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92 posts categorized "Eccles Centre"

07 June 2019

Is ‘America’s National Pastime’ Up for Grabs?

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Professional baseball heads to London later this month with its sacred status in American culture once more in the spotlight. While the two-day series between the historic rivals, the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees, was an instant sell-out in London, back home crowds are declining, television ratings are falling and, despite the best efforts to speed-up play, games are dragging-on for longer than three hours - an eternity in today’s era of instant gratification. Those fans that do attend games or watch on TV are older and whiter than America as a whole. On social media Major League Baseball is dwarfed by the sporting behemoths of the NFL and NBA, the fame of baseball’s elite players a fraction of that enjoyed by the global superstars of professional football and basketball. It’s not surprising that each new season begins with commentators questioning whether the so-called ‘national pastime’ is in irreversible decline.

Baseball blog June I

Ed Linn, The Great Rivalry: The Yankees and the Red Sox, 1901-1990. New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1991. British Library Shelfmark: General Reference Collection Mike Ross 281.

And yet this simple contest of pitcher and batter is this year celebrating its 150th anniversary as a professional sport with its role as an emblem for American culture still jealously defended. Indeed, that very longevity is a source of strength:  baseball’s romanticized all-American creation story, which rejects its origins in the English game of rounders, may now be acknowledged as myth, but it provides the bedrock for its many cultural claims.  Ever since 1919, when the philosopher Morris Cohen first declared baseball a ‘national religion’ which offered ‘redemption from the limitations of our petty individual lives and the mystic unity of the larger life of which we are part’, baseball-obsessed scholars and multiple purveyors of cultural output have offered the game as a lens through which to view the complexities of American history. It is a rural game popularized in America’s industrializing cities; a team sport of democratic instincts soiled by its shameful record of racial and gender exclusion. It captures the essence of American capitalism in the endless struggle between owners and players over the division of its revenues. With baseball’s twentieth century expansion south and west, and the suburbanization of its fan base, it mirrors the march of post-war prosperity into new regions of the country; and all the time it demonstrates its capacity to cater simultaneously to two conflicting strains of the national character - unbridled consumerism and anxiety-fueled nostalgia.

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Morris Cohen, 1880-1947. Painted by Joseph Margulies. CCNY Library collection. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Re-enforcing these connections, a lively stream of cultural output still flows – in literature, language, film and music – which celebrates the continuity of American life and the mythical role of fathers in the generational transmission of American values.  Baseball’s story, so the argument goes, is America’s story

Of course, not everyone accepts these sweeping metaphorical claims – the baseball historian Daniel Nathan has lamented the sentimentality, ignorance and nationalism that ‘becloud our sense of baseball history and reality’. In baseball, Nathan asserts, romance has obscured the reality of the commercial and cultural onslaught from America’s other big sporting beasts. Similarly, Edward White has complained of the ‘unfounded assertions, rampant over-generalizations and exercises in wish fulfilment’, made by baseball’s scholarly and media boosters.

So which side is right in this long-running battle over cultural inheritance? Is the label of America’s ‘national pastime’ up for grabs, or was it surrendered long ago? These issues will be debated in a special event at the British Library, Take Me Out to the Ballgame: Baseball and American Culture, on Friday 28 June, 19.00 – 20.15, the eve of the Red Sox-Yankees London series. Taking part in the panel discussion will be distinguished baseball writers, baseball historians and past-practitioners of the game, with the event chaired by Matthew Engel, the eminent cricket writer, now a wholehearted convert to America’s game. If you want to join the conversation, book your tickets here: https://www.bl.uk/events/take-me-out-to-the-ball-game-baseball-and-american-culture

Chris Birkett

The British Library is the home to the Mike Ross Collection of baseball books and memorabilia which contains more than 300 items relating to America’s national pastime.

Chris Birkett is undertaking postgraduate research on the Clinton presidency and baseball at King’s College London, where he is a Professor Sir Richard Trainor Scholar, supported by the Eccles Centre at the British Library

22 May 2019

The Power of Memoir

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Where does the personal reside in our understanding of history, social issues and human experience? And what does the form of the memoir distinctively illuminate?

