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44 posts categorized "Literature"

22 March 2016

Langston Hughes translates Nicolás Guillén

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Langston Hughes is well known as one of the leading figures of the Harlem Renaissance, primarily for his poetry. However, there is a side to his work which has received comparatively less attention: his literary translations.

Langston_Hughes_1936

Langston Hughes in 1936, by Carl Van Vechten

Hughes was not a professional translator, and indeed most of his translations did not do very well commercially. His translations were driven by his interest in writers with whom he felt a connection, particularly authors who explored the representation of black identity beyond European literary models. Hughes felt a kinship with writers of the African diaspora in the Americas, whom he saw as linked by a similar cultural heritage and history of racial oppression. These included the Haitian writer Jacques Roumain, whose posthumous novel Masters of the Dew (Gouverneurs de la Rosée) was translated by Hughes circa 1947.

In 1948, Hughes (together with Ben Frederic Carruthers) translated a selection of poems by the Cuban writer and activist Nicolás Guillén. They were published under the title of Cuba Libre by the American Ward Ritchie Press, in a beautiful limited edition of 500 with illustrations by Gar Gilbert.

LH

LH2

Cover and title page of Cuba Libre (1948)

Hughes met the poet Nicolas Guillén in 1930 in Cuba and they soon developed a friendship. Both men travelled together to Spain during the country’s civil war as war correspondents, an episode that Hughes narrated in his autobiography I Wonder as I Wander (1956). While the extent to which Hughes influenced Guillén’s style is still up for debate, their works have many aspects in common. Their poetry is a celebration of black folk culture, music and use of language. Often described as ‘poets of the people’, both men were concerned with representing class inequality and racial injustice.

Below is an extract from Guillén’s well-known poem ‘Tu no sabe inglé’, translated by Hughes as ‘You don’t speak no English’. Hughes’s translation used the African American vernacular to reproduce Guillén’s experimentation with the Cuban criollo (Creole) dialect in his poetry:

Con tanto inglé que tú sabía,

Bito Manué,

con tanto inglé, no sabe ahora

desí ye.

La mericana te buca,

y tú le tiene que huí:

tu inglé era de etrái guan,

de etrái guan y guan tu tri.

        Nicolás Guillen, Motivos de son (1930)

 

All dat English you used to know,

Li’l Manuel,

all dat English, now can’t even

say: Yes.

‘Merican gal comes lookin’ fo’ you

an’ you jes’ runs away

Yo’ English is jes’ strike one!

strike one and one-two-three.

Langston Hughes’s translation, published in Cuba Libre (1948)

 

Further Reading

Guillén, Nicolás. Cuba Libre, translated by Langston Hughes and Ben Frederic Carruthers (Los Angeles: The Ward Ritchie Press, 1948) [Cup.510.naz.3.]

Kutzinski, Vera M., The Worlds of Langston Hughes: Modernism and Translation in the Americas (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2012) [YC.2013.a.1917]

Martin-Ogunsola, Dellita, ‘Introduction’. The Collected Works of Langston Hughes. Vol 16: The Translations: Federico Garcia Lorca, Nicolas Guillen, and Jacques Roumain, ed. by Arnold Ra``mpersad (Columbia and London: University of Missouri Press, 2003) [YC.2005.A.3285]

Scott, William, ‘Motivos of Translation: Nicolas Guillen and Langston Hughes’. CR: The New Centennial Review, 5:2 (2005): 35-71. [3486.443000]

 

 —Mercedes Aguirre

16 February 2016

On the outskirts of the world: Movimiento Hora Zero

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Movimiento Hora Zero was an avant-garde poetry movement that emerged from Peru during the 1970s. Founded by Jorge Pimentel and Juan Ramírez Ruiz, the young writers anticipated a form of poetic expression that rejected what they saw as the pompous European-influenced canon of Peruvian poetry and instead channelled the language, politics, and everyday experience of contemporary Peru. Their manifesto, Palabras Urgentes (1970) tells of a need to

manifestarnos como hombres libres y como escritores con una nueva responsabilidad, con una nueva actitud ante el acto creador, ante los hechos derivados de una realidad con la que no estamos de acuerdo.[1]

[speak out as free men and as writers with a new responsibility, with a new approach to the creative act, in the face of events derived from a reality with which we disagree.]

