Americas and Oceania Collections blog

142 posts categorized "North America"

05 July 2022

US Radicals in Revolutionary Mexico

Owen Walsh is a Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Aberdeen and was a 2021 Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow at the British Library.

NB: This article contains historical images and descriptions relating to slavery which readers may find upsetting.

‘We are not safe in the United States’, warned the Jewish intellectual Anita Brenner in 1943, ‘without taking Mexico into account’. This fact of North American interdependence, she argued, ‘is something that Mexicans have long known, with dread, but that few Americans have had to look at.’1

My research at the British Library has been motivated by a conviction that scholars of US culture and political radicalism in the early-mid twentieth century have too often averted their gaze from Mexico while chronicling the making of an internationalist American Left. The Mexican revolutionary era, spanning c. 1910-1940, was the first major revolution of the twentieth century and a key moment in the unfolding of the global anticolonial struggle. The Revolution’s cultural legacy was described by Brenner and other contemporary critics as nothing less than ‘the first great modern art created in America’.2

My work in the British Library marks the start of a project in which I explore the travel experiences and writings of Leftist US intellectuals in revolutionary Mexico. The project traces the impact of Mexico, its rapidly changing culture and its inspired people, on radical cultural formations (New Negro writing, the proletarian literature movement) in the interwar United States. The rare books and radical journals contained in the British Library’s collections have been indispensable for this work.

The list of figures who might be included in a history of American travel in revolutionary Mexico is long and distinguished. Leftist journalists John Reed, Lincoln Steffens, and Ernest Gruening wrote sympathetic and romantic reports of the political and military struggles of the era. Future leading Communists Mike Gold, Charles Shipman, and Lovett Fort-Whiteman passed through the country and participated in the germination of revolutionary labour unionism and embryonic Party organisation. Major writers of American modernism including John Dos Passos and Langston Hughes found inspiration in Mexico and mixed with the cosmopolitan cultural networks around Mexico City.

During the most violent phase of the revolution in the 1910s, most of the American visitors were journalists seeking an unmediated view of the chaotic cascade of conflicts – over land, liberty, and individual egos – which together constitute the Mexican Revolution. Through the 1920s and 1930s, political and cultural pilgrims flocked to Mexico. They were often escaping persecution, but they also sought to witness and report on the social conflicts that continued to convulse their southern neighbour and to draw inspiration in their own mission to build a modern, socialist cultural order in the US.

In this short post, I want to focus on one of the earliest and most influential accounts of Mexican society in the era of revolution. Published in 1911, Barbarous Mexico (Chicago: Charles Kerr & Co.; British Library shelfmark 10481.pp.11), was a sensational exposé of life under the rule of the pre-revolutionary dictator Porfirio Díaz. It was the product of investigative reportage by John Kenneth Turner with the help of Lázaro Gutiérrez de Lara. It helped to ignite a movement in support of the radical Magón brothers (Mexican revolutionaries imprisoned in the US) and informed American sympathies with the Mexican Revolution for years to come.

Turner journeyed to Mexico in the immediate pre-revolutionary period, in 1908 and 1909, after hearing rumours of slavery prevailing in large swathes of the country, which was under the political and financial domination of US capitalism. Much of his reporting was done undercover, using disguises and employing the anti-Díaz activist Gutiérrez de Lara to help bridge cultural gaps, build networks, and provide translations. Turner’s travels took him across Mexico, from the Yucatán peninsula, where the henequen plantations were worked by indigenous Yaqui people enslaved after defeat in their war with the Mexican state, to Valle Nacional in Oaxaca, ‘the worst slave hole in Mexico’, where a racially mixed population were forced to labour on tobacco farms by the mostly Cuban planters and the Porfirian state authorities.3

A woman wearing a white shirt and long black skirt carrying a child on her back and standing in front on a spikey, fan-shaped plant that is taller than she is.
Photographic image from John Kenneth Turner, Barbarous Mexico. Chicago: Charles Kerr & Co., 1911. British Library shelfmark: 10481.pp.11. [With Turner's captions.]


Throughout Barbarous Mexico, Turner was concerned to connect the problem of slavery in Mexico with American policy. Turner’s definition of slavery was somewhat specific and limited: ‘the ownership of the body of a man, an ownership so absolute that the body can be transferred to another, an ownership that gives to the owner a right to take the products of that body, to starve it, to chastise it at will, to kill it with impunity.’4 But in Barbarous Mexico, Turner explores slavery in various subtle forms, including the informal trading of people that occurred under the legal guise of debt peonage. Indeed, in his introductory remarks Turner’s use of the slippery term ‘slavery’ went so far as to describe the imperial relationship between the two North American republics in the same terms. The US, Turner wrote, ‘enslaves the Mexican nation’ while the US media collaborated with the Porfiriato to keep ‘the American public in ignorance’.5 Such political arrangements, Turner is careful to point out, is what defines Mexico as ‘barbarous’, rather than any deficiency of its people.6

A bare-chested man, wearing a hessian-type hat and trousers and carrying a basket on his back, stands in front of small, round-shaped dwelling with a straw roof.
Photographic image from John Kenneth Turner, Barbarous Mexico. Chicago: Charles Kerr & Co., 1911. British Library shelfmark: 10481.pp.11. [With Turner's captions.]

Despite its republican trappings, Díaz’s Mexico had discarded constitutional rule and the rights ‘which all enlightened men agree are necessary for the unfolding of a nation’.7 Confronted with such a nation, Turner presciently wrote that the ‘country is on the verge of a revolution in favor of democracy’.8 When the Revolution did come, Turner was a leading figure in the US solidarity movement, and he went on to pen a book-length argument against US intervention.

The concerns in Barbarous Mexico with republican principle and democratic rule override any specifically socialist propagandising in Turner’s account. But his work could only find an audience via the socialist press. Turner’s despatches were published first in the Socialist Party-aligned newspaper Appeal to Reason. The success of these articles opened a route for him to publish in the liberal American Magazine, which soon closed due to the backlash fuelled by the well-funded Porfiriato lobby. The only publisher who accepted Turner’s book was the socialist Charles H. Kerr and Co.

