25 February 2020
Thomas Lanier Williams III, perhaps better known by his pen name Tennessee Williams, passed away on 25 February 1983. I’ve turned to the Library’s collections to take a look at our holdings around one of Williams’s most popular and timeless works, A Streetcar Named Desire.
As some of our Readers may be well aware, due to conservation and preservation over the years, not all of the books held at the British Library still have their original dust jackets, covers or bindings. So it’s always a joy to call up an item from the basements which still retains its original frontage in full, glorious technicolour.
I discovered that we’re fortunate enough to hold a first edition of A Streetcar Named Desire (YA.1996.b.5800) published by New Directions in 1947, complete with the lavender pink cover design by Alvin Lustig. Showing three figures entwined, almost dancing, on the front, the image is a striking one among, what can be, shelves of dark spines. An imposing male stands in the centre, in a puppeteer-like poise, commanding two females either side of him: seemingly a picture of the tempestuous and forceful Stanley Kowalski, with his wife, the meek Stella, on one side, and his struggling sister-in-law, Blanche, on the other.
New Directions Books were published by American poet, James Laughlin, who started the publishing house after seeking career advice from none other than Ezra Pound. “He had been seeing my poems for months and had ruled them hopeless. He urged me to finish Harvard and then do ‘something’ useful.” Laughlin recalls. Bestsellers from New Directions, an imprint largely devoted to Modernist writers, include works by Lawrence Ferlinghetti (A Coney Island of the Mind, EMC.2011.a.174), William Carlos Williams (Selected Poems, 75/17337) and Ezra Pound himself (The Cantos, W55/3062). Of Tennessee Williams, the New Directions website states:
‘As well as being astonishingly talented and prolific, Tennessee Williams was a man of considerable personal courage, willing to be open about being a gay man at a time when few were. Tennessee Williams is a cornerstone of New Directions, as we publish everything he wrote in his storied career. He is also our single bestselling author.’
Many of the early New Directions covers feature artwork by Denver-born designer, Alvin Lustig (1915 – 1955). A rigorous graphic designer who forayed into architecture, interior and industrial design, ‘Lustig’s opportunity to use the book cover as a vehicle of bold graphic experimentation and innovation was provided by James Laughlin…a collaboration that flourished throughout the 1940s until Lustig’s early death in 1955… [they] prodded, cajoled, and quibbled their way through a virtually unprecedented partnership…’. (page 7, Purity of Aim: The Book Jacket Designs of Alvin Lustig by Ned Drew and Paul Sternberger, YC.2017.a.13503) In each other they recognised ‘a sense of uncompromising principles and a tenacious drive to make a mark on contemporary society’ (page 13, ibid).
Laughlin’s publication choices together with Lustig’s eye for colour, graphic systems and bold juxtapositions, resulted in sure-fire ways to stop readers in their tracks in the mid-20th century, beckoning them, as the names implies, to traverse New Directions. And it worked; ‘Lustig’s jackets had a quantifiable impact on the book-buying public; they enormously increased the sales…’ (page 49, Born Modern: the Life and Work of Alvin Lustig by Steven Heller and Elaine Lustig Cohen, LC.31.b.7733). Laughlin confirmed that Lustig’s artwork and ‘beautiful designs…help[ed] to make a mass audience aware of high quality reading’ (James Laughlin, “The Book Jackets of Alvin Lustig”, Print, Oct/Nov 1956, as quoted on page 50 in Born Modern by Heller and Lustig Cohen, LC.31.b.7733). Though one should never judge a book by its cover, it’s easy to see the appeal of these designs in a shopfront even today. This is something Laughlin acknowledged also: ‘People should buy books for their literary merit. But since I have never published a book which I didn’t consider a serious literary work – and never intend to – I have had no bad conscience about using Lustig to increase sales.’ (ibid)
Beholding a green Library stamp, signifying a donation, my interest was also piqued at seeing two handwritten inscriptions signed ‘Sidney Lanfield’ on the inside cover of this edition. Lanfield was an American director (1898 – 1972) whose work included the 1941 film You'll Never Get Rich starring Fred Astaire and Rita Hayworth. As beautiful as this book is, the director’s signature serves as a reminder that A Streetcar Named Desire is in its most perfect form when performed on stage, as was its intention.
And what better illustration is there of this than the original playbill for the Ethel Barrymore Theatre where Streetcar was first performed? This programme (RB.23.b.7714) for the original Broadway production of the play is from 9 February 1948; the play premiered at the theatre just two months earlier on 3 December 1947. The Pulitzer-Prize winning drama, directed by Elia Kazan, still featured the original stars including Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter and Jessica Tandy. The New Directions edition of the book also lists the star-studded cast that were part of the premier run of the production. As well as giving early portfolios for the cast in lead roles, the playbill is dispersed with advertisements, including plenty for cigarettes (Camel) and alcohol (Carstairs whiskey), and is a great primary resource for researchers. Others may also interested in reading The New Yorker’s Wolcott Gibbs’s slightly scathing, and controversial, review of an early performance of this production from 6 December 1947: an article that closes with ‘I’m sorry to say there isn’t much room left for the compliments’.
