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7 posts from April 2012

29 April 2012

They were happy, these Americans, to be in Paris

James Joyce with Sylvia Beach at Shakespeare & Co, Paris, 1920, Image Yale University, via Wiki Commons

This week I’ve been researching Hemingway’s life during the Second World War and I’ve come across two treasures in the British Library: Sylvia Beach’s memoirs, and the catalogue to a 1959 Paris exhibition of Beach’s collections. 

Hemingway and Sylvia Beach were firm and fast friends. This was unusual enough in two ways: first, that he didn’t sleep with her, and second, that their friendship continued uninterrupted until his death. In her memoir, called Shakespeare and Company, Sylvia writes, ‘I felt the warmest friendship for Ernest Hemingway from the day we met’.

Sylvia had managed to keep her famous bookshop open during the Paris occupation until one day in 1941 when a German officer demanded her last copy of Joyce’s Finnegans Wake.  Sylvia did see the funny side of the fascist’s interest in this decadent book, but she told the officer it was not for sale.  She was keeping it. For whom? asked the officer. ‘For myself,’ she said. Peeved, the officer advised her he would be back in two hours to close down the shop.

In those two hours Sylvia Beach completely emptied out her bookshop. Using boxes and baskets, she transported 5000 books, letters and all of the shop fittings up three flights of stairs. When the German officer returned a couple of hours later, even the shop sign had been painted over. Everything had gone. The books ‘remained hidden, a secret until after the liberation.’

Three years later, in 1944, Hemingway returned to Paris as the city welcomed its liberators. Sylvia remembers, ‘We asked [Hemingway] if he could do something about the Nazi snipers on the roof tops in our street… He got his company out of the jeeps and took them up to the roof. We heard firing for the last time in the rue de l’Odéon. Hemingway and his men came down again and rode off in their jeeps – “to liberate” according to Hemingway, “the cellar at the Ritz.”’

Countless photographs and souvenirs were saved from the war up these three flights of stairs.  A sample of these were shown at an exhibition in Paris in 1959: Les Années Vingt: Les Ecrivains Américains A Paris et Leurs Amis – the catalogue of which is available at the British Library. As well as wonderful photographs of Sylvia’s coterie, including T.S. Eliot, Djuna Barnes and William Carlos Williams, we also get another view on the Lost Generation Sylvia fostered in Paris.

‘Ils étaient heureux, ces Américains, d’être à Paris,’ Sylvia writes in the preface to the catalogue – ‘They were happy, these Americans, to be in Paris.’ She continues, ‘I do not understand why we still call them the “Lost Generation”. It seems to me that after thirty years, that this generation of authors were the most recognized.’

Whether it is Gertrude and Alice sitting morosely under a Picasso, Joyce discussing Ulysses with his editors, or the original letter of introduction that shepherded an unknown couple called Mr and Mrs Hemingway from Chicago to Paris in 1921, the catalogue illuminates the woman and her world in les années vingts.

For me, Sylvia Beach carries extra interest because it is highly likely she met all four Mrs Hemingways, and because she was the only woman – and only friend – with whom Ernest had no serious bust-ups. It seems she knew how to temper some of Ernest’s more bullish moods, and that she understood the quick of him. As she so smartly put it: ‘the first trouble is he wants to marry everybody.’ 

Not only is Sylvia an interesting character who doesn’t globe-hop too much, she also provides me with a character who, through virtue of her own, has stayed in everybody’s good books. One of the hurdles I’ve had in writing about this era for my novel, Mrs Hemingway, is that spats ruin friendships every decade or so; that, or people die. Moving the chapters on with the same cast of people has proved difficult. And so constant Sylvia has proved a bit of a hidden treasure herself. 


Naomi Wood is one of the British Library's Eccles Centre Writers in Residence for 2012.

27 April 2012

Sports Day at the British Library


Luther H. Porter, Cycling for Health and Leisure, New York, 1895, cover

On 21 May 2012, The Library is hosting a Sports Studies Day (and, no, we won't be wearing just our pants and vests and holding eggs and spoons).  It's titled 'Sourcing Sport: Current Research; British Library Resources',and I've been starting to do some work in advance of the section on the right hand side of that semi-colon.

Rather than cover all of U.S. related sports, from basketball to Ultimate Frisbee (we have an ex-Royal Holloway Blue on Team Americas for the latter, btw), I've opted for what I thought would be a little more focused: bicycling.

