Americas and Oceania Collections blog

Exploring the Library’s collections from the Americas and Oceania

73 posts categorized "Humanities"

27 September 2023

On the Trail of the Contemporary Singing Voice

Diane Hughes is a Professor in Vocal Studies and Music at Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia, and was a 2022 Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow at the British Library. 

My research as an Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow was undertaken at the British Library during April to May, 2023. I arrived with a long list of sources to examine - recordings, historical references, and a range of interviews. I am passionate about music and singing. The aim of my current project is to document the evolution of the contemporary singing voice and its intersection with, and the influences of, American and British popular singing. This includes the conceptualisation and contexts of contemporary singing that centre around questions of voice and identity and sociocultural perspectives of song and of singing. It also involves diverse perspectives of contemporary voice and related technologies.

At the British Library, I discovered and listened to first-hand accounts related to crooning and orchestrated singing, along with more contemporary types of singing.1 This furthered my understanding of the historical significance of the musical arranger, of different recording technologies, and of various creative intents and interests. As recording technologies adapted to enable singers to be isolated from surrounding musicians, or in recording sound booths, more nuanced styles of singing emerged.2 Such nuanced audibility is often attributed to the communicative capabilities of “the microphone”, however, my research identified that this equally related to artistic objectives and to modes of audience engagement.

Several reflective accounts by touring and established singers, and by musical arrangers, provided detailed information on specific career trajectories.3 These accounts also contained commentary on changing musical styles, vocal delivery and on individual artistry. They assisted in contributing to a timeline of why and where transition points in contemporary singing occurred–broadly involving the strident sounds of vaudeville, the smoother crooning styles, the resonant singing of orchestrated standards, the personally expressive singer-songwriters, the stylistic influenced revival of skiffle, the innovative vocalisms of jazz, and the contemporary characteristics of rock ‘n’ roll, rock, and pop. I found it exciting to further explore these transitions through “captured” singing in broadcasts and recordings, through to singing in “live” performances.

A red book cover with the author and title in black print.
Miriam Spier, The Why and How of Popular Singing: A Modern Guide for Vocalists. New York: Edward. B. Marks Music Corporation, [1950]. British Library shelfmark: 7889.b.4

During my research, I uncovered several unexpected sources. These related to mid-20th century definitions of popular music,4 and pedagogical publications on contemporary singing.5 In 1950, a renowned pedagogue of her time, Miriam Spier, offered aspiring singers the salient advice to use “the best artists as your guides, analyze and experiment; do not merely imitate”.6 This exploratory approach is still relevant today and has much to do with the evolutionary nature of contemporary singing styles and sounds. Other sources alluded to the progression and succession of popular styles, where rock ‘n’ roll/rock was hypothesised as having “the characteristics of a temporary craze”7 or where the development of contemporary jazz singing followed an exploration of vocal sounds and words.8 Many sources referenced the popularity of singing in relation to individual or communal listening and, as such, the value of singing clearly extended beyond the performer to their audience.

The opening page of a chapter on 'Voice Appeal', with a drawing of 7 people at the top and text on the bottom.
Miriam Spier, The Why and How of Popular Singing: A Modern Guide for Vocalists. New York: Edward. B. Marks Music Corporation, [1950]. British Library shelfmark: 7889.b.4

The evolution of the jazz and popular singing voice in Britain and the USA is complex and multilayered. Each is highly influenced by creativity, technologies, sounds, styles, and people, and will adapt and evolve as vocal exploration continues.

My sincere thanks to the Eccles Centre at the British Library for the opportunity to conduct this research and to the librarians at the Sound Archive for their assistance during my visit.

References

1. Stan Britt Collection. Sound and Moving Image Catalogue. This is a collection of interviews with a range of jazz and popular music performers undertaken by Stan Britt during the latter part of the 20th century.

2. See, for example, Peggy Lee interviewed by Stan Britt (23/07/1977). Stan Britt Collection. Sound and Moving Image Catalogue. C1645/238.

3. Stan Britt Collection.

4. Peter Gammond and Peter Clayton,  A Guide to Popular Music. London: Phoenix House, 1960. British Library shelfmark: General Reference Collection 2737.c.3. Music Collections REF M.R.Ref. 781.63.

5. Frank Sinatra in collaboration with John Quinlan, (c1946), Tips on Popular Singing. For the British Empire (excluding Canada and Australasia) and the whole of Europe, the property of Peter Maurice Music Co. Limited. Music Collections VOC/1946/SINATRA; Miriam Spier, (1950), The Why and How of Popular Singing: A Modern Guide for Vocalists. New York: Edward. B. Marks Music Corporation, [1950]. British Library shelfmark: General Reference Collection 7889.b.43.

6. Spier, p.41

7. Gammond and Clayton, p.177.

8. Norma Winstone [interview] (1994). Oral History of Jazz in Britain. C122/206-C122/207.

 

13 September 2023

Machado de Assis, Portinari and the Bilingual Brazilian Book Club at the British Library

Rafael Pereira do Rego is the Interim Programme Manager and Area Specialist at the Eccles Centre for American Studies

It was a great pleasure for the Eccles Centre to welcome the Brazilian Bilingual Book Club to the British Library during the celebration of their 100th edition on Saturday 15th July. The Embassy of Brazil has been running the Book Club for the past nine years with a wide network of international members and friends. This special edition at the Library was an opportunity to deepen ties between our two institutions and to celebrate and invite discussion and reflection on Brazilian literature and culture through the Library’s collections.

A group of ten participants standing in front of the Klencke Atlas at the British Library.
Some of the attendees of the Brazilian Bilingual Book Club event during the tour of the British Library.