 HZ1    HZ2
Hora Zero Oriente: materiales para una nueva época (1970) [Shelfmark: X.902/1157]

As might be expected from the urgency of their manifesto, the movement materialised at a critical moment in Peruvian history. Mass migration from the Andes to the coast over the preceding decades had resulted in a huge increase in the urban population and this in turn meant that the previously marginalised customs and traditions of the sierra were now decidedly present within the metropolitan centres of Peru. The overthrow of Fernando Belaúnde’s government in October 1968 by General Velasco’s left-wing military regime led to a project of sweeping reforms which would be instituted under the term Perunaismo. There was a definite sense that the Peruvian elite were being challenged, and it was certainly a time of great social and political flux. This is exemplified by the fact that a number of the poets associated with Hora Zero had attended the Universidad Nacional Federico Villarreal, which had been founded in 1963 as part of a programme to reorganise the Peruvian education system, and this naturally placed them in opposition to the radical literary movements of earlier generations, which had tended to centre around the ancient and prestigious Universidad Nacional Mayor de San Marcos.[2]

  Ramirez Ruiz 1

Juan Ramírez Ruiz Un par de vueltas por la realidad (1971) [Shelfmark: X.900/13683]

Although the Hora Zero poets sought to negate much of the Peruvian literature which had come before them, there were certain of their forebears whom they considered kindred spirits in that they too were striving for a literature that could both represent and help shape a pluralist Peruvian culture, distinct from the political project of indigenismo, which ostensibly sought to improve the lives of marginalised Peruvians, but that as Marie-Chantal Barre puts it “officialised the disappearance of Indians as Indians, instead recognising them only as peasants."[3] One such is example is the work of author José María Arguedas.

Although he was heavily criticised in certain quarters for his romanticising of indigenous people, Arguedas certainly seems to have made an impression on the Hora Zero writers. In an interview from 2011, Pimentel and fellow Hora Zero member Tulio Mora make reference to Arguedas’s 1964 novel Todas las Sangres, which attempts a comprehensive portrayal of Peruvian cultural life, and his 1962 prose-poem Tupac Amaru Kamaq Taytanchisman, a reflection on indigenous migration from the sierra to the city published in both Quechua and Spanish. Despite the censure that Arguedas received from some corners, the Hora Zero writers clearly felt that there was something to be salvaged from his project, and his writings would take their place alongside César Vallejo’s Los Heraldos Negros and José Carlos Mariátegui’s Siete Ensayos de Interpretación de la Realidad Peruana as works from which the movement would draw inspiration.

  Arguedas 1   7 ensayos 1
José María Arguedas Todas las Sangres (1964) [Shelfmark: X.900/7132] and José Carlos Mariátegui Siete Ensayos de Interpretación de la Realidad Peruana (1928) [Shelfmark: 8025.d.40]

Though these writers may have been similar in spirit, the Hora Zero writers still felt that there was much to be done in reorienting their poetics towards the everyday experience of ordinary Limeños. In this respect, one of the seminal works to come out of the movement is En los extramuros del mundo (1971), a collection of poetry by Enrique Verastegui. Published when he was just twenty years old, the poems encapsulate the bustling energy, confusion and absurdity of the city:

Yo vi caminar por calles de Lima a hombres y mujeres

carcomidos por la neurosis,

          hombres y mujeres de cemento pegados al cemento aletargados

                     confundidos y riendose de todo.[4]

[I saw walking the streets of Lima men and women

eaten away by neurosis,

cement men and women stuck to the cement lethargic

confused and laughing at everything.]

