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.
14 November 2022
My thanks go to Alan Stein for granting permission to use images of his artwork in this blog
The Americas team is fortunate to work with some fascinating items that cross our desks for a variety of reasons from exhibition loans to Reader queries. Through the On my desk blog series, we ask the team three questions which will give you an insight into the work of curators and cataloguers at the Library and a behind-the-scenes peek at some of the items in the collections. Today’s post features Rachael, one of the curators for the Library’s North American Published Collections Post-1850.
What is the item?
On Spirit Lake: Georgian Bay Stories with wood engravings by Alan Stein and introduction by Tom Smart (RF.2022.b.35) – a fine press book from 2018 printed by The Church Street Press, based in Parry Sound, Ontario, Canada.
Why is it on your desk?
While standard Canadian monographs are processed by our teams in Boston Spa, the more delicate fine press items are invoiced, stamped, catalogued and stored at our London site in St Pancras.
On Spirit Lake: Georgian Bay Stories is on my desk because it's a new acquisition which needed to be stamped before passing onto the Americas Cataloguer who makes the item available and, very importantly, findable in the British Library catalogue.
I always love visiting the stamping room; seeing the team delicately place a handstamp on an item means it’s one step closer to being made available to Readers. The stamping team make sure all new acquisitions display a British Library stamp in a way that clearly shows a mark of ownership but which is discreet enough to not invade or obscure the content on the item’s pages. A steady hand is needed, particularly where artists’ books, fine press and other visually appealing items are concerned, materials you might see displayed in exhibitions for example.
As you’ll notice, this book displays a small British Library (BL) stamp and crown (unlike the larger round stamps used on standard monographs) in red ink, indicating this has been a purchase – rather than a donation (green) or arrived via Legal Deposit (blue).
Why is it interesting?
For me this item is interesting for a number of reasons. Firstly, having lived in Canada for a short time in my youth, I always find it a bit of a treat to look through books which focus on the unique landscapes found there.
Painter and a printmaker Alan Stein established Church Street Press in 1998; through his private press, he hand prints limited edition books which feature his own illustrations in wood engravings, like the ones here, or stone lithography. Alan states that much of his work ‘has been influenced by summers spent on Georgian Bay’, and this book, as the title implies, epitomises that. Alan’s archives are held at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto.
Georgian Bay – a large bay of Lake Huron – is located entirely within the borders of Ontario. As Tom Smart (art historian and curator) explains in his introduction, the book comprises a number of authors whose ‘prose poems, fictional narratives, autobiographical episodes and…invented passages from historical records’ examine the influence the Bay has had on their lives and works. I find it fascinating how the same natural spectacle has had such deep connections with so many authors and artists, many more beyond the pages of this book I’m sure, and how that influence manifests itself so differently from person to person; inspiring them to write on topics from climate change to culinary encounters.
One contribution that stood out for me when reading this item is Manido-gaming by Waubgeshig Rice. An eight-year-old Anishinaabeg boy fishes on the side of his lake, his grandmother beside him, the boy asking the elder about the Anishinaabeg presence that has been at the lake before his lifetime, and before hers. Through their exchange, the lake becomes a kind of metaphor for the Anishinaabeg experience: ‘It gives us all life. It’s sacred. And it’s your home, my boy’ his grandmother tells him. But looking at the town of recreational homes across the bay, reminders of displacement are ever-present: the young boy observes that ‘[u]nder the wind-swept evergreens of its shoreline, Georgian Bay’s flowing contradictions whirled.’ The title of this story, Manido-gaming, refers to the name by which the innumerable Anishinaabeg generations who have lived on or near the Bay’s shores, know the body of water: “Manidoo gaming,” or “spirit lake”.
As well as being of potential research interest to those studying Canadian and Indigenous authors and Canadian landscapes in literature, I should also mention the beauty of this book physically. The mottled watery effect cover invites the reader to dive into the pages.