 

The star of the event discussed during the Book Club – and for which we brought a special edition for the show-and-tell presentation – was the classic novella O Alienista (translated in English as ‘The Psychiatrist’ or ‘The Alienist). Originally published in 1882, by the illustrious Brazilian writer Machado de Assis, it is a wonderful short satirical work with an elegant and concise style centred on Dr Bacamarte, an alienist – the designation of psychiatrist in the nineteenth century, from the French ‘aliéniste’ – and his scientific experiments in the town of Itaguai, near Rio de Janeiro. There he established the Casa Verde (Green House) – a cross between a 19th century prototype of a psychiatric asylum and a scientific laboratory – to conduct experiential studies on the human mind. Dr. Bacamarte used his scientific power to define which denizens of the town should be confined to the asylum according to his shifting ideas of normality. As the narrative unfolds, the alienist gets lost in a madness of his own making. O Alienista was included recently in Machado de Assis: 26 Stories (2019) translated by Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson, which among other translations of the title, are available at the British Library.

Machado de Assis is the most celebrated classic Brazilian author, so it is natural that the Library’s holdings will encompass some of his works, but it was very exciting to see the scope and depth of our collections reflecting the interest that his books have attracted from the time of their first publications in Britain. There are over 300 copies of various works by and about Machado de Assis, including some of his earliest works acquired in the nineteenth century, many of which are rare volumes. Nadia Kerecuk, the creator and convenor of the Book Club, very kindly made a list of all of our holdings available. For instance, the British Library holds the first edition of one of his most famous novels Dom Casmurro published in 1889, and the poetry collections Chrysalidas (1866), and Phalenas (1869). In addition, we have some beautiful editions including the 1948 version of the novella with illustrations of one of my favourite Brazilian artists, Cândido Portinari1.

 

title cover of the publication with an illustration by Candido Portinari; black print on white paper.
Machado de Assis, C., & Portinari, Cândido. (1948). O Alienista. Illustrado por Candido Portinari. Rio de Janeiro: Imprensa Nacional. British Library shelfmark: L.R.416.r.18

 

Last year when I visited my hometown, Rio, there was a lovely and comprehensive exhibition at Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil providing an overview of the various facets and languages explored by Portinari – and including some of the illustrations that are present in the selected 1948 edition, as well as from other illustrated editions of Machado de Assis’ Memoria Postumas de Braz Cubas and Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote de la Mancha.

Both Machado de Assis and Cândido Portinari had this incredible capacity to capture the human condition and Brazilian-ness in ways that feel both universal and culturally specific. Portinari was a keen enthusiast of Machado de Assis’ work and both lived in one of the neo-colonial elegant houses in Cosme Velho, a bucolic neighborhood in Rio and perhaps one of my favourite areas of the city. They came from a rather deprived childhood but with unwavering talent and determination, came to represent big names in literature and visual arts.

Huge neocolonial houses within a square with tropical trees and plants
The Largo do Boticário (Apothecary's Square) is a square in the Cosme Velho neighborhood in Rio where Machado de Assis and Portinari lived.

 

The 1948 edition was sponsored by the bibliophile and executive Raymundo Ottoni de Castro Maya (1894-1968). It is part of a wider collection named Os Cem Bibliófilos do Brasil (100 Bibliophiles of Brazil) named after a bibliophilic society created by Castro Maya. The society was composed of a hundred personalities of the time, among intellectuals, executives and society figures, which met annually to produce and publish works by great authors of Brazilian literature, illustrated by notable visual artists. In 30 years, they published names such as Machado de Assis, Guimarães Rosa, Jorge Amado, José Lins do Rego, Lima Barreto and Mário de Andrade, with their literary work illustrated by major visual artists such as Di Cavalcanti, Portinari, Iberê Camargo, Cícero Dias, Carybé, among others.

The Brazilian media tycoon Roberto Marinho was part of the select society, alongside names that might be very familiar to Brazilians, such as Walter Moreira Salles, Maria do Carmo de Melo Franco Nabuco, Horácio Klabin, Gilberto Chateaubriand, Francisco Matarazzo Sobrinho, Lineu de Paula Machado, D. Pedro Gastão de Orléans and Bragança, Celso Lafer, Clemente Mariani and Niomar Moniz Sodré Bittencourt.

The artisanal publication of these beautifully illustrated editions was an important initiative, which resulted in the publication of authors and artists portraying Brazil in a variety of themes and motifs. At the same time, it is revealing of the Eurocentric references of Brazilian elites, importing values, techniques and cultural codes to the ‘developing’ country. Castro Maya based this collection on European publishing trends, especially from France where he lived. The publications were generally composed by hand and printed on manual presses. The paper had great quality specifications with rough texture and watermark, supplied by French manufacturers. Many books were engraved with different techniques such as etching, dry point, xylography and lithography.

 

Book image with engraved illustration by Portinari; black print in white paper.
Machado de Assis, C., & Portinari, Cândido. (1948). O Alienista. British Library shelfmark: L.R.416.r.18

 

Each edition took about a year to be completed and each member of the society would receive their own exclusive copy with their names identified and within loose sheets, so the binding could be personalised according to the owners’ tastes. Print runs were limited to about 120 copies. The Society launches took place at gala dinners at Rio’s most exclusive Country Club – established by British executives in 1916 and since then the meeting point of the crème de la crème of carioca society – when auctions were held of the original illustrations not included in the final edition. I was very pleased to find out that the British Library has 20 published copies of the collection Os Cem Bibliófilos do Brasil! Rare and exclusive copies of the beautiful pas-des-deux between classic authors of Brazilian literature and notable visual artists. I hope you can explore more the collection available at the British Library.

After the show-and-tell presentation, O Alienista was specifically addressed during the hybrid meeting of the Brazilian Bilingual Book Club, with members joining from overseas via MS Teams. Nadia Kerecuk prepared a historical background of the publication and a series of questions to direct the engaging discussion with the members of this successful bilingual and bibliophile ‘society’ with the welcomed accompaniment of delicious snacks and wine. Notwithstanding the indisputable differences between the Country Club in Rio and the British Library in London, we could say this was an exclusive gala afternoon!

