Americas and Oceania Collections blog

2 posts from April 2022

20 April 2022

Writer's Award Winner Philip Clark on the Sounds of New York City: Part I

In this first installment of a series of blogs, Philip Clark shares his experience of being a 2022 Eccles Centre and Hay Festival Writer’s Award winner. The Writer’s Award offers £20,000, a year’s residency at the British Library to develop a forthcoming book, and the opportunity to showcase work at Hay Festival events in the UK and Latin America. Philip’s book – Sound and the City – will be a history of the sound of New York City and an investigation into what makes New York City sound like New York City.

At last, I’ve made it. After two years of pandemic travel bans, followed by an embarrassing gaffe with my visa back in January, I’m writing this blog sitting in the café at Barnes & Noble bookstore on Union Square in New York City. Since my arrival, I’ve checked in religiously every morning at 9am for a few hours’ writing; ingrained habits, even when in the city in which we’re told sleep is optional, die hard. Wake up, write. That’s the rhythm. The Barnes & Noble café – the equivalent of the café in Foyles, Charing Cross Road, my usual haunt – is quiet, comfortable and studious. I write surrounded by fellow scribes and ferocious readers – also a young couple gazing into each other’s eyes over a chessboard, who were here yesterday, too. This café has character, although not so much character that I’m distracted from my work. And best of all – the book I’m writing, Sound and the City, a history of the sound of New York City, will, in a few years’ time, be sitting on one of the shelves here. In this space where it was partly written, an idea which appeals to me very much.

People walking and cars driving at the corner of a New York City street in the evening; skyscrapers can be seen in the background.
'Atmosphere'; image, author's own.

My book opens an investigation into what makes New York City sound like New York City, a soundscape completely different from, say, London, Paris or Berlin. What my book is not is a history of music in New York. Instead, the project is to piece together interwoven histories from architecture, geology, immigration, politics and city planning to explain the unique relationship this city has with sound. Alongside, I’m exploring how writers and musicians who have called this endlessly fascinating resonating chamber home have dealt with the sound of the city – a long, impressive role-call that includes Henry James, John Dos Passos, Antonín Dvořák, Edgard Varèse, Duke Ellington, John Cage, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Philip Glass, Bob Dylan, Meredith Monk, Ornette Coleman, Debbie Harry, Lou Reed, Don DeLillo, Grandmaster Flash, Cecil Taylor, Gloria Gaynor, DJ Kool Herc and Wu-Tang Clan.

A five-storey brownstone house with a bay window on the third floor.
Miles Davis'  house; image, author's own.

What does New York do to an artist’s sense of pacing, proportion, structure? Of the sort of material they’re minded to put into their work and the way it behaves once they’ve put it there? In his memoir Words Without Music, published in 2015, Philip Glass claimed “My music sounds like New York”. Which is undoubtedly true. But so does the bebop of Charlie Parker, the modernist composition of Edgard Varèse, the rock of Debbie Harry and the nimble vocal gymnastics of Meredith Monk – none of which sound remotely like Glass. Could factors beyond musical style and idiom knit all this work together? It is my duty to find out.

As life drifted on between lockdowns, and I wondered whether travel would ever be a realistic proposition again, a fantasy New York ran riot inside my imagination. That said, ever since I discovered modern jazz, West Side Story, Morton Feldman and Bob Dylan in my mid-teens, some thirty-five years ago, I have always carried around my own inner-New York. The environment of the city, transferred to reality, felt entirely familiar to me when I started visiting seriously around 2005, testament to how much information its sonic footprint carries within it. New York played a crucial role in my previous book, a biography of the jazz pianist Dave Brubeck, A Life In Time, but there I needed to curb my enthusiasm; editing out superfluous city history became a continual necessity. Now the time has come to fully understand my New York fixation – why that fascination with the sound of its sound, and the sound of its music, has never left me alone.

Last year was spent immersing myself in histories of the city, and also in a pair of works that I knew would give my book its starting point: Edgard Varèse’s orchestral Amériques and John Dos Passos’ Manhattan Transfer. Dos Passos’ novel was published in November 1925, with the premiere of Varèse’s composition following only a few months later in April 1926. The degree to which these panoramic captures of the city mirror each other virtually word-to-note and note-to-word is uncanny. The steamboat whistles and fire engine sirens which Dos Passos describes so vividly are not merely evoked in the fabric of Varèse’s music – he literally wrote both machines into his piece, urban objets trouvés he made sing and holler.

