American Collections blog

What's on the mind of Team America?


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

05 March 2019

The Power of History - Honouring Andrea Levy

As lead curator of the BL’s recent exhibition Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land  I had the great honour to meet and work with Andrea Levy. It is with great pain and heavy sorrow that I write this blog in the wake of her death. The loss of Andrea Levy from the world has left a deep wound.

Our first meeting involved a passionate conversation about the importance of history, the need to uncover the stories of everyday people’s lives, and to re construct the ties between cultures and places that have been severed through time. We talked in particular about Caribbean history, and her research into her own family history as well as the process of writing Small Island and Long Song.

Apprenticeship image - Crop

Narrative of Events Since the First of August 1834, (London: 1838) Shelfmark: Tr 148 (k)

I was deeply moved by the exchange. We both communed about the fact that our collective ability to (re)confront and (re)construct the histories of colonialism, slavery, and struggles for freedom was vital to changing our present world for the better. We discussed the urgent need for those of us who work in the cultural and heritage sector to cultivate new ways of understanding the world, and ourselves. And I felt we both understood our collaboration on the ‘Windrush’ exhibition as part of this work.

As ever, Gary Younge puts it eloquently in his Guardian piece:

“It always felt to me as though Andrea became more driven the closer she came to the end. Keen to broaden the British historical gaze beyond its borders, particularly to the Caribbean, she became increasingly frustrated with the limited and limiting imaginations of media gatekeepers when it came to the Caribbean and slavery. Resolving to use the currency she had now gained to expand our historical literacy, she pushed at every meeting and every level for a fuller, more rounded, more inclusive version of our national story.”

KTOP 123 7 (2)

 'A new Map of the West-Indies, or the Islands of America in the North Sea, together with the adjacent Dominions,’ (London: 1740) Shelfmark: K.TOP.123.7

Andrea Levy ‘s legacy is in many ways  a challenge to us all to take on the necessary, at times painful, and beautiful work of creating a more just world by creatively confronting and transforming history. - E.C.

19 February 2019

Event: Doctoral Open Day 2019

Starting a PhD can be a daunting undertaking; and getting to grips with the vast, often idiosyncratic workings of a major research Library with over 200m items can be even more daunting. This is why, for students who have recently embarked on doctoral study on any aspect of the Americas, we are putting on an Open Day on the British Libraries Americas collections and resources on Monday 18 March.

BL People_112

PhD Placement student Daniela Jimenez talks with curator Pardaad Chamsaz

The day will involve a series of general introductions to the British Library, as well as more regionally focussed presentations on Canada, the US, the Caribbean and Latin America – essentially explaining in broad terms what we have and how to find it. There will also be opportunities to ask questions individually of the curators and research teams, and attendees can tell us their topics in advance so everyone can leave the Library that day having opened up some rather promising avenues of enquiry.

We’re also very excited and grateful to be able to draw on the expertise of colleagues from other parts of the Library, who will be able to offer insights into some of the approaches and resources available through the Library (such as digital scholarship or manuscript studies) that students might not be so familiar with. There will also be first-hand insights from current PhD students who are working extensively on our collections, who can (hopefully!) confirm that the British Library is both a pleasant and fantastically useful place to spend at least some of your time over the next 3-4 years.

CDP students 2017

British Library CDP students, including Naomi Oppenheim and Jodie Collins, discuss their work

Finally, as well as introducing the collections, we give students the chance to get to know the Library spatially and architecturally – so we’re offering the chance, during the lunchbreak, for students to take ‘sound tours’ of the main St Pancras building.  Not only are these a wonderful opportunity to explore the main building but they will also showcase the breadth of material contained in the Library’s Sound Archive, a resource that is often over looked by researchers.  As part of last year’s excellent Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land exhibition, the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project invited volunteers to use the Library’s Sound Archive to curate tours which reflect on black British history within the physical space of the Library.  One of the tour guides has kindly agreed to lead our Americas Doctoral Students through this unique experience.

