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

04 August 2022

A Case of "Archive Fever" (Cause: Due to Drafts)

Jessica Mehta is currently a Fulbright Nehru Senior Scholar in Bengaluru, India, and was a 2019 Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow at the British Library.

I was fortunate to visit the British Library as an Eccles Fellow in 2019, just before the onset of the pandemic. The intention of this visit was to support my PhD thesis, “Women Poets and Eating Disorders: 1840–1970s.” Two of “my” key poets include Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Christina Rossetti, and the Library holds myriad handwritten drafts from both poets. Archival analysis was critical to my doctoral work and is greatly informing my post-doctoral life as I prepare my research into monograph form. As Jane Dowson says, “the best use of archival writing is to open up, rather than close down, interpretive possibilities”. 1 Stephen Dilks sums up how we, and I, are using such archives: “When a new generation of readers rediscovers [literature’s] meaning in a new historical context, it partially remakes its meaning; it extends its meaning into the present; it makes it live again, and not precisely as it ever lived before”. 2

My three-part methodological approach culminated in a unique way to examine these poets’ work. My steps included analysing (oftentimes handwritten, unpublished, and non-digitised) archival drafts; comparing drafts to the published version(s) of poems; and examining these poems (both via the comparison of draft progressions to published poems and the completed poems as they stand) alongside various medical theories related to eating disorders during the poets’ eras. Dilks stresses that when we read, it is with “an incomplete sense of the context” which is “one reason why experts continue to debate the meaning or meanings of texts that have been read thousands of times”. 3 It might seem like some poems, such as “Aurora Leigh,” have been read and analysed ad nauseum, but have they really? I argue they have not. Similarly, archives and drafts are key to a close exploration of a poet’s work because they reveal process, not just in a poetic sense but in terms of the writer’s internal progression. Wim Van Mierlo says, “Literary archives allow us to study that writing not only in its finished, but also in its inchoate, embryonic state … the avant-texte, the text before it is ‘the text’”. 4 Derrida famously dubs such places home to Archive Fever (1995), which he claims, “verges on radical evil”. 5

I took a traditional approach to archival exploration, travelling the globe in my quest—the farthest I traveled was the British Library. Sadly, as Carolyn Steedman bemoans, “Many modern historians simply never use the[se] kind of archives,” suggesting that the “majority” of historians today “have never set foot in a départementale or national archive”. 6 This became increasingly true as travel was stopped and borders closed during COVID-19. However, it was in this approach, in becoming Steedman’s “figure solemnly hunched over a list of names, compiling a long time ago for a purpose quite different from the historian’s,” where I truly connected with my poets. 7 Here, in the Library, I felt that I, too, was gaining “entry to an inner world”. 8 There are several notes made in the drafts I examined, such as Barrett Browning’s question to herself regarding a shawl in a draft of her persona poem “Runaway Slave.” She asks, “Does that sound like a slave’s article of clothing?” (British Library shelfmark: Ashley MS A2517). This was, obviously, well before the era of culture vultures and cultural appropriation.

Manuscript of Barret-Browning's poem, with her vertical note to herself in the top-right.
Elizabeth Barret Browning, “Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point,” 1846, British Library shelfmark: Ashley MS A2517.

The sense of privacy revealed in drafts suggest that these papers provide a more honest peek into the poet’s world, letting us unearth realities and perhaps truths not yet buried in the polished poems. After my time at the Library, I wholeheartedly agree with Helen Taylor’s summation that, “This generation of scholars perhaps needs to be reminded of an age when scholarship involved long train journeys to archives”. 9 Digital records are simply not the same though, ultimately, I depended on digitisation from other archival libraries when lockdowns occurred.

My months spent in the Library’s archives led to uncovering much more than early drafts. Here, things get personal. I was tasked with avoiding the trap of, as Steedman puts it, feeling “able to speak on behalf of the dead, and to interpret the words and the acts they themselves had not understood”. 10 These archives reveal how poets were responding to world events, such as the abolition of slavery in the United States, and their own flourishing knowledge and experiences. The labour of drafting poems gives us the opportunity to watch the evolution of an anorexic aesthetic and the chance to see how choices (such as adding more em-dashes or capitalising certain food- or hunger-centric words) led various poem iterations to become increasingly reflective of the processes and results of eating disorders. The work these writers undertook often mimics the presentations and cycles of an eating disorder, beginning with the most overt aspect of the editing process: the scraping away of excess fat.