Stein’s prints not only interpret the words as image, but also ‘trace a personal iconography testifying to his own deep connection to the land and water and to the histories of the place’. These comprise 14 wood engravings including one stunning hand-coloured in blue, green, yellow and red showing a more tempestuous scene printed on Gampi Torinoko. Alan kindly gave me some insight into the inspiration for this frontispiece image: this being a tale Alan was told by his friend, Canadian poet and diplomat, Douglas Valentine LePan, about the dream of a local native Ojibway guide by the name Peter Pemajuan. The rough, rocky-coloured pages add a real tangible element to reading the book will no doubt appeal to researchers interested in paper- and book-making techniques, engraving, printing and binding.
Remember you just need a free Reader Pass to gain access to this and hundreds more fine press items in the Library’s collections. Find out more about the titles available using our collections guide and the bibliographic guide from the Eccles Centre for American Studies.
 Lithography being a ‘flat-surface printmaking process in which a design is drawn onto a flat stone, or prepared metal plate, usually zinc or aluminium, and affixed by means of a chemical reaction’. Definition provided by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, for more details see https://www.metmuseum.org/about-the-met/collection-areas/drawings-and-prints/materials-and-techniques/printmaking/lithograph
 From the book’s introduction by Tom Smart
 ‘Ancestral Waters’ by Waubgeshig Rice, an excerpt from Locations Of Grief: An Emotional Geography: http://hamiltonreviewofbooks.com/blog/2020/5/15/ancestral-waters
 From the book’s introduction by Tom Smart
 ‘Gampi Torinoko is a strong, crisp sheet that is translucent, with almost no visible fibres. Gampi is a bush found in the mountainous, warm areas of Japan’. Definition provided by Legion Paper, for more details see https://legionpaper.com/gampi-torinoko
09 November 2022
This blog explores the British Library’s wonderful collection of e-resources covering all aspects of the performing arts in the Americas, from the colonial era to the present day.
The British Library's extensive - and ever-growing - range of e-resources means there is plenty of choice when it comes to exploring the performing arts in the Americas - from scripts to videos, audio recordings to articles, interviews to documentaries, magazines to letters, there is literally something for everyone!
A particularly unique source is Film Scripts Online which makes accessible more than 1,100 accurate and authorised versions of copyrighted screenplays, many of which have never previously been published and are available nowhere else. Not only does this enable film scholars to compare the writer’s vision with the producer’s and director’s interpretations from page to screen, but it also makes it possible for students of film studies, writing, drama, theatre and literature to study the structure of scripts, character development, plot points and scenes. The collection is easily searchable by title, people, genre and awards, with further filters available in each case. Film scripts currently within the collection include: The Wizard of Oz, From Here to Eternity, Bringing Up Baby, The Big Chill, Rebel Without a Cause, My Own Private Idaho and The Deer Hunter.1
Drama Online is an award-winning, fast-growing digital library featuring more than 4,400 playtexts from over 1,400 playwrights, as well as over 400 audio plays, 420 hours of video, and 450 scholarly books from leading theatre publishers and companies. Amongst its holdings is the Playwrights Canada Press collection which offers over 230 plays from notable and award-winning Canadian authors including Daniel MacIvor and Hannah Moscovitch; plays in this collection have won the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, the Governor General’s Literary Award for Drama, the Windham-Campbell Prize and the Siminovitch Prize.2
Dance Online: Dance in Video, Volumes I and II provides over 900 hours of video content covering the full scope of 20th and 21st century dance. The collection includes performances, documentaries, interviews, and instructional videos from the most influential performers and companies, with the selections covering ballet, tap, jazz, contemporary, experimental, and improvisational dance, as well as forerunners of the forms and the pioneers of modern concert dance.3
For earlier time periods, Performing Arts in Colonial American Newspapers, 1690-1783, fills a major gap in access to eighteenth-century American sources. This vital e-resource is effectively a database of all references to music, poetry (lyrics), dance, and theatre in 162 American newspapers, from the earliest extant copy in 1690, through to the end of the Revolutionary War in 1783, including titles in French and German. Entry points into the source material are many and varied. The database currently includes: transcriptions of all relevant texts; a general index of all names, genres, subjects, titles, and first lines; graphic images of 45 unique woodcuts; an index of the first lines of 12,061 poems and songs; and an issue-by-issue bibliography of the 50,719 issues and 4,523 supplements of the 162 titles.
