26 September 2023
Occasionally, you come across an item in the British Library that can open up a new pathway through our wider collection. One such item is Verse and Reverse, the title of two collections of poetry, printed in 1921 and 1922, written and published by the members of the Toronto Women’s Press Club.
In April 1921, the Toronto Women’s Press Club, a regional branch of the Canadian Women’s Press Club, held a poetry night. Members anonymously submitted poems, which they read aloud to each other. Pleased with the experiment, the membership decided to gather the poems together and publish a booklet, repeating the endeavour the following year. The British Library holds both collections, bound together, at shelfmark 1168.c.57.
Since I first read about the Canadian Women’s Press Club, its members and history have intrigued me. Founded in 1904, the Club emerged out of the relationships forged when sixteen women working in the Canadian press achieved sponsorship to report on the World’s Fair in St. Louis, USA. It was during their ten-day railway journey they formed the idea of a professional network to support, promote and advocate for its members. With writers working in both French and English, it was the first nationally recognised club of its kind, founded long before women achieved suffrage in Canada.
At the start of the twentieth century, the nature of the literary marketplace for women drew almost all writers into the orbit of newspapers and periodicals. As such, the Canadian Women’s Press Club was a broad church. As one might expect, members included pioneering journalists, like founder Kit Coleman, the first Canadian woman accredited as a war correspondent, and suffragists Nellie McClung and Emily Murphy. Yet, novelist Lucy M. Montgomery, author of the bestselling Anne of Green Gables (1908), also served as a regional vice president of the club. Another active member was E. Pauline Johnson (Tekahionwake), the daughter of a Mohawk chief and English mother, who performed poems and stories about Indigenous experience. Historians have documented the compelling story of the club’s founding, most recently Linda Kay. Yet, there is much more to uncover about its regional branches and evolutions across the twentieth century. I was keen to see what the Toronto Branch’s Verse and Reverse might illuminate.
In the 1922 ‘Prefatory Note’ to Verse and Reverse, Isabel Eccleston MacKay observes there ‘are few things more delightful than to turn to the fresh-cut pages of a new miscellany’. I certainly agree. There are familiar figures among the contributors to Verse and Reverse, (Montgomery has poems in each booklet), but it is the less familiar names that intrigue. While the poetry collected is interesting, what I find exciting about something like Verse and Reverse is that it gathers the names of many forgotten writers working in Toronto in the 1920s together. This makes it a great starting point for further research, which the British Library’s wider collection is able to support.
Our Canadian holdings are remarkably rich. Much of this owes to the process of colonial copyright deposit to the British Museum Library. This undiscriminating process meant, for a time, the accrual of items published in Canada was not as subject to the ideologies of taste and the financial constraints that can shape acquisition. As such, I found it was easy to order up a sample of other titles from the lesser-known Verse and Reverse contributors. Gathering together works of ephemeral popularity, what starts to emerge is a snapshot of women’s cultural production at the start of the twentieth century in Toronto; not the luminaries preserved across time, but the disparate and largely forgotten output of everyday, professionally organised women who earnt their living through their pens.
Although all their contributions to Verse and Reverse were poems, the Toronto members of the Canadian Women’s Press Club worked across literary genres. Some of the books I ordered cohered to my expectations: non-fiction writing on conduct, etiquette and instruction. For example, member Emily P. Weaver’s A Canadian History for Boys and Girls (1900) is a chronological survey of Canada complete with black and white illustrations by her sister. Gertrude Pringle’s Etiquette in Canada, first published in 1932, was new to me, offering advice for a gamut of social situations from picnics to the opening of Parliament. Another lovely discovery was the beautiful cover of Louise Mason’s After the Honeymoon: One Hundred Hints on Husbandry, which offers a selection of comedic snippets of marriage advice.
However, other titles I ordered were more unusual and unexpected. I am intrigued now, for instance, to delve more into The House of Windows (1912), MacKay’s own novel about the fates of an overworked department store shop girl. Member Katherine Hale’s Grey Knitting, and Other Poems (1914) is a collection about women’s experiences on the Home Front during World War I. It reminded me of a more recent Canadian acquisition, the textile work I Sit and Sew (2019) by artist Lise Melhorn-Boe. The Library holds member Florence Randal Livesay’s novel Savour of Salt (1927), which chronicles the experiences of Irish immigrants to Ontario. Mother of the award-winning poet Dorothy Livesay, Florence was clearly interested in the Canadian immigrant experience, collecting and translating a number of Ukrainian folk takes in her lifetime. The British Library holds her posthumously published collection, Down Singing Centuries: Folk Literature of Ukraine (1981), with striking illustrations by Stefan Czernecki. In summary, Verse and Reverse provided me with an avenue to open up a whole range of intriguing work I did not know we held and would otherwise have been hard to discover.
