American Collections blog

What's on the mind of Team America?

Introduction

Find out more about our Americas Studies collections on the Americas blog, written by our curatorial team and guest posts from the Eccles Centre writers in residence. Our collections cover both North and South America, as well as the Caribbean. Read more

04 August 2020

Reactions to HIV in the 1980s and COVID-19 stigma

This post by Carmen Logie is part of a special Summer Scholars blog series highlighting the recent research Eccles Centre awards have supported across Caribbean, Canadian and US  collections.

My work in the field of HIV began in the early 1990s, before we had effective anti-retroviral therapy.  I had just moved from small town Ontario, to a big Canadian city - Toronto.  It was the first semester in my undergraduate degree when a fellow student asked me if I wanted to volunteer with her on what was then called the ‘AIDS’ floor of a local hospital.  Always interested in learning about something new, I agreed.  Little did I know that would change the course of my life.  The floor was sectioned off for only people with HIV, and by the time people reached the stage of being hospitalized, for many they were in the last stages of life.  As a volunteer my job was anything that the patient wanted—to run and grab a newspaper, to escort them to the smoking area (when there was such a thing), or to help the nurses feed someone.  Sometimes I would just sit and hold someone’s hand.  Myself and other volunteers were often the only visitors some patients had, having been abandoned by their friends and family due to HIV-related stigma alongside with homophobia, as many at the time (as today) living with HIV in Canada were gay and bisexual men.  Knowing that people were sick and alone due to stigma sparked my passion on stigma in the field of HIV and sexual health.

Fast forward 26 years and it is my first week at the British Library for my Eccles Fellowship in March 2020.  A new virus—COVID-19—had recently emerged and was stirring global fear and panic.  A few weeks prior to arriving in London I had conducted a media interview on stigma directed toward persons of Asian descent in Toronto, Canada related to COVID-19. I reflected on the roots of this stigma, and its parallels to HIV-related stigma.  While at the British Library I was inspired to re-read books on HIV-related stigma from the beginning of the epidemic.  Classics like Susan Sontag’s AIDS and Its Metaphors led me back to her earlier work, Illness as Metaphor.1 I also revisited D. Crimp’s AIDS: Cultural Analysis/Cultural Activism.2

A photo of Susan Sontag sitting in her own home. Her left arm rests on a table and the right rests on the arm of the chair. Her dark hair is loose. She is wearing an open-necked striped shirt and a dark waistcoat. There are floor to ceiling bookcases in the background.
Susan Sontag, photographed in her own home. 1979. Copyright Lynn Gilbert.  (Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0.)

Reading these pieces from early in the AIDS pandemic was striking.  I was inspired to write two commentaries on parallels between HIV-related stigma and COVID-19 stigma.  Sontag had warned about using military metaphors to describe the HIV and AIDS pandemic decades ago: “We are not being invaded.  The body is not a battlefield.  The ill are neither unavoidable casualties nor the enemy.  We—medicine, society—are not authorized to fight back by any means whatever.”3  Yet the panic and fear regarding COVID-19 was palpable.  While this fear was understandable, the use of military metaphors in framing COVID-19 exacerbated the xenophobic responses, including hate crimes, toward persons of Asian descent in Canada and other global contexts.  Othering—distinguishing oneself as ‘normal’ in comparison with the ‘abnormal’ other—has been a central part of understanding and approaching illness throughout history.  Crimp reminds us from his discussion of the framing of HIV in the early days as impacting the ‘4-H’s’ (Haitians, haemophiliacs, heroin users, ‘homosexuals’) that illnesses are often blamed on the racial, foreign or otherwise ‘immoral’ other.  Although COVID-19 was named to avoid association with a place of origin, even in July 2020 world leaders continue to refer to it as the ‘China virus’.  People who are not following public health measures have been labelled ‘super spreaders’ and even ‘intentional murderers’.  This blaming of individuals leaves the larger social and structural factors contributing to COVID-19 vulnerabilities—including racism, poverty and insufficient access to PPE—unaddressed.

Yet reading Sontag’s and Crimp’s work more than 30 years after it was written also provides me with hope.  They both underscore the solution to stigmatizing and blaming groups of people for illnesses lies in strengthening communities.  We need to remind one another of our shared humanity in order to build solidarity and caring networks that support one another to engage in COVID-19 preventive practices and care for one another when we are sick.  These networks have already been formed; for instance, across the globe people are sewing hand-made masks to share with others, and some are shopping and checking in on the wellbeing of the elderly.  Sontag powerfully reminds us that we are unified in our vulnerability to acquiring illness:

“Illness is the night-side of life, a more onerous citizenship.  Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick.  Although we all prefer to use only the good passport, sooner or later each of us is obliged, at least for a spell, to identify ourselves as citizens of that other place.” (Sontag, 1978, p. 3).