Attendees of the event seating around a rectangular table; online attendees are joining the event with their images projected on the walls of the room.
Participants of the Book Club discussing O Alienista in the Foyle Room at the British Library.

Notes:

1To learn more about Candido Portinari’s work please check the five-volume catalogue raisonné available at the British Library organised by his son Joao Candido Portinari as part of the major Portinari Project which has the aim of cataloguing thousands of paintings, drawings and printings, as well digitally processing images and oral history outputs. Some of the audiovisual content of this project is also available via the online platform here.

08 August 2023

Cold War Whiteness: Literature and Race between Canada and Czechoslovakia

Františka Schormová is a post-doc researcher at the Institute of Czech Literature, Czech Academy of Sciences and an Assistant Professor of American Studies at the University of Hradec Králové and was a 2023 Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow at the British Library.

To be a scholar outside of US/Canadian studies outside of North America means a transcultural perspective is a part of what we do and who we are. It allows us to think about the culture and region afresh and to reflect on our positions as mediators as scholars, educators, and public intellectuals. To be a scholar of US/Canadian studies from Central Eastern Europe and other regions outside of the usual trajectories of prestige might also mean that sources for our research are more difficult to obtain. This is why I went to the British Library to research Czech immigration to Canada.

In my previous research project, Translation and the Global Fifties: When the African American Left Went to Prague, I looked at the transnational journeys, exchanges, and allegiances between the African American Leftist intellectuals and early Cold War Czechoslovakia. One of the translators and mediators of African American literature in the 1950s and early 1960s, the Czechoslovak writer Josef Škvorecký, later became one of the almost twelve thousand people who fled to Canada after the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact invasion to Czechoslovakia in 1968. Following Škvorecký and his wife, Zdena Škvorecká-Salivarová to Canada opened up a new set of questions for me some of which I tried to answer during my time in the British Library.

Škvorecký was awarded the Governor General's Award for English Language Fiction for The Engineer of Human Souls, a novel translated by Paul Wilson. This cultural moment became my entry point in the Canadian cultural field in the 1970s and 1980s. I explored magazines and journals I found out about in the United States and Canadian Newspaper Holdings in the British Library Newspaper Library (for example, Nový Domov: The New Homeland)1, conference proceedings from the time, fictional and autobiographical accounts of the Škvorecký’s and other Czechoslovak authors, diverse secondary sources on culture and politics of the era, multilingual sources published in various places. What I was looking for were interconnections between Canadian literature, quickly developing at this time as its own discipline tightly linked to the nation state, the official politics of multiculturalism, and the position of the so-called ethnic writers within this cultural field.

These interconnections support my broader project in the framework of which I look at how the notion of whiteness has operated within the Canadian cultural field in the late Cold War in connection to various immigrant groups coming to the country. It builds on critical whiteness studies but also asks whether these concepts can be applied and/or translated to Central Eastern European contexts. The ambiguous status of the Slavic and other groups in and from this region has been noticed by scholars such as Ivan Kalmar or Zoltán Ginelli; the historians of immigration have also noted the various ways racial discourses have transformed throughout the 20th century. The Cold War has introduced new challenges, trajectories, and allegiances, race refigurings, and vocabularies of whiteness that has shaped how both the immigrants and the domestic populations in Central Eastern Europe were perceived.

I found some of the answers I was looking for: yet I left with further questions. The British Library is its own little universe. In the weeks of the fellowship, one wanders in awe through the various reading rooms and the packed hallways. As a visiting researcher, one is not left to navigate this world on one’s own: the fellowship also gives one the opportunity to talk to the Eccles staff, people who work and research in the British Library and know many of its secrets. And while they are incredibly helpful, it is better to come prepared (the sheer quantity of the material at your fingertips can get intimidating!) but also keep one’s eyes open for surprising turns the research route might take.

The cover of a piece of sheet music, with a Black man in profile and writing that includes a couple of title words decorated with stars and stripes.
Image 1: Dvořáček, Jiří. I, too, am America : 7 songs on the poems of Langston Hughes, for a woman's voice, a man's voice, the trumpet and the piano (1966). Panton 1978. British Library shelfmark: Document Supply MUSIC H01/3169.

Searching through my keywords one day, I found sheet music based on the poetry of Langston Hughes, the African American poet, novelist, playwright, translator, and social activist . It was a 1966 composition by the Czech composer Jiří Dvořáček with lyrics in Czech, English, and German, published in 1978 (Image 1, above). Despite having dealt with Hughes’s Czechoslovak connections extensively, I have never known this sheet music existed and I could not help but hum the melody (albeit very quietly). Hughes was one of the writers Josef Škvorecký also translated before emigrating to Canada. This multilingual, translational, transmedial cultural artifact reminded me that it is important that our scholarship can cross the linguistic, cultural, and national borders in a similar way.

Notes:

Nový Domov: The New Homeland. Toronto. Vol. 9, no. 19 etc. (10 May 1958 - 21 March 1970). Imperfect. British Library shelfmark: General Reference Collection Microform MFM.MC271.D

02 August 2023

Antislavery Print Culture in Nineteenth Century Canada West

Nina Reid-Maroney is Professor of History at Huron University College and was a 2021 Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow at the British Library.

