THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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

29 November 2017

Winston Whyte’s Barber Shop Trial

The barber shop is a curious phenomenon, a masculine space which seems to transcend boundaries of typical service provision. The African-Caribbean barber shop appears to represent an even more varied intersection of use, activity and meaning. Going through copies of Flamingo in preparation for the upcoming Windrush exhibition at the British Library, I came across a short story by Winston Whyte.

Edited by Edward Scobie, the first issue of this vibrant but short-lived journal was published in September 1961; unfortunately, its final issue was published just two years later, in November 1963. Britain’s longstanding African-Caribbean communities saw a sharp growth from the late 1940s to the early 1960s, many were part of the so-called ‘Windrush Generation’, hence Flamingo was envisioned as a ‘voice’ for the ‘350,000 West Indians and many thousands of Africans and Asians’ that lived in Britain.[1] In a short story segment each month, Flamingo would publish Caribbean or West African authors. This included the work of unpublished writers, such as Winston Whyte, but also famous authors, notably Samuel Selvon[2]. These stories were complimented with comical illustrations drawn by Dave Robinson.

 

Barber shop image 1

Winston Whyte, Flamingo, April 1962, p.17-19.

Set in Pedro’s barber shop in Notting Hill, the ‘Barber Shop Trial’ constructs the complex and lively world of this imagined but authentic space, part of what Whyte calls ‘Barber Shop Society’. The sentiment conjured up in Winston Whyte’s story, which was published over fifty-years ago, is more than a historical phenomenon, as evidenced by Inua Ellams’ play, ‘Barber Shop Chronicles’ which is currently showing at the National Theatre.

Barber shop image 2

 

 

Flamingo, April 1962, p.17.

The narrator explains how ‘this is a scene poles apart from the English Barber Shop where conversation is limited to “Good Morning Sir. Your turn Sir. How would you like it Sir?” A world away from this, at Pedro’s, they were always ‘talkin’ ‘bout something. It could be ‘bout conditions at home, colour prejudice in Britain, women, politics or any other subject under the sun’. Although set in an imagined barber shop, one can assume that Pedro’s was based on numerous real barber shops, like those advertised in Flamingo.

Speaking in general, the narrator asserts that ‘any good Jamaican barber is philosopher, preacher, politician, lawyer, father-confessor, comedian and family guidance councillor all rolled in one’. It is the intersection between the social, political, domestic and material which has led to the African-Caribbean barber shop becoming such an important and layered symbol and space. The often-ironic use of the barber shop is evidenced by the fact that Lloyd, the West Indian regular at Pedro’s, never actually got his hair cut there.

Barber shop image 3

 

Flamingo, April 1962, p.18.

Although the ‘Barber Shop Trial’ evokes a sense of unity and comfort, competition and division were also rife at Pedro’s. Using the format of a legal trial, Whyte tells the story of a heated debate between Pedro (the barber), Lloyd (his regular West Indian customer) and ‘the African’ (a ‘well-spoken’ barrister). Through a dispute about Lloyd and Pedro’s lateness, alongside accentuated linguistic and occupational differences, this story explores and solidifies boundaries of Africa and the Caribbean. Pedro, Lloyd and the other customers speak in dialect, this is set in contrast to ‘the African’s faultless English’. This reflects the tensions, as often invoked through stereotyping, that existed between Britain’s diverse black communities.

So, when you’re next deciding where to get your haircut remember that ‘Good humour an’ judgement mean good haircuts.’

Naomi Oppenheim is a PhD candidate on a CDP at the British Library and UCL. She is currently researching British-Caribbean popular culture and the politics of history in the post-war period.

 

[1] Editorial, Flamingo, September 1961, inside cover.

[2] Samuel Selvon, ‘Late Snack for the Mop’, Flamingo, June 1962, pp.16-17

24 November 2017

Martha Gellhorn: The Reporter as a Young Poet

What makes juvenilia so fascinating? When reading the works written by an author in their youth one often looks for glimpses of the ideas and obsessions they would later develop in their works. But it sometimes also feels like a small betrayal, to read these raw texts written before authors have developed their voice, or met the red pen of an editor. There is something about teenage poetry that makes it particularly excruciating – perhaps because it awakens a dormant fear that one day someone may find our own ring-bound poetry notebook in the bottom of a drawer. It is hard however to resist the temptation to see what war reporter Martha Gellhorn was like when she was 17.

759px-Martha_Gellhorn_stamp (1)
Martha Gellhorn postage stamp. Part of the 2008 American Journalists stamp series (Source: US Postal Service via Wikimedia Commons)

As a star correspondent for the American magazine Collier’s Weekly during the late 1930s and 1940s, Martha Gellhorn became well known for her first-person chronicles of the Second World War. Gellhorn covered the principal fronts during the conflict, and wrote a memorable report on the liberation of the Dachau camp for Collier’s in 1945. Gellhorn had started her career as a war reporter in Spain during the civil war, and went on to cover most major twentieth century conflicts, including the Vietnam War. Her best journalistic writing is collected in The Face of War (1959) [9104.d.10.].

Gellhorn’s life, and especially her turbulent marriage to Ernest Hemingway, has been fictionalised in different genres, from our Eccles Writers in Residence Naomi Wood’s Mrs Hemingway to the less successful HBO film Hemingway and Gellhorn.