I disappointingly had to leave my Eccles Fellowship early, after the Prime Minister in Canada requested Canadians return home as the border was closing.  Being at the British Library when this pandemic was spreading inspired me to go back to the books on early HIV and AIDS activism, to reach back in history and learn from the way we stigmatize new infections—and from the way we can challenge this stigma and build stronger communities.  My research has now expanded to understanding and tackling COVID-19 stigma across the globe, hoping we can learn from the past to dig out the root causes of stigma and plant seeds of solidarity and care.

Carmen Logie, Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow 2019, is Associate Professor, Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work, University of Toronto, Toronto, Canada.

For further discussions of stigma, listen to Carmen’s podcast series, ‘Everybody Hates Me: Let’s Talk About Stigma’. This podcast invites a range of weekly guests to talk about all different kinds of stigma. Why does it matter? What does it look like? What can we do about it? https://www.buzzsprout.com/1024792

References:

1.  Susan Sontag, AIDS and its metaphors. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1989. General Reference Collection: YK.1993.a.100;  Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 1978. General Reference Collection: X.329/11987.

2.  D. Crimp,  AIDS: cultural analysis/cultural activism. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press; 1987. p. 3–16.  General Reference Collection: YC.1992.b.5679.

3.  Sontag, 1989. p. 180.

Articles supported by this Eccles Fellowship:

C. Logie, 'Lessons learned from HIV can inform our approach to COVID-19 stigma.'  Journal of the International AIDS Society. 2020, 23:e25504

C. Logie and J. Turan, 'How do we balance tensions between COVID-19 public health responses and stigma mitigation? Learning from HIV research.'  AIDS & Behavior. 2020, 24: 2003-3006.

30 July 2020

Exploring Robert Lowell's English years in the Sound Archive

This blog by Grzegorz Kosc is part of a special Summer Scholars blog series highlighting the recent research Eccles Centre awards have supported across Caribbean, Canadian and US collections.

Robert Lowell stands in front of a wall of books, wearing a light jacket, dark tie, striped shirt and glasses.
Robert Lowell at the Grolier Poetry Bookshop in Harvard Square, 1965, by Elsa Dorfman. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The British Library has a truly unique collection of recorded interviews with friends, associates, and spouses of the celebrated American confessional poet Robert Lowell (1917–1977) (the collection can be most effectively searched through the Sound and Moving Image Catalogue, C939/01–53).  The interviews were conducted and recorded in 1979 by poet and editor Ian Hamilton in preparation, first, for a BBC2 television programme about Lowell in the Lively Arts series, broadcast in February 1980, and, second, for Robert Lowell: A Biography (1982).  The interviewees include, for instance, Frank Bidart, his close friend and assistant who was to become a famous poet himself; his editor at Faber and Faber, Charles Monteith; Jonathan Raban, Frank Parker, William Alfred, and Eugene McCarthy.  The subjects even include Mrs Dignam, a cleaner in Castletown House where he and his third wife, Lady Caroline Blackwood, moved shortly before they broke up, and who was the last person to see Lowell before his death.  Two interviews Hamilton conducted with Lowell’s two wives, Elizabeth Hardwick, and Blackwood herself, crown the collection.

The interviews have never been published or transcribed for a print publication.  It’s unclear how their revelations informed or impacted Hamilton’s final narrative for, when one listens to them, they continue to sparkle with surprises.  They can be accessed only by visiting the Library.  Though they are fully digitized from original compact cassettes, they can be heard out only from the Library’s computers and therefore are not easily accessible to Lowell scholars usually swarming on the other side of the Atlantic where all the major Lowell archival collections are housed—that is, at the Houghton, Harvard and the Harry Ransom Center in Austin, Texas.  Hamilton’s tapes in London remain largely unexamined.  Lowell scholars make a mental note of their existence but few seem to have made the journey.  Only the most painstaking of researchers—like Saskia Hamilton, the editor of Lowell’s letters, or Kay Redfield Jamison, the author of his psychobiography Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire—got around to listening to them.

