American Collections blog

28 posts categorized "Eccles Writer in Residence"

30 July 2013

John Burnside: Lost Brother

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Mountain wind
Image (c) John Burnside

For as long as I don’t know the name of a character, I don’t really know that character. This might sound obvious, but the obvious can be as useful as the subtler points while a novel is taking form. Over the last few months, I have become quite closely acquainted with several of the characters in the novel that, having begun with a crude working title, (‘Good’), I now think of as something along the lines of ‘American Salamander’, (working title) or some variant of this that includes the words Salamander and Fire, (though, of course, the salamander species one finds in the United States are distinct from the Fire Salamander of European myth). I have been particularly engaged with Jennifer, the daughter of a military officer (Jeremy) who begins her student career as a botanist, but abandons her studies to work as an activist with SDS and later The Weather Underground. Until recently, however, what I knew about her brother was not enough to see him clearly: it was like gazing at a stranger across a smoky room without my glasses.

Research takes us to odd places, but research and happenstance combined are where the real nuggets of inspiration are found, (more stumbled upon than mined, perhaps, but the end result is equally heartening). Thinking about what to call this brother – a Vietnam enlistee who goes AWOL two thirds of the way through the novel – I finally came to the obvious: he is called Martin, after the Roman soldier who cut his cloak in half so he could share it with a beggar, who would otherwise have died of cold – and then, because I was kindly offered refuge to write and research at the Spycher-Leuk residency in Switzerland over June and July, I got to spend the last month and a half walking in the mountains, during breaks from researching and drafting. Gradually, this strange boy began to emerge: he is high-minded, he believes hard in his country’s stated values, but he is also a little wild, a boy who loves motor cycles and mountains. Here I seem to have the makings of the man who later goes AWOL, not because he is afraid of battle, or even for specific political motives, but for reasons of individual pride. Quite simply, he comes to believe that the Vietcong are better soldiers than the US Army, not because he doubts the individual courage or ability of his fellow Americans, but for reasons that can only be called systemic. He still believes the US will win the war, but he believes that victory will be a cheat, and he wants no part of it. If he could go over to the other side and fight with the VC, he would, if that didn’t mean betraying his values, so he is caught between a rock and hard place, where withdrawal is his only chance at Good, (the book’s central idea, though in his case, old Roman notions of virtue is more appropriate). In this, he is the very opposite of his sister, who is committed, at home, to engagement.

This is some way down the line, however. Right now, what matters is what Martin feels about the mountains and ‘research’, for now, consists as much of walks in high alpine meadows as reading radical ephemera of the American 60s and 70s, or studying the works of early botanists in the Southern states. To assuage my lingering work ethic, I’m thinking of this as fieldwork.

John Burnside is an Eccles Centre Writer in Residence for 2013.

20 June 2013

Naomi Wood

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Image © Ander McIntyre

A portrait of Naomi Wood at the Moghul exhibition at the British Library in December 2012.

Naomi is one of the Writers in Residence at the Eccles Centre for American Studies, the author of The Godless Boys (Picador) and Mrs Hemingway (forthcoming from Picador).

[Ander McIntyre is a photographer and a Fellow at the Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library.  He is an occasional contributor to this blog.]

13 June 2013

John Burnside: Finding Jennifer

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Shadow play alternative banner

Image © John Burnside

Five months into my Eccles Fellowship term, I can think of several reasons why my latest project has yet to acquire a title, (other than the embarrassingly vague-sounding working title I began with, i.e., 'Good', which is, as all working titles are, a piece of private shorthand for those questions Seneca poses, in De ira and elsewhere, about how we might do good, how we could be good, beyond the mere dictates and prohibitions laid down by the law. How do we oppose or correct injustices? How do we counter the cynicism and corruption of what people of my generation used to call 'The System'?


[Detail of Seneca sitting in a bathtub while a man is slitting his veins, obeying
Nero's orders. This image, Harley 4425, f. 59v, identified by the the
British Library, is free of known copyright restrictions.] Seneca's philosophy has always been a preoccupation of mine, and the underlying ideas in this as yet unnamed novel have their
source in his writings.

It is frustrating, this lack of an expressive, or perhaps evocative title – but then, this stage of the project not only coincided with a whole series of eerily familiar events at home, from tangles with political corruption in my own back yard to family illness and bereavement (both of which feature strongly in the novel's plot) but it also happens to be the point in a novel's development when, as usual, I find myself dismantling my one big idea, like a technician dismantling a machine to see how the internals work.

