08 August 2022
The Eccles Centre recently hosted a one-day symposium on Black Women’s Activism in the Americas, in collaboration with the Society for the History of Women in the Americas (SHAW). The day included a Show and Tell for the delegates, inspired by some of the topics under discussion. Here are some highlights from the display.
A few years ago the Library acquired a number of issues of Spotlight magazine. Produced by American Youth for Democracy during World War Two (formerly the Young Communist League), it was edited by Claudia Jones, the Trinidad and Tobago-born journalist and activist who emigrated to the US as a child.
Following the persecution of Communists by the US Government, Jones was deported to Britain in 1955. She continued her Communist activism in the UK and went on to found Britain’s first major black newspaper, the West Indian Gazette, in 1958, and played a major role in founding the Notting Hill Carnival. You can read more about Jones’ life and work in the British Library’s Windrush Stories online exhibition here. As with many histories of activism by women of colour, Jones’ legacy was maintained for many years by community activists and historians, through works such as Claudia Jones, 1915-1964: A Woman of Our Times [researched and compiled by Jennifer Tyson], published by Camden Black Sisters Publications in c1988.
Later US Communist activist and scholar Angela Davis was also represented with the Show and Tell including a number of works produced around her imprisonment in 1971 on murder and kidnapping charges. The case generated interest around the world and the display included items published in the UK and Germany demonstrating solidarity with her case, as well as a booklet produced by the United States Information Service and distributed by the US Embassy in London which endeavoured to present the ‘legal background’ to the case.
Alongside Official Government Publications, such as the USIS booklet shown above, another type of collection item which may be less familiar to British Library researchers are examples of political ephemera. The Library continues to acquire a range of this type of material including this striking broadside “I Am A Black Woman Communist”, featuring a portrait of Angela Davis, which was produced for the 20th Convention of the Communist Party USA in New York in February 1972. The following quote is printed beneath her portrait: "I am a black woman Communist / the corrupt government of this country could not accept such a combination / this is why they launch an effort to murder me." The artist's signature, identified only as ‘Sherman,’ is printed at upper right corner.
The political ephemera continued with election pamphlets produced by the Worker’s Party (PT, Partido dos Trabalhadores) during Brazilian federal elections in 1982. Included amongst those standing for office was Lélia Gonzalez, the leading Afro-Brazilian feminist, intellectual, politician, professor, anthropologist and Black and women’s rights activist. Her influential concept of Amefricanidade or ‘Amefricanity’ references both the black diaspora and indigenous populations of the Americas, signalling their histories of resistance as colonised peoples. Among a long career in activism and education, she ran as a federal candidate for the Worker’s Party in 1982. The broader context of the PT slate of candidates (included at the same shelfmark) provide fascinating insights in to the range of social justice concerns active in Brazilian politics in the early 1980s, including gay rights.
An underused part of the Library’s holdings, the Philatelic Collections offer a fascinating way into many different aspects of social and political histories. The Show and Tell was enriched by items from our Philatelic colleagues which illustrated the way black women’s activism has been commemorated on stamps, in turn helping to construct national and international conversations about women’s history and achievements. To find out more about Philately at the British Library, visit their subject page or their social media channels.
By Cara Rodway, Eccles Centre, August 2022 (with thanks to my Eccles and Americas colleagues for their help developing and mounting the Show and Tell)
15 June 2022
As we continue our series highlighting the breadth of electronic resources available for researchers at the British Library, this blog will discuss some of the digitally available collections which can support those studying African American History. All resources can be accessed from our Electronic Resources page, and some are available remotely once you get your free Reader Pass.
N.B. This article may contain images with descriptions which are outdated and/or culturally/racially insensitive
1. African American Communities
Let’s start with African American Communities which gives access to hundreds of pieces of primary source material for researchers examining racial oppression across social, political, cultural and religious arenas in America. You can study a range of items, from scrapbooks to official records, oral histories to 360-degree objects, which focus on Atlanta, Chicago, St Louis, Brooklyn and locations in North Carolina. Topics covered by this resource’s collection include racism, desegregation, civil rights movements and expressions of African American culture displayed through artists, musicians and more.
Before delving into a few of the materials the resource provides, the platform itself has a number of very useful features to help navigate its vast offering that are worth mentioning. The ‘Nature and Scope’ link on the main landing page gives a comprehensive overview of the themes and source archives you can view. You can choose to browse items in a number of ways as all documents have been indexed using multiple categories, or you can also do a general full text search. Community case studies and thematic guides and essays are also available which offer handy entry points into the collections and give a steer as to where to start. One of my favourite features is ‘My Archive’ where you can save and revisit your previous searches and any documents you’d like to return to, quickly and easily.
A few examples will demonstrate the breadth of material on offer from this rich resource.
Researchers examining civil rights protests and movements will be interested in the collection of materials generated or collected by the Chicago Urban League. Items held here explore one of the most famous civil rights protests for open housing, which took place near Marquette Park in the summer of 1966, and its aftermath. The protest contributed to the creation of Chicago as a racially open city as many Black residents moved into its vicinities. However, as this 1977 report shows, even some 11 years later, racial tensions and violence were very much still in existence.
Other materials in the Chicago Urban League collection offer insights into the social services available to African Americans between 1935 and the 1980s, including those regarding reproductive health, youth and welfare services, general health and access to hospitals, and issues related to the aging and those with mental illness.