The idea and motivation for my thesis, successfully defended in March 2023, began many years ago with the quiet, sudden realisation that I was not the only one. I had sisters. That bond strengthened during my research. I found myself in that space, deep in the archives, where, as Steedman says, “You think: I could get to hate these people, and then: I can never do these people justice, and finally: I shall never get it done”. 11 As Derrida says, “If Freud suffered from mal d’archive, if his case stems from trouble de l’archive, he is not without his place, simultaneously, in the archive fever or disorder we are experiencing today”. 12 Delicately poring over precious ephemera, yearning to touch history and become a part of it, I came to understand the fluid, subjective fleetingness of what archives entail. “We are en mal d’archive: in need of archives,” says Derrida, and further expounds:

It is to burn with a passion. It is to never rest, interminably, from searching for the archive … It is to have a compulsive, repetitive, and nostalgic desire for the archive, an irrepressible desire to return to the origin, a homesickness, a nostalgia for the return to the most archaic place of absolute commencement. 13

Years ago, I found kindred spirits in women who were writing eras and lifetimes ago. My experience at the Library led me to a place as a researcher that Simon Barker beautifully describes: “[Researchers] soon discover that beyond the boundary of the archive they may become not the mere writers of stories that ought to be told, but a figure in the story that is being told”. 14 Don’t we all want to be such protagonists, such heroes? Isn’t that, at least in part, what brings us to the Library?

References

  1. Jane Dowson, “Poetry and Personality: The Private Papers and Public Image of Elizabeth Jennings", in The Boundaries of the Literary Archive: Reclamation and Representation, edited by Carrie Smith and Lisa Stead, Routledge, 2017, p. 107.
  2. Stephen Dilks, et al. Cultural Conversations: The Presence of the Past. Boston; New York: Bedford/St. Martins, 2001, p. 4.
  3. ibid, 4.
  4. Wim Van Mierlo, “The Archeology of the Manuscript: Towards Modern Paleography,” in The Boundaries of the Literary Archive: Reclamation and Representation, edited by Carrie Smith and Lisa Stead. London: Routledge, 2017, pp. 15–16.
  5. Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression. Translated by Eric Prenowitz. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995, pp. 19-20.
  6. Carolyn Steedman. Dust: The Archive and Cultural History. Rutgers University Press, 2002, x.
  7. ibid, xi.
  8. Linda Anderson, et al., editors. “Introduction: Poetry, Theory, Archives.” The Contemporary Poetry Archive: Essays and Interventions. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2019, p. 1.
  9. Helen Taylor, “‘What Will Survive of Us Are Manuscripts’: Archives, Scholarship, and Human Stories,” in The Boundaries of the Literary Archive: Reclamation and Representation, edited by Carrie Smith and Lisa Stead, Routledge, 2017, p. 198. 
  10. Carolyn Steedman. Dust: The Archive and Cultural History. Rutgers University Press, 2002, p. 38.
  11. ibid, 18.
  12. Derrida, p. 90.
  13. ibid, 91.
  14. Simon Barker, “Lost Property: John Galsworthy and the Search for ‘That Stuffed Shirt,'” in The Boundaries of the Literary Archive: Reclamation and Representation, edited by Carrie Smith and Lisa Stead, Routledge, 2017, p. 103.



 

01 August 2022

Electronic resources for research in Caribbean Studies

Patience yields rewards at the BL.”
My colleague Philip Abraham regularly repeats these wise words to BL users (and me). This can be especially true in the area of online Caribbean Studies; the path to useful discovery is not always a linear one! Continuing our series focusing on digitally accessible resources to augment research by users of the British Library, this blog shall share some relevant links.
So, where to begin? You can start by clicking on this link: https://www.bl.uk/catalogues-and-collections/digital-collections and scrolling down to the Electronic Resources box.

Once ‘in’, options to search for material are innumerable, though typing the word ‘Caribbean’ in the search box does not either yield information from the Advanced Search or Subject headings. The Title heading offers Caribbean Newspapers 1718-1876 for those interested in news emanating from the region during that 158-year period. Typing the word ‘literature’ in the search box brings up various databases like Literature Online which provides a digital library of drama, poetry and prose along with bibliographies, biographies, complementary sources and useful web links via the ProQuest. I happily discovered material on the St. Lucian- Canadian writer Canisia Lubrin, the Trinidadian-British playwright Mustapha Matura, and an excellent piece on the tensions between the Voudou religion and Christianity found in work by the Guadeloupean writer  Maryse Condé.

The ProQuest search box is itself a gift of generous yields. Typing in ‘Caribbean history’ offers over 12, 218 results! Among them a review of the Dominican Republic’s history as re/interpreted by the writer Junot Díaz in The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and seen through the lens of the fantastical and marvellous.