Cover of The Dophin including an illustration of a fish-like shape.
The Dolphin by Robert Lowell, 1973. British Library shelfmarks: General Reference Collection X.989/21486; Document Supply 73/5755; Document Supply 73/6262.

The continuing neglect of the recordings by researchers is regrettable because they are rich in more ways than one.  It’s a trove of portraits of people from Lowell’s circle and of revelations about the poet’s late life in England.  One is struck, for instance, by the personality and the peculiar, odd conversational talent of Francis Stanley Parker, one of Lowell’s closest and oldest friends, a Cambridge, Mass.-based artist who did all of the frontispieces for Lowell’s volumes.  One is drawn into Jonathan Raban’s detailed and intimate account of his days he spent with the Lowells at Blackwood’s mansion Milgate Park in Kent.

Robert Lowell, wearing a dark jacket and tie, and Elizabeth Hardwick, wearing a dark summer dress or blouse, sit on wooden chairs in a sunny park.
Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Hardwick. Photograph courtesy the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin.

However, the most haunting are the monologues, of several hours each, by Elizabeth Hardwick and Lady Caroline Blackwood.  Blackwood is very casual, matter-of-fact, dividing her attention between Hamilton and her daughters, very honest about the divorce deal Lowell made with Hardwick and about her growing realisation of the terrors she would have deal with in Lowell’s manic phases.  Convivial and perhaps slightly lubricated with a drink, Elizabeth Hardwick, too, is forthright and unreserved in her conversation with Hamilton.  One wants to listen to the recordings for hours for her personality, her special mood that day, and most importantly, for her complex attitude to “the real [. . .] Aspern Papers”--that is, despairing letters which she was sending to Lowell in the early 1970s when they were breaking up and he was turning his attention to Caroline and which he versified into sonnets for The Dolphin (1973).  The story has recently received a full treatment in The Dolphin Letters, 1970-1979 and The Dolphin: Two Versions, 1971–1973, both volumes edited by Saskia Hamilton (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019).  And yet Hardwick’s rich monologue continues to be fresh and surprising.  She monologizes at length about the letters, telling Hamilton, among other things, that what really angered her was that her husband had misrepresented her words and tone, making her letter seem “flat and dull.”  She was most irritated by the sonnet “In the Mail” intoning lame decencies, allegedly coming from under her pen, about her daughter being “normal and good because she had normal and good parents.”  She also told Hamilton an unknown story which I think is a research lead, about how one day she and Lowell went over the Selected Poems in hardcover and she made him review the selection and tweak the Dolphin sonnets once again to address her complaints.  How the paperback edition of the Selected differs from the original hardcover will be the next step in my research.

The recordings of Ian Hamilton’s interviews at the British Library remain a rich resource to the students of Lowell’s late career.  They offer memorable portraits of Lowell’s loved ones and of several talented writers and intellectuals from his circle.  Whilst the Hamilton tapes are only accessible in the Reading Rooms, a later interview with Elizabeth Harwick is available on the British Library Sounds webpages, as part of the ICA talks series.  In this interview she discusses her life and works.  Interestingly, she comes across as a little haughty and blasé in this public forum, quite different in her manner from the way she behaved with Hamilton.

Grzegorz Kosc (University of Warsaw) was an Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow 2018. He is co-editing, with Steven G. Axelrod of the University of California Riverside, Robert Lowell’s Memoirs to be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 2021. He is also a co-editor, with Thomas Austenfeld of the University of Fribourg, of Robert Lowell in Context for Cambridge University Press, slated for 2022. His own research work is focused on the question of how Lowell’s late financial problems affected his poetics.

28 July 2020

Colonial American Theatre

This post by Jeffery Kennedy is part of a special Summer Scholars blog series highlighting the recent research Eccles Centre awards have supported across Caribbean, Canadian and US collections.

As friends and colleagues heard that I had received a Fulbright Scholar Award to the British Library, their first question was to ask what I would be researching.  When I told them a new text on American Theatre history, their puzzled look was typically followed by “At the British Library?”  The reality is that studying British theatre of the 17th and 18th centuries is precisely where one needs to begin as this is the origin from which almost all of Early American theatre springs.  My research goals while a guest of the Library’s Eccles Centre for American Studies revolved around three main threads of study: 1) identifying the British ancestry of colonists recorded to have performed the first play in the American colonies; 2) the significant influence the Puritans had on theatre in both Britain and America; and 3) the Restoration plays that were the first to be performed professionally in the colonies.  I want to report here about the first item, which was the ancestral work the resources at the Library allowed me to complete.

