American Collections blog

118 posts categorized "History"

07 April 2020

Online Access to United States Government Printing Office Publications

My former colleague and Head of the Eccles Centre for North American Studies, Professor Philip Davies, would always start his remarks of welcome to Eccles Centre events by saying that the North American collections and resources of the British Library were the best in the world, outside of the Americas.

Professor Davies was most likely right on that count based on the pure size of the North American collections which have been systematically developed for around two centuries.  Nevertheless, these collections housed in the Library’s cavernous basements and storage buildings are now inaccessible due to the to the COVID-19 pandemic.  However, for the scholar, reader, or anyone who’s interested, there is a rich collection of North American digital resources available from the British Library website which are free to access.

One of these is the collection of the United States Government Printing Office publications available through Explore the British Library. The Government Printing Office (GPO) is the printer to the US Government and since 1861 it has played a pivotal role in keeping Americans informed about the business of government. Being official publications are meant for public circulation, a portion of these works are freely available to access via the catalogue.

To access the collection simply use the search term “Government Printing Office” in the British Library catalogue. Under Access Options select “Online” where it will list in excess of 15,000 records. By selecting the “I Want This” option on any of these records it will direct the user to a view online option and from there select US Federal Government Document by clicking “Go”. This will take you directly to the digital version of the publication.

 

Screenshot of the British Library catalogue, “Explore the British Library”, showing how to access the collection of the United States Government Printing Office using the search term "Government Printing Office", and related results
Step 1. How to explore: using the search term "Government Printing Office"

 

Screenshot of the British Library catalogue, “Details” / “I want this”, showing how to select and request a digital item
Step 2. How to explore: selecting and requesting a digital item

The breadth of what is published by the GPO is quite bewildering, so where would one start?  In normal circumstances a suggestion might be to visit the forthcoming British Library exhibition Unfinished Business: The Fight for Women’s Rights, which explores the complex history and battles for women’s rights. 

At the moment, it might be appropriate to suggest a collection of 150 plus digital publications relating to Women’s Bureau between the 1918 -1963, which can be accessed via Explore the British Library. These publications include the Women’s Bureau Bulletin and their annual reports, along with a range of reports, legislation and studies on a Federal and State level proving rich research resources for range of disciplines. By way of an example:

“Women's Employment in Aircraft Assembly Plants in 194”: Women's Bureau Bulletin, No. 192-1.

Screenshot of Women’s Bureau Bulletin [Public –no.259 – 66th Congress]. Title reading: “An act to establish in the Department of Labor a bureau to be known as the Women’s Bureau”. … Approved, June 5, 1920
Women's Bureau Bulletin

The United States Women’s Bureau was set up in 1920, as part of the Department of Labor to create parity for women in the labour force through research and policy analysis. Its role was to educate and promote policy change, and to increase public awareness. The Women’s Bureau is still in existence and is celebrating its centenary this year.

Furthermore, the collection contains a wide range of contemporary titles published by the Government Printing Office including:

A Grave Misfortune: The USS Indianapolis Tragedy / Richard A. Hulver; Peter C. Luebke, associate editor.

The Final Report of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission

Women in Congress, 1917-2017

Keeping America informed: the U.S. Government Printing Office: 150 years of service to the nation.

All the above titles can be accessed via Explore by searching the title. Bear in mind that if you are searching for a specific document, or report, this item may be part of a larger series. 

For a more in-depth insight in to the Library’s collection, there is a downloadable guide on the US Federal Government publications collection page. 

[blog post by Jerry Jenkins. Curator, Contemporary British Publications, Emerging Media]

 

20 March 2020

Dancing in the archives...

In the early 1980s this thing called hip hop suddenly arrived in the UK from North America through videos like Malcolm McLaren's Buffalo Gals (1982) and films such as Wild Style (1983).  It marked the start of a global cultural change and, unbeknown to me, would help develop my future world as a choreographer, researcher and teacher.

In time, my curiosity would take me beyond the South Bronx of the 1970s to '50s jazz dance, Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers and, eventually, minstrelsy.

An African American woman and man Lindy Hopping; the woman is wearing a long sleeved blouse, a striped skirt and white plimsolls while the man is wearing a long sleeve shirt and dungarees that are tight at the waist and full in the leg
Willa Mae Ricker and Leon James dancing the Lindy Hop, Life Magazine, 23 August 1943; shelfmark P.P.6383.cke

Minstrelsy and blackface was something I was aware of growing up in the 1970s as a mixed race child in the North East of England: The Black and White Minstrel Show was still on TV and racial relics were never far away.  Years later I began looking past the racially charged media of minstrelsy, seeing instead an innovative dance form which laid the foundations not only for hip hop dance but for entertainment as we know it today.  And so I began to ponder on the question: What happened before minstrelsy?  Which is what brought me to the Eccles Centre and the British Library.

My approach at the Library was to explore African diaspora dance practices in the United States from the early 1800s.  My prior knowledge of African based social dances was mostly limited to the 20th century and I knew there was so much more: More threads and meeting points detailing the myriad ways in which the African diaspora experience was carried to the US, became fractured and disrupted through slavery, and morphed into gospel, blues, ragtime, jazz, funk and hip hop.  My research enabled me to understand how African dance, including Gelede and Calenda, were exchanged and disrupted through gatherings such as corn shucking meets, leading in turn to secular dances like the turkey trot and the camel walk. 

