American Collections blog

65 posts categorized "Literature"

24 March 2020

Happy birthday, Lawrence Ferlinghetti

American poet, painter, activist, pioneering figure in the Beat movement, and co-founder of City Lights Bookseller, Lawrence Ferlinghetti turns 101 on March 24 2020

The Library’s collections are rich in Beats and Ferlinghetti material (take a look at our Beats bibliography if you’re interested to see a comprehensive overview of holdings). But with so many pages of ground-breaking content to leaf through, what would be appropriate to feature to mark the artist’s 101st birthday?

Black and white photo of Lawrence Ferlinghetti reading
Photograph of poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Image taken by Christopher Michel on 2 July 2012, sourced via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Pictures of the Gone World seemed like a good option (fifth printing edition held at BL shelfmark 011313.t.3/1.). This was Ferlinghetti's first book, published in 1955 by his own City Lights Books, in a 500-copy letterpress edition (City Lights Booksellers & Publishers website). Two years earlier, he had co-founded City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco together with college professor and editor of City Lights magazine, Peter D. Martin. The store was the first all-paperback bookshop in the United States (The Guardian online, Interview with a Bookstore: San Francisco's historic City Lights) and would become ‘the launching pad for the San Francisco Writers Renaissance’ (Douglas Street in the Southwest Review, Vol. 66, No. 2 [Spring 1981], p. 228. Access via JSTOR, available in British Library Reading Rooms). For more than 60 years, City Lights “has served as a ‘literary meeting place’ for writers, readers, artists, and intellectuals to explore books and ideas.” (City Lights Booksellers & Publishers website).

Front cover of Pictures of the gone world
Front cover of Pictures of the Gone World (Fifth Printing) by Lawrence Ferlinghetti (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1955) BL shelfmark 011313.t.3/1.

Pictures of the Gone World was Number One in the Pocket Poets Series launched by the City Lights Books. One of the series focuses was to provide paperback, and thus more affordable, content to readers, and the book’s publication helped to extend Ferlinghetti’s ‘concept of a cultural meeting place to a larger arena.’ (City Lights Booksellers & Publishers website). With mentions of London, Paris and the harbour of San Francisco in the poems’ titles, the collection not only documented Ferlinghetti’s artistic development but also acted as a kind of ‘travel journal of the place in which he had lived’ and visited (Ferlinghetti: A Biography by Neeli Cherkovski, page 82), taking readers around the world as they dipped in and out of his work, while the small design allowed for them to carry Ferlinghetti around with them on their own travels.

The Pocket Poets series went on to include several Beat classics including Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and other poems (1959 edition held at BL shelfmark 011313.t.3/4) – Number Four in the series – which was published in October 1956 and met with immediate, if controversial, success. The landmark poem’s concept, together with Ginsberg’s powerful delivery at group readings, made it ‘a crucible of cultural change. Except for the response to Dylan Thomas’ readings in America, never before had a modern audience reacted so passionately, or identified so completely with a poet’s message.’ (Naked Angels: The Lives & Literature of the Beat Generation by John Tytell, page 104). You can read more about the reaction to, and impact of, Howl in our blog from 2013. Other early items in the Pocket Poets series included William Carlos Williams’s Kora in Hell: Improvisations, Marie Ponsot’s True Minds and Poems of Humor & Protest by Kenneth Patchen.

Pictures of the gone world back cover showing the price of 75 cents
Back cover of Pictures of the Gone World showing other titles in the Pocket Poets series

The little paperback held by the British Library features the unassuming, yet at the same time, striking black and yellow cover – the style of which would be replicated through the Pocket Poets series and at just 75 cents a pop, whose simplicity made it something that could be available to many. As the series’ name implies, the collection ‘can be carried in a pocket, and read in less than an hour.’ (Beat Poetry by Larry Beckett, page 17)

Between the pages readers are greeted with some of Ferlinghetti’s most memorable works including ‘The world is a beautiful place’ – a melancholy and ironic ode to one’s bittersweet existence on earth. In Ferlinghetti’s style, readers are ping-ponged across the page, yo-yoing between scenes of beauty and happiness, ‘smelling flowers’ and ‘swimming in rivers’, then thrown into despair: ‘if you don’t mind a touch of hell’ and ‘some people dying all the time’. Swayed back and forth, the reader is constantly reminded of being destabilised each time something comforting is mentioned: ‘The design… reflect[ing] Ferlinghetti’s continuing concern with the way the poem looked on the page… [he] was satisfied that the arrangement of the words enhanced the meaning of the poem.’ (Ferlinghetti: A Biography by Neeli Cherkovski, page 82)

Many of the poems in this collection are said to ‘reveal…the quiet struggle of ordinary people. The unusual distribution of lines on the page, and the inventiveness with word play and rhyme, show Ferlinghetti’s sense of freedom, itself a key notion in his work.’ (Beat Culture: Lifestyles, Icons, and Impact edited by William T. Lawlor, page 106)

‘The world is a beautiful place’ can certainly be seen to exemplify such a statement.

