THE BRITISH LIBRARY

American Collections blog

36 posts categorized "Americas"

19 February 2019

Event: Doctoral Open Day 2019

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Starting a PhD can be a daunting undertaking; and getting to grips with the vast, often idiosyncratic workings of a major research Library with over 200m items can be even more daunting. This is why, for students who have recently embarked on doctoral study on any aspect of the Americas, we are putting on an Open Day on the British Libraries Americas collections and resources on Monday 18 March.

BL People_112

PhD Placement student Daniela Jimenez talks with curator Pardaad Chamsaz

The day will involve a series of general introductions to the British Library, as well as more regionally focussed presentations on Canada, the US, the Caribbean and Latin America – essentially explaining in broad terms what we have and how to find it. There will also be opportunities to ask questions individually of the curators and research teams, and attendees can tell us their topics in advance so everyone can leave the Library that day having opened up some rather promising avenues of enquiry.

We’re also very excited and grateful to be able to draw on the expertise of colleagues from other parts of the Library, who will be able to offer insights into some of the approaches and resources available through the Library (such as digital scholarship or manuscript studies) that students might not be so familiar with. There will also be first-hand insights from current PhD students who are working extensively on our collections, who can (hopefully!) confirm that the British Library is both a pleasant and fantastically useful place to spend at least some of your time over the next 3-4 years.

CDP students 2017

British Library CDP students, including Naomi Oppenheim and Jodie Collins, discuss their work

Finally, as well as introducing the collections, we give students the chance to get to know the Library spatially and architecturally – so we’re offering the chance, during the lunchbreak, for students to take ‘sound tours’ of the main St Pancras building.  Not only are these a wonderful opportunity to explore the main building but they will also showcase the breadth of material contained in the Library’s Sound Archive, a resource that is often over looked by researchers.  As part of last year’s excellent Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land exhibition, the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project invited volunteers to use the Library’s Sound Archive to curate tours which reflect on black British history within the physical space of the Library.  One of the tour guides has kindly agreed to lead our Americas Doctoral Students through this unique experience.

Windrush sound points

Listening points in the Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land exhibition

These different sessions will all be accompanied by a great deal of tea, coffee, cake and sandwiches, and a lot of very enthusiastic staff who are really passionate about getting PhD students in to work on our Americas collections. The full programme for the day can be found here.  To find out more and to book visit the event page.  If you have any questions, please feel free to contact the Eccles Centre via eccles-centre@bl.uk.

01 February 2019

The Federal Theatre Project's 'Living Newspapers'

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Last month we celebrated the life of Hallie Flanagan, director of the ground-breaking Federal Theatre Project (1935-39). This blog will look at one of the Federal Theatre’s most innovative and controversial accomplishments: the ‘Living Newspapers’. It will also share our realisation concerning the connection between Hallie Flanagan and Mary Eccles, co-founder of the British Library’s Eccles Centre for American Studies.

Flanagan first encountered living newspapers – in which social and political issues were given theatrical form – while visiting the Soviet Union in 1926. Such productions had emerged during the Russian Civil War as a means of promoting a pro-Soviet version of the news to the largely illiterate Red Army troops. Following the Bolshevik victory, this agitprop art form continued developing and expanding. In 1923 the hugely influential collective 'Blue Blouse' was founded under the auspices of the Moscow School of Journalism. By 1928 more than 7,000 Blue Blouse troupes had been established across the nation. Performances typically opened with a parade of ‘headlines’, followed by a dozen or so humorous or satirical  sketches on topics as diverse as trouble in a local factory to religion and international relations. Siniaia Bluza (Moscow, 1924-28; shelfmark ZA.9.d.615) - the irregularly published Blue Blouse periodical - supported these performances, containing suggestions for staging, sets and costumes as well as librettos for skits.  