Ethnomusicology is published by Adam Mathew in collaboration with the UCLA Ethnomusicology Archive. It includes thousands of audio field recordings and interviews, educational recordings, film footage, field notebooks, slides, correspondence and ephemera from over 60 field collections dating from the mid-twentieth century to the early twenty-first century. For North America, coverage includes Alaska, Arizona, Atlanta, California, Georgia, Hawaii, Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, Oklahoma, the Cherokee Nation, Tennessee, Texas and more. There are also rich holdings for Mexico, Guatemala, Belize, Jamaica and Honduras, as well as Suriname and Chile, Fiji and Papua New Guinea.
For secondary sources, the Performing Arts Periodicals Database indexes nearly 400 international periodicals covering dance, theatre, stagecraft, musical theatre, circus performance, pantomime, puppetry, magic, performance art, film, television and more.4 Full text coverage is now available for more than 160 of these journals and in some cases the retrospective coverage goes back to 1864. This treasure trove of materials includes biographical profiles, conference papers, obituaries, interviews, discographies, reviews and coverage of events.
Finally, Entertainment Industry Magazine Archive, 1880-2015 is another wonderfully rich and valuable e-resource; it was reviewed in this recent blog.
- British Library Reader Pass holders can access this database on a personal device.
- British Library Reader Pass holders can access this database on a personal device.
- British Library Reader Pass holders can access this database on a personal device; readers interested in dance may like to read the Dancing in the Archives blog post by 2019 Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow Robert Hylton.
- British Library Reader Pass holders can access this database on a personal device.
02 November 2022
This blog celebrates the 30th anniversary of Desmond J. McTernan’s French Quebec: Imprints in French from Quebec, 1764–1990, in the British Library.
This wonderful catalogue was officially commissioned by the Foreign & Commonwealth Office in the spring of 1990 as Britain’s gift to Montreal for the 350th anniversary of the foundation of that city, due to be celebrated in 1992.1
As McTernan explains, the British Museum Library had begun collecting French language materials from Quebec in the 1830s and this has been continuously sustained since the late 1860s. Besides this continuity of acquisition, the British Library’s collection has also benefited both from the law of colonial copyright deposit which between 1895–1923 brought in many publications which would not otherwise have been obtained (described in a recent blog post), and from the very extensive programme of donations of new Quebec monographs by the Délégation générale du Québec in Paris from the mid-1960s to the early 1980s. McTernan’s catalogue therefore charts the evolution of French Quebec’s literary, artistic, social and political culture through material collected for nearly 160 years by the national library of a country that has shared a privileged relationship with both Quebec and Canada throughout that period.
In his rich and detailed Introduction, McTernan notes that Quebec City’s first printing business – Brown and Gilmore – opened in 1764. Twelve years later, the Frenchman Fleury Mesplet (Fig. 1, below) introduced the printing press to Montreal. Yet for the next five or six decades, their output was essentially restricted to government proclamations and notices, catechisms, teaching primers and almanacs, and it would not be until the late nineteenth century that Quebec's home-grown publications truly began to challenge the dominance of foreign imports.
This transition from mere printing to publishing, began, albeit tentatively, in the 1830s – a period of great political and cultural confrontation in Quebec, during which it became increasingly clear to the Francophone population that books printed in France could not articulate their specific cultural identity, nor the threat under which they felt it to be. It was at this time that Quebec itself – its history, society and literature – became the subject matter for local printers, thus beginning the tradition of Canadian scholarly writing and printing in defense of French Canada and its history.
As for how works from Quebec reached the British Museum Library, McTernan notes that the first major supplier of Canadian imprints was the well-known, mainly antiquarian bookdealer, T. Rodd of 12 Great Newport Street. An early invoice from Rodd, dated 8 December 1840, lists 42 titles from Lower Canada, 12 of which were in French. The majority of these were either printed or commissioned by government or corporate bodies, and focused in one way or another on aspects of local or North American government, law, politics and society. But the list also includes two of the earliest French-Canadian scholarly monographs: Amury Girod’s Notes diverse sur le Bas-Canada (1835) and G.B. Faribault’s Catalogue d’ouvrages sur l’histoire de l’Amérique et en particulier sur celle du Canada... (1837).2
Yet no regular commercial network for the export of Canadian books existed before the 1870s; partly because there were simply too few publications to make this worthwhile. As McTernan explains, the large-scale existence and widespread availability of books in any society depends on several factors, not least of which are a reasonably literate population and a good communication and transportation network. In 1840, neither of these existed in French Canada. However, the 1840s saw a series of Education Acts, the full impact of which was felt by the 1870s. And after Confederation in 1867, the construction of the railroad network – which had begun in the 1840s–50s – not only vastly expanded, but also geared itself towards the transport of passengers.
