American Collections blog

8 posts from December 2009

25 December 2009

Nixon and Bob Hope

The Christmas Special 1973

It appears from a copy of a letter dated 22 January 1973 in the Declassified Documents Reference System, that even presidents like the regular Christmas specials we enjoy annually on our television sets. The letter in question was from President Nixon to Bob Hope where he commends Hope on surpassing previous specials, describing it as the 'best ever,' that 'we ran in the White House.'  Nixon goes on to admit 'the shots… [of] the audiences of servicemen really tugged on our heart strings', and offers Hope his sincere thanks for all his work since the Second World War with the United Service Organizations (USO).

Hope’s relationship with the USO spanned from its outset in 1941, when he performed in May of that year. Throughout his career, Hope played for US troops on more than sixty tours for USO. By 1944 the USO was at its zenith, with in the region of  3,000 clubs around the world providing entertainment, dances and a taste of home comforts for servicemen for the primary purpose of maintaining morale. 


The USO also often concentrated on sending female entertainers and volunteers for a 'touch of  home'; from an historical context the USO offers an insight into gender in American culture during the war years and beyond, a period when gender relationships where redefined against the background of world conflict.  Works such as Meghan K. Winchell’s Good Girls, Good Food, Good Fun (BL Shelfmark:YK.2009.a.31794) offer examinations of the important role played by women in conflicts through the lens of the USO.   


In the 1973 message, Nixon quips that the 'young and vigorous' Hope would outlast him, perhaps unintentionally presaging the early end to his presidency and his resignation announcement of the 8 August 1974. And Hope did indeed outlast Richard Nixon; his final tour with the USO took place in December 1990 to US troops stationed in Kuwait.



23 December 2009

Unfortunately, Aquiles cannot be with us tonight... the Medal Jose Mindlin for Cultural Achievement

Aquiles, our Latin American curator, writes:


As some of you may be aware, I have recently been awarded the Medalha José Mindlin for cultural merit. This prestigious prize is granted every year to a person elected by the Association of Brazilian Bibliophiles who has stood out for representing and disseminating Brazilian culture and literature abroad. I was thrilled and taken completely by surprise when I learned about the prize. 


This medal is in recognition of the work I have done at the British Library and in association with the Brazilian embassy in London which has been very supportive of my curatorial activities, especially in the organisation of Latin American literary events and exhibitions in the UK such as the Semana Machado de Assis and the Spanish American Independence Movements online exhibition. For the organisation of these cultural activities I have used a variety of resources from our Latin American collections such as Machado de Assis’ early poetic works Chrysalidas (1864 - BL shelfmark 1607/4821) and Phalenas (1869 - BL shelfmark published in Rio de Janeiro much before the author became famous as a novelist and considered to be very rare. 


I was represented in the award ceremony by my parents who received the medal on my behalf in Brazil last week. I know there are innumerable other professionals who, like myself, through their work are deeply engaged in the promotion of Latin American culture abroad and I would like to share this prize with them.

22 December 2009

The Shark's Behind You!

You may detect a certain Christmas theme in the blog this week.  Team America couldn't help noticing this story on the cover of the NY Times online:  'Topsy-Turvy Christmas Foolery', Sarah Lyall's charming report on no less a personage than the Fonz appearing in Puss in Boots in Liverpool.  A panto appearance whose only equivalent might be 'say, Leonard Nimoy’s appearing in a production of “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” in Buffalo.'

The British custom of pantomimes needs some translation for U.S. audiences: 'Pantomimes reflect a strange paradox of the British national character: that people can be at once so uptight and so gleefully, childishly uninhibited. Amid all the mayhem, “Peter Pan” is full of topical references to things like the recession and the television talent show “The X Factor.”'  This may also explain something about the current Christmas No. 1.

This said, I think we can find evidence of stateside, pantomime (and there's probably a research paper if not): Fortyeighters, at least, enjoyed a bit of dame action: see for example, Kurutz, Gary F. "POPULAR CULTURE ON THE GOLDEN SHORE." California History 79.2 (2000): 280-315. America: History & Life. EBSCO. Web. 22 Dec. 2009


21 December 2009

Letters to Santa


Stamps and postmarks are part of everyday life here in Team Americas: the BL has one of the world's greatest collections of philatelic materials, I used to spend a lot of time dating letters from postmarks when I worked in Manuscripts, and we receive lots of letters and parcels from the Americas (the ones from some Latin America countries are especially fun - the boxes almost like art objects, covered as they are with sheets of colourful stamps).  This morning we received a Christmas card from a U.S. bookseller, well known for their humorous use of cartoons and graphics.  It seemed particularly suited, given that this year is a special anniversary for Sesame Street, that the postmark cancellation is Kermit in a Santa hat.

