30 March 2022
It’s been a while since we’ve been able to do ‘in real life’ show and tells for students attending the Library’s Doctoral Open Days so the Americas and Oceania Collections Curatorial team and Eccles team were delighted to be able to discuss a selection of items from the collections with researchers at the latest on-site sessions.
On 4 and 7 March 2022, a number of students from all disciplines visited the Library’s site at St Pancras to get better acquainted with the services and collections available for their research, inspiration and enjoyment. Theses practical sessions were offered to all who attended our PhD webinars that took place earlier in the year.
The days give the chance to attend Reader Registration appointments, go on building tours, take advantage of drop-in sessions with Reference Services, see how collection items are handled and conserved, and come along to show and tells with curatorial teams across the Library to see and discuss items from different collections.
Asian and African Collections, British and European Collections, Music Collections, Digital Collections and Resources, Contemporary Society and Culture Collections, and Maps and Visual Arts Collections all took part. We love being part of these days; not only do we get to meet new researchers and discuss their work, but we also get the chance to see colleagues from other collection areas and chat with them about the items in their remit and beyond – both things that have been much-missed in-person activities over the past two years.
For those unable to attend, we thought we’d share a few things with you digitally instead! Here are a selection of items that the Americas and Oceania team displayed over the two days:
DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE
Text by Lewis Carroll; designed by Tara Bryan
Flatrock, Newfoundland, Canada: Walking Bird Press, 2016
Lewis Carroll’s original manuscript for Alice's Adventures Under Ground is housed at the British Library, so we are always excited to see how the tale has been re-imagined, re-interpreted and re-illustrated over the last 160 years. This item invites readers into the rabbit hole, with the words from Carroll tunnelling down and down… just as Alice did. This artists’ book was designed by Tara Bryan in her studio in Newfoundland. One of only 40 copies, it is made from delicate handmade Thai Bamboo paper and Japanese paper.
FOR HOME USE: A BOOK OF REFERENCE ON MANY SUBJECTS RELATIVE TO THE TABLE
Proprietors of Angostura Bitters
Trinidad: Angostura Bitters (Publication year unknown/Donated)
This item speaks to culinary social history, especially concerning those deemed belonging to the middle and upper classes of Trinidad and Tobago. ‘Invaluable to the Host and Hostess’, this book of recipes by the makers of Angostura Bitters, is an example of great marketing from a bygone era.
SÃO FERNANDO BEIRA-MAR: CANTIGA DE ESCÁRNIO E MALDIZER
São Paulo: Dulcinéia Catadora, 2007
LA MUJER DE LOS SUEÑOS DEL DOMADOR DE YAKARÉS
Asunción: Yiyi Jambo, 2008
TRIPLE FRONTERA DREAMS
Buenos Aires: Eloísa Cartonera, 2012
CARTONERAS IN TRANSLATION = CARTONERAS EN TRADUCCIÓN = CARTONERAS EM TRADUÇÃO: ANTOLOGÍA
Lucy Bell et al., eds.
Cuernavaca: La Cartonera, 2018
Cartoneras are books of poetry, literature, and translations made with covers from salvaged cardboard with original illustrations in acrylic colours made by members of cartonera workshops. Their illustrated cardboard covers are often anonymous, even when created by famous artists, or signed by all members of the publishing group in a clear attempt to promote the community effort over the individual artist. The focus is on making books together and giving everyone access to reading and writing their stories.
Cartonera books are not only visually beautiful, but also make a critical intervention in publishing and reading cultures in Latin America starting in the wake of the financial crisis in Argentina with Eloísa Cartonera in 2003. This type of cheap community publishing spread quickly across the region and allowed other Latin American countries plagued by economic and social inequality to appropriate reading and book-making practices creatively and in a community-based way.
LIP MAGAZINE ISSUE 1
Frances (Budden) Phoenix (featured artist)
Melbourne, Australia: Women in the Visual Arts Collective, 1976
Lip was an Australian feminist journal self-published by a collective of women in Melbourne between 1976 and 1984. The art and politics expressed in the journal provide a fascinating record of the Women’s Liberation era in Australia. The inaugural issue seen here includes articles on writer Dorothy Hewett, Australian embroidery, and Australian feminist art, film and performing arts, as well as a double page removable centerfold: a doily vulva artwork called ‘Soft Aggression’ by artist Frances (Budden) Phoenix. Phoenix was an Australian feminist artist who helped to establish the Women’s Domestic Needlework Group, and known for her provocative textile and needlework which subverted traditional notions of women’s domestic crafts. In her centerfold here, she revisits the tradition of women inscribing messages into their work and includes the directive to readers: “female culture is in the minds, hearts and secret dialogues of women. Use your culture in your own defence: use soft aggression.”
THE LITERARY VOYAGER OR MUZZENIEGUN
Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, edited with an introduction by Philip P. Mason
[East Lansing]: Michigan State University Press, 1962.
ALGIC RESEARCHES, COMPRISING INQUIRIES RESPECTING THE MENTAL CHARACTERISTICS OF THE NORTH AMERICAN INDIANS: FIRST SERIES: INDIAN TALES AND LEGENDS
Henry Rowe Schoolcraft
New York, 1839.
In 1962, scholar Philip P. Mason collected and republished the entirety of the manuscript magazine The Literary Voyager. Originally produced between December 1826 and April 1827 by Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, it is considered to be the first periodical related to Native American culture. Its alternative title, Muzzeniegun is Ojibwe for ‘book’.
Schoolcraft, an ethnologist and Indian Agent in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, handwrote a few copies of each issue which were posted to friends and family. Schoolcraft was married to Bamewawagezhikaquay, also known as Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, who was of Ojibwa and Scots-Irish ancestry. She is considered to be the first known Native American woman writer. Notably she wrote in both English and Ojibwe. Many of her poems and traditional stories were included in The Literary Voyager, however she does not receive credit for her work. Her mother, from whom Schoolcraft also collected traditional stories and cultural knowledge, is also not named. It has taken considerable efforts by Native American literary scholars to correct this historical omission, and to bring attention to this important Ojibwe voice.
