American Collections blog

« December 2018 | Main | February 2019»

4 posts from January 2019

21 January 2019

To Edgar, from Aubrey: bringing Poe’s tales to life

Gothic author Edgar Allan Poe was born on 19 January 1809 in Boston, Massachusetts. To mark this moment 210 years ago, I took to the collections to explore some of the most iconic illustrations of his stories, and of the man himself.

For some time I’ve been rather taken by Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations of Poe’s mysterious and startling tales; his style seemingly a perfect fit for some of Poe’s most grotesque and alarming scenes. Privately printed in 1926 in Indianapolis, Illustrations to Edgar Allen Poe (British Library shelfmark 7852.t.19.) features a striking golden cover and contains an array of Beardsley’s interpretations of Poe’s work including images for ‘The Black Cat’, 'The Mask of the Red Death', and ‘The Murder in the Rue Morgue’.

Front cover to ‘Illustrations to Edgar Allen Poe’ by Aubrey Beardsley including gold illustration of The Black Cat
Front cover to ‘Illustrations to Edgar Allen Poe’ by Aubrey Beardsley

Beardsley, born in Brighton in 1872, was said by poet, critic and friend Arthur Symons, to have had ‘a more personal originality of manner’ and ‘so wise an influence on contemporary art’ (Aubrey Beardsley by Arthur Symons, London: At the Sign of the Unicorn, 1898, page 13) than any other artist of his day (‘certainly whose work has been in black and white’ Symons states).

Maybe it’s the darkness of Poe’s twisted tales that suit Beardsley’s bold black ink drawings. One of my favourites from the book pictured above is of the unnamed narrator in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’, possibly of the scene at the beginning of the tale as he approaches the doomed house by the lake. The darkness from above encroaching into the frame (a sign of the impending tragedy perhaps) while his composed demeanour and regal dress are a stark contrast to the dishevelled character we see fleeing the scene by the end of the story.

Black and white illustration from The Fall of the House of Usher - the narrator heading towards the House
The Fall of the House of Usher from ‘Illustrations to Edgar Allen Poe’ by Aubrey Beardsley

As a certified cat lover (demonstrated in my previous cat blog), I tend to gravitate towards anything moggy. Despite the gruesome events of ‘The Black Cat’, Poe’s Pluto is no exception. In Beardsley’s interpretation, the feline protagonist sits atop a female – the murdered wife of the troubled narrator maybe – brazenly displaying his one-eyed face which was the result of the furious hand of his master. And, in what some would see as true cat fashion, wearing a distinctly unimpressed expression.

The evil eyebrows probably provide invaluable evidence for the ‘why cats can’t be trusted’ argument of dog people all over the globe. (Can cats be trusted? Make up your own mind with a visit to our Cats on the Page exhibition.)

Black and white illustration from The Black Cat - the cat sits atop the head of a human (possibly its owner, the narrator)
The Black Cat from ‘Illustrations to Edgar Allen Poe’ by Aubrey Beardsley

While carefully leafing through the pages of this precious item (which is one of only 107 printed for Members of the Aubrey Beardsley Club), it’s impossible not to pause on Beardsley’s portrait of Poe. Through dark and solemn eyes, to me Beardsley certainly manages to convey something of the troubles and torments Poe experienced in his lifetime.

Black and white head and shoulders portrait of Edgar Allen Poe
Portrait from ‘Illustrations to Edgar Allen Poe’ by Aubrey Beardsley

Perhaps the most arresting of the illustrations in this book is a self-portrait of Beardsley (spelled Bearsley in the caption) with Poe’s Raven in the backdrop.

