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5 posts from October 2013

25 October 2013

The Earliest Surviving Printed Book from the Americas

 Our colleague Geoff West, Head of Hispanic Studies, blogs for us: 

As Matt acknowledges in a previous blogpost, the Bay Psalm Book (1647) was not the first book printed in the New World.  Indeed, printing in Spanish colonial Mexico had begun more than a century earlier.  The Aztec capital surrendered to the forces of Hernán Cortés in 1521 and the Viceroyalty of New Spain, covering southern and central Mexico, was established in 1535.  In 1527 the Franciscan Juan de Zumárraga had already been designated Bishop of Mexico City, entrusted both with the protection of the indigenous population, who were exposed to much ill treatment by the Spanish settlers, and with converting them to Christianity.

 Zumárraga thought printed materials essential to his evangelizing task.  He had taken some books with him from Spain in 1528, but clearly he saw a need to set up a printing press in Mexico.  The equipment required and supplies would have to be brought from Spain.  In the period 1533-34, when back in Seville, Zumárraga raised the idea of a press with the colonial governing body, the Council of the Indies.  Key to the project was the Cromberger family of Seville who had already produced books for export to New Spain.  The eventual result was the contract of 1539 between Juan Cromberger and an Italian compositor, Giovanni Paoli (or Juan Pablos in Spanish) for the setting up and management of a press in Mexico City.  Although the case has been advanced for an earlier press and although a fragment of an earlier work printed by Pablos indeed survives, his Doctrina breve of 1543/44 remains the earliest complete extant printed book from the Americas.

It is a modest quarto volume containing 84 unnumbered leaves.  Its full title reads in English translation ‘Summary and beneficial instruction of matters pertaining to the Catholic faith and to our Christianity in plain language for general comprehension’.

 Mexico title page

Public Domain Mark  Title page, Fray Juan de Zumárraga, Dotrina breue… de las cosas que pertenecen a la fe catholica British Library shelfmark C.37.e.8

The Doctrina breve is an exposition of the essentials of Catholicism: the articles of faith, the sacraments, the capital sins, the works of mercy, the theological virtues, etc.

A number of other copies of the work are extant and are held in various notable rare book collections, including the Library of Congress, the Huntington Library, John Carter Brown, Biblioteca Cervantina (Monterrey), and the Biblioteca Nacional de España.  The British Library’s copy was purchased on 22 April 1869 for £120 at a sale in Leipzig.  It belonged to the library of the bookseller and bibliophile, José María Andrade, which he sold in 1865 in order to form the basis of the projected Imperial Library of the Emperor Maximilian I.  Following the latter’s execution in 1867 the books were packed up at the instigation of the notoriously unscrupulous Father August Fischer, who acted as Maximilian’s secretary, and sent to Europe to be auctioned.  Our copy still retains the bookplate of the Imperial Library, while the title page bears the ownership stamp of the monastery of San José in Tula.


Bookplate of the proposed Imperial Library of Mexico

The British Museum Library, predecessor of the British Library, acquired the core of its collection of Spanish colonial books not only at the sale in Leipzig.  Numerous purchases were also made at the sale of Fischer’s own books (London 1869) and in 1880 at the London sale of the books of the statesman, historian and bibliophile, José Fernando Ramírez.  Additions to the collection are now very infrequent, as Barry Taylor pointed out in this blog earlier this year.


Fernández de Zamora, Rosa María.  Los impresos mexicanos del siglo XVI.  Su presencia en el patrimonio cultural del nuevo siglo. Ciudad de México: UNAM, 2009.

García Icazbalceta, Joaquín. Don Fray Juan de Zumárraga, primer obispo y arzobispo de México. 2nd ed.  Ciudad de México: Porrúa, 1947. 4 vols.

Griffin, Clive. The Crombergers of Seville. The History of a Printing and Merchant Dynasty. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1988.