I was mistaken, since that sport has generated a vast literature and, of course, dates back to the second half of the nineteenth century.  It also encompases a great range of disciplines, from multi-day track racing at the heart of Madison Square Gardens, the monuments of the Spring Classics and the Grand Tours to modern-day mountain biking and BMX.  And this is putting aside the history of leisure, class, and gender, all of which have been influenced by that world-changing two-wheeled invention.  This will all be boiled down to a short overview, with some pictures, too.

But since the London Tweed Run is not so very long away, I was particularly struck by this collection of wool fabric samples contained in a pamhlet of uniform regulations produced by the Cyclists' Touring Club in 1888 (recently renamed from the bicyclists' touring club because of the growth in popularity of tricycles).

CTC Tweed
Cyclists' Touring Club, Uniform rules & regulations, London, 1888.  Wool samples.

These could be run up into some rather natty outfits:


The American author, Luther H. Porter (whose book on the health benefits of cycling's cover has been meddled with at the top of this post) also offered advice on clothing, particularly on the liberating bloomers and other 'rational' female costumes.  Men were also advised: 'Stockings of dark gray or some plaid look best in the long run; black ones are more dressy, but show dust badly'.  Sadly, rain rather than dust is our current environmental enemy of sartorial success.  Bloomers below:

Cycling clothing

You can find out more about the consequences for life in America (and elsewhere) of such clothing in Sarah A. Gordon, 'Any Desired Length': Negotiating Gender Through Sports Clothing, 1870-1925', in P. Scranton, ed., Beauty and Business: Commerce, Gender, and Culture in Modern America, New York & London, 2001, as well as on the Annie Londonderry website (She's also graced the Team Americas blog).  Younger readers may also appreciate Shana Corey, You Forgot Your Skirt, Amelia Bloomer!, New York, 2000.

Expect all this, and more, on the 21st.  Including the Wheelmen's Patrol songbook cover:


And possibly cheerleaders.

Here's the blurb from the Library's What's On page (more also on the Sport and Society pages, which are also charting the summer Olympics):

If you are a sports researcher, a historian or simply interested in sport and its background join British Library curators and academic experts as they unlock the secrets of the Library's sports collections and showcase their explorations into the world of sports research.  

Participants will be given the opportunity to discover a wide range of sports resources: from sound files, ephemera, images and historical materials to publications from other countries including Russia and the USA.  

Speakers include Professor John Horne, Professor Andrew Sparks, Professor Matthew Taylor and Professor Kath Woodward.

It should be enlightening, fun; and the £10 registration charge includes Peyton & Byrne sandwich lunch and refreshments (and, for the cyclists, possibly a cakestop).



25 April 2012

Malaria in Ontario: a World Malaria Day post

Rideau Canal (route)
Route of the Rideau Canal, insert from the map, Map of the District of Montreal, Lower Canada [Shelfmark: Maps 70715.(2.)]

Today is World Malaria Day so it seemed appropriate to do a short post related to one of the world's most prevalent diseases. Regarding the collections, there are a number of items which could drive interesting narratives here but this piece focuses on malaria in Canada. This might seem odd but malaria is not solely a tropical disease, coming in two main strains one of which is tolerant of temperate climates. Indeed the P. vivax strain of malaria was long endemic in parts of England, as this blog post from the Wellcome Library points out.

Scientific evidence illustrates that malaria in all its forms was introduced to the Americas subsequent to Columbian contact. Malaria was established in many parts of North America before the nineteenth century and Canada was no exception, but the construction sites of the Rideau Canal provided a particularly strong foothold. The construction of the canal led to the creation of semi-drained, marshy areas into which dense populations of workers were added, an ideal environment for mosquitoes and malaria transmission.

Rideau Canal (Locks)
Rideau Canal significant works, plate from, Papers on Subjects Connected with the Duties of the Corps of Royal Engineers [Shelfmark: P.P.4050.i]

As a result parts of the canal's construction were dogged by significant malarial sickness, as described by the engineer John MacTaggart in 1829, “In the summer of 1828 the sickness in Upper Canada raged like a plague; all along the banks of the lakes, nothing but languid fevers; and at the Rideau Canal few could work with fever and ague; at Jones Falls and Kingston Mills, no one was able to carry a draught of water to a friend; doctors and all were laid down together.” [from Three Years in Canada, Vol. II, p. 21, Shelfmark: 792.f.8]. While today malaria is almost unheard of in this part of North America, these nineteenth century outbreaks resulted in many deaths in the project's labour camps.