The world is a beautiful place first page
The world is a beautiful place…to be born into… if you don’t mind happiness…not always being…so very much fun (BL shelfmark 011313.t.3/1.)

Despite being written in the mid-20th-century, this timeless poem doesn’t feel out of place when read in 2020. It’s a testament to Ferlinghetti’s skill and intuition; to be able to tap into subject matter and raise questions that feel as relevant today as when he first wrote them some 65 years ago.

Happy birthday, Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

The British Library holds a number of items from City Lights Books Pocket Poets Series and publications from Ferlinghetti, including first editions, some inscribed by the poet himself. Below is a selection of suggested reading. Follow the link to our Beats Bibliography for a more complete overview of Library printed holdings on the subject.

[Blog by RSC]

Bibliography and suggested reading

A Coney Island of the Mind: poems by Lawrence Ferlinghetti; portraiture by R.B. Kitaj (San Francisco: Arion Press, 2005) shelfmark RF.2007.b.21. Note: A fine press special edition of Ferlinghetti’s famous work from Arion Press.

Beat Culture: Icons, Lifestyles, and Impact edited by William T. Lawlor (Santa Barbara, California; Oxford: ABC-CLIO, 2005) shelfmark YC.2007.b.56

Beat Poetry by Larry Beckett (St. Andrews, Scotland?: A Beatdom Books Publication, 2012) shelfmark YK.2014.a.4349

City Lights Booksellers & Publishers website (accessed 11 March 2020) 

Ferlinghetti's Greatest Poems by Lawrence Ferlinghetti; edited by Nancy Peters (New York: New Directions Publishing, 2017) shelfmark YD.2018.a.4686

Ferlinghetti: A Biography by Neeli Cherkovski (Garden City: Doubleday, 1979) shelfmark X.950/10246

Open eye, open heart by Lawrence Ferlinghetti (New York: New Directions, 1973) shelfmark RF.2002.a.49. Note: Inscribed by Ferlinghetti with cover photograph of Ferlinghetti by Ilka Hartmann.

Pictures of the Gone World (Fifth Printing) by Lawrence Ferlinghetti (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1955) shelfmark 011313.t.3/1.

Naked Angels: The Lives & Literature of the Beat Generation by John Tytell (New York; London: McGraw-Hill, c1976) shelfmark YA.2000.a.11944

The Guardian, Interview with a Bookstore: San Francisco's historic City Lights (accessed 16 March 2020)

The Guardian, San Francisco's City Lights: the bookshop that brought us the Beats (accessed 16 March 2020)

Review of Ferlinghetti: A Biography by Neeli Cherkovski in Southwest Review, Vol. 66, No. 2 (SPRING 1981), pp. 228-230, by Douglas Street. Accessed via JSTOR, available from Britsh Library Reading Rooms (accessed 12 March 2020)

Who are we now? by Lawrence Ferlinghetti (New York: New Directions, 1976) shelfmark YA.2002.a.19832. Note: Signed and inscribed by Ferlinghetti.

25 February 2020

From the collections: A Streetcar Named Desire

Thomas Lanier Williams III, perhaps better known by his pen name Tennessee Williams, passed away on 25 February 1983. I’ve turned to the Library’s collections to take a look at our holdings around one of Williams’s most popular and timeless works, A Streetcar Named Desire.

As some of our Readers may be well aware, due to conservation and preservation over the years, not all of the books held at the British Library still have their original dust jackets, covers or bindings. So it’s always a joy to call up an item from the basements which still retains its original frontage in full, glorious technicolour.

Front cover design of A Streetcar Named Desire by Lustig. Pink cover with black and white figures.
New Directions front cover for A Streetcar Named Desire, designed by Alvin Lustig (YA.1996.b.5800)

I discovered that we’re fortunate enough to hold a first edition of A Streetcar Named Desire (YA.1996.b.5800) published by New Directions in 1947, complete with the lavender pink cover design by Alvin Lustig. Showing three figures entwined, almost dancing, on the front, the image is a striking one among, what can be, shelves of dark spines. An imposing male stands in the centre, in a puppeteer-like poise, commanding two females either side of him: seemingly a picture of the tempestuous and forceful Stanley Kowalski, with his wife, the meek Stella, on one side, and his struggling sister-in-law, Blanche, on the other.

