American Collections blog

What's on the mind of Team America?

Introduction

Find out more about our Americas Studies collections on the Americas blog, written by our curatorial team and guest posts from the Eccles Centre writers in residence. Our collections cover both North and South America, as well as the Caribbean. Read more

17 October 2019

Black History Month

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

 

 

03 October 2019

National Poetry Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Below is the poem in English.

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

         
We both know a language is waiting inside my tongue.

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

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

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

 

 

25 September 2019

From the Collections: Pacific

Or_16453_plate_5 (Perry in Japan)

A Japanese manuscript illustration of Commodore Perry's ships, BL: Or.16453.

I have been fortunate in my career to be asked to write not one but two books by British Library Publishing (BLP). The second of these, released on Monday, is Pacific: An Ocean of Wonders and it draws from work on the collections I was fortunate to do while variously curating the Australasian, Canadian and United States collections.

The origin of the book lies in Lines in the Ice, my first with BLP, which raised a question, what was it about the Pacific that was so important people were prepared to risk freezing temperatures, starvation and death in order to find an Arctic passage to the ocean? During my subsequent work with the collections I had various opportunities to get glimpses into the why of this, trade, politics and power being the most significant parts of any answer. Through this research, however, something else became apparent, that the agency, influence and continuing significance of islands in and around the Pacific Ocean is often undervalued. These places, upon which narratives about sailors such as James Cook are most often constructed, should in fact be the focus of our attention in and of themselves. As with many before me, I am indebted to the writings of Pacific scholar Epeli Hauʻofa whose argument that the interconnectedness of the islands of the Pacific and their cultures is key to understanding the human history of the ocean at large.

14000_i_zoophytes_plate_4 (Dana corals)

Above: One of J. C. Dana's many plates depicting Pacific corals, from the atlas of the United States Exploring Expedition, BL: 14000.i.

Hauʻofa’s work shaped the focus of Pacific and led to its broad scope which traces a history through and around islands across the whole expanse of the ocean. What made this possible, ultimately, is the collections of the British Library. The book does use materials from elsewhere, generously provided by the Library of Congress, David Rumsey Map Collection and other institutions, as well as extremely helpful individuals, not least Bob Patterson and Lawrence Paul Yuxweluptun, but the core of the book draws from the Library. As the old promotional line used to say, the British Library is, ‘The World’s Knowledge’, a vast, polyglot and interconnected collection that provides access to myriad historical and cultural perspectives. Pacific therefore draws not just from the printed books, manuscripts, maps and other collections from North America and Australasia, it also utilises collections relating to China, Japan, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Netherlands, Russia, Spain and many others.

Which brings me, eventually, to the point of this post. Despite my career as a curator I would not have been able to find many of the wonderful, insightful items used in Pacific without the help of my curatorial colleagues. That being the case, this post is a public thank you to them. Very (and I mean very) few things in a public collection are ‘discovered’, almost everything held has been through the hands of cataloguers, stampers, conservators, curators and many other colleagues who, in different ways, know these collections intimately. Non-specialists in their areas (myself included) may often forget or miss what is held in institutions like the British Library, but they know the collections intimately and are our remote (through catalogue records, and so on) and direct guides. For Pacific, I am particularly grateful to Hamish Todd and colleagues for their help with the Library’s Japanese collections, as well as Nick Dyke for the tireless cataloguing work he and his team have done on modern maps. On top of this, colleagues across the Western Heritage, Asian and African and Americas and European Collections, as well as our teams working on cataloguing, placing and in the reading rooms all had a hand in making this book possible.

Kalakaua and Grant (v2)

President Grant receives King Kalākaua of the Kingdom of Hawaiʻi, Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, 2 January 1875.

All of which is to say that this book, like most other research conducted in libraries, archives and so on, is a huge work of collaboration that would be impossible without all the often unattributed hands that go into making the research underpinning it possible. And it doesn’t end there, the British Library Publishing team, including editor Abbie Day and picture editor Sally Nicholls, their designers, copy editors and proof readers, the Library’s Events team, our Shop and many, many others all played a huge part in getting the book made, completed and into the hands of the public. So, really, this is less a post to promote Pacific and more an acknowledgement of all the people who bring a project like this to completion. Everyone who worked on the book and cares for the collections it displays had a role in bringing it to completion and we should all have our names on the front cover.

