American Collections blog

5 posts from August 2021

24 August 2021

Follow up: Important information for email subscribers

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12 August 2021

Americas blog email subscription service ending - Please follow us on Twitter for updates

Unfortunately, the third-party platform that the British Library uses for email notifications for our blogs is making changes to its infrastructure. This means that from mid-August 2021 it will no longer send notifications by email to subscribers. To find out when new posts are published we recommend following us on Twitter (@BL_Americas) and (@BL_Eccles) or checking the blogs page on the BL website, where you can also find out the latest from our other departmental blogs. 

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06 August 2021

Two Conflicting Pioneers and their Precursors in the Amazon

This blog by Pola Oloixarac is part of a special Summer Scholars blog series highlighting recent research across the British Library's Americas collections by scholars and creatives associated with the Eccles Centre, including those supported by the Centre's Awards.

Travel has changed a lot since the early naturalists voyaged through the Amazonia, and it continues to change today thanks to Covid restrictions. While I’ve been unable to foray in person into the archives of the British Library as I was hoping - summer, London, arcane tomes - I’ve had the luck of encountering the mighty digital explorer, Dr Aleksandra Kaye. Dr Kaye knows her way around the British Library’s vast digital  archives and like any sensible 19th century naturalist seeking help from a guide, I secured her expertise in unearthing their intricate holdings.
 
In the first written accounts of the Amazon, the anthropological gaze is under-developed. Though entranced by the power of landscape, the earliest naturalists typically didn’t consider the human culture they encountered. The richness of the human Amazonian world typically escape their notice. Indeed, where Amazonian people are referenced, early accounts by European naturalists are explicitly racist. One explorer, however, who did take some account of indigenous people was the French painter Hercules Florence, although how he saw them was problematic. He travelled to the Amazon from 1825 to 1829 and ended up spending his life in Brazil.

What excited Florence was undiscovered places and he was uninterested in indigenous village life. He remarked in his diary that the jungle is repetitive and that, "to see a Brazilian village, is to see them all"1. He became obsessed with capturing the unchartered territory and capturing it through sound and image with pioneering technology. Florence experimented making photographs in Brazil in 1833 and wanted to record the sounds of what surrounded him. This led him to devise a method to record wild bird song in the Amazon. While looking for a way to record sound, he stumbled into photography. Indeed, while trying to publicise his experiments in sound recording he managed to devise the first printing machine in Sao Paulo.

In the first page of his diary he mentions the expedition slaves, noting that all humans become the same bundle of flesh under the severity of the Amazonian environment. When the expedition’s commander, Gregory Langsdorff (Fig. 1, below) succumbs to yellow fever, Florence notes that illness made no distinction about social class in the context of the Amazon.

A  slightly side-on black and white image of G.H. Langsdorff.
Fig. 1: G. H. von Langsdorff, Voyages and Travels in Various Parts of the World… London: printed for Henry Colburn, 1813. British Library shelfmark: Mic.F.232 [no. 38483]. Image courtesy University of Alberta, due to Covid restrictions.

Langsdorff claimed to be the first to attempt the fluvial crossing of Brazil, from Pantanal to Belum. Until now it was believed that the first trip was in 1825 but Dr Kaye’s research has revealed a precursor: there was a previous trip funded by the Imperial Russian court and led by Adam Johan Krussertern in which Langsdorff took part. Before his trip with Florence in 1825, Langsdorff had added himself hastily and at his own expense to the Krussertern expedition as a second naturalist (the first was Wilhm Gottlieb Tilesius). Langsdorff, therefore, went into the Amazon at least two times, around 1803-1807.  These earlier expeditions could explain why the subsequent Langsdorff trip a few decades later was hardly noticed by the very Russians who funded it, considering it, perhaps, redundant. Indeed, the reports of the Langsdorff investigation languished in St Petersburg for over a century largely undiscovered.

