Americas and Oceania Collections blog

Exploring the Library’s collections from the Americas and Oceania

Introduction

The Americas and Oceania Collections blog promotes our collections relating to North, Central and South America, the Caribbean, and Oceania by providing new readings of our historical holdings, highlighting recent acquisitions, and showcasing new research on our collections. It is written by our curators and collection specialists across the Library, with guest posts from Eccles Centre staff and fellows. Read more about this blog

05 October 2022

Delicate Materials - Imaginative Texts

Dr. Tatiani Rapatzikou is Associate Professor in the Department of American Literature and Culture, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece, and was a 2020 Eccles Visiting Fellow at the British Library.

My visit to the British Library in April and August 2022 was fully dedicated to the exploration of diverse primary and secondary sources that fall under the theme of book design, materiality, and storytelling in the context of print and digital American literary practice.

With the Library having in its holdings an array of uniquely made books by contemporary US-based print makers, I felt that I had only scraped the tip of the iceberg. 

While searching for my own project, I came across and I was tempted to explore a number of paper-made gems that fueled my curiosity and whetted my appetite for this area of American literary, as well as publishing, experience. The first example I’d like to share is the Loujon Press 1966 volume titled Order and Chaos Chez Reichel by Henry Miller (see Fig. 1) that I had been reading about but had never seen.

A colourful book slip-case stands upright, alongside a colourful opened book showing a portrait of a man on the left and a blue and pink illustration on the right.
Fig. 1: This Loujon Press publication of the Order and Chaos volume comes with a slipcase made out of flowery-patterned and colored paper. On the verso cover page is Hans Reichel’s photograph, while on the recto cover page Reichel’s painting “Homme dans La Lune” is reproduced on the dust jacket.  Henry Miller, Order and Chaos Chez Reichel. Tucson, Ariz.: Loujon Press, c1966. British Library shelfmark: YA.1992.b.1551.

Made out of a range of materials such as coloured paper, cork and tissue-lace paper, and coming in a decorated cardboard slipcase, this is a unique codex creation. This special volume contains, in addition to Miller’s own text, an introduction contributed by Lawrence Durrell, one of his close friends, written in red ink on light blue and beige-coloured paper. In the opening paragraph of the introduction, Durrell writes: “This little book is, if my memory serves me right, only one of several which Miller completed around this time (1937-38) and gave to his friends as personal gifts” (7). This particular book creation was dedicated to Miller’s painter friend, Hans Reichel, whom he met during his Paris days in the late 1930s. Building on Miller’s initially handwritten book-letter to Reichel on printer’s dummies, Jon and Louise "Gypsy Lou" Webb, the founders of the New Orleans-based Loujon Press, published Miller’s Order and Chaos in six limited editions, each one resorting to different materials and bindings.

The specific book mentioned here serves as a memento of a special friendship. Ιt is the tactile and visual as well as colour quality of the materials used (paper, cork, tissue, ink) that transfer to the readers Miller’s diverse thoughts and feelings for his painter friend.

The second example, I’d like to point at is the limited edition of a broadside poem project (see Fig. 2), which started in 1982 with Alastair Reed and continued in 1984 with Dana Gioia, aiming to bring together a diverse range of poems by American poets residing in fourteen different US states. Amidst the poets who participated in this special endeavor were: May Swenson, W.S. Merwin, Jay Parini, Judith Hemschemeyer, Amy Clampitt and others. This project was completed in collaboration with James Trissel, who was the designer and printer of the letterpress and book arts studio known as The Press at Colorado College in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

A collection of hand-printed poems and images are displayed on a table top.
Fig. 2: Four of the uniquely crafted broadside poems and the booklet containing information about the project, all of them gathered together into a big black portfolio box as well as carefully wrapped in thin white paper. The specific box is number 57 out of the limited edition of 150 copies. Alastair Reed and Dana Gioia, editors. The Printed Poem/The Poem as Print: Twenty-four Broadsides of American Poetry. Colorado Springs, Colorado: The Press at Colorado College, 1985-1986. British Library shelfmark: HS.74/2350.

In the booklet accompanying the broadside poem creations, Gioia writes in her “Introduction”: “Printed on one side of a single sheet of paper, a poetry broadside is the most intense and unified genre of printing. […] While a book may have hundreds of pages to create its effect, a broadside has only one forceful gesture to satisfy simultaneously the requirements of both literature and design.” While in “The Printer’s Comment,” contained in the same booklet, Trissel notes: “These twenty four broadsides […] represent the opportunity to deal with poetry in an expansive range of typographic situations” by resorting to special paper materials and an array of printing techniques. He also points out that, “Unlike the book, the broadside tries within a single plane to strike a resonance between the poetic text and its visual circumstance.” These two comments offer an insight into the crucial role materials, typographic design and printing can play in the delivery not only of an aesthetic effect but also of a multilayered and synthesizing experience.