'Good' is a novel that spans eightyish years, revolving mostly around two main characters, a brother and sister, both of whom I could see very clearly from the first. One of these characters (for the moment, his name is Jeremy) has two children, a son and a daughter, both of whom become involved in the politics of the 60s and 70s – and it is this daughter, whose name is almost certainly Jennifer, I am pursuing through my research. Though, on reflection, 'pursuing' is perhaps too strong a term. Too deliberate. What I have really been doing, for five months, has been a process that I think of as active waiting: reading, not reading, being attentive to chance happenings, looking at pictures, travelling – there is usually a fair amount of travelling, for me at least – and both thinking and trying not to think too much. Now, I believe Jennifer has shown up, in some ways very different from how I first saw her, but also, for me, much more interesting - and maybe that is the point of research, in the end. That is the point of dismantling the big idea and peering into the darkness of the machinery: to undermine the self, to run counter to initial impressions and (hopefully) to surpass those first expectations.

The process of finding Jennifer began in the reading rooms of the British Library and took me, by way of Williamsburg, Virginia – where Jennifer goes to college for a time before becoming a political activist – and various other wanderings, to (inevitably, though for the moment, only virtually) to the National Archives in Washington DC.
One person can
Jennifer is a political activist, inspired as much by the rhetoric of mainstream American politics during the Kennedy years as she is by more predictable thinkers like Karl Marx, Malcolm X and Che Guevara

The next stage of the process - the proof of the pudding stage - is to write down what I found.

John Burnside is an Eccles Centre Writer in Residence for 2013.

04 March 2013

John Muir is going 'Sequoical' in the Yosemite

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I’m in Stockton, California to do some research on the American (Scottish–born) naturalist John Muir, who is today known as ‘Father of the National Parks’ in America. Here at the Holt–Atherton Special Collections at the library of the University of the Pacific they have the most amazing Muir collection, including his letters, journals, notebooks and much more. Michael Wurtz, the wonderful archivist here, gave me a special tour of the collection and I would like to share one of the treasures with you – one of Muir’s letters, written in autumn 1870 to Jeanne Carr during an excursion in the Yosemite.

It’s my favourite Muir letter. I had read before because Muir’s correspondence is online.But to actually see the real thing was incredible because Muir wrote this rapturous love letter about the sequoias (those gigantic redwoods) with ink made of the sap of the trees. The writing still shines reddish purplish today.

Even the letterhead is fabulous ‘Squirrelville, Sequoia Co, Nut time’

1870 autumn jm to Mrs Carr p 2
John Muir Papers, Holt-Atherton Special Collections, University of the Pacific Library. © 1984 Muir-Hanna Trust

And then Muir starts with: ‘Do behold the King in his glory, King Sequoia. Behold! Behold!’, rhapsodising about the magnificent redwoods. ‘But I'm in the woods woods woods, & they are in me-ee-ee. The King tree & me have sworn eternal love - sworn it without swearing & I’ve taken the sacrament with Douglass Squirrell drank Sequoia wine, Sequoia blood, & with its rosy purple dress I am writing this woody gospel letter.’

Here is a man who is not afraid of just letting go when it comes to nature.

‘I wish I was so drunk & Sequoical that I could preach the green brown woods to all the juiceless world, descending from this divine wilderness like a John the Baptist, eating Douglass squirrels & wild honey or wild anything, crying Repent, for the Kingdom of Sequoia is at hand’

And later on a little attack on politicians and ‘civilised’ people in general: ‘living King-juice for all defrauded civilization’ and ‘sick or successful, come suck Sequoia & be saved’

You got to love this man. This was definitely one of those research days that I will never forget. And now I’m off to the Yosemite to get my own dose of being Sequoical.

Click here for the letter

 - Andrea Wulf, Eccles Centre Writer in Residence, 2013



16 January 2013

The Serendipity of Research: the case of Coren, Thoreau and the missing sentence

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Andrea Wulf is one of our two Eccles Centre Writers in Residence for 2013.  She will be posting here throughout the year.

The year 2013 started perfectly because the wonderful Eccles Centre for American Studies very generously made me one of their Writers in Residence. Equipped with my new staff pass (and canteen pass), I took my residency in early January — in the Rare Books and Music Reading Room at the British Library.

I’m researching my next book ‘The Invention of Nature. Alexander von Humboldt’s New World’ — a non–fiction book which tells the story of the German scientist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859) and how his visionary ideas of nature changed the way we see the world. On first sight that might not look very North American (i.e., as in the Eccles Centre for American Studies), but it actually is… because I’m looking at his influence on people such Henry David Thoreau, John Muir and Thomas Jefferson, among many others.