An advert for a minstrel show, depicting a group of around 15 people singing and dancing in the moonlight by the side of a river
The Big Black Boom. Her Majesty's Theatre, Westminster c. 1878. Shelfmark: Evan.273 (Image taken from a collection of pamphlets, handbills, and miscellaneous printed matter relating to Victorian entertainment and everyday life. Originally published/produced in London, 1800 - 1895)

The key thing I realised through this research, however, wasn't even about dance.  It was about how information was passed, gathered and coded through slavery.  It was about the interactions between different African practices. I began looking beyond West African traditional dance forms to broader African practices.  This led me to explore the Muslim experience within Africa, the United States and slavery.  One story I came across was that of a 35-year old male Muslim slave in Sierra Leone during the eighteenth century. Waiting in irons for departure, sometimes he would sing a melancholy song and sometimes a Muslim prayer.  The song would eventually arrive in America to be heard by other Africans who may not have understood Arabic. Yet the cadence, experience and emotion enabled an experience of empathy that transcended words.  It was decoded through human consciousness as emotional unity through sound and movement.  It was understood, or misunderstood, and developed identity, social communication and African American culture.  These rhythms and experiences would resurface and be remixed into early blues; a remix that I suggest echoes into the sampling culture of hip hop.

Traces of Muslim practice may also relate to the Ring Shout (ceremonial dance) and the Kaaba and walking anti clockwise as prayer.  These exchanges of different African cultures, through shared experience and slavery, led me to think more about the subtleties and nuances of human exchange, gesture, symbolism and the cadence of both sound and movement: how scales of emotion and the body being read and misread is very much part of human learning, social patterns and coded cultures.

The African diaspora experience of slavery is one of the most heartless in human history and yet people survived, grew and emerged.  Of course, resilience in itself is a built-in human trait but how many times must it be tested and inflicted from one human to another to the degree of slavery and many other forms of violence, where carried trauma and disrupted African experiences seem to be in constant recovery and where culture acts to navigate and find better ways of living.

I think this research more than anything has led me to a deeper understanding of cultural development, human exchange, histories (my own) and the traces of experience that we carry and that are passed through generations.  Which brings me to the present, to my own creative practice and towards Afro futurism and how one can begin to develop African diaspora history(s) through speculation as a way to navigate future possibilities.  My hope is to develop projects embedded in my Eccles Centre research through dance, hip hop, visual art and education, exploring the question: What is hip hop's place in the twenty first century?

Robert Hylton, Eccles Fellow, 2019

Suggested Reading:

Abbott, L and Seroff, D. Ragged but Right: Black Traveling Shows, "Coon Songs," and the Dark Pathway to Blues and Jazz. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2007. (Shelfmark: m07/.15598 DSC)

Austin, A. African Muslims in Antebellum America: Transatlantic Stories and Spiritual Struggles. New York; London: Routledge, 1997. (Shelfmark: YC.1997.a.3453) 

Diouf, S. Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in The Americas. New York University Press, 1998. (Shelfmark: YC.1999.a.80)

Emory, E. Black Dance: From 1619 to Today. London: Dance, 1988. (Shelfmark: YM.1989.a.111) 

Gay, K. African American Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations: the History, Customs, and Symbols Associated with Both Traditional and Contemporary Religious and Secular Events Observed by Americans of African Descent. Detroit, MI: Omnigraphics, 2007. (Shelfmark: YD.2007.a.7641)

Glass, B. African American Dance: An Illustrated History. Jefferson, N.C; London: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2007. (Shelfmark: m07/.12508 DSC)

Hammer, J. Safi, O. The Cambridge Companion to American Islam. Cambridge University Press, 2013. (Shelfmark: YC.2014.a.828)

Robinson, D. Modern Moves: Dancing Race During the Ragtime and Jazz Eras. (Oxford; New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2015) (Shelfmark: YC.2015.a.12024)

Thompson, K. Ring Shout, Wheel About: the Racial Politics of Music and Dance in North American Slavery (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2014) (Shelfmark: m14/.11623) 

Visual References:

Ring Shout: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NQgrIcCtys0

Buzzard Lope: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3dGamWaYcLg

Audio Reference:

Alan Lomax Recordings - Levee Camp Holler: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5EH3jsnUo38

 

10 February 2020

Edward Kamau Brathwaite (1930-2020) – a mind of many talents

Blog by Dr Philip Abraham, Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library

Edward Kamau Brathwaite, poet, activist and historian, was one of the towering figures of modern Caribbean literary and intellectual history, and a writer whose versatility and vigour was quite awe-inspiring. I first encountered Brathwaite the historian, reading his path-breaking study of The Development of Creole Society in Jamaica, 1770-1820 (Shelfmark: X.809/11084.) when I was writing my PhD on a not completely dissimilar topic. It is a brilliant book, blending richly textured social history with a conceptually vigorous approach to the specificities of Caribbean (in this case, Jamaican) cultural formations. The Preface revealed that this was a lightly revised version of his own Sussex University doctoral thesis. “I’ll never write anything this good,” I thought. And looking at his original dissertation in EThoS, it’s very clear to me that I didn’t.

Eventually I connected Edward Brathwaite the historian with Kamau Brathwaite, a poet I’d heard of but didn’t know much about, and as I learned more about his life, it became clear why I’d found his work so humbling and impressive. Brathwaite is part of a tradition of academically trained historians from and of the colonial West Indies, whose energy and intelligence exploded beyond the confines of the dusty scholarship in which they were trained. Indeed, such historians as C.L.R. James, Eric Williams, Elsa Goveia and Walter Rodney, reframed historical research and writing as an urgent political and artistic act, as each not only made a substantial intellectual impact outside their discipline, but also enduring social, cultural and political legacies far beyond the academy.

In Brathwaite’s case, he was a cultural organiser and poet of the first importance. In 1966, whilst studying at Sussex, he founded the Caribbean Artists Movement with John La Rose and Andrew Salkey in London. As artist Errol Lloyd recalls, CAM was important for being “the first organised collaboration of artists from the Caribbean with the aim of celebrating a new sense of shared Caribbean ‘nationhood’.” Brathwaite was already a published poet at this time, Rights of Passage (Shelfmark: X.909/8978.) having appeared with Oxford University Press in 1967. He went on to publish dozens of volumes of his own poetry over the next fifty years, as well as championing other poets through anthologies, essays and teaching.