New Directions Books were published by American poet, James Laughlin, who started the publishing house after seeking career advice from none other than Ezra Pound. “He had been seeing my poems for months and had ruled them hopeless. He urged me to finish Harvard and then do ‘something’ useful.” Laughlin recalls. Bestsellers from New Directions, an imprint largely devoted to Modernist writers, include works by Lawrence Ferlinghetti (A Coney Island of the Mind, EMC.2011.a.174), William Carlos Williams (Selected Poems, 75/17337) and Ezra Pound himself (The Cantos, W55/3062). Of Tennessee Williams, the New Directions website states:

‘As well as being astonishingly talented and prolific, Tennessee Williams was a man of considerable personal courage, willing to be open about being a gay man at a time when few were. Tennessee Williams is a cornerstone of New Directions, as we publish everything he wrote in his storied career. He is also our single bestselling author.’

Many of the early New Directions covers feature artwork by Denver-born designer, Alvin Lustig (1915 – 1955). A rigorous graphic designer who forayed into architecture, interior and industrial design, ‘Lustig’s opportunity to use the book cover as a vehicle of bold graphic experimentation and innovation was provided by James Laughlin…a collaboration that flourished throughout the 1940s until Lustig’s early death in 1955… [they] prodded, cajoled, and quibbled their way through a virtually unprecedented partnership…’. (page 7, Purity of Aim: The Book Jacket Designs of Alvin Lustig by Ned Drew and Paul Sternberger, YC.2017.a.13503) In each other they recognised ‘a sense of uncompromising principles and a tenacious drive to make a mark on contemporary society’ (page 13, ibid).

Black and white portrait photograph of Alvin Lustig
Black and white photographic portrait of Alvin Lustig, with one of his ‘eye’ designs used on New Directions covers (image from YC.2017.a.13503)

Laughlin’s publication choices together with Lustig’s eye for colour, graphic systems and bold juxtapositions, resulted in sure-fire ways to stop readers in their tracks in the mid-20th century, beckoning them, as the names implies, to traverse New Directions. And it worked; ‘Lustig’s jackets had a quantifiable impact on the book-buying public; they enormously increased the sales…’ (page 49, Born Modern: the Life and Work of Alvin Lustig by Steven Heller and Elaine Lustig Cohen, LC.31.b.7733). Laughlin confirmed that Lustig’s artwork and ‘beautiful designs…help[ed] to make a mass audience aware of high quality reading’ (James Laughlin, “The Book Jackets of Alvin Lustig”, Print, Oct/Nov 1956, as quoted on page 50 in Born Modern by Heller and Lustig Cohen, LC.31.b.7733). Though one should never judge a book by its cover, it’s easy to see the appeal of these designs in a shopfront even today. This is something Laughlin acknowledged also: ‘People should buy books for their literary merit. But since I have never published a book which I didn’t consider a serious literary work – and never intend to – I have had no bad conscience about using Lustig to increase sales.’ (ibid)

Examples of Lustig’s work for New Directions images from LC.31.b.7733
Examples of Lustig’s work for New Directions (images from LC.31.b.7733)

Beholding a green Library stamp, signifying a donation, my interest was also piqued at seeing two handwritten inscriptions signed ‘Sidney Lanfield’ on the inside cover of this edition. Lanfield was an American director (1898 – 1972) whose work included the 1941 film You'll Never Get Rich starring Fred Astaire and Rita Hayworth. As beautiful as this book is, the director’s signature serves as a reminder that A Streetcar Named Desire is in its most perfect form when performed on stage, as was its intention.

Signatures of Sidney Lanfield
Two for the price of one: Sidney Lanfield’s name on the inside cover (YA.1996.b.5800)

And what better illustration is there of this than the original playbill for the Ethel Barrymore Theatre where Streetcar was first performed? This programme (RB.23.b.7714) for the original Broadway production of the play is from 9 February 1948; the play premiered at the theatre just two months earlier on 3 December 1947. The Pulitzer-Prize winning drama, directed by Elia Kazan, still featured the original stars including Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter and Jessica Tandy. The New Directions edition of the book also lists the star-studded cast that were part of the premier run of the production. As well as giving early portfolios for the cast in lead roles, the playbill is dispersed with advertisements, including plenty for cigarettes (Camel) and alcohol (Carstairs whiskey), and is a great primary resource for researchers. Others may also interested in reading The New Yorker’s Wolcott Gibbs’s slightly scathing, and controversial, review of an early performance of this production from 6 December 1947: an article that closes with ‘I’m sorry to say there isn’t much room left for the compliments’.