Black and white self portrait of Beardsley - he sits in a chair in a dressing gown with glasses of wine on the table and surrounded by books on the floor
Self-portrait of Aubrey Bearsley dying from ‘Illustrations to Edgar Allen Poe’ by Aubrey Beardsley

Both author and illustrator had untimely deaths (Poe died aged 40), with Beardsley’s talents lasting only until he was 25 when he died of tuberculosis. Symons recalls meeting with Beardsley during his sickness and seeing him ‘lying out on a coach, horribly white’ (Aubrey Beardsley by Arthur Symons, page 7). A description hauntingly similar to the figure of Roderick Usher in the opening of Poe’s tale, who we’re told is ‘lying at full length’ and has ‘a cadaverousness of complexion’ (The Fall of the House of Usher and other writings edited by David Galloway, Penguin, 2003 ELD.DS.195031, pages 259.1-260.5). Even the setting here has a likeness to the House of Usher where ‘Dark draperies hung upon the walls’ and ‘Many books…lay scattered about’. (The Fall of the House of Usher and other writings, page 259.1).

Although Symons goes on; despite his illness Beardsley was still ‘full of ideas, full of enthusiasm’ (Aubrey Beardsley by Arthur Symons, page 7) something perhaps illustrated in this self-portrait – the wine on the table a sign of life’s little indulgences and the scattering of books on the floor and Raven appearing at the back of Beardsley’s mind implying that his lust for art, reading and writing was far from dying even as his physical health deteriorated.

Our friends over in the European Collections have more on some of the flights of Poe’s Raven and Beardsley, ‘the British master of Art Nouveau’.

Suggested reading

Illustrations to Edgar Allen Poe by Aubrey Beardsley, Aubrey Beardsley Club, 1926 (7852.t.19.)

Aubrey Beardsley: A Biography by Matthew Sturgis, Pallas Athene, 2011 (YK.2018.a.1551)

Aubrey Beardsley by Stephen Calloway, V & A Publications, 1998 (YC.1999.b.3863)

Aubrey Beardsley by Arthur Symons, Baker, 1966 (X.429/1677.)

Aubrey Beardsley by Arthur Symons, London: At the Sign of the Unicorn, 1898

Tales of Mystery and Imagination by Edgar Allan Poe, Readers Library Publishing Co, 1940 (

The Fall of the House of Usher and other writings: poems, tales, essays, and reviews by Edgar Allan Poe edited with an introduction and notes by David Galloway, Penguin, 2003 (BL Online Resource DRT ELD.DS.195031)


Written by RSW, Americas Curatorial Placement







17 January 2019

New Collaborations: Announcing the Eccles Centre & Hay Festival Writer’s Award

Reading Room image

Researchers in Humanities 1 Reading Room.

As many Americas blog readers know, the Eccles Centre works to support access to the British Library’s North American collections, facilitating the development of new ideas by anyone with a research need of these collections. Since 2012 the Eccles Centre has awarded two authors a year with a unique and highly prestigious prize. The Writer’s Award bestows winners with £20,000 for a book in progress, to support a year’s residency at the British Library and privileged access to the Library’s world-class Americas collection and its curatorial expertise. Open to both fiction and non-fiction authors the prize is unique in the UK publishing industry as it champions a work in development, rather than awarding upon publication. In so doing, it has helped numerous authors produce richer works for their readers.

In 2018 we were delighted to expand the original remit of the award – previously focussed on books with a North American setting – to include all of the Americas. In advance of opening the call for the 2020 Writer’s Award, we are delighted to announce a further and significant change to the award; this year we are going global.

From 2020 onwards, we will be delivering the Writer’s Award in partnership with Hay Festival, opening it up to a new cohort of authors around the world.   Many of the conditions of the newly named Eccles Centre & Hay Festival Writer’s Award remain the same as before, as we continue to support access to the British Library’s Americas collections, but there are also notable changes. In particular, for the first time applicants from the Americas will be welcome to apply and we will also be accepting applications in Spanish and languages indigenous to the Americas. This last change feels particularly relevant this year; given 2019 is UNESCO’s International Year of Indigenous Languages.

Hay Festival are perfect partners for this award, their aim to, “inspire, examine and entertain, inviting participants to imagine the world as it is and as it might be” compliments the Centre’s mission to support research, innovation and creative insight through the British Library’s Americas collections. The partnership also significantly increases the reach and potential of the Writer’s Award, as well as offering new opportunities for events linked to the award. Starting this month, at Hay Festival Cartagena, the Eccles Centre and Hay Festival will be producing an exciting programme of events that highlight Writer’s Award holders and puts their winning works in front of more people than ever.

