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

15 March 2019

25 Cats Named Sam

This weekend is the last opportunity to see the Library's free exhibition 'Cats on the Page', which celebrates our feline friends in literary and illustrated form.  It thus seemed appropriate to share two of our favourite cat-themed books with you.

One of his lesser known works, Andy Warhol's 25 Cats Named Sam and One Blue Pussy is a soul-warming depiction of the twenty-six cats that co-habited with Andy Warhol and his mother, Julia Warhola in their New York apartment.  Beautifully illustrated by Warhol, it is accompanied by his mother's distinctive script. 

Warhola Cats
Shelfmarks 1551/459 and 1551/460

Alongside this volume sits Holy Cats by Andy Warhol's Mother, which is illustrated in full by Julia.  Holy Cats opens with a dedication: "This little book is for my little Hester who left for pussy heaven".  The legend goes that the 25 Sams were acquired so that Hester wouldn't feel lonely.  Looking through the works, the influence of Julia's distinctive illustrations and creative imagination on her son is readily apparent.  Indeed, Warhol regularly worked with her throughout his illustrative and design career, both before and after his meteoric rise to fame in the art world.

Hester
little Hester who left for pussy heaven

Retellings of Andy Warhol's life are full of myth, and it is often difficult to decipher fact from fiction, and from deliberately self-perpetuated fantasy.  Perhaps one of the more widely favoured versions of Warhol is of the publicly celebrity-obsessed yet socially-awkward recluse.  More recently, Olivia Laing has written about Warhol within a lineage of artists who struggled with social acceptance and meaningful communication, whose works speak of and to the loneliness that accompanies this.  She describes Warhol thusly:

The loneliness of difference, the loneliness of undesirability, the loneliness of not being admitted into the magic circles of connection and acceptance – the social and professional groupings, the embracing arms.  Another thing: he lived with his mother.  In the summer of 1952 Julia had arrived in Manhattan… Andy had recently moved into his own apartment and she was anxious about his ability to care from himself.  The two of them shared a bedroom, as they had when he was a sick little boy, sleeping on twin mattresses on the floor and re-establishing the old production-line of collaboration.  Julia’s hand is everywhere in Warhol’s commercial work; in fact her beautifully erratic lettering won several awards.  Her housekeeping skills were less pronounced.  Both that apartment and the larger one that followed quickly degenerated into a state of squalor: a smelly labyrinth filled with wobbling towers of paper, in which as many as twenty Siamese cats made their homes, all but one of them named Sam.

It leaves a sad impression of one of the Twentieth-Centuries most recognisable artists, which is driven home by the vision of cat-filled squalor and over-protective mother.  Indeed, owning multiple cats is often seen as a sign of personal decadence.  And yet, when one reads 25 Cats Named Sam and Holy Cats, this is decidedly not the impression that one is left with.

Sam no 3
One of the Sams
Another Sam
Another Sam

The 25 Sams may share a name, but they each have distinctive portraits and in many ways it is perhaps Warhol's warmest work and is suggestive of companionship and familiarity rather than an existential loneliness.  These are also playful books, with a distinctly tongue-in-cheek self-awareness and a dry humour that is shared by mother and son.

Chapeau
Some cats go to heaven, some wear chapeaux
The Devil
and once in a while one of them goes to the devil

This is the memory that Warhol's nephew, James Warhola, an illustrator in his own right, has of his uncle and grandmother's living arrangements:

Andy was always portrayed as disconnected from his family, but this was definitely not the case. He was close to the family he had, his two brothers and their kids. Some biographers have' written that he kept his mother in a basement, like a dungeon, and I always found that odd. My grandmother lived in a beautiful apartment on the ground floor, and we hung out in her kitchen and living room.

Andy was playful, and he laughed a lot. He would always buy us gifts. There was a magic shop in Times Square, and he would get us cameras with birdies that popped out; he had an affectionate side. But it was important for him to keep up his persona, with the sunglasses and the silverish wig. He tried to stay in character.

These are the memories that he records in two children's books he has made about his uncle.  From the perspective of a child, they give a very different insight into Warhol's private life.

Uncle_andys
Uncle Andy's by James Warhola
Uncle_andys
Uncle Andy's Cats by James Warhola

Read alongside Warhol's and Julia Warhola's books, one here gets the sense that Warhol's private family life was rich, and that cats provided additional companionship for both mother and son, as well as playthings for young nephews.  While their living arrangements could be seen as alternative, by looking at these without preconceptions, we get a fuller picture of the lonely socially-awkward artist we might be looking to find.