Taylor, Barry, and Geoffrey West. ‘Libros religiosos coloniales de la British Library: libros impresos en México, Perú, Chile, Cuba, Ecuador y Guatemala, 1543/4-1800’, Redial, 8-9 (2001), 69-92.


18 October 2013

Team Americas on the move


If you're wondering why we haven't been blogging much of late - here's your answer!


It's going to take a few days to settle in to our new home, but as Arnie says, We'll be back!

Office 2


09 October 2013

Civil War Transformations

Cover of Reconfiguring the Union: Civil War Transformations.  Image: The first reading of the Emancipation Proclamation before the cabinet, painted by FB Carpenter, engraved by AH Ritchie, c. 1866.  Cover designed by Will Speed.

Back in April 2011, the Eccles Centre for American Studies organised a day conference at the British Library on the Civil War.  Speakers included Amanda Foreman and Richard Carwardine, and the topics ranged from the Irish and the Civil War to Hollywood's 'memory' of the war.  Professor Carwardine spoke on Lincoln and Emancipation, and Dr Foreman considered the Emancipation Proclamation as a propaganda tool.  There was also, I add immodestly, a paper on the nascent US oil industry.

Now, these initial papers have been reworked, rewritten and published in this volume, edited by Iwan Morgan and Philip Davies in Palgrave Macmillan's Studies of the Americas series.  It has the title Reconfiguring the Union, and is available in all good book stores (and libraries).

This is the table of contents:

1. The Civil War, Democracy and the Union; Adam Smith
2. Lincoln and Emancipation: The Lessons of the Letter to Horace Greeley; Richard Carwardine
3. Freedpeople, Politics and the State in Civil War America; Erik Mathisen
4. The Military Significance of the 1864 Presidential Election; Brian Holden Reid
5. In Union There is Strength:' City-Building and Nation-Building in Civil-War Era Philadelphia, 1844-1865; Andrew Heath
6. 'There Will be Blood:' The Civil War and the Birth of the Oil Industry; Matthew Shaw
7. Faugh a Ballagh! (Clear the Way): The Irish and the American Civil War; David Gleason
8. Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation and British Views of the Civil War; Amanda Foreman
9. Ordeal of the Union: Alan Nevins, the Civil War Centennial, and the Civil Rights Struggles of the 1960s; Robert Cook
10. Glory, Glory: Hollywood's Consensus Memory of the Civil War; Jenny Barrett

And this is the blurb:

"From the perspective of the North, the Civil War began as a war to restore the Union and ended as a war to make a more perfect Union. The Civil War not only changed the moral meaning of the Union, it changed what the Union stood for in political, economic, and transnational terms. This volume examines the transformations the Civil War brought to the American Union as a politico-constitutional, social, and economic system. It explores how the war changed the meaning of the Union with regard to the supremacy of the federal government over the states, the right of secession, the rights of citizenship, and the political balance between the union's various sections. It further considers the effect of the war on international and transnational perceptions of the United States. Finally, it considers how historical memory has shaped the legacy of the Civil War in the last 150 years."



07 October 2013

"All these books are published in Heaven"

San Francisco: City Lights, 1956

Literary history was made on 7 October 1955, when Allen Ginsberg performed the first reading of his poem Howl (addressed to his friend Carl Solomon, “intuitive Bronx Dadaist and prose-poet”), at the Six Gallery in San Francisco. Kenneth Rexroth presided over the reading (other poets to recite their works that night were Philip LamantiaGary SnyderMichael McClure and Philip Whalen) and Rexroth's wife Marthe published a limited mimeographed edition of Howl and other poems to give to friends. This edition led to the larger selection of poems that was published in October 1956 to immediate and controversial success by Lawrence Ferlinghetti (also present at the reading) as number 4 in his City Lights Pocket Poets series. In March 1957, Customs and police seized copies of Howl when they arrived in the U.S. from their British printer, on the grounds of obscenity. Further sales were banned until a long court case, with Ferlinghetti as defendant, finally decided that material with "the slightest redeeming social importance" is protected by the First and Fourteenth amendments.  This legal precedent was to allow later publication in the U.S. of such works as Lady Chatterley's Lover and Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer.  Ginsberg’s first collection of poems remains one of the best-selling volumes of American poetry.