Cast list and playbill for early performances of A Streetcar Named Desire
Cast list for the premier Broadway performance of Streetcar (YA.1996.b.5800) and the original playbill for the Ethel Barrymore Theatre performance of Streetcar (RB.23.b.7714)

73 years on from the New Directions publication of the play, and its premiere performance, and 37 years since Williams’s passing, it’s incredible to see A Streetcar Named Desire in its initial guises. A reminder that the British Library has endless avenues to pursue when it comes to fresh research around even the most seemingly well-established of subject matter.

[Blog by RSC]

Suggested reading

A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams (Mount Vernon, New York: New Directions, 1947) YA.1996.b.5800

The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams (Norfolk, Connecticut: New Directions, 1949)

Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flash by John Lahr (London: Bloomsbury Circus, 2014) ELD.DS.73184

Memoirs by Tennessee Williams; introduction by John Waters (New York: New Directions, 2006)

A Streetcar Named Desire: The Playbill, (New York: Ethel Barrymore Theatre, 1948)

The New Yorker, articles available at www.newyorker.com and BL holding Mic.B.64/1-45., P.903/858., 6089.821000

Born Modern: the Life and Work of Alvin Lustig by Steven Heller and Elaine Lustig Cohen (San Francisco: Chronicle, c2010) LC.31.b.7733

Purity of Aim: The Book Jacket Designs of Alvin Lustig by Ned Drew and Paul Sternberger (Rochester, N.Y.: RIT Cary Graphic Arts Press, c2010) YC.2017.a.13503

12 February 2020

Dear Diary....Mark Twain and a timeless love story

 

Black and white illustration of Adam and Eve being expelled from the Garden of Eden
Image taken from page 397 of 'Rome ... With ... illustrations. A new edition' British Library shelfmark HMNTS 10129.h.13.


Have you ever wondered what Adam and Eve were really thinking in the Garden of Eden?

 

Colour photo of the green front cover of the book, The Niagara Book'
The Niagara Book: A Complete Souvenir of Niagara Falls by W.D Howells, Mark Twain, Prof. Nathanial S. Shaler, and others. Buffalo, New York: Underhilll and Nichols, 1893. (10413.b.37.)

In 1893, Mark Twain contributed a short story to the Niagara Falls souvenir collection, The Niagara Book. His clever tale being something of an oddity among stolid pieces on the geology, flora and fauna, and famous visitors of the falls. His contribution, a satirical take on a biblical love story, was entitled, The Earliest Authentic Mention of Niagara Falls: Extracts from Adam's Diary. Translated from the Original Ms. Here, Twain took inspiration from the Book of Genesis to re-imagine the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. By setting his version in the more relatable 'paradise' of Niagara Falls (where Adam enjoys going over the falls in a barrel), he was able to take full advantage of wordplay opportunities on the Fall of Man doctrine from the Bible. The tale, later published in book form in 1904 as Extracts from Adam's Diary / Translated from the original MS, is told from Adam's perspective and follows his grouchy musings on the sudden, and unwelcome, appearance of a troublemaker in his world: "Monday: This new creature with the long hair is a good deal in the way". Used to a solitary and lazy existence, Adam is initially bewildered and frustrated with the stranger's excessive industry and habit of naming everything she sees before he has the opportunity to do so himself. He is contemptuous of her existence and bemoans her notions of beauty and wonder: "Saturday: She fell in the pond yesterday when she was looking at herself, which she is always doing". However, he is begrudgingly won over by his new companion: "...for I am coming to realize that she is quite a remarkably comely creature". Twain's wit is at his best in this acerbic take on what is a widely accepted creation story, with Adam’s accounts gleefully dry at times: "I advised her to keep away from the tree. She said she wouldn't. I forsee trouble. Will emigrate". Adam’s story poignantly ends with him speaking at Eve's grave, "Wherever she was, there was Eden."