 

In memory of Matthew Neill, former curator for Australasia and English Language Asia, and cat-lover.

References

25 Cats Named Sam and One Blue Pussy, shelfmark 1551/459

Holy Cats by Andy Warhol's Mother, shelfmark 1551/460

Olivia Laing, The Lonely City, shelfmark YKL.2018.a.4059 

Interview with James Warhola, Publishers Weekly, 1/27/2003, Vol. 250, Issue 4

 

14 March 2019

North American Indigenous languages

The North American collections section is currently recruiting for a PhD student to work on a Collaborative Doctoral Partnership PhD focusing on Indigenous languages in the post-1850 print collections.  The student will be supervised jointly by Professor Joy Porter at the University of Hull (see separately the 'Treatied Spaces' project underway there) and Dr Francisca Fuentes Rettig, curator for the North American collections at the British Library.  Additionally the student will have access to a wider support team consisting of Indigenous academics and experts in Indigenous languages, and training opportunities in languages, digital humanities, and more.

The Library has a rich collection of materials from North America in Indigenous languages.  Thanks to detailed research by our Library colleague Adrian Edwards, there is a clear record for earlier publications particularly for early Eastern Algonquian languages and early Northern Iroqouian languages.  The latter article also covers print materials up to 1900.  Additionally, we know from our internal cataloguing system that we currently have catalogue records for publications in approximately fifty North American indigenous languages.  Given that we know that there are 296 indigenous languages in North America, it is clear that significant gaps in our holdings knowledge remains.  These gaps are partly due to the nature of large historic collections with multiple origins, and the processes of libraries.  For just one example, materials predominantly in English or French language, and which contain Indigenous languages do not always clearly indicate this in catalogue records.

Another challenge is the sheer diversity of languages across North America, as well as the complexities of language cross-overs.  In the US particularly, the historic movement of languages from traditional geographical territories was a consequence of government policies of forced relocation. Policies of forced assimilation further impacted on the decline of some languages. 

Rb.23.b.7830 cover
Treaty between the United States and the Choctaw and Chickasaw Indians, shelfmark Rb.23.b.7830
RF.2018.b.80
The Catholic Sioux Herald, shelfmark RF.2018.b.80


From an information science perspective, Library systems and catalogues have of course developed historically from and within Western systems of classification of knowledge.  As such, they do not necessarily respond to the complexities of these languages and the cultural sensitivities associated with them.  Finally, the specialist knowledge that would be required to conduct a comprehensive assessment of materials is sparse in the UK.

Yh.1988.b.1362
An Ethnologic Dictionary of the Navaho Language, shelfmark YH.1988.b.1362

However, we are thankfully not starting from scratch.  Vital lessons can be learnt from our library and archives colleagues in the US, Canada, and Australasia.  In the last decades substantial amounts of research has been conducted in the field, which has seen critical interventions made by Indigenous library and information science (LIS) professionals and researchers who have developed the theory, tools, and methods to recalibrate information management systems.  They have done this with the needs of Indigenous materials in mind, working closely with communities. 

L.49 1416 a
L.49 1416 aContemporary bilingual publications in Hopi and Upper Kuskokwim Athabaskan, shelfmarks L.49/1416 ; YA.1992.a.15015 ; YA.1995.a.24337

Of particular interest are open source digital humanities projects, such as the Mukurtu platform.  Projects such as these are a major part of the effort to revitalize Indigenous languages and cultures to ensure their longevity for future generations of tribes.  Given that many languages have already died, and many more are on the UN's critically endangered list, this is important and time-sensitive work.  The new approaches present interesting challenges to a large international institution that uses massive knowledge-systems, has standardised practices, and is responsive to the growing demand for digital materials and data.  Yet, we would be remiss to see this as anything other than an important opportunity, both in intellectual and ethical terms.

It is our sincere hope that this CDP will signal the start of a longer journey towards reconsidering how we work with existing Indigenous language collections, and build a clear rationale for if, how and why we acquire such materials for future collections.  Central to this longer-term project will be open conversations with tribes.  However, the first step is to rationalise and complete existing collections knowledge so that we have a comprehensive picture of the languages and kinds of materials that we hold, so that we can identify who we need to approach.  We also need to review how existing digital humanities projects might work in a specific British Library context, and what practical challenges we could expect.  The Collaborative Doctoral Placement will play an important part in this process and, we hope, be received as a signal of our commitment to this project through the training of research, LIS, and cultural institution professionals in the UK who can carry this work forwards in future.

For any enquiries regarding the PhD opportunity, please refer to the information on our website.  The deadline for applicants is April 15.