Langsdorff’s story is a reminder of how much these exploratory naturalist expeditions had in common with modern filmmaking. Langsdorff had, in effect, been to the Amazon first as a location scout (1803-1807), but his vision of the Amazon and the legacy of his expedition could not exist without artists to document the trip. For his 1825-1829 expedition - the one that would make him famous - Langsdorff only wanted the very best artists. He hired Johan Moritz Rugendas, but their relationship faltered when the Prussian commander sought to take ownership of the artist’s original works. Rugendas, however, was aware of his own worth as an artist and would not bow to Langsdorff. The Brazilian diaries of both Rugendas and Langsdorff paint the latter in a negative light: Langsdorff was controlling and wanted Rugendas to assign him copyright, but the artist resisted and ultimately deserted the expedition. 

This is how Hercules Florence joined the trip as a second painter to first painter André Taunay. Traveling with Langsdorff, Hercules Florence experimented with photography (he called it “painting with light”). He claimed to be its first inventor, documenting his attempts using silver nitrate and natural acids like urea. Despite these claims, however, Dr Kaye found that Alexander Agassiz, also claimed to be the first to use photography through carbon printing for general illustrations of natural history. In 1871 Agassiz made this claim in the pages of the Bulletin of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard College (British Library shelfmark Ac.1736/26), where his father, Louis Agassiz, was an acclaimed professor. Agassiz argues that photography is likely to overtake lithography as a mode of illustrating natural history and includes two photographs with his work. His view that the new printing technology would withstand the test of time is born out by the archive; and 150 years later, we can look at these photographs at the British Library.

Sea urchin 1
Fig. 2: Bulletin of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard College. 1871. British Library shelfmark: Ac.1726/36.

Did Agassiz know of Florence’s efforts to make pictures by “painting with light”? Or was Florence unknown to his contemporaries, even those working as naturalists in Brazil? These questions beg answers. For now, we can only reflect on the fact that the London edition of the early Langsdorff travels (before his trip with Florence) is much more richly illustrated and complete than the American version. In the UK edition we find a lithograph of a Brazilian house (Fig. 3, below) and a musical score called “Brazilian Air” (Fig. 4, below). Both are accessible digitally, which makes comparing them possible. The US edition from 1817 has been digitized by the British Library and is in the public domain - the UK edition from 1813 is only available digitally inside the library, but the University of Alberta digitized their copy and made it publicly available. The London edition was published in two separate volumes, while the US edition has less images, is more cramped and in smaller format and is published as a single book. As a consequence the US edition would have been cheaper to produce and therefore more accessible to bigger audiences.

Two women crouching and engaged in domestic tasks.
Fig. 3: G. H. von Langsdorff, Voyages and Travels in Various Parts of the World… London: printed for Henry Colburn, 1813. British Library shelfmark: Mic.F.232 [no. 38483]. Image courtesy University of Alberta due to Covid restrictions.
A page of musical notation and lyrics.
Fig. 4: G. H. von Langsdorff, Voyages and Travels in Various Parts of the World… London: printed for Henry Colburn, 1813. British Library shelfmark: Mic.F.232 [no. 38483]. Image courtesy University of Alberta, due to Covid restrictions.

Another interesting item with connections to Brazil uncovered by Dr Kaye is a 1916 book of short stories by Edith Wharton, the American author, called Xingú, and Other Stories (London; New York printed: Macmillan, 1916; British Library shelfmark NN.4057). The “Xingú” text portrays a dialogue between elite ladies who cannot fathom what is meant by Xingú. They think Xingú is something mysterious or rude, which creates quite a lot of drama among them. Eventually they discover it’s a Brazilian River. The text keeps you wondering, what would The Age of Innocence (Mrs. Wharton’s vivid masterpiece) be like, if set in the Império do Brasil? A crossover of the directors Martin Scorsese and Joaquim Machado de Assis, with vast corridors of palms, would surely depict a young emperor obsessed with becoming a masterful photographer, like Dom Pedro II of Brazil once was. He would have been especially pleased about finding the British Library's digital versions of his photographs available today.