Researchers interested in the literary and political history of African Americans will be enthused by access to The Messenger, provided by The Newberry Library, Chicago. Founded in New York in 1917, the latter years of the publication from 1925 to its final issue in 1928, can be accessed by this e-resource. Significant in the early stages of the Harlem Renaissance, the magazine helped voice African American intellectual, cultural and political expression through articles, short stories, letters, reviews, songs and art. It featured a number of writers in the early stages of their career, for example, Zora Neale Hurston’s ‘The Eatonville Anthology’ was first published in the September 1926 edition of The Messenger. Her short story instalments in the magazine told of various characters living in an African American community just outside Orlando and used authentic dialect. Her work represented an honest picture of Black culture in the American south in the early 20th century.
Straying slightly from the more conventional primary source material one might expect from such e-resources, a quick mention goes to the Weeksville Interactive Exhibition also available on African American Communities. Listed in the National Register of Historic Places, the Historic Hunterfly Road Houses located in Weeksville (now Brooklyn) are New York landmarks preserving the homes belonging to a free and independent African American community. The interactive exhibition allows users to explore the layout and objects within the homes from the 1860s – 1930s, complete with 360-degree photography, opening a door onto how African American life in a bygone era could have looked for some. The packaging and marketing choices on the food and drinks packaging are particularly striking and could be great resources for researchers of culinary history and art.
2. Black Freedom Struggle in the 20th Century: organisation records and papers, parts 1 and 2
Next up is Black Freedom Struggle in the 20th Century: organisation records and papers, parts 1 and 2 from ProQuest’s History Vault (available remotely), which is another fantastic resource for researchers to turn to study both well- and lesser-known events and social movements in American history. A gathering of materials from a multitude of perspectives, this e-offering features records of the NAACP, SCLC, SNCC, CORE, and federal records on the Black Freedom Struggle. Key archival material is available to search and view, including digitised letters, newspapers, photographs and official reports.
Researchers examining many aspects of the African American fight for freedom in 20th-century America will find it a very useful research tool indeed, to name one example: those studying the Great Migration and its impact on Black America can access materials from the 1929 National Interracial Conference regarding African American women in industry. Much of the material from which this selection draws is rich in detail on the living and working conditions of American workers. The extracts below are from a study of 15 U.S. States by the U.S. Women’s Bureau showing details of Black women workers, including their industries, numbers of employees, their hours, and facts concerning the conditions under which they worked, and earnings.
Continuing the vein of study regarding the history and impact of Black women in America, users may also be interested to note an abundance of newspaper clippings about activist Angela Davis, from the African American Police League Records, 1961 – 1988, to which the Black Freedom Struggle e-resource offers access. Provided by the Chicago History Museum, the e-folder includes clippings from 1970 to 1972 and covers key moments surrounding Davis’s trial. With cuttings from mass-readership papers such as the Chicago Daily News, to African American newspapers and university student newspapers, the selection to sift through should provide researchers with many angles from which to examine the prolific impact of, and response to, Angela Davis, in Chicago specifically.
3. Race Relations in America
Packed with primary sources you might not find elsewhere, another e-resource rich in ephemeral material offered by the British Library is Race Relations in America. The origins of the collection digitised for this resource are sourced from the records of the Race Relations Department of the United Church Board for Homeland Ministries, housed at the Amistad Research Center in New Orleans.
Examining three pivotal decades in the struggle for Civil Rights in America, the items made digitally accessible by this resource give particular voice to the every-person: telling stories through the eyes and work of sociologists, activists, psychologists, teachers, ministers, students and homemakers, those on the ground trying to make change happen. Through correspondence, personal testimonies, maps, and marketing publications, researchers will find unexpected items providing an interesting look at the ways in which Civil Rights and calls for desegregation were advocated from within the home and beyond. This calendar below, entitled ‘Dateline for Freedom’, is an example of such and includes photographs of people of different races interacting in educational and leisure activities.
Race Relations in America provides access to a wealth of documents highlighting different responses to the challenges of overcoming prejudice, segregation and racial tensions. Key themes examined by the e-resource include desegregation of schools, industries and public transport; the role of the Church in the Civil Rights Movement and in African American Communities; and the migration of African Americas from the rural South to urban centres, and the industrial and domestic impacts that came with it. As mentioned before, the ‘My Archive’ feature is again available here – meaning one can save every document, search result or individual image to return to at any point.
As well as sharing the experiences of everyday African American people, the resource also contains documents and materials from pioneering names in the Civil Rights Movement. You can listen to the speeches of Thurgood Marshall, along with over 100 hours of further recordings from those seeking to understand and improve racial tensions. You can also view Champions of Democracy, a pamphlet on citizenship activities at Highlander Folk School, authored by Septima Clark. Highlander, Tennessee, was the site of leadership training for southern civil rights activists and it was where Rosa Parks had attended a workshop on schools desegregation in the summer of 1955.
This brief blog only touches the surface when it comes to the fully accessible, digital collections that one can use for researching African American history and American racial oppression. Other e-resources on the subject that that Library provides access to, and that are available for free with your Reader Pass, include History Vault: African American Police League Records, 1961-1988, Slavery, Abolition and Social Justice, 1490-2017, Slavery & Antislavery: a Transnational Archive, and Slavery in America and the World: History, Culture, and Law. Don’t forget that newspaper and periodical-specific e-resources also offer a wealth of material that could be of interest – take a look at African American Newspapers Series 1 1827-1998 and Series 2 1935-1956 (Readers with a valid pass have remote access to this resource), and Baltimore Afro-American, 1893-1988. You can see a full list of the e-resources you can access remotely with a Reader Pass here, as of 2022 a number of ProQuest e-resources related to the Americas have been added.
Look out for next month’s instalment in this blog series focusing on our e-resources that support researchers examining the Caribbean, past and present.