This exciting new partnership builds on a long-standing relationship between Hay Festival and the British Library, which have collaborated for a number of years, most notably through Living Knowledge Network livestreams and the Library’s recent acquisition of the unique Hay Festival archive.

The latest collaboration will see the Eccles Centre & Hay Festival Writer’s Award champion new authors, writing and thinking from both sides of the Atlantic. Future winners will join an exciting group of Award alumni, including this year’s holders, Rachel Hewitt and Sara Taylor, and contribute to an exciting new phase of Hay Festival programming in Wales and the Americas. Find out more and look out for the formal call for applications in spring 2019.

Phil Hatfield, Head of the Eccles Centre for American Studies.

09 January 2019

Cats from the stacks: The Cat in the Hat

Not that one ever really needs a reason to look at pictures of cats, but when the Library put on the Cats on the Page exhibition in 2019, it seemed like as good a time as ever to explore some favourite literary felines. Please prowl forward: Dr. Seuss’s ‘Cat in the Hat’…

Theodor Seuss Geisel’s (that’s Massachusetts-born Dr. Seuss to you and me) bolshie yet lovable Cat, was the result of a challenge put to the author to write a children’s book using a vocabulary of no more than 225 words. Giving Seuss a list of words, William Spaulding, director of the education division at publisher Houghton Mifflin, threw the gauntlet (or at least the children’s-book-world-equivalent):

‘Write me a story that first-graders can’t put down!’ (Judith and Neil Morgan, Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel, New York: Random House 1995, p 154, British Library shelfmark YA.1996.b.6813)    

And accept that challenge Seuss did.

Photograph of Ted Geisel aka Dr. Seuss
Ted Geisel (Dr. Seuss) portrait, seated at desk covered with his books / World Telegram & Sun photo by Al Ravenna, 1957. From the

A quick recap for those who don’t know: two children are left home alone one rainy day. Peering through the window and pondering what they’re to do while Mother is out, Cat’s arrival is signalled with a ‘BUMP!’. Ignoring the warnings of their pet fish (who, let’s face it, was probably never going to be a fan of a cat in the house even if he were as inconspicuous as they come), the children let Cat stay and chaos ensues. Elaborate balancing acts fail and a box of kite-flying Things cause disarray while the omniscient fish looks on despairingly.

The title itself came at a point of desperation for Seuss:

‘I was desperate, so I decided to read [the list] once more. The first two words that rhymed would be the title of my book and I’d go from there. I found ‘cat’ and then I found ‘hat’.’ (Theodor Seuss Geisel, author interview as quoted by Morgan, Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel, p 154)   

It was through the sketching of Cat that things began to fall into place for the storyteller. Cat’s upright posture, slightly protruding tum, trademark headwear and ‘red bow tie tied in three impossible loops’ (Morgan and Morgan, Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel, p 155) are instantly recognisable today. And hands up who else had never noticed that little quirk with the bowtie?

Photo of the front cover of The Best of Dr Seuss
‘The best of Dr. Seuss’ by Dr. Seuss, London: HarperCollins, 2003. YK.2003.a.15312

With Cat, it’s been said that Dr. Seuss wanted to create a character that, although was crafty and (slightly) shambolic, was still himself surprised whenever he messed up (Morgan, Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel, p 155). It’s this that gives Cat his endearing charm and keeps readers revisiting his capers.

And like all regretful moggies who come back with their tail between their legs, he does make good in the end – pootling in to speedily execute a ‘nothing-to-see-here’ clear up as Mother strolls along the garden path back to the house. Between the appealing rhythm and rhyme young readers are left with that very sagacious takeaway; you may mess up, but you can put things right again. Now there’s some wisdom to bring with you into adulthood. Thanks, Cat.