It was thanks to the Eccles Centre's US Fine Presses Established after 1945: A Guide to the British Library's Holdings, which is available both on the Centre's website and in the British Library's Shared Research Repository, that I was able to systematize and expand my research as well as broaden my knowledge about American specialist presses and their print-based projects.

What is certain is that materials enhance the experience of writing, since they strive not merely for a conceptual, but also a bodily and even gestural engagement with the texts composed and the narratives brought forward. Each one of the examples presented here sheds light on a different way of printing and manifestation of creativity. These kinds of material creations both bring to our attention an alternative artistic and literary activity that values craftsmanship and collaboration between the print-maker and the writer or the poet, while also personalizing the overall experience and establishing a meaningful connection with the readers on the basis of the materials and printing method chosen.

In a reality governed by mass production and commercialization, material design and book-making invite us to reevaluate literary practice. This has become even more pertinent since the turn of the 21st century due to the ubiquity of digital technologies. It is not accidental that in the context of current scholarship on American literary production there is a resurgence of interest in digitally-assisted book design and materials, with “bookishness” being the term that is now used in order to mark this kind of turn. Jessica Pressman interprets bookishness as a “creative movement invested in exploring and demonstrating love for the book as symbol, art form, and artifact” (1), which increases in intensity as our every day actions also demand an increased engagement with digital technologies.

Considering this observation in tandem with the examples shared in this short blog, one can realise that materials, even though overlooked at times, play a decisive role in enhancing the literary experience by multiplying the opportunities readers have for imaginative exploration and immersion into the story told.

Works Cited

Henry Miller, Order and Chaos Chez Reichel. Tucson, Ariz.: Loujon Press, c1966. British Library shelfmark: YA.1992.b.1551.

Jessica Pressman, Bookishness: Loving Books in a Digital Age. New York: Columbia University Press, 2020. British Library pressmark: YC.2022.a.2100.

Alastair Reed and Dana Gioia, editors. The Printed Poem/The Poem as Print: Twenty-four Broadsides of American Poetry. Colorado Springs, Col.: The Press at Colorado College, 1985-1986. British Library shelfmark: HS.74/2350.

 

03 October 2022

On my desk: Double Persephone by Margaret Atwood

The Americas and Oceania team is fortunate to work with some fascinating items that cross our desks for a variety of reasons from exhibition loans to Reader queries. Through the On my desk blog series, we ask the team three questions which will give you an insight into the work of curators and cataloguers at the Library and a behind-the-scenes peek at some of the items in the collections. Today’s post features Rachael, one of our curators for North American Published Collections Post-1850.

What is the item?

Double Persephone by Canadian author Margaret Atwood – which is a self-published poetry collection written in 1961.

Why is it on your desk?

Our team were recently tasked to update some British Library webpages related to the collection areas we are responsible for. Jobs like this always make for a great opportunity to dive into the collections and gain a better understanding of our holdings. Alongside lesser-known authors, I was looking for particularly interesting or unexpected titles by popular Canadian authors which might help give Readers approaching our collections an idea of the sheer breadth of what’s available at the British Library. It was a real delight when I discovered we held a copy of Margaret Atwood's rare first book, the poetry collection Double Persephone (Cup.503.i.1.)

Photograph of the front cover of Double Persephone (Cup.503.i.1.) showing the cover Atwood designed
Front cover of Double Persephone (Cup.503.i.1.) showing the cover Atwood designed

Why is it interesting?

Margaret Atwood would have only been around 21/22 years old when she self-published (meaning, ‘made public’) the chapbook, Double Persephone. The collection would see her enter and win a poetry competition for students at the University of Toronto, awarding her the E. J. Pratt Medal. I wonder if the selection committee reading those poems and deciding on Atwood as the winner knew the gem they were holding in their hands at the time, or what lay ahead for the young author?

Her follow-up poetry collection published three years later would win the Governor General's Award (The Circle Game, of which the British Library holds the fourth printing at X.950/8654.). As we now know, Atwood would go onto publish in excess of 100 works, from poetry collections to short fiction, novels, graphic novels, television scripts, works of non-fiction, and children’s books. To think this unassuming-looking little collection of seven poems was the start of that, I think is quite amazing.

The small, private press, Hawkshead Press of Kitchener and Toronto, in Atwood’s home province of Ontario, published Double Persephone. In order to afford to self-publish the collection, student Atwood was hands-on in the design and publishing process; she handset the book herself with a flat bed press, designed the cover with linoblocks, and only made 220 copies[1]. The copies were sold for 50 cents apiece[2].