After exploring the impact of various copyright Acts – both ‘Imperial’ and colonial – upon the Library’s receipt of works published in Canada, McTernan ends by exploring the acquisition of material post-1930. Between 1930-1960, there was not only a diminution in the funds available for the purchase of materials from French Quebec, but also the need to repurchase works that had been destroyed by bomb damage in World War II rather than buy new works. Happily, however, 1960-1990 was a period of expansion and development. Indeed, the 1960s–70s was ‘a time of plenty’ for the Library as a whole, but the previously mentioned donation from the Délégation du Québec from 1964–1981 also added to the Library’s stock at least one third of the imprints that it holds for those years, and the money freed up by these donations enabled a wide-ranging purchase of older material.
By 1990, the Library’s collection of imprints in French from Quebec comprised around 11,000 titles, making it one of the largest such collections outside of Quebec itself. This magnificent collection continues to grow to this day.
Desmond J. McTernan, French Quebec: Imprints in French from Quebec, 1764-1990, in the British Library. London: The British Library; Montreal: Bibliothèque national du Québec, 1992-93. British Library shelfmark: Open Access Humanities 1 Reading Room: HLR 011.241; General Reference Collection 2719.k.1330.
Amury Girod, Notes diverse sur le Bas-Canada. Village Debartzch: J. P. Boucher-Belleville,1835. British Library shelfmark: 798.g.13; G.B. Faribault, Catalogue d’ouvrages sur l’histoire de l’Amérique et en particulier sur celle du Canada... Québec, 1837. British Library shelfmark: Cup.403.t.10.
19 October 2022
Suelin Low Chew Tung is an artist and writer and is based in Grenada; she was a 2020 British Library Eccles Visiting Fellow.
My days as an Eccles Fellow at the British Library, from July to August 2022, were happily spent pouring over maps, ledgers, bound letters, loose papers, and other documents related to Grenada, an island (and the name of the State of Grenada) located at 12°07’N 61°40’W.
Grenada is part of an archipelago variously known as the Caribes Islands, Lesser Antilles, West India Islands, and Windward Islands, within a space called the West Indies or the Caribbean. My project is to list changes in names during the French and British colonial ownership of this small island nation and overlay them on a contemporary map. I will then have a better idea of where was called what, why, and if any of the original colonial names survived as the physical landscape both changed and changed hands.
I spent most of my time in the Maps Reading Room reviewing single maps, duplicate maps, maps on paper and fabric, both coloured and black and white, in books and boxes. I came across maps referring to Grenada as l’isle de la Grenade (British Library shelfmark: Maps 147.e.8.); las Islas Granada (Maps D.DE.H.SEC.9.(506.)); island of Granada (Maps 82410.(2.)); and l’Isola di Granata (Maps C.24.f.10.). No wonder there is confusion as to the correct pronunciation.
After the British gained control of the island from the French in 1763, however, the name changed from la Grenade to Grenada.1 So, it’s Gre-nay-dah, not Gra-naah-da. That’s in Spain.
I was determined to find all documents relating to Grenada in the British Library’s catalogue. The staff in Maps, Rare Books, Manuscripts, Asia & Africa and the Newsroom were accommodating, and I was grateful for their input. Regarding the former, the Library contains one of the best map collections on Grenada. Representations on early maps in Jomard’s collection and the Blathwayt Atlas, showed the island as a blob, a cross, a backwards L, and even a crab’s claw.2 I saw the island’s shape evolve from a smudge to the elegant outline we are accustomed to seeing on Google Earth—a green mango set against blue sea. Unfolding each map opened new ideas for artwork, and suddenly Grenada was not just a speck on the world map but a place that vibrated throughout history.