Image of Guadeloupean writer Maryse Conde wearing a brightly coloured top and bold gold earrings
Writer Maryse Condé (Photo credit: Brice Toul/Gamma-Rapho/Getty Images)

Communist Historical Newspapers Collections supplied by ProQuest via the BL’s Electronic Resources search box brings up articles about notable Caribbean individuals like Marcus Garvey (Jamaica), Claudia Jones (Trinidad &Tobago), Lolita Lebron (Puerto Rico) and George Padmore (Trinidad & Tobago). Articles written by Padmore for the Chicago Defender are on the Historical Newspapers: Chicago Defender database as are articles on Fidel Castro (Cuba), Rafael Trujillo (Dominican Republic), François Duvalier (Haiti) and pianist Hazel Scott (Trinidad & Tobago).

The British Library’s Endangered Archives Programme (EAP) is another source of rich online discovery. Caribbean projects supported by the EAP includes Siete Villas of Cuba: eap.bl.uk/projectEAP955 - creating a digital archive of over 500,000- pages of documents recording the history of African diaspora peoples in the seven oldest cities of Cuba. From the brink: eap.bl.uk/projectEAP408 - collecting and digitising records of the Turks and Caicos Islands after the destruction caused by Hurricane Ike in 2008 is another EAP supported project. 

Image of a pair of hands holding a small archive item amidst a large pile of similar material
Endangered Archive Programme image courtesy the British Library

Delving into the BL’s cornucopia of digital resources with focus and patience is a rewarding venture for any researcher of Caribbean Studies!
The next blog in this series will be on e-resources supporting research on Oceania Studies.

05 July 2022

US Radicals in Revolutionary Mexico

Owen Walsh is a Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Aberdeen and was a 2021 Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow at the British Library.

NB: This article contains historical images and descriptions relating to slavery which readers may find upsetting.

‘We are not safe in the United States’, warned the Jewish intellectual Anita Brenner in 1943, ‘without taking Mexico into account’. This fact of North American interdependence, she argued, ‘is something that Mexicans have long known, with dread, but that few Americans have had to look at.’1

My research at the British Library has been motivated by a conviction that scholars of US culture and political radicalism in the early-mid twentieth century have too often averted their gaze from Mexico while chronicling the making of an internationalist American Left. The Mexican revolutionary era, spanning c. 1910-1940, was the first major revolution of the twentieth century and a key moment in the unfolding of the global anticolonial struggle. The Revolution’s cultural legacy was described by Brenner and other contemporary critics as nothing less than ‘the first great modern art created in America’.2

My work in the British Library marks the start of a project in which I explore the travel experiences and writings of Leftist US intellectuals in revolutionary Mexico. The project traces the impact of Mexico, its rapidly changing culture and its inspired people, on radical cultural formations (New Negro writing, the proletarian literature movement) in the interwar United States. The rare books and radical journals contained in the British Library’s collections have been indispensable for this work.

The list of figures who might be included in a history of American travel in revolutionary Mexico is long and distinguished. Leftist journalists John Reed, Lincoln Steffens, and Ernest Gruening wrote sympathetic and romantic reports of the political and military struggles of the era. Future leading Communists Mike Gold, Charles Shipman, and Lovett Fort-Whiteman passed through the country and participated in the germination of revolutionary labour unionism and embryonic Party organisation. Major writers of American modernism including John Dos Passos and Langston Hughes found inspiration in Mexico and mixed with the cosmopolitan cultural networks around Mexico City.

During the most violent phase of the revolution in the 1910s, most of the American visitors were journalists seeking an unmediated view of the chaotic cascade of conflicts – over land, liberty, and individual egos – which together constitute the Mexican Revolution. Through the 1920s and 1930s, political and cultural pilgrims flocked to Mexico. They were often escaping persecution, but they also sought to witness and report on the social conflicts that continued to convulse their southern neighbour and to draw inspiration in their own mission to build a modern, socialist cultural order in the US.

In this short post, I want to focus on one of the earliest and most influential accounts of Mexican society in the era of revolution. Published in 1911, Barbarous Mexico (Chicago: Charles Kerr & Co.; British Library shelfmark 10481.pp.11), was a sensational exposé of life under the rule of the pre-revolutionary dictator Porfirio Díaz. It was the product of investigative reportage by John Kenneth Turner with the help of Lázaro Gutiérrez de Lara. It helped to ignite a movement in support of the radical Magón brothers (Mexican revolutionaries imprisoned in the US) and informed American sympathies with the Mexican Revolution for years to come.

Turner journeyed to Mexico in the immediate pre-revolutionary period, in 1908 and 1909, after hearing rumours of slavery prevailing in large swathes of the country, which was under the political and financial domination of US capitalism. Much of his reporting was done undercover, using disguises and employing the anti-Díaz activist Gutiérrez de Lara to help bridge cultural gaps, build networks, and provide translations. Turner’s travels took him across Mexico, from the Yucatán peninsula, where the henequen plantations were worked by indigenous Yaqui people enslaved after defeat in their war with the Mexican state, to Valle Nacional in Oaxaca, ‘the worst slave hole in Mexico’, where a racially mixed population were forced to labour on tobacco farms by the mostly Cuban planters and the Porfirian state authorities.3

A woman wearing a white shirt and long black skirt carrying a child on her back and standing in front on a spikey, fan-shaped plant that is taller than she is.
Photographic image from John Kenneth Turner, Barbarous Mexico. Chicago: Charles Kerr & Co., 1911. British Library shelfmark: 10481.pp.11. [With Turner's captions.]