Pola Oloixarac is the author of the novels Savage Theories, Dark Constellations and Mona. She’s the recipient of the 2021 Eccles Centre and Hay Festival Writer's Award.

1. Hercule Florence Diary: http://etnolinguistica.wdfiles.com/local--files/biblio:kossoy-1977-florence/kossoy_1977_hercules_florence.pdf

Inheritance Books: Rachael Culley, Interim Curator for North American Published Collections

Inspired by the 'Inheritance Tracks' feature on Radio 4's Saturday Live programme, the European and Americas and Oceania teams have been looking at items in the British Library’s holdings that they loved inheriting during their time curating and cataloguing collections, alongside the items they have been responsible for acquiring for future generations’ inspiration, research and enjoyment. 

'Inherited' item

One of my areas of interest is Gothic literature and, more specifically, the American writer Edgar Allan Poe. I think I must have been about 16 when I first encountered Poe; my English teacher introduced our class to the short story, ‘The Tell Tale Heart’. Ever since first reading that work, I have been fascinated not just by Poe’s stories, which were like nothing I’d come across before, but I was also increasingly intrigued about Poe’s life and literary persona.

When I joined the Americas team, I was informed that the Library held a first edition of Tamerlane and Other Poems (Boston: Calvin. F. S. Thomas, 1827, C.34.b.60.), the first published work by Poe. It’s believed that only around 12 copies of the collection still exist today. I had never heard of the book before but quickly discovered that rather than including Poe’s name anywhere on the publication, it was authored under simply, ‘A Bostonian’. Perhaps this is why I’d missed it over the years. The short collection of poems was first published in 1827. Poe would have been only 18 at this time, and it was in this year that he left his foster family and moved to Boston in search of work. Including themes of love, death, and pride, the collection received almost no recognition during Poe’s lifetime.

1_Tamerlane title page
Title page of Tamerlane and Other Poems (Boston: Calvin. F. S. Thomas, 1827, C.34.b.60.)

Intrigued to see this precious book; I called it up from the Library’s basements. I was amazed to see that within the Library’s copy is interesting correspondence from booksellers (or possibly book dealers) in the United States, to a recipient at the British Museum, perhaps the librarian (the British Library’s founding collection was initially the British Museum’s library).

2_Tamerlane showing letter
‘It may interest you to hear…’: photograph of one of the attached letters in the Library’s copy of Tamerlane and Other Poems

What can be suggested from reading the contents of the letters is that these were possibly penned when another supposed first edition of Tamerlane and Other Poems had been discovered in America. Until the late nineteenth century, it was believed that the only known copy of this title was this one then held at the British Museum. The letters contain information about pagination; the presence of which would allude to the idea that someone was trying to verify whether a copy that had surfaced was real or a fake – using the British Museum’s copy as a reliable guide.

3_Tamerlane showing letter and pagination

Though an unassuming looking item (only a facsimile front cover is included on the copy the Library holds), I felt so lucky to be able to hold this book, one of the rarest first editions in American literature. This was the first printing of the first publication from an author that had played a part in almost every stage of my educational and professional life, and to be able to see a little bit of history unfold in the letters enclosed in the Library’s copy made the experience even more special. It’s amazing to think that I’m just one in a long line of Poe enthusiasts that have, and will, pore over this item during its lifetime at the British Library.

Passed-on item

Released on 10 September 2019, Margaret Atwood’s The Testaments was one the most highly-anticipated publishing moments in history. The sequel to her 1985 dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Testaments is set 15 years later and told from the perspective of three different women as they reflect on their knowledge and experience of, or lack thereof, the regime in Gilead.
The release of The Testaments was not just a literary moment in history, but a cultural one. The issues raised in The Handmaid’s Tale during its’ 35 years of circulation have been a topic of conversation around the world in book clubs and beyond; even the red coat and white blinkered bonnets of the Handmaid’s have become a silent yet powerful symbol synonymous with campaigns for equality for woman employed by political activists today. Visitors to British Library exhibition Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Rights can see one of the said costumes from the Hulu TV series on display. 

