American Collections blog

102 posts categorized "North America"

20 March 2020

Dancing in the archives...

In the early 1980s this thing called hip hop suddenly arrived in the UK from North America through videos like Malcolm McLaren's Buffalo Gals (1982) and films such as Wild Style (1983).  It marked the start of a global cultural change and, unbeknown to me, would help develop my future world as a choreographer, researcher and teacher.

In time, my curiosity would take me beyond the South Bronx of the 1970s to '50s jazz dance, Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers and, eventually, minstrelsy.

An African American woman and man Lindy Hopping; the woman is wearing a long sleeved blouse, a striped skirt and white plimsolls while the man is wearing a long sleeve shirt and dungarees that are tight at the waist and full in the leg
Willa Mae Ricker and Leon James dancing the Lindy Hop, Life Magazine, 23 August 1943; shelfmark P.P.6383.cke

Minstrelsy and blackface was something I was aware of growing up in the 1970s as a mixed race child in the North East of England: The Black and White Minstrel Show was still on TV and racial relics were never far away.  Years later I began looking past the racially charged media of minstrelsy, seeing instead an innovative dance form which laid the foundations not only for hip hop dance but for entertainment as we know it today.  And so I began to ponder on the question: What happened before minstrelsy?  Which is what brought me to the Eccles Centre and the British Library.

My approach at the Library was to explore African diaspora dance practices in the United States from the early 1800s.  My prior knowledge of African based social dances was mostly limited to the 20th century and I knew there was so much more: More threads and meeting points detailing the myriad ways in which the African diaspora experience was carried to the US, became fractured and disrupted through slavery, and morphed into gospel, blues, ragtime, jazz, funk and hip hop.  My research enabled me to understand how African dance, including Gelede and Calenda, were exchanged and disrupted through gatherings such as corn shucking meets, leading in turn to secular dances like the turkey trot and the camel walk. 

An advert for a minstrel show, depicting a group of around 15 people singing and dancing in the moonlight by the side of a river
The Big Black Boom. Her Majesty's Theatre, Westminster c. 1878. Shelfmark: Evan.273 (Image taken from a collection of pamphlets, handbills, and miscellaneous printed matter relating to Victorian entertainment and everyday life. Originally published/produced in London, 1800 - 1895)

The key thing I realised through this research, however, wasn't even about dance.  It was about how information was passed, gathered and coded through slavery.  It was about the interactions between different African practices. I began looking beyond West African traditional dance forms to broader African practices.  This led me to explore the Muslim experience within Africa, the United States and slavery.  One story I came across was that of a 35-year old male Muslim slave in Sierra Leone during the eighteenth century. Waiting in irons for departure, sometimes he would sing a melancholy song and sometimes a Muslim prayer.  The song would eventually arrive in America to be heard by other Africans who may not have understood Arabic. Yet the cadence, experience and emotion enabled an experience of empathy that transcended words.  It was decoded through human consciousness as emotional unity through sound and movement.  It was understood, or misunderstood, and developed identity, social communication and African American culture.  These rhythms and experiences would resurface and be remixed into early blues; a remix that I suggest echoes into the sampling culture of hip hop.

Traces of Muslim practice may also relate to the Ring Shout (ceremonial dance) and the Kaaba and walking anti clockwise as prayer.  These exchanges of different African cultures, through shared experience and slavery, led me to think more about the subtleties and nuances of human exchange, gesture, symbolism and the cadence of both sound and movement: how scales of emotion and the body being read and misread is very much part of human learning, social patterns and coded cultures.

The African diaspora experience of slavery is one of the most heartless in human history and yet people survived, grew and emerged.  Of course, resilience in itself is a built-in human trait but how many times must it be tested and inflicted from one human to another to the degree of slavery and many other forms of violence, where carried trauma and disrupted African experiences seem to be in constant recovery and where culture acts to navigate and find better ways of living.

