American Collections blog

98 posts categorized "North America"

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
     
              

14 November 2019

Women and Buddhism in the United States

As many readers will know, the British Library’s Buddhism exhibition has just opened to hugely positive reviews. More than 120 items are on display, ranging from sacred texts written on tree bark, palm leaves and gold plate to stunning silk scrolls, illuminated books, historical artifacts and ritual objects used in Buddhist practice today. The items span 2000 years of history and, not surprisingly, most of them are Asian in origin.

Yet, the history of Buddhism in the United States is also fascinating and multi-layered. On one hand it includes traditional narratives of migration and assimilation on the part of those who moved there first from China, and then later, Japan, Korea and other countries in East Asia. On the other, it is also intimately – and perhaps, uniquely – entwined with the counterculture and ‘alternative’ Americas; with Transcendentalism, the Beats and hippies.

One little known story involves Elizabeth Palmer Peabody’s translation into English of passages of the Lotus Sutra; one of the most revered and important texts in Mahayana Buddhism. Published in the January 1844 issue of the Transcendentalist magazine, The Dial, it is possibly the first-ever translation into English of a Buddhist text.

Dial preaching of buddha

['The Preaching of Buddha', The Dial, January 1844, Vol. 4, no. 3, p. 391; British Library shelfmark: P.P.6376]

Perhaps not surprisingly, this was not the first time that The Dial – founded in 1840 and subtitled ‘A Magazine for Literature, Philosophy, and Religion’ – had published extracts from non-western writings. In July 1842, with Ralph Waldo Emerson at the helm, the journal had launched a column it later called ‘Ethnical Scriptures’. Jointly organised with Henry David Thoreau, the purpose of the column was to share ‘a series of selections from the oldest ethical and religious writings of men, exclusive of the Hebrew and Greek scriptures.’ 1 In his announcement, Emerson fervently expresses his hope that the world's bibles will soon be collated, thereby bringing together ‘the grand expressions of the moral sentiment in different ages and races, the rules for the guidance of life, the bursts of piety and of abandonment to the Invisible and Eternal.’ 2 

‘Ethnical Scriptures’ appears in The Dial nine times between July 1842 and April 1844 and includes selections from Indian, Persian, Chinese, and Egyptian sources. Unlike these other selections, however, the passages from the Lotus Sutra are not preceded by a commentary by Emerson or Thoreau. Instead, under the title ‘The Preaching of Buddha’, they begin with an extract from an article about the origins of Buddhism by the French scholar, Eugène Burnouf.

Burnouf, who is now regarded as the founder of Buddhist Studies, was at this time working on a translation of the Lotus Sutra from Sanskrit into French. To do so, he was using Nepalese manuscripts that had been sent to him by Brian Hodgson, a pioneer naturalist and ethnologist and an officer in the British East India Company. Burnouf's complete translation of the Lotus Sutra was published posthumously in 1852. However, in April and May 1843 he submitted two essays about Buddhism to La Revue Indépendante, a periodical edited in Paris by George Sand. Both essays included extracts from his translation, and it is these that provide the source material for ‘The Preaching of Buddha’.

Until quite recently, The Dial's translation of this material from French into English had been attributed to Thoreau. Now, however, it is widely credited to Elizabeth Palmer Peabody.

Elizabeth Peabody

[Elizabeth Palmer Peabody; date unknown. Image courtesy of WikiMedia Commons]

Scarcely known today, Elizabeth Peabody was born into one of New England’s oldest families. Like her sisters, Sophia and Mary – who respectively married Nathaniel Hawthorne and Horace Mann – she had a reading knowledge of multiple languages, including Greek which she learned as a teenager alongside Emerson. She was an early advocate of Transcendentalism and one of only two women in The Transcendental Club; the other being Margaret Fuller. She also pioneered the kindergarten movement in the United States and was one of the nation’s first female book printers.

In 1840, supported by a wealthy backer, Peabody founded the ‘E. P. Peabody Book Room and Foreign Library’ at the family home on West Street, in the South End of Boston.

E Peabody library

[The Boston Almanac, Vol. 3, no. 2, 1846, p.84; British Library shelfmark: P.P.2524.c.]

The Book Room quickly became a rendezvous for the Transcendentalists. Many of Margaret Fuller’s ‘Conversations’ were held here, and it was from here that Palmer printed later issues of The Dial and fought to keep the magazine financially afloat. The Book Room was also the first store in the United States to handle French and German periodicals and the first to establish a circulating library of foreign books and periodicals. For $5 per annum, subscribers would receive access to more than 900 titles.