In 2018 novelist Tessa McWatt used her residency as an Eccles British Library Writer’s Award holder to work on a memoir on race and story-telling which traced the hybridity of her genetic make-up and the issues of racism she has faced on both sides of the ‘divide’. Her practice-based research is engaged in issues of colonialism and the historical and structural underpinnings of the creation of race and how her personal experience has been embedded in those structures.

On 3 June, Tessa will be speaking at the British Library in conversation with two historians, Sarah Knott and Norma Clarke, chaired by Erica Wagner, to talk about how embracing their own experiences and investing in the memoir form has enabled them to develop and extend their work as scholars and writers.  In preparation for their event, we asked them to given an example of how an historical item from the archive helped inform their projects: Sarah on maternity, Norma on family and Tessa on race.

Sarah Knott:

An Interesting Condition excerpt

Excerpt from Abigail Lewis [Otis Burger], An Interesting Condition (London: Odhams Press Ltd, 1951), pp. 180-181. Shelfmark 8417.cc.29.

1949 New York. Otis Burger wanted to stop each contraction and see what it felt like. It was odd having an entirely new sensation inside. She had been reading the English doctor Grantly Dick-Read, who thought childbirth should be painless ‒ disliking his determination to reduce women to their biology, but appreciating his tenderness. Her fear was the hospital feeling of being naked, and at the mercy of strangers, like a specimen of some sort. Male doctors were condescending; they seemed to think the difficulty was all in the mother’s mind and that birth was too much of a commonplace for the mother to make such a silly fuss.

Otis Burger wrote her remarkable maternal memoir, An Interesting Condition, some decades before the women’s liberation movement encouraged others to pick up their pens and make maternity properly visible. The book was unusual enough that it was printed not just in her New York but also in London, thus making its way into the hands of ordinary English readers as well as the collections of the British Library. That she published under a pseudonym was some indication of the taboos that needed to be broken.

In writing Mother: An Unconventional History, I plundered personal writings like these to understand past experiences of pregnancy, birth and being with an infant. And I took inspiration, too, from what happens when you think, like Otis Burger, in a memoir form. Blending memoir into history, and history into memoir, I found myself asking questions I might otherwise have overlooked. In bleary sleeplessness and with an infant close at hand, I wondered, what was the history of the maternal night? Or, what were the new sensations of feeling continually interrupted, or hearing the sound of an infant’s cry? I found answers not just in past memoirs but in a host of other kinds of materials to be found in libraries and archives, from leather-bound how-to guides to slave narratives and social scientists’ surveys, to private letters and scribbled diaries.

Sarah Knott, Mother (Penguin Viking, 2019)

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Norma Clarke:

My Daugter Maria Callas cover

Evangelia Callas, My Daughter – Maria Callas, as told to Lawrence G Blochman (London: Leslie Frewin, 1967) Shelfmark W77/5490

Not Speaking tells the story of a family quarrel and it does so partly through conventional narrative, partly through oral history interviews and partly by means of investigations into literary subjects: Homer’s Iliad with its quarrelling heroes features throughout, Pope’s poem, The Rape of the Lock, has traction (brother hairdressers Nicky and Michael Clarke are at the heart of the story) and Robert Graves and George Sand in Majorca figure because Majorca is one of the settings, along with Athens and London. I had no intention of researching Maria Callas and it was only by accident that she became included. But asking my mother questions about her life as a girl growing up in Athens led me down unexpected byways. The mother of Prince Philip, for example, Princess Alice, had remained in Athens during the war, and spoke very good Greek; my mother admired her. Maria Callas was also in Athens. Maria left Greece in 1945 and turned her back on her mother and sister, declaring that they hated her and she them. The women were no longer on speaking terms. And then I read a quote from Callas that riveted me: ‘I know my mother wrote a book about me, but I never read it.’

Her mother wrote a book about her! Books by daughters about mothers are ten a penny, but books by mothers about daughters? I couldn’t wait to read it. I rushed to the British Library, and within 70 minutes I had in my hands, My Daughter – Maria Callas, by Evangelia Callas (1960). It’s a book that vibrates with fury, and I reflected that Maria was probably right to keep it at a distance, but for me it was revelatory.