Blue Blouse 1927

Siniaia Bluza, 71-72 (1927): 32. Moscow, 1924-28. Shelfmark: ZA.9.d.615

Flanagan attended several Blue Blouse productions in Moscow. In Shifting Scenes of the Modern European Theatre (London, 1929; shelfmark 011805.i.61) she notes: 'At Trade Union or Factory theatres, the Blue Blouses, workers by day and actors by night, perform original acrobatic plays'. She particularly recalls attending a production in which ‘three men and three girls glorify workers of the Army, the Navy, the farms, and factories’. [1] Rejecting elaborate props and sets, the actors energetically climbed imaginary rigging, planted imaginary crops and controlled imaginary machinery: 'Each motif reached its climax in a refrain taken up by the audience, a refrain consisting of the repetition of a single word, Comrade – half sung, half shouted: Tovarish! Tovarish! Tovarish! The effect of this exuberance was an amazing impression of having seen, not three men and three girls in an amateur song and dance, but a forest of ships with sailors in the rigging, a battalion of soldiers, a commonwealth of farm and factory hands all linked in a comradeship of work.' [2]

A decade later, in one of her earliest conversations with WPA director, Harry Hopkins, Flanagan suggested the Federal Theatre could produce a series of living newspapers involving many people taking on small parts. Hopkins immediately concurred and the Federal Theatre's principle Living Newspaper Unit was established in New York City soon after. Headed by playwright Elmer Rice – who, like Flanagan, had visited the Soviet Union – the Unit included theatre professionals and out-of-work journalists. From the outset it attracted controversy. Its first production – Ethiopia, about the recent invasion by Mussolini – was issued with a federal censorship order, prompting Rice’s resignation. And its third – Injunction Granted, with its pro-union/anti-big business stance – was criticised by federal government officials and closed early. Several living newspapers were hugely successful, however; most notably, One-Third of a Nation.

One-Third-of-a-Nation-Poster

Poster for One-Third of a Nation at the Aldelphi Theatre, New York City, 1938. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Inspired by President Roosevelt's second inaugural address in which he recognised that one third of the nation were ‘ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished’, the play dramatized the living conditions – the crime, disease, and powerlessness – endured by those in urban slum tenements. It also offered some solutions. After being workshopped at Vassar under Flanagan's direction in the summer of 1937, it was staged in cities across the United States, with revisions reflecting local conditions. In Philadelphia, for example, reference was made to a city tenement house that had collapsed two days before opening night.

Everywhere, reviews of One-Third of a Nation were positive. The Detroit Tribune declared it to be: ‘… of vital interest to every Negro living in Michigan’. The New Orleans Times-Picayune called it ‘timely and shrewdly staged’. In San Francisco it ran for nearly two years. And at New York’s Adelphi Theatre over 200,000 people cheered as the life-like slum housing went up in flames and the ‘The Consumer’ cried out to the government: ‘Can you hear me, Washington? Give me a decent home!’

One-Third-of-a-Nation-Set

Photo of the New York set of the Federal Theatre Project's One-Third of a Nation, 1938. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

And it seems that Washington did hear, but in both a positive and negative way. Eleanor Roosevelt believed One-Third of a Nation achieved more than any speeches by her, Langdon Post (Head of the New York City Housing Authority), or even her husband ever could. But numerous senators were offended that their views on housing – taken word-for-word from the Congressional Record – were included in the play.

Flanagan later reflected in Arena: The History of the Federal Theatre (New York: Benjamin Blom, 1965; shelfmark X.900/3282) that: ‘Enemies made by the living newspaper were, I believe, powerful enemies, instrumental in the final closing of the project.’ [3] Yet, she never regretted her decisions. And she never lost her conviction in the power of this art form. Indeed, in 1948 she co-wrote a new play - E = mc2: A Living Newspaper about the Atomic Age - boldly declaring in its foreword: ‘The theatrical effectiveness of the “living newspaper” was conclusively demonstrated in the productions of Power and One-Third of a Nation. This latest edition of the "living newspaper" compares most favorably with the previous ones.' (New York: Samuel French, 1948; shelfmark 011791.c.47) 

Atomic 2

Hallie Flanagan, E = mc2: A Living Newspaper about the Atomic Age.  New York: Samuel French, 1948. Shelfmak: 011791.c.47

Finally, we wanted to share our recent realisation that Mary Eccles – co-founder of the British Library’s Eccles Centre for American Studies – was a student at Vassar College at the very time that Hallie Flanagan established the Vassar Experimental Theatre. Colleagues at the Centre knew about Mary's doctoral  thesis, 'Playwriting for Elizabethans, 1600-1605'. We were also aware anecdotally of her interest in avant-garde theatre. Yet, we had never connected Mary with Flanagan. With hindsight, it seems inconceivable that Mary would not have worked with, and surely been influenced by, this extraordinary, ground-breaking woman. In this vein, we will conclude with this wonderful, scandalous newspaper clipping about Mary (née Crapo) breaking conventions and enjoying a 'healthy drag' on a cigarette during her college years! 