Photo of Mark Twain seated with cigar in hand
Photo of Mark Twain taken by A.F. Bradley, New York 1907. Source: http://loc.gov/pictures/resource/cph.3c12065/

Though the tale follows the original story in the Book of Genesis, with Eve eating the forbidden fruit and the inevitable expulsion from paradise, it also offers a poignant reflection from Adam a decade later: would he rather have never met Eve?: "After all these years, I see that I was mistaken about Eve in the beginning, it is better to live outside the Garden with her than inside it without her". In Twain's story, we see a commentary on his own life: he famously remarked that he would never meet his match in a woman and, like Adam, seemed destined for a solitary life. But he was proved wrong in New York on New Year’s Eve in 1867 when he met Olivia Langdon (Livy): the shy and intelligent daughter of a wealthy coal merchant. They began a long courtship conducted mainly through letters, with 184 handwritten notes passing between them. This letter writing was to continue throughout their life together.

Red front cover of book 'Eve's Diary'
Eve's Diary. Translated from the original MS. by Mark Twain. New York: Harper & Bros, 1906. (012330.h.54.)

Livy died following a long illness in 1904, and, after locking himself away, Twain composed what many have dubbed his eulogy to her. Eve’s Diary was published in the 1905 Christmas issue of the magazine Harper's Bazaar, and then in book format in June 1906. This companion piece to Adam’s Diary follows Eve from her creation to her grave and was the only time Twain wrote from the perspective of a woman. He made great use of the opportunity to do so, and delivered a sharp-witted account of Eve’s thoughts on Adam, who she dubs “the other experiment”. She is impatient of his monosyllabic responses and laziness: “I wonder what it is for. I never see it do anything”. The story is notable in exemplifying his changed views on women’s suffrage. Twain was a staunch opponent of women’s right to vote, but after meeting Livy and having daughters, he changed his mind. In Eve’s Diary, in contrast to Adam’s account, Eve is shown to be extremely bright and warm: expressing wonder and innate curiosity about the world around her. She is even taken with the grumpy Adam and is accepting of his faults and perceived lesser intelligence. His companionship offers a chance for conversation, something she loves (and an opportunity for a dig from Twain) : “I talk all day and in my sleep, too, and I am very interesting”. Unlike Adam’s, Eve’s account glosses over the Fall: “The garden is lost, but I have found him and am content”, and she is quicker to come to this realisation than Adam. Her final entry is delivered forty years later, and expresses a wish that, if they are not able to pass from the world together, it is her who goes first: “…life without him would not be life; how could I endure it?”. When reading this alongside Adam’s Diary we know that she gets her wish: Adam’s story ends with him speaking at Eve's grave: "Wherever she was, there was Eden." Although Twain proposed to have the two stories joined together in one volume, unfortunately this never happened in his lifetime.

Photo of grey slipcase and front cover of the book 'Extract's from Eve's Diary'
Extracts from Eve's Diary ; Extracts from Adam's Diary by Charles Hobson. San Francisco: Pacific Editions, 2003. (RF.2017.b.43)



The four love stories: the original tale from the Book of Genesis, Adam’s Diary, Eve’s Diary, and the story of Twain and Livy, have been themselves retold in a 2003 artists’ book from San Francisco artist, Charles Hobson. Entitled Extracts from Eve's Diary ; Extracts from Adam's Diary, this creative interpretation interweaves excerpts from Genesis, the two diaries, and handwritten letters between Twain and Livy, with illustrations of two figures moving towards embrace. The motion of the two figures is inspired by the photographs of Eadweard Muybridge from his Human Figure in Motion study from 1901, and is enabled by the intricate design of the book. The artist has used a French door structure with cut-out pages and collaged folded sheets to involve the reader in revealing the journey of Adam and Eve toward each other, and away from ignorance. The book is presented in a slipcase and opens in two concertinaed halves to display Eve's story on the left and Adam's on the right, allowing passages from each to be easily compared and contrasted. The copy at the British Library (shelfmark RF.2017.b.43) is the final edition in a limited run of 38 copies and includes a separate print of Adam and Eve embracing. The parallels between Twain’s Adam and Eve, and himself and Livy have been beautifully encapsulated in this artistic volume, with the design of the book is extremely effective in portraying what Twain surely felt to be a too brief but passionate time in Eden.

Photo of the book spread open to reveal the sequence of illustrations
The concertinaed halves opened up to reveal the two stories side by side

 

Photo of the book folded open to reveal the two full page illustrations of the figures
The cutout pages opened up to reveal the two figures


Further reading:


The Niagara Book: A Complete Souvenir of Niagara Falls by W.D Howells, Mark Twain, Prof. Nathanial S. Shaler, and others. Buffalo, New York: Underhilll and Nichols, 1893. (10413.b.37.)