By Rachael Culley, Curator North American Published Collections Post 1850
01 June 2022
Katey Castellano is Professor of English at James Madison University and was a 2020 Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow at the British Library.
During my Eccles Fellowship at the British Library in March and April 2022, I researched the publications and perspectives of the Black Romantic-era writer, Robert Wedderburn (1762-1835/36). Wedderburn was born enslaved in Jamaica, and as a young man he migrated to London, where he became involved in London’s ultraradical circles. My research suggests that, even though he was publishing in London, Wedderburn’s political theories grow out of his experiences of being raised by his enslaved mother, Rosanna, and his grandmother, Talkee Amy. His writing importantly provides a rare glimpse into what Vincent Brown describes as an “oppositional political history taught and learned on Jamaican plantations—a radical pedagogy of the enslaved.”1 Wedderburn’s publications challenge the abolitionist narrative that liberal, individualist freedoms should be spread from England to the West Indies. Instead, Wedderburn instructs his white, lower-class readers in London about already existing African-Jamaican practices of land and food reclamation.2 In other words, Wedderburn’s abolitionist pedagogy insists that food and freedom are inseparable.
The British Library holds one of two remaining copies of Wedderburn’s The Axe Laid to the Root, or a Fatal Blow to Oppressors, Being an Address to the Planters and Negroes of the Island of Jamaica (1817). An inexpensive weekly periodical for working-class readers, Axe Laid to the Root’s six issues disseminate a vision of abolition that opposes private property, both in people and land, because access to land for growing food is necessary for freedom from the plantation system. Wedderburn declares, “Above all, mind and keep possession of the land you now possess as slaves; for without that, freedom is not worth possessing; for if you once give up the possession of your lands, your oppressors will have power to starve you to death.”3
When Wedderburn admonishes enslaved people in Jamaica to “keep possession of the land,” he is referring to the provision grounds, land distributed by enslavers for enslaved people to grow their own food. Access to this land allowed enslaved people to cultivate kinships and culture around growing and eating yams, sweet potatoes, cassava, taro, and other vegetables. Sylvia Wynter argues, “Around the growing of yam, of food for survival” enslaved laborers in Jamaica “created on the plot a folk culture—the basis of a social order.”4
The provision grounds were not spectacular or immediately revolutionary, like other moments of Black self-emancipation, such as Tacky’s War or the Haitian Revolution. Yet the provision grounds not only nourished people, they also reterritorialized estates. For example, a survey of Edward Long’s Lucky Valley Estate (1769), demonstrates that a large part of the estate must be reserved for provision grounds. The map illustrates how the provision grounds were limited and hemmed by the plantation, yet the grounds were also located close to the mountains and away from the surveillance of enslavers and overseers. Growing food also allowed some self-determination in diet and provided subsistence for self-emancipated individuals who fled the plantations.
Guided by Wedderburn’s theory that abolition requires access to land and food, I explored other colonial texts at the British Library that describe the provision grounds. Matthew Lewis is best known as the author of the popular gothic novel The Monk (1796), yet while at the British Library I studied his Journal of a West India Proprietor, which was written from 1815 to 1818. The journal records two visits to inherited plantations in Jamaica. As Lewis attempts to ameliorate the conditions of enslaved people, the provision grounds become a point of contentious negotiation. By the middle of his first visit, the people that Lewis enslaved had negotiated increased freedom to visit their provision grounds: “I therefore granted them as a matter of right, and of which no person should deprive them on any account whatever, every Saturday to cultivate their grounds.”5 Throughout his journal, Lewis vacillates between his anxiety about the independence cultivated by the provision grounds and his desire to be a hero in facilitating access to them. Provision grounds finally provoke a crisis within the idea of the people as property: if people are property, how can they have rights to the land? Enslaved people bequeathed provision grounds to their kin and earned money from selling excess produce, but, legally, enslaved people were themselves property. By cultivating independent food production on the provision grounds, then, the seeds of freedom had been sown before Emancipation.
The radical nature of the provision grounds emerges even more clearly during Emancipation (1834), when the provision grounds became openly contested spaces. In the Holland House Papers, an estate manager, Thomas MacNeil, complained to Lord Holland that formerly enslaved people “have withheld so much labour from the estate” while at the same time “they have devoted much labour to improve their cottages, and increase the extent of their provision lands.” Holland wants formerly enslaved labourers to cultivate sugar cane and pay rent for their land, but MacNeil reports, “They declare they will not pay any rents whatever until they see ‘the Queen's Law’ to say they must do so, that their parents before them, had possession of the land and had houses where theirs now are, before Lady Holland was born and that they cannot think of paying any rent whatever and work for the estate also.”6 MacNeil’s letter indicates that formerly enslaved people “cannot think” of paying rent after emancipation because they understood freedom as the right to possess the provision grounds as an intergenerational inheritance. The formerly enslaved people on Holland’s estate struggle to retain African-Jamaican land and food-based freedoms nearly identical to those advocated by Wedderburn: “Above all, mind and keep possession of the land you now possess as slaves; for without that, our freedom is not worth possessing.”
After Emancipation, formerly enslaved people in Jamaica resisted leaving or paying rent for their grounds. Both planters and antislavery activists wanted to detach African-Jamaicans from the land in order to force the formerly enslaved population into useful wage-labour for the British economy. Following Wedderburn’s argument that food and land are inseparable from freedom, I found evidence in planter journals and letters that African-Jamaican food systems challenged the plantation system during and after slavery.