I think this research more than anything has led me to a deeper understanding of cultural development, human exchange, histories (my own) and the traces of experience that we carry and that are passed through generations.  Which brings me to the present, to my own creative practice and towards Afro futurism and how one can begin to develop African diaspora history(s) through speculation as a way to navigate future possibilities.  My hope is to develop projects embedded in my Eccles Centre research through dance, hip hop, visual art and education, exploring the question: What is hip hop's place in the twenty first century?

Robert Hylton, Eccles Fellow, 2019

Suggested Reading:

Abbott, L and Seroff, D. Ragged but Right: Black Traveling Shows, "Coon Songs," and the Dark Pathway to Blues and Jazz. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2007. (Shelfmark: m07/.15598 DSC)

Austin, A. African Muslims in Antebellum America: Transatlantic Stories and Spiritual Struggles. New York; London: Routledge, 1997. (Shelfmark: YC.1997.a.3453) 

Diouf, S. Servants of Allah: African Muslims Enslaved in The Americas. New York University Press, 1998. (Shelfmark: YC.1999.a.80)

Emory, E. Black Dance: From 1619 to Today. London: Dance, 1988. (Shelfmark: YM.1989.a.111) 

Gay, K. African American Holidays, Festivals, and Celebrations: the History, Customs, and Symbols Associated with Both Traditional and Contemporary Religious and Secular Events Observed by Americans of African Descent. Detroit, MI: Omnigraphics, 2007. (Shelfmark: YD.2007.a.7641)

Glass, B. African American Dance: An Illustrated History. Jefferson, N.C; London: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2007. (Shelfmark: m07/.12508 DSC)

Hammer, J. Safi, O. The Cambridge Companion to American Islam. Cambridge University Press, 2013. (Shelfmark: YC.2014.a.828)

Robinson, D. Modern Moves: Dancing Race During the Ragtime and Jazz Eras. (Oxford; New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2015) (Shelfmark: YC.2015.a.12024)

Thompson, K. Ring Shout, Wheel About: the Racial Politics of Music and Dance in North American Slavery (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2014) (Shelfmark: m14/.11623) 

Visual References:

Ring Shout: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NQgrIcCtys0

Buzzard Lope: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3dGamWaYcLg

Audio Reference:

Alan Lomax Recordings - Levee Camp Holler: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5EH3jsnUo38

 

12 February 2020

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

 

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


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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

 

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


Further reading:


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


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


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


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


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

05 February 2020

Walter Rodney's Enduring Legacy Through Archival Collaboration

Black and white photo of Walter Rodney standing in front of a door or window
Walter Rodney; image courtesy of the Huntley Archives, London Metropolitan Archives, LMA 4463 series

Nearly forty years ago, on 13 June 1980, Guyanese historian, political activist and academic Walter Rodney was assassinated.  Family, friends and fans across the world mourned the loss of Rodney.  This grief expressed itself privately and publicly – through poetry, letters and protest.  Traces can be found in the British Library, particularly in the archive of Andrew Salkey.  P.D. Sharma – a Guyanese comrade – wrote to Salkey shortly after hearing the news.  He wrote of being ‘paralyzed with grief, shock and disbelief’ as expressed in the poem below; such moving remembrances of Rodney’s continue to this day: 

WALTER RODNEY IS DEAD (13th June 1980)
Weep people, cry Jesus
And drown the earth above us
Flood the oceans
Liquidify the mountains
Sink heaven.
The Eastern star is blown
No more the fairest of twinkles
Done the kingdom and the king.
Now the sun will never catch the night
The falcon god soars
And shadows we be
Our world is out.
How infinite was so brief
Too much and only but few
Except that grey men
With infants on their laps
Shall tell to eternity
Of the light that once,
Breathless and bedamned
Questioning the open
But if, what might …

(Letter from P.D. Sharma (LA) to Salkey (Massachusetts), June 1980, Walter Rodney File, Box 21, Andrew Salkey collection, The British Library)