The Human Figure in Motion by Eadweard Muybridge. London : Chapman & Hall, 1901. (Tab.443.b.1.)


Extracts from Adam's Diary / Translated from the original MS. by Mark Twain. New York ; London : Harper & Bros, 1904. (012330.h.50.)


Eve's Diary. Translated from the original MS. by Mark Twain. New York: Harper & Bros, 1906. (012330.h.54.)


Extracts from Eve's Diary ; Extracts from Adam's Diary by Charles Hobson. San Francisco: Pacific Editions, 2003. (RF.2017.b.43)

10 February 2020

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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



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



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



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



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

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

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

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

04 December 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Notes:

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

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

22 November 2019

Literary lip warmers for Movember

Over the past few years the month of November has become synonymous with the moustache all in the name of Movember – the leading global organisation committed to changing the face of men's health.

So we thought it was only right to pay homage to some of our favourite bros with enviously good mos…

Ralph Ellison

Black and white photo of author Ralph Ellison in front of bookcase
Image of Ralph Ellison from Wikimedia Commons sourced from US National Archives and Records Administration (NARA)

As sharp as the unnamed narrator in his 1952 landmark novel, Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison's well-groomed moustache demands attention and admiration. Before embarking on a writing career, Ellison was a trumpet player and music student at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama; the all-black university found by Booker T. Washington which would become the model for the college in Invisible Man. Much attention has been paid to the links between Ellison's writing and the composition techniques used in jazz, particularly his use of solos, improvisation and movement as literary devices in Invisible Man. His pencil-thin moustache worked equally well with both of his talents; writer and jazz aficionado.

Suggested reading

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison (New York : New American Library of World Literature, 1964). Shelfmark X.907/2412.

Fascinating rhythm : reading jazz in American writing by David Yaffe  (Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press, 2006). Shelfmark YC.2006.a.7114                
 

Dashiell Hammett

Photograph of Smart Set: Hammett's first story appeared in The Smart Set magazine in November 1922
Photograph of Smart Set from the British Library's collections (shelfmark P.P.6383.ah.)

Perfectly befitting the innovative creator of hard-boiled detective fiction, Dashiell Hammett’s personal style was striking and urbane: a neat, black moustache brilliantly contrasting with a shock of white hair. Surprisingly, given the impact of his fiction, Hammett’s fiction-writing career lasted only twelve years. His first story appeared in The Smart Set magazine in November 1922. With The Maltese Falcon (1930), he became a literary sensation. But by 1934 he had essentially retired from writing.

Edgar Allan Poe(vember)

Portrait from ‘Illustrations to Edgar Allen Poe’ by Aubrey Beardsley showing Poe's black hair and moustache
Portrait of Poe from ‘Illustrations to Edgar Allen Poe’ by Aubrey Beardsley (shelfmark 7852.t.19.)

With hair as black as a raven, no one wears the lampshade moustache quite like Edgar Allan Poe. The images of Poe that I’ve seen have always seemed so melancholy and, given the nature of his tales, I assumed his character to be so too. So I was surprised to find in a short article by Mrs. Susan A. T. Weiss, in Scribner's Monthly from 1878, a description of Poe that quite counters this idea: ‘… he appeared … invariably cheerful, and frequently playful in mood … quietly amused … with a playful sarcasm.’ (p 709)  

As well as his disposition, Mrs Weiss offers quite the description of Poe’s trademark facial hair: ‘He wore a dark mustache, scrupulously kept, but not entirely concealing a slightly contracted expression of the mouth, and an occasional twitching of the upper lip, resembling a sneer … There was in it nothing of ill-nature, but much of sarcasm…’ (p 711).

Aubrey Beardsley’s trademark style captures Poe’s features in all their glory in this portrait printed in with a collection of illustrations in 1926 (7852.t.19.). The Library holds plenty of items by this moustached maverick including a first edition of Tamerlane (C.34.b.60.), which Poe authored under simply ‘a Bostonian’, rather than his real name.

Suggested reading

The Smart Set: A magazine of cleverness (New York: 1900–25) shelfmark: P.P.6383.ah.

The Dashiell Hammett Omnibus: The Thin Man, The Maltese Falcon, The Glass Key, The Dain Case, Red Harvest & four short stories by Dashiell Hammett (London: Cassell & Co, 1950) shelfmark: 12646.h.17.

Last Days of Edgar Allan Poe by Mrs. Susan A. T. Weiss (in Scribner's Monthly, Nov 1777 to April 1878; New-York: Scribner & Co, 1878; Digitised by Google, original from University of Michigan)

Illustrations to Edgar Allen Poe by Aubrey Beardsley (Indianapolis: Aubrey Beardsley Club, 1926) shelfmark: 7852.t.19.

