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12 October 2016

Dorothy Livesay: Canada, the Spanish Civil War and the 1930s

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My dear, it’s years between; we’ve grown up fast

Each differently, each striving by itself.

I see you now a grey man without dreams

Without a living, or an overcoat:

But sealed in struggle now, we are more close

Than if our bodies still were sealed in love.

                              Dorothy Livesay, “Comrade”

 

Dorothy Livesay’s 1977 book Right Hand Left Hand is best described as a collage of Canada during the 1930s. It is at once a memoir, a scrapbook, and an anthology that includes personal letters, visual art, poetry, short stories, articles and photographs—all framed by Livesay’s reminiscences. As co-editor of the new scholarly edition of Right Hand Left Hand, I’ve been working closely with the book for more than four years, but still I can hardly grasp it. It is ambitious and scattered, compelling and confusing. Its flawed form attempts to do justice to the chaos, excitement, and adversity of Canada during the Great Depression.

 
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Dorothy Livesay. Right Hand Left Hand (Erin, Ont. : Press Porcepic, 1977) [X.950/20211]

Right Hand Left Hand offers countless paths into Canada’s social, political, and cultural history. The Spanish Civil War claims its own chapter, disrupting the pattern of chapters themed around Livesay’s own travels (Montreal, New Jersey, the West). This chapter does not provide a historical account of the war. Instead, it offers a series of voices, representing the Canadians involved in the Republican Front during the conflict. Volunteers, medical staff, poets, fundraisers, and journalists all speak to the urgency of the Spanish conflict and why it resonated across the ocean: famous Dr. Norman Bethune describes the innovative process of blood transfusion; La Pasionaria cries out Spain’s needs to eager Canadian advocates; poets speak of Spain as a metaphor for Canada’s depressed and oppressed. For those new to the subject matter, Canadians’ engagement with the war raises questions. Faced with the economic crisis and the impending Second World War, what would compel Canadians to commit themselves to Spain? Livesay argues for the Spanish Civil War’s significance in Canadian history, first through the textual space of the chapter, and then through the polyvocality of its contents.

Cary Nelson uses the term “poetry chorus” to emphasize “community and continuity in the collective enterprise of progressive poetry” (3). In Right Hand Left Hand, Livesay curates a similar chorus—a collection of fiercely political voices, real or fictional, who bring their energy and passion to their communities. Livesay offers many versions of what resistance and community building look like. Livesay catalogues hundreds of political gestures that interfere in the status quo and that work towards a better world: a woman reaches across class divides to comfort a neighbour; labourers contribute their meagre income to support striking comrades; artists craft narratives that expose state violence. People resist locally and internationally, with their money, their time, their imaginations, and sometimes their lives. Solidarity is made visible, is questioned, doubted, and ultimately, affirmed. The end result is that the war in Spain doesn’t seem so remote or futile. Is there a difference between supporting your neighbour down the street, across the mountains, or across the sea? Is it worthwhile to make these distinctions?

Right Hand Left Hand ends with a photograph of Jean Watts, one of Livesay’s closest friends. The photo, captioned “Jean Watts Lawson marching off to war,” shows Watts in uniform—she enlisted in the Canadian Women’s Army Corps during the Second World War. It wasn’t her first war; Watts participated in the Spanish Civil War as a journalist, radio broadcaster, censor, ambulance driver, and with Norman Bethune’s blood transfusion unit. Before the war, she was an active member of Canada’s Workers’ Theatre, and funded New Frontier, the leftist magazine where much of the poetry of the Spanish Civil War first appeared. Her image sums up this ambitious book: she was central in Livesay’s personal life, in Canada’s cultural scene, in leftist politics, and in the Canadian war effort. She fought fascism on so many fronts. She built communities and cultural infrastructure.

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Her determined figure provides a hopeful counterpoint to Livesay’s text, which ends on a heart-wrenching reminiscence of the bombing of Hiroshima. In recovering Right Hand Left Hand, I strive to recover the Canada that cared so deeply about the people of Spain, and the Canada that worked and wrote and fought towards alternatives to capitalism and fascism. I strive to recover Livesay and Watts together—two fierce women who contributed to their communities in very different but equally necessary ways.