In the summer of 1861, the physician, editor, and Black abolitionist, Dr. Martin Delany returned from a scientific expedition in west Africa to his home Chatham, Canada West. Immersed in the news of the American war, preparing for a lecture tour, and at work on the second section of his serialized antislavery novel, Blake, or The Huts of America, Delany found time to oversee a corrected edition of his Official Report of the Niger Valley Exploring Party, first published in 1860. His preface reviewed the work’s publication history, noting that the previous edition, left in the hands of a friend in England who had subsequently taken ill, found its way into print without important endorsements, editorials, and the table of contents. Delany’s attention to the details of the text and his concern that “many things of much importance, which should have been included, were omitted” speaks to his engagement in abolitionist print culture not only as an author, but as an editor and publisher who understood the activist power of print across a transatlantic network that he had helped to build.1

The 1861 Official Report of the Niger Valley Exploring Party is part of a significant body of British Library material - including scientific writing, ethnography, literature, freedom narratives, sermons and memoir - created by Black abolitionists and their antislavery allies based in nineteenth century Canada West. Starting from the recognition that each book is an archive, my Eccles Centre fellowship focused on the material history of abolitionist texts linked to Canadian abolitionist communities. The project examined copy-specific features, variations among editions, endorsements, advertisements, illustrations, and typography. Using the insights of history of the book and a comparative approach to copies of texts on both sides of the Atlantic, the project helps to reframe Canada’s antislavery history by tracing Black activist networks constituted in print.

From this perspective, familiar texts and authors appear in a new light. The 1851 London edition of Josiah Henson’s narrative is one of three versions and multiple editions of Josiah Henson’s autobiography published between 1849 and 1883. The British Library’s copy of the London edition, part of the third thousandth print run, varies significantly from the Boston edition of the text on which the 1851 edition was based. The London edition includes an account of the Black abolitionist community and school that Henson helped to found, placing Henson’s emancipation narrative in the context of the activist network of underground railroad and the practical resistance to the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. Introductory material from its editor, the Congregationalist minister and antislavery reformer, Thomas Binney, focuses on Henson’s visit to Britain as an exhibitor at the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace. The paratextual materials of Preface and Appendix and advertisements help to situate Henson in British antislavery networks a year before the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the subsequent long and tortuous association of Josiah Henson with that work’s title character.

Title page of a book; black print on white paper.
The Life of Josiah Henson, formerly a Slave, as narrated by himself with a Preface by T. Binney. London: Charles Gilpin, 1851. British Library shelfmark: 10880.a.7.

Ephemeral texts from the Library’s collections add depth and detail to the study of antislavery print culture, revealing connections between the aural culture of Black abolitionist work in Britain and the antislavery networks of the Great Lakes borderlands.2 In 1861, the Reverend Thomas Kinnaird, Black abolitionist and minister in the British Methodist Episcopal Church in Hamilton (Canada West) produced a four-page pamphlet distributed in support of his lecture tour in Britain, raising funds for a new church building and school. The pamphlet, one of only two extant copies, gathered recommendations from a long list of antislavery supporters in Canada West, London, and Glasgow. Its content maps an antislavery network grounded in small Canadian communities and extended across the Atlantic world, while its physical form, creased as though folded and tucked into a pocket and carried home, speaks to its material history and circulation as an antislavery text.

Title page of a book; black print on white paper.
Thomas Kinnaird, Fugitive Slaves in Canada. [An appeal on behalf of Mr. Kinnaird's mission.] 1861. British Library shelfmark: 8175.l.17.

Other works draw attention to the period beyond the 1850s and 1860s, and to the continued conversation across the Black Atlantic in which a new generation of Black authors amplified and gave fresh resonance to voices of the antislavery movement. In 1889, Black activist S. J. Celestine Edwards met the Canadian Bishop of the British Methodist Episcopal Church, Walter Hawkins of Chatham. Hawkins’ time in the UK working on behalf of the BME Church brought him into the activist circles of Edwards, who used his activist platform as a writer, lecturer, and editor to address contemporary issues of race, civil rights, and identity. Edwards’ biography of Walter Hawkins (From Slavery to a Bishopric: The Life of Bishop Walter Hawkins, 1891) is often discussed in relation to the traditional genre of “slave narrative”; when placed alongside Edwards’ other writings in the British Library’s collections, the Hawkins biography can be read in new ways. A fragile copy of Edwards’ lecture titled “Political Atheism”, delivered, as the title page announces, to an audience of 1200 people and published in 1890, helps to situate From Slavery to a Bishopric in the context of Edwards wider political work, and points to an emerging historiography in the post-Emancipation Black Atlantic, in which Walter Hawkins narrative spoke with a voice of resistance that reached beyond the geographic, temporal, and ideological scope usually afforded early narratives histories of the underground railroad.

Title page of a book; black print on white paper with a decorative surround.
S.J. Celestine Edwards, Political Atheism, A Lecture. London: J. Kensit, 1890. British Library shelfmark: 4018.c.18.(2.).

The project has implications for teaching antislavery history in my home institution of Huron University College, which has links to evangelical Anglican antislavery work, and is situated close to historical abolitionist communities in places such as London, Buxton, Chatham, Dresden, Amherstburg, Lucan (Wilberforce) and Windsor. In February 2023, I was able to share research with Huron students and colleagues, as part of a transatlantic undergraduate research project on colonialism, slavery, and resistance in history and memory. Following in the footsteps of Martin Delany, Samuel Ringgold Ward, Josiah Henson, and William Howard Day, whose activism brought them from London (Canada) to London in the years leading up to the American Civil War, students used methodologies of place-based history and history of the book to trace the complex transatlantic world of Black activists. In a workshop facilitated by the Eccles Centre and Huron colleague Scott Schofield (English and Cultural Studies, Huron University) students were able to compare editions and copies of antislavery texts at the British Library with works they had consulted in the Archives and Research Collections Centre at the University of Western Ontario. Steven Cook, Curator of the Josiah Henson Museum of African Canadian History in Dresden, Ontario, accompanied Huron students and faculty on the research trip, and spoke of the importance of the workshop in reconnecting community memory to the complex textual history of Josiah Henson.

Students and teachers around a table looking at books.
Huron University College students and faculty at a workshop on antislavery print materials in the British Library, February 2023. Image, author's own.