For interested parties who do not meet the eligibility criteria of our funding body, please see the Eccles Centre website for details of alternative funding opportunities, collection guides, and bibliographies.

05 March 2019

The Power of History - Honouring Andrea Levy

As lead curator of the BL’s recent exhibition Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land  I had the great honour to meet and work with Andrea Levy. It is with great pain and heavy sorrow that I write this blog in the wake of her death. The loss of Andrea Levy from the world has left a deep wound.

Our first meeting involved a passionate conversation about the importance of history, the need to uncover the stories of everyday people’s lives, and to re construct the ties between cultures and places that have been severed through time. We talked in particular about Caribbean history, and her research into her own family history as well as the process of writing Small Island and Long Song.

Apprenticeship image - Crop

Narrative of Events Since the First of August 1834, (London: 1838) Shelfmark: Tr 148 (k)

I was deeply moved by the exchange. We both communed about the fact that our collective ability to (re)confront and (re)construct the histories of colonialism, slavery, and struggles for freedom was vital to changing our present world for the better. We discussed the urgent need for those of us who work in the cultural and heritage sector to cultivate new ways of understanding the world, and ourselves. And I felt we both understood our collaboration on the ‘Windrush’ exhibition as part of this work.

As ever, Gary Younge puts it eloquently in his Guardian piece:

“It always felt to me as though Andrea became more driven the closer she came to the end. Keen to broaden the British historical gaze beyond its borders, particularly to the Caribbean, she became increasingly frustrated with the limited and limiting imaginations of media gatekeepers when it came to the Caribbean and slavery. Resolving to use the currency she had now gained to expand our historical literacy, she pushed at every meeting and every level for a fuller, more rounded, more inclusive version of our national story.”

KTOP 123 7 (2)

 'A new Map of the West-Indies, or the Islands of America in the North Sea, together with the adjacent Dominions,’ (London: 1740) Shelfmark: K.TOP.123.7

Andrea Levy ‘s legacy is in many ways  a challenge to us all to take on the necessary, at times painful, and beautiful work of creating a more just world by creatively confronting and transforming history. - E.C.

19 February 2019

Event: Doctoral Open Day 2019

Starting a PhD can be a daunting undertaking; and getting to grips with the vast, often idiosyncratic workings of a major research Library with over 200m items can be even more daunting. This is why, for students who have recently embarked on doctoral study on any aspect of the Americas, we are putting on an Open Day on the British Libraries Americas collections and resources on Monday 18 March.

BL People_112

PhD Placement student Daniela Jimenez talks with curator Pardaad Chamsaz

The day will involve a series of general introductions to the British Library, as well as more regionally focussed presentations on Canada, the US, the Caribbean and Latin America – essentially explaining in broad terms what we have and how to find it. There will also be opportunities to ask questions individually of the curators and research teams, and attendees can tell us their topics in advance so everyone can leave the Library that day having opened up some rather promising avenues of enquiry.

We’re also very excited and grateful to be able to draw on the expertise of colleagues from other parts of the Library, who will be able to offer insights into some of the approaches and resources available through the Library (such as digital scholarship or manuscript studies) that students might not be so familiar with. There will also be first-hand insights from current PhD students who are working extensively on our collections, who can (hopefully!) confirm that the British Library is both a pleasant and fantastically useful place to spend at least some of your time over the next 3-4 years.

CDP students 2017

British Library CDP students, including Naomi Oppenheim and Jodie Collins, discuss their work

Finally, as well as introducing the collections, we give students the chance to get to know the Library spatially and architecturally – so we’re offering the chance, during the lunchbreak, for students to take ‘sound tours’ of the main St Pancras building.  Not only are these a wonderful opportunity to explore the main building but they will also showcase the breadth of material contained in the Library’s Sound Archive, a resource that is often over looked by researchers.  As part of last year’s excellent Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land exhibition, the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage project invited volunteers to use the Library’s Sound Archive to curate tours which reflect on black British history within the physical space of the Library.  One of the tour guides has kindly agreed to lead our Americas Doctoral Students through this unique experience.

Windrush sound points

Listening points in the Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land exhibition

These different sessions will all be accompanied by a great deal of tea, coffee, cake and sandwiches, and a lot of very enthusiastic staff who are really passionate about getting PhD students in to work on our Americas collections. The full programme for the day can be found here.  To find out more and to book visit the event page.  If you have any questions, please feel free to contact the Eccles Centre via eccles-centre@bl.uk.