A couple of steps lead down to a brown wood front door, with a white surround; an iron balcony is immediately above.
Edgard Varèse’s front door; image, author's own.

Surely Varèse and Dos Passos had enjoyed long discussions about the meaning of art, life and the universe itself in various hostelries around the East Village? The closeness of their art suggests they must. Having won the Eccles Centre and Hay Festival Writer’s Award at the end of 2021, and now with the whole British Library at my disposal, this was one of the first questions I set out to answer: did they ever meet? Varèse, I read, enjoyed the company of the composers Carl Ruggles and Carlos Salzedo, the conductor Leopold Stokowski, the violinist Fritz Kreisler, the artist Marcel Duchamp – and there is also a documented encounter with the writer Theodore Dreiser. Dos Passos’ associates at the time included the writers E E Cummings, Hart Crane and Dawn Powell. At the British Library, I was very happy to find an extended critique by Sinclair Lewis of Manhattan Transfer, published in 1926, in which Lewis describes Dos Passos’ novel as “the moving symphony itself” and talks up the central role sound takes in the narrative (although Lewis’ respect for Dos Passos was, sadly, not reciprocated).

Plotting the various addresses before I left home where Dos Passos and Varèse lived in the mid-1920s – and then this week walking between them – I discover that they criss-crossed each other constantly and, during different periods, lived but a few blocks from each other. The hotel in which Varèse took up long-term residence when he first arrived from his native France in 1916 – The Brevoort on the corner of 8th Street and 5th Avenue – is where two characters in Dos Passos’ novel, Elaine Oglethorpe and George Baldwin, conduct their affair.

Novelist and composer are traceable to some of the same bars and cafés. Romany Marie’s famous bistro-tavern, the place in the Village where artists, musicians and writers met to talk, was a regular meeting place of Varèse’s – and surely Dos Passos went there too. Walking a block from 188 Sullivan Street, Varèse’s home from 1925 until his death in 1965, I find Caffe Reggio – the first café to bring cappuccino to the city is the boast – which opened its doors in 1927. Given Dos Passos’ love of European culture and Varèse’s yearning to find tastes of Europe in New York, could their paths have crossed there? And then there’s McSorley’s Old Ale House, opened around 1860, and subject of a poem by Dos Passos’ close friend E E Cummings. And we know that Varèse loved ale. His wife, Louise, in her memoir, Varèse: A Looking Glass Diary, tells us how he took a shine to a barmaid – who called him ‘Dearie’ – in a London pub, near Broadcasting House, when the BBC performed his piece Hyperprism in 1924. Degrees of separation melt away by the moment.

The window of McSorley's Ale House reflecting nearby buildings and trees; gold lettering tells passers by that McSorley's was established in 1854 - 'before you were born'.
McSorley's Old Ale House; image, author's own.

But even if they managed never to meet, my thesis holds firm. Varèse and Dos Passos walked those same sidewalks, listening deep into the sound of the city, and you feel that kinship in the work they produced. New York works as an artistic matchmaker apparently – even when artists are not aware it is happening.

11 April 2022

Electronic Resources for US Politics

As we continue our series highlighting the breadth of electronic resources available for researchers at the British Library, this blog will discuss some of the collections which can support those exploring US Politics and Political History. All resources can be accessed from our Electronic Resources page, and some are available remotely once you get your free Reader Pass. All previous posts in the series can be found here.

There are many resources which can help uncover the operation of government, with Congress being especially well represented. The Congressional Record Permanent Digital Collection 1789-1997 and the US Congressional Serial Set 1817-1994 provide impressive levels of insight into the legislative process. The Congressional Record is a substantially verbatim account of the remarks made by Senators and Representatives while they are on the floor of the Senate and the House of Representatives (the equivalent of the UK’s Hansard). It also includes all bills, resolutions, and motions proposed, as well as debates, and roll call votes. The Serial Set is comprised of the numbered Senate and House Documents and Senate and House Reports, bound by session of Congress. There is also a dedicated selection of maps with the Serial Set. The Serial Set, and its maps, can be accessed remotely by registered Readers. The maps can be browsed by State as well as topic. The image below shows the Indian Reservations in the United States in 1940.

