his book.  These are then complemented by another Depression-era source, the oral histories of formerly enslaved people conducted by interviewers for the Federal Writer’s Project.  As Vlach explains “My description of the architecture of slavery thus meshes information from two archival projects that have been separated for more than half a century” (p.xiii).  I found this mixture of first-person accounts, as well as other archival evidence (business records, personal letters etc), with the structures that had shaped people’s everyday lives to be incredibly evocative.  I came away from the book with a deeper understanding of the importance of vernacular spaces to historical enquiry, as well as more especially a better understanding of the way the built environment shaped, and was shaped by, the lives of enslaved African-Americans and their white overseers and owners.  I’ve found myself thinking about this book often over the years, especially as discussions around how to more fully represent the experiences of enslaved people have come to the forefront in heritage and tourism contexts (for example, the incorporation of slave buildings and stories into the interpretation offered to visitors at plantation sites in the US, most notably at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello home).

For more information on Federal Writer’s Project holdings at the British Library, including the accounts of former slaves, see the guide prepared by my Eccles Centre colleague, Jean Petrovic.

 
 
 
The Color Purple by Alice Walker (Boston, Mass: G.K. Hall, 1986), Nov.1987/702
 
Chosen by Rachael (Curator, American Printed Collections Post 1850)
 
Book cover of 'The Color Purple'
First edition cover of The Color Purple. Image from Wikimedia Commons sourced from Biblioctopus.

 

I was introduced to the The Color Purple while in my first year as an undergraduate at the University of Nottingham. It was like nothing I’d read before, in both voice and content. I’d never encountered a character like Cecile, nor the abuse she endures in a novel, and I remember being interested in the contrasting ways the various females in the book are portrayed. Told in an epistolary format as Cecile writes to God, she tells of the horrors she suffers at the hands of her father and later her husband, and the life that eventually leads her to Shug – a woman who opens her eyes to a different way of living. The Color Purple won the Pulitzer Prize in 1983 and frequently features on lists of banned or contested books (see more of these on our Banned Books Week blog).

 
Land Rights Before Games poster (Brisbane, Australia: 1982) shelfmark tbc
 
Chosen by Lucy (Curator, Australasian Published Collections Post 1850)
 
Campaign poster on Aboriginal flag background with slogan 'Land Rights Before Games'
Land Rights Before Games poster (Brisbane, Australia: 1982) British Library shelfmark tbc

This poster represents a key piece of 20th century campaign material in Australian history. The 1982 Commonwealth Games in Brisbane were the focus of a series of protests from Indigenous Australians who aimed to bring the issue of land rights to the international stage. The campaign called for rights over indigenous lands in Queensland and control over mining in those areas. The Queensland premier at the time, Joh Bjelke-Peterson, declared a state of emergency and banned street marches during the games. Yet around 2000 people still took to the streets of Brisbane on 26th September in support of the campaign and in protest of the continuing oppression of Indigenous Australians. Further sit-ins and marches were held throughout the games with hundreds of arrests made by police. The protests gained international attention and remain a significant moment in the indigenous civil rights movement in Australia. In 2012, the State Library of Queensland held an exhibition called 'State of Emergency' to mark the 30th anniversary of the protests.

 

 

 

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