[PJH]

23 September 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1IMG_20190916_1353407

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

 

By Carole Holden

Banned Books Week

Banned Books Week (22 – 28 Sept 2019) is an annual event celebrating the freedom to read. It was launched in 1982 in response to the number of challenges to books in schools, bookshops and libraries. The theme for 2019 urges readers to ‘keep the light on’ to ensure censorship doesn’t live us in the dark.

The Library will be holding a number of events to mark Banned Books Week. The Americas & Australasian and Eccles teams take a look at just some of the books that have been banned over time.

American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis (H.94/4026)

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

Cover illustration of man in mask on American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis (published by Picador in 1991)
American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis (Picador, 1991)

This book has been classified R18 under Australian national censorship legislation since its release in 1991 as the content was considered obscene, blasphemous and indecent. In Australia the book can only be sold to people over the age of 18 and must be contained in a sealed plastic wrapper. In 2015 an Adelaide bookshop was raided by police after a customer complained that the book was on display without the wrapper.

Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson (Digital copy, DRT ELD.DS.100805)

Chosen by Jean (Bibliographical Editor at the Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library)

Cover illustration for Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson showing black and white photograph of cedar trees by the see
Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson (Vintage Books, 1995).
Cover photograph by Stuart Simons / jacket design by Vaughn Andrews

Set on a fictional island in Puget Sound, a community of ‘five thousand damp souls’,  Snow Falling on Cedars beautifully explores the legacy of World War II and Japanese internment, bigotry and prejudice, and the nature of truth, guilt, responsibility and forgiveness. In spite of this, it has been challenged, banned or restricted in numerous school systems in both the United States and Canada for profanity and sexual content. In 2000 it was deemed by some parents of 11th grade (16 – 17 year old) students in Kitsup County, Washington – where Guterson had been a high school teacher – to be ‘pornographic’. My recent re-reading of the sex scenes is that they are few in number, brief in nature, overwhelmingly loving in content and intrinsic to our understanding of the characters and the relations between them; yet an ACLU challenge to this school board’s ban was unsuccessful.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (X.989/20180)

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

Illustration by Arthur Ranson of Scout and Jem walking under a tree being followed by Cecil from To Kill a Mockingbird
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee with original illustrations by Arthur Ranson (Geneva: Edito-Service, 1973)

It’s hard to imagine a time without a copy of To Kill a Mockingbird in almost every household or at least on a bookshelf in every library, but the novel’s contentiousness still remains. Published in 1960 it has been repeatedly opposed for its depictions of racism, violence and offensive language. Despite this resistance however, it quickly won the Pulitzer Prize and its film adaptation won an Academy Award in 1962. Until as recently as 2018 the novel has been known to be removed from reading lists and classrooms in the US, namely due to its use racist language.

Let us know @BL_Americas what banned book you’ll be reading this week and keep an eye on the Library's English and Drama and European blogs for more on Banned Books Week. 

 

 

11 September 2019

Five reasons why we can’t wait to read The Testaments

Of course there are far more than five reasons why The Testaments has jumped to the top of our reading list and why its publication was among one of the most eagerly anticipated of 2019, if not the decade. But along with the other eight million people around the globe who own a copy of The Handmaid’s Tale, we are more than a little excited for the follow up to arrive at the Library.

Last night I went to the National Theatre’s live screening of Margaret Atwood in conversation with journalist Samira Ahmed, an event that was streamed to 1,400 cinemas of Handmaid fans all over the world.

Screen from In Conversation with Margaret Atwood, Tuesday 10 Sept 2019, showing the lead image from the book's cover - a handmaid dressed in green
Photograph from 'In Conversation with Margaret Atwood' showing the lead image from the book's cover - a handmaid dressed in green (image courtesy Vintage and Vane Productions)

The atmosphere of the crowd was one of eagerness and total awe as Atwood spoke of her journey to writing The Testaments, and as she recalled the world setting which brought about the idea for The Handmaid’s Tale almost four decades ago. Atwood’s ability to turn the answer to every question into a carefully considered and utterly compelling story never ceases to amaze me. Her historical, literary and worldly observations from the past and present entwine with her fiction to create stories that readers embark on with a kind of dreaded excitement; part of you can’t wait to open the book, while the other knows it’s almost too frighteningly close to reality to want to step into.

So as we patiently wait for The Testaments to arrive for the Library's collection, here’s a very brief reflection of five of my takeaways from last night’s launch event – and the things I’m most looking forward to encountering in the reading of the novel.