Norma Clarke, Not Speaking (Unbound, 2019)

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Tessa McWatt:

Chinese Oracle Bones

Shang dynasty characters on fragments of an oracle bone dating between 1600 and 1050 BC. British Library, Or. 7694/1516

“What Are You?”

It’s a question I was asked as an eight-year old in a suburban Toronto classroom by my teacher, after the word “Negro” came up in a book the class was reading. It was a word that none of the kids in the room – all ‘white’ except for me -- knew the meaning of.

Shame on Me began as a journey to understand how to answer the question. It looks at all of the strands of my genetic make-up – Scottish, African, English, Irish, Chinese, South Asian -- to find some kind of meaning in biology. But when I began to research the history of race, of the particular ‘miscegenations’ that formed me, it occurred to me that it’s all down to story-telling. I might as well ask an oracle.

Then I came across the Chinese Oracle Bone (dating from between 1600 BC and 1050 BC) in the British Library. I was hooked. I started to frame my book around the idea that ‘knowing’ is storytelling. I saw the Chinese oracle bone as an ancient 23&Me. Diviners used them to answer the elite’s questions about health, birth and death; about crops, the weather; about the outcome of battles or simply whether a particular ancestor was causing a king’s headache. The shoulder blades of ox, sheep, boars, horses and deer, or the shells of tortoises were cleaned of flesh, scraped, polished, and then diviners carved questions into them using a sharp tool. During a divination session, the bone was anointed with blood before questions were posed to ancestors. The diviner then applied such intense heat that the bone or shell cracked, and he interpreted the pattern of the fractures to answer the questions posed.

A bone with the power to provide these kinds of answers would surely provide an answer to ‘What are You?’

If only.

Tessa McWatt, Shame on Me: An Anatomy of Race and Belonging (Scribe UK, forthcoming, October 2019)

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Mother and Not Speaking covers

To find out more, join Sarah, Norma and Tessa in conversation with Erica Wagner at the British Library on Monday 3 June. More details: https://www.bl.uk/events/memoir-identity-experience

 

 

 

 

 

 

30 April 2019

The New York World's Fair, 1939

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Today marks 80 years since the Official Opening by President Franklin D Roosevelt of the 1939 New York World’s Fair.

First conceived by New York City business leaders in the midst of the Great Depression, the Fair was intended to raise the spirits – and economic outlook – of the city and the nation. Located at Flushing Meadows, Queens, on land that had been part salt marsh, part ash dump, the 1,200 acre site was three times the size of the Chicago World’s Fair, held just six years earlier. Indeed, the amusement park alone was larger than the entire Paris Exposition of 1937.

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The New York World's Fair Cook Book: The American Kitchen. By Crosby Gaige. New York: Doubleday, Doran & Company, 1939. (Shelfmark: 7944.t.37) 

Although the Official Opening commemorated the 150th anniversary of George Washington’s inauguration in NYC (then the nation’s capital), this Fair was all about looking forward. With its hugely optimistic, yet commercially minded theme – 'Building the World of Tomorrow' – nearly 45 million visitors were encouraged to see themselves as co-creators of an exciting, progressive and essentially urban future. Yet, unlike previous world expos, which had tended to celebrate technological, scientific and medical innovations in their own right, this fair wholly embraced the vision and output of corporate America.

Perhaps one of the most captivating early exhibits – unveiled in 1938 to help publicise the Fair – was the Westinghouse Time Capsule. With contents ranging from Camel cigarettes to the works of Alfred Einstein, and Life magazine to corn and tobacco seeds, it was plunged 15 meters below ground with instructions not to be opened for 5000 years.

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The Book of Record of the Time Capsule of Cupaloy. New York: Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company, 1939. (British Library shelfmark: 20033.d.15) 

The Fair itself was organised across seven vast 'zones', including Communication and Business, Production and Distribution, and Transportation. Huge pavilions were sponsored by the giants of American industry and manufacturing - Ford, Chrysler, National Cash Register, General Electric, Lucky Strike, Kodak and others. Here they showcased current and soon-to-be released consumer products, including television, air conditioning, washing machines and nylon. Yet many also offered imaginative, even breath-taking conceptions of the future, perhaps none more so than Norman Bel Geddes's 'Futurama'; a unique exhibit and ride, it offered a tantalising view of the city in 1960 and was sponsored by General Motors.