Later in the 1970s, the movement’s principal figures would spend time outside Peru in both Europe and other places in Latin America before Hora Zero gained renewed momentum  in the second half of the decade. In the meantine, Tulio Mora would visit Mexico, where the movement found a receptive audience amongst the infrarrealismo movement led by a certain Roberto Bolaño, whose first manifesto includes a fitting tribute to the young radicals from Peru:

Nos antecede HORA ZERO[5]

[Our ancestors HORA ZERO]

- Laurence Byrne (with thanks to Mercedes Aguirre and Barry Taylor)

Notes

[1] Pimentel (1970: 9)

[2] Vilanova (1998: 7)

[3] Barre (1985: 53)

[4] Verastegui (1971: 13)

[5] Madariaga Caro (2010: 146)

References / further reading

Barre, Marie-Chantal Ideologías indigenistas y movimientos indios, 2d ed. (Mexico: Siglo Veintiuno Editores, 1985)

Bolaño, Roberto "Déjenle todo nuevamente. Primer manifesto del movimiento infrarrealista"(1976) in Madariaga Caro, Montserrat Bolaño Infra. 1975 - 1977: los años que inspiraron Los detecitves salvajes (Santiago: RIL, 2010)

Huamán, Miguel Angel “La Rebelion Del Margen: Poesia Peruana De Los Setentas” in Revista de Crítica Literaria Latinoamericana 20.39 (1994): 267–291

Pimentel, Jorge and Ramírez Ruiz, Juan "Palabras urgentes" in Pimentel, Jorge Kenacourt y Valium 10 (Lima: Ediciones del Movimiento Hora Zero, 1970)

Juan Ramírez Ruiz Un par de vueltas por la realidad - See more at: http://www.typepad.com/site/blogs/6a00d8341c464853ef0120a63638e0970c/compose/preview/post#sthash.JxJ3WZOc.dpuf

Verastegui, Enrique En los extramuros del mundo (Lima: CMB Ediciones, 1971)

Vilanova, Núria “The Emerging Literature of the Peruvian Educated Underclass” in Bulletin of Latin American Research 17.1 (1998): 1-15

31 July 2015

Three American Libraries from Homes of American Authors (1853)

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Some real estate for Friday: Homes of American Authors (New York, 1853). A collection of somewhat florid travelogues composed by several writers and published by G. P. Putnam & Co. as a 'gift book', this work successfully began the America vogue for peeking into the homes of the talented, rich or famous. It's a habit that that is continued today in numerous glossy magazines, TV shows and popular blogs. Putnam followed up the success of this publication with Homes of American Statesmen (1854), which included the first photographic illustration in an American book.

Here are my top three descriptions of writers' libraries from Homes of American Authors.

1. Edward Everett

  Everett library

Always a favourite on this blog (mostly for his heroic, and forgotten, Gettysburg Address, hours longer than Lincoln's), Everett's 'career is most justly indicated by a view of his birthplace, which at once suggests a life of mental activity and patriotic devotion, and of the interior of the library where the best hours of an honored maturity are passed, eloquent of that wealth of attainment and literary culture, which has been the source both of his extensive usefulness and wide renown.'  

2. Ralph Waldo Emerson (summer house shown below)

FullSizeRender

 'Mr. Emerson's Library is the room at the right of the door upon entering the house. It is a simple square room, not walled with books like the den of a literary grub, nor merely elegant like the ornamental retreat of a dilettante. The books are arranged upon plain shelves, not in architectural bookcases, and the room is hung with a few choice engravings of the greatest men... It is the study of a scholar'. In here, the local villagers noted, 'he has a huge manuscript book, in which he incessantly records the ends of thoughts, bits of observation and experience, and facts of all kinds, -- a kind of intellectual and scientific rag-bag'.

 3. William Cullen Bryant

'The library occupies the northwest corner... and we need hardly say that of all the house this is the most attractive spot... because it is, par excellence, the haunt of the poet and his friends. Here, by the great table covered with periodicals and literary novelties, with the soft ceaseless music of rustling leaves, and the singing of birds marking the silence sweeter, the summer visitor may fancy himself in the very woods'. In here, the poet could turn 'from the dryest treatise on politics or political economy, to the wildest romance or the most tender poem -- happy in a power of enjoying all that genius has created or industry achieved in literature.' You will be pleased to note that the 'library has not, however, power to keep Mr. Bryant from the fields, in which he seeks health and pleasure a large part of every day that his editorial duties allow him to pass at home.'