 

Edward Brathwaite  Rights of Passage. OUP  1967
Title page of Edward Brathwaite's 'Rights of Passage' (OUP, 1967)

The British Library is a great place to learn more about Kamau Brathwaite, and Anglo-Caribbean writing more generally. For instance, there are over a dozen recordings of Brathwaite reading his own poetry in our Sound Archive, as well as interviews and collaborations with other poets like Linton Kwesi Johnson. In our Manuscripts and Archives department, there are uncorrected proofs of some of his early volumes of poetry and publicity photographs in the Poetry Book Society archive. More significantly, in the archive of Andrew Salkey there are many letters and photographs illuminating their artistic and personal friendship, including the setting up of CAM. Those interested more broadly in Anglo-Caribbean writing will also find much of interest in the archives of James Berry and the recently acquired archive of Andrea Levy, which will be available to consult in late 2021.

And then there are the books themselves. From Rights of Passage in 1967 to the Lazarus poems (Shelfmark: YKL.2018.a.19802) in 2017, his full poetic career can be surveyed in the British Library’s collections, as well as his historical and literary writings (1974’s Contradictory Omens [Shelfmark: X:519/30919] is another must-read) and many books about him. One of the distinguishing aspects of Brathwaite’s later poetry is its embrace of the visuality of digital culture as a poetic strategy, creating some highly complex, experimental, and vibrantly contemporary work. It is thus fitting that a writer of Brathwaite’s versatility and imagination should have inhabited a career that was both deeply immersed in the past, and so keenly attuned to the forms and practices that are transforming today into tomorrow.

Kamau Brathwaite  Dream Haiti. Savacou North  1995. Cover
Cover for Brathwaite's 'Dream Haiti' (Savacou North, 1995)



Kamau Brathwaite  Dream Haiti. Savacou North  1995. Excerpt 1
Inside 'Dream Haiti' (Savacou North, 1995)



Kamau Brathwaite  Born to Slow Horses. WUP  2005.
Cover of 'Born to Slow Horses' (WUP, 2005 )



Kamau Brathwaite  The Lazarus Poems. WUC  2017. A Slave Ship Beloved
Inside 'The Lazarus Poems: A Slave Ship Beloved' (WUC, 2017)



Kamau Brathwaite  Middle Passages. Bloodaxe  1992. Cover
Cover for 'Middle Passages' (Bloodaxe, 1992)

Further reading:
Stuart B. Schwarz (ed.), West Indian Intellectuals in Britain (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003) (Shelfmark: YC.2006.a.16834) – a guide to the milieu of the Caribbean intelligentsia in mid-twentieth century Britain, which did much to shape Brathwaite’s early intellectual and poetic achievements

Verene A. Shepherd and Glen L. Richards (eds.), Questioning Creole: Creolisation Discourses in Caribbean Culture (Kingston, JA: Ian Randle Publishers, 2002) (Shelfmark: YC.2002.a.6565) – a stimulating collection of essays taking Brathwaite’s historical and conceptual investigations of ‘creole’ as their starting point

Annie Paul (ed.), Caribbean Culture: Soundings on Kamau Brathwaite (Kingston, Jamaica University of the West Indies Press, 2007) (Shelfmark: YD.2008.a.8461) – another collection of essays on the author’s poetic and cultural leagacy

05 February 2020

Walter Rodney's Enduring Legacy Through Archival Collaboration

Black and white photo of Walter Rodney standing in front of a door or window
Walter Rodney; image courtesy of the Huntley Archives, London Metropolitan Archives, LMA 4463 series

Nearly forty years ago, on 13 June 1980, Guyanese historian, political activist and academic Walter Rodney was assassinated.  Family, friends and fans across the world mourned the loss of Rodney.  This grief expressed itself privately and publicly – through poetry, letters and protest.  Traces can be found in the British Library, particularly in the archive of Andrew Salkey.  P.D. Sharma – a Guyanese comrade – wrote to Salkey shortly after hearing the news.  He wrote of being ‘paralyzed with grief, shock and disbelief’ as expressed in the poem below; such moving remembrances of Rodney’s continue to this day: 

WALTER RODNEY IS DEAD (13th June 1980)
Weep people, cry Jesus
And drown the earth above us
Flood the oceans
Liquidify the mountains
Sink heaven.
The Eastern star is blown
No more the fairest of twinkles
Done the kingdom and the king.
Now the sun will never catch the night
The falcon god soars
And shadows we be
Our world is out.
How infinite was so brief
Too much and only but few
Except that grey men
With infants on their laps
Shall tell to eternity
Of the light that once,
Breathless and bedamned
Questioning the open
But if, what might …

(Letter from P.D. Sharma (LA) to Salkey (Massachusetts), June 1980, Walter Rodney File, Box 21, Andrew Salkey collection, The British Library)

Walter Rodney’s intellectual energy, praxis and commitment lives on.  It lives on through Black liberation struggles across the world and the action and commitment of the Friends of the Huntley Archives at LMA  (FHALMA). Housed at the London Metropolitan Archives (LMA), the Huntley Archives is made up of Jessica and Eric Huntley’s documents, photographs and recordings.  It also holds the files of Bogle-L'Ouverture Publications (one of Britain’s earliest black publishing houses) that they collectively founded in 1968, following the banning of Walter Rodney from Jamaica.   

On Saturday 22 February, the 15th Annual Huntley Conference: Rodney's Enduring Legacy will offer a space for activists, scholars, students and families to engage with this legacy through a day of discussion, film, lectures and archive tours.  Supported by the Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library, the LMA and the Museum of London, it brings together some of London’s key cultural heritage institutions.  It also builds on an ongoing collaboration between the British Library, LMA and FHALMA as part of the mass sound digitisation project Unlocking Our Sound Heritage.