The Eccles Fellowship has also laid the foundation for a new research partnership with the Chatham-Kent Black Historical Society, Scott Schofield (Huron) and Deirdre McCorkindale (University of Guelph). Using research from the British Library as well as ongoing work with the Archives and Research Collections Centre at Western University, we are building a comparative database of rare antislavery books linked to nineteenth-century Chatham. The Fellowship demonstrated the significance of reconnecting books - material artefacts of the nineteenth-century's greatest struggle for human freedom - with the historical communities and context in which they were written, published, read, reprinted, and circulated.

Notes

1. Martin Delany, Official Report of the Niger Valley Exploring Party. New York, Thomas Hamilton; London, Webb, Millington & co; Leeds, J.B. Barry, 1861.
2. R.J.M. Blackett, Building an Antislavery Wall : Black Americans in the Atlantic Abolitionist Movement, 1830-1860. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1983; Hannah-Rose Murray, Advocates of Freedom : African American Transatlantic Abolitionism in the British Isles. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020.
3. Douglas A. Lorimer, “Legacies of Slavery for Race, Religion, and Empire: S.J. Celestine Edwards and the Hard Truth (1894).” Slavery & Abolition 39 (2008): 731–55. https://doi.org/10.1080/0144039X.2018.1439670.

26 July 2023

Spiritualism, Creatively Reimagined

Lesley Finn is a writer and artist based in New Haven, Connecticut, and was a 2022 Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow at the British Library. 

A library is an excellent place to connect with the dead. After all, many of its books, papers, and artifacts were made by those no longer living. But what about really connecting with the dead?

I came to the British Library to research Spiritualism, a religious movement with the core precept that the soul survives physical death, and that the living can communicate with the spirit world those souls inhabit. As a writer working on ghost stories and a visual artist working with text and book arts, I was fascinated by the drama of Spiritualism’s séances, the concepts explored by the movement, and the possibilities of visually interpreting its archival material. Much of what I write and make is concerned with how relationships endure barriers of material, time, and distance, and Spiritualism offers a unique way to think through this concern.

One distance that Spiritualism bridged was the Atlantic Ocean. Though the religion originated in the United States in the 1840s, it came to Great Britain soon after, and many of the movement’s notable practitioners crossed back and forth on visits. Transatlantic exchange shaped this spirituality—one that has been marginalised in the historical imagination as occult and other, though it was a popular religion for nearly a century, replete with churches and published hymnals.

The cover of a songster; black text on white paper..
Image 1: H.A. Kersey and S.M. Kersey, The Spiritual Songster (1924). British Library shelfmark: Music Collections E.1636.a.

At the same time that households across the US and Britain were establishing practices to communicate with the dead, the technology of the telegraph, another practice of communicating across space and time, spread in usage. The telegraph, a mechanism that relied on magnetic fields and electricity to transmit words from one person to another, had much conceptual overlap with the séance, which communicated disincarnate messages from the dead through the magnetic field and electricity of the human body, specifically that of a spiritual medium. This parallel was embraced by Spiritualists of the time, who called the séance a spiritual telegraph, and titled a periodical that circulated in the US in the 1850s with the same name.

The majority of Spiritualism’s history in the US and Britain takes paper form: in addition to periodicals like The Spiritual Telegraph, there are books published by The Spiritualist Press and other houses, along with photographed and written documentation of séances by groups like The Ghost Club (British Library Add MS 52258-52273) or by investigators (more on that later). The British Library contains a noteworthy addition to this history: the Dan Zerdin archive, which contains a rare 1934 recording of what was at the time considered the world’s largest séance. The Zerdin recording offers a first-hand, unfiltered experience of the historical Spiritualist movement.

With support from the Eccles Centre, I launched a project to study the archive and transcribe the recorded spirit messages from the séance into another form: telegrams. My idea was to take this documentation from an understudied religious movement and creatively reimagine it, with the goal of disrupting fixed narratives of “archives we are inclined to overlook,” to quote historian Tina Campt. Dominant culture is quick to dismiss the veracity of these spiritual communications, but what happens when we see them in a material form accepted by dominant culture? Perhaps changing the material encounter with an archive can shift our thinking and cultivate space for alternative accounts of experience.

Fictional telegram; pinkish paper with both pre-printed text and the 'additional' telegram text in capital letters on a white background.
Image 2: Lesley Finn, Tonight is the Beginning (2023) [sourced from BL 1LL0000819, 1LL0000817, and 1LS0000673].

I came to the work not knowing what I would find, expecting to be a bit disturbed. After all, years of watching horror films had taught me to be afraid of voices from the beyond. But what I found was a recording that documented a gathering of people working toward the common end of love, understanding, and community. Joyful messages rise above the static of the record. Fight the good fight. You’ll have all the help you want. Bless you. The 564 people in the London audience laugh and gasp, as do the 36 people participating in the séance on Aeolian Hall’s stage. At one point unexplainable piano chords drift through the recording; the sound is soothing, not haunting.

If contemporary attitudes towards séances and mediums are shaped by fear and othering, the same is true of past attitudes. The shadow of skepticism looms large in the history of Spiritualism, and I glimpsed it often in my research. In the catalogue listing of the Zerdin archive, for example, spirit voices are noted with the grammatical equivalent of a raised eyebrow, the scare quote. In contrast, the Zerdin archive includes a document that lists the people in spirit who communicated through the medium as attendees alongside the living, no distinction whatsoever.

Items brought up by a search on the British Library Sound and Moving Image Catalogue.
Image 3: Screenshot of British Library Sound and Moving Image Catalogue entries for Dan Zerdin collection.

I wonder about these subtle frames of doubt, how they shape our encounter with the archive. I repeatedly saw scare quotes in my research into other mediums, especially with the American medium who went by the name of Margery. In the decade before the Aeolian Hall séance, Margery visited London and became the subject of an extensive investigation by the Society for Psychical Research. Malcolm Bird, an American parapsychologist, authored a portion of the investigation’s outcomes, including the book “Margery”. Seeing her name on the cover and title page in quotation marks—regardless of how Bird or the publishers intended to use them—primes the reader to approach the material through the lens of doubt.