Mary Crapo smoking

References:

[1]. Hallie Flanagan, Shifting Scenes of the Modern European Theatre. London: George G Harrap & Co., 1929, p. 108. Shelfmark: 011805.i.61.

[2]. ibid., p. 109.

[3]. Hallie Flanagan, Arena: The History of the Federal Theatre. New York: Benjamin Blom, 1965, p. 221. Shelfmark: X.900/3282.

Jean Petrovic, Eccles Centre for American Studies

17 January 2019

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

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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.

06 December 2018

Hallie Flanagan and the House Committee on Un-American Activities

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Today marks 80 years since Hallie Flanagan – national director of the Federal Theatre Project – appeared before the House Special Committee on Un-American Activities to answer questions about the New Deal programme she had been leading since its inception.

In her now legendary testimony, Flanagan’s allusion to Elizabethan playwright, Christopher Marlowe – and Congressman Starnes’s rejoinder: ‘Is he a communist?’ – left the room rocking with laughter. Yet, Flanagan herself did not laugh, recognising as she did that: ‘Eight thousand people might lose their jobs because a Congressional Committee had so pre-judged us that even the classics were “communistic”’. [1]

Flanagan-Federal-Theatre-Radio

Hallie Flanagan speaking on CBS Radio, 1 January 1936. The Federal Theatre of the Air, under the auspices of the Federal Theatre Project, began weekly programmes on 15 March 1936. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Flanagan had been head-hunted for the Federal Theatre in 1935 by Harry Hopkins, director of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). Until this point, federal relief during the Great Depression was primarily directed at manual labourers. The Federal Theatre – along with similar projects for writers, artists and musicians – was a game changer, providing federally-funded employment to skilled workers: in this case, playwrights, directors, actors, stage-hands, set-designers and costumiers.

From the outset Flanagan’s stewardship of the Federal Theatre was visionary and far-reaching. This should not have been surprising. In 1926 Flanagan became the first woman to be awarded a Guggenheim fellowship and for 14 months she had travelled throughout Europe studying new theatre. Her meetings with Konstantin Slanislavki and Vsevolod Meyerhold had illuminated radical new ways of working and in Shifting Scenes of the Modern European Theatre (London: George G Harrap & Co., 1929; shelfmark 011805.i.61) Flanagan asserts that Russia, with its workers theatres and innovative methodologies, had the most vital theatre in the world.

Theatre-Studio_on_Povarskaya_Street_1905

Members of Meyerhold’s Theatre-Studio on Povarskaya Street (affiliated to Moscow Art Theatre). Meyerhold is back row, second left. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

After returning to Vassar College in upstate New York, Flanagan established the Vassar Experimental Theatre and soon gained a national reputation for ground-breaking productions. Notable among these was Can You Hear Their Voices? her co-adaptation of a story published in New Masses by then-communist Whittaker Chambers in which the effects of the devastating drought in Arkansas are seen through the eyes of struggling farmers and their affluent Congressman.  

With a job that she loved, a husband, a child and three step-children it is hardly surprising that Flanagan initially resisted Hopkins’ offer of a job in Washington, DC. But after several months, and with the full support of her husband, she accepted. In October 1935 – doubtless reflecting Flanagan’s passionate belief in the transformative power of theatre – the Project boldly declared that: ‘Its far reaching purpose is the establishment of theatres so vital to community life that they will continue to function after the program of the Federal Project is completed.’ [2]

A subsequent blog will explore the Federal Theatre’s accomplishments more fully. Suffice it to say here that nothing like it has been seen in the United States before or since. In its first three years, thousands of workers created 55,000 performances of more than 900 shows in front of 26 million people, many of whom attended at no cost or for less than one dollar.