The role Turner and his Appeal to Reason comrades played in exposing forced labour in Mexico demonstrates the continuous histories of socialist, abolitionist, and anti-imperialist politics in the US. In making his report on slavery in the province of Yucatán, Turner’s mind repeatedly returned to ‘the slaves of our southern states before the Civil War’.9 The comparison invites us to imagine that Turner was consciously mimicking the abolitionist journalism of nineteenth-century journals such as William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator. Like his abolitionist forebears, Turner sought to puncture the well-funded lies of a southern slaveocracy with terrifying reports and haunting visual evidence of injustice and brutality carried out with the sanction of the US state.

To the right of the image is a large, white washed brick building; to the left are over 100 people standing in lines while in front of them are several people on horseback.
Photographic image from John Kenneth Turner, Barbarous Mexico. Chicago: Charles Kerr & Co., 1911. British Library shelfmark: 10481.pp.11. [With Turner's captions.]

Many of the thematic concerns, rhetorical strategies, and ideological negotiations that operate in Turner’s important text continued to be visible in writing by American radicals on Mexico for many years. Time and again, American radicals called on their readers to look favourably on the Revolution, to oppose US meddling in Mexican affairs, and to visualise the Mexican people as a noble and patriotic mass struggling for freedoms that were already familiar – and dearly held – to most Americans. Such appeals combined mainstream republican principles with the radical thrust of American socialism, and were often aided by Mexican Leftists who deeply understood the vulnerabilities and opportunities that come with being a subordinate neighbour to the US.

Notes:

1. Anita Brenner, The Wind That Swept Mexico: The History of the Mexican Revolution 1910-1942 (Austin and London: University of Texas Press, 1971) p. 3.(British Library shelfmark X.800/5804).
2. Brenner, p. 65.
3. John Kenneth Turner, Barbarous Mexico (Chicago: Charles Kerr & Co., 1911) p. 67 (British Library shelfmark: 10481.pp.11); Claudio Lomnitz, The Return of Comrade Ricardo Flores Magón (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2014) p. 161 (British Library shelfmark: YC.2014.a.6131).
4. Turner, p. 16.
5. Turner, Preface.
6. Turner, Preface.
7. Turner, p. 11.
8. Turner, p. 10.
9. Turner, pp. 34-5.

17 June 2022

The British Library’s Canadian Copyright Collection: An Introduction

This new series will shine a light on the British Library’s Canadian Copyright Collection.

The British Library’s Canadian Copyright Collection occupies a unique and quite intriguing place in its Canadian holdings. As well as books and periodicals, it includes maps, sheet music, insurance plans, photographs, and city and area directories, and its comprehensive nature means it offers a vital window into Canadian life and culture between 1895 and 1923. Yet, why does the Library have this Collection? And how can researchers make the most of it?

In this introductory blog, we will answer the first question; subsequent blogs will then illuminate different aspects of the holdings. However, we cannot begin the series without acknowledging the invaluable contribution of Patrick B. O’Neill – Canadian theatre historian and bibliographer extraordinaire.

In the 1970s, O’Neill began work on a research project to illuminate the full corpus of Canadian drama. Quite quickly, he ran into all sorts of obstacles. Yet he was nothing if not tenacious. In 1979, his quest for printed copies of playscripts published in Canada brought him to the British Library and here his conversations with curators – and their conversations with long-retired colleagues – led to the “re-discovery” of the Canadian Copyright Collection in its entirety. Several years later, O’Neill – then professor at Mount Saint Vincent University – returned to the Library on sabbatical to document the collection and it is thanks to his painstaking work, and that of several Dalhousie University colleagues, that it is so accessible today.

In a wonderfully clear and informative article, O’Neill recounts that the genesis of the Copyright Collection lay in an 1895 amendment to the Canadian Copyright Act of 1875.1 Up until 1895, obtaining copyright under Canadian law had involved meeting two conditions. First, the literary, scientific or artistic work had to be published and printed or reprinted in Canada. Second, two copies of the work – be it a book, map, chart, musical composition, photograph, print, cut or engraving – had to be deposited at the Office of the Minister of Agriculture. The 1875 Act instructed the Minister to deposit one copy of the work in the Library of Parliament and to retain the other copy in the Copyright Office.

Map of a town, mainly in black ink, sectioned into separate squares for each property, some are coloured in yellow or pink, depending on the material used in their construction.
Fire insurance plan for Medicine Hat, Alberta. 1910. Part of the British Library's Canadian Copyright Collection. British Library shelfmark: Maps.146.b.48.(25)

In 1895, Section Ten of this Act was amended to require that three copies be sent to this Minister, and this third copy was to be forwarded to the Library of the British Museum. Thankfully, the Department of Agriculture appears to have been extraordinarily diligent in ensuring that these third copies reached the UK. Indeed, O’Neill notes that the "Canadian Copyright Lists" (that were found in the office of that retired member of staff and later used by O’Neill to document the collection) indicated nearly 100% receipt of the material copyrighted in Canada between 1895 and 1923. And the Department’s diligence would prove even more significant in light of subsequent events at the other two repositories.

In 1916, the Library of Parliament suffered its first of two disastrous fires, with the second one occurring in 1953. In both cases, water damage caused more destruction than the fires themselves and although its copyright collection was not totally destroyed, it was seriously depleted.

The Copyright Office Collection fared even worse. Having drawn a blank in finding any trace of this collection himself, O’Neill resorted to writing to his then Member of Parliament, the Hon. Robert Stanfield, to find out what had happened. Stanfield’s response arrived within 24 hours, but was far from encouraging. It appears that in 1937 the Copyright Office was due to move premises. Given that the new offices lacked enough space for its collection, advice was sought on how to proceed. The Committee of the Privy Council’s assessment was that few of the "several thousands of volumes of books, catalogues, periodical pamphlets, sheet music, maps" had any value. An Order-in-Council (whose signatories included then Prime Minister Mackenzie-King) therefore ordered that the material be offered for selection to the Secretary of State Library; anything remaining after that was to be disposed of by the Copyright Library. In total, the former chose 155 books of prominent Canadian statesmen and some 60 volumes of Canadian fiction. The remaining 50,000+ items in this copyright collection seem to have been destroyed.