The hardback cover of a book; the slightly textured cover is beige and the lettering is yellowy-gold.
Image 4: J. Malcolm Bird, "Margery," the Medium. Boston: Small, Maynard & Co., [1925]. British Library shelfmark: General Reference Collction 08632.ee.4.

It's hard not to see the skepticism of Spiritualist experience as tethered to gender. Male mediums existed but women were the majority. Male mediums were investigated, but the archives are not filled with that documentation; instead we have accounts of vaginal searches that preceded Margery’s sittings, of photos of her in various restraints that would test her validity. Let’s not forget this was a religion, a belief system. Imagine an archive documenting Catholic mass, the priests required to prove transubstantiation as empirical, scientific fact!

The desire for proof is understandable, but can be limiting and misguiding, especially in the case of connecting with the dead. By rejecting an aim to falsify Spiritualist practices, we might create room for observation and insight that opens rather than shuts down possibility. British Library holding C1080/21 offers a practical tip.1 Here the medium of the Aeolian Hall séance, Florence Perriman, is asked to describe what it felt like to channel spirit voices. Her reply: “It’s a peculiar sensation at the back of my neck. It seemed to come both from the back of my neck and from the throat—can you imagine a tooth being drawn? Well, it’s just as though something was being drawn out of the back of my neck.” Being alive to sensation, to the peculiar, to our own processes of drawing out—Perriman’s note on communing with the dead sounds like research advice to live by.

References:
Interview with Florence Perriman. 1934?. British Library, Sound and Moving Image shelfmark: C1080/21. 

18 May 2023

Tracked Changes: Looking for Migrant Editors in Publishing Archives

Ben Fried was a 2022 Eccles Visiting Fellow at the British Library; he recently completed his PhD at Cornell University and is currently a British Academy Newton International Fellow at the Institute of English Studies in the University of London, where he is working on 'Migrant Editors: Postwar Migration and the Making of Anglophone Literatures, 1967-1989.'

I came to the British Library in search of publishing archives—the records of how books come into the world and reach their readers. As an Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow, I was beginning a new project on 'migrant editors,' on the postwar immigrants to London who created and reinvented the capital’s literary institutions. How did migrant-led publishing houses and magazines develop through the decades of decolonization and shape later twentieth-century fiction, both British and more broadly Anglophone? I was hungry to understand the extent to which these editors harnessed and redirected London’s cultural and commercial power. I wanted to learn how their own hybrid identities influenced the writers they cultivated and the works they released. I knew the answers lay in letters, memos, pleas for money, and the margins of manuscripts.

And so I spent my month sifting through three archives in particular: the Virago Press records,1 Carmen Callil’s personal archive,2 and the files of Granta magazine (which are still being catalogued).

White background with an image of a green apple with a bite taken out of it on the right, with the word Virago above.
Promotional pin badge for Virago Press; part of the Virago Press Archive (Add MS 88904).

The famed feminist Virago Press was founded in 1973 by the Australian Callil and later led by a Canadian, Lennie Goodings. Sitting in both the Manuscripts and Maps Reading Room, I opened folder after folder of author correspondence, business plans, reader reports, all of them illustrating the fates of individual works and the larger sweep of an upstart publisher’s progress. Callil died just a few months ago, in October 2022, and her courage (not to mention her crackling wit and energy) is everywhere apparent in these archives. The picture they paint is not a solitary portrait, however, but a scene of collective literary labour, illuminated by the sparks that fly off creative relationships. Callil was a necessary node in a much wider network of readers, professional and lay, mobilizing to bring women’s stories to the centre of literary life.

Take, for instance, the folders devoted to Angela Carter, perhaps the most emblematic of Virago’s contemporary authors.3 They reveal a Carter who was as important a reader to Virago as she was a writer. You can track not only the agonizingly slow development of Carter’s Sadeian Woman (1978)—a study of the Marquis de Sade and 'the culturally determined nature of women'4—but her backstage interventions on other writers’ behalf. She submitted reports on manuscripts; she connected aspiring authors to an ambitious publisher. She acted as a go-between, and practically a second editor, for her former student Pat Barker, passing along Barker’s first novel with twelve pages of luminously insightful notes. On 8 January 1981, Callil replied that 'I’m deeply grateful to you for getting the book to me; I’ve offered for it and asked at the same time that they will let me work with her incorporating your alterations and suggestions.'5 Barker’s revised Union Street was published in 1982 and quickly became one of Virago’s biggest sellers, proof that a press famous for reprinting forgotten classics could also launch startlingly original fiction.

Granta was similarly electrified by a fresh arrival’s energy. A venerable undergraduate magazine at Cambridge which ran out of steam in the 1970s, it was relaunched by the American graduate student Bill Buford in 1979. Initially a channel for American literary influence—its first issue purveyed 'New American Writing' and its third proclaimed 'The End of the English Novel'—it became over the course of the 1980s a much broader magazine for writing in English, one that has exhilarated generations of writers and readers. The Granta records open a window onto the alchemical process of bringing an issue together. Along with his co-founders Peter de Bolla and Jonathan Levi, Buford began by working his academic connections and wielding his university’s clout, coaxing established authors to contribute and letting would-be writers down gently, hustling for grant money and blowing past unpaid bills. Given such ingredients and such results, it’s rather fitting that Buford followed up his celebrated editorial career with an equally ravenous second act as a cooking-mad writer.

A type written letter from Susan Sontag to Bill Buford, 13 February 1979.
Letter to Granta from Susan Sontag, 13 February 1979; copyright, The Estate of Susan Sontag.