Some of Bamewawagezhikaquay’s stories were later published in Algic Researches, also compiled by Henry Rowe Schoolcraft. This Library copy is an original edition from 1839.
We’d like to thank our colleagues in the Library’s Research Development Team for organising the webinars and in-person sessions, and to our friends in the Eccles Centre for American Studies for their support in helping the days run smoothly.
As the Library continues to working hard at both our sites to make sure everyone can visit us safely, we are looking forward to the opportunity to run similar sessions and meet more of you in person over the coming year.
02 March 2022
This is the second blog looking at Cherokee language printing through the work of book artist and papermaker Frank Brannon. A previous post introduced Frank’s work, Cherokee Phoenix, advent of a newspaper: the print shop of the Cherokee Nation 1828-1834: a handmade letterpress book that tells the history of the first newspaper printed in an Indigenous language. After becoming interested in the materiality and creation of Frank’s book, he kindly spoke to me about his experience of printing in Cherokee as well as complex questions about what it means to have Indigenous language materials at the British Library.
Initially, Frank explained to me some of the technical difficulties of printing in Cherokee, such as ensuring the right spacing is on the type and watching for typos. We also spoke about the differences between Sequoyah’s syllabary, and the type-cast-
“To other eyes through time, just as you and I will see Roman letters, others will see Cyrillic if they have that background, or they might see Greek. They tend to look like other things. But Sequoyah’s original letters look nothing like the type-cast."
In creating the book, Frank also described how he visited the University of Alabama special collections library to model the book on those of the 1820s:
"I wanted to put the person in the time. The 1820’s is a time of transition from handmade to machine-made books. Books would be encased in a cheap cover, and they weren't really meant to last long in the publisher’s binding before they became something else. At the special collection's library, you would open the books and the backs would be breaking. So, The Cherokee Phoenix book really wants to fall apart- it was made for a better binding" (Fig. 1 above)
In speaking to Frank, what is notable is the book’s grounding in materials and place. On asking him what drew him to the topic, he replied that “it was the papermill and it was Sequoyah”. The historic materials used to print the Cherokee Phoenix were excavated from the site of the original printing office in New Echota (now Calhoun, Georgia) and those materials extend into the narrative and creation of Frank’s book. Given the (sometimes) difficult history of printing in Cherokee and the current endangerment of the language, I asked Frank if he felt a sense of responsibility in the work today. In his response he recalls returning to New Echota-
"I felt early that we had a responsibility to get it right, and I still feel that responsibility today. I was able to take some of the printing type and print at the historic site of New Echota in what is now North Georgia, and I actually taught a class in the reconstructed print shop there. When my friend- who was a member of the tribe- and I, would go and print in New Echota you could just kind of feel the weight of that event. It was almost like a dream. It's prescient, it's superseding your regular day, and I would have to admit there are not that many times in life it happens. It was the reality and the depth of that experience. The manager of what is now a Georgia state historic site understood the importance of us coming there and doing that work, also. And as a white person trying to support the revitalization the Cherokee language, you have to try a little bit harder."
This reminds us also of the gap between language on the page and language in the world as lived, happenstance and imperfect. Frank retells how when teaching at the Southeastern community college in western North Carolina, he labelled drawers of coloured paper with their Cherokee names. There is a sense of immediacy, in a place where all understand the importance of language revitalization-
“It was immediate for people from that community who did not know the language at the time to start using those words. I never told anyone in the class that I would like for them to use the names, but they did, every time. It’s not like you have to teach them, its osmosis, it’s in them.”
When considering the poignancy of printing in New Echota, we spoke about different sense of place presented by the British Library. What does it mean for Frank’s work and wider Indigenous language materials to be in the British Library? Much of the library’s holdings - and its history as an institution - speak to a North American context whereby Indigenous languages were taken, classified and denied to peoples in service of historic and ongoing settler colonial projects that sought to eradicate languages and cultures. These contexts have legacies in the ways languages are misrepresented and accessed in library systems today -
“The idea that one might need to verify who they are to access the language of their own people, things that they have been denied the ability to speak or say themselves, in a boarding school for example. The indignity of being pressed to follow someone else’s rules, to access their own knowledge”
“It’s hard to think in general about doing a fine letterpress book and having anyone upon it. There are a lot of questions here, and it has to with ownership, and it has to do with possession.”
This brought us to a discussion on the issues with the label of ‘Indigenous languages collection’ and the narratives those collections claim to tell -
“That’s the key - that process of ‘collecting’ them, ‘acquiring’ them. The parallel for me as an artist is that question of - when looking at the larger picture of European history - whose books are in those libraries? It’s mainly male, it’s mainly Anglo. Is that the entire history of the European experience? Well, we know that the answer is no. My artists’ statement says that I wish to tell the story of those that are less told, and to ask: what is the library of 500 years and what will it look like?"
I found the Frank drew between languages and institutional approaches to curating books very insightful in reflecting on some of these questions. In many contexts, Indigenous languages were viewed as ‘exotic’ objects and brought into an institutional setting, to collect and to study or observe. Such a view can persist in the ways people may approach or ask questions about the subject today. As Frank says, ‘it’s just a group of people who have their own language and they would like to use it, it’s as simple as that’. Some of these ideas inform Frank’s work as a book artist-
“For one of the art projects me and my friend Jeff Marley did in Cherokee, I wanted to do an outdoor installation- an exhibition for everything other than people. I did no advertising, and we documented through photography and film. That’s a larger response to the bigger questions you’re asking, because many days I’m not sure if I want to put it in ‘that’ library. A lot of artists books, or book arts, are now shown in a very display like manner. They’re fetish objects and it’s very much ‘over there’. I always struggle when they are behind glass."