I was beyond thrilled.
Les monuments de la géographie, ou, Recueil d’anciennes cartes européennes et orientales:… by Edme-François Jomard, contains several maps showing Grenada:
• Map XIX. 1: Mappemonde peintre sur parchemin par order de Henri II, roi de France, is a 1542 map which shows an unnamed Grenada hanging off the edge of the image.
• Map XX.1: Mappemonde de Sébastien Cabot, pilote-major de Charles-Quint, de la première moitié du xvie siècle. On this 1544 map, the shark tooth-shaped island is called la Granada. It is connected to I. vicente (St. Vincent) by two strands of unnamed islands; the effect is of a necklace, a Kalinago caracoli.
• Map XVI: Mappemonde de Jean de la Cosa, pilote de Christophe Colomb, fin du xve siècle. On this map, Grenada is called Mayo.
According to J.A. Martin (2013), de La Cosa’s map showing Grenada took information from Vincente Yañez Pinzón’s map of his exploration of the Americas in 1499-1500.3 Though Christopher Columbus is credited with ‘discovering’ and naming Grenada as Conception, Pinzón apparently visited Grenada on 1 May 1500 at what is now St. George’s Harbour. Map XVI shows Grenada as a blue cashew nut shape, identified as Mayo. Pinzón’s landfall is listed as “poyna” a corruption of Puerto de la Reyna, meaning Port of the Queen (Isabella).
In the Blathwayt Atlas Volume 1 (British Library shelfmark: 196.e.1.), John Sellers’ Chart of the Caribe Islands (p. 25) enlarges that backwards L so the island shape is recognisable as a smaller version of modern-day Trinidad. On the 1656 map by Nicolas Sanson d’Abbeville and George duRoy, Les Isles Antilles (p. 26), Granada is a crab’s claw at the end of a shattered arm of granular rocks they called Granadilla. John Sellers’ The Island of Tobago (p. 29), includes a Chart of the Carriby Islands where the Granada claw is less pronounced, and the smaller rocks are called Granadillos. The Venezuela cum parte Australi Novae Andalusiae (p. 37), is a map of Venezuela showing the Caribbean archipelago. On this, Granada looks more like an opened nutmeg, eerily similar to the one on our national flag.
My visit with the Library's Philatelic team was also an absolute pleasure. I got a good introduction to how stamps are made, the Grenada stamps in the Tapling Collection, and Grenada stamps in general. As they explained: stamps hold a mirror to history. Indeed, these vignettes of our island’s story will inspire a series of artworks on the currency of stamps, given that fewer people are using stamps as postage.
Apart from creating a series of artworks inspired by the British Library’s collections, my main intention is to render a single map of Grenada place names. This will connect old place names with new, identify places which no longer exist and new spaces which fill that void. I hope to start conversations on shifting landscapes and narratives of Grenada’s past, and heritage education/appreciation/conservation policy.
This was my fifth visit to the British Library since 2011, but the first on a fellowship. The Eccles Visiting Fellowship provided opportunity and funding for research at the British Library, a safe space to dream, to learn and be inspired. I needed at least another month.
- Martin, J. A. (2022). A~ Z of Grenada Heritage. New and Revised. Gully Press, Brooklyn, USA.
- Les monuments de la géographie, ou, Recueil d’anciennes cartes européennes et orientales:… by Edme-François Jomard (British Library shelfmark: Asia, Pacific & Africa X 11); Blathwayt Atlas Volume 1 (British Library shelfmark: 196.e.1.).
- Martin, J.A. (2013). Island Caribs and French Settlers in Grenada, 1498-1763. Grenada National Museum Press. Kindle Edition.
05 October 2022
Dr. Tatiani Rapatzikou is Associate Professor in the Department of American Literature and Culture, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece, and was a 2020 Eccles Visiting Fellow at the British Library.
My visit to the British Library in April and August 2022 was fully dedicated to the exploration of diverse primary and secondary sources that fall under the theme of book design, materiality, and storytelling in the context of print and digital American literary practice.