Given these events, it is not surprising that the British Library now holds the most complete record of Canadian printing and publishing – in French and English, and in all its manifestations – for the period between 1895 and 1923. The reason for this particular cut-off date was that on 1 January 1924, the Canadian copyright Act of 1921 came into force and it no longer required items to be deposited in repositories in Canada or elsewhere. It should be noted that this was later amended by a 1931 bill that required publishers to send two copies of all books published in Canada to the Library of Parliament, thereby forming the basis of a Canadian national library.

Next time, we will focus on the sheet music published in Canada during this time, and in subsequent blogs we will explore maps, city and directories, insurance plans (more fascinating than one might initially imagine!) and photographs…

Notes

1. Patrick B. O'Neill, From Theatre History to Canadiana: The Canadian Deposit Collection in the British Library. Papers of the Bibliographical Society of Canada, Vol. 25, No. 1, 1986

31 May 2022

E-Resources on European Colonization in the Americas to c.1650

In the latest of our blogs on digital resources for Americas Studies, the Eccles Centre's Philip Abraham looks at the early period of European contact and invasion of the Americas. Remember, once you have your Reader Pass a number of these e-resources can be accessed remotely, from the comfort of your own home.

The emergence of what many scholars now think of as Vast Early America during the early modern period is one of the central pivots of global history. [1] The emergence of an Atlantic world during the two centuries after 1450 was a complex and truly transnational phenomenon, which involved the transfer and circulation (often violent and coerced) of peoples, plants, animals, goods and ideas between Europe, Africa and the Americas.

Because this moment involved so many different kinds of people and things scattered across three continents, it is also a subject that particularly benefits from the development of digital platforms. Digital technology allows researchers to bring together documents and sources from institutions and repositories from around the world in a way that was only possible for the most privileged researchers in the analogue age. These platforms often also include features like maps and infographics which help students and researchers to visualize the movements and voyages that are so fundamental to understanding these histories.

This blog is going to focus on some of the more specialized digital platforms and resources available through the British Library, but it is always worth remembering that some of the more general resources for the humanities (and early modern studies in particular) have a lot to offer. [2]

 

Bibliographies

For building a bibliography, general resources that have been mentioned elsewhere, like the Hispanic American Periodicals Index, America: History & Life and the Bibliography of British and Irish History (which, despite the name, also covers the British Empire in North America and the Caribbean, and Britain's military, economic and diplomatic relations with Latin America) are indispensable starting points. These platforms rely on keywords searches, however, which is great if you have a fairly specific idea of what you are looking for, but less useful if you’re entering a subject for the first time and would like a bit more guidance. For those new to the subject, the best jumping off point for building a reading list are the annotated bibliographies in Atlantic History available through Oxford Bibliographies. Assembled by world-leading experts and covering 360 themes ranging from ‘African Retailers and Small Artisans’ to ‘Dreams and Dreaming’ in the Atlantic world, it is an eclectic but extremely inspiring way into the subject.

A screengrab of the 'Dreams and Dreaming' bibliography page on the 'Oxford Bibliographies' website
The 'Dreams and Dreaming in the Atlantic World' bibliography prepared by Prof. Ann Marie Plane (University of California Santa Barbara), available through "Oxford Bibliographies"

Primary Sources

Again, many of the general platforms for early modern studies offer important pathways into the subject of Europe’s overseas expansion. Early English Books Online (which has a digitized copy of almost every book printed in the British Isles and North America before 1700) is invaluable if you are interested in the ideas that animated England’s engagement with the Atlantic, as you can retrieve texts like Richard Hakluyt’s foundational treatise, Principal Navigations, Voyages and Discoveries of the English Nation, at the click of a button.

A digitised imaged of the title page of the second edition (1598) of Richard Hakluyt's "Principal Navigations", as viewed through the online viewing platform EEBO
The title page of the second edition (1598) of Richard Hakluyt's "Principal Navigations", as viewed through EEBO

EEBO (as those in the know call it!) is an amazing achievement but again, it rewards those that know what they are looking for. European Views of the Americas, 1493-1750 similarly does not easily facilitate browsing but is a really useful gateway into online primary sources for more experienced researchers. There are no comparable resources available through the British Library in languages other than English, however, so if you want to get a more pan-European, indeed pan-Atlantic, perspective, some of the specially curated platforms are very useful.

Its somewhat old-fashioned (indeed, some might say problematically euphemistic) title notwithstanding, Age of Exploration, c. 1420-1920 is a really dynamic and compelling way into the subject, and has a number of really useful features. It has hundreds of documents relating to Europe’s colonization of the Americas (as well as Europe’s colonization of other regions of the world, as it is not focused solely on the Atlantic), organized into collections and themes to make browsing much easier. A particularly useful feature are the interactive maps, which not only chart the routes taken by some of the most significant voyages of exploration during this period, but connects these to fascinating primary sources. For instance, the map plotting William Baffin’s second voyage (March – August 1616) in search of the fabled Northwest Passage connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans links to a full digitization of his account of the journey and the log of the voyage. [3]

A map of the world focussed on the North Atlantic, showing in pink the course of William Baffin's journey from Gravesend in England, northwest to Greenland and Arctic Canada, and then back to Dover
William Baffin's second voyage, as viewed on "Age of Exploration"
A page of a seventeenth-century mariner's log book for the month of May - a table with rows representing days and columns representing direction, distance, wind direction, latitude, longitude, and variation.
William Baffin's logbook for May 1615, as downloaded from "Age of Exploration"


Other documentary highlights include a digitized copy of Antonio de la Ascensión’s 220 page account of Sebastián Vizcaíno’s voyage along the coast of California in 1602-1603, and an equally long manuscript describing the conquistador Pedro de Valdivia’s subjugation of Chile in the 1540s.

Age of Exploration also features videos by leading scholars introducing a number of topics, as well as essays and biographies of several major white European men involved in the exploration and invasion of the Americas. Other curated platforms that similarly offer in-depth access to select primary sources together with helpful editorial or secondary interpretive material include Global Commodities: Trade, Exploration & Cultural Exchange, which uses datasets, documents and maps relating to 15 raw and manufactured goods such as fur, silver and gold, sugar and coffee as ways into global history. Empire Online covers the British Empire from a broad range of perspectives. Obviously, the African and Indigenous experiences need to be brought into view before a full picture of the emergence of the early modern Americas can be made, but these resources on European travel, war-making, trade and early settlement are a good starting point.