Photo of the full cover illustration showing a light and dark shoot, one with its eyes open and the other with them closed
The full cover illustration showing a light and dark shoot, one with its eyes open and the other with them closed

In a talk Atwood delivered in 2011 (which is available to watch online – see link below in footnotes), she joked at wishing she’d made and kept more of the publication – on the market today, the item can fetch some considerable amounts. The Library’s copy has a red British Museum Library stamp with the date 15th December 1961, so whoever was responsible for purchasing the item some 60 years ago acted quickly indeed, securing a copy for the Library in the same year the item was published, and at what is now considered a bargain price no doubt!

Double Persephone is available to view in the Library’s Rare Books and Music Reading Room in St Pancras, London. Anyone with one of our FREE Reader Passes can order and consult the item, as well as the thousands more collection items available for your research, inspiration and enjoyment held at the British Library. 

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[1] TOC 2011: Margaret Atwood, "The Publishing Pie: An Author's View" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-6iMBf6Ddjk#t=784s

[2] Rare book library celebrates Canada’s small presses by Nick Davies (published 3rd July 2013) https://www.mhpbooks.com/rare-book-library-celebrates-canadas-small-presses/

28 September 2022

E-resources: magazines and comics

This month’s e-resources blog explores five wonderful resources offering full-text access to a wide variety of magazines and comics. 

Please note: all of these resources can be accessed remotely with a British Library Reader Pass.

Entertainment Industry Magazine Archive, 1880-2015 covers the history of the film and entertainment industries, from the era of vaudeville and silent movies through to the 21st century. It includes numerous trade magazines which have effectively provided the main historical record for their subject areas throughout the 20th century – Variety (1905-2000), The Hollywood Reporter (1930-2015), Billboard (1894-2000) and Broadcasting (1931-2000) – as well as more specialist titles, such as American Cinematographer (1930-2015), Backstage (1961-2000) and Emmy (1979-2015). The inclusion of consumer and fan magazines enables researchers to retrieve industry news items, features on technological breakthroughs and in-depth interviews with major artists, together with photographs and illustrations, gossip columns, listings, reviews, charts and statistics. Items such as advertisements, covers and short reviews of films, music singles or other works have been indexed as separate documents enabling researchers find all the relevant material for their search topic.

Men’s Magazine Archive contains a handful of US titles, with two being particularly notable. Founded in 1845, the tabloid-style National Police Gazette was in print for over 120 years and initially covered matters of interest to the police – in particular, lurid murders and Wild West outlaws. It also focused on sport, and its plentiful images of burlesque dancers and strippers meant it was a fixture of nineteenth and early twentieth century barber shops. In many ways, the Gazette was a forerunner to illustrated sports weeklies, girlie magazines, celebrity gossip columns, and sensational journalism. Published in New York, The Argosy/Argosy was one of the “big four” pulp (all-fiction) magazines. It had many different iterations, and its writers included Upton Sinclair, Zane Gray and the former dime novelist William Wallace Cook. From the early 1940s, much of its fiction content was replaced by “men’s magazine” content. The magazine ceased publication in 1978.

Amidst a magazine page with two columns of text and a large headline there is a an image of man standing in a river wearing jeans, a jacket and a hat while holding a couple of large fish with his right hand
Argosy. New York, Vol. 376, Issue 3, (1 March 1, 1973). Included in the Men's Magazine Archive, published by ProQuest and available at the British Library.

Trench Journals and Unit Magazines of the First World War contains over 1,500 journals and magazines written and illustrated by service personnel in the infantry, artillery, air force, naval, supply and transport units, military hospitals and training depots of all combatant nations. Not only did these magazines create a sense of esprit de corps and raise the spirits of the unit through humorous stories, poems, jokes and parodies, but they also documented the unit’s unique circumstances and experiences. The vast and previously unrecognised corpus of war poetry, written by a multitude of hitherto unknown poets, offers a vital counterpoint to the more established authors who emerged from the Great War. NB – a similar resource, Service Newspapers of World War II, was covered in our e-resources blog in November 2021.

Breather o Heather

Underground and Independent Comics, Comix and Graphic Novels is the first-ever scholarly online collection for researchers and students of adult comic books and graphic novels. From the first underground comix of the 1960s, to the work of modern sequential artists to the present day, it covers the full spectrum of this visual art form and offers 200,000 pages of original material alongside interviews, commentary, criticism, and other supporting materials. Please note that it contains graphic material that some may find offensive.

Vogue Archive contains the entire run of US Vogue, from its founding to the present day and includes all text, graphics, ads covers and fold-outs, indexed and in colour. Vogue was founded in New York in 1892 as a weekly society paper catering for Manhattan's social elite. After being purchased by Condé Nast in 1909, not only did the quality of the paper, printing and illustrations all improve, but there was a new focus on fashion and the magazine quickly became one of the icons of the modern age. The Archive’s contents represent the work of the greatest designers, photographers, stylists and illustrators of the 20th and 21st centuries and are a primary source for the study of fashion, gender and modern social history.