Windrush sound points

Listening points in the Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land exhibition

These different sessions will all be accompanied by a great deal of tea, coffee, cake and sandwiches, and a lot of very enthusiastic staff who are really passionate about getting PhD students in to work on our Americas collections. The full programme for the day can be found here.  To find out more and to book visit the event page.  If you have any questions, please feel free to contact the Eccles Centre via

15 February 2019

Witch-hunts and the iconographic power of fear

Lost among other headlines, today brought news of a fascinating discovery in the Cresswell Crags in the British Midlands: approximately 1000 apotropaic markings, also known as witches markings.  Research is ongoing by Historic England to understand more about this latest discovery at the Crags, but it seems as though they belong to a rich history of markings made to protect against witches.  Typical markings include "the double 'VV' engravings, which may make reference to Mary, Virgin of Virgins and PM is Pace Maria.  Other designs are believed to be devices for capturing ‘evil’. These include diagonal lines, boxes and mazes and could be a response to a period of unexpected sickness, death or poor crops".

Given this latest witch related discovery, it seemed appropriate to introduce readers to a new acquisition by up-and-coming New York based illustrator and book artist Normandie Syken, "Little Red Witch" which shall be available in the reading rooms very shortly, at shelfmark HS.74/2395 .  This rather large yet exquisitely detailed book is a contemporary re-telling of the infamous Brothers Grimm tale, with a twist: the story is set in Salem, Massachusetts during the 17th Century witch trials that saw 185 people accused of witchcraft in a one-year period, resulting in 59 trials and 19 executions.  By far the vast majority of the accused were women, and where men were accused it was most often by association with a female witch (usually a family member).


Binding of 'Little Red Witch' shelfmark HS.74/2395


This is, then, clearly not going to be your average fairytale.  Our witch heroine is sent from Salem to her witch grandmother's cottage in the woods to wait out the anti-witch hysteria overtaking Salem with her loyal companion, an unnamed black cat.  

DSC_0479 DSC_0479

En route, she enjoys the freedoms offered by the woods to celebrate her true witch nature, along with new-found woodland friends with whom she shares a midnight dance around a fire.  Amongst the revellers is a wolf of whom our heroine is far from intimidated, recognising in him a fellow in the dark arts.


Nonetheless, the wolf betrays her confidence and so the book returns to the more familiar narrative of 'Little Red Riding Hood'. 

"What big teeth you have"

However, this only lasts a short while before further twists on the narrative are introduced.  Notably, there is no woodcutter to save the day.  Instead Little Red and her grandmother apply their witch knowledge and cunning to save themselves from their seemingly terrible fate.  

Brewing a wolf-potion

What is particularly interesting about this retelling is how a number of themes that emerged from the Salem witch trials are integrated into the narrative.  Some of these, such as the ever present black cat, broomstick, and cauldron are now instantly recognisable elements of the popular imagining of witches.  Others are less iconographic: single women, particularly spinsters; inherited inter-generational witchcraft; an ability to commune and speak with animals; familiarity with herbal remedies; speaking with the Devil; causing harm through poppets (doll-like effigies); the power of words to curse; and of course the symbols of witchcraft which have their counterpoint in the protective markings seen at Cresswell Crags.  While some of these may not have appeared in a 'Family Fortunes' list of witches' traits ('Family Feuds' for our US readers), they are nonetheless all uncannily familiar.  Such is the power of historic narratives to traverse centuries, particularly those that invoke fear of the unknown and suspicion of difference.

It should come as no surprise then that all of the above can be found in the historical record as anecdotal evidence used to accuse people of witchcraft, both in witch-hunts in Britain and those that took place in the American colonies.  The imagined threat of witches clearly posed a very real danger to individuals and society in the early modern period. Estimates of numbers of people who were killed during European witchhunts vary from 40,000 up to 500,000 over 300 years.

Of course, much of the 'identifying' characteristics of witches were heavily gendered: women's work and women's words were read through a sinister lens.  As Carol F. Karlsen groundbreaking sociological history of the Salem witch trials details, "witchcraft played a critical role not only in shaping, maintaining, and describing [the social structure of New England], but in reconciling men's feelings about women with the demographic, economic, religious and sexual changes of the time."  They are words that are important to reflect on, particularly considering that witch-hunts continue to be a present threat in some areas of the world where women continue to be at highest risk of persecution.