In the Government zone, 60 nations – more than at any other US fair – created and curated their own unique pavilions, enthusiastically embracing Andre Maurois’s faith in their being 'excellent publicity albums.' The British Pavilion included Lincoln Cathedral's copy of the Magna Carta, 'an object of interest and indeed of reverence,' which left Britain for the first time in its history.

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The Magna Carta Hall, British Pavilion. London, 1939. (British Library shelfmark: 7960.df.12) 

Yet, for all these displays of international friendship and diplomacy, the Fair opened at the most perilous of times. The French Pavilion programme notes: At the time when the present volume leaves the printers, [France], has entered upon war, as a result of Germany’s brutal aggression against Poland. All the more stirring will be its message to America and the world…'

When the Fair opened for its second six-month season in April 1940, its theme had changed to 'For Peace and Freedom' and numerous countries, including the Netherlands, Norway and Poland did not take part.

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France. Paris: Art Printing and Packaging Works, 1939. (British Library shelfmark: 7745.a.10)

The Fair closed in October 1940 millions of dollars in debt and having failed to attract the visitor numbers that had been hoped for. Yet, it lived on in the imagination of those who attended and its vision and hope still resonates today.

The British Library holds a unique and eclectic collection of materials from this – and all other – US hosted Fairs.

Jean Petrovic, Eccles Centre

 

 

15 March 2019

25 Cats Named Sam

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This weekend is the last opportunity to see the Library's free exhibition 'Cats on the Page', which celebrates our feline friends in literary and illustrated form.  It thus seemed appropriate to share two of our favourite cat-themed books with you.

One of his lesser known works, Andy Warhol's 25 Cats Named Sam and One Blue Pussy is a soul-warming depiction of the twenty-six cats that co-habited with Andy Warhol and his mother, Julia Warhola in their New York apartment.  Beautifully illustrated by Warhol, it is accompanied by his mother's distinctive script. 

Warhola Cats
Shelfmarks 1551/459 and 1551/460

Alongside this volume sits Holy Cats by Andy Warhol's Mother, which is illustrated in full by Julia.  Holy Cats opens with a dedication: "This little book is for my little Hester who left for pussy heaven".  The legend goes that the 25 Sams were acquired so that Hester wouldn't feel lonely.  Looking through the works, the influence of Julia's distinctive illustrations and creative imagination on her son is readily apparent.  Indeed, Warhol regularly worked with her throughout his illustrative and design career, both before and after his meteoric rise to fame in the art world.

Hester
little Hester who left for pussy heaven

Retellings of Andy Warhol's life are full of myth, and it is often difficult to decipher fact from fiction, and from deliberately self-perpetuated fantasy.  Perhaps one of the more widely favoured versions of Warhol is of the publicly celebrity-obsessed yet socially-awkward recluse.  More recently, Olivia Laing has written about Warhol within a lineage of artists who struggled with social acceptance and meaningful communication, whose works speak of and to the loneliness that accompanies this.  She describes Warhol thusly:

The loneliness of difference, the loneliness of undesirability, the loneliness of not being admitted into the magic circles of connection and acceptance – the social and professional groupings, the embracing arms.  Another thing: he lived with his mother.  In the summer of 1952 Julia had arrived in Manhattan… Andy had recently moved into his own apartment and she was anxious about his ability to care from himself.  The two of them shared a bedroom, as they had when he was a sick little boy, sleeping on twin mattresses on the floor and re-establishing the old production-line of collaboration.  Julia’s hand is everywhere in Warhol’s commercial work; in fact her beautifully erratic lettering won several awards.  Her housekeeping skills were less pronounced.  Both that apartment and the larger one that followed quickly degenerated into a state of squalor: a smelly labyrinth filled with wobbling towers of paper, in which as many as twenty Siamese cats made their homes, all but one of them named Sam.