For more information about African American foodways, see the interview with Jessica B. Harris, author of High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey from Africa to America (New York: Bloomsbury, 2011; British Library shelfmark DRT.ELD.DS.70649), at the British Library’s Food Season 2022.
1. Tacky’s Revolt: The Story of an Atlantic Slave War (Harvard: Harvard UP, 2020), 242.
2. I have made this argument in “Provision Grounds Against the Plantation: Robert Wedderburn’s The Axe Laid to the Root (1817),” Small Axe: A Caribbean Journal of Criticism 25.1 (2021): 15-27.
3. Axe Laid to the Root; or, a Fatal Blow to Oppressors, no. 1 (London, 1817): 4.
4. “Novel and History, Plot and Plantation,” Savacou 5 (1971): 99. My reading of Wynter’s plot is influenced by Janae Davis, Alex Moulton, Levi Van Sant, and Brian Williams, “Anthropocene, Capitalocene, ... Plantationocene?: A Manifesto for Ecological Justice in an Age of Global Crisis,” Geography Compass 13.5 (2019): 1-15.
5. Journal of a West India Proprietor (London, 1834): 191-2.
6. Letter from Thomas MacNeil to Lord Holland, 15 February 1839, Holland House Papers, Add Ms. 51816, ff. 169-70. I originally found reference to these letters in Jamaica Surveyed: Plantation Maps and Plans of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries (Kingston: Institute of Jamaica Publications, 1988), 108.
19 May 2022
Diederik Oostdijk is Professor of English and American Literature at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and was a 2021 Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow at the British Library.
The British Library is an excellent place to do cross-media research. During my research stint, I intended to study the working relationship between poets and visual artists, especially Ted Hughes (1930-1998) and Leonard Baskin (1922-2000). As a consequence, I spent most of my time in the Manuscripts Reading Room where papers of both are held. In addition to finding many relevant letters and manuscript drafts that reveal how the English poet and American artist collaborated, I found plenty of doodles and drawings that showed the genesis of several books on which the two worked together. The detailed finding aids on the British Library website often describe these, but they cannot do justice to the experience of seeing this visual material in person. In order to take photographs or have scans made, it is necessary to acquire permission from the copyright holders, so it is advisable to seek this before making the trip to the British Library. It is much more of an ordeal to do that after visiting.
The British Library’s holdings of fine press materials was equally relevant for my research, but to check these out I needed to go one floor down, to the Rare Books & Music Reading Room.1 Hughes and Baskin collaborated on many books that were published by their own publishers, Eremite Press and Gehenna Press, respectively. The leather bindings containing the richly illustrated books printed on handmade paper are sights to behold. Some of the fine presses were short lived and have remained obscure, but they often presented young authors with their first opportunity to publish, or gave established writers the chance to try out new approaches for their work. It allowed Hughes, for instance, to express his grief about Assia Wevill and Sylvia Plath in poems hidden in limited and sumptuously designed editions, years before this became public knowledge with his more public Birthday Letters, which he issued through a commercial publisher.
In a different corner of the same reading room, I listened to many interviews with poets, painters and photographers. These recordings are not accessible from outside the British Library, but through a few desktop computers of the Rare Books & Music Reading Room. They include radio recordings, footage made at and by the British Library, and assorted other tapes that were digitized. I was able to listen to dozens of digitized cassette tapes that Ian Hamilton recorded for his biography of the American poet Robert Lowell (1917-1977). He only used a tiny fraction of these interviews for his book. This raw material will undoubtedly give researchers new leads, insights, and ideas, as Hamilton could obviously not pursue all angles, and there are always unexpected pronouncements in these interviews that are waiting to be explored further. Not all links that I clicked on worked, but the reference staff encouraged me to fill out forms when that occurred, so that they could help repair the broken links.
The physical papers of the Ian Hamilton collection are still largely unprocessed, and so not readily accessible. Yet the curators are interested in making portions of them available if scholars can specify what exactly they are looking for. I was lucky to be able to peruse some transcripts of interviews and some correspondence from that collection that are not yet detailed in finding aids, but that I can now use for my research. The joy of searching through boxes and folders of unsorted material is the distinct pleasure of being like a kid in a candy store. Every time you open a folder or box you don’t know what it will contain, and I discovered nuggets that I know will become part of articles or essays that I will write down the line. I was allowed to look at these unsorted papers in the Maps Reading Room, yet another reading room that I could add to my tally at the British Library.
My favorite research experience was looking at Fay Godwin’s contact sheets and photographs in the Visual Arts Reading Room. Tucked away in the much larger Asian and African one, this tiny reading room is only open from 10.30am to 12.30pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and you need to make an appointment before going there. Godwin (1931-2005) was an English photographer who collaborated with Hughes on a book, Remains of Elmet, about the area of Yorkshire where Hughes grew up. Godwin, however, also took photographs of many poets and writers, including of Lowell. The contact sheets and developed prints held in the Visual Arts Reading Room allow one to retrace the photographer’s steps. The sequence of shots helps you to see how she conceived of several images, and decided which one to single out to develop as a photograph. Godwin clearly wanted to showcase chess pieces in her photograph of Robert Lowell, for instance, when she visited him and his wife Caroline Blackwood at Milgate House in Kent in 1971. He stares intently and bemused into her camera, and as viewers we are interested in observing the next move in his life, and also Godwin’s next move as photographer.
The limited access time and spacing in the Visual Arts Reading Room made me value the opportunity and experience of viewing this unique visual material even more. Like visiting the other reading rooms, it deepened my interest into how poets and visual artists collaborated together. To make the most of your research time at the British Library, it is surely important to plan ahead, but also to allow for chance to occur. Allow some time to wander around, and to inspect some of the other reading rooms that you were not intending to visit. You never know what you will find.