73 years on from the New Directions publication of the play, and its premiere performance, and 37 years since Williams’s passing, it’s incredible to see A Streetcar Named Desire in its initial guises. A reminder that the British Library has endless avenues to pursue when it comes to fresh research around even the most seemingly well-established of subject matter.
[Blog by RSC]
A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams (Mount Vernon, New York: New Directions, 1947) YA.1996.b.5800
The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams (Norfolk, Connecticut: New Directions, 1949)
Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flash by John Lahr (London: Bloomsbury Circus, 2014) ELD.DS.73184
Memoirs by Tennessee Williams; introduction by John Waters (New York: New Directions, 2006)
A Streetcar Named Desire: The Playbill, (New York: Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 1948)
The New Yorker, articles available at www.newyorker.com and BL holding Mic.B.64/1-45., P.903/858., 6089.821000
Born Modern: the Life and Work of Alvin Lustig by Steven Heller and Elaine Lustig Cohen (San Francisco: Chronicle, c2010) LC.31.b.7733
Purity of Aim: The Book Jacket Designs of Alvin Lustig by Ned Drew and Paul Sternberger (Rochester, N.Y.: RIT Cary Graphic Arts Press, c2010) YC.2017.a.13503
23 September 2019
Banned Books Week (22 – 28 Sept 2019) is an annual event celebrating the freedom to read. It was launched in 1982 in response to the number of challenges to books in schools, bookshops and libraries. The theme for 2019 urges readers to ‘keep the light on’ to ensure censorship doesn’t live us in the dark.
The Library will be holding a number of events to mark Banned Books Week. The Americas & Australasian and Eccles teams take a look at just some of the books that have been banned over time.
American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis (H.94/4026)
Chosen by Lucy (Curator, Australasian Printed Collections Post 1850)
This book has been classified R18 under Australian national censorship legislation since its release in 1991 as the content was considered obscene, blasphemous and indecent. In Australia the book can only be sold to people over the age of 18 and must be contained in a sealed plastic wrapper. In 2015 an Adelaide bookshop was raided by police after a customer complained that the book was on display without the wrapper.
Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson (Digital copy, DRT ELD.DS.100805)
Chosen by Jean (Bibliographical Editor at the Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library)
Set on a fictional island in Puget Sound, a community of ‘five thousand damp souls’, Snow Falling on Cedars beautifully explores the legacy of World War II and Japanese internment, bigotry and prejudice, and the nature of truth, guilt, responsibility and forgiveness. In spite of this, it has been challenged, banned or restricted in numerous school systems in both the United States and Canada for profanity and sexual content. In 2000 it was deemed by some parents of 11th grade (16 – 17 year old) students in Kitsup County, Washington – where Guterson had been a high school teacher – to be ‘pornographic’. My recent re-reading of the sex scenes is that they are few in number, brief in nature, overwhelmingly loving in content and intrinsic to our understanding of the characters and the relations between them; yet an ACLU challenge to this school board’s ban was unsuccessful.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (X.989/20180)
Chosen by Rachael (Curator, American Printed Collections Post 1850)
It’s hard to imagine a time without a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird in almost every household or at least on a bookshelf in every library, but the novel’s contentiousness still remains. Published in 1960 it has been repeatedly opposed for its depictions of racism, violence and offensive language. Despite this resistance however, it quickly won the Pulitzer Prize and its film adaptation won an Academy Award in 1962. Until as recently as 2018 the novel has been known to be removed from reading lists and classrooms in the US, namely due to its use racist language.
09 August 2019
It turns out there really is a celebratory day for everything (yes, we’re still enjoying yesterday’s International Cat Day moment), and 9 August is no exception. Happy Book Lovers Day!
To pay homage, Team Americas, Australasia and Eccles has picked a few much-loved books to share. Some have played an admirable role in guiding us on the various paths that have led us to the mothership that is the British Library, while others have been part of the discoveries made journeying through, and adding to, the vast and varied collections held here. Of course some heads starting to smoke at the thought of picking just one favourite book each, so this is a carefully selected array of those we love from our individual, rather long (and always growing) lists.
We’re confident that there will be another book-related annual festivity just beckoning for a blog in the not-too-distant future – look out for it as we shoehorn in the ‘ones that got away’ from today’s offering.