By extension, Frank’s artistic process challenges and expands how we interact with books-
“With an artists’ book, you know immediately from the cover that something is different. I would love for the person to recognise that something different is going on long before they even get to the book, and so with the idea of installation or performance artwork to surround the object I am trying to expand the epi-text of the book. All those little things that go with the book, I want them to come out and be alive and blow through the cover. To think of the book as an epi-textual environment that best represents the thoughts and ideas of the individuals or group”
Perhaps in the context of the British Library, this approach can be used to think about how language materials are there, how they have been decontextualised and how Indigenous creators and representation has been written out of the record-
“How you describe books, that is part of that epi-textual environment. The stuff that floats around it, is about it, is of it. And how is that presented.”
As a result of Frank’s work, the printing type is out in the world and the story continues. It’s clear that Frank misses this work, and I am incredibly grateful to him for talking to me. The conversation made me think on the importance of place and ask important questions of collecting practices: what are we trying to preserve, and for who? Above all I love the materiality of the book, and its layers and relationship to the historic materials and contemporary questions. There is something poignant in the 1820’s style book that ‘wants to fall apart’ as the used and accessible artists’ book (as opposed to the displayed and distant artists’ book), and the used, imperfect and grounded use of the Cherokee language (as opposed to the collected and exotic ‘Cherokee language’ materials). Additionally, it begins a very crucial questioning of the difficult ‘epi-text’ of the British Library.
- Rebecca Slatcher, Collaborative Doctoral Student (British Library & The University of Hull)
24 February 2022
This is the first of a series of blogs looking at Cherokee language printing.
Whilst exploring the British Library’s North American Indigenous language materials as part of my PhD research, I came across Frank Brannon's Cherokee Phoenix, Advent of a Newspaper: the print shop of the Cherokee Nation 1828-1834 (Fig 1, below). The book tells the fascinating story of the first newspaper printed in an Indigenous language at the Cherokee Nation's capital of New Echota (near what is now Calhoun, Georgia). As a papermaker, printer and book artist from Knoxville in East Tennessee, Frank grew up not far from both the birthplace of Sequoyah (the Cherokee inventor of the syllabary that enabled printing in the Cherokee language) and the papermill that supplied the paper for the first edition of the Cherokee Phoenix.
In 1809 Cherokee speaker Sequoyah embarked on committing the Cherokee language to paper. He was fascinated by books (or 'talking leaves') and the power of the written word, but not all shared in this fascination. On the 18th of August 1828, the Cherokee Phoenix reported that Sequoyah had been 'strenuously opposed by all his friends and neighbours' in his task. In response, 'he would listen to the expostulations of his friends and then deliberately light his pipe, pull his spectacles over his eyes, and sit down to his work, without attempting to vindicate his conduct', an account that wonderfully evokes the famous image of him (Fig 2, below).
Sequoyah initially created a character for every word in Cherokee. He may have been influenced by other alphabets and reportedly had an English spelling book in his possession. Finding that this yielded too many characters, he separated the words into parts and assigned a character to each component: hence, a syllabary (Fig 3, below).
Sequoyah listened, remembered and added, and in 1821 he completed his 86-character invention. It took some effort to convince Cherokee speakers to use it, but learning was quick once persuaded. This was because it was made by and for native speakers (unlike the Roman orthographies imposed by missionaries at the time), and once a speaker learnt 'the alphabet', they could read. Within seven years, Cherokee literacy had accelerated, and a national press had been established. Even before the characters appeared in print, they became a tangible part of life and the landscape. An observer in a later newspaper, the Cherokee Advocate, wrote that when travelling through the Cherokee Nation in 1828 'I frequently saw as I rode from place to place, Cherokee letters painted or cut on the trees by the roadside, on fences, houses and often on pieces of bark or board, lying about the houses.' Whilst Sequoyah was not directly involved with the Cherokee Phoenix, he would regularly travel to the Dwight Mission in Oklahoma to collect the latest issue sent to him from Georgia.
In Frank’s book, we follow printers John Foster Wheeler and Isaac Harris as they journeyed together in 1827 from Jasper, Tennessee to the printing office made of 'hewed logs' in New Echota. There, they met editor and Cherokee Elias Boudinot and missionary Samuel Worcester. The materials - the paper, typecast and press - arrived from Boston in early 1828 and the first edition appeared on 21st February 1828. A fifth of the four-page newspaper was printed in Cherokee, reflecting the difficulties of translating and printing between English and Cherokee.
The potential input of US type casters and Worcester in designing the typecast alters how the characters appear in print. Worcester also re-arranged Sequoyah’s characters to reflect the sounds expressed through Roman letters (Fig 4, see below). Despite this, the syllabary was a Cherokee initiative in its creation and use.
Frank writes that "the complexities in the purpose of the newspaper should connotate the difficulties of the era: a true crucible where no one purpose may be clearly stated". This captures the turbulent history the newspaper shared in, seen through its engagement with debates on forced removal and Cherokee sovereignty, and in the newspapers eventual demise. Frank’s quote also captures the complex context of print as a technology tied to the ‘civilising’ mantra of colonialism. Through the story of the Phoenix however, we can understand how print also existed (and exists) as a tool of Indigenous agency, used and expanded to meet Indigenous motives and intellectual traditions.
The last edition of the Phoenix appeared on the 31st of May 1834. In the following year the printers moved westward, the State of Georgia, at the behest of the US Federal Government, seized the printing press and the editor of the newspaper, Elias Boudinot, signed the controversial 1835 Treaty of New Echota - the precursor to the mass forced removal of Cherokees in the 1838 Trail of Tears.
In 1954, the typecast was excavated from a well nearby to the original printing office. Frank’s work includes reproductions of hand impressions of this type which he uses to make conclusions on printing activities at New Echota in the early nineteenth century (Fig 5, see below).