1. A guide to the British Library's post-1945 US fine press holdings may be found here (fourth item down).
20 April 2022
In this first installment of a series of blogs, Philip Clark shares his experience of being a 2022 Eccles Centre and Hay Festival Writer’s Award winner. The Writer’s Award offers £20,000, a year’s residency at the British Library to develop a forthcoming book, and the opportunity to showcase work at Hay Festival events in the UK and Latin America. Philip’s book – Sound and the City – will be a history of the sound of New York City and an investigation into what makes New York City sound like New York City.
At last, I’ve made it. After two years of pandemic travel bans, followed by an embarrassing gaffe with my visa back in January, I’m writing this blog sitting in the café at Barnes & Noble bookstore on Union Square in New York City. Since my arrival, I’ve checked in religiously every morning at 9am for a few hours’ writing; ingrained habits, even when in the city in which we’re told sleep is optional, die hard. Wake up, write. That’s the rhythm. The Barnes & Noble café – the equivalent of the café in Foyles, Charing Cross Road, my usual haunt – is quiet, comfortable and studious. I write surrounded by fellow scribes and ferocious readers – also a young couple gazing into each other’s eyes over a chessboard, who were here yesterday, too. This café has character, although not so much character that I’m distracted from my work. And best of all – the book I’m writing, Sound and the City, a history of the sound of New York City, will, in a few years’ time, be sitting on one of the shelves here. In this space where it was partly written, an idea which appeals to me very much.
My book opens an investigation into what makes New York City sound like New York City, a soundscape completely different from, say, London, Paris or Berlin. What my book is not is a history of music in New York. Instead, the project is to piece together interwoven histories from architecture, geology, immigration, politics and city planning to explain the unique relationship this city has with sound. Alongside, I’m exploring how writers and musicians who have called this endlessly fascinating resonating chamber home have dealt with the sound of the city – a long, impressive role-call that includes Henry James, John Dos Passos, Antonín Dvořák, Edgard Varèse, Duke Ellington, John Cage, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Philip Glass, Bob Dylan, Meredith Monk, Ornette Coleman, Debbie Harry, Lou Reed, Don DeLillo, Grandmaster Flash, Cecil Taylor, Gloria Gaynor, DJ Kool Herc and Wu-Tang Clan.
What does New York do to an artist’s sense of pacing, proportion, structure? Of the sort of material they’re minded to put into their work and the way it behaves once they’ve put it there? In his memoir Words Without Music, published in 2015, Philip Glass claimed “My music sounds like New York”. Which is undoubtedly true. But so does the bebop of Charlie Parker, the modernist composition of Edgard Varèse, the rock of Debbie Harry and the nimble vocal gymnastics of Meredith Monk – none of which sound remotely like Glass. Could factors beyond musical style and idiom knit all this work together? It is my duty to find out.
As life drifted on between lockdowns, and I wondered whether travel would ever be a realistic proposition again, a fantasy New York ran riot inside my imagination. That said, ever since I discovered modern jazz, West Side Story, Morton Feldman and Bob Dylan in my mid-teens, some thirty-five years ago, I have always carried around my own inner-New York. The environment of the city, transferred to reality, felt entirely familiar to me when I started visiting seriously around 2005, testament to how much information its sonic footprint carries within it. New York played a crucial role in my previous book, a biography of the jazz pianist Dave Brubeck, A Life In Time, but there I needed to curb my enthusiasm; editing out superfluous city history became a continual necessity. Now the time has come to fully understand my New York fixation – why that fascination with the sound of its sound, and the sound of its music, has never left me alone.
Last year was spent immersing myself in histories of the city, and also in a pair of works that I knew would give my book its starting point: Edgard Varèse’s orchestral Amériques and John Dos Passos’ Manhattan Transfer. Dos Passos’ novel was published in November 1925, with the premiere of Varèse’s composition following only a few months later in April 1926. The degree to which these panoramic captures of the city mirror each other virtually word-to-note and note-to-word is uncanny. The steamboat whistles and fire engine sirens which Dos Passos describes so vividly are not merely evoked in the fabric of Varèse’s music – he literally wrote both machines into his piece, urban objets trouvés he made sing and holler.
Surely Varèse and Dos Passos had enjoyed long discussions about the meaning of art, life and the universe itself in various hostelries around the East Village? The closeness of their art suggests they must. Having won the Eccles Centre and Hay Festival Writer’s Award at the end of 2021, and now with the whole British Library at my disposal, this was one of the first questions I set out to answer: did they ever meet? Varèse, I read, enjoyed the company of the composers Carl Ruggles and Carlos Salzedo, the conductor Leopold Stokowski, the violinist Fritz Kreisler, the artist Marcel Duchamp – and there is also a documented encounter with the writer Theodore Dreiser. Dos Passos’ associates at the time included the writers E E Cummings, Hart Crane and Dawn Powell. At the British Library, I was very happy to find an extended critique by Sinclair Lewis of Manhattan Transfer, published in 1926, in which Lewis describes Dos Passos’ novel as “the moving symphony itself” and talks up the central role sound takes in the narrative (although Lewis’ respect for Dos Passos was, sadly, not reciprocated).
Plotting the various addresses before I left home where Dos Passos and Varèse lived in the mid-1920s – and then this week walking between them – I discover that they criss-crossed each other constantly and, during different periods, lived but a few blocks from each other. The hotel in which Varèse took up long-term residence when he first arrived from his native France in 1916 – The Brevoort on the corner of 8th Street and 5th Avenue – is where two characters in Dos Passos’ novel, Elaine Oglethorpe and George Baldwin, conduct their affair.