--Kaarina Mikalson

Kaarina Mikalson is Project Manager for Canada and the Spanish Civil War and a PhD student in English in Dalhousie University

 

NOTES:

Livesay, Dorothy. Right Hand Left Hand. Erin, ON: Press Porcépic, 1977.

 ---. “Comrade.” Right Hand Left Hand. Erin, ON: Press Porcépic, 1977. 262.

Nelson, Cary. Revolutionary Memory: Recovering the Poetry of the American Left. New York: Routledge, 2003.

 

20 October 2015

Sea Birds, Castaways, and Phantom Islands off Newfoundland

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[This year the British Library Americas Blog and U.S. Studies Online are publishing a series of posts as part of the Eccles Centre’s Summer Scholars 2015 series. The articles are based on talks given by a range of writers and scholars conducting research at the British Library thanks to generous research fellowships and grants awarded by the Eccles Centre. Several of these have a scientific flavour, and in this post the Canadian artist and writer JR Carpenter discusses the phenomenon of ‘Phantom Islands’ in early exploration of the American coastland, taken from her talk which took place on 7th August.]

Detail from: Giovanni Battista Ramusio, “La Nuova Francia,” Delle Navigatione et Viaggi, 1556. BL 566.k.3.

Detail from: Giovanni Battista Ramusio, “La Nuova Francia,” Delle Navigatione et Viaggi, 1556. BL 566.k.3.

On the twentieth of April 1534, Jacques Cartier sailed from St. Malo, France, with two ships and sixty-one men aboard each. On the tenth of May they came to Newfoundland at Cape Bonavista. On the twenty-first of May they sailed Northeast until they came upon an island encompassed by a jumble of broken ice which Cartier named l’Isle des Ouaisseaulx (Isle of Birds), as its surface was covered with nesting sea birds and the cries of thousands more filled the air overhead.

Many sixteenth-century maps show some variation of an Isle of Birds off the Northeast coast of Newfoundland. In a map of 1555, the French privateer, explorer, and navigator Guillaume le Testu calls an island in this region I. Puanto (Stinking Island), in reference to the evil odour of the guano of the millions of large sea birds accumulated over centuries. Until the 1800s, English maps commonly showed an Isle of Penguin. The narrator of Sir Humphrey Gilbert’s 1583 voyage for the colonisation of Newfoundland for England remarks: “We had sight of an island named Penguin, of a fowl there breeding in abundance, almost incredible, which cannot fly, their wings not able to carry their body, being very large… and exceedingly fat” (Hakluyt). The narrator is not confusing the Great Auk with the large flightless bird of the southern hemisphere. Quite the contrary. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word ‘penguin’ is of Welsh origin, from pen gwyn meaning ‘white head,’ and refers to the Great Auk, which once nested in the thousands on the islands off Newfoundland. It would be another 250 years before humans of any nationality would set foot on Antarctica. By the time they arrived, the Great Auk had been hunted out of existence. The southern bird we now know as Penguin is haunted by the ghost of its northern namesake.

Modern maps show an island called Funk off the Northeast coast of Newfoundland. A scrap of a place, this small, barren island is home to an ecological reserve and remains populated exclusively by birds. The name Funk is redolent of the evil odour of guano.

Would Funk Island by any other name smell as fowl?

Since the first European voyages to the rich cod-fishing grounds off Newfoundland there have been also been reports of an Island of Demons in the region, reputedly inhabited by a curious mixture of wild animals, mythological creatures, evil spirits, devils, and demons. An inscription on the second oldest known printed map depicting the new world, published by Johannes Ruysch in Rome in 1507, notes: “Demons assaulted ships near these islands, which were avoided, but not without peril.” On the first printed map devoted exclusively to New England and New France, published by Giovanni Battista Ramusio in Venice in 1556 (pictured above), an Isola de Demoni is populated by curious combination of seabirds, hunters, natives, and winged devils of whom Ramusio makes no direct textual mention, observing only: “Between Ras Cape and Brettoni Cape lives severe and cruel people with whom it is impossible to speak.” An island of demons appears on the famous Flemish geographer and cartographer Gerardus Mercator’s world map of 1569. An isle des oyse aus (Island of Birds) and an isle dos demonios (Island of Demons) appear in the equally famous Flemish cartographer Abraham Ortelius’ 1569 map of the new world (pictured below).