There are no grand conclusions to reach with a short project like this. However, it is indicative of the work one can achieve with ease thanks to the strength of the British Library’s Canadian collection. Much more work could be done with our microfilm, newspaper, and e-resources, where, armed with their names, one could pull together more of the work of Press Club members. Indeed, within our e-resources collection we hold digital copies of publications from branches of the Canadian Women’s Press Club in Alberta and Calgary. Each provides their own starting point to enrich our understanding of localised literary marketplaces, the ways in which women constructed their careers, and female authorship in Canada. The founders created the Canadian Women’s Press Club to foster professional solidarity and promote its members’ work. It is fitting, then, that Verse and Reverse, long past the point of the Club’s existence and the Toronto Branch’s poetry night, can continue to serve as a means through which we can draw their cultural production together and begin to bring the members their due attention.
- Hale, Grey Knitting, and other poems (1914) held at 11686.ee.46.
- Kay, The Sweet Sixteen: the journey that inspired the Canadian Women’s Press Club (2012) held at YD.2013.a.83.
- Livesay, Savour of Salt (1927) held at NN.13499.
- Livesay, Down Singing Centuries: folk literature of Ukraine (1981) held at L.45/3357.
- MacKay, The House of Windows (1912) held at 012621.cc.34.
- Mason, After the Honeymoon: One hundred hints on husbandry (1922) held 08416.bb.82.
- Melhorn-Boe, I Sit and Sew: with poem by Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson (2019) held at RF.2022.a.75.
- Pringle, Etiquette in Canada: The Blue Book of Canadian social usage (1949) held at YA.1987.b.1605.
- Toronto Women’s Press Club, Verse and Reverse (1921, 1922) held at 1168.c.57.
- Weaver, A Canadian History for Boys and Girls (1900) held at 09555.aa.3.
By Hannah Graves
Curator, North American Published Collections (post-1850)
23 November 2022
The British Library has digitised and made available online the only known copy of Una Marson’s pioneering play ‘At What a Price’ (1932).
Una Maud Marson was born in Jamaica in 1905. Throughout her lifetime she would live and work in the Caribbean, the UK and the USA. An editor, poet, playwright, activist, writer and BBC producer, Marson had a versatile and prolific career. The phenomenal breadth and range of Una Marson’s creative and critical outputs are yet to be fully appreciated, but there has been a recent renewed interest in the contributions she made to the cultural landscape of the British Empire and North America. Una Marson was the subject of a BBC production, Una Marson: Our Lost Caribbean Voice, which brought to life her incredible career and creations. Many of those creations can be found here, in the British Library, including her poetry collections. However, some of her works are a little harder to find.
Through a recent project at the British Library, the Eccles Centre for American Studies has been supporting the research of Professor Kate Dossett and her project ‘Black Cultural Archives & the Making of Black Histories’. Part of this project involved examining the Lord Chamberlain’s Play’s (LCP) collection for plays produced in Britain written by Black playwrights. The LCP’s are the largest collection of manuscripts in the British Library. The collection consists of plays collected by the Office of the Lord Chamberlain from the years 1824 to 1968. They were collected because the censorship laws which existed at the time specified that plays had to be approved for a licence before a performance. This collection therefore provides an illuminating record of drama performed in the UK up to 1968. The research project has utilised this collection to find and promote the, often hidden, work of Black theatre makers in the early twentieth century.
One of the plays within the collection is Una Marson’s, ‘At What a Price’. Marson first wrote this play whilst living in Jamaica where it staged in 1932. The play was so successful that she used the profits to travel to London, England, where it was staged before British audiences. In London she got involved in anti-racist activism and became secretary to the League of Coloured Peoples, which fought for racial equality in the UK. The league and its founder, Harold Moody, sponsored Marson’s London production of her play in 1933. Yet, despite its international popularity no copy of the play’s script is known to have survived beyond the one kept in the Lord Chamberlain’s Plays collection.