One of the most famous of all Granta issues—the Spring 1983 number devoted to 'The Best of Young British Novelists'—shows how vision and opportunism, readerly recognition and marketing flair, could combine in the editorial act. Buford neither initiated nor chose this list of promising young writers. Rather, the 'Best of British' began as a promotional ploy by the Book Marketing Council. But Buford and Granta seized the potential of the list as an issue-shaping, generation-defining, audience-enticing format.6 They built on the Council’s own marketing push, selected excerpts from each author’s work, and made the list palpable to the reading public. Buford’s textual suggestions were not universally welcome. William Boyd embraced the idea of shifting a story’s pronouns, while Maggie Gee 'rejected every one of the [editor’s] 47 emendations.'7 Nevertheless, the magazine reaped the reward. Its cachet as a cultural arbiter immeasurably enhanced, Granta has returned to the format every ten years to anoint a new cohort (its latest 'Best of Young British Novelists' issue dropped just weeks ago).

I think of editors like Callil and Buford as readers with power—the power to select, revise, and reject. Editorial reading can be a generous force, releasing the creativity of others and realizing the potential in the text. By the same token, it may also be damaging, turning the tap off as well as on. Insofar as they can be recovered in archives such as those held by the British Library, the editor’s contributions tell us a great deal about writers, readers, and publishing institutions—about where and how power and creativity intersect.

Notes

1. Add MS 88904.
2. Add MS 889178.
3. In the 1970s and 80s, Virago was primarily known for reprint publishing: recovering and reissuing the works of neglected women writers. The Virago Modern Classics series, with its beloved green spines, introduced a generation to the books of Sylvia Townsend Warner, Stevie Smith, Christina Stead, Rosamond Lehmann, and many, many others. See D-M Withers, Virago Reprints and Modern Classics: The Timely Business of Feminist Publishing (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2021).
4. The Sadeian Woman and the Ideology of Pornography (London: Virago 1978), 1.
5. Add MS 88904/1/60.
6. See Myles Oldershaw, “Granta and the Advent of the Contemporary,” Journal of Modern Literature 43.1 (Fall 2019), pp. 150-168.
7. Deposit 11183 L. in 44.

 

04 April 2023

Why Research is Good for the Artist's Soul

Bobby C. Martin was a 2021 Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow at the British Library.

I am not a researcher in any traditional sense of the word. I am a visual artist—my practice consists of primarily painting and printmaking. So even applying for an Eccles Centre Visiting Fellowship was an act of stepping outside my comfort zone. When I received word that I had been accepted, it made me realize even more that I had no idea what I was getting into. My non-art faculty colleagues in the U.S. (researchers all) were so impressed that I was going to be able to spend several weeks in London at the British Library doing research. All the while, I was battling imposter syndrome—was I even going to be allowed in the building? What was I supposed to do when I got there? How does one go about doing ‘real’ research? Are there YouTube videos for that?

I can now report that all my fears and doubts were totally unfounded. The Eccles Centre staff were incredibly helpful and generous with their time and knowledge and the Library’s Maps team went out of its way both to make space for my untrained questions and to make the collection as accessible as possible. The process of requesting materials was fairly painless to learn and actually became wonderfully exciting as I stumbled upon many items that were well beyond what I had expected or even knew existed. I actually started getting into this whole ‘research’ thing! The time spent in the various Reading Rooms—touching, smelling, experiencing historic maps and materials—allowed me the opportunity to deeply explore items that have already made a tangible difference in the way I approach my art practice.

A coloured map of North America overlaid with the head and shoulders of an Indigenous woman; silhouetted figures on are either side.
Bobby C. Martin: Granny in North America. Encaustic and collage on antique map mounted on birch panel, 2022. 17.25 x 13.75 inches. Image, artist's own.

I came to the Library (I thought) to research the Library’s map collections, specifically maps related to the Southeastern United States. Georgia and Alabama were part of my Mvskoke tribe’s ancestral homelands. Ultimately, I found much more than maps—books, hand-written journals and photographs that helped flesh out my research in ways I hadn’t anticipated. These materials have already found their way into my current work, and informed a large mural project I recently completed that drew from much of the material I discovered during my fellowship.

A colourful wall mural of a tree with small black silhouetted figures underneath it; two men stand in front of the mural.
Section of installed mural with Alex Martin (left) and Bobby C. Martin, Council Oak Healthcare facility, Tulsa, Oklahoma, USA. Image, artist's own.

While I might have been able find the material I needed for this large history mural project online, the research experience of being in the presence of the actual documents themselves deeply informed every design decision I made, and the resulting installation is a work that would not have been as rich and personally satisfying otherwise.

A wall mural that includes a map as its background, the face and shoulders of a woman as well as other figures; a painted tree branch runs along the top of the mural.
Section of installed mural with Stephanie Martin (left) and Bobby C. Martin, Council Oak Healthcare facility, Tulsa, Oklahoma, USA. Image, artist's own.

So does my experience as an Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow make me an official ‘researcher’? I don’t rightly know the answer, but I do know that it was a game-changer for the way I approach my art practice going forward. I have a new appreciation both for the wealth of material that is available to anyone with a British Library Reader Pass and its accessibility for even the most unskilled of researchers. I appreciate the desire of the Library staff to share their amazing storehouse with all comers. I have a new-found interest in going down rabbit trails that lead to the most unexpected of discoveries that then find their way into my work. Poring over (and enjoying the smell of) centuries-old documents and hand-engraved maps brings me a real (if unexpected) joy. If this is what research is all about, then I am most pleased to call myself a researcher. Thank you to the Eccles Centre and the British Library for the opportunity!

To see images of new work and the mural project that was informed and influenced by my British Library  research, please visit my Instagram page @bobbycartist.

 

 

02 March 2023

Reclaiming Fédon’s Rebellion: Identifying and Acknowledging the ‘Rebels’ in Modern Grenada

Suelin Low Chew Tung is a Grenada-based artist and was a 2020 Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow at the British Library.

During my Eccles Fellowship research at the British Library in summer 2022, I came across a familiar image: a print of a stipple engraving and etching of a memorial at the Anglican Church in the Town of St. George, the capital of Grenada (Fig. 1). 