Throughout Barbarous Mexico, Turner was concerned to connect the problem of slavery in Mexico with American policy. Turner’s definition of slavery was somewhat specific and limited: ‘the ownership of the body of a man, an ownership so absolute that the body can be transferred to another, an ownership that gives to the owner a right to take the products of that body, to starve it, to chastise it at will, to kill it with impunity.’4 But in Barbarous Mexico, Turner explores slavery in various subtle forms, including the informal trading of people that occurred under the legal guise of debt peonage. Indeed, in his introductory remarks Turner’s use of the slippery term ‘slavery’ went so far as to describe the imperial relationship between the two North American republics in the same terms. The US, Turner wrote, ‘enslaves the Mexican nation’ while the US media collaborated with the Porfiriato to keep ‘the American public in ignorance’.5 Such political arrangements, Turner is careful to point out, is what defines Mexico as ‘barbarous’, rather than any deficiency of its people.6

A bare-chested man, wearing a hessian-type hat and trousers and carrying a basket on his back, stands in front of small, round-shaped dwelling with a straw roof.
Photographic image from John Kenneth Turner, Barbarous Mexico. Chicago: Charles Kerr & Co., 1911. British Library shelfmark: 10481.pp.11. [With Turner's captions.]

Despite its republican trappings, Díaz’s Mexico had discarded constitutional rule and the rights ‘which all enlightened men agree are necessary for the unfolding of a nation’.7 Confronted with such a nation, Turner presciently wrote that the ‘country is on the verge of a revolution in favor of democracy’.8 When the Revolution did come, Turner was a leading figure in the US solidarity movement, and he went on to pen a book-length argument against US intervention.

The concerns in Barbarous Mexico with republican principle and democratic rule override any specifically socialist propagandising in Turner’s account. But his work could only find an audience via the socialist press. Turner’s despatches were published first in the Socialist Party-aligned newspaper Appeal to Reason. The success of these articles opened a route for him to publish in the liberal American Magazine, which soon closed due to the backlash fuelled by the well-funded Porfiriato lobby. The only publisher who accepted Turner’s book was the socialist Charles H. Kerr and Co.

The role Turner and his Appeal to Reason comrades played in exposing forced labour in Mexico demonstrates the continuous histories of socialist, abolitionist, and anti-imperialist politics in the US. In making his report on slavery in the province of Yucatán, Turner’s mind repeatedly returned to ‘the slaves of our southern states before the Civil War’.9 The comparison invites us to imagine that Turner was consciously mimicking the abolitionist journalism of nineteenth-century journals such as William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator. Like his abolitionist forebears, Turner sought to puncture the well-funded lies of a southern slaveocracy with terrifying reports and haunting visual evidence of injustice and brutality carried out with the sanction of the US state.

To the right of the image is a large, white washed brick building; to the left are over 100 people standing in lines while in front of them are several people on horseback.
Photographic image from John Kenneth Turner, Barbarous Mexico. Chicago: Charles Kerr & Co., 1911. British Library shelfmark: 10481.pp.11. [With Turner's captions.]

Many of the thematic concerns, rhetorical strategies, and ideological negotiations that operate in Turner’s important text continued to be visible in writing by American radicals on Mexico for many years. Time and again, American radicals called on their readers to look favourably on the Revolution, to oppose US meddling in Mexican affairs, and to visualise the Mexican people as a noble and patriotic mass struggling for freedoms that were already familiar – and dearly held – to most Americans. Such appeals combined mainstream republican principles with the radical thrust of American socialism, and were often aided by Mexican Leftists who deeply understood the vulnerabilities and opportunities that come with being a subordinate neighbour to the US.

Notes:

1. Anita Brenner, The Wind That Swept Mexico: The History of the Mexican Revolution 1910-1942 (Austin and London: University of Texas Press, 1971) p. 3.(British Library shelfmark X.800/5804).
2. Brenner, p. 65.
3. John Kenneth Turner, Barbarous Mexico (Chicago: Charles Kerr & Co., 1911) p. 67 (British Library shelfmark: 10481.pp.11); Claudio Lomnitz, The Return of Comrade Ricardo Flores Magón (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2014) p. 161 (British Library shelfmark: YC.2014.a.6131).
4. Turner, p. 16.
5. Turner, Preface.
6. Turner, Preface.
7. Turner, p. 11.
8. Turner, p. 10.
9. Turner, pp. 34-5.