Both as a business woman importing periodicals such as George Sand’s Revue, and as talented linguist at the heart of the Transcendentalist community and Boston’s cultural elite, Elizabeth Peabody was perfectly placed to translate a Buddhist text into English, possibly for the very first time in the world. That she is now receiving credit for have done so, is a surely a cause for celebration.

(1) The Dial, July 1842, Vol 3., no. 1, p. 82.

(2) ibid.

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.

 

 

 

03 October 2019

National Poetry Day

National Poetry Day is a UK-wide celebration of poetry held annually in October. The theme for 2019 is 'Truth' and this year also marks the 25th anniversary of the national event.  The British Library will be joining celebrations by hosting the Josephine Hart Poetry Hour in the evening of National Poetry Day with leading actors reading aloud the poetry of  Byron, Keats and Shelley. You can find out more information here.

On the theme of Truth, the Americas and Australasian team have put forward two of their favourite poems. The first marks truth in the sparseness of the text: a poem laid bare and stripped of punctuation and capitalisation.  The second offers truth in the language and the message: a bilingual poem for a bilingual country.

‘The Red Wheelbarrow’, found in Go Go by William Carlos Williams (New York: Monroe Wheeler, 1923), Cup.501.aa.35.

Chosen by Rachael (Curator, American Printed Collections Post 1850)

I love how Williams conveys such a vivid image with so few words in ‘The Red Wheelbarrow’, and the fact that whenever I think about the poem I’m able to picture not only the scene the words create, but the layout of the words themselves. To me, the poem is as striking to look at as its flow is to hear when you read it aloud. I can’t help but pause for breath whenever I finish it; it makes me think of how it’s possible to find beauty in even the simplest or most seemingly ‘every day’ of things. The poem first appeared in Spring and All in 1923, under the title ‘xxii’. In Go Go (pictured here) it has the title we are familiar with and is printed alongside Williams’s ‘The Hermaphroditic Telephones’, which was the first time this particular poem had ever been presented.

Tātai Whetū: Seven Māori Women Poets in Translation edited by Maraea Rakuraku and Vana Manasiadis (Wellington, New Zealand: Seraph Press, 2018) YD.2018.a.3672

Chosen by Lucy (Curator, Australasian Printed Collections Post 1850)


Cover image of book Tātai Whetū: Seven Māori Women Poets in Translation   Text of the poem Rākau by Alice Te Punga Somerville

Tātai Whetū is a delicately handbound chapbook in the Seraph Press Translation Series celebrating Māori writing and te reo Māori (the Māori language). This bilingual collection of poems from seven women writers has text in both te reo Māori and English. The featured poets are Anahera Gildea, Michelle Ngamoki, Tru Paraha, Kiri Piahana-Wong, Maraea Rakuraku, Dayle Takitimu and Alice Te Punga Somerville. Their poems have been translated by Hēmi Kelly, Te Ataahia Hurihanganui, Herewini Easton, Jamie Cowell, Vaughan Rapatahana and Dayle Takitimu

From this beautful collection, I have chosen the poem pictured above. Rākau is by Alice Te Punga Somerville, an indigenous scholar whose poem was selected for the 2018 publication of Best New Zealand Poems journal. The poem has been translated from English into te reo Māori by Te Ataahia Hurihanganui and you can listen to Rākau in both languages here on the Best New Zealand Poems site.  'Rākau' refers to both wood and a tree in the Māori language and the poem explores the link between the careful carving of wood and the acquisition of a language which has long been hidden in the learner.

Below is the poem in English.

We know that carvers coax something or someone
Who’s already there in the wood.
They remove small pieces of timber, one by one,
until it’s ready.

         
We both know a language is waiting inside my tongue.

Please put down the adze, the skillsaw, the file:
Speak gently to me so I can recognise what’s there.

No, don’t chip away at pink flesh and taste buds:
Oozing and swollen, I will choke on my blood
before you’re done.

The wood you’re trying to carve is still a tree.

 

 

23 September 2019

‘To Robert Frank I now give this message: You got eyes’

And who would disagree with Jack Kerouac’s assessment of the Swiss-born American photographer, who died at the age of 94 on 9th September. There have already been numerous obits etc on Frank by others more expert on the subject than me, so I thought I would just take a brief look at the publishing history of Frank’s most well-known book -The Americans.

Frank was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship in 1955 for his project 'to photograph freely throughout the United States, using the miniature camera exclusively…,' his application having gained support from a number of photographer luminaries such as Walker Evans and Edward Steichen. The funding enabled him to make several trips from New York over 1955/56, including one 8 month trip to the West Coast in a 1950 Ford Coupe. Frank took over 20,000 images on nearly 800 rolls of 35 mm film, many of them being processed and contact printed en route, which no doubt enabled him to more easily review and develop some of the themes which recur in his work – symbols of popular culture, race and class, religion, music etc. Frank later wrote “I have attempted to show a cross-section of the American population. My effort was to express it simply and without confusion. The view is personal….” (quoted in The Book of 101 Books, edited by Andrew Roth, PPP Editions, New York, 2001, p.150).