Frank’s book brings together the history of the materials and people joined in the creation of the Cherokee Phoenix and uses those historic materials within its own creation. Through it, we encounter a handmade letterpress book that both emulates and extends the story of the historical materials used to print the Cherokee Phoenix. It is form and content connecting and reaching back through time, speaking to the afterlives of those materials and extending the story of Cherokee language printing.
- Rebecca Slatcher, Collaborative Doctoral Student (British Library & The University of Hull)
17 November 2021
With COP26 now over in Glasgow, I have looked to the Library’s Oceania collections for examples of book artists tackling some of the themes under discussion by world leaders during this crucial conference. The items selected use creative responses to recollect, witness, and foretell the impact of climate change in the Oceania region and beyond.
Carbon Empire by Allan McDonald
A primary goal of COP26 was to secure global net zero emissions by the middle of this century and keep the target of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees. Getting anywhere near to achieving this aim will require radical change and commitments from countries around the world to limit deforestation, phase out coal for renewable energy, and switch from petrol and diesel to electric cars. Allan McDonald’s 2017 photobook, Carbon Empire (YD.2020.b.233), documents petrol stations across New Zealand in different stages of transition. The photographs capture the effect of a change in petroleum laws which forced many independent stations out of business - weeds flourish where petrol pumps once stood, for sale signs replace advertising logos, and a full car park is more reminiscent of a graveyard than a sign of prosperity. And so, the images also offer a vision of a world where petrol stations have fallen out of use and lie abandoned to become rusting monuments of the past.
Witness by Clyde McGill
Our reliance on fossil fuels and its impact on Indigenous cultural heritage is explored in Clyde McGill’s monumental book, Witness (HS.74/2407). The Australian artist travelled to Murujuga (Burrup Peninsula), northern Western Australia to see the petroglyphs, or rock art, first created by the Aboriginal people of Murujuga over forty thousand years ago and added to continuously until the nineteenth century when this community of artists was eradicated through European colonisation. There are between 1-2 million petroglyphs depicting thylacines, megafauna, ceremonies, human faces, and geometrics on this site which is considered the largest continuous rock art gallery of its kind. Yet this part of northwest Australia is also home to massive iron ore, oil, coal, mineral and gas reserves, and when McGill visited prior to creating the book in 2016, this highly significant cultural heritage site was at risk of destruction from large-scale mining operations. Witness doesn’t attempt to document the petroglyphs, but rather records the artist’s experience of his visit to the sacred site through a collection of visceral and confronting paintings, handwritten notes, and performance.
Stolen Waters by Marian Crawford and Peter Lyssiotis
The damage wreaked by the extraction of fossil fuels is similarly interrogated in Stolen Waters (RF.2018.a.87), a collaboration between Australian book artists Marian Crawford and Peter Lyssiotis. This compact 2013 artists’ book examines the environmental damage to our waterways from mining. The names of major disasters are emblazoned on the pages including the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, and the OK Tedi Mine disaster during the 1990s in Papua New Guinea. This accusatory typography is in stark contrast to the black and white images of a jellyfish suspended in a dark sea (or is it an oil slick?).
Picturing the Island by Marian Crawford
A further goal of COP26 was to protect the communities and ecosystems most affected by climate change, including the Pacific Island region; an early and increasingly visible victim of the climate crisis with much at stake in the outcome of COP26. Rising sea levels here are already contaminating fresh water supplies and agriculture, and threatening to engulf many of these small island nations, including Kiribati; a set of low-lying islands in the central Pacific Ocean. Artist Marion Crawford spent her childhood on the island of Banaba (previously Ocean Island), part of the nation of Kiribati where her parents worked for the British Phosphate Commission (BPC). The BPC managed the mining of the island’s phosphate resources until these were exhausted in 1979. The environmental impact of extensive mining has left the Banaba Islanders without fresh water sources and reliant on a desalination plant for clean water. Crawford’s 2016 photobook, Picturing the Island (RF.2017.b.99), uses colonial archival material, including text in Gilbertese and English and photopolymer prints, in juxtaposition with her own memories to reflect on the changes, including environmental damage, undergone by her childhood home.
Miami Underwater by Bronwyn Rees
The topic of global warming and rising sea levels is similarly interrogated in Bronwyn Rees’ Miami Underwater. Rees is an Australian printmaker whose richly textured work explores landscape and wilderness, often depicting nature as an unforgiving force. Although her work is primarily focused on Australian landscapes, in 2014 she turned a city in the USA at the mercy of the encroaching sea to create Miami Underwater. This small handmade book has a strong environmental message and incorporates text extracts from Tony Davis’ Underwater Cities (2011). The varying sizes and texture of the pages require careful handling of this item by the reader, lending a feeling of vulnerability. The overall effect is of a portent; the book feels as if you have just retrieved it from floodwater.
Lucy Rowland, Oceania Curator
Crawford, Marian and Lyssiotis, Peter (2013) Stolen Waters. Victoria, Australia: Carbon, Masterthief. Shelfmark RF.2018.a.87
Davis, Tony (2011) 'Underwater Cities: Climate change begins to reshape the urban landscape' [Online] October 27, 2011. In Grist.org Available at: https://grist.org/cities/2011-10-26-underwater-cities-climate-change-begins-reshape-urban-landscape/
Crawford, Marian (2016) Picturing the Island. Melbourne, Australia: Marian Crawford. Shelfmark RF.2017.b.99
McDonald, Allan (2017) Carbon Empire. Auckland, New Zealand: Rim Books. Shelfmark YD.2020.b.233
McGill, Clyde (2016) Witness. Fremantle, Australia: Clyde McGill. Shelfmark HS.74/2407
Rees, Bronwyn (2014) Miami Underwater. Melbourne, Australia: Bronwyn Rees. Shelfmark (awaiting shelfmark)
06 August 2021
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.
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.
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.
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
26 July 2021
This blog by Richard Price is part of the Eccles Centre's special Summer Scholars blog series highlighting recent research by scholars and creatives working across the British Library's Americas collections.