Volunteering for FHALMA and helping to organise this conference has offered a brilliant opportunity to extend my Collaborative Doctoral Partnership beyond the British Library and UCL by connecting with archives and community groups across London.  Related to ongoing research on Caribbean publishing as activism, the conference provides an important space to discuss the history and legacy of Caribbean intellectual thought.

Black and white photo of Walter Rodney sitting at a typewriter on a table covered with papers; a woman stands behind him
Walter Rodney; image courtesy of the Huntley Archives, London Metropolitan Archives, LMA 4463 series

Notably, the conference will include roundtable sessions called 'Groundings' which are modelled on and inspired by Rodney’s practice of talking plainly about human rights, identity and Black history directly with grassroots communities.  These intergenerational conversations will explore themes of Black liberation, solidarity and class, whilst considering the role of youth, academics, communities and creative producers within historic and contemporary struggles.

Professor Patricia Daley's keynote, 'Walter Rodney: The Black Academic and the Importance of the Study of Africa for Global Black Emancipation', will reflect on Rodney's impressive contribution to radical scholarship on Africa and consider his understanding of ‘groundings’ as a form of academic and political practice, central to black emancipation globally.

The frontispiece of Walter Rodney Speaks - black print on a green cover
Walter Rodney, Walter Rodney Speaks: The Making of an African Intellectual. Trenton, NJ: African World Press, 1990. (British Library shelfmark: YA.1992.a.9118)

Walter Rodney continues to challenge us through our archives.  You can find Rodney in the British Library’s Andrew Salkey collection, from recordings of memorial lectures to Bogle-L'Ouverture book launches.  Rodney also speaks to us through his many texts - published both when he was alive and posthumously - including: The Groundings with My Brothers (1969), A History of the Upper Guinea Coast, 1545-1800 (1970), How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (1972) and Walter Rodney Speaks: the making of an African Intellectual (1990).

Suggested further reading/listening:

  • Bogle book launch (1985), Andrew Salkey collection, C1839/62.
  • Rupert Lewis, Walter Rodney: 1968 Revisited.  Barbados: Canoe Press, UWI, 1998. (British Library shelfmark: YC.2005.a.8199).
  • Rupert Lewis, Walter Rodney’s Intellectual and Political Thought. Mona: University of the West Indies, 1998. (British Library shelfmark: Document Supply 99/13124). 
  • Manning Marable lecture (1987), Andrew Salkey Collection, C1839/45.
  • Colin Prescod, ‘Guyana’s socialism: an interview with Walter Rodney’, Race & Class, 18 (1976), 109- 128. (British Library shelfmark: Ac.6236.a). 
  • Kate Quinn (eds.), Black Power in the Caribbean. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2014.  (British Library shelfmark: YC.2014.a.16051) 
  • Researching Walter Rodney in the Huntley Archives, London Metropolitan Archive.

Works by Walter Rodney:

  • The Groundings with My Brothers. London: Bogle-L'Ouverture Publications, 1970. (British Library shelfmark: X.709/10382) 
  • A History of the Upper Guinea Coast, 1545-1800. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970. (British Library shelfmark: Document Supply 72/14824)
  • How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. London: Bogle-L'Ouverture Publications, 1976. (British Library shelfmark: Document Supply 82/24897) 
  • Walter Rodney Speaks: The Making of an African Intellectual. Trenton, NJ: African World Press, 1990. (British Library shelfmark: YA.1992.a.9118) 

Naomi Oppenheim is an AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Student, British Library and UCL researching Caribbean print cultures and the politics of history in post-war Britain. Follow her on Twitter @naomioppenheim

 

04 December 2019

The American and British Authors of Today’s Secular ‘Traditional Christmas’

Washington Irving is today perhaps best remembered for the stories ‘Rip Van Winkle’ and ‘The Legend of Sleepy Hollow’, first published in 1819/20.  They were included in Irving’s The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent, which, in its initial serialisation and then in book form, was a huge and perennial bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic.1  However, it is the Sketch Book’s five chapters depicting an English country Christmas at the Yorkshire home of a fictional Squire Bracebridge that have had the greater lasting impact.  For it was in those chapters that Irving was successful in emphasising the importance of both preserving and creating cherished Christmas traditions.  

The quality of Irving’s prose reinforced his evocation of Christmas. His description of the Waits, a musical band of night watchmen, being a prime example: ‘I had scarcely got into bed when a strain of music seemed to break forth in the air just below the window.  I listened, and found it proceeded from a band which I concluded to be the Waits from some neighbouring village.  They went round the house, playing under the windows.  I drew aside the curtains to hear them more distinctly.  The moonbeams fell through the upper part of the casement; partially lighting up the antiquated apartment.  The sounds, as they receded, became more soft and aerial, and seemed to accord with the quiet and moonlight.  I listened and listened—they became more and more tender and remote, and, as they gradually died away, my head sunk upon the pillow and I fell asleep.’2

Group of musical night watchmen playing music in the snow around a lamp on the floor outside a large building.
Cecil Aldin’s illustration of the Waits in Washington Irving, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. London: Cassell & Co., [1910]; shelfmark: 12350.p.25.