Novelist and composer are traceable to some of the same bars and cafés. Romany Marie’s famous bistro-tavern, the place in the Village where artists, musicians and writers met to talk, was a regular meeting place of Varèse’s – and surely Dos Passos went there too. Walking a block from 188 Sullivan Street, Varèse’s home from 1925 until his death in 1965, I find Caffe Reggio – the first café to bring cappuccino to the city is the boast – which opened its doors in 1927. Given Dos Passos’ love of European culture and Varèse’s yearning to find tastes of Europe in New York, could their paths have crossed there? And then there’s McSorley’s Old Ale House, opened around 1860, and subject of a poem by Dos Passos’ close friend E E Cummings. And we know that Varèse loved ale. His wife, Louise, in her memoir, Varèse: A Looking Glass Diary, tells us how he took a shine to a barmaid – who called him ‘Dearie’ – in a London pub, near Broadcasting House, when the BBC performed his piece Hyperprism in 1924. Degrees of separation melt away by the moment.
But even if they managed never to meet, my thesis holds firm. Varèse and Dos Passos walked those same sidewalks, listening deep into the sound of the city, and you feel that kinship in the work they produced. New York works as an artistic matchmaker apparently – even when artists are not aware it is happening.
30 March 2022
It’s been a while since we’ve been able to do ‘in real life’ show and tells for students attending the Library’s Doctoral Open Days so the Americas and Oceania Collections Curatorial team and Eccles team were delighted to be able to discuss a selection of items from the collections with researchers at the latest on-site sessions.
On 4 and 7 March 2022, a number of students from all disciplines visited the Library’s site at St Pancras to get better acquainted with the services and collections available for their research, inspiration and enjoyment. Theses practical sessions were offered to all who attended our PhD webinars that took place earlier in the year.
The days give the chance to attend Reader Registration appointments, go on building tours, take advantage of drop-in sessions with Reference Services, see how collection items are handled and conserved, and come along to show and tells with curatorial teams across the Library to see and discuss items from different collections.
Asian and African Collections, British and European Collections, Music Collections, Digital Collections and Resources, Contemporary Society and Culture Collections, and Maps and Visual Arts Collections all took part. We love being part of these days; not only do we get to meet new researchers and discuss their work, but we also get the chance to see colleagues from other collection areas and chat with them about the items in their remit and beyond – both things that have been much-missed in-person activities over the past two years.
For those unable to attend, we thought we’d share a few things with you digitally instead! Here are a selection of items that the Americas and Oceania team displayed over the two days:
DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE
Text by Lewis Carroll; designed by Tara Bryan
Flatrock, Newfoundland, Canada: Walking Bird Press, 2016
Lewis Carroll’s original manuscript for Alice's Adventures Under Ground is housed at the British Library, so we are always excited to see how the tale has been re-imagined, re-interpreted and re-illustrated over the last 160 years. This item invites readers into the rabbit hole, with the words from Carroll tunnelling down and down… just as Alice did. This artists’ book was designed by Tara Bryan in her studio in Newfoundland. One of only 40 copies, it is made from delicate handmade Thai Bamboo paper and Japanese paper.
FOR HOME USE: A BOOK OF REFERENCE ON MANY SUBJECTS RELATIVE TO THE TABLE
Proprietors of Angostura Bitters
Trinidad: Angostura Bitters (Publication year unknown/Donated)
This item speaks to culinary social history, especially concerning those deemed belonging to the middle and upper classes of Trinidad and Tobago. ‘Invaluable to the Host and Hostess’, this book of recipes by the makers of Angostura Bitters, is an example of great marketing from a bygone era.
SÃO FERNANDO BEIRA-MAR: CANTIGA DE ESCÁRNIO E MALDIZER
São Paulo: Dulcinéia Catadora, 2007
LA MUJER DE LOS SUEÑOS DEL DOMADOR DE YAKARÉS
Asunción: Yiyi Jambo, 2008
TRIPLE FRONTERA DREAMS
Buenos Aires: Eloísa Cartonera, 2012
CARTONERAS IN TRANSLATION = CARTONERAS EN TRADUCCIÓN = CARTONERAS EM TRADUÇÃO: ANTOLOGÍA
Lucy Bell et al., eds.
Cuernavaca: La Cartonera, 2018
Cartoneras are books of poetry, literature, and translations made with covers from salvaged cardboard with original illustrations in acrylic colours made by members of cartonera workshops. Their illustrated cardboard covers are often anonymous, even when created by famous artists, or signed by all members of the publishing group in a clear attempt to promote the community effort over the individual artist. The focus is on making books together and giving everyone access to reading and writing their stories.
Cartonera books are not only visually beautiful, but also make a critical intervention in publishing and reading cultures in Latin America starting in the wake of the financial crisis in Argentina with Eloísa Cartonera in 2003. This type of cheap community publishing spread quickly across the region and allowed other Latin American countries plagued by economic and social inequality to appropriate reading and book-making practices creatively and in a community-based way.