Away from Canada, malaria is still a source of misery for millions around the world. The Library contains a significant amount of published material relating to malaria, largely as a result of the significant twentieth century developments in understanding how the disease was transmitted and could be treated. There is also a large amount of material online, especially because the drive to reduce the incidence of malaria is one of the Millennium Development Goals.


17 April 2012

Sheila Rowbotham, Writer in Residence: From Whitman to The Wire


Sheila Rowbotham’s non-fiction Rebel Crossings: New Women, Free Lovers and Radicals in the US and Britain 1880 to 1910, will trace a small network of British and American radicals during the turn of the century

Prof. Rowbotham

Sheila Rowbotham is one of the two Eccles Centre Writers in Residence at the British Library for 2012.  Professor Rowbotham has written widely on women's history and is working on her next book, Rebel Crossings: New Women, Free Lovers and Radicals in the US and Britain 1880 to 1910, which will trace a small network of British and American radicals during the turn of the century.  Together with the other Writer in Residence, Naomi Wood, she will be posting to the Team Americas blog during her stay.

Four decades ago I discovered a book in the  Reader’s Room of the British  Museum, as it was then, edited by an American anarchist and Whitman enthusiast, Helen Tufts, in memory of her English  friend from Bristol, Helena Born. It was called Helena Born: Whitman’s Ideal Democracy and printed in Boston in 1902. Helen Tufts had only 500 copies done. Her friend was not a celebrity, but she was determined that a memory would live on.

I was researching the British socialist campaigner for homosexual rights, Edward Carpenter, and was intrigued by the account of how Helena Born bees-waxed her  home in  9 Louisa  Street, St Phillips, a poor working class area where she had chosen to live when Carpenter visited early in 1890. She was trying to live simply, absorbed in a great surge of union militancy in the city which brought women cotton  workers out on strike.

Later that year Born migrated to Boston with her friend Miriam Daniell, along with Daniell’s lover Robert Allan Nicol . Their baby, ‘Sunrise’ was born out of wedlock in the US and they became involved in a circle of Individualist anarchists around the journal Liberty.

I could not imagine back in the 1970s that so many years on I would still be pursuing them as an Eccles Centre/British Library  Writer in Residence and writing a book about them called  Rebel Crossings for Verso Books.

I kept coming across small pieces of information about Helena Born, Miriam Daniell and other new women who joined the socialist movement in Bristol in the late 1880s and 90s.

They would re-enter my life through Carpenter again when I began writing a biography of him.  But even when Edward Carpenter: A Life of Liberty and Love was published I had no plan to write about the Bristol rebels who migrated to the States.

I was pulled in gradually, intrigued by the growing files I was accumulating on them and encouraged by the enthusiasm and help of friends in both countries. The drama of their lives fascinated me, so did the ‘crossings’ between countries, political boundaries, social classes and conventions.  Ideas as well as people migrated, travelling by word of mouth, letters, journals, books.

Since I became  a Writer in Residence this January I have been discovering the extent of the British Library’s North American holdings which the Eccles Centre for American Studies aims to promote.  These are vast. Along with newspapers and periodicals there are collections on women, immigration, Anti-Slavery, the West... the list could go on and on.

At first I roamed through catalogues, eventually settling down to explore the broader context of Boston in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Jean Petrovic’s Selective Guide to Materials at the British Library, 'The American City in the Twentieth Century' proved invaluable. See

I have embarked on the geography, social composition, architecture, race relations, politics and culture of the city my rebels migrated into through reading books and Boston newspapers online.

When not travelling in my head to Boston, I have been checking into Baltimore. Belatedly through my son I have become a fan of ‘The Wire’. I resisted when everyone else was watching it. No, I wasn’t interested in cops and robbers stories. I struggled with the plots and difficult sentence construction at first but then was hooked. These police in ‘The Wire’ are just like historians after all slowly piecing together all those bits of information. Oh for a Wire on nineteenth century Bostons anarchists, socialists, new women and Whitmanites!