Serial set black and white map
Map showing Indian reservations in the United States. Compiled and drawn by E.H. Coulson, Chief Engineering Draftsman, Office of Indian Affairs, Division of Forestry. 1940. Serial Set No. 11747, Session Vol. No.11, 83rd Congress, 2nd Session, H.Rpt. 2680, Page [Not Numbered], Map No. 1. (Accessed via the US Congressional Serial Set 1817-1994.)

The Library’s selection of electronic resources is very wide, and it is worth looking at resources which may not seem immediately ‘Political Studies’ yet may still hold relevant material. For example, the American History, 1493-1945 resource is drawn from the diverse collections of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History in New York, and has some fascinating collections including materials related to the private lives of First Ladies, and Presidential Pardons. Below is part of the pardon by President Polk of an elderly counterfeiter, Samuel Howard, convicted of passing counterfeit coin and sentenced to three years’ imprisonment, who was pardoned due to age, previous honesty, his family’s dependence on him, the small amount of counterfeited money involved, and the judge’s recommendation for clemency.

Manuscript document
Presidential authority to the Secretary of State to affix the seal to the pardon of Samuel Howard, 13 January 1848, Collection Reference Number, GLC00045.08. (Accessed via American History, 1493-1945.)

Similarly, there are many aspects of US domestic politics which are well-covered in other thematic resources focused on different identity groups, such as women’s suffrage campaigns, LGBTQ+ political activism, and African-American civil rights campaigns and political activism. For example, the African American Communities resource holds legal papers of justices and policymakers which shed light on the politics around busing and school desegregation, including the Algernon Lee Butler Papers, 1928-1978, from the Southern Historical Collection at the Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The Butler Papers consist of Butler's political, legal, and personal papers from 1928 until 1978. Featured are a wide variety of writings and speeches Butler produced on political, educational, and civic topics, including materials relating to school desegregation and civil rights cases.

Screenshot of the African American Communities Algernon Lee Butler Papers
African American Communities database screenshot showing items from the Algernon Butler Papers.

There are many full-text US newspapers available in the electronic resources, which were covered in this earlier post. These newspapers are a fantastic resource for many aspects of US social and political life. Importantly, these don’t just include historical newspapers. The British Library subscribes to the excellent NewsBank: Access World News resource, which is available via Remote Access for registered Readers. This is an extraordinary database and an excellent resource for events from the 1980s to the present, including full-text coverage of more than 1300 American dailies such as the Boston Herald (1991 to the present) and the New York Post (1999 to the present); transcripts of more than 200 major TV news and radio programmes including 60 Minutes (2004 to the present) and Fox News Channel (2003 to the present); full-text coverage of more than twenty news magazines; output from more than 300 web-only sources; and access to more than 80 newswires.

Three covers of the Atlantic magazine
Recent issues of The Atlantic magazine (left to right: June 2021; July/August 2021; May 2021), available via NewsBank: Access World News.

Finally, our electronic resources are very strong on US foreign policy and international relations, particularly how other countries viewed the US. These include the Confidential Print: North America, 1824-1961 collection which comes from the National Archives at Kew and contains British Government documents covering the US (as well as other parts of the Americas). The collection covers topics such as slavery, Prohibition, the First and Second World Wars, racial segregation, territorial disputes, the League of Nations, McCarthyism and the nuclear bomb. For a broader global perspective, researchers can explore the excellent Foreign Broadcast Information Service (also available via remote access). FBIS was a US government operation which translated the text of daily broadcasts, government statements, and select news stories from non-English sources. The idea was to understand more about foreign opinion of the United States and its policies. It is an archive of 20th century news from around the world, offering global views on US foreign and domestic policy after World War II. The documents cover the Cold War, the Middle East, Latin America, the Soviet Union and more. Below is an example from the Soviet Home Service criticising America’s perceived plans in Asia as it ended the official postwar occupation of Japan.

Typed transcript
‘U.S. READIES JAPAN AS FAR EAST BASE’, Source: Moscow, Soviet Home Service, 09 August 1951; Translated into English and published in: DAILY REPORT. FOREIGN RADIO BROADCASTS (FBIS-FRB-51-160), 10 August 1951, USSR HOME SERVICE, Page AA6. (Accessed via Foreign Broadcast Information Service).

This whirlwind tour of the Library’s e-resources has just scratched the surface, but it does give an indication of the wide range of collections which include materials helpful for both historic and contemporary US Political Studies. For those interested in diving further into US politics at the Library, do check out the Collection Guide for US Federal Government Publications

By Cara Rodway, Eccles Centre, April 2022