LIP MAGAZINE ISSUE 1
Frances (Budden) Phoenix (featured artist)
Melbourne, Australia: Women in the Visual Arts Collective, 1976
Lip was an Australian feminist journal self-published by a collective of women in Melbourne between 1976 and 1984. The art and politics expressed in the journal provide a fascinating record of the Women’s Liberation era in Australia. The inaugural issue seen here includes articles on writer Dorothy Hewett, Australian embroidery, and Australian feminist art, film and performing arts, as well as a double page removable centerfold: a doily vulva artwork called ‘Soft Aggression’ by artist Frances (Budden) Phoenix. Phoenix was an Australian feminist artist who helped to establish the Women’s Domestic Needlework Group, and known for her provocative textile and needlework which subverted traditional notions of women’s domestic crafts. In her centerfold here, she revisits the tradition of women inscribing messages into their work and includes the directive to readers: “female culture is in the minds, hearts and secret dialogues of women. Use your culture in your own defence: use soft aggression.”
THE LITERARY VOYAGER OR MUZZENIEGUN
Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, edited with an introduction by Philip P. Mason
[East Lansing]: Michigan State University Press, 1962.
ALGIC RESEARCHES, COMPRISING INQUIRIES RESPECTING THE MENTAL CHARACTERISTICS OF THE NORTH AMERICAN INDIANS: FIRST SERIES: INDIAN TALES AND LEGENDS
Henry Rowe Schoolcraft
New York, 1839.
In 1962, scholar Philip P. Mason collected and republished the entirety of the manuscript magazine The Literary Voyager. Originally produced between December 1826 and April 1827 by Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, it is considered to be the first periodical related to Native American culture. Its alternative title, Muzzeniegun is Ojibwe for ‘book’.
Schoolcraft, an ethnologist and Indian Agent in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, handwrote a few copies of each issue which were posted to friends and family. Schoolcraft was married to Bamewawagezhikaquay, also known as Jane Johnston Schoolcraft, who was of Ojibwa and Scots-Irish ancestry. She is considered to be the first known Native American woman writer. Notably she wrote in both English and Ojibwe. Many of her poems and traditional stories were included in The Literary Voyager, however she does not receive credit for her work. Her mother, from whom Schoolcraft also collected traditional stories and cultural knowledge, is also not named. It has taken considerable efforts by Native American literary scholars to correct this historical omission, and to bring attention to this important Ojibwe voice.
Some of Bamewawagezhikaquay’s stories were later published in Algic Researches, also compiled by Henry Rowe Schoolcraft. This Library copy is an original edition from 1839.
We’d like to thank our colleagues in the Library’s Research Development Team for organising the webinars and in-person sessions, and to our friends in the Eccles Centre for American Studies for their support in helping the days run smoothly.
As the Library continues to working hard at both our sites to make sure everyone can visit us safely, we are looking forward to the opportunity to run similar sessions and meet more of you in person over the coming year.
10 March 2022
How can electronic resources help with literary research? In this brief blog I consider a number of electronic databases to which the Library subscribes, and look at the ways in which they can be of use for literature scholars and any Library reader looking for information on authors, movements and texts. All resources can be accessed from our Electronic Resources page, and some are available remotely once you get your free Reader Pass.
Databases of digitised periodicals are often the most rewarding electronic resources. While nothing compares to spending an afternoon immersed in magazines in the reading room, these databases enable you to search across a large number of issues and titles for articles by or about an author. If you are studying the reception of a literary work, digitised periodicals make searching for reviews across several titles much easier. Digitised newspapers and magazines are helpful to track down uncollected publications by a writer, and to study the context in which their short stories, poems or articles were originally published. In the case of authors who had longstanding relationships with a specific publication, research on these databases can yield rich results. For instance, a reader interested in the American writer Langston Hughes who searches the digital archive of the Baltimore Afro-American will be able to read his articles and war reporting, his poetry and reviews of his published collections, reports of readings and lectures he gave, news about the staging of his plays, and even his autobiography The Big Sea, which was serialised in the newspaper.
The Library’s databases of periodicals range from little magazines connected to literary movements to middlebrow publications and periodicals for children. Among other titles, the database Interwar Culture provides access to the influential American literary magazine The Dial, edited by Scofield Thayer and Marian Moore in the 1920s. Those inspired by the centenary of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land this year will be able to read the poem in The Dial, where it was first published in America in November 1922.
A popular resource in the reading rooms is the US Vogue Archive, which my colleague Polly Russell mentions in an earlier blog in relation to its relevance to women’s studies. Researchers focusing on the history of literary journalism are likely to find articles of interest. Joan Didion, who worked for Vogue from 1956 to 1964 and became an assistant features editor for the magazine, published her influential essay “Self-respect: Its Source, Its Power,” in the August 1961 issue.
In addition to periodical databases, the Library subscribes to other resources that can facilitate literary research. Bibliographic databases Book Review Digest Retrospective: 1903-1982 and Book Review Digest Plus (which covers 1983 to date), contain excerpts of reviews of English language adult and children’s fiction and non-fiction.
The Dictionary of Caribbean and Afro–Latin American Biography, edited by Franklin W. Knight and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., provides a comprehensive overview of the lives of Caribbeans and Afro-Latin Americans of historical significance, including speakers of Creole, Dutch, English, French, Portuguese, and Spanish. An extremely valuable resource for any scholar studying the African Diaspora, it contains concise entries that explore individuals’ lives and their major contributions, in addition to a brief bibliography for further research. Writers Paulette Poujol-Oriol, Nancy Morejon, and Yolanda Arroyo Pizarro are some of the names featured in the Dictionary.
Finally, if you are researching an Australian author or movement, AusLit, published by the University of Queensland, will be of help. It contains biographical and bibliographic information about Australian writers and their works. Helpfully for those who don’t have access to a physical library, AusLit also lists full-text works, including poetry, prose and criticism freely available online. Those studying Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander writers and storytellers will be interested in their site BlackWords, which records information about authors, their works, and the traditions that influenced them, as well as teaching materials and other resources.