The play follows Ruth Maitland, a young Jamaican woman who moves from the countryside to Kingston, Jamaica, to work as a stenographer where she is pursued by a white Englishman. The play examines women’s agency in love and work, as well as issues of interracial relations and sexual harassment. The unique play script that Una Marson and her production team sent to the Lord Chamberlain’s Office has now been digitised in its entirety and has been made accessible through the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts website. Researchers can now view this play and the related reader’s report from the Lord Chamberlain’s Office which outlines the department’s response in terms of whether the play was suitable for licensing. These images are available to view here.
With the digitisation of this play and related Lord Chamberlain’s Office correspondence, we hope to preserve and widen access to Una Marson’s many and varied cultural outputs. With the digitisation of this play, and others created by black theatre makers, researchers and audiences can discover ways in which black playwrights across the British Empire and Americas were frequently creating new cultural narratives and were at the forefront of movements for change that were an integral part of the British theatrical landscape in the early 20th century.
Jessica Gregory, Project Officer, Modern Archives and Manuscripts
Digitisation funded by the Eccles Centre for American Studies.
17 June 2022
This new series will shine a light on the British Library’s Canadian Copyright Collection.
The British Library’s Canadian Copyright Collection occupies a unique and quite intriguing place in its Canadian holdings. As well as books and periodicals, it includes maps, sheet music, insurance plans, photographs, and city and area directories, and its comprehensive nature means it offers a vital window into Canadian life and culture between 1895 and 1923. Yet, why does the Library have this Collection? And how can researchers make the most of it?
In this introductory blog, we will answer the first question; subsequent blogs will then illuminate different aspects of the holdings. However, we cannot begin the series without acknowledging the invaluable contribution of Patrick B. O’Neill – Canadian theatre historian and bibliographer extraordinaire.
In the 1970s, O’Neill began work on a research project to illuminate the full corpus of Canadian drama. Quite quickly, he ran into all sorts of obstacles. Yet he was nothing if not tenacious. In 1979, his quest for printed copies of playscripts published in Canada brought him to the British Library and here his conversations with curators – and their conversations with long-retired colleagues – led to the “re-discovery” of the Canadian Copyright Collection in its entirety. Several years later, O’Neill – then professor at Mount Saint Vincent University – returned to the Library on sabbatical to document the collection and it is thanks to his painstaking work, and that of several Dalhousie University colleagues, that it is so accessible today.
In a wonderfully clear and informative article, O’Neill recounts that the genesis of the Copyright Collection lay in an 1895 amendment to the Canadian Copyright Act of 1875.1 Up until 1895, obtaining copyright under Canadian law had involved meeting two conditions. First, the literary, scientific or artistic work had to be published and printed or reprinted in Canada. Second, two copies of the work – be it a book, map, chart, musical composition, photograph, print, cut or engraving – had to be deposited at the Office of the Minister of Agriculture. The 1875 Act instructed the Minister to deposit one copy of the work in the Library of Parliament and to retain the other copy in the Copyright Office.
In 1895, Section Ten of this Act was amended to require that three copies be sent to this Minister, and this third copy was to be forwarded to the Library of the British Museum. Thankfully, the Department of Agriculture appears to have been extraordinarily diligent in ensuring that these third copies reached the UK. Indeed, O’Neill notes that the "Canadian Copyright Lists" (that were found in the office of that retired member of staff and later used by O’Neill to document the collection) indicated nearly 100% receipt of the material copyrighted in Canada between 1895 and 1923. And the Department’s diligence would prove even more significant in light of subsequent events at the other two repositories.
In 1916, the Library of Parliament suffered its first of two disastrous fires, with the second one occurring in 1953. In both cases, water damage caused more destruction than the fires themselves and although its copyright collection was not totally destroyed, it was seriously depleted.
The Copyright Office Collection fared even worse. Having drawn a blank in finding any trace of this collection himself, O’Neill resorted to writing to his then Member of Parliament, the Hon. Robert Stanfield, to find out what had happened. Stanfield’s response arrived within 24 hours, but was far from encouraging. It appears that in 1937 the Copyright Office was due to move premises. Given that the new offices lacked enough space for its collection, advice was sought on how to proceed. The Committee of the Privy Council’s assessment was that few of the "several thousands of volumes of books, catalogues, periodical pamphlets, sheet music, maps" had any value. An Order-in-Council (whose signatories included then Prime Minister Mackenzie-King) therefore ordered that the material be offered for selection to the Secretary of State Library; anything remaining after that was to be disposed of by the Copyright Library. In total, the former chose 155 books of prominent Canadian statesmen and some 60 volumes of Canadian fiction. The remaining 50,000+ items in this copyright collection seem to have been destroyed.