Read in this light, 'Little Red Witch' reclaims the negative connotations of witchcraft, which Normandie Syken uses to carve her very own mischievously dark fairytale, and a formidable heroine in 'Little Red'.

Witches' ally, cuddling wolf-poppet.


NB: The author gifted several prints from the book upon acquisition.  As these are contained within the book, and with the author's permission, we felt it appropriate to donate these to another home where they have the opportunity to be seen by a wider audience.  We are pleased that the Glasgow Women's Library will shortly be the new home to these prints, together with a spare copy of Karlsen's book to provide a little more context.


Images on this page are all reproduced with permission of Normandie Syken, with whom copyright remains.  We kindly ask that you please respect this.


Normandie Syken, Little Red Witch, HS.74/2395

Carol F. Karlsen, The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England. British Library shelfmark YH.1988.a.422 

"Witches' Marks Discovery 'Largest in Britain'.  Historic England: 

- F.D Fuentes Rettig

13 February 2019

A man of his word: Abraham Lincoln and the Proclamation of Emancipation

Abraham Lincoln was born on 12 February 1809 so we're taking a moment to shine a light on the 16th president of the United States of America through a new acquisition.

President Lincoln was responsible for issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation which declared forever free those slaves within the Confederacy in 1863. When a c.1865 edition of the Proclamation recently arrived in the Americas office for cataloguing, it did more than slightly pique the interest of the little historian/wannabe typographer/lover-of-all-things-beautiful inside of me.

Proclamation of Emancipation with calligraphic portrait of Abraham Lincoln, circa 1865

Designed and written by William H Pratt and printed by Augustus Hageboeck in Iowa, the delicate broadside features the Emancipation Proclamation text in a detailed calligraphic portrait of Lincoln, beard and all (for those hankering for more handwriting goodness, look out for our Writing exhibition later this year). Hageboeck used lithography to create this masterpiece – a process in which ‘lines are drawn with greasy ink or crayon on a specially prepared limestone, which is then moistened with water; an oily printer's ink, applied to the surface of the stone with a roller, is attracted to the image. This is then printed on to the paper under pressure.’ (R J Goulden, Aspects of the Victorian Book, Lithography in the Victorian age)

Is this the epitome of ‘embodiment’? A number of features can be seen within the impeccable writing of the portrait including wider spacing to create a ‘lighter’ effect of the backdrop and Lincoln’s shirt, bold font to create his hair, and a shadow is added to give an even darker result for Lincoln’s suit. Look closer still and extra curvature is added to the lettering to create the effect of the eyes. Interestingly over the eyes, the key words ‘That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three…’ can be seen. Possibly suggesting Lincoln’s looking ahead to a new time in the United States; his vision becoming reality and signifying a monumental shift for the nation.

The observations to pick up are seemingly endless. Further particulars include a banner depicting a rather fierce looking American eagle, illustrated seals of the States, and within the inner circle, the names of the members of Congress who supported the Constitution’s 13th Amendment.

A contrast of techniques create the details of the portrait including varied spacing between words, bold and shadowed fonts


It’s in the eyes: elaborate shaping of lettering creates the president’s features


Names of the members of Congress who supported the Constitution’s 13th Amendment


Illustrated seals of the States

Possibly produced for propaganda purposes, Lincoln here embodies his famous words. The calligraphic portrait demonstrating a unity between the subject and his work, almost giving more gravitas to the words themselves rather than the hero who issued them. The words quite literally shape the man.

This brief introduction barely touches the surface when it comes to the level of detail to be explored in this telling item. It’s sure to provide an interesting primary resource for researchers intrigued by its history, printing and design techniques, and the story of the man at its centre. We’ll be sharing the shelfmark details as soon as the item is available in the Reading Rooms.

In the meantime, happy belated 210th birthday, Abe.