Three new voices

While The Handmaid’s Tale was told solely from the perspective of Offred, The Testaments, as the name implies, includes the testimonies of three different voices. One we are familiar with from The Handmaid’s, that of the formidable Aunt Lydia. Then we are introduced to two new young women – one rescued from Gilead while still a baby (Daisy), and Agnes, who grew up in Gilead and knows no other way of life. We learn of what drove Lydia to her position of power and of her life before Gilead, and of the parallel lives the Daisy and Agnes have led. The evening’s event featured readings from the book by Ann Dowd (who plays Aunt Lydia in the TV adaptation), Sally Hawkins and Lily James. Atwood hinted that their separate tales may be more connected then first meets the eye…

Historical nods

History has a funny way of repeating itself. Many of the issues raised in The Handmaid’s Tale and The Testaments, such as men abusing positions of power, rules and laws being created and imposed by those who will never be impacted or effected by their force, the restriction of free speech, episodes of violence and mass execution, ‘are not new motifs’ Atwood said on more than one occasion. When asked about how Atwood conjures up her dystopian worlds, she very matter-of-factly stated that ‘these are not made up’, instances of all have taken place in the real world over the course of time, and continue to do so. Atwood mentioned historical figures and events that had influenced her writing: Henry VIII, Thomas Cromwell, Mary Queen of Scots, Stalin, Pinochet, the division of Germany, extreme Puritan traditions in America, the fear of 70s cults, and a disturbing story from the Old Testament (the concubine of a Levite), to name but a few. Literary influences from Vasily Grossman and George Orwell also resonate through her pages.

A slide from the event showing book covers of The Handmaid's Tale from around the world
The iconic Handmaid's Tale book covers from around the world shown at the event (image courtesy Vintage and Vane Productions)

Equality Now

Through her writing and public eminence Atwood continues to strive for equality for women and the launch of The Testaments is run alongside a campaign with Equality Now, an organisation supporting ‘a just world for women and girls’. When asked about how Atwood felt about the use of the Handmaid’s outfit by political activists in recent years, particularly around the abortion debate in the US, Atwood highlighted its silent power – women wearing the attire can’t be penalised for any reason – they have their heads down, they are quiet, they are covered to the ankle – yet their visual protest speaks volumes. An element of pride was detected in Atwood’s voice when she spoke of how her timeless creation has become such a cult image and sign of resistance.

Atwood’s dark optimism

 ‘The Handmaid’s Tale is optimistic’ Atwood told us with a wry smile. Of course the audience laughed. The fact that it ends with a symposium shows that humanity has survived the atrocities of the Gilead regime. When we survive history we do what we always do with it, ‘turn it into something studied in schools, a symposium, or a theme park’ Atwood joked (but we all know it’s true). She insinuated that the same element of hidden optimism is buried within The Testaments too; we know that some children are rescued, Daisy is the living proof. But what lasting damage is done? And what becomes of Aunt Lydia and Agnes?

Climate change

In a world that seems on the brink of collapse ‘what can we do to save humanity?’ Atwood was asked by one of the audience members. Her response: the number one thing we need to address right now is the issue of climate change.

In a passage from the voice of Aunt Lydia, a world ravaged by extreme weather and its disastrous effects is described; a frightening echo of the pictures we see on the news today with more and more frequency. ‘When the environment is disturbed, you get more social unrest’ Atwood proclaimed. She spoke of her admiration for activist Greta Thunberg and of her optimism around young people and the Extinction Rebellion campaign. 50 years ago when scientists foresaw the climate crisis no one listened, Atwood remembered, but now we have people paying attention, and acting, and who will soon be able to vote on these matters. It seems even the green figure on the front cover of the book could be a nod to Atwood’s concern on this subject – the daughter of an entomologist, Atwood grew up frequenting the forests of Quebec and Ottawa, even living in them in a tent as a young child while her father built their log cabin home.

Image of Margaret Atwood and her father in the Canadian woods in 1942
Photograph from the slides at the launch event showing a young Margaret Atwood and her father in the Canadian woods in 1942 (image courtesy Vintage and Vane Productions)

‘You don’t believe the sky is falling until a chunk of it falls on you’ were the last words Ann Dowd as Aunt Lydia read at the event and the youthful looking silhouette of the girl on the book’s cover, arms outstretched, is the figure of hope on which the evening’s focus ended. Atwood maintained that climate change needs to be the primary focus for politicians today and we are not too late to address this.