It leaves a sad impression of one of the Twentieth-Centuries most recognisable artists, which is driven home by the vision of cat-filled squalor and over-protective mother.  Indeed, owning multiple cats is often seen as a sign of personal decadence.  And yet, when one reads 25 Cats Named Sam and Holy Cats, this is decidedly not the impression that one is left with.

Sam no 3
One of the Sams
Another Sam
Another Sam

The 25 Sams may share a name, but they each have distinctive portraits and in many ways it is perhaps Warhol's warmest work and is suggestive of companionship and familiarity rather than an existential loneliness.  These are also playful books, with a distinctly tongue-in-cheek self-awareness and a dry humour that is shared by mother and son.

Chapeau
Some cats go to heaven, some wear chapeaux
The Devil
and once in a while one of them goes to the devil

This is the memory that Warhol's nephew, James Warhola, an illustrator in his own right, has of his uncle and grandmother's living arrangements:

Andy was always portrayed as disconnected from his family, but this was definitely not the case. He was close to the family he had, his two brothers and their kids. Some biographers have' written that he kept his mother in a basement, like a dungeon, and I always found that odd. My grandmother lived in a beautiful apartment on the ground floor, and we hung out in her kitchen and living room.

Andy was playful, and he laughed a lot. He would always buy us gifts. There was a magic shop in Times Square, and he would get us cameras with birdies that popped out; he had an affectionate side. But it was important for him to keep up his persona, with the sunglasses and the silverish wig. He tried to stay in character.

These are the memories that he records in two children's books he has made about his uncle.  From the perspective of a child, they give a very different insight into Warhol's private life.

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Uncle Andy's by James Warhola
Uncle_andys
Uncle Andy's Cats by James Warhola

Read alongside Warhol's and Julia Warhola's books, one here gets the sense that Warhol's private family life was rich, and that cats provided additional companionship for both mother and son, as well as playthings for young nephews.  While their living arrangements could be seen as alternative, by looking at these without preconceptions, we get a fuller picture of the lonely socially-awkward artist we might be looking to find.

 

In memory of Matthew Neill, former curator for Australasia and English Language Asia, and cat-lover.

References

25 Cats Named Sam and One Blue Pussy, shelfmark 1551/459

Holy Cats by Andy Warhol's Mother, shelfmark 1551/460

Olivia Laing, The Lonely City, shelfmark YKL.2018.a.4059 

Interview with James Warhola, Publishers Weekly, 1/27/2003, Vol. 250, Issue 4

 

14 March 2019

North American Indigenous languages

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The North American collections section is currently recruiting for a PhD student to work on a Collaborative Doctoral Partnership PhD focusing on Indigenous languages in the post-1850 print collections.  The student will be supervised jointly by Professor Joy Porter at the University of Hull (see separately the 'Treatied Spaces' project underway there) and Dr Francisca Fuentes Rettig, curator for the North American collections at the British Library.  Additionally the student will have access to a wider support team consisting of Indigenous academics and experts in Indigenous languages, and training opportunities in languages, digital humanities, and more.

The Library has a rich collection of materials from North America in Indigenous languages.  Thanks to detailed research by our Library colleague Adrian Edwards, there is a clear record for earlier publications particularly for early Eastern Algonquian languages and early Northern Iroqouian languages.  The latter article also covers print materials up to 1900.  Additionally, we know from our internal cataloguing system that we currently have catalogue records for publications in approximately fifty North American indigenous languages.  Given that we know that there are 296 indigenous languages in North America, it is clear that significant gaps in our holdings knowledge remains.  These gaps are partly due to the nature of large historic collections with multiple origins, and the processes of libraries.  For just one example, materials predominantly in English or French language, and which contain Indigenous languages do not always clearly indicate this in catalogue records.

Another challenge is the sheer diversity of languages across North America, as well as the complexities of language cross-overs.  In the US particularly, the historic movement of languages from traditional geographical territories was a consequence of government policies of forced relocation. Policies of forced assimilation further impacted on the decline of some languages. 