15 April 2012

The Sinking of the RMS Titanic

Titanic US inquiry

Today marks the centenary of the sinking of the White Star Liner RMS Titanic. The shock waves of the incident radiated through the world in a number of ways. It marked the beginning of the end for the Edwardian period’s “age of innocence”. Since that fateful night in the north Atlantic Ocean where the Titanic collided with an iceberg during its maiden voyage from Southampton to New York, it has embedded itself deeply into our collective imagination. Even after a century, and with the passing of the last survivors and the fading of their stories, the Titanic continues to hold a mass appeal.

From the perspective of Official Publications, the Titanic disaster provides us with two inquiries into the sinking - the U.S. Senate Inquiry: "Titanic" disaster hearings before a Subcommittee of the Committee on Commerce, United States Senate, Sixty-second congress, second session, pursuant to S. Res. 283 directing the Committee on Commerce to investigate the causes leading to the wreck of the White Star liner "Titanic".[shelfmark AS.10/4]

This was convened in New York on the 19th April, just a day after the SS Carpathia had docked with the survivors, in order to get their testimony at the earliest opportunity.  Following this the British Wreak Commissars Inquiry got underway on the 1st May 1912.  The subsequent report Shipping casualties, (loss of the steamship "Titanic"). Report of a formal investigation into the circumstances attending the foundering on 15th April, 1912. [shelfmark B.S.Ref.1 Cd. 6352] was published in July.  Unusually there is, in pencil, an annotated cross reference the the U.S. inquiry added to the entry for the British inquiry in our Reading Room copy of the General Index to the Bills, Reports and Papers of the House of Commons. While both inquiries are available in the library’s collections in various formats there are also digital editions freely accessible online via the Titanic Inquiry website.

The U.S. and U.K. inquiries were criticized at the time for their short comings. Nevertheless, broadly speaking the recommendations for the two reports resulted in the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (shelfmark A.S.10/4) which continues to govern maritime safety today. In addition, the inquiries offer us verbatim transcripts of the examination of the survivors from the Titanic’s passengers and crew, providing an insight into the events of that night from the perspective of those who went through the ordeal.      

The Library’s collections are peppered with material relating to the Titanic – some of the most famous contemporary depictions and portraits from publications of the day can be viewed in Images Online . Use the search term “Titanic”.    

Some of the more unusual items to be found in the catalogue include sermons and religious tracts relating to the disaster. Of particular interest is a copy of Some reflexions, seamanlike and otherwise, on the loss of the Titanic [shelmark Ashley 484] by the writer Joseph Conrad, who was also an experienced seaman. It is one of only twenty-five copies printed. Conrad also commented on the inquiry in Some Aspects of the Admirable Inquiry into the Loss of the Titanic [shelfmark Ashley 485], another limited edition of twenty-five copies .

Loss of the Titanic (Conrad)

We also have a strong collection of musical scores which where composed following the sinking to commemorate the events of that tragic night a century ago.



11 April 2012

There will never be anything more interesting than that American civil war


There has been much in the press over the last week or so concerning revised estimates of the death toll during the American Civil War so we've dusted off and updated an earlier blog on the subject.

A couple of years ago I started to follow Professor David Blight's Yale course on the American Civil War on the wonderful Academic Earth (we can all have a Yale education now!). The right statistics can really help to focus the mind - I had known that around 620,000 Americans had died during the Civil War, but when I heard Professor Blight say that if you applied the same death rate per capita to the Vietnam war, some 4 million American soldiers would have died in Vietnam (as opposed to the actual –and still staggering figure of c.58,000), that really helped to bring home to me the enormity of the conflict. And now we learn that those figures may have been underestimated by as much as 20% and that the real figure is likely to be between 650,000 and 850,000. The revising of the estimate is due to the work of J. David Hacker, an historian at Binghamton University, who has been examining newly digitised census data for the Nineteenth Century. For more information on this important work, see an article in the New York Times and a piece on the BBC News website. You can also read Hacker's full article A Census-based Count of the Civil War Dead in Civil War History (Vol. LVII No.4, 2011).

These days we are all too used to seeing images of war in the papers or on our TV screens but photography was still relatively new at the time of the Civil War.  Roger Fenton’s photographs from the Crimea in 1855 represent one of the earliest attempts to document war, but although he recorded the landscape and the military personnel etc, there are no battle scenes. Not really surprising since the cumbersome equipment and laborious wet-plate photographic process made it much too difficult and dangerous to photograph actual fighting. But Fenton also deliberately chose not to record the bloody aftermath of battle.