A contemporary heritage plaque indicating where 'The Bear and the Cub' was performed.
The Bear and the Cub Marker: This sign is located on Highway 17 in Pungoteague, Virginia, telling of the town’s history of staging the first play in America. Image courtesy of Jeffery Kennedy.

The first recorded play performed in the American colonies took place on 27 August 1665 in Pungoteague, Accomack County, Virginia.  The play was titled “Ye Beare and Ye Cubb,” and we know of the performance because of its entry in the legal record.  After being performed in Fowlkes Tavern, a citizen, Edward Martin, reported his moral objection to the local authorities, though what his protest was specifically is not known.  Likely it sprang as a remnant from the twenty-year ban on theatre in Britain that was a result of Puritan dominance after 1640.  The Puritans, who desired a stricter religious practice than the new Church of England required, believed that theatre was, at its core, evil.  Charles I was beheaded as head of the Church of England by the Puritan rebellion led by Oliver Cromwell and monarch rule was suspended.  Puritan influence led to similar kinds of judgements about theatre in America, particularly in the northeastern colonies of New England.  However, the “Restoration” occurred after Charles II was installed as king in 1660, returning Britain to being led by a monarch.  As a result, theatres reopened in London, most often performing frivolous comedies of manners that featured women on stage for the first time.

A sepia photograph of a tavern with 15 or so people standing in front.
An old photograph of Fowlkes Tavern, courtesy of Jeffery Kennedy.

The local Accomack judges responded to Martin’s charge by bringing before them the play’s likely author, William Darby, and Cornelius Watkinson and Philip Howard, who performed it with him.  After they were “subjected to a rigid cross-examination,” the council ordered them to perform the play at their next session, costumes and all.After the performance, finding the play innocent in content as well as intent, the council released the three men from all charges and instead ordered their accuser, Martin, to pay the expenses incurred.  Sadly, there is no existing script of the play, nor are the plot or characters known.  Some scholars conjecture that the title implies a critique of mother England’s (the Bear) newly imposed restrictions on direct sales to other countries of goods created in the colonies (the Cub).  Also, little has been known about the lives of the three who performed the play, particularly Darby.  One of my goals was to conduct genealogical research to see if I could discover anything, including where in England he had emigrated from, something previously unknown.

I consulted many genealogical records within the Library, most of which were typically kept by the local parishes that recorded births, christenings, marriages, and burials.  One of the most helpful was from the Staffordshire Parish Registers Society, published in 1912.2  The evidence strongly suggests that William Darby was born in Tipton, Staffordshire, in the West Midlands of England.  His family moved to nearby Rowley when he was still a boy, and it is here that he married Elizabeth Heywood.  The last record of the family living in Rowley is the 1650 death of William’s middle daughter, Anne, at the age of nine; all references after this locate them in Virginia.  William had five children, and we gain the most information by tracing the life of his eldest son, Daniel. We know that by 1665, the year the play was performed, William was forty-eight-years-old and that this same year 25 year old Daniel married the 22 year old Dorothy Churchill in Accomack County, Virginia.  Dorothy had come to Accomack in 1664 as a “headright,” the name for those who self-indentured; such individuals were provided with passage via ship and basic necessities in exchange for a fixed period of unwaged labour in the new colony.  Whether the Darbys were freemen or became freedmen is so far not known.  Daniel eventually became a land-owner and served in local civic affairs.  How or why William was involved in presenting and perhaps even writing a play is so far unknown, but I intend to pursue this further.

My research through the Eccles Centre yielded this critical information, which is more than has been able to be confirmed to this degree by other scholars.  Sadly, the Covid-19 pandemic required me to return to the U.S. after just a short time, not allowing me to finish more research.  However, I hope to return to the Library’s hallowed halls to pursue even more deeply those Brits involved in the vital launching of theatre in America.

Jeffery Kennedy, Fulbright-British Library Eccles Centre Scholar 2019-20, is an Associate Professor in the School of Humanities, Arts and Cultural Studies at Arizona State University.

References

  1. This comes from J. C. Wise, Ye kingdome of Accawmacke, or, The Eastern Shore of Virginia in the seventeenth century. Richmond, Va: Bell Book and Stationery Co., 1911.  British Library shelfmark: 9602.s.2.
  2. Staffordshire Parish Registers Society. Privately printed for the Society, 1902- .  British Library shelfmarks: Ac.8131 & Document Supply 8426.420000.