Given these events, it is not surprising that the British Library now holds the most complete record of Canadian printing and publishing – in French and English, and in all its manifestations – for the period between 1895 and 1923. The reason for this particular cut-off date was that on 1 January 1924, the Canadian copyright Act of 1921 came into force and it no longer required items to be deposited in repositories in Canada or elsewhere. It should be noted that this was later amended by a 1931 bill that required publishers to send two copies of all books published in Canada to the Library of Parliament, thereby forming the basis of a Canadian national library.
Next time, we will focus on the sheet music published in Canada during this time, and in subsequent blogs we will explore maps, city and directories, insurance plans (more fascinating than one might initially imagine!) and photographs…
1. Patrick B. O'Neill, From Theatre History to Canadiana: The Canadian Deposit Collection in the British Library. Papers of the Bibliographical Society of Canada, Vol. 25, No. 1, 1986.
31 May 2022
In the latest of our blogs on digital resources for Americas Studies, the Eccles Centre's Philip Abraham looks at the early period of European contact and invasion of the Americas. Remember, once you have your Reader Pass a number of these e-resources can be accessed remotely, from the comfort of your own home.
The emergence of what many scholars now think of as Vast Early America during the early modern period is one of the central pivots of global history.  The emergence of an Atlantic world during the two centuries after 1450 was a complex and truly transnational phenomenon, which involved the transfer and circulation (often violent and coerced) of peoples, plants, animals, goods and ideas between Europe, Africa and the Americas.
Because this moment involved so many different kinds of people and things scattered across three continents, it is also a subject that particularly benefits from the development of digital platforms. Digital technology allows researchers to bring together documents and sources from institutions and repositories from around the world in a way that was only possible for the most privileged researchers in the analogue age. These platforms often also include features like maps and infographics which help students and researchers to visualize the movements and voyages that are so fundamental to understanding these histories.
This blog is going to focus on some of the more specialized digital platforms and resources available through the British Library, but it is always worth remembering that some of the more general resources for the humanities (and early modern studies in particular) have a lot to offer. 
For building a bibliography, general resources that have been mentioned elsewhere, like the Hispanic American Periodicals Index, America: History & Life and the Bibliography of British and Irish History (which, despite the name, also covers the British Empire in North America and the Caribbean, and Britain's military, economic and diplomatic relations with Latin America) are indispensable starting points. These platforms rely on keywords searches, however, which is great if you have a fairly specific idea of what you are looking for, but less useful if you’re entering a subject for the first time and would like a bit more guidance. For those new to the subject, the best jumping off point for building a reading list are the annotated bibliographies in Atlantic History available through Oxford Bibliographies. Assembled by world-leading experts and covering 360 themes ranging from ‘African Retailers and Small Artisans’ to ‘Dreams and Dreaming’ in the Atlantic world, it is an eclectic but extremely inspiring way into the subject.
Again, many of the general platforms for early modern studies offer important pathways into the subject of Europe’s overseas expansion. Early English Books Online (which has a digitized copy of almost every book printed in the British Isles and North America before 1700) is invaluable if you are interested in the ideas that animated England’s engagement with the Atlantic, as you can retrieve texts like Richard Hakluyt’s foundational treatise, Principal Navigations, Voyages and Discoveries of the English Nation, at the click of a button.
EEBO (as those in the know call it!) is an amazing achievement but again, it rewards those that know what they are looking for. European Views of the Americas, 1493-1750 similarly does not easily facilitate browsing but is a really useful gateway into online primary sources for more experienced researchers. There are no comparable resources available through the British Library in languages other than English, however, so if you want to get a more pan-European, indeed pan-Atlantic, perspective, some of the specially curated platforms are very useful.