[Matthew Shaw]

All images in the public domain, and taken from our copy of Homes of American Authors held at shelfmark 816.e.26. The Cornell University's copy is online via the HathiTrust or via Google Books.

On Putnam & Co., see Ezra Greenspan, George Palmer Putnam: representative American publisher (University Park, PA., 2000)

07 May 2015

Inventing The Great Gatsby

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Careless People (cover)

Above: The cover for Careless People, by Prof. Sarah Churchwell (2013).

[As a prelude to an upcoming Eccles Centre event, Prof. Sarah Churchwell writes for us on 'The Great Gatsby'. You can hear more at her talk, 'Inventing the Great Gatsby: 1922 - 1925' on May 18th]

The Great Gatsby has made countless readers feel as if the Jazz Age were a party to which they have not been invited. Like the party-goers at Gatsby’s revels, the reader of Gatsby is drawn there by word of mouth, looking for glamour and personality, in search of celebrated and interesting people. We want to know F. Scott Fitzgerald, whom we have met through his books: we want to meet his wife, and know whether she was really mad, or destroyed him, or whether he destroyed her. We want to know how much she made herself up, or he made her up, or we've made them both up. Although many literary critics still insist that this impulse is unworthy, a deplorable preference for gossip over art, it is also true that our social personality is a creation of the minds of others, as Proust observed. Scott Fitzgerald understood that better than most, and it is one of the themes of The Great Gatsby. 

Many people respond by throwing their own Gatsby-themed parties, a response with which I sympathize. But because I am an academic (i.e., a professional geek), my idea of throwing a Gatsby party is not to mix a few tasty cocktails and suggest that people put on a pretty dress that approximates one that might have been worn in the 1920s. No, my response is to spend years and years intensively researching what life would have been like in 1922, what Scott Fitzgerald could have known when he was sat down to write the novel, what he guessed—and what he had no way of knowing.

In April 1925, when Gatsby was published, it was a contemporary novel. It had been written in 1924 and set in 1922: so it would work in exact parallel if we imagine a novel published this year, that was written in 2014, and set in 2012. It would be a contemporary novel: we would understand all of its references, without need of translation, explanation, or glossary. The Great Gatsby was certainly a “modern” novel—so modern that its first readers could not see any meanings beyond the ones that were entirely manifest in 1925. Most of these meanings are entirely lost upon us now—but it turns out that they are not entirely lost to us. They are there, waiting to be found, if we’re patient, or dogged, or both. And it is those meanings—the meanings that would have been available to Fitzgerald, and his readers, in 1925—that I set out to recover in researching my book about Gatsby, if I could. The analogy, to my mind, is like trying to do an historically sympathetic renovation of a beautiful old art deco house. Of course you can cover it over with all kinds of layers from other eras, and there are arguments to be made in favor of updating (just as few of us would want to actually live with an historically authentic bathroom from 1925, so few of us would want to return to an historically authentic 1925 attitude toward, for example, anti-Semitism). But there are also arguments to be made in favor of creating something historically sympathetic, and aesthetically consonant, and that’s what I tried to do in the book I eventually wrote, called Careless People.

Gatsby 1925 (CUP406I13)

Above: first pages of the 1925 New York edition of The Great Gatsby [BL:Cup.406.I.13]

One of the unexpected results of this research project was that I came to see much more clearly than I’d ever predicted why The Great Gatsby was not a great critical or commercial success when it was published in 1925; it didn’t flop, but its sales were sluggish, its reviews largely uncomprehending. Along the way I learned a great deal about what New Yorkers in 1922, when Gatsby is set, actually wore (skirts were much longer than we think), what they drank (bathtub gin and bootleg gin are not the same thing), what they danced (not the Charleston), what they listened to, what they ate, even what perfumes were available. (The great French house of Caron produced both Narcisse Blanc and Nuit de Noël in 1922, for example; both are still available for any historical die-hards who do not have to survive on an academic salary.)