4_Testaments in slipcase
Special edition of The Testaments (2019) from Pelee Island Bird Observatory

Along with many others, I was really excited to read The Testaments. As this was such a literary milestone, not just for North American literature, but globally, I was able to acquire a special edition of the 2019 Booker Prize-winning novel to help enhance the Library’s collections. The exclusive slip-cased edition of three hundred, features Atwood’s signature, decorative endpapers, and hidden ephemera, and was available through Pelee Island Bird Observatory (PIBO) – PIBO is a non-profit charitable organisation devoted to the study and conservation of birds in Ontario, Canada. One of PIBO’s founders and main supporters is Margaret Atwood. Inside each book is an envelope with a wax seal that contains artefacts from the text. 

5_Testaments_extra content

Atwood extras

Atwood extras 2

With the combination of beautiful presentation, additional content related to the story, and affiliation with a conservation project close to Atwood’s heart, I hope this edition will provide researchers with various elements to investigate on many different levels, in regards to both the novel’s and Margaret Atwood’s places in literary history, and their unwavering cultural impact, for years to come.

Due to delays experience resulting from the COVID-19 lockdown, this item is currently being processed and will be available in Reading Rooms in due course.

 

- written by Rachael Culley

02 August 2021

“We Must Speak with Our Bodies”

This blog by Louise Siddons is part of a special Summer Scholars blog series highlighting the recent research scholars and creatives associated with the Eccles Centre, including those supported by the Centre’s awards, have undertaken across the Library’s Americas collections.

A page from a magazine with a title and two columns of type.
Figure 1. Detail of Richard Erdoes, “Crow Dog: ‘We Have Tried to Tell the White Man With Our Lips… Now We Must Speak with Our Bodies’,” Akwesasne Notes 5, no. 5 (Early Autumn, 1973): 40. British Library shelfmark: General Reference Collection P.2000/429.

I first started working with the Mohawk-produced newspaper Akwesasne Notes while I was a Summer Scholar at the Eccles Centre in 2018. I was researching an article about intersectional visual politics and the representation of the 1973 occupation of Wounded Knee in its sister publication, The Black Panther—now available in the Summer 2021 issue of American Art.i Along the way, I collected examples of Native assertions of cultural sovereignty from the newspaper, setting them aside for future consideration. I’ve been back at the Eccles Centre as a Fulbright scholar this spring, and have taken the opportunity to follow up on some of those notes from a new vantage point.

Recent news has turned mainstream attention to the horrific histories of Native American and First Nations children at boarding schools in Canada and the United States. Long seen as tools of colonial assimilation, we increasingly understand the part they played in North American genocide throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Enrollment in boarding schools peaked in the 1970s: in 1973 it was estimated that 60,000 Native American children were in boarding schools in the United States. The devaluation of Native lives and culture was systemic and diffuse: resistance to it had to be equally comprehensive in order to succeed. In the 1970s, self-fashioning became one way among many that Native activists called attention to the structural undermining of Native identity and cultural sovereignty in educational institutions.

The American Indian Movement (AIM) was founded in 1968 by young activists who had participated in a variety of earlier organizing. Although the most well-known AIM actions were the 1972 Trail of Broken Treaties caravan that led to the occupation of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) headquarters in Washington, DC, and the 1973 defense of Wounded Knee, the organization was active across the country at every level. From their beginnings, AIM leaders celebrated the “outer, visible Indian.”ii The “outer Indian” was a politically engaged, educated Native person who understood their Indigeneity in racial/ethnic, as well as cultural, terms. It also had a literal meaning: AIM members celebrated their politicized self-fashioning as an act of resistance against a white assimilationist establishment, a tool for pan-Indian coalition-building, and a strategy for being seen by mainstream media and audiences.