With the Library having in its holdings an array of uniquely made books by contemporary US-based print makers, I felt that I had only scraped the tip of the iceberg.
While searching for my own project, I came across and I was tempted to explore a number of paper-made gems that fueled my curiosity and whetted my appetite for this area of American literary, as well as publishing, experience. The first example I’d like to share is the Loujon Press 1966 volume titled Order and Chaos Chez Reichel by Henry Miller (see Fig. 1) that I had been reading about but had never seen.
Made out of a range of materials such as coloured paper, cork and tissue-lace paper, and coming in a decorated cardboard slipcase, this is a unique codex creation. This special volume contains, in addition to Miller’s own text, an introduction contributed by Lawrence Durrell, one of his close friends, written in red ink on light blue and beige-coloured paper. In the opening paragraph of the introduction, Durrell writes: “This little book is, if my memory serves me right, only one of several which Miller completed around this time (1937-38) and gave to his friends as personal gifts” (7). This particular book creation was dedicated to Miller’s painter friend, Hans Reichel, whom he met during his Paris days in the late 1930s. Building on Miller’s initially handwritten book-letter to Reichel on printer’s dummies, Jon and Louise "Gypsy Lou" Webb, the founders of the New Orleans-based Loujon Press, published Miller’s Order and Chaos in six limited editions, each one resorting to different materials and bindings.
The specific book mentioned here serves as a memento of a special friendship. Ιt is the tactile and visual as well as colour quality of the materials used (paper, cork, tissue, ink) that transfer to the readers Miller’s diverse thoughts and feelings for his painter friend.
The second example, I’d like to point at is the limited edition of a broadside poem project (see Fig. 2), which started in 1982 with Alastair Reed and continued in 1984 with Dana Gioia, aiming to bring together a diverse range of poems by American poets residing in fourteen different US states. Amidst the poets who participated in this special endeavor were: May Swenson, W.S. Merwin, Jay Parini, Judith Hemschemeyer, Amy Clampitt and others. This project was completed in collaboration with James Trissel, who was the designer and printer of the letterpress and book arts studio known as The Press at Colorado College in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
In the booklet accompanying the broadside poem creations, Gioia writes in her “Introduction”: “Printed on one side of a single sheet of paper, a poetry broadside is the most intense and unified genre of printing. […] While a book may have hundreds of pages to create its effect, a broadside has only one forceful gesture to satisfy simultaneously the requirements of both literature and design.” While in “The Printer’s Comment,” contained in the same booklet, Trissel notes: “These twenty four broadsides […] represent the opportunity to deal with poetry in an expansive range of typographic situations” by resorting to special paper materials and an array of printing techniques. He also points out that, “Unlike the book, the broadside tries within a single plane to strike a resonance between the poetic text and its visual circumstance.” These two comments offer an insight into the crucial role materials, typographic design and printing can play in the delivery not only of an aesthetic effect but also of a multilayered and synthesizing experience.
It was thanks to the Eccles Centre's US Fine Presses Established after 1945: A Guide to the British Library's Holdings, which is available both on the Centre's website and in the British Library's Shared Research Repository, that I was able to systematize and expand my research as well as broaden my knowledge about American specialist presses and their print-based projects.
What is certain is that materials enhance the experience of writing, since they strive not merely for a conceptual, but also a bodily and even gestural engagement with the texts composed and the narratives brought forward. Each one of the examples presented here sheds light on a different way of printing and manifestation of creativity. These kinds of material creations both bring to our attention an alternative artistic and literary activity that values craftsmanship and collaboration between the print-maker and the writer or the poet, while also personalizing the overall experience and establishing a meaningful connection with the readers on the basis of the materials and printing method chosen.
In a reality governed by mass production and commercialization, material design and book-making invite us to reevaluate literary practice. This has become even more pertinent since the turn of the 21st century due to the ubiquity of digital technologies. It is not accidental that in the context of current scholarship on American literary production there is a resurgence of interest in digitally-assisted book design and materials, with “bookishness” being the term that is now used in order to mark this kind of turn. Jessica Pressman interprets bookishness as a “creative movement invested in exploring and demonstrating love for the book as symbol, art form, and artifact” (1), which increases in intensity as our every day actions also demand an increased engagement with digital technologies.