Walter Rodney’s intellectual energy, praxis and commitment lives on.  It lives on through Black liberation struggles across the world and the action and commitment of the Friends of the Huntley Archives at LMA  (FHALMA). Housed at the London Metropolitan Archives (LMA), the Huntley Archives is made up of Jessica and Eric Huntley’s documents, photographs and recordings.  It also holds the files of Bogle-L'Ouverture Publications (one of Britain’s earliest black publishing houses) that they collectively founded in 1968, following the banning of Walter Rodney from Jamaica.   

On Saturday 22 February, the 15th Annual Huntley Conference: Rodney's Enduring Legacy will offer a space for activists, scholars, students and families to engage with this legacy through a day of discussion, film, lectures and archive tours.  Supported by the Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library, the LMA and the Museum of London, it brings together some of London’s key cultural heritage institutions.  It also builds on an ongoing collaboration between the British Library, LMA and FHALMA as part of the mass sound digitisation project Unlocking Our Sound Heritage.

Volunteering for FHALMA and helping to organise this conference has offered a brilliant opportunity to extend my Collaborative Doctoral Partnership beyond the British Library and UCL by connecting with archives and community groups across London.  Related to ongoing research on Caribbean publishing as activism, the conference provides an important space to discuss the history and legacy of Caribbean intellectual thought.

Black and white photo of Walter Rodney sitting at a typewriter on a table covered with papers; a woman stands behind him
Walter Rodney; image courtesy of the Huntley Archives, London Metropolitan Archives, LMA 4463 series

Notably, the conference will include roundtable sessions called 'Groundings' which are modelled on and inspired by Rodney’s practice of talking plainly about human rights, identity and Black history directly with grassroots communities.  These intergenerational conversations will explore themes of Black liberation, solidarity and class, whilst considering the role of youth, academics, communities and creative producers within historic and contemporary struggles.

Professor Patricia Daley's keynote, 'Walter Rodney: The Black Academic and the Importance of the Study of Africa for Global Black Emancipation', will reflect on Rodney's impressive contribution to radical scholarship on Africa and consider his understanding of ‘groundings’ as a form of academic and political practice, central to black emancipation globally.

The frontispiece of Walter Rodney Speaks - black print on a green cover
Walter Rodney, Walter Rodney Speaks: The Making of an African Intellectual. Trenton, NJ: African World Press, 1990. (British Library shelfmark: YA.1992.a.9118)

Walter Rodney continues to challenge us through our archives.  You can find Rodney in the British Library’s Andrew Salkey collection, from recordings of memorial lectures to Bogle-L'Ouverture book launches.  Rodney also speaks to us through his many texts - published both when he was alive and posthumously - including: The Groundings with My Brothers (1969), A History of the Upper Guinea Coast, 1545-1800 (1970), How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (1972) and Walter Rodney Speaks: the making of an African Intellectual (1990).

Suggested further reading/listening:

  • Bogle book launch (1985), Andrew Salkey collection, C1839/62.
  • Rupert Lewis, Walter Rodney: 1968 Revisited.  Barbados: Canoe Press, UWI, 1998. (British Library shelfmark: YC.2005.a.8199).
  • Rupert Lewis, Walter Rodney’s Intellectual and Political Thought. Mona: University of the West Indies, 1998. (British Library shelfmark: Document Supply 99/13124). 
  • Manning Marable lecture (1987), Andrew Salkey Collection, C1839/45.
  • Colin Prescod, ‘Guyana’s socialism: an interview with Walter Rodney’, Race & Class, 18 (1976), 109- 128. (British Library shelfmark: Ac.6236.a). 
  • Kate Quinn (eds.), Black Power in the Caribbean. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2014.  (British Library shelfmark: YC.2014.a.16051) 
  • Researching Walter Rodney in the Huntley Archives, London Metropolitan Archive.