Inside The Cat in the Hat book with illustration of Cat balancing on a ball with a book, umbrella and fish bowl
‘“Have no fear!” said the cat’ from YK.2003.a.15312

Speaking of that compelling rhythm that flows through the pages of Cat in the Hat, the skill in Seuss’s wordplay is made all-the-more impressive when you observe the lack of adjectives in the poem, something that Spaulding didn’t provide in great abundance when he gave Seuss the list of words to work from. ‘…[T]he limited vocabulary posed excruciating complexities in rhyming’ Morgan explains (Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel, p155) but Seuss’s ability prevailed, leaving us with that unique bounce of page-turning words that continues to entertain over half a century since they were first penned.

Within the first three years of its publication the tale had sold close to one million copies, been translated into other languages, and been produced in Braille (Morgan, Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel, p 156). Over 60 years later it remains a staple on the bookshelves of young children (and big kids) around the world.

Not one to be put off by a slightly tricky experiment, Seuss’s proficiency was pushed even further when it was later put to him to create another children’s book using a vocabulary of just 50- words. But we’ll save Green Eggs and Ham for another time.

See a bold full-colour 1957 edition Cat in the Hat, complete with Seuss’s iconic illustrations at Cats on the Page. Our free Entrance Hall exhibition celebrating cats and their capers from rhymes and stories through history is was open November 2018 to January 2019. Items from the exhibition are due to be on tour around the UK during 2020. Keep an eye on the British Library social media channels for updates.      

(Blog by RSW, currently on an Americas team curatorial placement and feeling rather pleased at managing to sidestep the plethora of puns that could have weaved their way into a cat-related post.)


Suggested reading

Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel, Judith and Neil Morgan, New York: Random House 1995, British Library shelfmark YA.1996.b.6813

Of Sneetches and Whos and the good Dr. Seuss: essays on the writings and life of Theodor Geisel, edited by Thomas Fensch, Jefferson, N.C.; London: McFarland & Co c. 1997, British Library shelfmark YC.1998.b.617

The political philosophy behind Dr. Seuss's cartoons and poetry: decoding the adult meaning of a children's text, Earnest N. Bracey, Lewiston, New York: The Edwin Mellen Press 2015, British Library shelfmark YC.2017.a.5301


07 January 2019

A Belated Happy Junkanoo: the Caribbean Christmas

The weather is not the only thing that separates English and Caribbean Christmas traditions. Junkanoo is the much-debated name of the syncretic festival that happens in the days following Christmas. The earliest accounts of Junkanoo date back to the eighteenth century. Celebrated by the enslaved, these festivities were performed around the planter-sanctioned Christmas holiday, which overlapped with the main annual break in the plantation cycle. A product of African and English cultural traditions, otherwise known as Creolisation, Junkanoo was and continues to be performed in the Anglophone Caribbean.

Whilst most accounts from the days of slavery describe Jamaican performances, it was practised in many places – and, today, remains a vital part of contemporary Bahamian culture. A masked performance with a central figure – John Canoe or Pitchy Patchy – Junkanoo has been characterised as ‘ritual of conflict’ by Michael Craton. Frequently censored or banned in the post-Emancipation period, the planter-class feared the rebellious elements of this festivity, especially during moments of weakened power. Shortly after the abolition of slavery, attempts made to ban Junkanoo in Kingston during the 1840s led to the outbreak of riots.

This blog post explores some of the traces, memories and sounds that Junkanoo has left in the American Collections and beyond. One of most referred to accounts of these festivities comes the diary of Lady Nugent, who recorded her time spent in the Caribbean at the turn of the eighteenth century. 

Junkanoo 1
Lady Maria Nugent, A Journal of a Voyage to, and residence in, the Island of Jamaica, from 1801 to 1805, and of subsequent events in England from 1805 to 1811 (London, 1839)

In an article for Public Opinion – the literary and politically progressive mouthpiece of the People’s National Party – Archie Lindo went in search nineteenth-century Jamaican Christmas traditions, compiling a collection of book excerpts. Lady Nugent’s diary was his first point of call:

“the whole town and house bore the appearance of a masquerade. After church, amuse myself very much with the strange processions, and figures called Johnny Canoes. All dance, leap and play a thousand anticks. Then there were groups of dancing men and women. They had a sort of leader or superior at their head … The instrument to accompany them was a rude sort of drum, made of bark leaves. …What a melange!”[1]

Junkanoo 2
Public Opinion, 26 March 1938, p.6

Similarly, Philip M. Sherlock, an expert and enthusiast of Jamaican folk culture, wrote an article called ‘John Canoe Dance’ for Public Opinion. Questioning its origins, Sherlock quoted Monk Lewis’s description of John Canoe dancers at Savannah-la-Mar, a coastal town in Jamaica, before explaining the Creolized quality of this performance:

‘Whatever the origin, in its development the dance has undoubtedly been modified and adapted … in these dances we find, as in other forms of our folk-lore, the mingling of African and European influences, and the creation of something distinctive and vital: there is no imitation but rather adaptation, adoption, and creation. Certainly this is what has happened with the John Canoe dance. Of course it varies with each district and with each performer.’[1]

In slight challenge to this traditional creole understanding of Junkanoo, Michael Craton – who has written extensively on cultural resistance and performance in the Caribbean – emphasises the African elements more strongly. Drawing connections between Junkanoo and the ‘secret masked societies of the Sierra Leone Wunde and the Ibo Mmo, and the Yoruba Eguugun and Ga Homowo festivals,’ Craton argues that the central masked figure embodies and facilitates spiritual continuity, roots and pride.[2]

Junkanoo 3
Public Opinion, 14 December 1940, pp.6-7

Why was Public Opinion so concerned with paying tribute to nineteenth-century Jamaican Christmas traditions? The 1930s, which were home to labour rebellions, the centenary of Emancipation and the outbreak of WW2, saw a surge in anti-colonialism and nationalism. Cultural nationalism – the recovery and promotion of folk traditions – was a critical mode of this movement. Folk traditions, like Junkanoo, were a useful tool in this quest for national history, identity and drive. As Elizabeth Cooper argues, masquerade and stilt-dancing, both key elements of Junkanoo, became ‘centrepieces of anti-colonial and nationalist cultural discourse in the twentieth century.’[1] In ‘Tales of Old Jamaica,’ Lindo wrote,

‘Today, after more than one hundred years, it seems a pity that most of these old customs and celebrations have almost been lost to us. In certain parts of Jamaica we still have our John Canoes and ‘Masquerades’ but they make a poor showing compared to those of olden days … Perhaps something can be done before it is too late, to recapture these brilliant and merry festivities so that … we do not lose for all time these quaint and invaluable customs.’[2]

Portrayed as an ‘invaluable’ but dying black folk tradition, the article was promoting a reinvigoration of a Jamaican folk Christmas.

Junkanoo 4
Arlene Nash Ferguson, I Come To Get Me! An Inside Look at the Junkanoo Festival (Nassau: Doongalik Studios, 2000)

Moving into the contemporary period and away from Jamaica, Bahamian Junkanoo has retained its vigour and authenticity. With two parades, one on Boxing Day and another of New Year’s Day, the Bahamian festivities attract local and tourist attention. Very much articulated as a performance of African cultural retention and enslaved resistance, Junkanoo is a generator of popular culture, tourist money and, crucially, national pride.

[1] Public Opinion, 14 December 1940, pp.6-7.

[2] Public Opinion, 26 March 1938, p.6.

[3] Michael Craton, ‘Decoding Pitchy-Patchy: The Roots, Branches and Essence of Junkanoo’, Slavery & Abolition, 16 (1995), 14-44 (p.34).

[5] Elizabeth Cooper, ‘Playing against Empire’, Slavery & Abolition, 39 (2018), 540-557 (p.549).

[6] Public Opinion, 14 December 1940, pp.6-7.

- Naomi Oppenheim


Naomi Oppenheim is an AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Student at the British Library and UCL. She is researching Caribbean print cultures and the politics of history in post-war Britain.

With apologies to Naomi for the late posting of this post, which was due to a technical problem we were unable to resolve before the Christmas holidays.

American Collections blog recent posts



Other British Library blogs