Book: Populuxe by Thomas Hine
British Library holding: Populuxe by Thomas Hine (London: Bloomsbury, 1987) YV.1988.b.2193
‘I came across Populuxe as an MA student and found it completely alluring. It has a beautiful pink binding and silvery blue lettering. Not many of the academic books I was reading at the time had such welcoming covers! The book is an examination of American material culture in the 1950s and ‘60s. As someone long fascinated by popular culture, its analysis was a revelation to me and helped me understand how everyday objects could be imbued with meaning. I had a literature, rather than a design or art history background, and Hine’s book helped me develop my critical thinking about material culture and the built environment. But also, it is just so much fun to read and I love poring over the fabulous illustrations.’
Book lover: Cara, Eccles Centre for American Studies
Book: A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
British Library holding: A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole (Louisiana State Univ Press, 1980) 81/6110
‘There are few books which make me laugh out loud, fewer still that make me cry with laughter. A Confederacy of Dunces is one of these books. The main character, the irascible, gluttonous, and completely hilarious Ignatius J. Relly, is a wonderful creation, and following his picaresque search for truth, meaning, and the perfect hotdog is an unrivalled delight. There are all sorts of literary and philosophical allusions to unravel if you so wish, including references to the works of Boethius, Aquinas, François Rabelais and Jonathan Swift. If, however, you just want to sit back and enjoy the ride through the backstreets and dive bars of 1960s New Orleans, there is no better driver than Ignatius and his creator, John Kennedy Toole.’
Book lover: Philip, Eccles Centre for American Studies
Book: Elogio y paisaje by Nancy Morejón
British Library holding: Ciudad de La Habana: Ediciones Unión, c1996. (YA.2000.a.31155)
‘I like to read poetry in the summer holidays, especially after lunch when time goes slower and you can put the book down after each poem and leave the words floating in the air. This year I have loved Nancy Morejón’s Elogio y Paisaje, a book containing two poetry collections, Elogio de la danza (Ode to Dance) and Paisaje célebre (Famous Landscape). Morejón (Havana, 1944) is perhaps the most prominent voice of Cuban poetry today, as well as a translator and a scholar of the poetry of Nicolas Guillén. For English speakers, a bilingual edition of her poems, Looking Within: Selected Poems, 1954-2000 = Mirar adentro: poemas escogidos, 1954-2000 is available at YC.2003.a.20176.’
Book lover: Mercedes, American and Australasian Collections
Book: Restricted Images: Made with the Warlpiri of Central Australia by Patrick Waterhouse
British Library holding: London: SPBH Editions, 2018. (YC.2019.b.1013)
WARNING – Members of Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities are respectfully advised that a number of people mentioned in the text and depicted in the images of this publication have died.
‘This book has always stuck in my mind and is one that has since influenced my own practice as a curator. Over many trips to Warlpiri country in Central Australia, British artist, Patrick Waterhouse, photographed members of the Yeunduma and Nyirrpi Aboriginal communities, and then invited them to restrict and amend their own images using traditional dot painting. The project was an attempt to return the agency of their representation to the Warlpiri, whose images were used without consent and regard to their cultural beliefs in the 1899 book, The Native Tribes of Central Australia. The result is a compelling conversation about the power dynamics in photography, particularly in the colonial narratives which still dominate our library collections today.’
Book lover: Lucy, Australasian Published Collections
Book: New England’s Rarities Discovered by John Josselyn
British Library holding: London: For G. Widdowes, 1672. (435.a.5)
‘One of my favourite items is John Josselyn’s New England’s Rarities Discovered, which was published in London in 1672. Josselyn first visited New England in 1638 and, armed with the 1633 edition of John Gerard’s Herball, he spent a decade examining the “birds, beasts, fishes, serpents and plants of that country”. He was particularly interested in the plants used by the native population to “cure their distempers, wounds and sores”. Although its small size and rough and ready woodcuts give the impression of rather rustic work, Rarities was cited by Linneaus. Together with Josselyn’s second work, Account of Two Voyages to New England (1674), it remained the most complete summary of North American flora for more than a century.’
Book lover: Jean, Eccles Centre for American Studies
Book: The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
British Library holding: Second edition, Boston: Ticknor, Reed & Fields, 1850. (12701.i.12)
‘I resisted the temptation of pointing to Edgar Allen Poe again and have chosen to shine a light on The Scarlet Letter. It was during my first semester as an undergraduate that I was introduced to this book. It opened my eyes to a whole new world of historical American fiction. Enraptured by the story of Hester, and how her experience grapples with the ‘romance’ the novel claims to be on its title page, my love of North American literature stems, in part, from this book. Some years later I read The Handmaid’s Tale and was struck by the similarities you can draw between the two – it’s probably no surprise that this is also a favourite on my bookshelf (but we can save that for another day). This second edition has the opening note from a previous owner: “You will be much pleased with Hawthorne.” And much pleased I was.’
Book lover: Rachael, N American Published Collections