Thirty-three of these photos appeared at the end of 1957 in US Camera Annual, but Frank's intention had always been to produce a book. From his huge collection of images, he somehow managed to select just eighty-three photos, but finding a publisher proved to be even more difficult. It was Frank’s friend Robert Delpire, the influential Paris-based art publisher, editor and curator, who was eventually to publish ‘Les Américains’ in 1958. It’s interesting to take a closer look at this first edition since it’s a very different book to the later and much better known American edition, even though the photos and the sequence of them is exactly the same. Delpire had a strong interest in documentary photography - and his own distinct vision for the book. In addition to contributing his own writing, Alain Bosquet (poet, novelist and translator) gathered together texts by writers as diverse as Simone de Beauvoir, Erskine Caldwell, John Dos Passos, Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, Richard Wright, Walt Whitman and many many more to accompany the photos. Appearing in Delpire’s Encyclopédie Essentielle series in 1958, Les Américains also includes sections on significant dates in US history, population statistics, and encompasses themes such as politics, religion and so on. Frank’s photographs therefore become more like illustrations to a sociological and political text. Each photo faces a page of text and our reading of the photos is inevitably influenced by what appears in that text. As David Levi Strauss has commented, ‘That powerful image from Dolores Park in San Francisco where the African American couple turns toward the camera in anger is wholly influenced by the facing page quotes from Faulkner and John Brown (The Book of 101 Books as above). As you will also see from the below image, no photograph was included on the cover, rather it has some drawings by Saul Steinberg.

2IMG_20190916_1422342
Les Américains. Photographies de Robert Frank [RF.2017.a.63]

It’s not surprisingly that Frank wasn’t overly happy about this edition, and sought to persuade Grove Press to publish an American edition. Fortunately he was successful and this time all the texts were removed, not least because some of them were considered too critical of the US, un-American in fact. For this we can be thankful. As already mentioned, the eighty-three photos and their sequencing remain the same, but now each photo is opposite a white page, blank save for a small caption which provides the location of each image (much like the format of Walker Evans’ earlier and influential American Photographs, which Frank so admired). Now we have the space to appreciate the photographs and we can interpret just as we want all those images of flags, funerals, cars, jukeboxes and so on. The one other difference is that this edition, of course, carries an introduction by Jack Kerouac. The two men had met at a party in 1957 and Frank had shown Kerouac some of the photos from his road trips. It’s not hard to imagine why they had appealed to Kerouac, whose novel On The Road appeared in September of that year. ‘The humor, the sadness, the EVERYTHING-ness and American-ness of these pictures!’ The introduction is an almost perfect accompaniment, and also helped to situate Frank as a part of the Beat Generation. In fact, by the time the edition appeared in 1959, Frank was already exploring the medium of film and was making Pull My Daisy with Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso et al.

Surprising as it might now seem, the reception of The Americans on publication was quite mixed. Some people loved it, but it also attracted a lot of criticism, both for the quality of the images (described as blurry and grainy) but also some considered it to promote a too negative view of America. It is also hard to believe that the MOMA bookshop even refused to stock it at first. Of course now it has become one of the most influential and celebrated photobooks of the Twentieth Century. As David Campany has written, it was a survey of ‘all that seemed uncomfortable in the American psyche, captured by a photographer with a rare ability to turn the most unpromising moments into new symbols,’ describing it as the ‘visual equivalent to jazz’. (David Campany, The Open Road, Aperture, 2014, p.25). The jazz analogy often appears in writing on the book, and I particularly like this sentence on the sequencing of the photos from Martin Parr and Gerry Badger’s The Photobook: a history, vol. 1. ‘Ideas ebb and flow, are introduced, discarded, recapitulated, transfigured, transposed, played off and piled up against each other with the exuberant energy of a Charlie Parker saxophone solo.’ (Phaidon 2004, p.247).

Sadly the BL does not have a copy of the first edition of The Americans since what we now refer to as photobooks were usually not considered for acquisition for the old reference collections in the past. Consequently, the only copies of many American photobooks that we have are often in what used to be the old lending collections. Some gaps have been filled more recently but first editions are usually too expensive these days as they have become so collectable. At the end of the day, it’s the images that you want so reprints still work for many purposes.  In this case, the Library has an Aperture edition from 1969 (shelfmark AL69/4991) which includes a section of filmstrip images at the end (Frank comments that they ‘represent for me the continuation of my work’) plus several later reprints and editions. We do, however, have Les Américains (Shelfmark RF.2017.a.63). David Levi Strauss has said that ‘The French edition is sociology, the American edition is poetry.’ You can look at them both and decide for yourself.