AIM leaders defined a very specific look for Indian activism that began with long hair. They pointed to the ways in which Indian identity had been attacked by the federal government through the regulation of individual appearance, focusing particularly on the targeted assimilation of children in boarding schools throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In a 1973 interview with Akwesasne Notes, Carter Camp (Ponca) summarized the history of American education of Native Americans.

A page of a magazine with three columns of text and a small black and white picture in the final right hand column of a man on a horse.
Figure 2a: Full page, “When in the Course of Human Events: An Interview with Carter Camp,” Akwesasne Notes 5, no. 5 (Early Autumn, 1973): 11. British Library shelfmark: General Reference Collection P.2000/429.
Detail of a magazine page showing a close up of a man on a horse.
Figure 2b: Detail of illustration captioned “Carter Camp at the 1973 AIM Convention,” accompanying “When in the Course of Human Events: An Interview with Carter Camp,” Akwesasne Notes 5, no. 5 (Early Autumn, 1973): 11. British Library shelfmark: General Reference Collection P.2000/429.

“They first cut your hair off,” he began, “just like they do in the Marines—to make you lose your identity.” Carter’s military reference was no coincidence, as many AIM members were Vietnam veterans who condemned the war in Southeast Asia as another colonial enterprise, as driven by racism as it was by anti-communism. Camp continued: “These little kids had no protection from this monster that has them jailed. So we have our lost generation of Indian people—the guys who work for the BIA and try to be as white as they can.”iii As Camp’s statement implied, Native people, like all people, expressed community, cultural identity, and spiritual beliefs through clothing, hairstyle, and other elements of regalia and adornment. When the United States government (and other organizations, such as churches, which also ran boarding schools) forced young Indians to cut their hair and dress in school uniforms, they were fully cognizant of its negative impact on the children, their families, and communities. Nonetheless, they proudly published “before” and “after” photographs as evidence of their success in destroying Native cultures. When members of AIM and other youth activists let their hair grow long and adopted elements of traditional regalia in their dress, they were asserting individual and cultural sovereignty and also calling attention to the schools’ atrocities.

Long hair was a gendered issue—no one cut girls’ hair against their will—and so the fight over long hair was in part a fight over Native masculinity. Perhaps unsurprisingly, AIM’s leadership was dominated by men, and the emergent trope of the Indian militant did not have much space for women, despite the fact that they were politically active across the continent. As activist Russell Means (Oglala Lakota) put it, the American Indian Movement offered its members “a new way to express our manhood,” in a statement that seemed to equate “Indianness” explicitly with masculinity.iv And yet coverage of AIM actions included many photographs of Native American women in bell-bottoms and other period fashion, as well as wearing Pendleton blankets, and framed with imagery that contextualizes and encourages an equally politicized reading of their long hair. Like many of the civil rights movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s, in other words, the American Indian Movement struggled with gendered expectations for its members.v

Boarding schools were not their only targets. At its 1973 convention in Oklahoma, AIM called for a “national boycott of public schools which forbid native boys from wearing long hair”. 

A magazine page with three columns of text, a black and white photograph of a man with long hair wearing a headband and two other black and white illustrations of a bird and an old woman.
Figure 3a: Full page, “A.I.M. Elections Held at August Convention,” Akwesasne Notes 5, no. 5 (Early Autumn, 1973): 9. British Library shelfmark: General Reference Collection P.2000/429.
A black and white photograph of a man with long dark hair, with a boy with long hair and glasses standing to the left. Both wear headbands.
Figure 3b: Detail of illustration captioned “Buddy Hatch & Dennis Banks: Long hair, or no school,” accompanying “A.I.M. Elections Held at August Convention,” Akwesasne Notes 5, no. 5 (Early Autumn, 1973): 9. British Library shelfmark: General Reference Collection P.2000/429.