Suggested reading

Lithography (English version by Julian Snelling and Claude Namy) by Renée Loche. Shelfmark: X29/3642

Typographics: a designer's handbook of printing techniques by Michael Hutchins. Shelfmark: W41/5588

Abraham Lincoln by Louise S Upham. Shelfmark: RB.23.b.7019.(243)

President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. Shelfmark: 1880.d.1.(35*.)


Blog by Rachael (still losing herself in the treasures of the Library’s Americas collections)

01 February 2019

The Federal Theatre Project's 'Living Newspapers'

Last month we celebrated the life of Hallie Flanagan, director of the ground-breaking Federal Theatre Project (1935-39). This blog will look at one of the Federal Theatre’s most innovative and controversial accomplishments: the ‘Living Newspapers’. It will also share our realisation concerning the connection between Hallie Flanagan and Mary Eccles, co-founder of the British Library’s Eccles Centre for American Studies.

Flanagan first encountered living newspapers – in which social and political issues were given theatrical form – while visiting the Soviet Union in 1926. Such productions had emerged during the Russian Civil War as a means of promoting a pro-Soviet version of the news to the largely illiterate Red Army troops. Following the Bolshevik victory, this agitprop art form continued developing and expanding. In 1923 the hugely influential collective 'Blue Blouse' was founded under the auspices of the Moscow School of Journalism. By 1928 more than 7,000 Blue Blouse troupes had been established across the nation. Performances typically opened with a parade of ‘headlines’, followed by a dozen or so humorous or satirical  sketches on topics as diverse as trouble in a local factory to religion and international relations. Siniaia Bluza (Moscow, 1924-28; shelfmark ZA.9.d.615) - the irregularly published Blue Blouse periodical - supported these performances, containing suggestions for staging, sets and costumes as well as librettos for skits.  

Blue Blouse 1927

Siniaia Bluza, 71-72 (1927): 32. Moscow, 1924-28. Shelfmark: ZA.9.d.615

Flanagan attended several Blue Blouse productions in Moscow. In Shifting Scenes of the Modern European Theatre (London, 1929; shelfmark 011805.i.61) she notes: 'At Trade Union or Factory theatres, the Blue Blouses, workers by day and actors by night, perform original acrobatic plays'. She particularly recalls attending a production in which ‘three men and three girls glorify workers of the Army, the Navy, the farms, and factories’. [1] Rejecting elaborate props and sets, the actors energetically climbed imaginary rigging, planted imaginary crops and controlled imaginary machinery: 'Each motif reached its climax in a refrain taken up by the audience, a refrain consisting of the repetition of a single word, Comrade – half sung, half shouted: Tovarish! Tovarish! Tovarish! The effect of this exuberance was an amazing impression of having seen, not three men and three girls in an amateur song and dance, but a forest of ships with sailors in the rigging, a battalion of soldiers, a commonwealth of farm and factory hands all linked in a comradeship of work.' [2]

A decade later, in one of her earliest conversations with WPA director, Harry Hopkins, Flanagan suggested the Federal Theatre could produce a series of living newspapers involving many people taking on small parts. Hopkins immediately concurred and the Federal Theatre's principle Living Newspaper Unit was established in New York City soon after. Headed by playwright Elmer Rice – who, like Flanagan, had visited the Soviet Union – the Unit included theatre professionals and out-of-work journalists. From the outset it attracted controversy. Its first production – Ethiopia, about the recent invasion by Mussolini – was issued with a federal censorship order, prompting Rice’s resignation. And its third – Injunction Granted, with its pro-union/anti-big business stance – was criticised by federal government officials and closed early. Several living newspapers were hugely successful, however; most notably, One-Third of a Nation.


Poster for One-Third of a Nation at the Aldelphi Theatre, New York City, 1938. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Inspired by President Roosevelt's second inaugural address in which he recognised that one third of the nation were ‘ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished’, the play dramatized the living conditions – the crime, disease, and powerlessness – endured by those in urban slum tenements. It also offered some solutions. After being workshopped at Vassar under Flanagan's direction in the summer of 1937, it was staged in cities across the United States, with revisions reflecting local conditions. In Philadelphia, for example, reference was made to a city tenement house that had collapsed two days before opening night.