I started with Kerouac so I’ll end with him too:

‘Robert Frank, Swiss, unobtrusive, nice, with that little camera that he raises and snaps with one hand he sucked a sad poem right out of America onto film, taking rank among the tragic poets of the world!’

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(above copy of The Americans is my own copy of the 50th anniversary edition, published by Steidl in 2008)

 

By Carole Holden

06 August 2019

A tribute to Toni Morrison

In the midst of the very sad news that author Toni Morrison passed away on 5 August 2019, aged 88 years old, we shine a light on one of Morrison’s many items held in the Library’s collection: the beautiful, ‘Five Poems’ – a fine press book with illustrations by Kara Walker.

Toni Morrison was born Chloe Anthony Wofford on 18 February 1931 in Lorain, Ohio. Her portrayal of the black female experience through her writing has moved readers around the world for more than 50 years, and will continue to do so. The Bluest Eye was published in 1970 and would become a Nobel Prize winner, and further bestselling novels would follow, namely Song of Solomon (1977), Beloved (1987) and Jazz (1992). It was not long before Morrison and her work were established firmly as ‘part of the fabric of American life … woven into high school syllabuses up and down the country’ (Richard Lea, The Guardian). Alongside her Nobel Prize, Morrison would be honoured with the Pulitzer Prize and a Presidential Medal of Freedom in celebration of her literary achievements during her lifetime.

Photograph of slipcase and cover of Toni Morrison 'Five Poems'
Slipcase and cover detail for Five Poems by Toni Morrison with silhouettes by Kara E. Walker, Las Vegas: Rainmaker Editions, 2002.

Upon joining the Americas Team just one month ago, one of the first treasures a colleague introduced me to was Five Poems (RF.2019.b.96) – a breath-taking fine press book compiled of Toni Morrison’s words and illustrations by Kara Walker. As I began to turn the pages, I was intrigued (and blown away) to say the least. ‘I never knew Toni Morrison wrote poetry’ I thought, careful not to share out loud for fear of making a fool of myself in front of my new team of experts. But upon closer investigation of the book, I realised there was perhaps a reason for this oversight of mine…

Photograph of title page of Five Poems
Title page for Five Poems by Toni Morrison with silhouettes by Kara E. Walker, Las Vegas: Rainmaker Editions, 2002.

Published in a limited run by Rainmaker Editions of Las Vegas, between the large books’ pages readers will be entranced by ‘Eve Remembering’, ‘The Perfect Ease of Grain’, ‘Someone Leans Near’, ‘It Comes Unadorned’ and ‘I Am Not Seaworthy’. Five short poems which compile Morrison’s only poetry book, alongside them are silhouette illustrations from the New York-based artist, Kara Walker.

Reading an article by Stephanie Li (‘Five Poems: The Gospel According to Toni Morrison’) in a bid to find out more, it transpires that, at the time of Li's research, ‘in the numerous interviews Morrison has given since the publication of Five Poems she [Morrison] has never mentioned the book or discussed her approach to writing poetry’ (p 899).

Photograph of Toni Morrison's 'Even Remembering' with silhouette print of a woman, by Kara Walker
‘Eve Remembering’ from Five Poems by Toni Morrison with silhouettes by Kara E. Walker, Las Vegas: Rainmaker Editions, 2002.

The book is said to have come about thanks to Wole Soyinka (the playwright, poet and essayist) who invited ‘Morrison … on behalf of Rainmaker Editions to submit an original unpublished manuscript. Morrison sent five short poems, the full text of the collection’ (p 899). Upon receiving the manuscript, the book’s designer, Peter Rutledge Koch, suggested that illustrations be included as well. Si explains that Kara Walker, whose work explores themes of gender, race and ethnicity, has often praised Morrison and the influence the author had on Walker’s own creativity; Koch saw the potential for the two artists’ work to complement each other in this endeavour. Walker was contacted and the book was made with Morrison’s words and Walker’s five relief prints side by side.

This edition is one of the 425 issues printed and has been signed by the author, illustrator and binder. It really is a fusion of skill, care and total masterfulness from across the United States. Alongside the contributions from Morrison and Walker, Peter Koch Printers printed letterpress from digital imaging and photo-polymer plates in Berkley, California, while the binding and housing was done by Jace Graf at Cloverleaf Studio, Austen, Texas. It’s a work of art in every sense.