In a past life I was a researcher, studying for a PhD. I was investigating the novels and plays of the writer Neil M. Gunn who wrote in the interwar period and just beyond. I used the Lord Chamberlain’s Plays collection in the Library to see what the state censor of the day had made of Gunn’s play The Ancient Fire (1929). Gunn had located this drama in two politically sensitive places: post-war Glasgow, dependant on warship contracts for the British Empire, and a Scottish Highlands dominated by super-wealthy, super-absent landlords. I suspected there would be crossings-out in blue pencil, blustering annotations – any manner of indignation – and I was right. The Lord Chamberlain’s office was not going to let that play pass across its desk without the sharpening of pencils.
I duly completed the PhD and to this day use “Dr”, mainly to remind myself I actually did it. As it happens the revelations about censorship – it is still quite shocking to see a person’s art damaged by systematic authority – didn’t form much of my thesis. As often in research, specific information you glean doesn’t always, or even usually, make it to the central argument. Mine was more about aesthetics and internal Scottish self-identity rather than British politics, though of course these three components have various kinds of critical relationship with each other.
And, bar a published paper here or there afterwards, that was it. Fairly soon I decided to settle for just two vocations rather than three – Librarianship and Poetry. I let Research go, continued to work for a certain national library then located in the Round Reading Room of the British Museum (among other places), and continued to work in my own time – yes, I have finally learnt to call it work – as a writer.
Or I thought I had left Research. As the years have gone on, I’ve realised that thing that is reading and thinking and conversing about a subject before making something from that activity is still, of course, Research.
Here are some topics I’ve felt the need to study for creative projects over the years: medical and psychological interventions for insomniacs (Rays, poetry, 2009); airborne pathogens (The Island, novel, 2010); stroke and patient care (Small World, poetry, 2012); the Scottish Highlands in wartime (Wind-breakers, Sea-Eagles and Anthrax, radio, 2019); the history of little magazines (Is This A Poem?, essays, 2015); the music of Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson (The World Brims by the Loss Adjustors, album, 2018); and, most recently, Inuit legends (The Owner of the Sea: Three Inuit Stories Retold, poetry, 2021). I’ve used a mixture of interviews with practitioners, straight-out purchases of academic books, and of course library-based study for all these.
Writing that paragraph I realise I’ve just missed the most significant segment of research that I have carried out: reading poetry. Contemporary poetry, yes, but poetry from all kinds of territories, times and directions, too; books and magazines about poetry which maintain context and skills knowledge; and of course conversations and correspondence with other poets and with readers including those who may not even know they could like poetry. Any writer, I imagine, is continually and voraciously reading works within their form and discussing them, so much so that they lose sight of it sometimes as study, as ‘Research’. In some ways, I hope that they do lose sight of it. Play, pleasure, enjoyment – immersion – perhaps, these are under-rated qualities in a society driven, at times, by a mixing up of education and the work ethic? In any case, all this is the circulating blood at the heart of research, creatively speaking.
I think there’s another element, and perhaps that is also ‘invisible’ to many as labour, as researching activity. It is developing a practical understanding of the material demands, from physical form to people networks, that one’s art moves in, through, and across. For visual artists this is, say, ‘To know the gallery trade’. For a poet like me, who often works with book artists, it’s knowing the artist’s book market and the kinds of possibilities book artists explore in their work; it’s working with book artists. The same is true for knowing the mainstream poetry publishing world: this doesn’t happen instantly but takes years of finding-out (and luck). Some may say that these are compromising complications for a ‘pure poet’ or equivalent artist but I’m not so sure that one can ever escape the material nature of even such an apparently ethereal art. I’d go further, that the nature of its material form and distribution is a big enough part of its meaning for a poet to devote time to learning it.
This helps in a way to explain how The Owner of the Sea came about, and how it was that this ‘invisible’ aspect of research inspired its creation. It was integration within the materiality of one part of the poetry world – artist’s books – that led to it. For well over twenty years I have, in my time away from the Library, been an appreciator of and collaborator with the Anglo-Brazilian artist Ronald King. Our first book was gift horse (Circle Press, 1999; British Library Shelfmark: Cup.512.b.232). It’s a large off-white book with very few pages and striking images which are not inked – they are ‘blind embossed’. The printing equipment has made an impression on a damped page whose paper has to be chosen carefully for its strength and stretchiness in the process. Because no ink is used on these images the eye relies on slight shadow and light differences to make them out. Ron ‘animated’ the image: he used the central figure of a horse starting from a standing position and gradually going into a gallop by the end of the book. The artist Karen Bleitz set the type of the poem in soft grey.
Decades later, after a series of King-Price collaborations, all duly and proudly now in the British Library collections, we joined up for a return to a blind-embossed book, Sedna and the Fulmar. Ron asked me to write a small set of poems based on one of the legends of Sedna, who is a major sea spirit or god, known by various names across different Inuit territories. As a young man, Ron had lived in Canada and had stumbled across her legend. He had never found a satisfying artistic way of responding until now when he would use blind-embossing as an analogy for Arctic white-space, the images imprinted as it were into the snow of the page.
Following his invitation to work with him again, the more conventional usage of ‘Research’ came into play for me. I began to read (and write) more about Sedna than the project required. I was particularly taken by Frédéric Laugrand and Jarich Oosten’s The Sea Woman: Sedna in Inuit Shamanism and Art in the Eastern Arctic (University of Alaska Press, 2008; British Library shelfmark: YK.2009.b.8589) which offered not only information for me to make narrative outlines but a rich sense of traditions and beliefs surrounding Sedna, including shamanism.
Unlike my encounter with the Lord Chamberlain’s plays, this time I wasn’t going to let the extra research go to waste. I very quickly established a narrative for a poetry sequence which would, yes, incorporate the small number of poems I had been commissioned to write, but would tell a longer story. I sent the whole sequence to Michael Schmidt, my publisher at Carcanet but also editor of the poetry journal PN Review. He offered to publish it in its entirety in the magazine almost by return of email. He also encouraged me to write more poems based on Inuit figures.