Faustus-FTP-Poster

Poster for Christopher Marlowe’s Faustus. W.P.A. Federal Theatre. 8 January – 9 May 1937. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Yet, the purportedly ‘radical’ nature of the Theatre – together with Flanagan’s own background – held the seed of its undoing.

Flanagan was fully aware of the creation in May 1938 of the House Special Committee on Un-American Activities. Part of the committee’s brief – under its chair, Martin Dies – was investigating organisations suspected of having communist ties. Looking back at this time, Flanagan notes in Arena: The History of the Federal Theatre (New York: Benjamin Blom, 1965; shelfmark: X.900/3282) that while many people within the WPA laughed about the Dies Committee, to Flanagan herself ‘it never seemed funny’. [3]

And with good reason.

In July 1938, a Committee member declared the Federal Theatre to be a branch of the Communist Party, offering plays with communist leanings and limiting jobs to members of the Workers’ Alliance. Flanagan immediately issued a press release denying this and spent the next five months trying to appear before the Committee in order to set the record straight.

Finally, on the morning of 6 December she was called to testify. However, unlike Hazel Huffman – a disgruntled Federal Theatre mail clerk who believed herself qualified to denounce Flanagan for being ‘known as far back as 1927 for her communist sympathy, if not membership’ and who received ample time to air her views on the Theatre’s activities – Flanagan, the Theatre’s national director, was allocated just a few hours.

Yet, what a few hours they were. And this extraordinary testimony can be read in full online at the British Library using Congressional Hearings, Digital Collection, 1824-1979.

Within moments of taking the stand, Flanagan flummoxed the Chair with a declaration of her dedication to combating ‘un-American inactivity’:

Flanagan and Chair dialoge excerpt

Desperate to re-gain control, the Congressmen quizzed Flanagan on her trips to Russia, her communist sympathies, her belief in theatre as ‘a weapon’, the Federal Theatre’s productions, its workforce, their ties to the Workers’ Alliance and more. For much of the time, Flanagan remained on the front foot. And when she asked if she could return after the recess for lunch, Congressman Thomas replied: ‘We don’t want you back; you’re a tough witness and we’re all worn out.’ [4]

Yet in spite of Flanagan’s best efforts, the national mood was changing. A recent Gallup poll had shown that more than half of all voters were aware of the Committee hearings, and of those, 75% wanted the investigations to continue. [5]

On 3 January 1938 the Committee concluded that: ‘A rather large number of the employees on the Federal Theatre Project are either members of the Communist party or a sympathetic with the Communist Party’. [6]  And five months later, on 30 June 1939, an Act of Congress denied the Federal Theatre Project further funding thereby bringing an end to an unprecedented national experiment and ‘the creative energy that it so miraculously generated’. [7]

To be continued…

Footnotes: 

1. Hallie Flanagan. Arena: The History of the Federal Theatre. New York: Benjamin Blom, 1965. Shelfmark: X.900/3282.

2. Manual for Federal Theatre Projects of the Works Progress Administration. October 1935. https://www.loc.gov/item/farbf.00010003/ accessed 5/12/2018.

3. Flanagan, Arena. p. 335.

4. ibid., p. 346.

5. Joanne Bentley, Hallie Flanagan: A Life in the American Theatre. New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1988, p. 326.

6. Flanagan, p. 347

7. John Houseman, quoted in John O’Connor. The Federal Theatre Project: ‘Free, Adult, Uncensored’. London: Eyre Methuen, 1980, p. x. Shelfmark: 81/13870.

Further Reading:

Joanne Bentley, Hallie Flanagan: A Life in the American Theatre. New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1988. Shelfmark: 88/22242

 

04 December 2018

American Cooking for English Kitchens

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Cover of American Cooking for English Kitchens by Grace Hogarth (1957) 7939.b.47.

In 1928, Edith Fulcher published American Cooking for English Homes, a recipe book 'sent into the world as a home missionary to fill a long-felt want': to modernise British cooking. The cookbook aimed to provide simple and economical recipes, bringing American recipes to English households. Fulcher advises housewives tired of cooking the same thing every day to explore the cookery of other nations for inspiration and for money saving tips. 

