THE BRITISH LIBRARY

American Collections blog

3 posts from May 2014

15 May 2014

Robert Frost in England

Robert Frost (portrait)

Frontispiece from the American edition of North of Boston. New York: Henry Holt, [1919]. BL Shelfmark YA.1986.a.3199

 

In 1912, frustrated both by the demands made on him by teaching and the lack of response from American publishers, Robert Frost determined to leave the United States. He initially favoured Vancouver, while his wife preferred England. Apparently, a coin was tossed and within a short time, together with their four children, they were crossing the Atlantic. It proved to be the perfect gamble. 

The following year his first volume of poetry, A Boy’s Will (London, 1913; BL shelfmark C.194.a.26) was published by David Nutt and today – 15 May 2014 – marks the 100th anniversary of his second, North of Boston (London, 1914; BL shelfmark W.56/6735). Including what would become two of his best loved poems, ‘After Apple-Picking’ and ‘Mending Wall’ – in which the narrator questions his neighbour’s dogged acceptance that ‘good fences make good neighbours’ – critic and poet Edward Thomas declared North of Boston to be ‘one of the most revolutionary books of modern times’, while Ford Madox Ford described it as ‘an achievement much finer than Whitman’s’.

Such critical acclaim, together with the family’s difficult financial position and the continuing war in Europe, hastened their return to the States. Famously, within hours of their arrival in New York in February 1915, Frost was thumbing through a newsstand copy of the The New Republic (BL shelfmark MFM.MA57) when he inadvertently came across poet Amy Lowell’s pronouncement that North of Boston was ‘the most American volume of poetry which has appeared for some time’. Six months later the Atlantic (BL shelfmark P.P.6256) – which had rejected Frost’s work for years – published not only three of his poems but an essay predicting he was ‘destined to take a permanent place in American literature’. And in September, Harper’s (BL shelfmark P.P.6383.a) editor and ‘Dean of American Letters’, William Dean Howells, concurred that Frost’s volumes merited ‘the favor they have won’.

Responding to these reviews and the almost unprecedented demand they created, American publisher Henry Holt – who had tentatively bought 150 copies of North of Boston from David Nutt – hastily printed 1,300 copies of his own. A year and four printings later nearly 20,000 copies had been sold and Frost’s reputation – and his future as a poet – were finally secure.

[J.P.]

10 May 2014

Erica Wagner: Credit for Cleopatra's Needle

When I was growing up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and setting out on a weekend run in Central Park, I knew I was doing okay when I passed Cleopatra's Needle, just west of the Metropolitan Museum. If I got that far I'd already done a loop around the lower Park, and would be heading up and around the Reservoir before pounding my way back home. 

Cleopatra's Needle is in the news; back in 2011, Zahi Hawass, who was then the minister of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, threatened to attempt to take the monument back to Egypt, alleging that the City wasn't taking care it properly. Well, now they've agreed to clean it, very carefully, with a laser. The restoration will take a few months, and will cost half a million dollars â€“ paid for not by the City, but with money raised privately by the Central Park Conservancy.

The Needle has nothing at all to do with Cleopatra, having been raised in Egypt many centuries before her birth to honour the Pharoah Thutmose III â€“ just like its sister obelisk in London on the banks of the Thames. But the name has stuck: people remember what's most convenient for them to remember, and forget what's convenient to forget. And so, for the most part, they've forgotten the name of the remarkable engineer who brought the obelisk from Egypt to Central Park, and saw it safely erected in 1881.

His name was Charles Roebling; and when I saw the story in The New York Times I was, as it happened, at Rutgers University in New Jersey, where much of the Roebling family's archive finds it home. (The other part of archive is at RPI, in Troy, New York, where my last blog post emanated from. I'm at work on a biography of his older brother, Washington, who built the Brooklyn Bridge â€“ completed two years after the obelisk was installed in the park. Washington outlived his younger brother â€“ who he viewed as the greatest engineer in a family of great engineeners. Charles had been running the family firm when he died â€“ John Roebling's Sons Co, of Trenton, New Jersey â€“ the family's fortune was founded on the manufacture of wire, wire rope being the most important invention of Washington and Charles father, who had come to America from Prussia in 1831. At the time of Charles's death his older sibling wrote: 

'He was the directing head, the man who looked ahead, planned and worked and designed and executed with tireless energy year in and year out, and usually successfully — He never copied, was always original even when at times it might have been wise to attain those results in some other way, but it all helps to strengthen one for future efforts.'

It's always struck me as strange how the names of engineers tend to vanish from history. Do we know the name of the engineer who first raised the obelisk Thutmose III in Alexandria? I don't think so. But we know Charles Roebling's name â€“ let's not allow it to fade. 