Tamerlane, and other poems by a Bostonian (Boston: C. F. S. Thomas, 1827) shelfmark: C.34.b.60.

 

Nick Cave

 

Photo of Nick Cave performing on stage
Image of Nick Cave from Wikimedia Commons sourced from Bubamara
 

The musician and author sported an enviable  moustache for the better part of a decade until, in the fog of jet lag following a long haul flight, his wife convinced him to shave it off. His moustache veered between a polished handlebar and a pure '70s sleaze 'tache during the Grinderman era; his obvious delight in the aesthetics of facial hair placed him well to judge the World Beard and Moustache Championships, held in Brighton in 2007.

Suggested reading

The Death of Bunny Munro by Nick Cave, Edinburgh : Canongate, 2009.  Shelfmark Nov.2010/137           
 
And the Ass saw the Angel by Nick Cave, London : Penguin, 1990, c1989. Shelfmark H.2001/1388
     
              

31 October 2019

Poe, pumpkins and parades – it must be Halloween

It’s 31 October so seems appropriate to take a look at a few items from the collection perfect for All Hallows' Eve.

Poe

It seems that both Halloween (and a blog written by me) wouldn’t be complete without a nod to Edgar Allan Poe. The Library holds a number of volumes of the Southern Literary Messenger, a 19th-century literary magazine ‘Devoted to Every Department of Literature and the Fine Arts’. It was Poe’s friend, novelist John Pendleton Kennedy, who encouraged him to write for the Messenger. Poe both edited and had some of his works included in the periodical.

Photograph of the title page of The Southern Literary Messenger
Title page of The Southern Literary Messenger (shelfmark: P.P.6380)

Berenice – A Tale was first published in the March 1835 edition of the Messenger. Richard P. Benton writes that this is ‘one of Poe’s most sensational and horrible tales. Some readers have found it too horrible, and Poe himself confessed it to be such’ (page 123, ‘The Tales: 1831 – 1835’ in A Companion to Poe Studies, YC.1997.b.2189). Indeed, the story caused quite a stir when it appeared in the Messenger, which was considered a ‘refined’ kind of reading.

And it’s not surprising why. Even by today’s standards it’s grotesque. Egaeus, a man driven by his head over his heart, becomes fascinated with his beautiful cousin, Berenice. In contrast, Berenice is a loving woman guided by her emotions. When Berenice falls sick, her beauty fails and Egaeus is gripped by her demise: ‘An icy chill ran through my frame … a consuming curiosity pervaded by soul … my eyes rivetted upon her … My burning glances at length fell upon her face.’ (page 334, Edgar A. Poe ‘Berenice – A Tale’ in the Southern Literary Messenger, P.P.6380) He recounts her sunken eyes, her darkened hair and her thinned lips – a picture ‘lifeless and lustreness’ (page 334, ibid). It is her teeth that he becomes obsessed with. He gradually slips in and out of consciousness picturing the teeth and imagining holding and studying them.

Spoiler alert. It is only at the end of the story that Egaeus comes back to some kind of reality. He is told by a servant that a grave and body – still ‘palpitating’ – has been found. Egaeus notices his clothes are ‘muddy and clotted with gore’ (page 336, ibid), and that there is a spade in his room along with ‘instruments of dental surgery, intermingled with thirty-two small, white and ivory-looking substances’. (page 336, ibid)

Darkness. Monomania. Bloodshed. If you’re looking for a tale with bite, look no further than Berenice.

Black and white illustration by Henry Clarke showing Egaeus holding the frail body of Berenice
It was a fearful page in the record my existence: illustration by Henry Clarke for Berenice (shelfmark: 12703.i.44.)

Pumpkins

Rather get your teeth into something less revolting? We don’t blame you, so we’ve turned to Betty Crocker for some inspiration. You’ve made your Jack-o’-lantern, now what to do with the flesh you’ve scooped out from your pumpkin?

Betty Crocker’s New Picture Cook Book was printed in 1961 by the McGraw Hill Book Company, Inc, in New York. Designed as a guide for making both simple and sophisticated ‘foreign-inspired food and old-fashioned American dishes’, the opening pages boast that each basic recipe in the book ‘has been tested at least 100 times’. As well as being fool proof, the added bonus of calorie charts and ‘celebrities’ favorite menus and recipes’ are also included. Who knew President Eisenhower was a fan of sirloin steak followed by apple pie?