Charles Dickens was a great admirer of Irving, writing to the American, ‘I should like to travel with you, outside the last of the coaches, down to Bracebridge Hall.’  There can be no doubt that Mr Pickwick’s Christmas at Dingley Dell was inspired by Irving, as, in spirit, was ‘Christmas Festivities’ in Dickens’ Sketches by Boz.  However, Dickens gave the latter an urban setting, in London and, more narrowly than in Pickwick, centred his account on the family, thus moving it closer to today’s celebrations.  Dickens’s example encouraged the inclusion of all one’s kinfolk: ‘The Christmas family-party that we mean, is not a mere assemblage of relations, got up at a week or two’s notice, originating this year, having no family precedent in the last, and not likely to be repeated in the next.  No.  It is an annual gathering of all the accessible members of the family, young or old, rich or poor.’3

large Christmas dinner in the nineteenth century
‘Christmas Dinner’, illustration by R Seymour from: Thomas Hervey, The Book of Christmas. London: William Spooner, 1836; shelfmark: DRT 1568/2302

 

Title page of Dicken's A Christmas Carol with an illustration on the left hand side of a couple dancing while being watched by others
First Edition of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol with John Leech’s illustration of ‘Mr Fezziwig’s Ball’. London: Chapman & Hall, 1843; shelfmark: C.117.b.67.

Dickens, the writer of one of the greatest Christmas stories in A Christmas Carol, was just one of a number of authors, on both sides of the Atlantic, who did so much to create lasting Christmas traditions during the half century before 1870.  And among them was a succession of imaginative Americans who, between them, produced the phenomenon that, from the end of that period, became modern Christmas’s most popular secular figure on both sides of the Atlantic.  It was then that one of the greatest of Anglo-American mergers began: with Britain’s Father Christmas keeping his name and, mostly, his robe, but for the first time assuming the colour and character of America’s Santa Claus.

Father Christmas is certainly rather older than his American cousin.  He first became the effective personification of the midwinter festival in ‘Christmas, his Masque’, written by Ben Jonson and staged for King James I & VI by Inigo Jones in 1616.  The character of ‘Christmas’, ‘Captain Christmas’, ‘Old Christmas’, ‘Christmas of London’ and Father Christmas, as he finally came to be called, was created as a satirical figure in order to mock the Puritans and their opposition to the concept of celebrating Christmas as a joyous festival.  However, Father Christmas was not a well-defined figure and so he would remain for two-and-a-half centuries.

A Father Christmas figure in a kind of ornate gothic doorway with other much smaller characters around him
Robert Seymour's illustration recreating the original 'Christmas' figure from Ben Jonson's 'Christmas, his Masque' in Thomas Hervey, The Book of Christmas. London, William Spooner, 1836. Shelfmark: DRT 1568/2302.
An early Father Christmas character looking rather wild sitting on a goat with holly flowing from his hair and a steaming wassail bowl in his right hand.
Robert Seymour's illustration of 'Old Christmas' from Thomas Hervey, The Book of Christmas. London, William Spooner, 1836. Shelfmark: DRT 1568/2302.


As for the origin of Santa Claus, we need once again to turn to Washington Irving and, this time, to what began as a joke.  Ten years before his Sketch Book, Irving satirised those New Yorkers who he thought over keen to create false traditions for their fast-expanding metropolis.  In A History of New York he invented a story about the very founding of the city, when the Catholic St Nicholas, known by the Dutch as Sinterklaas, flew over Manhattan ‘in that self-same wagon wherein he brings his yearly presents to children’ and directed the elders to site their settlement there. From this unlikely beginning, St Nicholas / Sinterklaas found favour in America.  A dozen years later, Clement Clarke Moore gave him a team of reindeer and a cheery personality in the poem best known as ‘The Night Before Christmas’ and shortly afterwards the figure became generally known as Santa Claus.  Finally, in the 1860s, the political cartoonist Thomas Nast began his creation of the physical image which, with a few minor additions, has remained to this day. 

Jolly looking Santa Claus holding lots of presents and a long thin pipe
'Merry Old Santa Claus', illustration by Thomas Nast, Harper's Weekly, 1 January 1881; image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
 

By the end of the 1860s, Santa Claus the present-giver was becoming very popular with American children and also, understandably, with the manufacturers of presents.  Improved transatlantic communications enabled Santa to skip quickly across the Atlantic.  His appeal to children was and is obvious: here was someone who brought more presents!  As for the adult British public, a change of name to Father Christmas and an assumption of hundreds of years of British heritage quickly turned this kindly American import into a seemingly timeless British figure.  Whether called Santa Claus or Father Christmas, he has become the happy personification of the modern secular Christmastime.

Notes:

  1. Washington Irving, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. London: Cassell & Co., [1910]; shelfmark 12350.p.25. 
  2. From 'Christmas Eve', in Washington Irving, The Sketch of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996; shelfmark YK.1996.a.13992.
  3. Charles Dickens, 'Christmas Festivities' (1835) republished as 'A Christmas Dinner' in Sketches by Boz: illustrative of every day life and every-day people. London: Chapman & Hall, 1902; shelfmark 012613.g.3.
  4. Washington Irving, A History of New York. London: J Murray, 1820; shelfmark DRT 838.f.8

George Goodwin FRHistS FRSA is a Makin Fellow of the British Library’s Eccles Centre for American Studies and the author of Christmas Traditions: A Celebration of Festive Lore (British Library Publishing, £12.99).   There are still a few tickets available for the second of his two fun talks on Christmas Traditions, at the British Library on 10th December.  

18 November 2019

British Library x Charles Jeffrey Research Competition launched: show & tell top picks from the American Studies team

Lora Afric, Languages Cataloguing Manager, reflects on some highlights from a year of fashion collaboration at the Library

For the third year running the British Library has worked with the British Council for Fashion on a Research Collaboration Project and this year radical Glaswegian designer, Charles Jeffrey, joined forces. To mark the start of this collaboration, a catwalk show of Jeffrey’s brand Loverboy SS20 collection ‘Mind’s Instructions’ was staged at the Library earlier in the year. This was followed by a Masterclass in October organised for BA final year and MA students, and a launch of the Research Competition

Charles Jeffrey considers knowledge to be a ‘form of armor’. His brief instructs students to compile a research-focused fashion portfolio inspired by the British Library resources. A show and tell is an interactive part of the Masterclass which is run as part of the project. It gives curators the opportunity to engage with students and inspire them with samples of particularly visually intriguing collection items. 