My study took me to further mythic accounts, from the more fragmentary ones assembled from various nineteenth century accounts by the anthropologist Franz Boas to Kira Van Deusen’s focussed and revelatory book Kiviuq: An Inuit Hero and His Siberian Cousins (McGill-Queen’s, 2009), based on the stories of living storytellers. This helped me counterbalance the story of the female god Sedna with the one of the male hunter Kiviuq.
I also visited a now tragically defunct website, Kiviuq’s Journey, which Van Deusen had also been involved in, and which featured summaries of the tales of the mythic hunter Kiviuq. Again, these were taken directly from living Inuit storytellers (sadly, at least some have since died). Being Canadian, the site was out of scope for the work of our own UK Web Archive, but it does survive thanks to the US-based Internet Archive.
So there were a range of focussed research resources I used for my poetry collection. But wait, I haven’t given examples of the ‘background research’ (like beneficial background radiation) that I mentioned is a way of life for poets – the collections we read day in and day out and the conversations we have. As my readers will know I am a poet of the sequence – from Tube Shelter Perspective (1993) to Small World (2012) – my poems inhabit connected narratives poem by poem, building drama, jumping gaps whose significance the reader will see as they read on. That is in part from being influenced by and having an affinity with such writers as the Tom Leonard of nora’s place or the Bernadine Evaristo of the verse novel The Emperor’s Babe.
It was adding this, what?, sensibility? towards the poetry sequence to my understanding of the narrative structures in Inuit story (at times trance-like, shamanistic, structures) that was the ‘breakthrough’ for me. In fact, sometimes it felt like writing the poems was being in a trance: I look at The Owner of the Sea and I don’t fully understand how these poems came to be written.
Conversations-wise I also shared my drafts with poet friends, including Nancy Campbell , author of Disko Bay and The Library of Ice, who has lived in Greenland and knows Inuit culture far better than I do. Nancy provides an afterword to the sequences in the book.
There is a key point about appropriation here, one that any researcher – creative or otherwise – needs to think carefully about when using the creative labour and common intangible heritage of indigenous cultures. I have, for example, been careful within The Owner of the Sea to acknowledge not just the authors I’ve mentioned but the many individually named storytellers who are cited in the key works. I’ve also emphasised distances in my introduction to the book, in asides contained within the poems themselves, in the jangle of contemporary UK language registers, and the distinctly un-traditional way the book proceeds. No reader could think that the book is anything but a contemporary collection from a Western poet, albeit based on the key moments of Inuit narratives. The original stories are not poems, they are in an entirely different form, the story of oral tradition, a tradition which has its own conventions and needs a set of sophisticated and localised skills for its rendering and which, though I imagine has some overlaps, must be very different from my own poetry tradition. My poems are also not translations and again I emphasise that.
It’s important, I feel, that the reader understands that set of distances and hopefully enjoying the different textures of poetry in The Owner of the Sea can, if they want, lead to the stories the book pays tribute to. I liken this distancing not to scientific or anthropological activity, each fraught with the risks of dehumanisation in such a context where framing is important to the investigating process, but as the distancing that takes places when any one art form, and its culture, tries to relate to another, especially across very different societies and (because the stories are hundreds and probably thousands of years old) across time. Instead of framing, ‘reaching towards’ is what such an activity does. An analogy would be, say, a 16th century painting from Europe depicting the story of Christ’s Nativity many centuries before in ancient Palestine. That artist, whether they are painting for devotion or for patronage or, as may be likely, both, cannot in the making of that painting, I believe, be seen as only ‘appropriating’ the teachings of and folklore around that religion. Rather they are responding in a way that is paradoxically distanced and dedicated: if they are an appropriator in some way they are also and, perhaps more firmly, an apostle. They are also bringing in their contemporary world – the architecture of the stable, the nature of the snow – all European rather than Palestinian (in poetry, we would think of Peter Whigham’s Catullus or Christopher Logue’s Homer, where the world of now glances through the world of the past).
I am also aware that this painting analogy is itself a very Western one, and I use it here to give the opportunity to pause to remember what trauma Christian organisations enacted on Inuit and other indigenous communities in Canada up until very recently, for example through the brutal residential schools systems. In fact in writing these poems I was driven by the sense that these stories -- where creatures are ‘human’’ and humans ‘creaturely’, all within a nature-space that depends on each and their relationship to each other -- were significant not just for their narrative interest but for their reflections on human behaviour. To write the tribute that The Owner of the Sea became was to place Inuit ideas, with all their unsettling challenges and breath-taking beauty, right into contemporary discourse, where they are much needed.
Richard Price is Head of Contemporary British Collections at the British Library. Richard’s The Owner of the Sea: Three Inuit Stories Retold is available here.
12 February 2020
Have you ever wondered what Adam and Eve were really thinking in the Garden of Eden?
In 1893, Mark Twain contributed a short story to the Niagara Falls souvenir collection, The Niagara Book. His clever tale being something of an oddity among stolid pieces on the geology, flora and fauna, and famous visitors of the falls. His contribution, a satirical take on a biblical love story, was entitled, The Earliest Authentic Mention of Niagara Falls: Extracts from Adam's Diary. Translated from the Original Ms. Here, Twain took inspiration from the Book of Genesis to re-imagine the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. By setting his version in the more relatable 'paradise' of Niagara Falls (where Adam enjoys going over the falls in a barrel), he was able to take full advantage of wordplay opportunities on the Fall of Man doctrine from the Bible.