Considering this observation in tandem with the examples shared in this short blog, one can realise that materials, even though overlooked at times, play a decisive role in enhancing the literary experience by multiplying the opportunities readers have for imaginative exploration and immersion into the story told.
Henry Miller, Order and Chaos Chez Reichel. Tucson, Ariz.: Loujon Press, c1966. British Library shelfmark: YA.1992.b.1551.
Jessica Pressman, Bookishness: Loving Books in a Digital Age. New York: Columbia University Press, 2020. British Library pressmark: YC.2022.a.2100.
Alastair Reed and Dana Gioia, editors. The Printed Poem/The Poem as Print: Twenty-four Broadsides of American Poetry. Colorado Springs, Col.: The Press at Colorado College, 1985-1986. British Library shelfmark: HS.74/2350.
05 July 2022
Owen Walsh is a Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Aberdeen and was a 2021 Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow at the British Library.
NB: This article contains historical images and descriptions relating to slavery which readers may find upsetting.
‘We are not safe in the United States’, warned the Jewish intellectual Anita Brenner in 1943, ‘without taking Mexico into account’. This fact of North American interdependence, she argued, ‘is something that Mexicans have long known, with dread, but that few Americans have had to look at.’1
My research at the British Library has been motivated by a conviction that scholars of US culture and political radicalism in the early-mid twentieth century have too often averted their gaze from Mexico while chronicling the making of an internationalist American Left. The Mexican revolutionary era, spanning c. 1910-1940, was the first major revolution of the twentieth century and a key moment in the unfolding of the global anticolonial struggle. The Revolution’s cultural legacy was described by Brenner and other contemporary critics as nothing less than ‘the first great modern art created in America’.2
My work in the British Library marks the start of a project in which I explore the travel experiences and writings of Leftist US intellectuals in revolutionary Mexico. The project traces the impact of Mexico, its rapidly changing culture and its inspired people, on radical cultural formations (New Negro writing, the proletarian literature movement) in the interwar United States. The rare books and radical journals contained in the British Library’s collections have been indispensable for this work.
The list of figures who might be included in a history of American travel in revolutionary Mexico is long and distinguished. Leftist journalists John Reed, Lincoln Steffens, and Ernest Gruening wrote sympathetic and romantic reports of the political and military struggles of the era. Future leading Communists Mike Gold, Charles Shipman, and Lovett Fort-Whiteman passed through the country and participated in the germination of revolutionary labour unionism and embryonic Party organisation. Major writers of American modernism including John Dos Passos and Langston Hughes found inspiration in Mexico and mixed with the cosmopolitan cultural networks around Mexico City.
During the most violent phase of the revolution in the 1910s, most of the American visitors were journalists seeking an unmediated view of the chaotic cascade of conflicts – over land, liberty, and individual egos – which together constitute the Mexican Revolution. Through the 1920s and 1930s, political and cultural pilgrims flocked to Mexico. They were often escaping persecution, but they also sought to witness and report on the social conflicts that continued to convulse their southern neighbour and to draw inspiration in their own mission to build a modern, socialist cultural order in the US.
In this short post, I want to focus on one of the earliest and most influential accounts of Mexican society in the era of revolution. Published in 1911, Barbarous Mexico (Chicago: Charles Kerr & Co.; British Library shelfmark 10481.pp.11), was a sensational exposé of life under the rule of the pre-revolutionary dictator Porfirio Díaz. It was the product of investigative reportage by John Kenneth Turner with the help of Lázaro Gutiérrez de Lara. It helped to ignite a movement in support of the radical Magón brothers (Mexican revolutionaries imprisoned in the US) and informed American sympathies with the Mexican Revolution for years to come.