In her preface, Fulcher argues that America's cuisine is varied and cosmopolitan thanks to its immigrant population, and describes the growing importance of vegetables in the modern American diet: 'The modern tendency is toward lighter meals and a vegetable diet, substituting salads, eggs and vegetables for meat. It is certainly more economical and a pleasant change from the once ubiquitous hot joint'. Reproduced below is an intriguing recipe for banana salad sandwiches with mayonnaise:

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From Edith Fulcher's American Cooking for English Homes (1928). 7941.df.6.

Three decades later, in 1957, Grace Hogarth embarked on a similar mission with her book American Cooking for English Kitchens, adapting American recipes for English homes, measurements, and ingredients. The book was the result of culture shock. Hogarth opens her book by stating: 'My first sight of the English kitchen that was to be my own filled me with panic'. Having got used to using a larder rather than a refrigerator, Hogarth writes about the art of using leftovers, explains the difference between American cookies and British biscuits, and outlines the many uses of aluminium foil, 'now obtainable in England'.

I have reproduced her recipe for Boston baked beans. As Hogarth puts it 'The result is as different from the product sold in tins as good from evil!'. Let us know if you agree!

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                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                M.Aguirre

25 October 2018

Wilson Bueno, Portuñol/Portunhol, and Interlanguages

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The OED defines an interlanguage as ‘An artificial auxiliary language’ or ‘A linguistic system typically developed by a student before acquiring fluency in a foreign language, and containing elements of both his or her native tongue and of the target language’. For me, this doesn’t quite cover the geographical and cultural circumstances from which many hybrid languages originate, especially around border areas. For example, the term ‘Spanglish’ could describe: a) the language spoken by an American teenager of Mexican origin, freely mixing English words into Spanish grammatical structures; b) a native English speaker, in the US or elsewhere, attempting to speak incomplete or imperfect Spanish; or c) the common language spoken between a Mexican and an American in a border town such as El Paso or Laredo.

Whatever the definition, the inherently unstable nature of interlanguages (Wikipedia lists hundreds of them, including Camfranglish, Scots Yiddish and Greeklish), makes it hard to think imagine them having clear rules, let alone a literature. The Portuguese/Spanish hybrid predominantly spoken on either side of the borders between Brazil and Uruguay, Paraguay or Argentina doesn’t even have a single spelling, as the choice between ‘Portuñol’ and ‘Portunhol’ depends on what you consider to be the ‘default’ language. What’s more, it varies hugely even in this (relatively) small area. Linguists have shown that, as well as a language used for communication between people who speak what are ultimately fairly similar languages, there also exist settled dialects of Portunhol spoken in the home and within communities in Northern Argentina and Uruguay.

This got me thinking how on earth one would translate it into English, which led me to wonder if there was any literature actually composed solely or principally in Portunhol. Thanks to Twitter, I know the answer is yes, and the foundational text of this literature is the Brazilian writer Wilson Bueno’s Mar Paraguayo (Paraguayan Sea).

Wilson Bueno Mar Paraguayo
Wilson Bueno, Mar paraguayo (São Paulo, Brasil: Iluminuras, 1992) YF.2012.a.10831

 

Bueno’s novella is not exactly an ‘authentic’ depiction of Portunhol, rather an impressionistic idiolect semi-devised by the author, befitting the oxymoronic title (Paraguay is infamously landlocked). In truth, it is a mixture of three languages: Spanish Portuguese and Guaraní, the indigenous language spoken by nearly 5 million Bolivians, Brazilians and especially Paraguayans. It is completely unique to dip into:

‘Si, el infierno, añaretã, añaretãmeguá, existe e, creio, forçando certa honestidad, que el cielo a mi se afigura, acima de todo, el deseo de siempre e sempre más e mais amor – inquieta insaciabilidad que me complete nua llorando en la viuda cama de casal, tan larga, llorando la certeza sin duda de que un dia, un dia, un dia a gente se va a morir: tecové, tecové, tecovepavaerã’

I’d say the grammar and syntax is closer to Spanish, but there is a fairly equal mix of vocabulary, with the Guaraní words relating to death, life and damnation less frequent but of key importance. Interestingly, the phrase ‘el deseo de siempre e sempre más e mais amor’ includes both the Spanish and Portuguese words for ‘always’ and ‘more’.