 


[1] This notion was developed by the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, and is very well articulated by former Director Karin Wulf here.

[2] This blog will not deal in depth with digital resources concerned with the Atlantic slave trade, or the Indigenous American experience of European colonization. Look out for blogs that will deal with these themes in the future.

[3] This happens to a British Library manuscript. William Baffin, True Relation of his Fourth Voyage for the discovery of a north-west passage, in the year 1615; preceded by the Log of the voyage, Add MS 12206.

23 May 2022

The Revolution Will Be Sexualized

John G. McCurdy is Professor of History at Eastern Michigan State University, and was a 2021 Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow at the British Library.

What was it like for homosexual men in the era of the American Revolution? For the past few years, I have been trying to answer this question. Little has been written about same-sex intimacy in the eighteenth century and almost no one has attempted to connect homosexuality to the creation of the United States.

Specifically, I have been researching the case of British Lieutenant Robert Newburgh who was accused of buggery in 1774 and faced a court martial. Newburgh’s case (which I found at the William L. Clements Library at the University of Michigan and at the UK's National Archives at Kew) is highly detailed. It is full of homophobic stereotypes but also a stirring defense of sexual freedom that was centuries ahead of its time.

In February and March 2022, I was privileged to spend four weeks at the British Library thanks to the generous support of the Eccles Centre for American Studies. Although I had already located most of the materials related to Newburgh’s case, I needed to contextualize his trial. How typical was his court martial and how did it compare to contemporary British military legal actions? Also, how did people in the eighteenth-century Anglo Atlantic talk about same-sex intimacy? Fortunately, I found a great deal of information at the British Library!

I spent my first two weeks going through manuscripts. The Download Haldimand guide are an especially rich collection that I strongly encourage all researchers to take a look at. Frederick Haldimand was commander in chief of North America from 1773 to 1774 and governor general of Canada from 1778 to 1786. Accordingly, he collected all types of reports about life and events during the American War for Independence. Although Newburgh’s letters to Haldimand were the only ones to mention homosexuality, I found information on other courts martial, marriage and families, and unusual individuals who ran afoul of the British establishment.

There are many interesting stories that I found in Haldimand Papers. In 1781, Stephen Tuttle wrote to Haldimand asking for his help finding his wife. Apparently, Tuttle’s wife had “entertained” some American rebels and then run away with his money. I also found the court martial of Ensigns Archibald MacDonnell and Stephen Blackader for fighting with a Canadian colonist. The colonist—who was a French speaker—called the two officers “foutre” and “Bougre” (fucker and buggerer). Also in the Haldimand Papers, I located several letters from Rev. Thomas Charles Hessop Scott. Like Newburgh, Scott was an army chaplain who found himself on the outs with the officers. Although Scott was heterosexual, he was forced out of the army when he defended civilians against soldiers’ theft and criticized his commanding officer.

I also scoured the manuscripts for any mention of homosexuality. In the Harley Papers, I located transcriptions of late-seventeenth-century accounts such as “Jenny Cromwell’s Complaint against Sodomy” which condemns England for encouraging vice, as well as “Petition of Hassan a Turk” in which a Muslim asks King William III to set aside his execution for sodomy because of cultural differences. The Miscellaneous Papers and the Morley Papers include accounts of “macaroni”: a term applied to fashionable young men in the 1770s. Many writers lampooned the macaroni as queer, that is, either asexual or homosexual. Finally, the Sloane Papers contain accounts of John Atherton who introduced the sodomy law to Ireland and was also the first man to be executed under the law.

A satirical image of a dandyish man emerging from an egg, wearing a fancy coat, with fancy hair and holding a cane above his head. The accompanying poem reads: “Behold a monster bursting to the view / Nor Turk, nor Christian, Pagan he nor Jew; No Sawney Scot, Welsh Taff or Irish Honey / But Manhood’s jest – a London macaroni!”
“Frontispiece” from John Cooke, The Macaroni Jester, and Pantheon of Wit (London: Cooke, [1773]). Shelfmark: 012331.e.126.

In my third week at the British Library, I moved on to the Rare Books and Music room. I quickly discovered many pamphlets, plays, and books that discussed homosexuality. Not surprisingly, most portrayals were negative and mocking. Satan’s Harvest Home from 1749 fretted over the preponderance of “vile Catamites” (a classical reference to homosexuals), which it blamed on the current fashion of “Men kissing each other.” This pamphlet also contains one of the few references to lesbianism, which the author terms “the Game of Flatts.” I also found sermons against sodomy, the play The Macaroni: A Comedy, and attacks on Samuel Foote who was accused of having sex with another man.

An image of an eighteenth-century gentleman wearing a mid-length frock coat, breeches, a tricorner hat and carrying a cane.
“Ganymede” from Sodom and Onan, a Satire Inscrib’d to [Samuel Foote,] Esqr., Alias, the Devil upon Two Sticks [1772]. Shelfmark: 11642 g.15.

Yet not all of the accounts are entirely negative. I was delighted to find The State of the Case of Captain Jones from 1772, a pamphlet who urged that King George III to pardon a man who had been convicted of sex with another man. Although the author believed that sodomy was a capital crime, he nevertheless made an appeal for compassion and the rule of law over mob violence. I also found An Address from the Ladies from 1754, a mocking account of an Irish archbishop who fell from power over rumors that he had a male lover. Pretending to be letters between the two men, the correspondence made the case for an acceptance of homosexuality with classical allusions including: “You may read Virgil and there you’ll find he was one of us.”

Since returning to America, I have been sorting through my findings. These will greatly enrich my findings and will certainly appear in my forthcoming book on Robert Newburgh and what his case can tell us about homosexuality in the American Revolution. I am grateful to the Eccles Centre and the British Library for giving me this wonderful opportunity.

19 May 2022

Cross-media Research: Searching for Poets, Painters and Photographers

Diederik Oostdijk is Professor of English and American Literature at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and was a 2021 Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow at the British Library.