[RSW] (overjoyed that her copy of The Testaments arrived by the time she finished writing this blog) 

Suggested reading

The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood (Heinemann New Windmills, 1993), General Reference Collection Nov.1993/888

Wilderness Tips by Margaret Atwood (Bloomsbury, 1991), General Reference Collection Nov.1992/377

Strange Things: the Malevolent North in Canadian Literature by Margaret Atwood (Clarendon Press, 1995), General Reference Collection YC.1997.a.983

Margaret Atwood edited and with an introduction by Harold Bloom (Chelsea House, c2000), Document Supply m00/27831

Mary Queen of Scots (Pitkin Pictorials, 1973), General Reference Collection YK.1993.b.3611

The rise & fall of Thomas Cromwell: Henry VIII's most faithful servant by John Schofield (The History Press, 2011), General Reference Collection DRT ELD.DS.321626

Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman (Vintage Classic, 2011), General Reference Collection DRT ELD.DS.190531

Nineteen eighty-four: a novel by George Orwell (S. J. Reginald Saunders and Company Limited, 1949), RF.2018.a.197

Daniel Deronda by George Eliot (William Blackwood & Sons, 1876), General Reference Collection 20098.bb.21.

The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. Le Guin (Gateway, 2015), General Reference Collection DRT ELD.DS.12524

12 August 2019

Eisenhower to Obama and beyond: new US political material now available to researchers

While many may be captivated by the US political scene today (and its constant evolution), I recently lost myself in over 60 years of American electoral history while working on a new donation to the Library.

Philip J Davies (Professor Emeritus of American Studies, De Montfort University and Former Director for the Eccles Centre for American Studies here at the British Library) has donated a rich collection of material which can now be viewed in our Reading Rooms. Featuring promotional political material for US presidential election campaigns from 1952 to 2018, the collection is an invaluable new resource for researchers. With material right up to the Obama, Clinton and Trump eras, it’s sure to provide an interesting and intriguing picture of the current political landscape for years to come.

Jesse Jackson election poster
An example of the material available: 1988 Jesse Jackson poster © Jesse Jackson for President ’88 Committee (Add MS 89357/1/7)

On donating the collection Philip said: ‘It is a pleasure to see this small collection reach the British Library.  When I started teaching US politics at Manchester University in the 1970s only a few students had been able to visit the USA.  I found that using a few real campaign items helped our discussions and gave more tangibility to the subject.  I hope that the materials give some sense of the three-dimensional, ground-level reality of US presidential campaigns at a time when we have grown used to experiencing them on the TV and through computer screens.’

There are over 100 items available to explore from a giant Obama inauguration placard and video content encouraging young people to vote (featuring the likes of John Legend) to through-the-door propaganda collected from a number of US states. Sifting through this vast collection it’s amazing to see how the promotion and slamming of electoral candidates has changed over decades and into new millennia – while in some ways not changed at all.

A handful of the topics covered amongst the plethora of material are gun crime, same-sex marriage, war veteran care and climate change. While just some items researchers may find of particular interest include a nomination petition form for Dwight D. Eisenhower from 1952, a 1988 Jesse Jackson poster (pictured above), a 1980 Reagan Campaign Leadership Manual including volunteer phone script (pictured below), and an (unused) official invitation to the inauguration of President Donald Trump.

Example telephone script from Reagan campaign
“Put a ‘smile’ on your voice”: 1980 Reagan Campaign Leadership Manual © Reagan for President – Committee of Maryland (Add MS 89357/1/5)

Too many to name individually, but on examining this treasure trove of historical and political paraphernalia I was particularly struck by a few items:

The power of Lenora Fulani

As part of the New Alliance Party in the 1988 presidential elections Fulani was the first woman and the first African American to achieve ballot access in the fifty states. The archive contains Membership cards for the Party, a pamphlet for the campaigning committee for fair elections, and leaflets on The Black Agenda and Independent Politics.

Lenora Fulani campaign leaflet
1988 New Alliance Party material featuring Lenora Fulani, leaflet © Lenora B. Fulani’s Committee for Fair Elections (Add MS 89357/1/7)

Political lampooning

This placard designed for front yard display reads ‘Ovide End Public Kindergarten’. You might think this is a rather negative promotion of one’s policies. And you’d be right. Ovide Lamontagne was a Republican candidate for Governor in New Hampshire in 2012. This poster was produced by the Democrats in Ovide's style to lampoon his politics (by their interpretation). Ovide lost the vote.