Model on catwalk showing example of collection created by Charles Jeffrey Loverboy
‘Mind’s instructions’ Loverboy SS20 collection – the British Library, May 2019, reproduced with permission

 

In this blog post the Americas team have selected some of the most popular items shown on the day. You can see the selections from the European team on their blog on the same topic. It is not surprising that items featuring colours, patterns and poetry appealed to fashion students the most. The designs will reveal whether ‘Perhaps peace can still be found in the beautiful and the unexplained?’ as Jeffrey Charles states in his brief. 

 

Opening of Kenneth Patchen's Glory never guesses & other stories showing yellow and orange pages with text and zebra and butterfly in the background
Kenneth Patchen, Glory never guesses & other stories, [United States?], 1955 (RF.2017.b.42)

 

Glory never guesses & other pages by Kenneth Patchen

Published in the United States in the summer of 1955, although the exact location and publisher remains ambiguous, this vibrant collection of 18 poems from the original manuscript pages of American poet Kenneth Patchen features decorations and drawings reproduced through silk screening.

Various flora and fauna, including birds, turtles, butterflies and a zebra, and looping elaborate script, adorn the pages of delicate Japanese paper. Only 200 copies, all hand-run, were produced by Frank Bacher. Patchen became well-known in poetry circles for reading his work with jazz as an accompaniment, and you can almost hear the colourful play and rhythm of the words jump up from the page thanks to Bacher’s lively and rich reproduction.

We chose this item for the show and tell not just for its visual appeal, but also because we thought its use of materials, textures and techniques might spur some inspiration. For those interested in the materiality of books and the book form, there is a thematic vein of such amongst a number of artists’ books held at the Library including metal books (like HS.74/2323), wax books (such as RF.2018.a.56) and even coffee-stained books (see Cup.550.g.669).

Rachael – Curator, North American Published Collections

 

Five images showing colourful cover and inside pages of Cartonera books from Latin America
Cartonera books from Latin America

 

Cartonera books from Latin America

As history has often taught, there are always unexpected opportunities that arise from moments of crisis. The Cartonera phenomenon is a happy Fenix arising from the cardboards piles of the streets.

When Argentina, experienced the great economic depression of the years 1998-2002,  with the consequence of a huge job loss, and the obvious recession of the publishing and cultural sectors,  people started pouring out the streets not only for rioting but also to find an alternative way of life.

Cardboard pickers, cartoneros, started collecting paper and cardboard from the street finding the selling profitable. Eloísa Cartonera, became the first Cartonera publisher that, from 2001-2, started producing books “con cartón comprado a los cartoneros en la vía pública” (with cardboard bought from the cardboard pickers from the streets), although this is not a completely new phenomenon since it arguably takes its primordial roots from the 70’.

The aim of the Cartonera publishers was, since the beginning, to spread poetry and literature at a mass level in Latin America, and at a very low price.

Since then very well established writers, artists and poets, have donated or created for the cause, such as Washington Cucurto. A founder of Eloisa Cartonera and cult author whose realism compositions feature negritude, poverty and homosexuality in Latin America. 

I selected the hand-made Cartonera books for the show and tell for the visual aspect of their recycled appeal alongside their inspiring potential to open the scope for creativity.

Annalisa – Cataloguer, American Collections

 

The Fashion Research Competition and the staff favourite winners will be announced on 31 January when, during a reverse show and tell, students will reveal/show their work inspired by the British Library collections. 

For featured European collection items please see the parallel European studies blog.

 

Blog by Lora Afric, Languages Cataloguing Manager

 

Suggested reading

Kenneth Patchen, Glory never guesses: & other pages. [United States?] : [publisher not identified], [1955] RF.2017.b.42

Ricardo Piglia, The pianist (Buenos Aires, 2007) YF.2011.a.2591

Carlos D'Angelis, No ve la mía (Buenos Aires, 2007) YF.2010.a.6178

Dulcinéia Catadora [ed.], Em mãos ([Brazil], [2013]) RF.2019.a.343

Yarezi Salazar, El secreto de mi tía abuela ([Monterrey, Mexico], [2010]) RF.2019.a.328 

Carlos Emílio Corrêa, A outra forma da ilha de goa (Lima [Paraguay], [2018]) RF.2019.a.330

17 October 2019

Black History Month

October is Black History Month in the UK and has been celebrated here for nearly 40 years. The month marks an annual commemoration of the history, achievements and contributions of black people in the UK. Originally founded to recognise the contributions made by people of Caribbean and African backgrounds, the focus of Black History Month has now expanded to include the history of African, Asian and Caribbean peoples and the importance of their contributions to the culture of the UK.

To mark Black History Month, we have selected a few items from our collections which highlight significant moments in black history around the world. The British Library will also be hosting Caribbean Fest events on Saturday October 19th including poetry, food and performance.

 

Ottavia Salvador, Fabrizio Denunzio, Morti senza sepoltura. Tra processi migratori e narrativa neocloniale (Ombre corte, 2019) YF.2019.a.14806
 
Chosen by Valentina Mirabella, Curator Romance Collections (Italian)
 
Front cover of 'Morti senza sepoltura. Tra processi migratori e narrativa neocloniale'
Cover of: Ottavia Salvador, Fabrizio Denunzio, Morti senza sepoltura. Tra processi migratori e narrativa neocloniale (Ombre corte, 2019) YF.2019.a.14806

 

Migrations in the Mediterranean are the subject of a lot of Italian books at the moment. I chose this title because the authors don't shy away from holding neo-colonialism responsible for the immigration process. The title 'Dead without Burial' evokes the horror of dying in a foreign country, in exile, often without a grave with a name on. Like French sociologist Abdelmalek Sayad (more from him, also in English in our collections) says in the essay in the appendix, the way a country treats a foreigner who dies on its soil says a lot.