Its somewhat old-fashioned (indeed, some might say problematically euphemistic) title notwithstanding, Age of Exploration, c. 1420-1920 is a really dynamic and compelling way into the subject, and has a number of really useful features. It has hundreds of documents relating to Europe’s colonization of the Americas (as well as Europe’s colonization of other regions of the world, as it is not focused solely on the Atlantic), organized into collections and themes to make browsing much easier. A particularly useful feature are the interactive maps, which not only chart the routes taken by some of the most significant voyages of exploration during this period, but connects these to fascinating primary sources. For instance, the map plotting William Baffin’s second voyage (March – August 1616) in search of the fabled Northwest Passage connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans links to a full digitization of his account of the journey and the log of the voyage. 
Other documentary highlights include a digitized copy of Antonio de la Ascensión’s 220 page account of Sebastián Vizcaíno’s voyage along the coast of California in 1602-1603, and an equally long manuscript describing the conquistador Pedro de Valdivia’s subjugation of Chile in the 1540s.
Age of Exploration also features videos by leading scholars introducing a number of topics, as well as essays and biographies of several major white European men involved in the exploration and invasion of the Americas. Other curated platforms that similarly offer in-depth access to select primary sources together with helpful editorial or secondary interpretive material include Global Commodities: Trade, Exploration & Cultural Exchange, which uses datasets, documents and maps relating to 15 raw and manufactured goods such as fur, silver and gold, sugar and coffee as ways into global history. Empire Online covers the British Empire from a broad range of perspectives. Obviously, the African and Indigenous experiences need to be brought into view before a full picture of the emergence of the early modern Americas can be made, but these resources on European travel, war-making, trade and early settlement are a good starting point.
 This notion was developed by the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, and is very well articulated by former Director Karin Wulf here.
 This blog will not deal in depth with digital resources concerned with the Atlantic slave trade, or the Indigenous American experience of European colonization. Look out for blogs that will deal with these themes in the future.
 This happens to a British Library manuscript. William Baffin, True Relation of his Fourth Voyage for the discovery of a north-west passage, in the year 1615; preceded by the Log of the voyage, Add MS 12206.
20 December 2021
This third - and deliberately brief - instalment of our e-resources blog series focuses on the Library's ‘bibliographic’ e-resources!
By and large, searching this kind of e-resource will not bring up the full-text of books and articles. Instead, you will be given a list of citations which you then need to track down elsewhere. For example, if your search brings up a journal article that looks interesting, you will need to see if the British Library or another institution subscribes to that journal in order to be able to read the article itself.
While this might at first glance seem disappointing, the unique and utterly brilliant selling point of these databases is their capacity to stop you from ever again needing to note down and follow-up footnotes as you attempt to uncover all the previous research on your topic. Instead, in a matter of moments, you will be provided with accurate, up-to-date information about everything that has already been published in your field.
So, how do they work?
In brief, they are compiled by teams of highly-skilled indexers whose role it is to assign multiple index-terms to every article in a particular journal, thereby providing you with the greatest possible chance of retrieving citations that are relevant to your research.
All mainstream subjects – history, literature, politics, sociology, economics, art, music etc – have at least one dedicated bibliographic e-resource and these can be found by using the Subject search facility on the Library’s portal. These subject-specific e-resources include, for example:
- America History and Life, which currently indexes articles in 1,648 journals covering United States and Canadian history and culture
- MLA International Bibliography, which currently indexes 6000+ journals in literature, language and linguistics, literary theory and criticism, and folklore, and which adds over 66,000 citations every year
- HAPI Online (Hispanic American Periodicals Index Online), which currently indexes 400+ journals and includes 335,000+ citations in total
Other bibliographic e-resources cover multiple subjects, for example: Humanities Index; Arts and Humanities Citation Index; and Social Sciences Full Text (selective full-text coverage since 1994).
And some bibliographic e-resources focus on a particular type of content, for example:
- Proquest Dissertations and Theses and EThOS index, in different ways, doctoral dissertations and Master's theses
- Poole’s Index to Periodical Literature, 1802-1906 offers digitized access to William Frederick Poole’s ground-breaking attempt to make accessible the vast amount of magazine and journal content published in the 19th century.