The British Library is an excellent place to do cross-media research. During my research stint, I intended to study the working relationship between poets and visual artists, especially Ted Hughes (1930-1998) and Leonard Baskin (1922-2000). As a consequence, I spent most of my time in the Manuscripts Reading Room where papers of both are held. In addition to finding many relevant letters and manuscript drafts that reveal how the English poet and American artist collaborated, I found plenty of doodles and drawings that showed the genesis of several books on which the two worked together. The detailed finding aids on the British Library website often describe these, but they cannot do justice to the experience of seeing this visual material in person. In order to take photographs or have scans made, it is necessary to acquire permission from the copyright holders, so it is advisable to seek this before making the trip to the British Library. It is much more of an ordeal to do that after visiting.

The British Library’s holdings of fine press materials was equally relevant for my research, but to check these out I needed to go one floor down, to the Rare Books & Music Reading Room.1 Hughes and Baskin collaborated on many books that were published by their own publishers, Eremite Press and Gehenna Press, respectively. The leather bindings containing the richly illustrated books printed on handmade paper are sights to behold. Some of the fine presses were short lived and have remained obscure, but they often presented young authors with their first opportunity to publish, or gave established writers the chance to try out new approaches for their work. It allowed Hughes, for instance, to express his grief about Assia Wevill and Sylvia Plath in poems hidden in limited and sumptuously designed editions, years before this became public knowledge with his more public Birthday Letters, which he issued through a commercial publisher.

In a different corner of the same reading room, I listened to many interviews with poets, painters and photographers. These recordings are not accessible from outside the British Library, but through a few desktop computers of the Rare Books & Music Reading Room. They include radio recordings, footage made at and by the British Library, and assorted other tapes that were digitized. I was able to listen to dozens of digitized cassette tapes that Ian Hamilton recorded for his biography of the American poet Robert Lowell (1917-1977). He only used a tiny fraction of these interviews for his book. This raw material will undoubtedly give researchers new leads, insights, and ideas, as Hamilton could obviously not pursue all angles, and there are always unexpected pronouncements in these interviews that are waiting to be explored further. Not all links that I clicked on worked, but the reference staff encouraged me to fill out forms when that occurred, so that they could help repair the broken links.

The physical papers of the Ian Hamilton collection are still largely unprocessed, and so not readily accessible. Yet the curators are interested in making portions of them available if scholars can specify what exactly they are looking for. I was lucky to be able to peruse some transcripts of interviews and some correspondence from that collection that are not yet detailed in finding aids, but that I can now use for my research. The joy of searching through boxes and folders of unsorted material is the distinct pleasure of being like a kid in a candy store. Every time you open a folder or box you don’t know what it will contain, and I discovered nuggets that I know will become part of articles or essays that I will write down the line. I was allowed to look at these unsorted papers in the Maps Reading Room, yet another reading room that I could add to my tally at the British Library.

My favorite research experience was looking at Fay Godwin’s contact sheets and photographs in the Visual Arts Reading Room. Tucked away in the much larger Asian and African one, this tiny reading room is only open from 10.30am to 12.30pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and you need to make an appointment before going there. Godwin (1931-2005) was an English photographer who collaborated with Hughes on a book, Remains of Elmet, about the area of Yorkshire where Hughes grew up. Godwin, however, also took photographs of many poets and writers, including of Lowell. The contact sheets and developed prints held in the Visual Arts Reading Room allow one to retrace the photographer’s steps. The sequence of shots helps you to see how she conceived of several images, and decided which one to single out to develop as a photograph. Godwin clearly wanted to showcase chess pieces in her photograph of Robert Lowell, for instance, when she visited him and his wife Caroline Blackwood at Milgate House in Kent in 1971. He stares intently and bemused into her camera, and as viewers we are interested in observing the next move in his life, and also Godwin’s next move as photographer.

A middle-aged man wearing spectacles, dark trousers and an open neck shirt, lies on his side on a sofa with his head propped up by his hand. In front of him is a coffee table with an inlaid chess board, and a box of chess pieces can be seen on the floor.
Robert Lowell by Fay Godwin © British Library Board.

The limited access time and spacing in the Visual Arts Reading Room made me value the opportunity and experience of viewing this unique visual material even more. Like visiting the other reading rooms, it deepened my interest into how poets and visual artists collaborated together. To make the most of your research time at the British Library, it is surely important to plan ahead, but also to allow for chance to occur. Allow some time to wander around, and to inspect some of the other reading rooms that you were not intending to visit. You never know what you will find.

Notes:

1.  A guide to the British Library's post-1945 US fine press holdings may be found here (fourth item down). 

20 April 2022

Writer's Award Winner Philip Clark on the Sounds of New York City: Part I

In this first installment of a series of blogs, Philip Clark shares his experience of being a 2022 Eccles Centre and Hay Festival Writer’s Award winner. The Writer’s Award offers £20,000, a year’s residency at the British Library to develop a forthcoming book, and the opportunity to showcase work at Hay Festival events in the UK and Latin America. Philip’s book – Sound and the City – will be a history of the sound of New York City and an investigation into what makes New York City sound like New York City.

At last, I’ve made it. After two years of pandemic travel bans, followed by an embarrassing gaffe with my visa back in January, I’m writing this blog sitting in the café at Barnes & Noble bookstore on Union Square in New York City. Since my arrival, I’ve checked in religiously every morning at 9am for a few hours’ writing; ingrained habits, even when in the city in which we’re told sleep is optional, die hard. Wake up, write. That’s the rhythm. The Barnes & Noble café – the equivalent of the café in Foyles, Charing Cross Road, my usual haunt – is quiet, comfortable and studious. I write surrounded by fellow scribes and ferocious readers – also a young couple gazing into each other’s eyes over a chessboard, who were here yesterday, too. This café has character, although not so much character that I’m distracted from my work. And best of all – the book I’m writing, Sound and the City, a history of the sound of New York City, will, in a few years’ time, be sitting on one of the shelves here. In this space where it was partly written, an idea which appeals to me very much.

People walking and cars driving at the corner of a New York City street in the evening; skyscrapers can be seen in the background.
'Atmosphere'; image, author's own.