Erica Wagner is a 2014 Eccles Centre Writer-in-Residence at the British Library.

08 May 2014

Olivia Laing: Leee Black Childers

Cover

Leee Black Childers, Drag Queens, Rent Boys, Pick Pockets, Junkies, Rockstars and Punks, published by The Vinyl Factory/The Society Club

Archives are strange, and one of the strangest things about them is how lively they can be. On 6 April this year, the photographer Leee Black Childers died in Los Angeles at the age of sixty-nine. He was a legendary figure, a charming Southern gay man who captured the exuberant, seedy glamour of New York in the Sixties and Seventies, photographing drag queens, pop stars, rent boys, junkies, punks and miscellaneous downtown divas.

I first came across Childers by way of the Hall-Carpenter archive, a wide-ranging and insufficiently celebrated work of oral history about gay experience in the UK, which began in 1985 and is now housed at the British Library. Not all the participants were as talented or as well-connected as Leee, but they were meticulously interviewed and as such the archive forms a luminous portrait of queer life across a turbulent century. Still, Childers's long, roaming interview, recorded in 1990, must be among the most electrifying, providing six hours of gripping, moving and frequently scandalous listening.

Leee was born in 1945 in Jefferson County, Kentucky. At the beginning of his tape, he describes the grandmother who raised him, a puritanical figure who claimed she only had sex five times, once for each of her children, and who on seeing a woman wearing trousers remarked: 'Well look at that! They'll be gluing a doodle-whacker on next.' Leee, who began spelling his name with the eccentric extra 'e' as a small boy, fled this narrow-minded world in his early twenties, drifting to San Francisco, where he was involved in the civil rights movement and the hippy scene.

After a spell living with the Black Panthers, he moved to New York, where he began photographing drag queens and soon found himself drawn into the maelstrom of Warhol's Factory. Childers is refreshingly matter-of-fact about his old friend Andy, who he claims became an film maker in order to persuade attractive people to take their clothes off (On the subject of the 1964 Brillo Box sculpture, he comments wryly: 'It was a Brillo box. That's all it was. It was just a Brillo box.') Later, he worked as a tour manager for the likes of David Bowie and Iggy Pop, taking iconic photographs of punk and New Wave figures, among them Patti Smith, Lou Reed, and Debbie Harry in a stripy bathing suit.

He lived at the heart of what was by any standards an extraordinarily flamboyant scene, and it makes for a disorientating experience to sit in the calm surrounds of Humanities 2 in the British Library, listening to Leee describe the goings on – at the Anvil or in the backroom of Max's Kansas City, where the waiters used to complain that every time they went to get fresh napkins they'd find people having sex in the linen closet. Childers is a witty, affectionate guide to this lost period, with its curious mix of innocence and wildness.

He was always drawn to drag queens and they are the subjects of some of his finest work. He was present at the Stonewall riots, an uprising that kick-started the modern-day gay rights movement. The riots began in the early hours of 28 June 1969 in New York, after police raided the Stonewall Inn. 'They were lining the drag queens up behind the bar,' Leee explains. 'This is something I think people should realise. It comes down to drag. All the gay people were walking out meekly, when the drag queens behind the bar started throwing bottles. It was the drag queens who started that riot and it was the drag queens who led it... I wouldn't have missed it for anything.'

So what happened to this electric, electrifying world? In a word, Aids. Leee, who was living in London at the time of the interview, provides an intimate, agonising history of the Aids crisis as it obliterated his community, killing friends and acquaintances and destroying an entire cultural milieu. At one point, he comments: "Every time I open the mail, someone else has died." When I first listened to his tape, I'd been researching Aids and art for two years, but there were still names among his litany I'd never heard before, including the drag queen Brandy Alexander and the beautiful Hibiscus, who went from being a Sixties flower child to a radical performer in the San Francisco dance troupe The Cockettes, performing in full make up, dress and lavish beard.

I suppose this is the point of archives, and the point too of work like Leee's: that it resists obliteration, keeping what is always threatening to disappear in view. His subjects lived at a tilt to society, transgressing social norms of sex and dress and self-presentation in ways that remain subversive even now. His portraits capture this, exuding a magical liveliness, a reckless and informal solidarity. However edgy the subject matter, they're never prurient or voyeuristic. Tennessee Williams used to say: "Nothing human disgusts me unless it's unkind." The same non-judgemental sensibility informs all Leee's work, a kind of radical broad-mindedness that's getting rarer every day.

Olivia Laing is the 2014 Eccles Writer in Residence at the British Library. She's the author of To the River and The Trip to Echo Spring and is currently working on The Lonely City, a cultural history of urban loneliness.

 See also the Lee Black Childers SaMI recording.