Below are some of the bibliographic e-resources with Americas content that are currently offered by the British Library, but please take a look at the full range of these resources on the Library’s website as there will be at least one database that will make your literature search both quick and comprehensive; some of these resources will include books as well as journal articles, and an increasing number of them are, happily, offering full-text access:
ABELL (Annual Bibliography of English Language and Literature)
America: History and Life
Anthropological Index Online
Applied Social Sciences Index and Abstracts
Arts and Humanities Citation Index
Book Review Digest Plus (1983- ) & Book Review Digest Retrospective, 1903-1982
Humanities and Social Sciences Index Retrospective, 1907-1984
Humanities Index, 1962 – present
International Political Science Abstracts
MLA International Bibliography
Policy File Index
Poole’s Index to Periodical Literature, 1802-1906 (Part of Eight Centuries)
Proquest Dissertations and Theses
RLIM Abstracts of Music Literature
SciELO Citation Index
Social Sciences Citation Index
Social Sciences Full Text
Wishing you a wonderful festive season and all the very best until 2022 when the next blog in this series will highlight everything you need to know about Americas-focused Women's Studies e-resources!
26 October 2021
We are delighted to let you know that the Eccles Centre has just published a new Americas-focused bibliographic guide: US Fine Presses Established after 1945: A Guide to the British Library's Holdings (just scroll down a little to find it!)
This guide grew out of a conversation in late 2019 with then-Head of the Centre, Phil Hatfield, who had recently pledged financial support towards the cataloguing of a backlog of US fine press publications. A large number of these works – produced on old-fashioned hand-presses by contemporary printers – had been acquired by our curatorial colleagues in the previous 15 years. Phil rightly noted that without some kind of check-list or guide, it would be almost impossible for Library Readers, now or in the future, to appreciate the depth and richness of these holdings.
Initially, the guide was just going to list the works that were then being catalogued. This suited me perfectly since at that point I honestly didn’t understand the time, money and effort that my colleagues had devoted to obtaining these items! Thankfully, as I immersed myself in this world, my appreciation grew – both for the beauty, originality and boundary-pushing nature of the items themselves, and for the imagination and skill of their printers. And as my appreciation increased, so too did the scope of this project. After discovering P.A.H. Brown’s Modern British and American Private Presses (1850-1965): [catalogue of the] holdings of the British Library (London, 1976) it seemed sensible to push our own guide’s start date back to 1965.1 And as it became apparent that several post-war presses had been omitted from Brown, so we pushed that date back even further, to 1945.
The first step in tracking down these presses was to search the Library’s catalogue. Covid-19 related Library closures, combined with often-minimal cataloguing data, made it difficult to verify many of the items’ fine press credentials in person. Thankfully, however, online access to rare bookseller and auction websites made it possible, slowly but surely, to determine whether an item was hand-printed and whether a press had been founded after World War II.
In total, items by more than 180 such presses were found in the Library’s collection. More than 160 of these presses started after 1965 and – incredibly – more than 90 were established between 1965-1980. This fifteen-year period truly was a golden era for hand-press printing in the United States – a cultural phenomenon which seems entirely in-tune with that counter-cultural moment. Crucially, too, this was the point at which graduates from the recently established university book arts programmes began founding fine presses of their own.
Researching the emergence and development of these presses was absolutely fascinating. Time and again it showed me the profound impact that great teachers can have not only on individuals, but on an entire creative landscape. For this reason, in addition to listing the names of these presses and some of their works, the guide offers a short ‘biography’ of each of press, including, where possible: the name of the press’s founder(s); the founder’s training and/or education and mentor; how long the press was in operation; how it developed over time; any speciality in subject matter or genre; any change in location; the type of equipment used; and whether it made its own paper. After this ‘biography’, the full details of up to ten works are listed for every press. And at the end of the guide there is a geographic index to the presses, arranged by US state.
I hope this guide will prove useful to all those working in this field. And for those who are not, I hope it will offer an insight into a lesser-known aspect of the Library’s Americas holdings.
- Philip A.H. Brown, Modern British and American Private Presses (1850-1965): [catalogue of the] holdings of the British Library. London: British Museum Publications Ltd for the Library, 1976. Shelfmark: Open Access Rare Books and Music 094.4016 ENG; General Reference Collection 2708.aa.36; Document Supply 78/9820.
24 March 2020
American poet, painter, activist, pioneering figure in the Beat movement, and co-founder of City Lights Bookseller, Lawrence Ferlinghetti turns 101 on March 24 2020
The Library’s collections are rich in Beats and Ferlinghetti material (take a look at our Beats bibliography if you’re interested to see a comprehensive overview of holdings). But with so many pages of ground-breaking content to leaf through, what would be appropriate to feature to mark the artist’s 101st birthday?