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Treaty between the United States and the Choctaw and Chickasaw Indians, shelfmark Rb.23.b.7830
RF.2018.b.80
The Catholic Sioux Herald, shelfmark RF.2018.b.80


From an information science perspective, Library systems and catalogues have of course developed historically from and within Western systems of classification of knowledge.  As such, they do not necessarily respond to the complexities of these languages and the cultural sensitivities associated with them.  Finally, the specialist knowledge that would be required to conduct a comprehensive assessment of materials is sparse in the UK.

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An Ethnologic Dictionary of the Navaho Language, shelfmark YH.1988.b.1362

However, we are thankfully not starting from scratch.  Vital lessons can be learnt from our library and archives colleagues in the US, Canada, and Australasia.  In the last decades substantial amounts of research has been conducted in the field, which has seen critical interventions made by Indigenous library and information science (LIS) professionals and researchers who have developed the theory, tools, and methods to recalibrate information management systems.  They have done this with the needs of Indigenous materials in mind, working closely with communities. 

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L.49 1416 aContemporary bilingual publications in Hopi and Upper Kuskokwim Athabaskan, shelfmarks L.49/1416 ; YA.1992.a.15015 ; YA.1995.a.24337

Of particular interest are open source digital humanities projects, such as the Mukurtu platform.  Projects such as these are a major part of the effort to revitalize Indigenous languages and cultures to ensure their longevity for future generations of tribes.  Given that many languages have already died, and many more are on the UN's critically endangered list, this is important and time-sensitive work.  The new approaches present interesting challenges to a large international institution that uses massive knowledge-systems, has standardised practices, and is responsive to the growing demand for digital materials and data.  Yet, we would be remiss to see this as anything other than an important opportunity, both in intellectual and ethical terms.

It is our sincere hope that this CDP will signal the start of a longer journey towards reconsidering how we work with existing Indigenous language collections, and build a clear rationale for if, how and why we acquire such materials for future collections.  Central to this longer-term project will be open conversations with tribes.  However, the first step is to rationalise and complete existing collections knowledge so that we have a comprehensive picture of the languages and kinds of materials that we hold, so that we can identify who we need to approach.  We also need to review how existing digital humanities projects might work in a specific British Library context, and what practical challenges we could expect.  The Collaborative Doctoral Placement will play an important part in this process and, we hope, be received as a signal of our commitment to this project through the training of research, LIS, and cultural institution professionals in the UK who can carry this work forwards in future.

For any enquiries regarding the PhD opportunity, please refer to the information on our website.  The deadline for applicants is April 15.

For interested parties who do not meet the eligibility criteria of our funding body, please see the Eccles Centre website for details of alternative funding opportunities, collection guides, and bibliographies.

19 February 2019

Event: Doctoral Open Day 2019

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

BL People_112

PhD Placement student Daniela Jimenez talks with curator Pardaad Chamsaz

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

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

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

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

Windrush sound points

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

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

15 February 2019

Witch-hunts and the iconographic power of fear

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Lost among other headlines, today brought news of a fascinating discovery in the Cresswell Crags in the British Midlands: approximately 1000 apotropaic markings, also known as witches markings.  Research is ongoing by Historic England to understand more about this latest discovery at the Crags, but it seems as though they belong to a rich history of markings made to protect against witches.  Typical markings include "the double 'VV' engravings, which may make reference to Mary, Virgin of Virgins and PM is Pace Maria.  Other designs are believed to be devices for capturing ‘evil’. These include diagonal lines, boxes and mazes and could be a response to a period of unexpected sickness, death or poor crops".

Given this latest witch related discovery, it seemed appropriate to introduce readers to a new acquisition by up-and-coming New York based illustrator and book artist Normandie Syken, "Little Red Witch" which shall be available in the reading rooms very shortly, at shelfmark HS.74/2395 .  This rather large yet exquisitely detailed book is a contemporary re-telling of the infamous Brothers Grimm tale, with a twist: the story is set in Salem, Massachusetts during the 17th Century witch trials that saw 185 people accused of witchcraft in a one-year period, resulting in 59 trials and 19 executions.  By far the vast majority of the accused were women, and where men were accused it was most often by association with a female witch (usually a family member).