Placard reading 'Ovide End Public Kindergarten'
2012 ‘Ovide End Public Kindergarten’ placard © New Hampshire Democratic Party, Raymond Buckley, Chairman (Add MS 89357/4/21)

Make your own… Obama paper doll

Who says American politics is no place for fun and games? Marking the moment in history when Barack Obama won the 2008 election this collectable booklet lets you dress the President, the First Lady and their two daughters in an array of outfits worn throughout the campaign. My personal favourite: Barack in his best basketball gear.

Front cover of the Obama paper dolls booklet featuring cartoons of Barack and Michelle Obama
2008 Obama paper dolls booklet © 2009 Tom Tierney (Add MS 89357/1/11)
Cartoon of Obama in basketball clothes with a basketball - an example of the dolls from the book
Casual Obama. 2008 Obama paper dolls booklet © 2009 Tom Tierney (Add MS 89357/1/11)

The Philip Davies Collection of US election archive material (Add MS 89357) is now available to view in Reading Rooms at St Pancras and Boston Spa. Find out more by searching for ‘89357’ in our Archives and Manuscripts catalogue. If you use any of the items for your research, we’d love to hear about it. Let us know using @BL_Americas.

[RSW] (resisting the temptation to actually dress the Obama paper dolls)

09 August 2019

Book Lovers Day

It turns out there really is a celebratory day for everything (yes, we’re still enjoying yesterday’s International Cat Day moment), and 9 August is no exception. Happy Book Lovers Day!

To pay homage, Team Americas, Australasia and Eccles has picked a few much-loved books to share. Some have played an admirable role in guiding us on the various paths that have led us to the mothership that is the British Library, while others have been part of the discoveries made journeying through, and adding to, the vast and varied collections held here. Of course some heads starting to smoke at the thought of picking just one favourite book each, so this is a carefully selected array of those we love from our individual, rather long (and always growing) lists.

We’re confident that there will be another book-related annual festivity just beckoning for a blog in the not-too-distant future – look out for it as we shoehorn in the ‘ones that got away’ from today’s offering.

Book: Populuxe by Thomas Hine

British Library holding: Populuxe by Thomas Hine (London: Bloomsbury, 1987) YV.1988.b.2193

‘I came across Populuxe as an MA student and found it completely alluring. It has a beautiful pink binding and silvery blue lettering. Not many of the academic books I was reading at the time had such welcoming covers! The book is an examination of American material culture in the 1950s and ‘60s. As someone long fascinated by popular culture, its analysis was a revelation to me and helped me understand how everyday objects could be imbued with meaning. I had a literature, rather than a design or art history background, and Hine’s book helped me develop my critical thinking about material culture and the built environment. But also, it is just so much fun to read and I love poring over the fabulous illustrations.’

Book lover: Cara, Eccles Centre for American Studies

Pink front cover of Populuxe with shiny turquoise lettering
Pretty in pink. Populuxe by Thomas Hine (London: Bloomsbury, 1987) YV.1988.b.2193
   Colourful spread of cars with tailfins from Populuxe
King of the tailfin. A colourful spread from Populuxe by Thomas Hine (London: Bloomsbury, 1987) YV.1988.b.2193

Book: A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

British Library holding: A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole (Louisiana State Univ Press, 1980) 81/6110

‘There are few books which make me laugh out loud, fewer still that make me cry with laughter. A Confederacy of Dunces is one of these books. The main character, the irascible, gluttonous, and completely hilarious Ignatius J. Relly, is a wonderful creation, and following his picaresque search for truth, meaning, and the perfect hotdog is an unrivalled delight. There are all sorts of literary and philosophical allusions to unravel if you so wish, including references to the works of Boethius, Aquinas, François Rabelais and Jonathan Swift. If, however, you just want to sit back and enjoy the ride through the backstreets and dive bars of 1960s New Orleans, there is no better driver than Ignatius and his creator, John Kennedy Toole.’