A grey-toned image of a flat stone monument; two women sit either side of a central column with an urn on top; oval plagues sit outside of each of them.
Fig. 1: Print of the Westmacott memorial at the Anglican church, St George, Grenada. British Library shelfmark: Cartographic Items Maps K.Top.123.113

This engraving by Anthony Cardon is of a 1799 design by Richard Westmacott, part of King George III’s Topographical Collection, donated to the British nation by George IV. The accompanying description in summary reads, ‘Monument erected by the Legislature of Grenada to the memory of the Inhabitants... who were murdered at Mount Quaqua, 8th of April, 1795. By R. Westmacott, Jun. engraved by A. Cardon’ (British Library shelfmark: Cartographic Items Maps K.Top.123.113). Westmacott’s monument is described as being an  ‘inscribed rectangular tablet crowned with urn and garland between female personifications of the Island of Grenada kneeling at its feet, flanked by two oval tablets also inscribed and decorated with military regalia, palm leaves, laurel and sugar cane hanging from chains.’ 

The church housing this memorial - St George Anglican Parish Church - sits on the site of the French-built St. James Catholic Church, confiscated in 1784 by the Protestant government for use as an Anglican church.1  Time, Hurricane Ivan, and recent renovations at the church, have collectively reduced the middle section of this memorial to rubble (Fig. 2, below):

The inside of a church; at the alter, parts of the wall mounted monument described in Fig. 1 have disappeared.
Fig. 2: Post-Hurricane Ivan damage to Westmacott memorial in St. George Anglican Parish Church, Grenada. Image, author's own.

There has been no such remembrance for participants of Fedón's Rebellion - the 'excitable Bandiitti', as inscribed on the central tablet - named in the Trial of Attainers record book of 1796. My two-part proposal honours both the participants of the Rebellion, as well as their descendants, many of whom make up contemporary Grenadian society.

2025 will mark 230 years since the start of this Rebellion, led and controlled by Julien Fédon, a free person of colour and an enslaver. Fédon's involvement with the Rebellion that later bore his name had little to do with ending slavery. Grenada’s French population—white, free people of colour, and Blacks—had suffered religious, social and political persecution under the British from the handover of Grenada in 1763. The Rebellion, which lasted until 19 June 1796, was primarily for the reassertion of their civil rights and the reinstatement of Republican French rule.2 Most of the enslaved people who dared take their freedom did so on the urging of Fédon, but some chose not to fight with him and most not to participate.3

In the end, the ‘Brigands War’ as it was called by the British, decimated Grenada’s agricultural base, made traitors of the people who rallied behind Fédon’s command, and caused the deaths of between 4,000 and 7,000 enslaved people, hundreds of British soldiers, and 47 British hostages, including Lieutenant Governor Home who was executed at Fédon’s Camp.  According to J. A. Martin, an engraved stone pillar on Morne Fédon, or Fédon’s mountain, installed sometime in the 1970s by Premier Eric Gairy, is the only visible artefact marking Fédon’s Camp, (Fig. 3, below):

A rough-hewn stone pillar set outdoors and reading 'Site of Fédons Camp 1795.'
Fig. 3: Stone pillar denoting site of Fédon’s Camp in 1795, Grenada. Image by J. A. Martin.

In mid-February 2023, I projected the names of the ‘rebels’ who were captured, deported/exiled or executed, onto the ruins of Westmacott's memorial.  The rebels' names are listed according to race and class in the Court of Oyer and Terminer for Trial of Attained Traitors record book [1796] (BL Shelfmark EAP295/2/6/1). The white French names start at Augustine Chevalier DeSuze (executed), and the names of the free people of colour and other rebels begin with Julien Fédon (unknown end).

For the projections, I decided to arrange the names alphabetically—single names, executed rebels, and then all of the names, alphabetically by surname. This arrangement introduces democracy into the listing and makes family names easier to locate. The names were projected across the baptismal font fronting the memorial (see Fig. 4). Serendipitously, the font was swathed with red, green and gold fabric to mark 7 February, Grenada’s Independence, with entwined stalks of sugarcane as part of the decoration. In capturing Grenada’s national colours and the sugarcane, the projections link the French population then fighting for independence from British rule and contemporary Grenada’s independence from British rule. The font symbolises the Church of England in Grenada as keeper of that knowledge and rebirth.

Suelin FIGURE 4 Projected names across the baptismal font 2
Fig. 4: Projected names across the baptismal font at the St. George Anglican Parish Church, Grenada. Image, author's own.

I have also proposed that the church install two permanent memorial tablets at either side of the existing ruins, plus a printed history on a nearby plaque to represent a more balanced narrative. Side tablets would be engraved with the names from the Attained Traitors book, in alphabetical surname order. The left tablet would be crowned with a jar of earth from Morne Fédon and the right tablet would be similarly crowned with a small boulder or other artefact from that location; a counterfoil to the Westmacott sculpture (Fig. 5, below). This addition will be sacred to the memory of the participants of the Rebellion, some of whose descendants live in villages named after persons in the Attained Traitors book—a more meaningful representation of their history than the Westmacott monument acknowledges.

Suelin FIGURE 5 Proposed memorial wings to Fédons Rebellion
Fig. 5: Proposed memorial at the St. George Anglican Parish Church, Grenada. Image, author's own.

The 1796 record book branded the participants in the Rebellion as traitors. While the names of a handful of the participating enslaved people are known, the majority remain nameless. At a time when former European colonies, including Grenada, are calling for reparations, I think a reparation of Grenada’s historical memory is also required.

Notes: 

  1. J. A. Martin,  A~Z of Grenada Heritage. New and Revised. Gully Press, Brooklyn; 2022.  
  2. T. Murphy, A reassertion of Rights: Fédon’s Rebellion, Grenada, 1795-96, La Révolution française, 2018 (14) at https://journals.openedition.org/lrf/2017#entries.
  3. Martin,  2022. 

 

 

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