My book opens an investigation into what makes New York City sound like New York City, a soundscape completely different from, say, London, Paris or Berlin. What my book is not is a history of music in New York. Instead, the project is to piece together interwoven histories from architecture, geology, immigration, politics and city planning to explain the unique relationship this city has with sound. Alongside, I’m exploring how writers and musicians who have called this endlessly fascinating resonating chamber home have dealt with the sound of the city – a long, impressive role-call that includes Henry James, John Dos Passos, Antonín Dvořák, Edgard Varèse, Duke Ellington, John Cage, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Philip Glass, Bob Dylan, Meredith Monk, Ornette Coleman, Debbie Harry, Lou Reed, Don DeLillo, Grandmaster Flash, Cecil Taylor, Gloria Gaynor, DJ Kool Herc and Wu-Tang Clan.

A five-storey brownstone house with a bay window on the third floor.
Miles Davis'  house; image, author's own.

What does New York do to an artist’s sense of pacing, proportion, structure? Of the sort of material they’re minded to put into their work and the way it behaves once they’ve put it there? In his memoir Words Without Music, published in 2015, Philip Glass claimed “My music sounds like New York”. Which is undoubtedly true. But so does the bebop of Charlie Parker, the modernist composition of Edgard Varèse, the rock of Debbie Harry and the nimble vocal gymnastics of Meredith Monk – none of which sound remotely like Glass. Could factors beyond musical style and idiom knit all this work together? It is my duty to find out.

As life drifted on between lockdowns, and I wondered whether travel would ever be a realistic proposition again, a fantasy New York ran riot inside my imagination. That said, ever since I discovered modern jazz, West Side Story, Morton Feldman and Bob Dylan in my mid-teens, some thirty-five years ago, I have always carried around my own inner-New York. The environment of the city, transferred to reality, felt entirely familiar to me when I started visiting seriously around 2005, testament to how much information its sonic footprint carries within it. New York played a crucial role in my previous book, a biography of the jazz pianist Dave Brubeck, A Life In Time, but there I needed to curb my enthusiasm; editing out superfluous city history became a continual necessity. Now the time has come to fully understand my New York fixation – why that fascination with the sound of its sound, and the sound of its music, has never left me alone.

Last year was spent immersing myself in histories of the city, and also in a pair of works that I knew would give my book its starting point: Edgard Varèse’s orchestral Amériques and John Dos Passos’ Manhattan Transfer. Dos Passos’ novel was published in November 1925, with the premiere of Varèse’s composition following only a few months later in April 1926. The degree to which these panoramic captures of the city mirror each other virtually word-to-note and note-to-word is uncanny. The steamboat whistles and fire engine sirens which Dos Passos describes so vividly are not merely evoked in the fabric of Varèse’s music – he literally wrote both machines into his piece, urban objets trouvés he made sing and holler.

A couple of steps lead down to a brown wood front door, with a white surround; an iron balcony is immediately above.
Edgard Varèse’s front door; image, author's own.

Surely Varèse and Dos Passos had enjoyed long discussions about the meaning of art, life and the universe itself in various hostelries around the East Village? The closeness of their art suggests they must. Having won the Eccles Centre and Hay Festival Writer’s Award at the end of 2021, and now with the whole British Library at my disposal, this was one of the first questions I set out to answer: did they ever meet? Varèse, I read, enjoyed the company of the composers Carl Ruggles and Carlos Salzedo, the conductor Leopold Stokowski, the violinist Fritz Kreisler, the artist Marcel Duchamp – and there is also a documented encounter with the writer Theodore Dreiser. Dos Passos’ associates at the time included the writers E E Cummings, Hart Crane and Dawn Powell. At the British Library, I was very happy to find an extended critique by Sinclair Lewis of Manhattan Transfer, published in 1926, in which Lewis describes Dos Passos’ novel as “the moving symphony itself” and talks up the central role sound takes in the narrative (although Lewis’ respect for Dos Passos was, sadly, not reciprocated).

Plotting the various addresses before I left home where Dos Passos and Varèse lived in the mid-1920s – and then this week walking between them – I discover that they criss-crossed each other constantly and, during different periods, lived but a few blocks from each other. The hotel in which Varèse took up long-term residence when he first arrived from his native France in 1916 – The Brevoort on the corner of 8th Street and 5th Avenue – is where two characters in Dos Passos’ novel, Elaine Oglethorpe and George Baldwin, conduct their affair.

Novelist and composer are traceable to some of the same bars and cafés. Romany Marie’s famous bistro-tavern, the place in the Village where artists, musicians and writers met to talk, was a regular meeting place of Varèse’s – and surely Dos Passos went there too. Walking a block from 188 Sullivan Street, Varèse’s home from 1925 until his death in 1965, I find Caffe Reggio – the first café to bring cappuccino to the city is the boast – which opened its doors in 1927. Given Dos Passos’ love of European culture and Varèse’s yearning to find tastes of Europe in New York, could their paths have crossed there? And then there’s McSorley’s Old Ale House, opened around 1860, and subject of a poem by Dos Passos’ close friend E E Cummings. And we know that Varèse loved ale. His wife, Louise, in her memoir, Varèse: A Looking Glass Diary, tells us how he took a shine to a barmaid – who called him ‘Dearie’ – in a London pub, near Broadcasting House, when the BBC performed his piece Hyperprism in 1924. Degrees of separation melt away by the moment.

The window of McSorley's Ale House reflecting nearby buildings and trees; gold lettering tells passers by that McSorley's was established in 1854 - 'before you were born'.
McSorley's Old Ale House; image, author's own.

But even if they managed never to meet, my thesis holds firm. Varèse and Dos Passos walked those same sidewalks, listening deep into the sound of the city, and you feel that kinship in the work they produced. New York works as an artistic matchmaker apparently – even when artists are not aware it is happening.

11 April 2022

Electronic Resources for US Politics

As we continue our series highlighting the breadth of electronic resources available for researchers at the British Library, this blog will discuss some of the collections which can support those exploring US Politics and Political History. All resources can be accessed from our Electronic Resources page, and some are available remotely once you get your free Reader Pass. All previous posts in the series can be found here.