And though I read/work/research in the Rare Books reading room about a bunch of guys from the nineteenth century, it doesn’t mean that I’m not finding stuff which could have been written yesterday. Take last week – I had complained to a friend that a newspaper had recently changed a couple of my sentences in my piece without telling me. My friend reminded me of that fabulously outrageous Giles Coren email to his editor at the Times, in which Coren exploded over a deleted ‘a’. The next day I was in the Library, reading Henry David Thoreau’s Correspondence when by sheer coincidence I came across an equally furious letter which Thoreau had written in 1858 to his editor at the Atlantic Monthly.

Henry David Thoreau, by Samuel Worcester Rowse ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Having discovered that one of the sentences in his article had been deleted in a ‘very mean and cowardly manner’, Thoreau dashed off a letter that will still delight many writers and journalists today. ‘I do not ask anybody to adopt my opinions, but I do expect that when they ask for them to print, they will print them, or obtain my consent to their alteration or omission’, he wrote. First it seems as if he was still trying to control his anger somehow but by the last paragraph Thoreau explodes into this sentence: ‘I am not willing to be associated in any other way, unnecessarily, with parties who will confess themselves so bigoted & timid as this implies’. And it goes on.  He never wrote for the Atlantic Monthly again (at least as long as the editor James Russell Lowell was in charge). So, a hurrah to Thoreau and to the serendipity of research.

— Andrea Wulf, Eccles Centre Library Writer in Residence 2013

05 December 2012

Ernest vs Martha vs War

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Ernest Hemingway relaxing in Cuba in the 1940s, sans Martha. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/JFK Library, Boston.

I wonder whether Ernest Hemingway, as he chewed his meal of moose after marriage to Martha Gellhorn in November 1940, hadn’t quite understood his new wife's taste for war. He may also not have fully understood how his third wife's taste for combat probably far surpassed her taste for him. Such a thought might have made the wedding moose all the chewier.  

Both Ernest and Martha had been war correspondents during the Spanish Civil War from 1937-39. In honeyed wartime, they seemed happy: Martha discovered the joys of war-reportage; Ernest, the joys of playing away from his second wife, Pauline.

Martha’s return to peaceful Cuba appeared a difficult transition. Surrounded by a fat crop of alligator pears and creeping bougainvillea, her desire to return to war strafes the page like a machinegun: ‘Only a fool would prefer to be actively achingly dangerously unhappy, rather than bored,’ she wrote, concluding: ‘I am that class of fool.’ Cuba, she complained, was drowning her in ‘flowers and martinis.’ 

As Ernest kept up the home front, and Martha finally found a job reporting on the European theatre of war from London, the marriage foundered. When Ernest cabled ARE YOU A WAR CORRESPONDENT OR A WIFE IN MY BED? one doesn’t need much imagination to know which of these identities Martha had already chosen. When Ernest finally did arrive in London, a fellow correspondent, Mary Welsh, caught his eye. She was to become his fourth wife a year later in 1946. 

Though for a time Martha was heartsick about the separation from Hemingway, what is remarkable in her letters is war’s totally energizing effect on her. ‘Maybe the reason one is so very gay in a war is that the mind, convulsed with horror, simply shuts out the war and is fiercely concentrated on every good thing left in the world. A doorway, a flower stall, the sun, someone to laugh with, and the wonderful fact of being alive.’

Ernest wondered, after their divorce, whether Martha wasn’t a little ‘war-crazy’. But Martha’s war reportage, it seemed, just made her sane.

Naomi Wood is one of the 2012 Eccles Centre Writers in Residence at the British Library. Her second book, Mrs Hemingway, is a historical novel that explores Ernest Hemingway’s four marriages to Hadley, Pauline, Martha and Mary. Excerpts from the letters are from The Selected Letters of Martha Gellhorn (ed. Caroline Moorehead). Martha’s war-reportage can be found in The Face of War. 

18 October 2012

The Sense of Hemingway's Endings

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A Farewell to Arms

The new edition of A Farewell to Arms published this October 2012 by William Heinemann with the original cover from 1929.

I have been luxuriating this week in a handsome new edition of Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. The book comes replete with cut chapters, new endings and a handful of frankly awful possible titles under Hemingway's heading ‘Shitty Titles’ – ‘Carnal Education’ being one of the bluer offerings. 

The real pleasure in reading all of these new endings, all forty seven of them, is that it shows the author gradually whittling his writing down to the essential material. He submerges these drafts in the final publication so that the reader can only see the ‘top’ of the story. It’s his iceberg principle at work. 