Everywhere, reviews of One-Third of a Nation were positive. The Detroit Tribune declared it to be: ‘… of vital interest to every Negro living in Michigan’. The New Orleans Times-Picayune called it ‘timely and shrewdly staged’. In San Francisco it ran for nearly two years. And at New York’s Adelphi Theatre over 200,000 people cheered as the life-like slum housing went up in flames and the ‘The Consumer’ cried out to the government: ‘Can you hear me, Washington? Give me a decent home!’


Photo of the New York set of the Federal Theatre Project's One-Third of a Nation, 1938. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

And it seems that Washington did hear, but in both a positive and negative way. Eleanor Roosevelt believed One-Third of a Nation achieved more than any speeches by her, Langdon Post (Head of the New York City Housing Authority), or even her husband ever could. But numerous senators were offended that their views on housing – taken word-for-word from the Congressional Record – were included in the play.

Flanagan later reflected in Arena: The History of the Federal Theatre (New York: Benjamin Blom, 1965; shelfmark X.900/3282) that: ‘Enemies made by the living newspaper were, I believe, powerful enemies, instrumental in the final closing of the project.’ [3] Yet, she never regretted her decisions. And she never lost her conviction in the power of this art form. Indeed, in 1948 she co-wrote a new play - E = mc2: A Living Newspaper about the Atomic Age - boldly declaring in its foreword: ‘The theatrical effectiveness of the “living newspaper” was conclusively demonstrated in the productions of Power and One-Third of a Nation. This latest edition of the "living newspaper" compares most favorably with the previous ones.' (New York: Samuel French, 1948; shelfmark 011791.c.47) 

Atomic 2

Hallie Flanagan, E = mc2: A Living Newspaper about the Atomic Age.  New York: Samuel French, 1948. Shelfmak: 011791.c.47

Finally, we wanted to share our recent realisation that Mary Eccles – co-founder of the British Library’s Eccles Centre for American Studies – was a student at Vassar College at the very time that Hallie Flanagan established the Vassar Experimental Theatre. Colleagues at the Centre knew about Mary's doctoral  thesis, 'Playwriting for Elizabethans, 1600-1605'. We were also aware anecdotally of her interest in avant-garde theatre. Yet, we had never connected Mary with Flanagan. With hindsight, it seems inconceivable that Mary would not have worked with, and surely been influenced by, this extraordinary, ground-breaking woman. In this vein, we will conclude with this wonderful, scandalous newspaper clipping about Mary (née Crapo) breaking conventions and enjoying a 'healthy drag' on a cigarette during her college years! 

Mary Crapo smoking


[1]. Hallie Flanagan, Shifting Scenes of the Modern European Theatre. London: George G Harrap & Co., 1929, p. 108. Shelfmark: 011805.i.61.

[2]. ibid., p. 109.

[3]. Hallie Flanagan, Arena: The History of the Federal Theatre. New York: Benjamin Blom, 1965, p. 221. Shelfmark: X.900/3282.

Jean Petrovic, Eccles Centre for American Studies

21 January 2019

To Edgar, from Aubrey: bringing Poe’s tales to life

Gothic author Edgar Allan Poe was born on 19 January 1809 in Boston, Massachusetts. To mark this moment 210 years ago, I took to the collections to explore some of the most iconic illustrations of his stories, and of the man himself.

For some time I’ve been rather taken by Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations of Poe’s mysterious and startling tales; his style seemingly a perfect fit for some of Poe’s most grotesque and alarming scenes. Privately printed in 1926 in Indianapolis, Illustrations to Edgar Allen Poe (British Library shelfmark 7852.t.19.) features a striking golden cover and contains an array of Beardsley’s interpretations of Poe’s work including images for ‘The Black Cat’, 'The Mask of the Red Death', and ‘The Murder in the Rue Morgue’.