Detail from: Abraham Ortelius, Americae Sive Novi Orbis Nova Descriptio, 1569. BL Maps C.2.c.1.

Detail from: Abraham Ortelius, Americae Sive Novi Orbis Nova Descriptio, 1569. BL Maps C.2.c.1.

In Les Singularitez de la France Antarctique (1558) an account of a voyage along the coast of the Americas undertaken in 1555, the French Royal Cosmographer, explorer, scholar, and Franciscan Friar André Thevet notes passing “the islands they call the Isles of the Devils.” Thevet is unlikely to have sailed as far north at Newfoundland. He makes no mention of hearing or seeing devils or demons, observing only that the region is “merueilleusemêt froide”, unfortunately cold, which, he reasons, is why those who discovered didn’t stay long. By the time of the publication of his Cosmographie Universelle in 1575, Thevet has completely rewritten this coastline:

I have been told so by not just one but by numberless pilots and mariners with whom I have long travelled; that when they passed by this coast, when they were plagued by a big storm, they heard in the air, as if on the crow’s nest or masts of their vessels, these human voices making a great noise, without their being able to discern intelligible words… These voices caused them a hundred times more astonishment then the tempest around them. They well knew that they were close to the Isle of Demons… (Schlesinger & Stabler 1986: 61-62)

Frontispiece of the opening scene of The Tempest from Nicolas Rowe's 1709 edition of Shakespeare’s plays. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Tempest#/media/File:Rowe_Tempest.JPG

Frontispiece of the opening scene of The Tempest from Nicolas Rowe’s 1709 edition of Shakespeare’s plays. Source.

There are echoes of Thevet’s tale in Shakespeare’s The Tempest (1610–11), published thirty-five years later, by which time  Cosmographie Universelle was widely available in English translation. The winged devils in the air above the ship in the frontispiece of the opening scene of The Tempest in Nicolas Rowe’s 1709 edition of Shakespeare’s plays (pictured above) bear an uncanny resemblance to those hovering above the Isola de Demoni in Ramusio’s map of 1556 (pictured above). When Prospero asks the spirit Ariel, “Performed to point the tempest that I bade thee?”, Ariel replies:

 …Now on the beak, 

Now in the waist, the deck, in every cabin

I flamed amazement. Sometime I’d divide,

And burn in many places. On the topmast,

The yards, and boresprit…

Delighted, Prospero presses Ariel, keen to know if this storm performed infected its intended victims’ reason. Ariel proudly reports that, indeed, the King’s son Ferdinand leapt up and cried: “Hell is empty, And all the devils are here!”

Although much of Thevet’s fanciful if highly inconsistent writing has been widely discredited by later historians, his shifting account of the Isle of Demons cannot be entirely dismissed as a tall tale as it’s based upon an eye-witness account. In 1542 Jean-Francois de La Rocque, Sieur de Roberval, Viceroy of Canada, sailed for Newfoundland with three ships, two hundred colonists, and a young noble woman named Marguerite de La Roque, who may have been Roberval’s cousin or his niece. On grounds that she had entered into an affair with one of the young officers on board, Roberval set Marguerite, her lover, her nurse, and four guns ashore on a small, deserted island somewhere off the Northeast coast of Newfoundland, which Roberval refers to as the Island of Demons in an attempt to scare off any would-be rescuers. Two years and five months later a passing Basque fishing boat rescued Marguerite, the sole survivor of this ordeal. Upon her return to France she narrated her tale to a number of people, including none other than Thevet, who relates:

it was a pity to hear the ravages which those evil spirits made around them and how they tried to destroy their little dwelling, appearing as divers kinds and shapes of frightful animals… at night they often heard such loud cries that it seemed as if there were more than 100,000 men together (Schlesinger & Stabler 1986: 64).