Pictures of the Gone World seemed like a good option (fifth printing edition held at BL shelfmark 011313.t.3/1.). This was Ferlinghetti's first book, published in 1955 by his own City Lights Books, in a 500-copy letterpress edition (City Lights Booksellers & Publishers website). Two years earlier, he had co-founded City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco together with college professor and editor of City Lights magazine, Peter D. Martin. The store was the first all-paperback bookshop in the United States (The Guardian online, Interview with a Bookstore: San Francisco's historic City Lights) and would become ‘the launching pad for the San Francisco Writers Renaissance’ (Douglas Street in the Southwest Review, Vol. 66, No. 2 [Spring 1981], p. 228. Access via JSTOR, available in British Library Reading Rooms). For more than 60 years, City Lights “has served as a ‘literary meeting place’ for writers, readers, artists, and intellectuals to explore books and ideas.” (City Lights Booksellers & Publishers website).
Pictures of the Gone World was Number One in the Pocket Poets Series launched by the City Lights Books. One of the series focuses was to provide paperback, and thus more affordable, content to readers, and the book’s publication helped to extend Ferlinghetti’s ‘concept of a cultural meeting place to a larger arena.’ (City Lights Booksellers & Publishers website). With mentions of London, Paris and the harbour of San Francisco in the poems’ titles, the collection not only documented Ferlinghetti’s artistic development but also acted as a kind of ‘travel journal of the place in which he had lived’ and visited (Ferlinghetti: A Biography by Neeli Cherkovski, page 82), taking readers around the world as they dipped in and out of his work, while the small design allowed for them to carry Ferlinghetti around with them on their own travels.
The Pocket Poets series went on to include several Beat classics including Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and other poems (1959 edition held at BL shelfmark 011313.t.3/4) – Number Four in the series – which was published in October 1956 and met with immediate, if controversial, success. The landmark poem’s concept, together with Ginsberg’s powerful delivery at group readings, made it ‘a crucible of cultural change. Except for the response to Dylan Thomas’ readings in America, never before had a modern audience reacted so passionately, or identified so completely with a poet’s message.’ (Naked Angels: The Lives & Literature of the Beat Generation by John Tytell, page 104). You can read more about the reaction to, and impact of, Howl in our blog from 2013. Other early items in the Pocket Poets series included William Carlos Williams’s Kora in Hell: Improvisations, Marie Ponsot’s True Minds and Poems of Humor & Protest by Kenneth Patchen.
The little paperback held by the British Library features the unassuming, yet at the same time, striking black and yellow cover – the style of which would be replicated through the Pocket Poets series and at just 75 cents a pop, whose simplicity made it something that could be available to many. As the series’ name implies, the collection ‘can be carried in a pocket, and read in less than an hour.’ (Beat Poetry by Larry Beckett, page 17)
Between the pages readers are greeted with some of Ferlinghetti’s most memorable works including ‘The world is a beautiful place’ – a melancholy and ironic ode to one’s bittersweet existence on earth. In Ferlinghetti’s style, readers are ping-ponged across the page, yo-yoing between scenes of beauty and happiness, ‘smelling flowers’ and ‘swimming in rivers’, then thrown into despair: ‘if you don’t mind a touch of hell’ and ‘some people dying all the time’. Swayed back and forth, the reader is constantly reminded of being destabilised each time something comforting is mentioned: ‘The design… reflect[ing] Ferlinghetti’s continuing concern with the way the poem looked on the page… [he] was satisfied that the arrangement of the words enhanced the meaning of the poem.’ (Ferlinghetti: A Biography by Neeli Cherkovski, page 82)
Many of the poems in this collection are said to ‘reveal…the quiet struggle of ordinary people. The unusual distribution of lines on the page, and the inventiveness with word play and rhyme, show Ferlinghetti’s sense of freedom, itself a key notion in his work.’ (Beat Culture: Lifestyles, Icons, and Impact edited by William T. Lawlor, page 106)
‘The world is a beautiful place’ can certainly be seen to exemplify such a statement.
Despite being written in the mid-20th-century, this timeless poem doesn’t feel out of place when read in 2020. It’s a testament to Ferlinghetti’s skill and intuition; to be able to tap into subject matter and raise questions that feel as relevant today as when he first wrote them some 65 years ago.