 

John Michael Vlach, Back of the Big House: The Architecture of Plantation Slavery (Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press, 1993). q93/15775

Chosen by Cara, Deputy Head, Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library

Cover of 'Back of the Big House'
Cover of: John Michael Vlach, Back of the Big House: The Architecture of Plantation Slavery (Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press, 1993). q93/15775
Book open to show photographs and plans of buildings
Inside pages of: John Michael Vlach, Back of the Big House: The Architecture of Plantation Slavery (Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press, 1993). q93/15775;

 

This book made a deep impression on me when I first came across it as part of an MA course on the built environment in America.  I was impressed by how thoroughly Vlach managed to bring the lived experiences of the enslaved into sharp focus through the architectural landscapes they had inhabited.  As he says himself in his Preface his “main objectives here are first to describe, in broad terms, the architectural settings of plantation slavery and then to suggest some of the ways in which black people may have transformed those architectural settings into places that best served their social needs” (p.x).  The major source for the visual material in the book is the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS).  Originally founded in 1933, it still operates as a division of the National Parks Service.  During the 1930s and later, HABS teams documented large numbers of slave buildings and associated spaces and Vlach uses these photographs and plans to great effect in his book.  These are then complemented by another Depression-era source, the oral histories of formerly enslaved people conducted by interviewers for the Federal Writer’s Project.  As Vlach explains “My description of the architecture of slavery thus meshes information from two archival projects that have been separated for more than half a century” (p.xiii).  I found this mixture of first-person accounts, as well as other archival evidence (business records, personal letters etc), with the structures that had shaped people’s everyday lives to be incredibly evocative.  I came away from the book with a deeper understanding of the importance of vernacular spaces to historical enquiry, as well as more especially a better understanding of the way the built environment shaped, and was shaped by, the lives of enslaved African-Americans and their white overseers and owners.  I’ve found myself thinking about this book often over the years, especially as discussions around how to more fully represent the experiences of enslaved people have come to the forefront in heritage and tourism contexts (for example, the incorporation of slave buildings and stories into the interpretation offered to visitors at plantation sites in the US, most notably at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello home).

For more information on Federal Writer’s Project holdings at the British Library, including the accounts of former slaves, see the guide prepared by my Eccles Centre colleague, Jean Petrovic.

 
 
 
The Color Purple by Alice Walker (Boston, Mass: G.K. Hall, 1986), Nov.1987/702
 
Chosen by Rachael (Curator, American Printed Collections Post 1850)
 
Book cover of 'The Color Purple'
First edition cover of The Color Purple. Image from Wikimedia Commons sourced from Biblioctopus.

 

I was introduced to the The Color Purple while in my first year as an undergraduate at the University of Nottingham. It was like nothing I’d read before, in both voice and content. I’d never encountered a character like Cecile, nor the abuse she endures in a novel, and I remember being interested in the contrasting ways the various females in the book are portrayed. Told in an epistolary format as Cecile writes to God, she tells of the horrors she suffers at the hands of her father and later her husband, and the life that eventually leads her to Shug – a woman who opens her eyes to a different way of living. The Color Purple won the Pulitzer Prize in 1983 and frequently features on lists of banned or contested books (see more of these on our Banned Books Week blog).

 
Land Rights Before Games poster (Brisbane, Australia: 1982) shelfmark tbc
 
Chosen by Lucy (Curator, Australasian Published Collections Post 1850)
 
Campaign poster on Aboriginal flag background with slogan 'Land Rights Before Games'
Land Rights Before Games poster (Brisbane, Australia: 1982) British Library shelfmark tbc

This poster represents a key piece of 20th century campaign material in Australian history. The 1982 Commonwealth Games in Brisbane were the focus of a series of protests from Indigenous Australians who aimed to bring the issue of land rights to the international stage. The campaign called for rights over indigenous lands in Queensland and control over mining in those areas. The Queensland premier at the time, Joh Bjelke-Peterson, declared a state of emergency and banned street marches during the games. Yet around 2000 people still took to the streets of Brisbane on 26th September in support of the campaign and in protest of the continuing oppression of Indigenous Australians. Further sit-ins and marches were held throughout the games with hundreds of arrests made by police. The protests gained international attention and remain a significant moment in the indigenous civil rights movement in Australia. In 2012, the State Library of Queensland held an exhibition called 'State of Emergency' to mark the 30th anniversary of the protests.

 

 

 

11 September 2019

Five reasons why we can’t wait to read The Testaments

Of course there are far more than five reasons why The Testaments has jumped to the top of our reading list and why its publication was among one of the most eagerly anticipated of 2019, if not the decade. But along with the other eight million people around the globe who own a copy of The Handmaid’s Tale, we are more than a little excited for the follow up to arrive at the Library.

Last night I went to the National Theatre’s live screening of Margaret Atwood in conversation with journalist Samira Ahmed, an event that was streamed to 1,400 cinemas of Handmaid fans all over the world.

Screen from In Conversation with Margaret Atwood, Tuesday 10 Sept 2019, showing the lead image from the book's cover - a handmaid dressed in green
Photograph from 'In Conversation with Margaret Atwood' showing the lead image from the book's cover - a handmaid dressed in green (image courtesy Vintage and Vane Productions)

The atmosphere of the crowd was one of eagerness and total awe as Atwood spoke of her journey to writing The Testaments, and as she recalled the world setting which brought about the idea for The Handmaid’s Tale almost four decades ago. Atwood’s ability to turn the answer to every question into a carefully considered and utterly compelling story never ceases to amaze me. Her historical, literary and worldly observations from the past and present entwine with her fiction to create stories that readers embark on with a kind of dreaded excitement; part of you can’t wait to open the book, while the other knows it’s almost too frighteningly close to reality to want to step into.