The tale, later published in book form in 1904 as Extracts from Adam's Diary / Translated from the original MS, is told from Adam's perspective and follows his grouchy musings on the sudden, and unwelcome, appearance of a troublemaker in his world: "Monday: This new creature with the long hair is a good deal in the way". Used to a solitary and lazy existence, Adam is initially bewildered and frustrated with the stranger's excessive industry and habit of naming everything she sees before he has the opportunity to do so himself. He is contemptuous of her existence and bemoans her notions of beauty and wonder: "Saturday: She fell in the pond yesterday when she was looking at herself, which she is always doing". However, he is begrudgingly won over by his new companion: "...for I am coming to realize that she is quite a remarkably comely creature". Twain's wit is at his best in this acerbic take on what is a widely accepted creation story, with Adam’s accounts gleefully dry at times: "I advised her to keep away from the tree. She said she wouldn't. I forsee trouble. Will emigrate". Adam’s story poignantly ends with him speaking at Eve's grave, "Wherever she was, there was Eden."
Though the tale follows the original story in the Book of Genesis, with Eve eating the forbidden fruit and the inevitable expulsion from paradise, it also offers a poignant reflection from Adam a decade later: would he rather have never met Eve?: "After all these years, I see that I was mistaken about Eve in the beginning, it is better to live outside the Garden with her than inside it without her". In Twain's story, we see a commentary on his own life: he famously remarked that he would never meet his match in a woman and, like Adam, seemed destined for a solitary life. But he was proved wrong in New York on New Year’s Eve in 1867 when he met Olivia Langdon (Livy): the shy and intelligent daughter of a wealthy coal merchant. They began a long courtship conducted mainly through letters, with 184 handwritten notes passing between them. This letter writing was to continue throughout their life together.
Livy died following a long illness in 1904, and, after locking himself away, Twain composed what many have dubbed his eulogy to her. Eve’s Diary was published in the 1905 Christmas issue of the magazine Harper's Bazaar, and then in book format in June 1906. This companion piece to Adam’s Diary follows Eve from her creation to her grave and was the only time Twain wrote from the perspective of a woman. He made great use of the opportunity to do so, and delivered a sharp-witted account of Eve’s thoughts on Adam, who she dubs “the other experiment”. She is impatient of his monosyllabic responses and laziness: “I wonder what it is for. I never see it do anything”. The story is notable in exemplifying his changed views on women’s suffrage. Twain was a staunch opponent of women’s right to vote, but after meeting Livy and having daughters, he changed his mind.
In Eve’s Diary, in contrast to Adam’s account, Eve is shown to be extremely bright and warm: expressing wonder and innate curiosity about the world around her. She is even taken with the grumpy Adam and is accepting of his faults and perceived lesser intelligence. His companionship offers a chance for conversation, something she loves (and an opportunity for a dig from Twain) : “I talk all day and in my sleep, too, and I am very interesting”. Unlike Adam’s, Eve’s account glosses over the Fall: “The garden is lost, but I have found him and am content”, and she is quicker to come to this realisation than Adam. Her final entry is delivered forty years later, and expresses a wish that, if they are not able to pass from the world together, it is her who goes first: “…life without him would not be life; how could I endure it?”. When reading this alongside Adam’s Diary we know that she gets her wish: Adam’s story ends with him speaking at Eve's grave: "Wherever she was, there was Eden." Although Twain proposed to have the two stories joined together in one volume, unfortunately this never happened in his lifetime.
The four love stories: the original tale from the Book of Genesis, Adam’s Diary, Eve’s Diary, and the story of Twain and Livy, have been themselves retold in a 2003 artists’ book from San Francisco artist, Charles Hobson. Entitled Extracts from Eve's Diary ; Extracts from Adam's Diary, this creative interpretation interweaves excerpts from Genesis, the two diaries, and handwritten letters between Twain and Livy, with illustrations of two figures moving towards embrace. The motion of the two figures is inspired by the photographs of Eadweard Muybridge from his Human Figure in Motion study from 1901, and is enabled by the intricate design of the book. The artist has used a French door structure with cut-out pages and collaged folded sheets to involve the reader in revealing the journey of Adam and Eve toward each other, and away from ignorance.
The book is presented in a slipcase and opens in two concertinaed halves to display Eve's story on the left and Adam's on the right, allowing passages from each to be easily compared and contrasted. The copy at the British Library (shelfmark RF.2017.b.43) is the final edition in a limited run of 38 copies and includes a separate print of Adam and Eve embracing. The parallels between Twain’s Adam and Eve, and himself and Livy have been beautifully encapsulated in this artistic volume, with the design of the book is extremely effective in portraying what Twain surely felt to be a too brief but passionate time in Eden.
The Niagara Book: A Complete Souvenir of Niagara Falls by W.D Howells, Mark Twain, Prof. Nathanial S. Shaler, and others. Buffalo, New York: Underhilll and Nichols, 1893. (10413.b.37.)
The Human Figure in Motion by Eadweard Muybridge. London : Chapman & Hall, 1901. (Tab.443.b.1.)
Extracts from Adam's Diary / Translated from the original MS. by Mark Twain. New York ; London : Harper & Bros, 1904. (012330.h.50.)
Eve's Diary. Translated from the original MS. by Mark Twain. New York: Harper & Bros, 1906. (012330.h.54.)
Extracts from Eve's Diary ; Extracts from Adam's Diary by Charles Hobson. San Francisco: Pacific Editions, 2003. (RF.2017.b.43)
Lucy Rowland, Curator of Oceania Published Collections post-1850
23 September 2019
And who would disagree with Jack Kerouac’s assessment of the Swiss-born American photographer, who died at the age of 94 on 9th September. There have already been numerous obits etc on Frank by others more expert on the subject than me, so I thought I would just take a brief look at the publishing history of Frank’s most well-known book -The Americans.