Before she became well known for her reporting and ruthless commentary however, Gellhorn was writing poetry. From 1923 she attended the newly founded John Burroughs School in her native St Louis, Missouri. The school was a coeducational and progressive institution for the time. The British Library holds an issue of the John Burroughs Review [ZD.9.a.2618], the school magazine where Gellhorn published her first works. The magazine was published five times a year by the students of the school and Gellhorn was part of the board of editors.

JBReview

The John Burroughs School Review is an impressive publication for a high school magazine, with a modernist cover designed by Clark Smith.  The November 1925 issue contained poems, short stories and book reviews, as well as adverts for local businesses.  Gellhorn was 17 when the magazine printed a sequence of six poems titled ‘Bits of Glass’, three of which are reproduced below:

Bitsofglass1
The John Burroughs Review, November 1925 (extract from page 16)

Gellhorn was fiercely protective of her reputation. She banned the reprinting of her first novel, the semi-autobiographical work What Mad Pursuit, published in 1934 (the Library holds a copy at YD.2012.a.2572 - read more about it in Naomi Wood's blog post). But despite Gellhorn’s and many other writers’ anxiety about their early attempts at writing, these texts will always remain fascinating for readers who want to find out how and when they became the writers they admire.

Now remember to hide that notebook the next time you visit your parents’ house.

 

Mercedes Aguirre

Lead Curator, Americas

05 October 2017

Early American Science: Benjamin Franklin

The British Library has an outstanding collection of scientific literature, and the richness of its early American scientific material is illuminated in the Eccles Centre’s Early American Science: A Selective Guide to Materials at the British Library by Jean Petrovic. The books, journals, papers and letters of all of the leading figures are listed here. And while Benjamin Rush, ‘Father of American Psychiatry’, will be the subject of next month’s blog, this first one must surely focus upon Benjamin Franklin.

For Franklin and others like him, scientific investigation was a central part of eighteenth century philosophical enquiry; indeed, the generic term for scientists at this time was ‘natural philosophers’. That the American Declaration of Independence was based on 'natural law', rather than divine sanction, stemmed from preceding century's increasing reluctance to define natural phenomena as purely 'Acts of God'.

Volcano

Eruption of Mount Vesuvius. 1794. (British Library: Maps K.Top.83.61.i) 

Initially, the natural philosophers living in the American colonies worked collaboratively on a local and inter-colonial basis. Yet as the eighteenth century progressed they increasingly communicated with fellow spirits in Britain and Continental Europe. 

From the mid-century onward, Franklin was at the centre of this exchange of information. In 1753 he won the Royal Society’s Copley Medal – the 18th century equivalent of the Nobel Prize – for his ground-breaking work in the field of electricity. This he had communicated by letter to Peter Collinson, a Fellow of the Royal Society, who subsequently arranged for its publication as Experiments and Observations on Electricity (London, 1751; shelfmark: 538.l.5.(6))

Franklin Experiments

Benjamin Franklin, Experiments and Observations on Electricity. London: E. Cave, 1751. (Shelfmark: 538.l.5.(6.))   

The book established Franklin’s reputation in Britain and Europe, with Immanuel Kant in 1755 describing him as ‘The Prometheus of Modern Times’. Thus, when Franklin arrived in London in 1757, ostensibly as a political representative, this supposedly unfashionable colonial found immediate acceptance at the centre of Britain’s scientific community. As he expanded his own network, he increased the international acceptance of his American contemporaries. Even the American War of Independence did not totally disrupt transatlantic communication. In 1779, Franklin, as the United States Minister Plenipotentiary in France, instructed ‘All Captains and Commanders of American Armed Ships’ to grant Captain Cook a safe passage in 1779 for his voyage of exploration ‘for the Increase of Geographical Knowledge’. [1]   

Frankin portrait

Benjamin Franklin, by David Martin (1767). Wikimedia Commons, provided by The White House Historical Association. The bust on Franklin's desk is of Sir Isaac Newton.

The extraordinary number and depth of Franklin’s connections can be traced by linking the correspondence in The Papers of Benjamin Franklin (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959- ) to the publications of his American contemporaries in Early American Science. In so doing, we see how Franklin is associated with the biologist Cotton Mather from his Boston boyhood and linked to a great number of his fellow Philadelphian scientists, including the botanist John Bartram, physician Thomas Bond, scientific patron James Logan, astronomer David Rittenhouse, physician Benjamin Rush (the subject of next month's blog) and collector Charles Willson Peale. Franklin was also a long-time correspondent of two highly distinguished academics – the Yale climatologist Ezra Stiles and John Winthrop, Professor of Mathematics and Natural and Experimental Philosophy at Harvard.

The final Franklin/British Library connection highlighted in Early American Science is the Library's holdings of almost two hundred and fifty years of the Transactions (1771 - ) of the American Philosophical Society - the organisation founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1743 and modeled on the Royal Society. [2] 

George Goodwin

George is a 2017 Eccles Makin Fellow at the British Library and author of Benjamin Franklin in London: The British Life of America's Founding Father. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2016. (shelfmark: YD.2016.a.3841).

Notes

[1] The Papers of Benjamin Franklin, vol. 29 (March 1 through June 30, 1779), p. 86. Edited by Barbara B. Oberg, et al. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992. (Shelfmark: 10924.h.1.)

[2] Transactions of the American Philosophical Society. Philadelphia, 1771 - present. (Shelfmark: Ac.1830/3)