Works by Walter Rodney:

  • The Groundings with My Brothers. London: Bogle-L'Ouverture Publications, 1970. (British Library shelfmark: X.709/10382) 
  • A History of the Upper Guinea Coast, 1545-1800. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970. (British Library shelfmark: Document Supply 72/14824)
  • How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. London: Bogle-L'Ouverture Publications, 1976. (British Library shelfmark: Document Supply 82/24897) 
  • Walter Rodney Speaks: The Making of an African Intellectual. Trenton, NJ: African World Press, 1990. (British Library shelfmark: YA.1992.a.9118) 

Naomi Oppenheim is an AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Student, British Library and UCL researching Caribbean print cultures and the politics of history in post-war Britain. Follow her on Twitter @naomioppenheim

 

17 December 2019

Best American Ghost Story?

Inspired by George Goodwin’s recent American Collections blog and its reference to A Christmas Carol – and ignoring Jill’s protestations in a recent episode of ‘The Archers’ – now is the perfect time to indulge in some ghost stories. And if the indulgence is going to be American, there are few better choices than Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House (1959).

Image of terrified woman with eyes wide open with fear.
Shirley Jackson, The Haunting of Hill House. London: Four Square Books, 1963; shelfmark 012212.a.1/848

Jackson first came to the public’s attention with ‘The Lottery’, a short story published in The New Yorker in June 1948.1 With its hopeful title and shocking twist, it resulted in cancelled subscriptions for the magazine and hundreds of letters for Jackson. Many of these expressed bewilderment or speculation about the story’s meaning, but a good proportion were downright abusive. Jackson was surprised by the strength of this reaction, yet seems to have remained unfazed. Indeed, you can almost hear the smile in her voice as she tells Hugh Henry Jackson, literary editor of the San Francisco Chronicle: ‘The number of people who expected Mrs Hutchinson to win a Bendix washing machine at the end would amaze you’.2 

While ‘The Lottery’ has been a fixture of American school curricula for decades, the rest of Jackson’s work has, until recently, been largely overlooked.3 Even her biographer, Ruth Franklin, admits that it was not until Library of America's Shirley Jackson: Novels and Stories (2010) – edited by Joyce Carol Oates – that she started reading beyond ‘The Lottery’ and The Haunting of Hill House, despite the latter having long been one of her favourite books. And critics and writers concur with Franklin’s assessment. In 1959 The New York Times Book Review rated The Haunting among the year’s Best Fiction; it was a 1960 National Book Awards finalist, alongside works by Saul Bellow, John Updike and Philip Roth; in Danse Macabre (1981),  Stephen King argues it is one of the best horror books of the twentieth century; and last year, Neil Gaiman named it the scariest book he'd ever read, ahead of  ‘The Turn of the Screw’, Salem’s Lot and The Shining.4   

Black and white image of Neil Gaiman; his hands are extremely prominent while the rest of his face and image are quite dark
Neil Gaiman. Copyright: Ander McIntyre; held as part of the British Library collections.

Far be it from us to spoil the plot, of course. Suffice to say that as with all great ghost stories, it is never clear whether the supernatural manifestations in The Haunting of Hill House are real, or whether they are the projections of the protagonist’s psyche. Either way, the effect is chilling and irresistible.

Happy reading ... and happy Christmas!

References

[1]. The New Yorker, 26 June 1948; shelfmark P.903/858.

[2]. Ruth Franklin, Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life. New York: Liveright Publishing Corp., 2016, pp. 232-33; shelfmark YK.2017.a.29. 

[3]. The recent Netflix adaptation of The Haunting of Hill House is helping to change this!

[4].  Stephen King in Stephen King's Danse Macabre. London: Futura Books, [1981]; sheflmark H.82/1022; Neil Gaiman in The New York Times, 16 July 2018; shelfmark MFM.MA3.

 

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.

 

 

 

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