Such a critical, and I hope creative, endeavor necessarily raises a series of question about what it might mean to try to recover the past. And as fate would have it, this is the great question asked by the great Gatsby, and by The Great Gatsby. “You can't repeat the past,” Nick Carraway warns Jay Gatsby. “Can't repeat the past?” Gatsby responds, incredulously. “Why of course you can!” And then Fitzgerald adds, with one of the hundreds of touches of mordant humor that pepper the novel, that Gatsby “looked around him wildly, as if the past were lurking here in the shadow of his house, just out of reach of his hand.”

Is the past just out of reach of our hand? For Nick, as for Fitzgerald, this is a facetious remark—and yet the idea that it might be is just the response that the novel has inspired in thousands of readers since Fitzgerald’s death in 1940. But in 1925, as I’ve said, Gatsby was a purely contemporary novel: its ideas about the past were negligible, and its vision of the future was indiscernible, undetectable to jazz-age eyes, as blind as the eyes of Dr. TJ Eckleburg, pointlessly lording it over the ashes of history.

What past we have is an invention. There was a past, and we certainly did not invent it, although other people did; but that past has made its exit and it will not return. Our myths, our legends, our false memories and mistaken historical assumptions, our anachronisms, our egotistical projections of our own values—these are the invented past.

What I discovered is that the hectic absurdity of the past takes us by surprise; we are accustomed to invent only that past that seems useful to us, by and large: rare is the effort to accommodate the present to the past, rather than the other way around. We may not believe that we can repeat the past, but we do tend to believe that we can recover it, although God knows what havoc we would wreak if we found ourselves accidentally grasping it.

Gatsby 1925 cover (CUP406I13)

Above: cover and modern preservation box for the 1925 edition of The Great Gatsby [BL: Cup.406.I.13]

I think most of us expect history to display a certain dignity, as befits its age; but what I learned is that the past is not a venerable old man, an eminence grise: it is an unabashed adolescent, with no understanding or fear of the consequences of its own idiotic behavior. Its carelessness proves, in the end, rather winning, but we should not mistake a survivor’s instinct for sanity.

The history of 1922 reads not like history, but like a rather madcap novel—and that novel is by Scott Fitzgerald, because it was his novel that taught us how to read this story. The sources turn out to have a tremendous story to tell themselves: but we would not know what it was about if Fitzgerald had not told us how to read it in the first place.

Memory is an imaginative reconstruction of the facts. So is history. So is The Great Gatsby. They are not the same things, of course, memory, history, fiction. But they have more in common than we like to think. They’re all a story about the art of exhilaration, about a glittering, gin-drenched, time-drenched world, whether we are dealing with fiction or with history. In either case the theme is the peril and brevity of such vision—that is the theme of Gatsby, and it is the starting point for any serious conversation about it.

[SC]

[Prof. Sarah Churchwell will be speaking about 'The Great Gatsby' at the British Library on May 18th, you can find more information here]

05 March 2015

Pais de maravillas: Cuba on the mind…

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IMG-20150305-01427

Leonardo Abaroa, Pais De Maravillas (Havana: Ediciones Extramuros, 1992) BL
Shelfmark RF.2015.a.23

 

The recent rapprochement between the United States and Cuba has brought new attention to Cuba, and in particular the challenges for Cuban society under the pressure of the American trade embargo since the fall of the Soviet Union.

The dissolution of the Soviet Union caused massive shortages of fuel, food, medicine and income from exports. Known as the ‘periodo especial,’ or the ‘special period,’ the crisis lasted for most of the 1990s and was a profound and transformative experience. Indeed, contemporary Cuban society cannot be understood without reference to this period. Most Cubans will share stories and pictures of how they survived. Havana’s famous ‘camello’ bus was introduced during the special period, as were the urban organic gardens known as ‘organoponicos.’ Not surprisingly, together with all of the significant socio-structural changes that followed the collapse of the USSR, Cubans’ self-understanding and vision for the future underwent deep re-evaluation. This was evidenced, in among other things, the art and literature produced at the time.

Here at the BL we recently acquired a collection of Cuban poetry and short stories written during the special period, the majority of which received the prestigious Luis Rogelio Nogueras prize.

One of my favourites is the collection of short poems calle Tablero de Ifa by Frank Upierre. The title is a reference to a divination table from the Yoruba based Cuban religion of Santeria.