Front cover to ‘Illustrations to Edgar Allen Poe’ by Aubrey Beardsley

Beardsley, born in Brighton in 1872, was said by poet, critic and friend Arthur Symons, to have had ‘a more personal originality of manner’ and ‘so wise an influence on contemporary art’ (Aubrey Beardsley by Arthur Symons, London: At the Sign of the Unicorn, 1898, page 13) than any other artist of his day (‘certainly whose work has been in black and white’ Symons states).

Maybe it’s the darkness of Poe’s twisted tales that suit Beardsley’s bold black ink drawings. One of my favourites from the book pictured above is of the unnamed narrator in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’, possibly of the scene at the beginning of the tale as he approaches the doomed house by the lake. The darkness from above encroaching into the frame (a sign of the impending tragedy perhaps) while his composed demeanour and regal dress are a stark contrast to the dishevelled character we see fleeing the scene by the end of the story.

The Fall of the House of Usher from ‘Illustrations to Edgar Allen Poe’ by Aubrey Beardsley

As a certified cat lover (demonstrated in my previous cat blog), I tend to gravitate towards anything moggy. Despite the gruesome events of ‘The Black Cat’, Poe’s Pluto is no exception. In Beardsley’s interpretation, the feline protagonist sits atop a female – the murdered wife of the troubled narrator maybe – brazenly displaying his one-eyed face which was the result of the furious hand of his master. And, in what some would see as true cat fashion, wearing a distinctly unimpressed expression.

The evil eyebrows probably provide invaluable evidence for the ‘why cats can’t be trusted’ argument of dog people all over the globe. (Can cats be trusted? Make up your own mind with a visit to our Cats on the Page exhibition.)

The Black Cat from ‘Illustrations to Edgar Allen Poe’ by Aubrey Beardsley

While carefully leafing through the pages of this precious item (which is one of only 107 printed for Members of the Aubrey Beardsley Club), it’s impossible not to pause on Beardsley’s portrait of Poe. Through dark and solemn eyes, to me Beardsley certainly manages to convey something of the troubles and torments Poe experienced in his lifetime.

Portrait from ‘Illustrations to Edgar Allen Poe’ by Aubrey Beardsley

Perhaps the most arresting of the illustrations in this book is a self-portrait of Beardsley (spelled Bearsley in the caption) with Poe’s Raven in the backdrop.

Self-portrait of Aubrey Bearsley dying from ‘Illustrations to Edgar Allen Poe’ by Aubrey Beardsley

Both author and illustrator had untimely deaths (Poe died aged 40), with Beardsley’s talents lasting only until he was 25 when he died of tuberculosis. Symons recalls meeting with Beardsley during his sickness and seeing him ‘lying out on a coach, horribly white’ (Aubrey Beardsley by Arthur Symons, page 7). A description hauntingly similar to the figure of Roderick Usher in the opening of Poe’s tale, who we’re told is ‘lying at full length’ and has ‘a cadaverousness of complexion’ (The Fall of the House of Usher and other writings edited by David Galloway, Penguin, 2003 ELD.DS.195031, pages 259.1-260.5). Even the setting here has a likeness to the House of Usher where ‘Dark draperies hung upon the walls’ and ‘Many books…lay scattered about’. (The Fall of the House of Usher and other writings, page 259.1).

Although Symons goes on; despite his illness Beardsley was still ‘full of ideas, full of enthusiasm’ (Aubrey Beardsley by Arthur Symons, page 7) something perhaps illustrated in this self-portrait – the wine on the table a sign of life’s little indulgences and the scattering of books on the floor and Raven appearing at the back of Beardsley’s mind implying that his lust for art, reading and writing was far from dying even as his physical health deteriorated.

Our friends over in the European Collections have more on some of the flights of Poe’s Raven and Beardsley, ‘the British master of Art Nouveau’.

Suggested reading

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

Aubrey Beardsley: A Biography by Matthew Sturgis, Pallas Athene, 2011 (YK.2018.a.1551)

Aubrey Beardsley by Stephen Calloway, V & A Publications, 1998 (YC.1999.b.3863)

Aubrey Beardsley by Arthur Symons, Baker, 1966 (X.429/1677.)