Turner journeyed to Mexico in the immediate pre-revolutionary period, in 1908 and 1909, after hearing rumours of slavery prevailing in large swathes of the country, which was under the political and financial domination of US capitalism. Much of his reporting was done undercover, using disguises and employing the anti-Díaz activist Gutiérrez de Lara to help bridge cultural gaps, build networks, and provide translations. Turner’s travels took him across Mexico, from the Yucatán peninsula, where the henequen plantations were worked by indigenous Yaqui people enslaved after defeat in their war with the Mexican state, to Valle Nacional in Oaxaca, ‘the worst slave hole in Mexico’, where a racially mixed population were forced to labour on tobacco farms by the mostly Cuban planters and the Porfirian state authorities.3
Throughout Barbarous Mexico, Turner was concerned to connect the problem of slavery in Mexico with American policy. Turner’s definition of slavery was somewhat specific and limited: ‘the ownership of the body of a man, an ownership so absolute that the body can be transferred to another, an ownership that gives to the owner a right to take the products of that body, to starve it, to chastise it at will, to kill it with impunity.’4 But in Barbarous Mexico, Turner explores slavery in various subtle forms, including the informal trading of people that occurred under the legal guise of debt peonage. Indeed, in his introductory remarks Turner’s use of the slippery term ‘slavery’ went so far as to describe the imperial relationship between the two North American republics in the same terms. The US, Turner wrote, ‘enslaves the Mexican nation’ while the US media collaborated with the Porfiriato to keep ‘the American public in ignorance’.5 Such political arrangements, Turner is careful to point out, is what defines Mexico as ‘barbarous’, rather than any deficiency of its people.6
Despite its republican trappings, Díaz’s Mexico had discarded constitutional rule and the rights ‘which all enlightened men agree are necessary for the unfolding of a nation’.7 Confronted with such a nation, Turner presciently wrote that the ‘country is on the verge of a revolution in favor of democracy’.8 When the Revolution did come, Turner was a leading figure in the US solidarity movement, and he went on to pen a book-length argument against US intervention.
The concerns in Barbarous Mexico with republican principle and democratic rule override any specifically socialist propagandising in Turner’s account. But his work could only find an audience via the socialist press. Turner’s despatches were published first in the Socialist Party-aligned newspaper Appeal to Reason. The success of these articles opened a route for him to publish in the liberal American Magazine, which soon closed due to the backlash fuelled by the well-funded Porfiriato lobby. The only publisher who accepted Turner’s book was the socialist Charles H. Kerr and Co.
The role Turner and his Appeal to Reason comrades played in exposing forced labour in Mexico demonstrates the continuous histories of socialist, abolitionist, and anti-imperialist politics in the US. In making his report on slavery in the province of Yucatán, Turner’s mind repeatedly returned to ‘the slaves of our southern states before the Civil War’.9 The comparison invites us to imagine that Turner was consciously mimicking the abolitionist journalism of nineteenth-century journals such as William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator. Like his abolitionist forebears, Turner sought to puncture the well-funded lies of a southern slaveocracy with terrifying reports and haunting visual evidence of injustice and brutality carried out with the sanction of the US state.
Many of the thematic concerns, rhetorical strategies, and ideological negotiations that operate in Turner’s important text continued to be visible in writing by American radicals on Mexico for many years. Time and again, American radicals called on their readers to look favourably on the Revolution, to oppose US meddling in Mexican affairs, and to visualise the Mexican people as a noble and patriotic mass struggling for freedoms that were already familiar – and dearly held – to most Americans. Such appeals combined mainstream republican principles with the radical thrust of American socialism, and were often aided by Mexican Leftists who deeply understood the vulnerabilities and opportunities that come with being a subordinate neighbour to the US.
1. Anita Brenner, The Wind That Swept Mexico: The History of the Mexican Revolution 1910-1942 (Austin and London: University of Texas Press, 1971) p. 3.(British Library shelfmark X.800/5804).
2. Brenner, p. 65.
3. John Kenneth Turner, Barbarous Mexico (Chicago: Charles Kerr & Co., 1911) p. 67 (British Library shelfmark: 10481.pp.11); Claudio Lomnitz, The Return of Comrade Ricardo Flores Magón (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2014) p. 161 (British Library shelfmark: YC.2014.a.6131).
4. Turner, p. 16.
5. Turner, Preface.
6. Turner, Preface.
7. Turner, p. 11.
8. Turner, p. 10.
9. Turner, pp. 34-5.
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.
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