So as we patiently wait for The Testaments to arrive for the Library's collection, here’s a very brief reflection of five of my takeaways from last night’s launch event – and the things I’m most looking forward to encountering in the reading of the novel.

Three new voices

While The Handmaid’s Tale was told solely from the perspective of Offred, The Testaments, as the name implies, includes the testimonies of three different voices. One we are familiar with from The Handmaid’s, that of the formidable Aunt Lydia. Then we are introduced to two new young women – one rescued from Gilead while still a baby (Daisy), and Agnes, who grew up in Gilead and knows no other way of life. We learn of what drove Lydia to her position of power and of her life before Gilead, and of the parallel lives the Daisy and Agnes have led. The evening’s event featured readings from the book by Ann Dowd (who plays Aunt Lydia in the TV adaptation), Sally Hawkins and Lily James. Atwood hinted that their separate tales may be more connected then first meets the eye…

Historical nods

History has a funny way of repeating itself. Many of the issues raised in The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments, such as men abusing positions of power, rules and laws being created and imposed by those who will never be impacted or effected by their force, the restriction of free speech, episodes of violence and mass execution, ‘are not new motifs’ Atwood said on more than one occasion. When asked about how Atwood conjures up her dystopian worlds, she very matter-of-factly stated that ‘these are not made up’, instances of all have taken place in the real world over the course of time, and continue to do so. Atwood mentioned historical figures and events that had influenced her writing: Henry VIII, Thomas Cromwell, Mary Queen of Scots, Stalin, Pinochet, the division of Germany, extreme Puritan traditions in America, the fear of 70s cults, and a disturbing story from the Old Testament (the concubine of a Levite), to name but a few. Literary influences from Vasily Grossman and George Orwell also resonate through her pages.

A slide from the event showing book covers of The Handmaid's Tale from around the world
The iconic Handmaid's Tale book covers from around the world shown at the event (image courtesy Vintage and Vane Productions)

Equality Now

Through her writing and public eminence Atwood continues to strive for equality for women and the launch of The Testaments is run alongside a campaign with Equality Now, an organisation supporting ‘a just world for women and girls’. When asked about how Atwood felt about the use of the Handmaid’s outfit by political activists in recent years, particularly around the abortion debate in the US, Atwood highlighted its silent power – women wearing the attire can’t be penalised for any reason – they have their heads down, they are quiet, they are covered to the ankle – yet their visual protest speaks volumes. An element of pride was detected in Atwood’s voice when she spoke of how her timeless creation has become such a cult image and sign of resistance.

Atwood’s dark optimism

 ‘The Handmaid’s Tale is optimistic’ Atwood told us with a wry smile. Of course the audience laughed. The fact that it ends with a symposium shows that humanity has survived the atrocities of the Gilead regime. When we survive history we do what we always do with it, ‘turn it into something studied in schools, a symposium, or a theme park’ Atwood joked (but we all know it’s true). She insinuated that the same element of hidden optimism is buried within The Testaments too; we know that some children are rescued, Daisy is the living proof. But what lasting damage is done? And what becomes of Aunt Lydia and Agnes?

Climate change

In a world that seems on the brink of collapse ‘what can we do to save humanity?’ Atwood was asked by one of the audience members. Her response: the number one thing we need to address right now is the issue of climate change.

In a passage from the voice of Aunt Lydia, a world ravaged by extreme weather and its disastrous effects is described; a frightening echo of the pictures we see on the news today with more and more frequency. ‘When the environment is disturbed, you get more social unrest’ Atwood proclaimed. She spoke of her admiration for activist Greta Thunberg and of her optimism around young people and the Extinction Rebellion campaign. 50 years ago when scientists foresaw the climate crisis no one listened, Atwood remembered, but now we have people paying attention, and acting, and who will soon be able to vote on these matters. It seems even the green figure on the front cover of the book could be a nod to Atwood’s concern on this subject – the daughter of an entomologist, Atwood grew up frequenting the forests of Quebec and Ottawa, even living in them in a tent as a young child while her father built their log cabin home.

Image of Margaret Atwood and her father in the Canadian woods in 1942
Photograph from the slides at the launch event showing a young Margaret Atwood and her father in the Canadian woods in 1942 (image courtesy Vintage and Vane Productions)

‘You don’t believe the sky is falling until a chunk of it falls on you’ were the last words Ann Dowd as Aunt Lydia read at the event and the youthful looking silhouette of the girl on the book’s cover, arms outstretched, is the figure of hope on which the evening’s focus ended. Atwood maintained that climate change needs to be the primary focus for politicians today and we are not too late to address this.

[RSW] (overjoyed that her copy of The Testaments arrived by the time she finished writing this blog) 

Suggested reading

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood (Heinemann New Windmills, 1993), General Reference Collection Nov.1993/888

Wilderness Tips by Margaret Atwood (Bloomsbury, 1991), General Reference Collection Nov.1992/377

Strange Things: the Malevolent North in Canadian Literature by Margaret Atwood (Clarendon Press, 1995), General Reference Collection YC.1997.a.983

Margaret Atwood edited and with an introduction by Harold Bloom (Chelsea House, c2000), Document Supply m00/27831

Mary Queen of Scots (Pitkin Pictorials, 1973), General Reference Collection YK.1993.b.3611

The rise & fall of Thomas Cromwell: Henry VIII's most faithful servant by John Schofield (The History Press, 2011), General Reference Collection DRT ELD.DS.321626

Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman (Vintage Classic, 2011), General Reference Collection DRT ELD.DS.190531

Nineteen eighty-four: a novel by George Orwell (S. J. Reginald Saunders and Company Limited, 1949), RF.2018.a.197

Daniel Deronda by George Eliot (William Blackwood & Sons, 1876), General Reference Collection 20098.bb.21.

The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. Le Guin (Gateway, 2015), General Reference Collection DRT ELD.DS.12524

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