The cancellation is part of the US Postal Service's annual letter-writing campaign, involving charities and members of the public responding to 'to children’s letters addressed to Santa Claus, the North Pole and other seasonal characters.'  Turns out that this 100-year old tradition was under threat this year for grimly understandable reasons, but thanks to new system of redaction, it will continue.

Good news not just for these young letter writers, but for future researchers; sociologists, educationalists and historians have all mined these collections for information about the minds, culture and assumptions of america's young.

18 December 2009

Speakin' O' Christmas

Team America is beginning to think about Christmas, not least because of the arrival of a smattering of snow in London today.


Over the last few years we've been adding to our collection of dialect poetry - a quasi-colloquial form of poetry written by African-Americans at the turn of the twentieth-century. Dismissed, often with good cause, as oppressive or exploitative minstrelsy, dialect poetry has seen something of a scholarly renaissance in recent years.  Some of it was self-published, but poets such as Paul Laurence Dunbar also found mainstream success.  Dodd, Mead & Company in particular published a series of beautifully produced volumes: our copy of Dunbar's Speakin' O' Christmas (1914), which we acquired last year, is still beautifully crisp on the inside, and the gold on the cover still sparkles.  As well as the poetry, the reader is treated to a series of photographs of people enjoying the snow at the turn of the century ('An' you'd git your gal an' go' is the caption for a group sledging).

In the summer of 2007 there was a special issue of African American Review on Paul Laurence Dunbar, and it's a good place to start if you want to find out more.

10 December 2009

Extensive Still Despite Fangled Chance

I'm currently working on a project investigating the future of digital scholarship - some of these developments may well include data-mining large corpuses of text.  Our blog has been going a while now, so we have some data to play with.  So, welcome to our first Wordle (taken from the blog's RSS's feed - a great way to subscribe to blogs, etc., via things like Google Reader).  There's also the odd found poem lurking in there as well.

Wordle: British Library Americas Collections


02 December 2009

Good Morning To All

A significant Team America birthday today (I won't say who or what), and a chance to draw attention to the Library's extensive holdings of musical scores.  The earliest edition of Mildred Hill's Happy Birthday To You (most likely based on the earlier Good Morning To All (1893)) was published first as a march, Happy Birthday, in 1934, and then with words by Patty Smith Hill in 1935 (VOC/1935/HILL).   It is, of course, still in copyright, so rather meanly (and perhaps to someone's relief) we restrained from singing and paying a royalty.

There's more about song books, which often carried very interesting covers, on Jean's web exhibition for the Eccles Centre, 'Singing the Dream.'


01 December 2009

Milk and Honey Route

A conversation with Jamie, Head of Literary Manuscripts, at lunch brought up the not-so-well-known, Tennessee Williams play, The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Anymore (1963, and turned into the Elizabeth Taylor/Richard Burton film, Boom! in 1968).  Conversation turned to the phrase 'milk train', which summoned up images of early morning steam trains bringing churns into London from Devon, Somerset and other bucolic places.  What was Williams doing with this very English sounding phrase, we wondered ignorantly?

Turns out we were wrong, in a way.  The milk-train hails from 1850s America (OED: '1853 Knickerbocker 42 532 The ‘*milk-train’ still had the right of way'), and rather than gently rattling along, stopping at every little station, it races to town, having the right of way at junctions. (Having 'highballs', in fact: ‘Milk trains’..have ‘rights’ over the rails and get nothing but ‘high balls’)

One of the references in the Dictionary (via high ball) pointed to Milk and Honey(1930), by 'Dean Stiff', and something we've relatively recently acquired in first edition for the Americas Collections.  The title is one of the pioneering sociological works of 'participant observation', providing an insider's view of a slice of society.  (You can read more about the sociologist in question, Nels Anderson, at the University of New Brunswick.)  The book provides a guide to 'hobohemia', a glossary, several cartoons; and also an account of the train routes ridden by the 'hobos' of 1920s and 30s America.  The Milk and Honey route ran from Boston to New York, but any 'railroad running through a valley of plenty may be called a milk and honey line' (24).  The D.R.G. (Denver and Rio Grande Railroad) may signify also the Damn Rotten Grub, while the M.K.T. Bible-belt railroad of Missouri, Kansas and Texas was known as 'Moral, Klannish and Theological'.

Still, there was a more English reference in the OED: '1930 P. G. WODEHOUSEVery Good, Jeeves! ix. 251 Her intention by the next train, even if that train was a milk-train, stopping at every station.'  Bertie would probably like a highball, too...