Alexander Gardner, a Scot who worked for Matthew Brady, went to photograph the Civil War in 1861 and, unlike Fenton, he did record the resulting carnage. This included the aftermath of one of the bloodiest days in American history at Antietam, Maryland, in September 1862, when McClellan’s Army of the Potomac faced Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. And here’s another statistic from Professor Blight- each year 23,000 candle lamps are placed on the battlefield at a ceremony held to commemorate the number of casualties that fell there over the course of the almost day long battle.

Gardner’s photographs of the dead at Antietam were exhibited at Brady’s New York gallery and understandably caused a sensation. But he was soon to part company with Brady (who often took the credit for the photos of others) and set up his own studio. More of Brady’s photographers joined him and together they continued to document the encampments, soldiers and battle fields. Gardner's Photographic Sketch Book of the War appeared in 2 editions -one in 1865 and one in 1866, both consisting of 2 volumes, each volume containing 50 albumen print photographs, and each photograph accompanied by a descriptive caption. Of course, much has been written on Gardner's 'staging' of some of the scenes and bodies, not to mention the veracity of some of the descriptions (for some examples see our Points of View webpages and also the Library of Congress), but the Sketch Book still represents one of the earliest visual evocations of the horrors of war.

Another statistic that I learnt from Professor Blight, equally staggering but in a different way, was that over 65,000 books have been written on the Civil War, which would tend to give credence to Gertrude Stein’s comment (at the top of the blog) on its enduring interest. And no doubt that figure also now needs to be revised upwards. I certainly don’t think that the Library can claim to have all of the books on the subject, although our holdings are strong. And Matthew is still beavering away on a feature on the Civil War for the Library's online gallery. Quite a bit of material has already been digitised (we're focussing on our rare and unique items) and Matthew has been blogging about his activities and discoveries over the last year. You can find his updates on the project by clicking on Civil War in the categories section which appears on the left-hand side of the blog. We're keeping our fingers tightly crossed that the feature will see the light of day in the next couple of months.


02 April 2012

From the collections: twelve (very similar) views of Jamaica

 Roaring River (Belanger)

Louis Belanger (1800), ‘View of the Bridge Across the Roaring River near Bath, Jamaica’

Last week Team Americas had to do a little bit of digging to find out more about the French landscape artist Louis Belanger and six views of the Caribbean he painted. Cutting to the chase, and after several hours of source searching and collection digging, Belanger’s Caribbean views seemed incongruous to his wider body of work. He was employed as a painter in Europe and during the course of his life worked for various members of the British and Swedish establishment, producing many views of the European landscape. However, no existing sources mention Belanger being commissioned to travel to the Caribbean.

It seemed, therefore, that the process through which the views were created would remain unclear to us; until Beth found a reference to Belanger’s work in a article from 1936 in The Saturday Review of Politics, Literature, Science and Art, entitled, ‘Early Prints of Jamaica’ (26th December 1936, pp. 826-27) which provides a short art-history of the depiction of the Jamaican landscape. Within the main argument the following jumps out:

“L. Belanger made six drawings of Jamaica, evidently copies from those of George Robertson. They were acquatinted by J. Merigot and published in 1800. These views are signed, ‘Louis Belanger, le Romain’. The untropical nature of his colour leads one to believe he never visited Jamaica.”

Roaring River (Robertson)
George Robertson (1778), ‘A View in the Island of Jamaica, of Fort William Estate, With Part of the Roaring River Belonging to William Beckford Esq., Near Savannah La Marr’

The two pieces shown here are from the Library’s ‘Caribbean Views’ gallery and they illustrate the author’s point. Unfortunately, for the most striking examples, ‘View of the Bridge Across Cabaritta River’ and ‘View of the Bridge Across Rio Cobre’, the Robertson views are not available online but a comparison of the physical copies suggests a strong affinity between the two sets of work. Indeed if you look at the Library’s copies of Belanger and Robertson’s works, it does seem that Belanger’s versions are exaggerated and romanticised reproductions of Robertson’s landscapes. All six views by both artists are part of the King’s Topographical Collection; Belanger, Maps K. Top. 123.55; Robertson, Maps K. Top. 123.54.

Interestingly these two sets of work have been sharing a volume in the King’s Topographical Collection for some time, separated by just a few sheets of intervening material; funny to think their history could be as intimate as their place in the collections.


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