There are many resources which can help uncover the operation of government, with Congress being especially well represented. The Congressional Record Permanent Digital Collection 1789-1997 and the US Congressional Serial Set 1817-1994 provide impressive levels of insight into the legislative process. The Congressional Record is a substantially verbatim account of the remarks made by Senators and Representatives while they are on the floor of the Senate and the House of Representatives (the equivalent of the UK’s Hansard). It also includes all bills, resolutions, and motions proposed, as well as debates, and roll call votes. The Serial Set is comprised of the numbered Senate and House Documents and Senate and House Reports, bound by session of Congress. There is also a dedicated selection of maps with the Serial Set. The Serial Set, and its maps, can be accessed remotely by registered Readers. The maps can be browsed by State as well as topic. The image below shows the Indian Reservations in the United States in 1940.

Serial set black and white map
Map showing Indian reservations in the United States. Compiled and drawn by E.H. Coulson, Chief Engineering Draftsman, Office of Indian Affairs, Division of Forestry. 1940. Serial Set No. 11747, Session Vol. No.11, 83rd Congress, 2nd Session, H.Rpt. 2680, Page [Not Numbered], Map No. 1. (Accessed via the US Congressional Serial Set 1817-1994.)

The Library’s selection of electronic resources is very wide, and it is worth looking at resources which may not seem immediately ‘Political Studies’ yet may still hold relevant material. For example, the American History, 1493-1945 resource is drawn from the diverse collections of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History in New York, and has some fascinating collections including materials related to the private lives of First Ladies, and Presidential Pardons. Below is part of the pardon by President Polk of an elderly counterfeiter, Samuel Howard, convicted of passing counterfeit coin and sentenced to three years’ imprisonment, who was pardoned due to age, previous honesty, his family’s dependence on him, the small amount of counterfeited money involved, and the judge’s recommendation for clemency.

Manuscript document
Presidential authority to the Secretary of State to affix the seal to the pardon of Samuel Howard, 13 January 1848, Collection Reference Number, GLC00045.08. (Accessed via American History, 1493-1945.)

Similarly, there are many aspects of US domestic politics which are well-covered in other thematic resources focused on different identity groups, such as women’s suffrage campaigns, LGBTQ+ political activism, and African-American civil rights campaigns and political activism. For example, the African American Communities resource holds legal papers of justices and policymakers which shed light on the politics around busing and school desegregation, including the Algernon Lee Butler Papers, 1928-1978, from the Southern Historical Collection at the Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The Butler Papers consist of Butler's political, legal, and personal papers from 1928 until 1978. Featured are a wide variety of writings and speeches Butler produced on political, educational, and civic topics, including materials relating to school desegregation and civil rights cases.

Screenshot of the African American Communities Algernon Lee Butler Papers
African American Communities database screenshot showing items from the Algernon Butler Papers.

There are many full-text US newspapers available in the electronic resources, which were covered in this earlier post. These newspapers are a fantastic resource for many aspects of US social and political life. Importantly, these don’t just include historical newspapers. The British Library subscribes to the excellent NewsBank: Access World News resource, which is available via Remote Access for registered Readers. This is an extraordinary database and an excellent resource for events from the 1980s to the present, including full-text coverage of more than 1300 American dailies such as the Boston Herald (1991 to the present) and the New York Post (1999 to the present); transcripts of more than 200 major TV news and radio programmes including 60 Minutes (2004 to the present) and Fox News Channel (2003 to the present); full-text coverage of more than twenty news magazines; output from more than 300 web-only sources; and access to more than 80 newswires.

Three covers of the Atlantic magazine
Recent issues of The Atlantic magazine (left to right: June 2021; July/August 2021; May 2021), available via NewsBank: Access World News.

Finally, our electronic resources are very strong on US foreign policy and international relations, particularly how other countries viewed the US. These include the Confidential Print: North America, 1824-1961 collection which comes from the National Archives at Kew and contains British Government documents covering the US (as well as other parts of the Americas). The collection covers topics such as slavery, Prohibition, the First and Second World Wars, racial segregation, territorial disputes, the League of Nations, McCarthyism and the nuclear bomb. For a broader global perspective, researchers can explore the excellent Foreign Broadcast Information Service (also available via remote access). FBIS was a US government operation which translated the text of daily broadcasts, government statements, and select news stories from non-English sources. The idea was to understand more about foreign opinion of the United States and its policies. It is an archive of 20th century news from around the world, offering global views on US foreign and domestic policy after World War II. The documents cover the Cold War, the Middle East, Latin America, the Soviet Union and more. Below is an example from the Soviet Home Service criticising America’s perceived plans in Asia as it ended the official postwar occupation of Japan.

Typed transcript
‘U.S. READIES JAPAN AS FAR EAST BASE’, Source: Moscow, Soviet Home Service, 09 August 1951; Translated into English and published in: DAILY REPORT. FOREIGN RADIO BROADCASTS (FBIS-FRB-51-160), 10 August 1951, USSR HOME SERVICE, Page AA6. (Accessed via Foreign Broadcast Information Service).

This whirlwind tour of the Library’s e-resources has just scratched the surface, but it does give an indication of the wide range of collections which include materials helpful for both historic and contemporary US Political Studies. For those interested in diving further into US politics at the Library, do check out the Collection Guide for US Federal Government Publications

By Cara Rodway, Eccles Centre, April 2022

02 March 2022

In conversation with Frank Brannon

This is the second blog looking at Cherokee language printing through the work of book artist and papermaker Frank Brannon. A previous post introduced Frank’s work, Cherokee Phoenix, advent of a newspaper: the print shop of the Cherokee Nation 1828-1834: a handmade letterpress book that tells the history of the first newspaper printed in an Indigenous language. After becoming interested in the materiality and creation of Frank’s book, he kindly spoke to me about his experience of printing in Cherokee as well as complex questions about what it means to have Indigenous language materials at the British Library.

Initially, Frank explained to me some of the technical difficulties of printing in Cherokee, such as ensuring the right spacing is on the type and watching for typos. We also spoke about the differences between Sequoyah’s syllabary, and the type-cast-

“To other eyes through time, just as you and I will see Roman letters, others will see Cyrillic if they have that background, or they might see Greek. They tend to look like other things. But Sequoyah’s original letters look nothing like the type-cast."