The story of Marguerite de La Roque on the Island of Demons continues to resonate in contemporary Canadian literature. In Douglas Glover’s Governor General’s Award-winning novel Elle (2003), an un-named first-person narrator based on Marguerite states: “The wind screams like a hundred hundred demons, far worse than the screaming of the birds. And in bpNichol’s poem “Lament” (1985) it is the wind that lends the island it’s demonic moniker:

…the isle of demons
so called because the wind howled over the rocks
drowned in sound the three of them

Listen to bpNichol’s poem “Lament” at Penn Sound

The sound of voices figures prominently in Thevet’s published account of Marguerite’s orally recounted ordeal. These sounds locate this narrative within one the most advanced communications network of the day, that of shipping. Sixteenth-century sailing ships were small, fragile by twenty-first century standards. Transatlantic expeditions were timed to avoid the worst of the seasonal flows of icebergs in the North Atlantic, to arrive after the breakup of the thick pack ice in the Strait of Belle Isle. After many weeks on the open ocean, arrival at Newfoundland coincided with thick fogs coming off the warming continent, and with the breading season of the great flocks of seabirds that inhabit the coastal cliffs and off-shore islands. When mating, Great Auks utter utterly demonic sounds, low moans and guttural growls. Considered in this context, the Isle Demons assumes a more tangible form. Passing pilots and mariners were plagued, not by the human voices of 100,000 men but rather, by the moans and growls of thousands of mating sea birds. Among the strange beasts Marguerite encountered were walruses and snow white polar bears. Among the evil spirits – salt mists, sea frets, sleet, snow, gale-force winds, and the stink of centuries-worth of gauno.

Detail from Odysseus and the Sirens, an Attic red-figured vase from 480-470 BC. British Museum. Image source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siren_%28mythology%29#/media/File:Odysseus_Sirens_BM_E440_n2.jpg

Detail from Odysseus and the Sirens, an Attic red-figured vase from 480-470 BC. British Museum. Image source

Though it is almost certainly from a malodorous genealogy that the name of the modern-day Funk Island descends, it is interesting to note that in German, the word ‘funk’ means radio or wireless. This false genealogy, with its association with sound and broadcast, resonates with the Greek myth of the Isle of Sirens. The winged creatures depicted tormenting the ship of Odysseus on the Attic vase pictured above date from over 2000 years before the winged devils shown on Ramusio’s map. In Classical times the perils of sea travel rationalised by the invention of dangerous beautiful creatures who lured passing sailors with their enchanting music and voices to shipwreck on the rocky coast of their island. In the early sixteenth-century, the Island of Demons was born of a similar necessity. Where better to place the fears, desires, rumours, and superstitions of an Early Modern Europe than on a phantom island hovering just offshore of this strange new world?

[JR Carpenter]

07 October 2015

Curator, North American Published Collections

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[27/10/2015 Please note, the application deadline has now passed]. You may have seen Phil's valedictory post as he moves to his new role as Digital Mapping curator ('HC SVUNT DRACONES'). We're pleased that he's still very much around in the Library, but also that we are able to advertise a slightly rijigged version of his post (it now concentrates on the US and Canada, with an emphasis on the post-1850 and contemporary). If you are interested in working with the Collections and Curation team at the Library, then you may want to look at the job description on our website (here's the job description (.pdf)). Applications are due 26 October, and we'd also be very happy to talk more about the role (and yes, we really mean this).

Earlier in the year, Phil did a YouTube film about working at the Library. It links to a couple of other curators' experiences of their work, too. Good research material for any application...