Frank was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship in 1955 for his project 'to photograph freely throughout the United States, using the miniature camera exclusively…,' his application having gained support from a number of photographer luminaries such as Walker Evans and Edward Steichen. The funding enabled him to make several trips from New York over 1955/56, including one 8 month trip to the West Coast in a 1950 Ford Coupe. Frank took over 20,000 images on nearly 800 rolls of 35 mm film, many of them being processed and contact printed en route, which no doubt enabled him to more easily review and develop some of the themes which recur in his work – symbols of popular culture, race and class, religion, music etc. Frank later wrote “I have attempted to show a cross-section of the American population. My effort was to express it simply and without confusion. The view is personal….” (quoted in The Book of 101 Books, edited by Andrew Roth, PPP Editions, New York, 2001, p.150).
Thirty-three of these photos appeared at the end of 1957 in US Camera Annual, but Frank's intention had always been to produce a book. From his huge collection of images, he somehow managed to select just eighty-three photos, but finding a publisher proved to be even more difficult. It was Frank’s friend Robert Delpire, the influential Paris-based art publisher, editor and curator, who was eventually to publish ‘Les Américains’ in 1958. It’s interesting to take a closer look at this first edition since it’s a very different book to the later and much better known American edition, even though the photos and the sequence of them is exactly the same. Delpire had a strong interest in documentary photography - and his own distinct vision for the book. In addition to contributing his own writing, Alain Bosquet (poet, novelist and translator) gathered together texts by writers as diverse as Simone de Beauvoir, Erskine Caldwell, John Dos Passos, Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, Richard Wright, Walt Whitman and many many more to accompany the photos. Appearing in Delpire’s Encyclopédie Essentielle series in 1958, Les Américains also includes sections on significant dates in US history, population statistics, and encompasses themes such as politics, religion and so on. Frank’s photographs therefore become more like illustrations to a sociological and political text. Each photo faces a page of text and our reading of the photos is inevitably influenced by what appears in that text. As David Levi Strauss has commented, ‘That powerful image from Dolores Park in San Francisco where the African American couple turns toward the camera in anger is wholly influenced by the facing page quotes from Faulkner and John Brown (The Book of 101 Books as above). As you will also see from the below image, no photograph was included on the cover, rather it has some drawings by Saul Steinberg.
It’s not surprisingly that Frank wasn’t overly happy about this edition, and sought to persuade Grove Press to publish an American edition. Fortunately he was successful and this time all the texts were removed, not least because some of them were considered too critical of the US, un-American in fact. For this we can be thankful. As already mentioned, the eighty-three photos and their sequencing remain the same, but now each photo is opposite a white page, blank save for a small caption which provides the location of each image (much like the format of Walker Evans’ earlier and influential American Photographs, which Frank so admired). Now we have the space to appreciate the photographs and we can interpret just as we want all those images of flags, funerals, cars, jukeboxes and so on. The one other difference is that this edition, of course, carries an introduction by Jack Kerouac. The two men had met at a party in 1957 and Frank had shown Kerouac some of the photos from his road trips. It’s not hard to imagine why they had appealed to Kerouac, whose novel On The Road appeared in September of that year. ‘The humor, the sadness, the EVERYTHING-ness and American-ness of these pictures!’ The introduction is an almost perfect accompaniment, and also helped to situate Frank as a part of the Beat Generation. In fact, by the time the edition appeared in 1959, Frank was already exploring the medium of film and was making Pull My Daisy with Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso et al.
Surprising as it might now seem, the reception of The Americans on publication was quite mixed. Some people loved it, but it also attracted a lot of criticism, both for the quality of the images (described as blurry and grainy) but also some considered it to promote a too negative view of America. It is also hard to believe that the MOMA bookshop even refused to stock it at first. Of course now it has become one of the most influential and celebrated photobooks of the Twentieth Century. As David Campany has written, it was a survey of ‘all that seemed uncomfortable in the American psyche, captured by a photographer with a rare ability to turn the most unpromising moments into new symbols,’ describing it as the ‘visual equivalent to jazz’. (David Campany, The Open Road, Aperture, 2014, p.25). The jazz analogy often appears in writing on the book, and I particularly like this sentence on the sequencing of the photos from Martin Parr and Gerry Badger’s The Photobook: a history, vol. 1. ‘Ideas ebb and flow, are introduced, discarded, recapitulated, transfigured, transposed, played off and piled up against each other with the exuberant energy of a Charlie Parker saxophone solo.’ (Phaidon 2004, p.247).
Sadly the BL does not have a copy of the first edition of The Americans since what we now refer to as photobooks were usually not considered for acquisition for the old reference collections in the past. Consequently, the only copies of many American photobooks that we have are often in what used to be the old lending collections. Some gaps have been filled more recently but first editions are usually too expensive these days as they have become so collectable. At the end of the day, it’s the images that you want so reprints still work for many purposes. In this case, the Library has an Aperture edition from 1969 (shelfmark AL69/4991) which includes a section of filmstrip images at the end (Frank comments that they ‘represent for me the continuation of my work’) plus several later reprints and editions. We do, however, have Les Américains (Shelfmark RF.2017.a.63). David Levi Strauss has said that ‘The French edition is sociology, the American edition is poetry.’ You can look at them both and decide for yourself.
I started with Kerouac so I’ll end with him too:
‘Robert Frank, Swiss, unobtrusive, nice, with that little camera that he raises and snaps with one hand he sucked a sad poem right out of America onto film, taking rank among the tragic poets of the world!’
(above copy of The Americans is my own copy of the 50th anniversary edition, published by Steidl in 2008)
By Carole Holden
Americas and Oceania Collections blog recent posts
- A welcome return for on-site Doctoral Open Days
- In conversation with Frank Brannon
- The Advent of a Newspaper
- Witnessing climate change: COP26 and Oceania book artists
- Two Conflicting Pioneers and their Precursors in the Amazon
- Shape-shifting: Creative research and 'The Owner of the Sea'
- Dear Diary....Mark Twain and a timeless love story
- ‘To Robert Frank I now give this message: You got eyes’
- América Latina: Artists’ Books at the British Library
- Witch-hunts and the iconographic power of fear