Happy birthday, Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
The British Library holds a number of items from City Lights Books Pocket Poets Series and publications from Ferlinghetti, including first editions, some inscribed by the poet himself. Below is a selection of suggested reading. Follow the link to our Beats Bibliography for a more complete overview of Library printed holdings on the subject.
[Blog by RSC]
Bibliography and suggested reading
A Coney Island of the Mind: poems by Lawrence Ferlinghetti; portraiture by R.B. Kitaj (San Francisco: Arion Press, 2005) shelfmark RF.2007.b.21. Note: A fine press special edition of Ferlinghetti’s famous work from Arion Press.
Beat Culture: Icons, Lifestyles, and Impact edited by William T. Lawlor (Santa Barbara, California; Oxford: ABC-CLIO, 2005) shelfmark YC.2007.b.56
Beat Poetry by Larry Beckett (St. Andrews, Scotland?: A Beatdom Books Publication, 2012) shelfmark YK.2014.a.4349
City Lights Booksellers & Publishers website (accessed 11 March 2020)
Ferlinghetti's Greatest Poems by Lawrence Ferlinghetti; edited by Nancy Peters (New York: New Directions Publishing, 2017) shelfmark YD.2018.a.4686
Ferlinghetti: A Biography by Neeli Cherkovski (Garden City: Doubleday, 1979) shelfmark X.950/10246
Open eye, open heart by Lawrence Ferlinghetti (New York: New Directions, 1973) shelfmark RF.2002.a.49. Note: Inscribed by Ferlinghetti with cover photograph of Ferlinghetti by Ilka Hartmann.
Pictures of the Gone World (Fifth Printing) by Lawrence Ferlinghetti (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1955) shelfmark 011313.t.3/1.
Naked Angels: The Lives & Literature of the Beat Generation by John Tytell (New York; London: McGraw-Hill, c1976) shelfmark YA.2000.a.11944
The Guardian, Interview with a Bookstore: San Francisco's historic City Lights (accessed 16 March 2020)
The Guardian, San Francisco's City Lights: the bookshop that brought us the Beats (accessed 16 March 2020)
Review of Ferlinghetti: A Biography by Neeli Cherkovski in Southwest Review, Vol. 66, No. 2 (SPRING 1981), pp. 228-230, by Douglas Street. Accessed via JSTOR, available from Britsh Library Reading Rooms (accessed 12 March 2020)
Who are we now? by Lawrence Ferlinghetti (New York: New Directions, 1976) shelfmark YA.2002.a.19832. Note: Signed and inscribed by Ferlinghetti.
22 August 2018
August 23 marks the date on which the British Museum opened the Newspaper Library in Colindale to the public for the first time, in 1932. This week, in a series of posts, we will look at the Library’s rich newspaper and magazine holdings from the Americas.
To help celebrate the Colindale anniversary the Eccles Centre for American Studies is delighted to announce that its guide to the Library’s US and Canadian newspapers is finally available in digital format!
This guide was first published in hardcopy in 1996.
At that time the catalogue at Colindale only offered access to these newspapers by title and town: searching for these publications by state or province was completely impossible. To address this, the Eccles guide listed the newspapers by title – the US newspapers first, followed by those from Canada – and then provided an index to these holdings by state/province and town.
In the years since the guide’s publication there have obviously been updates to the Library’s holdings. Some titles are no longer received, while others have been added. All of the titles in the guide, and more recent acquisitions, are included in the Library’s online catalogue Explore. Yet, in spite of these changes the guide still provides the easiest and most effective way into these collections. It is constantly used by the curators themselves, who find it invaluable, so please do take a look! And do remember that you can always ask for help from reading room staff in the Newsroom, and from reference services.
We'll be posting more about newspapers in the Library's collections over the coming days, so be sure to watch this space.
- Jean Petrovic (née Kemble)
Americas and Oceania Collections blog recent posts
- Verse and Reverse: Uncovering the work of the Toronto Women’s Press Club
- Black Theatre Makers: Una Marson
- The British Library’s Canadian Copyright Collection: An Introduction
- E-Resources on European Colonization in the Americas to c.1650
- Bibliographic E-resources: or, how to give up footnote-chasing forever...
- US Fine Presses: a new guide to the Library's holdings
- Happy birthday, Lawrence Ferlinghetti
- US & Canadian Newspapers and Magazines at the British Library
- Resources for engaging with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander contemporary culture and politics.
- Women in the California Gold Rush