Frank Bannon 1
Fig 1: Binding of Frank Brannon’s, Cherokee Phoenix, advent of a newspaper: the print shop of the Cherokee Nation 1828-1834, with a chronology, Tuscaloosa, Ala: Speakeasy Press, 2005 (British Library shelfmark: RF.2007.a.36

In creating the book, Frank also described how he visited the University of Alabama special collections library to model the book on those of the 1820s:

"I wanted to put the person in the time. The 1820’s is a time of transition from handmade to machine-made books. Books would be encased in a cheap cover, and they weren't really meant to last long in the publisher’s binding before they became something else. At the special collection's library, you would open the books and the backs would be breaking. So, The Cherokee Phoenix book really wants to fall apart- it was made for a better binding" (Fig. 1 above)

In speaking to Frank, what is notable is the book’s grounding in materials and place. On asking him what drew him to the topic, he replied that “it was the papermill and it was Sequoyah”. The historic materials used to print the Cherokee Phoenix were excavated from the site of the original printing office in New Echota (now Calhoun, Georgia) and those materials extend into the narrative and creation of Frank’s book. Given the (sometimes) difficult history of printing in Cherokee and the current endangerment of the language, I asked Frank if he felt a sense of responsibility in the work today. In his response he recalls returning to New Echota-

"I felt early that we had a responsibility to get it right, and I still feel that responsibility today. I was able to take some of the printing type and print at the historic site of New Echota in what is now North Georgia, and I actually taught a class in the reconstructed print shop there. When my friend- who was a member of the tribe- and I, would go and print in New Echota you could just kind of feel the weight of that event. It was almost like a dream. It's prescient, it's superseding your regular day, and I would have to admit there are not that many times in life it happens. It was the reality and the depth of that experience. The manager of what is now a Georgia state historic site understood the importance of us coming there and doing that work, also. And as a white person trying to support the revitalization the Cherokee language, you have to try a little bit harder."

This reminds us also of the gap between language on the page and language in the world as lived, happenstance and imperfect. Frank retells how when teaching at the Southeastern community college in western North Carolina, he labelled drawers of coloured paper with their Cherokee names. There is a sense of immediacy, in a place where all understand the importance of language revitalization-

“It was immediate for people from that community who did not know the language at the time to start using those words. I never told anyone in the class that I would like for them to use the names, but they did, every time. It’s not like you have to teach them, its osmosis, it’s in them.”

When considering the poignancy of printing in New Echota, we spoke about different sense of place presented by the British Library. What does it mean for Frank’s work and wider Indigenous language materials to be in the British Library? Much of the library’s holdings - and its history as an institution - speak to a North American context whereby Indigenous languages were taken, classified and denied to peoples in service of historic and ongoing settler colonial projects that sought to eradicate languages and cultures. These contexts have legacies in the ways languages are misrepresented and accessed in library systems today -

“The idea that one might need to verify who they are to access the language of their own people, things that they have been denied the ability to speak or say themselves, in a boarding school for example. The indignity of being pressed to follow someone else’s rules, to access their own knowledge”

Frank Bannon 2

“It’s hard to think in general about doing a fine letterpress book and having anyone upon it. There are a lot of questions here, and it has to with ownership, and it has to do with possession.”

This brought us to a discussion on the issues with the label of ‘Indigenous languages collection’ and the narratives those collections claim to tell -

“That’s the key - that process of ‘collecting’ them, ‘acquiring’ them. The parallel for me as an artist is that question of - when looking at the larger picture of European history - whose books are in those libraries? It’s mainly male, it’s mainly Anglo. Is that the entire history of the European experience? Well, we know that the answer is no. My artists’ statement says that I wish to tell the story of those that are less told, and to ask: what is the library of 500 years and what will it look like?"

I found the Frank drew between languages and institutional approaches to curating books very insightful in reflecting on some of these questions. In many contexts, Indigenous languages were viewed as ‘exotic’ objects and brought into an institutional setting, to collect and to study or observe. Such a view can persist in the ways people may approach or ask questions about the subject today. As Frank says, ‘it’s just a group of people who have their own language and they would like to use it, it’s as simple as that’. Some of these ideas inform Frank’s work as a book artist-

“For one of the art projects me and my friend Jeff Marley did in Cherokee, I wanted to do an outdoor installation- an exhibition for everything other than people. I did no advertising, and we documented through photography and film. That’s a larger response to the bigger questions you’re asking, because many days I’m not sure if I want to put it in ‘that’ library. A lot of artists books, or book arts, are now shown in a very display like manner. They’re fetish objects and it’s very much ‘over there’. I always struggle when they are behind glass."

By extension, Frank’s artistic process challenges and expands how we interact with books-

“With an artists’ book, you know immediately from the cover that something is different. I would love for the person to recognise that something different is going on long before they even get to the book, and so with the idea of installation or performance artwork to surround the object I am trying to expand the epi-text of the book. All those little things that go with the book, I want them to come out and be alive and blow through the cover. To think of the book as an epi-textual environment that best represents the thoughts and ideas of the individuals or group”

Perhaps in the context of the British Library, this approach can be used to think about how language materials are there, how they have been decontextualised and how Indigenous creators and representation has been written out of the record-

Frank Bannon 3
Image: North American Indian (Other) from British Library catalogue record

“How you describe books, that is part of that epi-textual environment. The stuff that floats around it, is about it, is of it. And how is that presented.”

As a result of Frank’s work, the printing type is out in the world and the story continues. It’s clear that Frank misses this work, and I am incredibly grateful to him for talking to me. The conversation made me think on the importance of place and ask important questions of collecting practices: what are we trying to preserve, and for who? Above all I love the materiality of the book, and its layers and relationship to the historic materials and contemporary questions. There is something poignant in the 1820’s style book that ‘wants to fall apart’ as the used and accessible artists’ book (as opposed to the displayed and distant artists’ book), and the used, imperfect and grounded use of the Cherokee language (as opposed to the collected and exotic ‘Cherokee language’ materials). Additionally, it begins a very crucial questioning of the difficult ‘epi-text’ of the British Library.

 

- Rebecca Slatcher, Collaborative Doctoral Student (British Library & The University of Hull)

 

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