Guarani glossary from Mar Paraguayo

 

As to how we translate this, well the answer is just as open as the language itself. The translator of Mar Paraguayo into English, Erin Mouré, is Canadian, and rather than creating some convoluted way of mirroring Spanish and Portuguese in English, she has chosen to go with her own local equivalent, a mix of English and French. The Guaraní words (as unfamiliar to the average English speaker as they would be to most Spanish and Portuguese speakers) have been left as they are, which helps maintain a sense of place. The results are fascinating:

‘la ancestral speech of fathers and grands-pères that infinitely vanishes into memory, they entertain all speech et tricot: these Guaraní voices eternalize so simply as they go on weaving: ñandu: there is no better fabric than the web des leaves tissées all together, ñandu, together and between the arabesques that, symphoniques, interweave, in a warp and weft of green and bird et chanson, in the happy amble of a freedom: ñanduti: ñandurenimbó:’

So I ask myself, were I to translate a story or poem from Portunhol/Portuñol what solution would I go for? I suppose the fact that I live in the capital (Cardiff) of a bilingual country could help, and the closest thing I have to an interlanguage is the Welsh-English pidgin I occasionally use with my daughter, her teachers and other patient Cymraeg speakers. If every English translator living geographically close to another language were to do this, a great number of wildly differing translations could be produced, all equally valid. My translation, Paraguayan Môr, coming soon. Watch this space…

 

Rahul  Bery

Translator-in Residence 2018-2019

British Library

 

 

 

15 October 2018

‘A Triple Threat Woman’: The Letters of Sylvia Plath

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On Friday 14 December 1962, Sylvia Plath wrote to her mother: 'I can truly say I have never been so happy in my life'. Four days before she had moved to 23 Fitzroy Road in London, a former residence of Yeats, with her two young children Frieda Rebecca and Nicholas. 'I feel Yeats' spirit blessing me', she writes. After her separation from Ted Hughes, Plath had decided to leave their home in rural Devon and start a new life in London. All around she sees good omens: 'The first letter through the door was of my publishers'. Al Alvarez, poetry editor of the Observer, had told her that her next book of poems should win the Pulitzer. She gave him a dedicated fair copy of 'Ariel'.

But this is a letter to her mother, Aurelia Plath, and, like all letters, it is written with the addressee in mind. Reading the second volume of The Letters of Sylvia Plath, recently published by Faber, one is reminded of how collections of letters, more than other biographical genres such as diaries or memoirs, capture the different social selves of a writer. Plath is cheerful and enthusiastic in her letter to her mother, aiming to put Aurelia's mind at rest. Elsewhere in the collection, she is self-assured and witty in her letters to her professional contacts, written in short, sharp sentences. And then there is the correspondence with her psychiatrist Dr Beuscher, where Plath writes openly about her plans for the future, her anger and her fears.

Edited by Plath expert Peter K. Steinberg and Karen V. Kukil, editor of The Journals of Sylvia Plath 1950–1962 and Keeper of Plath’s collection at Smith, the volume is meticulously annotated and contains a selection of photographs and Plath's own drawings. Among the letters there are several from the British Library’s collections of Plath’s manuscripts. The editors, together with Plath scholars Heather Clark and Mark Ford, will be discussing Plath's letters on 23 October at the British Library.

Volume 2 cover
Front cover of the Letters of Sylvia Plath, Volume II (Faber, 2018)

 

The letters speak of Plath's efforts to progress her career as a poet while trying to earn enough money and care for her children, particularly in the months after her separation from Hughes. But her anxiety about the future of her career appears much earlier. In a letter written to Marcia B Stern dated 9 April 1957, months after her marriage, she writes: 'If I want to keep on being a triple-threat woman: writer, wife and teacher…I can’t be a drudge’. The correspondence also shows the extent to which Plath's and Hughes's literary careers were intertwined, and their mutual encouragement and support, celebrating each poem that gets published. The 1962 and 1963 letters are interesting to read for references to her works, including the autobiographical novel The Bell Jar, published under a pseudonym in 1963, and the extraordinary poems that appeared posthumously in the collection Ariel.