“Buddy Hatch, 11, an Oklahoma Arapaho lad, was chosen to symbolize the struggle. ... Hatch was expelled from school a year ago because his hair violated school regulations.”vi When an appeals court upheld the school’s regulations, AIM leader Dennis Banks (Ojibwe) deplored its refusal “to recognize Indian values. The courts are hostile to Indian heritage, and this hostility denies the Indian an opportunity to public education.”vii For Native people, regulations about hair length weren’t just about censoring individual self-expression. They represented centuries of colonial oppression, and therefore allowing one’s hair to grow long was a potent and highly visible symbol of political resistance. When he was recruited by AIM in 1969, Means “started growing his shoulder-length hair out so he could emulate others in AIM by wearing braids.”viii Similarly, an anonymous member described the moment in which he became involved with AIM: “I was assimilated into the mainstream of White America. And I was disenchanted. There was always an emptiness inside me. ... So I went up to Minnesota, and for about a week I visited with my brother and other people in the movement... Finally I got so involved I started letting my hair grow long, and I stopped wearing a tie and started to sort of deprogram myself, to become just a simple person, a simple man.”ix Although some participants later disavowed the stereotypical elements of AIM self-fashioning in this period, this desire to “deprogram” himself—today we might say decolonize— lends ideological weight to the self-transformation of AIM members across the board.

_______

Louise Siddons is Professor of art history at Oklahoma State University and a Fulbright Scholar at the Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library. She is writing a book about the photographer Laura Gilpin that examines the intersection between mid-century lesbian liberation and Navajo sovereignty politics in Gilpin’s photographs and related visual culture.

Endnotes:

i American Art issues are available in print at British Library shelfmark: Document Supply 0810.395000. Digital access to the journal is available in the Reading Rooms.
ii This intentionally contrasted with the “inner Indian” promoted by the Society of American Indians at the beginning of the century, which also ostensibly sought the betterment of Native Americans but argued that it would come about most effectively through outward assimilation. Hanson, Jeffery R. “Ethnicity and the Looking Glass: The Dialectics of National Indian Identity,” American Indian Quarterly 21, no. 2 (Spring, 1997): 202 and 204. British Library shelfmark: General Reference Collection P.901/2012 (Digital access to the journal is available in the Reading Rooms.)
iii Carter Camp, “When in the course of human events: An Interview with Carter Camp,” Akwesasne Notes 5, no. 5 (Early Autumn, 1973): 11. British Library shelfmark: General Reference Collection P.2000/429.
iv Quoted in Gerald Vizenor, “Dennis of Wounded Knee,” in The People Named the Chippewa: Narrative Histories (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984): 124-138: 126. British Library shelfmark: General Reference Collection YA.1990.b.636.
v For more on gender in the American Indian Movement, see Susan Applegate Krouse, “What Came out of the Takeovers: Women’s Activism and the Indian Community School of Milwaukee,” American Indian Quarterly 27, no. 3/4, Urban American Indian Women’s Activism (Summer-Autumn 2003): 533-547, British Library shelfmark: General Reference Collection P.901/2012 (Digital access to the journal is available in the Reading Rooms.); and Donna Hightower Langston, “American Indian Women’s Activism in the 1960s and 1970s,” Hypatia 18, no. 2, Indigenous Women in the Americas (Spring 2003): 114-132. British Library shelfmark: Document Supply 4352.621500.
vi “A.I.M. Elections Held at August Convention,” Akwesasne Notes 5, no. 5 (Early Autumn, 1973): 9. British Library shelfmark: General Reference Collection P.2000/429.
vii Ibid.
viii Paul Chaat Smith and Robert Allen Warrior, Like a Hurricane: The Indian Movement from Alcatraz to Wounded Knee (New York: The New Press, 1996): 133. British Library shelfmark: Document Supply 96/26579.
ix “V.B.”, quoted in Rachel A. Bonney, “The Role of AIM Leaders in Indian Nationalism,” American Indian Quarterly 3, no. 3 (Autumn, 1977): 209-224: 214. (Digital access to this issue of American Indian Quarterly is available in the British Library Reading Rooms.) The piece was originally published in Penthouse International Magazine for Men 1973: 59.