The author writes, “We all have a legend, a poem, or a song that forms part of our life and, without knowing how, directs us.”

  IMG-20150305-01426
Frank Upierre, Tablero de Ifa  (Havana: Ediciones Extramuros, 1994) BL shelfmark RF.2015.a.16

The poems are full of metaphors drawn from the natural world, water, rain, dust, and stars, as well as the pilgrim and the traveller. They explore the constant tension between the permanent and the ephemeral, the spiritual and the material, history and the future. Reading them now in 2015 they leave me with both an awe inspired and eerie feeling. They reveal both the soul searching and the hardship of Cuban society, as well as its strength and it momentum.

[B.C.]

 

 

 

13 November 2014

Mark Twain and the SS Batavia

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HolbrookMudHouse

Last week, taking some time away from the redbrick and slate beehive that is the British Library, I headed to the Jeffersonian columns and crinkle crankle walls of Charlottesville, VA. Taken from the third best coffee shop in town, this cameraphone photograph shows – if you look hard enough – one of America’s best-loved actors, Hal Holbrook, in town for a performance of Mark Twain Tonight! at the Virginia Film Festival. Holbrook has been performing his one-man Twain play for over sixty years (and filmed in 1967). A documentary, Holbrook/Twain: An American Odyssey, which explores his iconic portrait of the writer, was also screened during the festival.

Sadly, I didn’t catch any of it (although I did manage to do some work in the coffee shop). But there is never an excuse to miss a dose of Twain, thanks to The Mark Twain Papers & Project (MTP) at The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley. For the second of a possible series of posts on Atlantic crossings (see the first, Taking the Train to America), we can join Samuel Clemens on board the Cunard Steamer SS Batavia in November 1872. Twain had been touring Britain but was returning to his wife and surviving child. He had planned on publishing a book about his tour, and was looking forward to satirizing English ‘institutions and customs’, the MTP editors suggest, taking this quotation from an interview in the Chicago Evening Post in December 1871 as a harbinger of the tone he would take (on the Prince of Wale’s recovery from typhoid – see the medical bulletins and other materials in the Lowe-Elkington papers at Add MSS 78749, ff. 91-115; 78751 A & 78752 A).

I’m glad the boy’s going to get well; I’m glad, and not ashamed to own it. For he will probably make the worst King Great Britain has ever had. And that’s what the people need, exactly. They need a bad King. He’ll be a blessing in disguise. He’ll tax ’em, and disgrace ’em, and oppress ’em, and trouble ’em in a thousand ways, and they’ll go into training for resistance. The best King they can have is a bad King. He’ll cultivate their self-respect and self-reliance, and their muscle, and they’ll finally kick him out of office and set up for themselves. (“Brevities,” 21 Dec 71, 4)

But once in England, the writer instead ‘found himself reluctant to mock cherished beliefs or traditions for fear of offending his new English friends’, the editors note. As Twain put it, it did not want to cause a 'a violation of the courteous hospitality'.

During his stay, Twain travelled, met Henry Morton Stanley, inspected the London Zoological Gardens and the Brighton Aquarium, was startled by a cat in Westminster Abbey, made a meal of a Dover sole (or 'soul') and visited the Albert Memorial – on which a ‘group [of statuary] represents America—an Indian woman seated upon a buffalo which is careering through the long prairie grass; & about her are half a dozen figures representing the United States, Canada, South America &c…. One cannot convey, with words, the majesty of these stony creatures—the ease, the dignity, the grace, that sit upon them so royally.’ And, of course, he visited the British Museum:

I am wonderfully thankful for the British Museum. Nobody comes bothering around me—nobody elbows me—all the room & all the light I want under this huge dome—no disturbing noises—& people standing ready to bring me a copy of pretty much any book that ever was printed under the sun—& if I choose to go wandering about the great long corridors & galleries of the great building, the secrets of all the Earth & all the ages are laid open to me. I am not capable of expressing my gratitude for the British Museum—it seems as if I do not know any but little words & weak ones.

This all achieved, he sailed back to the States from Liverpool on the SS Batavia after concluding ‘I do like these English people—they are perfectly splendid—& so says every American who has staid here any length of time.’