 

 

-- Matthew Shaw

24 August 2015

Team Americas meets Reverend Jesse Jackson

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William Wells Brown (portrait)  Olaudah Equiano (portrait)

Above: portraits from the works of William Wells Brown [BL: 10880.a.6] and Olaudah Equiano [BL: 1489.g.50], two items displayed for the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

Last week Team Americas had the pleasure of putting on a small show of collection items for Reverend Jesse Jackson, who visited the Library's Magna Carta show ahead of his event on Friday evening. I've done more than a few collection displays while I've been a curator and it's always entertaining to collate a selection of material, usually on a tight timescale, from the Library's vast collections and making a narrative that will interest the audience and illuminate the significance of the objects on show.

For Reverend Jackson's display I focussed on the long march to abolish slavery and attain racial equality in the Americas, which is extensively detailed in manuscript, book, newspaper and other collections held here. It was an opportunity to look at a number of items I know of but have not spent time with and also to show some of the notable interconnections between the items, collections and ideas that make up the wider Americas collections.

Spending time with material you've not read before is always fascinating and the Library's holdings of manuscript letters between King Henri Christophe of Haiti and Thomas Clarkson, written in 1816, are particularly so. Consisting mostly of a lengthy letter from Christophe to Clarkson there are two main threads to the message: Christophe explaining why the Haitian revolution was so necessary and also thanking Clarkson for dispatching some (reading between the lines) British teachers to support education in this new free state. The arrival of these teachers raises a question as to exactly what is going on here. Christophe is undoubtedly pleased with their arrival ('the greatest benefit' he calls them) but why, above all things, did Clarkson send teachers? Was he asked to? Did he decide they were an important part of, perhaps, shaping free Haiti into a recognisably European state? Or did he think educating free Afro-Caribbeans would make a useful case for his own abolitionist work?

Whatever the case, the letters remind us of a few important points: that the networks involved in promoting the end of slavery and subsequent racial equality in the Americas were international in nature; that they involved a large number of individuals with prodigious global contacts; that each party in these networks had their own aims and objectives; and that activism in these networks could spring up in the most unlikely of places. Another item on display was a copy of Olaudah Equiano's 'Interesting Narrative' and a glance at the subscribers in this work illustrates the above nicely. A recent blog post by our student Ellie Bird (whose research was also on display) illustrates the surprising locations involved, as authors promoting Underground Railroad publications found their way to the Lake District.

The only problem with these displays (as with these blogs) is that people are busy and there's never enough time to talk about absolutely everything that piques one's interests. Sadly, my time of doing these displays is coming to an end too as, at the beginning of September, I'll be taking up the post of Lead Curator, Digital Mapping, here at the Library. Given this will be one of my final displays I've decided to leave it on the blog for future reference and so the handout can be downloaded below. 

Download Freedom and Equality in the Americas (Rev Jackson display, final)

[PJH]

10 July 2015

Canada in the UK: waiting and training in WW1

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26th battalion departure

Above: Canadian troops leave New Brunswick for Europe [BL: HS85/10 30438, from the Picturing Canada project]

We've not talked about Europeana 1914 - 1918 for a little while here on the Americas blog but their work continues and we're still digging around our First World War collections, so here's a little update. You'll remember that last year we launched the Library's contributions to Europeana, as well as an Entrance Hall Gallery exhibition and an in-depth learning resource and the online elements of this are still open for use. But the work, digging and research involved inevitably opened up new questions for those of us curating the material.

For me the research highlighted my personal proximity to sites associated with Canadian troops in the First World War. While I lived in South West London I learnt that my nearby green space, Bushy Park, hosted Canadian troops and medical facilities during the First World War. This is often forgotten in the face of the more dramatic presence of US Air Force base 'Camp Griffiss' in the park during the Second World War but Royal Parks commemorate Canada's place here with a totem pole installed in 1992.

Joker fund collector

Above: 'Joker, a patriotic fund collector', looking delighted by his job [BL: HS85/10 29607, from the Picturing Canada project]

Having now fled London's cramped trains and busy roads I find I've inadvertently moved to the epicentre of the Canadian presence in the UK during the First World War. After being originally posted to Salisbury Plain Canadian reserve troops, hospitals, engineers and other corps were moved to garrisons around Kent, particularly the Folkestone and Shorncliffe areas. From here the reserve regiments were sent to various training sites around Kent, including some small trench operations based on a common just down the road from where I live.