Bibliographies of our printed and sound Beat holdings are available on our resources blog page (including our recordings of Ginsberg reading Howl), and all our Beat-related blogposts can be found here.



04 October 2013

John Burnside: In Good Company


Robert Redford at The Company You Keep premiere. Photograph by Sam Javanrouh, 9 September 2012 via Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0

I've seen it three times now and Robert Redford’s The Company You Keep is mostly a fine mix of thriller and (mainstream) political reflection. Based on the 2004 novel of the same name by Neil Gordon, the film tells the story of Jim Grant, a widower with a young daughter, whose secret past with the Weather Underground – and his alleged role in a botched bank robbery during which a guard was murdered – unexpectedly comes to light after three decades of living a socially useful aboveground life, forcing him to go on the run to prove his innocence. It's an enjoyable thriller, with fine leads in Redford, (who also produced and directed) and Shia Labeouf, and standout cameos from Susan Sarandon, Chris Cooper, Nick Nolte, Brendan Gleeson and relative newcomer Brit Marling. Enjoyable – and (hopefully) thought provoking, which was surely Redford's intention when he bought the rights to Gordon's book and put so much of himself into making this project happen. For, if any period in American history needs a rewrite and a total re-evaluation it's "The 60s" – and this film may well drive curious souls to read some of the non-fiction histories of American dissent during that time, (my own recommendation would have to be Dan Berger's excellent Outlaws of America: The Weather Underground and the Politics of Solidarity, which is both honest and very moving).

However, as much as I enjoyed the movie, I was prompted to wonder just how much has to be conceded in order to talk about the realities of the 60s and 70s to a wider public than would normally be interested in radical politics. Where Gordon is clear that “only property was destroyed” in Weather Underground actions (a point made, early in the book, by a Republican whose husband was killed in Vietnam), it also refers to “the Bank of Michigan robbery”, supposedly committed by a Weather splinter group, in which a guard was murdered - and both film and book show Jim Grant going on the run to prove his innocence in that crime. The trouble is, there was no such action at the Bank of Michigan in 1974. The robbery - and, of course, the murder of the guard – is a fiction. Compounding the problem is the fact that, in both novel and film, three Weather Underground members are shown as being present at this fictional robbery, effectively undermining the point made earlier – which was that the Weather Underground targeted property (mostly symbolic buildings, like the Pentagon), not people. These were pacifists whose principal ethos was the opposition of violence against human subjects - any human subjects. Weather bombings were preceded by ample warnings that allowed buildings to be evacuated, and in their entire history, the only people killed were the three Weather members who died in the infamous Town House Bombing, when a bomb they were building accidentally exploded.

Is this important? Isn’t a writer permitted to invent things, even in the course of a historical novel? Should a film not be ready to make some factual concessions, in order to set up a mature political debate and, perhaps, educate people in the subtler details of radical politics? Well, yes: up to a point. Yet there is a point and, for me, the invention of the Bank of Michigan robbery is a concession too far. I think I know why both Gordon and Redford made that concession: to get their other points across, they probably felt the need to meet mainstream opinion halfway, (and mainstream opinion, sadly, still clings to a more comfortable and hazy view of the 60s and 70s than can be justified). And if that is the case, then at least we can be grateful that those other points got made. Leaving the cinema, however, anyone with even a rudimentary awareness of that era (or of the political corruption our own time, for that matter) and of the background of intolerable violence in which these events unfolded, would not feel that the central character has to prove his innocence of a crime that never happened, when the wider society has done so little to set right the injustices that it perpetrated then, and continues to perpetrate today.

John Burnside is an Eccles Centre Writer in Residence for 2013

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