Aubrey Beardsley by Arthur Symons, London: At the Sign of the Unicorn, 1898

Tales of Mystery and Imagination by Edgar Allan Poe, Readers Library Publishing Co, 1940 (

The Fall of the House of Usher and other writings: poems, tales, essays, and reviews by Edgar Allan Poe edited with an introduction and notes by David Galloway, Penguin, 2003 (BL Online Resource DRT ELD.DS.195031)


Written by Rachael, Americas Curatorial Placement







17 January 2019

New Collaborations: Announcing the Eccles Centre & Hay Festival Writer’s Award

Reading Room image

Researchers in Humanities 1 Reading Room.

As many Americas blog readers know, the Eccles Centre works to support access to the British Library’s North American collections, facilitating the development of new ideas by anyone with a research need of these collections. Since 2012 the Eccles Centre has awarded two authors a year with a unique and highly prestigious prize. The Writer’s Award bestows winners with £20,000 for a book in progress, to support a year’s residency at the British Library and privileged access to the Library’s world-class Americas collection and its curatorial expertise. Open to both fiction and non-fiction authors the prize is unique in the UK publishing industry as it champions a work in development, rather than awarding upon publication. In so doing, it has helped numerous authors produce richer works for their readers.

In 2018 we were delighted to expand the original remit of the award – previously focussed on books with a North American setting – to include all of the Americas. In advance of opening the call for the 2020 Writer’s Award, we are delighted to announce a further and significant change to the award; this year we are going global.

From 2020 onwards, we will be delivering the Writer’s Award in partnership with Hay Festival, opening it up to a new cohort of authors around the world.   Many of the conditions of the newly named Eccles Centre & Hay Festival Writer’s Award remain the same as before, as we continue to support access to the British Library’s Americas collections, but there are also notable changes. In particular, for the first time applicants from the Americas will be welcome to apply and we will also be accepting applications in Spanish and languages indigenous to the Americas. This last change feels particularly relevant this year; given 2019 is UNESCO’s International Year of Indigenous Languages.

Hay Festival are perfect partners for this award, their aim to, “inspire, examine and entertain, inviting participants to imagine the world as it is and as it might be” compliments the Centre’s mission to support research, innovation and creative insight through the British Library’s Americas collections. The partnership also significantly increases the reach and potential of the Writer’s Award, as well as offering new opportunities for events linked to the award. Starting this month, at Hay Festival Cartagena, the Eccles Centre and Hay Festival will be producing an exciting programme of events that highlight Writer’s Award holders and puts their winning works in front of more people than ever.

This exciting new partnership builds on a long-standing relationship between Hay Festival and the British Library, which have collaborated for a number of years, most notably through Living Knowledge Network livestreams and the Library’s recent acquisition of the unique Hay Festival archive.

The latest collaboration will see the Eccles Centre & Hay Festival Writer’s Award champion new authors, writing and thinking from both sides of the Atlantic. Future winners will join an exciting group of Award alumni, including this year’s holders, Rachel Hewitt and Sara Taylor, and contribute to an exciting new phase of Hay Festival programming in Wales and the Americas. Find out more and look out for the formal call for applications in spring 2019.

Phil Hatfield, Head of the Eccles Centre for American Studies.

09 January 2019

Cats from the stacks: The Cat in the Hat

Not that one ever really needs a reason to look at pictures of cats, but with our Cats on the Page exhibition now open here at the Library, it seemed like as good a time as ever to explore some favourite literary felines. Please prowl forward: Dr. Seuss’s ‘Cat in the Hat’…

Theodor Seuss Geisel’s (that’s Massachusetts-born Dr. Seuss to you and me) bolshie yet lovable Cat, was the result of a challenge put to the author to write a children’s book using a vocabulary of no more than 225 words. Giving Seuss a list of words, William Spaulding, director of the education division at publisher Houghton Mifflin, threw the gauntlet (or at least the children’s-book-world-equivalent):

‘Write me a story that first-graders can’t put down!’ (Judith and Neil Morgan, Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel, New York: Random House 1995, p 154, British Library shelfmark YA.1996.b.6813)    

And accept that challenge Seuss did.