Mercedes Aguirre, Lead Curator, Americas
09 February 2022
Catherine Eccles is an international literary scout and council member of the Eccles Centre.
'Every library is a journey; every book is a passport without an expiry date.'
It was through the good fortune of my involvement with the Eccles Centre that last month I found myself sitting in the arcaded courtyard of the Santa Clara Hotel – originally built as a convent in 1621 - in Cartagena, Colombia. Tall palm trees and an array of the healthiest tropical plants crowded the central space, while a variety of birdsong reminded me that I was in one of the most biodiverse countries in the world.
I was there to attend the Hay Festival, which through the year holds three Latin American book festivals – one in this fortressed former colonial port town on the Caribbean coast, the others in Peru and Mexico. More specifically, I was there to talk about the Eccles Centre Hay Festival Writer’s Award.
The award was established ten years ago, set up for authors whose works-in-progress would benefit from research in the British Library’s American collections. Initially the focus was on the North American and Caribbean collections. Then, three years ago, we journeyed south - heralded, as it turned out, by previous winner Andrea Wulf’s prize-winning biography of Alexander Humboldt - to include Spanish language writers and research in the library’s Latin American collections.1 Along with running the Writer’s Award, the Eccles Centre sponsors an event at each Latin American Hay Festival. This year the topic across the Eccles’ sponsored festivals is ‘The Value of Libraries’ - in a time when libraries have never been more relevant across the world.
The event in Cartagena took place just outside the walls of the old town of narrow streets and whitewashed houses with colourful balconies drooping with bougainvillea, in the Sala Barahona at the Centro de Convención. Cartagena is known as a party town, but at ten o’clock on a Sunday morning the room was full. Many in the audience were librarians, keen to hear from the panellists: Irene Vallejo, author of El infinito en un junco (Infinity in a Reed), and librarians and campaigners Martín Murillo, Silvia Castrillon and Luis Bernado Yepes. Murillo is a cult figure in Colombia, famous for taking books to the people in the streets in a cart similar to those used by the country’s fruit sellers. Yepes grew up in a large family in the barrios of Medellin and says books saved him from a life of crime and violence; and Castrillon creates book clubs to transform how people read. The discussion was moderated by famous children’s author and journalist, Yolanda Reyes.
Over the four-day festival I learnt there cannot be a discussion on any subject without taking into account the legacy of decades of violence suffered by the Colombian people and the sociopolitical landscape that has emerged since peace agreement was signed in 2016. Books might be seen as a privilege, but the panel at Cartagena discussed them as something essential: a tool to save the world, a reminder of humanity especially in a time of violence and a gateway to knowledge that will help close the inequality gap. There was a suggestion that access to books and libraries should be a human right and there have been attempts to legislate for this in Colombia, so far unsuccessful. The work of libraries is an ethical as well as a political responsibility. Revolution is not always dramatic. It can be slow and writers and libraries can play a part in that, gradually changing the world. Libraries hold and keep knowledge safe, persevering history and memory and serving to thwart the circle of violence. Another event I attended at the festival was a discussion about the degradation of war and the importance of breaking silence and bearing witness in order to move on without forgetting for communities caught in the crossfire of warring factions. This is at the centre of a reconciliation process that in Colombia remains fragile
While I was there I read two books to help me understand this captivating but troubled country, one fiction and one non-fiction. The first was Evelio Rosero’s hallucinatory novel Los ejércitos (The Armies).2 This is set in a community beset by violence and is narrated by an old man whose grip on the horrific reality being played out on the streets of his town is slipping. The other was honorary Colombian Wade Davis’ Magdalena: River of Dreams, a journey down the great river that runs from south to north of the country.3 The book encompasses a history from pre-Colombian times, through Spanish occupation, independence and recent times. If there is one book to read to comprehend Colombia, Magdalena is a very good bet, but it was the searing ending of Los ejércitos that reminded me of how vital fiction can be in exploring difficult subjects in a way non-fiction cannot. Each has its essential role, which is reflected in the fact that the Writer’s Award is open to both. Writers and librarians are the custodians of narratives and testimony as well as ideas for the future across the world. Books indeed can save and transform lives.
1. Andrea Wulf, The Invention of Nature: the adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, the lost hero of science. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2015. British Library shelfmark: General Reference Collection DRT.ELD.DS.39324.
2. Evelio Rosero, Los Ejércitos. México, D.F.: Tusquets Editores México, 2007. British Library shelfmark: General Reference Collection YF.2009.a.34322; The Armies. London: MacLehose, 2010. Translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean. British Library shelfmark: General Reference Collection DRT.ELD.DS.10242
3. Wade Davis, Magdalena: River of Dreams. London: Vintage Digital, 2020. British Library shelfmark: General Reference Collection DRT.ELD.DS.495199.
Americas and Oceania Collections blog recent posts
- On the Trail of the Contemporary Singing Voice
- Machado de Assis, Portinari and the Bilingual Brazilian Book Club at the British Library
- Cold War Whiteness: Literature and Race between Canada and Czechoslovakia
- Antislavery Print Culture in Nineteenth Century Canada West
- Spiritualism, Creatively Reimagined
- Tracked Changes: Looking for Migrant Editors in Publishing Archives
- Why Research is Good for the Artist's Soul
- Reclaiming Fédon’s Rebellion: Identifying and Acknowledging the ‘Rebels’ in Modern Grenada
- Writer's Award winner Philip Clark on the Sounds of New York City: Part II
- Outernational: Researching Black music and its transatlantic connections