En route, some 1,500 miles from land, the SS Batavia caught sight of a foundering barque, the Charles Ward, after a night of howling gale. The barque had lost its sail and was in a pitiful state; the survivors were close to losing their minds. Twain watched on as the captain of the Batavia and her crew staged a daring rescue of nine souls, while offering as much assistance as he could (despite his lack of umbrella).

Twain may not have been a great deal on use on board deck, but he then did what he knew best, and took up his pen, writing to the newspapers from the ship, requesting recognition for the captain and crew by the Royal Humane Society:

If I have been of any service toward rescuing these nine ship-wrecked human beings by standing around the deck in a furious storm, without any umbrella, keeping an eye on things & seeing that they were done right, & yelling whenever a cheer seemed to be the important thing, I am glad, & I am satisfied. I ask no reward. I would do it again under the same circumstances. But what I do plead for, & earnestly & sincerely, is that the Royal Humane Society will remember our captain & our life-boat crew; &, in so remembering them, increase the high honor & esteem in which the society is held all over the civilized world.

The editors suggest that the letter to the Royal Humane Society is now lost, but you can read his account, and a good deal more besides, on the MTP site, as well as in several newspapers, for example, the Somerset Herald (Pennsylvania) (.pdf on the Library of Congress's site].

Twain was clearly quite struck by the event, and followed up on it, and enquired avidly about the medal and monies the men should have received (see his letter to the captain of the Batavia, 22 Jan 1873). He was also impressed by the work of the Royal Human Society, which he noted had no American equivalent, and aimed to donate the income from a lecture to them.

The SS Batavia continued to plough the seas, and some thirty years later set a record for the number of passengers to arrive in New York City – 2,584 (8 June 1903).  And, closer to home, albeit slightly further north than in Twain's day, people still stand ready to bring you pretty much any book that ever was printed under the sun – and more besides.

[Matthew Shaw]

15 May 2014

Robert Frost in England

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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.]

18 February 2014

Early American Women Writers

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Philliswheatley
Frontispiece from Phillis Wheatley, Poems on Various Subjects, London 1773. BL Shelfmark: 992.a.34     

  

A few years ago I began exploring the Library’s holdings of women writers who’d had their first work published as a single volume, under their name alone, by 1850. Recalling the solitary woman featured on my early American literature syllabus in the mid-1980s, my guess was that I would find perhaps thirty women, or forty at most. Several years later, the tally had hit more than 130 and the picture painted by their lives was fascinating.  

Perhaps not surprisingly, most of the women came from families which, although not necessarily wealthy, valued education and were highly literate: many of them could recite the works of Shakespeare, Milton and Pope from early age. It is interesting to note that among these women there are six pairs of sisters, and two pairs of mothers and daughters.

Most of the women began their literary careers by submitting poems or short stories, often anonymously or under a pseudonym, to a local magazine or newspaper. They had little expectation of getting their work published, and even less of making a living from their writing, yet emboldened by seeing their work in print, they continued. 

Yet this thrill was probably their least important impetus. Instead, most pursued publication as a means to economic security: some were young adults who had lost a parent (Anne Lynch Botta, Phoebe and Alice Cary); others were widows with children to support (Sarah Josepha Hale, Elizabeth Cheves), or wives whose husbands were either bankrupt or ill (Harriet Beecher Stowe, Anna Cora Mowatt); and some were unmarried and had to support themselves (Catherine Sedgwick). In addition, many taught or even ran their own schools, and some became magazine editors.

Having established themselves as authors, several women established successful literary salons in New York (Ann Botta, Estelle Anna Lewis), while others used their positions to support causes such as women’s healthcare (Mary Grove Nichols), prison reform (Elizabeth Oakes Smith), women’s education and property rights (Sarah Josepha Hale), domestic economy and household management (Catherine Beecher), and the abolition of slavery (Lydia Maria Child).  All of the women, without exception, pushed at the boundaries traditionally prescribed for women. A bibliography of the Library’s holdings of their work, together with a selection of their biographies, can be found here

[J.P.]