Ted Geisel aka Dr. Seuss
Ted Geisel (Dr. Seuss) portrait, seated at desk covered with his books / World Telegram & Sun photo by Al Ravenna, 1957. From the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection.

A quick recap for those who don’t know: two children are left home alone one rainy day. Peering through the window and pondering what they’re to do while Mother is out, Cat’s arrival is signalled with a ‘BUMP!’. Ignoring the warnings of their pet fish (who, let’s face it, was probably never going to be a fan of a cat in the house even if he were as inconspicuous as they come), the children let Cat stay and chaos ensues. Elaborate balancing acts fail and a box of kite-flying Things cause disarray while the omniscient fish looks on despairingly.

The title itself came at a point of desperation for Seuss:

‘I was desperate, so I decided to read [the list] once more. The first two words that rhymed would be the title of my book and I’d go from there. I found ‘cat’ and then I found ‘hat’.’ (Theodor Seuss Geisel, author interview as quoted by Morgan, Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel, p 154)   

It was through the sketching of Cat that things began to fall into place for the storyteller. Cat’s upright posture, slightly protruding tum, trademark headwear and ‘red bow tie tied in three impossible loops’ (Morgan and Morgan, Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel, p 155) are instantly recognisable today. And hands up who else had never noticed that little quirk with the bowtie?

Front cover
‘The best of Dr. Seuss’ by Dr. Seuss, London: HarperCollins, 2003. YK.2003.a.15312

With Cat, it’s been said that Dr. Seuss wanted to create a character that, although was crafty and (slightly) shambolic, was still himself surprised whenever he messed up (Morgan, Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel, p 155). It’s this that gives Cat his endearing charm and keeps readers revisiting his capers.

And like all regretful moggies who come back with their tail between their legs, he does make good in the end – pootling in to speedily execute a ‘nothing-to-see-here’ clear up as Mother strolls along the garden path back to the house. Between the appealing rhythm and rhyme young readers are left with that very sagacious takeaway; you may mess up, but you can put things right again. Now there’s some wisdom to bring with you into adulthood. Thanks, Cat.

‘“Have no fear!” said the cat’ from YK.2003.a.15312

Speaking of that compelling rhythm that flows through the pages of Cat in the Hat, the skill in Seuss’s wordplay is made all-the-more impressive when you observe the lack of adjectives in the poem, something that Spaulding didn’t provide in great abundance when he gave Seuss the list of words to work from. ‘…[T]he limited vocabulary posed excruciating complexities in rhyming’ Morgan explains (Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel, p155) but Seuss’s ability prevailed, leaving us with that unique bounce of page-turning words that continues to entertain over half a century since they were first penned.

Within the first three years of its publication the tale had sold close to one million copies, been translated into other languages, and been produced in Braille (Morgan, Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel, p 156). Over 60 years later it remains a staple on the bookshelves of young children (and big kids) around the world.

Not one to be put off by a slightly tricky experiment, Seuss’s proficiency was pushed even further when it was later put to him to create another children’s book using a vocabulary of just 50- words. But we’ll save Green Eggs and Ham for another time.

See a bold full-colour 1957 edition Cat in the Hat, complete with Seuss’s iconic illustrations at Cats on the Page. Our free Entrance Hall exhibition celebrating cats and their capers from rhymes and stories through history is open until 17 March 2019.     

(Blog by Rachael Williams, currently on an Americas team curatorial placement and feeling rather pleased at managing to sidestep the plethora of puns that could have weaved their way into a cat-related post.)


Suggested reading

Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel, Judith and Neil Morgan, New York: Random House 1995, British Library shelfmark YA.1996.b.6813

Of Sneetches and Whos and the good Dr. Seuss: essays on the writings and life of Theodor Geisel, edited by Thomas Fensch, Jefferson, N.C.; London: McFarland & Co c. 1997, British Library shelfmark YC.1998.b.617

The political philosophy behind Dr. Seuss's cartoons and poetry: decoding the adult meaning of a children's text, Earnest N. Bracey, Lewiston, New York: The Edwin Mellen Press 2015, British Library shelfmark YC.2017.a.5301