When it comes to pumpkins, the General Mills Betty Crocker Kitchens in the Golden Valley (amazing photos of said kitchens can be found on pages 2 and 3) are not short on ideas. Pumpkin muffins, pudding and, of course, pie (both autumn and spicy options), are all on the menu. Needless to say evaporated milk and sugar are vital components. We’re told that “Pumpkins, or ‘pompions,’ were a standby of the early New England settlements” and an old poetic verse is included with the recipe for those gifted enough to able to sing and bake simultaneously.

Photograph of inside spread of Betty Crocker book. Full-colour picture shows the pie in all its glory while the right-hand page shows the recipes with small illusrated characters.
One slice or two? Pages 350 – 351 Betty Crocker's New Picture Cook Book (shelfmark: 07938.cc.33.). The book contains an impressive 48 full-colour pages of food to show a number of culinary delights in all their glory.

And it’s not just pumpkins Betty’s got covered: Jack-o’-Lantern popcorn balls with gumdrops and candy corn and Batter Franks with catsup are also recommendations for a 1960s Halloween party.

Of course, pumpkins aren’t just for Halloween, also being key players on the Thanksgiving menu. The pumpkin is an unmistakable symbol of fall in the US. Whether as a Halloween prop or part of a Thanksgiving dessert, it is now so much more than the unassuming vegetable it once was: Jacqueline Mansky affirms that ‘the orange field pumpkin, especially the giant version, [has] became wrapped up in the American agrarian myth’ (How the Great Pumpkin Became Great, Oct 21 2019) and is an icon of key US holidays. Why? Read this very enjoyable article on JSTOR to find out.  

Parades

This broadside from 1932 promotes the all-important components for Halloween in the aptly named Wildwood, New Jersey: ‘FUN… GOBLINS… WITCHES’. Attendees are told to ‘Be prompt’ for the 8pm parade and that only decorated vehicles are permitted.

Photograph of broadside for Hallowe'en Parade
Hallowe’en Parade broadside. Currently being catalogued and available in Reading Rooms soon.

Traditionally in Europe in the 12th century, criers would parade the streets on Halloween in memory of lost souls. Yet the parades that we may be more familiar with today and that became popular in the US during the 20th century include fancy dress, music and elaborately dressed floats. Events like the well-known Village Halloween Parade in New York City, one of the largest in the world, is now in its 46th year and attracts tens of thousands of spectators to the night-time spectacular.

The Halloween parade referred to on this broadside is held ‘Under the Auspices of Wapella Tribe, 238, I. O. R. M’, the IORM being the Improved Order of Red Men. Despite its name, the group was for white men only. Their membership was at its peak in the 1930s when this item was made. The event was organised by this men's fraternal group that claimed descent from the Sons of Liberty and the Boston Tea Party and based itself on a stylized but problematic interpretation of Native American culture.

(Blog by RSC)

Suggested reading

Officially Indian: symbols that define the United States by Cecile R. Ganteaume; foreword by Colin G. Calloway; afterword by Paul Chaat Smith. (Washington, DC: National Museum of the American Indian, 2017) Shelfmark: YD.2019.b.673

Southern Literary Messenger (Richmond, Va: J. R. Thompson, 1848-1864) Shelfmark: P.P.6380

A Companion to Poe Studies edited by Eric W. Carlson (Westport, Conn.; London: Greenwood Press, 1996) Shelfmark: YC.1997.b.2189

Tales of Mystery and Imagination by Edgar Allan Poe, illustrated by Harry Clarke (London: G. G. Harrap; New York : Brentano's, 1923) 12703.i.44.

Betty Crocker's New Picture Cook Book. Decorations by Joseph Pearson (New York: McGraw Hill Book Co, 1961) Shelfmark: 07938.cc.33.

Death Makes a Holiday: a Cultural History of Halloween by David J Skal (New York, N.Y.: Bloomsbury, 2002) Shelfmark: m02/39931

Celebrating Ethnicity and Nation: American Festive Culture from the Revolution to the Early Twentieth Century edited by Geneviève Fabre, Jürgen Heideking and Kai Dreisbach (New York, NY: Berghahn Books, 2001)

Object Analysis of the Giant Pumpkin by Cindy Ott from Environmental History, Vol. 15, No. 4 (OCTOBER 2010), pp. 746-763 (18 pages)

How the Great Pumpkin Became Great by Jacqueline Mansky, Oct 21 2019

17 October 2019

Black History Month

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

 

 

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