Photograph of Toni Morrison's ‘It Comes Unadorned’ with silhouette print of a woman, by Kara Walker
‘It Comes Unadorned’ from Five Poems by Toni Morrison with silhouettes by Kara E. Walker, Las Vegas: Rainmaker Editions, 2002.

It is with great sadness that we have lost one of the world’s, not just America’s, most prolific writers. As chance would have it I’m currently reading Jazz and I’ll be sure to savour Morrison’s storytelling even more than normal during the commute home this evening, on a train journey that will be tinged with more than a little melancholy.  

[RSW]

05 August 2019

A Tour of Indigenous London

Tee Yee Neen Ho Ga Row portrait

Above: 'Tee Yee Neen Ho Ga Row, Emperor of the Six Nations' from Add MS 5253.

On July 22nd, the Eccles Centre was pleased to host a group of students from the University of British Columbia’s Institute for Critical Indigenous Studies, who were visiting London as part of their course led by former Eccles Visiting Fellow, Professor Coll Thrush. The plan for the day, however, was a little bit different from our usual student visit days. As part of our work with the Beyond the Spectacle project, we wanted to go beyond the usual collections display and highlight research being done on these collections and how students and members of the public could take a lead role in disseminating the findings of this research.

The day started with some of the Library’s more historic items. The Library’s founder collectors, especially King George III, Sir Hans Sloane and Thomas Grenville, had a strong interest in North America and, as a result, collected significant works relating to the indigenous peoples of Canada, the Caribbean and the United States. A significant part of the Library’s eighteenth-century collections are various materials relating to the ‘Four Indian Kings’ a visiting delegation from the nations of the Mohawk and the Mahican during the reign of Queen Anne. Etow Oh Koam, Sa Ga Yeath Qua Pieth Tow, Ho Nee Yeath Taw No Row and Tee Yee Ho Ga Row journeyed to England and London to make their case for greater support and interest from the monarch and their words were variously recorded and distributed. There were also illustrations made of the delegation, some crude and westernised while others, such as those found in the collection of Hans Sloane and reproduced here, are detailed and vivid. The display also highlighted the breadth of Library collections that speak to the history of contact between indigenous nations, North American colonists and Europeans, with material spread across the Library’s manuscript, map, newspaper, printed book and other collections.

Indigenous London display

Above: the display taking shape. Image by Cara Rodway.

These collections, specifically those relating to indigenous travellers to Britain across the centuries, are being used by the Beyond the Spectacle project, on which the Eccles Centre and other British Library colleagues are partners. In the second half of the day researchers from the project, Jack Davy and Kate Rennard, worked with Roberta Wedge, who frequently runs Wikipedia editathon days with the Library, to illustrate how collections such as those at the Library can be used for research and to improve the information found on public websites and encyclopaedias, such as Wikipedia. It is not unfair to say that some of the students started this part of the day dubious as to how they could use their learning and recent research to update something like Wikipedia but the day provided openings to a different perspective. Roberta’s work with Wikipedia and organising group edits of Wikipedia pages focusses on how the site can only reach its full potential if a wide range of individuals, publics and perspectives are contributing to the editing process. If this can be achieved, the content of Wikipedia and other online forums will reflect the diversity of the world in which we live and its complex history.

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Above: students from the group researching and editing. Image by Phil Hatfield.

Part of the afternoon focussed on encouraging students to conduct their own research, based on the display from earlier in the day and using online archives and resources to dig into some of the other materials the Beyond the Spectacle project has been using. We are grateful to the British Newspaper Archive and Adam Matthew (creator of the American Indian Newspapers database) who both provided access to students on the day so they could engage with the materials held in their collections and use them in research and editing. Students used these materials to update entries on a number of Wikipedia pages, adding information to the page, ‘Four Mohawk Kings’, the page for St. Olave’s Church (London), setting up a new page on the playwright and actor Gowongo Mohawk and making a number of other edits.

By the end of the day many of the students were motivated by the realisation of how much agency they have to develop content on sites like Wikipedia and excited by the new research skills they had learnt by using the resources of the British Newspaper Archive and Adam Matthew. For me a favourite moment was when a student, asked how the day had influenced their perspective on Wikipedia noted that now, ‘Wikipedia is my new stomping ground’. The day showed the potential of supporting students and other researchers in gaining access to historic and digitised collections, it also highlighted how the knowledge gained from these can contribute to influential public sites. We hope to run similar events again, on a wide range of subjects, and thank Adam Matthew, the British Newspaper Archive, Wikipedia, Beyond the Spectacle and UBC for their support and partnership.

[PJH]

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