Book lover: Philip, Eccles Centre for American Studies

Front cover of A Confederacy of Dunces including illustration of detective with sword in one hand and a hotdog in the other
Hotdog with a side of sword. A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole (Louisiana State Univ Press, 1980) 81/6110

Book: Elogio y paisaje by Nancy Morejón

British Library holding: Ciudad de La Habana: Ediciones Unión, c1996. (YA.2000.a.31155)

‘I like to read poetry in the summer holidays, especially after lunch when time goes slower and you can put the book down after each poem and leave the words floating in the air. This year I have loved Nancy Morejón’s Elogio y Paisaje, a book containing two poetry collections, Elogio de la danza (Ode to Dance) and Paisaje célebre (Famous Landscape).  Morejón (Havana, 1944) is perhaps the most prominent voice of Cuban poetry today, as well as a translator and a scholar of the poetry of Nicolas Guillén. For English speakers, a bilingual edition of her poems, Looking Within: Selected Poems, 1954-2000 = Mirar adentro: poemas escogidos, 1954-2000 is available at YC.2003.a.20176.’

Book lover: Mercedes, American and Australasian Collections

Pink front cover of Elogio y paisaje by Nancy Morejón with illustration of faces and trees
Words floating in the air... Front cover of Elogio y paisaje by Nancy Morejón (Ciudad de La Habana: Ediciones Unión, c1996) YA.2000.a.31155

Book: Restricted Images: Made with the Warlpiri of Central Australia by Patrick Waterhouse

British Library holding: London: SPBH Editions, 2018. (YC.2019.b.1013)

WARNING – Members of Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities are respectfully advised that a number of people mentioned in the text and depicted in the images of this publication have died.

‘This book has always stuck in my mind and is one that has since influenced my own practice as a curator. Over many trips to Warlpiri country in Central Australia, British artist, Patrick Waterhouse, photographed members of the Yeunduma and Nyirrpi Aboriginal communities, and then invited them to restrict and amend their own images using traditional dot painting. The project was an attempt to return the agency of their representation to the Warlpiri, whose images were used without consent and regard to their cultural beliefs in the 1899 book, The Native Tribes of Central Australia. The result is a compelling conversation about the power dynamics in photography, particularly in the colonial narratives which still dominate our library collections today.’

Book lover: Lucy, Australasian Published Collections

Front cover of Restricted Images by Patrick Waterhouse
Front cover of Restricted Images: Made with the Warlpiri of Central Australia by Patrick Waterhouse (London: SPBH Editions, 2018) YC.2019.b.1013
An example of a portrait from Restricted Images
A portrait from Restricted Images: Made with the Warlpiri of Central Australia by Patrick Waterhouse (London: SPBH Editions, 2018) YC.2019.b.1013

Book: New England’s Rarities Discovered by John Josselyn

British Library holding: London: For G. Widdowes, 1672. (435.a.5)

‘One of my favourite items is John Josselyn’s New England’s Rarities Discovered, which was published in London in 1672. Josselyn first visited New England in 1638 and, armed with the 1633 edition of John Gerard’s Herball, he spent a decade examining the “birds, beasts, fishes, serpents and plants of that country”. He was particularly interested in the plants used by the native population to “cure their distempers, wounds and sores”. Although its small size and rough and ready woodcuts give the impression of rather rustic work, Rarities was cited by Linneaus. Together with Josselyn’s second work, Account of Two Voyages to New England (1674), it remained the most complete summary of North American flora for more than a century.’

Book lover: Jean, Eccles Centre for American Studies

An illustration of flora from New England’s Rarities Discovered by John Josselyn
Flora: an illustration from New England’s Rarities Discovered by John Josselyn (London: For G. Widdowes, 1672) 435.a.5

Book: The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne

British Library holding: Second edition, Boston: Ticknor, Reed & Fields, 1850. (12701.i.12)

‘I resisted the temptation of pointing to Edgar Allen Poe again and have chosen to shine a light on The Scarlet Letter. It was during my first semester as an undergraduate that I was introduced to this book. It opened my eyes to a whole new world of historical American fiction. Enraptured by the story of Hester, and how her experience grapples with the ‘romance’ the novel claims to be on its title page, my love of North American literature stems, in part, from this book. Some years later I read The Handmaid’s Tale and was struck by the similarities you can draw between the two – it’s probably no surprise that this is also a favourite on my bookshelf (but we can save that for another day). This second edition has the opening note from a previous owner: “You will be much pleased with Hawthorne.” And much pleased I was.’

Book lover: Rachael, N American Published Collections

Title page of The Scarlet Letter, A Romance
'A Romance': title page from The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne (Second edition, Boston: Ticknor, Reed & Fields, 1850) 12701.i.12
A note from an owner of this edition – it reads ‘You will be much pleased with Hawthorne.’
'You will be much pleased with Hawthorne': a note from the previous owner