 

Sylvia_Plath
Sylvia Plath [via Wikimedia Commons] 

The fact that the end of the story is well known doesn't make the last letter in the collection any easier to read. Addressed to her psychiatrist Ruth Beuscher on 4 February 1963, she writes: "What appalls me is the return of my madness, my paralysis, my fear & vision of the worst --cowardly withdrawal, a mental hospital, lobotomies". Blinded by depression, she continues "being 30 & having let myself slide, studied nothing for years, having mastered no body of objective knowledge is on me like a cold, accusing wind". Plath committed suicide days later, leaving behind the typescript of the poems that would become Ariel. Her Collected Poems won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1982.   

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                   M.Aguirre

Lead Curator, Americas

 

05 October 2018

My Ántonia – 100 year on

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I recently discovered that this year marks the 100th anniversary of Willa Cather’s My Ántonia.  This novel was the final part of Cather’s ‘prairie trilogy’ – following O Pioneers! and The Song of the Lark – and it remains one of her best-loved works.

My Antonia

Willa Cather, My Ántonia. London: William Heinemann, 1919. Shelfmark: NN.5641.

Given that we try to keep these blogs somewhat timely, my hope was that it had been written towards the end of 1918! A quick Google search failed to confirm or disprove this, so I turned instead to Book Review Digest Retrospective, 1903-1982. This fantastic electronic database cites (and sometimes provides excerpts from) reviews of adult and children’s fiction and non-fiction in over 500 English language magazines, newspapers and academic journals.

The earliest contemporary review it lists for My Ántonia appears The New York Times on 6 October 1918. It also cites reviews from The Nation, The New York Call, The Bookman, Booklist, The Dial and The Independent (a weekly magazine published in New York City).  Most of these publications are held at the British Library. Their reviews of My Ántonia are overwhelmingly positive. The Nation calls Cather ‘an artist whose imagination is at home in her own land, among her own people’ and notes the novel is 'among the best of our recent interpretations of American life' . The Bookman declares the story to be ‘true to the Nebraskan soil of [Cather’s] own childhood, and therefore true to America and the world’. And for The Independent, Ántonia's struggle on the frontier is ‘full of human appeal and the fascination of the making of Americans from the foreign born.’

Willa Cather House II

Willa Cather House, Red Cloud, Nebraska. Image: Ammodramus, 2010. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons. 

Throughout the early twentieth century, Cather continued to be well-regarded by the majority of critics and authors. In 1923 she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for her fifth novel, One of Ours (1922). And in 1930 – while accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature – Sinclair Lewis famously declared that Cather, Theodore Dreiser, Ernest Hemingway and Sherwood Anderson were the only contemporary vital forces in American letters. Indeed, Lewis ‘salutes them with joy’ for giving to the United States – a nation ‘which has mountains and endless prairies, enormous cities and lost farm cabins’ – a literature worthy of its enormity. (New York Times, 13 December 1930). 

In spite of Lewis’s enthusiasm, however, Cather’s focus upon these very same endless prairies and lost farm cabins doubtless contributed to her later being periodically marginalised as a regional writer and omitted from discussions about 20th century literature in the decades that followed.

Willa Cather with necklace fom Sarah Orne Jewett

 Willa Cather, ca. 1912. Wearing a necklace given to her by Sarah Orne Jewett. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Yet, Cather’s own take on the importance of place in My Ántonia is interesting. In an interview in 1924 she acknowledges that the title character is tied to the soil. But she also asserts that she could just as well have written a story of a Czech baker living in Chicago ‘and it would have been the same.’ The story in Chicago would, Cather concedes, have been ‘smearier, joltier, noiser, less sugar and more sand’. But still it would have been a story that expressed the mood and spirit of the people that she knew; the immigrant families from Scandinavia, Russia and Bohemia who were forging a new life in a new land.  (New York Times, 21 Dec. 1924).