By now you can guess where this is going. Spurred by this knowledge, I've been digging through Europeana and our physical holdings to see if we hold anything about the Kent camps and, most especially, the training centre near where I live. There are various items about the Kent camps on Europeana including photographs and personal letters sent home to Canada from Shorncliffe. It also turns out there are films of some of the Shorncliffe based training, courtesy of Canada's NFB. Unfortunately, I've not been so lucky trying to find material about places a little closer to home but I'll keep digging at the weekends.

Canadian_Official_War_Photographs_(BL_l.r.233.b.57.v1_f059r)

Above: photographs of snipers in training from the Canadian War Records Office photographs. There's a small chance these are taken in Kent, near my home. Or, they were taken in France... [BL: L.R.233.b.57, from the Picturing Canada project]

The best hope is a collection of Canadian War Records Office photographs submitted to the Library in 1923. These photographs were sponsored by Lord Beaverbrook in an attempt to document, as well as promote, Canadian achievements during the war and these contain a number of photographs of reserve regiments training in and around Kent. I've not found anything astounding yet but here are a lot of them and the location data in the title isn't always helpful. However, digital copies are available from ourselves and Library and Archives Canada so there's plenty of scope for sitting with a drink and sifting through the mass.

One final note, if this has caught your interest the Eccles Centre is hosting a #BLScholars talk about, 'Cliveden, Canadians and the First World War', by Martin Thornton, on 27th July at 12:30. As for me, I'll let you know if I find anything!

[PJH]

01 July 2015

Happy Canada Day

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Quebec location [de Champlain]

Above: Chart of Quebec's location, with notes on geographical surrounds and neighbouring settlements. From, 'Les Voyages du Sieur de Champlain'  [BL Shelfmark: C.32.h.9]

Happy Canada Day all! Canada's anniversary celebrations come thick and fast at this time of year but there's one that (certainly outside of Canada) is often overlooked, the foundation of Quebec. Separated by over 250 years the celebrations of the foundation of the city of Quebec and the creation of the Dominion of Canada are separated by a mere two days, with Quebec being founded on the 3rd of July 1608.

As we've noted before, materials about the founding of Quebec and a large chunk of the rest of Canada's early history is documented in the Library's collections, as shown through our various blog posts (not to mention our previous Canada Day ones).

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Above: an image from our 'Picturing Canada' digitisation, released to celebrate Canada Day in 2013.

But, today's perhaps not about historical research as much as it is about enjoying the present. So bookmark this for later and enjoy the day.

[PJH]

29 May 2015

Conference: Visual Urbanisms

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3.8 Looking Up Yonge Street, Toronto, Ont, From and Aeroplane, Canadian Postcard Co, Toronto (hs85 10 35818) (1)

Above: a view of Toronto's historic landscape [BL: HS85/10/35818]

Team Americas were invited to take part in today's Visual Urbanisms conference in the Library's conference centre and there are few prizes for guessing what we talked about. Picturing Canada may have been completed a few years ago but we still like to show the work to new audiences and think more about what the collection tells us.

IMG_8165

Above: history lives on and is performed around us; Toronto streetscape [image by PJH]

With that in mind, the conference was an opportunity to think about the contemporary life of these photographs and how they influence our understanding of the modern city. Crucially, historic images can also directly impact how the urban infrastructure develops, inspiring acts of conservation and building works that speak to a past heritage preserved by the camera's lens.

The_Globe_kittens_(HS85-10-13446-3)

Above: rest assured, the kittens still made an appearance.

Picturing Canada aimed to open up the Library's Canadian photographs to a new audience by collaborating with Wikimedia UK to release high quality images on a  Public Domain license. The result has been a collection used in historical research, to illustrate Wikipedia articles, furnish urban infrastructure (including a bar in Calgary) and to get people thinking about their local history.

For more about the collection and today's talk you can read the slides by clicking here:

Download Canada by Postcard.

[PJH]

22 May 2015