   

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Binding of 'Little Red Witch' shelfmark HS.74/2395

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This is, then, clearly not going to be your average fairytale.  Our witch heroine is sent from Salem to her witch grandmother's cottage in the woods to wait out the anti-witch hysteria overtaking Salem with her loyal companion, an unnamed black cat.  

DSC_0479 DSC_0479
 

En route, she enjoys the freedoms offered by the woods to celebrate her true witch nature, along with new-found woodland friends with whom she shares a midnight dance around a fire.  Amongst the revellers is a wolf of whom our heroine is far from intimidated, recognising in him a fellow in the dark arts.

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Nonetheless, the wolf betrays her confidence and so the book returns to the more familiar narrative of 'Little Red Riding Hood'. 

DSC_0482
"What big teeth you have"

However, this only lasts a short while before further twists on the narrative are introduced.  Notably, there is no woodcutter to save the day.  Instead Little Red and her grandmother apply their witch knowledge and cunning to save themselves from their seemingly terrible fate.  

DSC_0485
Brewing a wolf-potion

What is particularly interesting about this retelling is how a number of themes that emerged from the Salem witch trials are integrated into the narrative.  Some of these, such as the ever present black cat, broomstick, and cauldron are now instantly recognisable elements of the popular imagining of witches.  Others are less iconographic: single women, particularly spinsters; inherited inter-generational witchcraft; an ability to commune and speak with animals; familiarity with herbal remedies; speaking with the Devil; causing harm through poppets (doll-like effigies); the power of words to curse; and of course the symbols of witchcraft which have their counterpoint in the protective markings seen at Cresswell Crags.  While some of these may not have appeared in a 'Family Fortunes' list of witches' traits ('Family Feuds' for our US readers), they are nonetheless all uncannily familiar.  Such is the power of historic narratives to traverse centuries, particularly those that invoke fear of the unknown and suspicion of difference.

It should come as no surprise then that all of the above can be found in the historical record as anecdotal evidence used to accuse people of witchcraft, both in witch-hunts in Britain and those that took place in the American colonies.  The imagined threat of witches clearly posed a very real danger to individuals and society in the early modern period. Estimates of numbers of people who were killed during European witchhunts vary from 40,000 up to 500,000 over 300 years.

Of course, much of the 'identifying' characteristics of witches were heavily gendered: women's work and women's words were read through a sinister lens.  As Carol F. Karlsen groundbreaking sociological history of the Salem witch trials details, "witchcraft played a critical role not only in shaping, maintaining, and describing [the social structure of New England], but in reconciling men's feelings about women with the demographic, economic, religious and sexual changes of the time."  They are words that are important to reflect on, particularly considering that witch-hunts continue to be a present threat in some areas of the world where women continue to be at highest risk of persecution.

Read in this light, 'Little Red Witch' reclaims the negative connotations of witchcraft, which Normandie Syken uses to carve her very own mischievously dark fairytale, and a formidable heroine in 'Little Red'.

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Witches' ally, cuddling wolf-poppet.

 

NB: The author gifted several prints from the book upon acquisition.  As these are contained within the book, and with the author's permission, we felt it appropriate to donate these to another home where they have the opportunity to be seen by a wider audience.  We are pleased that the Glasgow Women's Library will shortly be the new home to these prints, together with a spare copy of Karlsen's book to provide a little more context.

 

Images on this page are all reproduced with permission of Normandie Syken, with whom copyright remains.  We kindly ask that you please respect this.

References

Normandie Syken, Little Red Witch, HS.74/2395

Carol F. Karlsen, The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England. British Library shelfmark YH.1988.a.422 

"Witches' Marks Discovery 'Largest in Britain'.  Historic England: https://historicengland.org.uk/whats-new/news/witches-marks-discovery-largest-in-britain 

- F.D Fuentes Rettig

01 February 2019

The Federal Theatre Project's 'Living Newspapers'

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

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

Blue Blouse 1927

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

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

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

One-Third-of-a-Nation-Poster

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

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

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

One-Third-of-a-Nation-Set

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

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

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

Atomic 2

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

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

Mary Crapo smoking

References:

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

[2]. ibid., p. 109.

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

Jean Petrovic, Eccles Centre for American Studies