In earlier drafts, for example, the author plots Henry’s solitary walk home; the sorrowful night-light still on from the start of Catherine's contractions a day ago; the difficulty of burial in a foreign country. In the final version, however, Hemingway lops off the lament and cuts to the final sentence: â€˜After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain.’ The reader is left on the brink of Henry’s loss. For me, the experience is all the richer because our imagination fills in what Hemingway has left out. 

'A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing', Hemingway wrote in Death in the Afternoon. The ending of A Farewell to Arms is so far from being a hollow spot precisely because of these early drafts: Hemingway knew exactly where Henry was going that night. Underneath the declarative style is the roiling undercurrent of Henry’s grief.  

For all that we think of Hemingway as a master of the minimalist tradition, he was a consummate editor of his own work. He often read all of his material back first and then picked up where he left off the day before. The extra material shows how hard he worked to get at his precise style.  

In writing A Farewell to Arms, 'he worked like hell and through it' - so said Dorothy Parker - even changing the ending from what had been serialized in Scribners' magazine to the first edition of the book proper. (Although some critics suggest he did this so that customers would buy both magazine and book – characteristic Hemingway canniness when it came to increasing his bottom line.)

Unlike his posthumous work, where scholars still argue about self-interested editing (his fourth wife edited A Moveable Feast) and savage cuts (almost two thirds was left out from The Garden of Eden in its final publication), we know Hemingway did eventually settle on the designated ending back in 1929.

The alternative endings in A Farewell to Arms give readers an opportunity to see the work evolve, without really threatening the final text. One can happily read The Sun Also Rises without knowing the original beginning that Fitzgerald recommended cutting, just as one can happily read A Farewell to Arms without knowing Hemingway, at one time, considered keeping the baby alive. In not one of the drafts does Catherine live. Regardless of how much he changed his plots, it seems that she was always intended for the chop. 

Naomi Wood is one of the Eccles Centre Writers in Residence. She is currently working on her second novel, Mrs Hemingway which will be published by Picador in 2014. 

02 October 2012

Sheila Rowbotham: Helen Tufts Bailie and the Daughters of the American Revolution

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The Daughters of the American Revolution, (DAR) are a group of American women who can claim descent from people who took part in the American Revolution against British rule. When the DAR prevented the singer Marian Anderson from performing in Constitution Hall in Washington, Eleanor Roosevelt resigned in protest.  And the DAR gained a reputation for racism.

Of course black Americans too can lay claim to revolutionary forebears. And at last, this year the New York Times announced that a black American, Olivia Cousins had become the president of a DAR chapter in Jamaica, Queens.  (New York Times July 4 2012)

A friend from the US sent me the cutting because she  knew I was writing about Helen Tufts Bailie who  in 1928,  bravely locked horns with the DAR leadership.  Tufts upbraided them for blacklisting, not simply anarchists, socialists and Communists, but a great swathe of liberal speakers, including an assortment of bishops and rabbis.  Among the organisations branded as ‘unAmerican’ were the Women’s League for Peace and Freedom and the American Association of American Women. The Red Scare of the late 1920s evinced some of the absurdities which would recur during the later McCarthy trials. Tufts Bailie pointed out that Mrs Lucia Ames Mead, a supporter of the League of Nations had got onto the blacklist simply because the clergy man organising her meeting hailed from Moscow, Idaho.

Tufts Baillie was exceedingly proud of her revolutionary ancestors and had become a keen family historian before the term was invented but she loathed what she described as the complacent patriotism of 'My country always right' declaring that if that was patriotism she wanted none of it.

She had been appalled to discover a man was distributing the DAR blacklists and somehow got a living from doing so. She notified the DAR because she assumed it was illicit. By April she was coming to realise that the policy had support from within the leadership.

Suffrage leader Carrie Chapman Catt and the social settlement pioneer, Jane Addams, put their weight  behind her  protests. But to no avail. The evidence Tufts Bailie presented for the existence of blacklists was swept aside  and the blacklists denied.  By June 1928 she had been expelled from the DAR. A powerful anti-suffrage and militaristic lobby had assumed control in the DAR and Helen Tufts Baillie and her allies were defeated.

In the late nineteenth century Helen Tufts Baillie had been able to regard herself as an American patriot  taking pride in its revolutionary traditions while being active on the left. By the 1920s a shift had occurred and patriotism had been redefined by the right.

You can read some of the historical reasons for this in Kirsten Marie Delegard’s, Battling Miss Bolsheviki: The Origins of Female Conservatism in the United States (2012) - in the British Library.