15 February 2019

Witch-hunts and the iconographic power of fear

Lost among other headlines, today brought news of a fascinating discovery in the Cresswell Crags in the British Midlands: approximately 1000 apotropaic markings, also known as witches markings.  Research is ongoing by Historic England to understand more about this latest discovery at the Crags, but it seems as though they belong to a rich history of markings made to protect against witches.  Typical markings include "the double 'VV' engravings, which may make reference to Mary, Virgin of Virgins and PM is Pace Maria.  Other designs are believed to be devices for capturing ‘evil’. These include diagonal lines, boxes and mazes and could be a response to a period of unexpected sickness, death or poor crops".

Given this latest witch related discovery, it seemed appropriate to introduce readers to a new acquisition by up-and-coming New York based illustrator and book artist Normandie Syken, "Little Red Witch" which shall be available in the reading rooms very shortly, at shelfmark HS.74/2395 .  This rather large yet exquisitely detailed book is a contemporary re-telling of the infamous Brothers Grimm tale, with a twist: the story is set in Salem, Massachusetts during the 17th Century witch trials that saw 185 people accused of witchcraft in a one-year period, resulting in 59 trials and 19 executions.  By far the vast majority of the accused were women, and where men were accused it was most often by association with a female witch (usually a family member).

   

DSC_0477
Binding of 'Little Red Witch' shelfmark HS.74/2395

DSC_0477

This is, then, clearly not going to be your average fairytale.  Our witch heroine is sent from Salem to her witch grandmother's cottage in the woods to wait out the anti-witch hysteria overtaking Salem with her loyal companion, an unnamed black cat.  

DSC_0479 DSC_0479
 

En route, she enjoys the freedoms offered by the woods to celebrate her true witch nature, along with new-found woodland friends with whom she shares a midnight dance around a fire.  Amongst the revellers is a wolf of whom our heroine is far from intimidated, recognising in him a fellow in the dark arts.

DSC_0484

Nonetheless, the wolf betrays her confidence and so the book returns to the more familiar narrative of 'Little Red Riding Hood'. 

DSC_0482
"What big teeth you have"

However, this only lasts a short while before further twists on the narrative are introduced.  Notably, there is no woodcutter to save the day.  Instead Little Red and her grandmother apply their witch knowledge and cunning to save themselves from their seemingly terrible fate.  

DSC_0485
Brewing a wolf-potion

What is particularly interesting about this retelling is how a number of themes that emerged from the Salem witch trials are integrated into the narrative.  Some of these, such as the ever present black cat, broomstick, and cauldron are now instantly recognisable elements of the popular imagining of witches.  Others are less iconographic: single women, particularly spinsters; inherited inter-generational witchcraft; an ability to commune and speak with animals; familiarity with herbal remedies; speaking with the Devil; causing harm through poppets (doll-like effigies); the power of words to curse; and of course the symbols of witchcraft which have their counterpoint in the protective markings seen at Cresswell Crags.  While some of these may not have appeared in a 'Family Fortunes' list of witches' traits ('Family Feuds' for our US readers), they are nonetheless all uncannily familiar.  Such is the power of historic narratives to traverse centuries, particularly those that invoke fear of the unknown and suspicion of difference.

It should come as no surprise then that all of the above can be found in the historical record as anecdotal evidence used to accuse people of witchcraft, both in witch-hunts in Britain and those that took place in the American colonies.  The imagined threat of witches clearly posed a very real danger to individuals and society in the early modern period. Estimates of numbers of people who were killed during European witchhunts vary from 40,000 up to 500,000 over 300 years.

Of course, much of the 'identifying' characteristics of witches were heavily gendered: women's work and women's words were read through a sinister lens.  As Carol F. Karlsen groundbreaking sociological history of the Salem witch trials details, "witchcraft played a critical role not only in shaping, maintaining, and describing [the social structure of New England], but in reconciling men's feelings about women with the demographic, economic, religious and sexual changes of the time."  They are words that are important to reflect on, particularly considering that witch-hunts continue to be a present threat in some areas of the world where women continue to be at highest risk of persecution.

Read in this light, 'Little Red Witch' reclaims the negative connotations of witchcraft, which Normandie Syken uses to carve her very own mischievously dark fairytale, and a formidable heroine in 'Little Red'.

DSC_0483
Witches' ally, cuddling wolf-poppet.

 

NB: The author gifted several prints from the book upon acquisition.  As these are contained within the book, and with the author's permission, we felt it appropriate to donate these to another home where they have the opportunity to be seen by a wider audience.  We are pleased that the Glasgow Women's Library will shortly be the new home to these prints, together with a spare copy of Karlsen's book to provide a little more context.

 

Images on this page are all reproduced with permission of Normandie Syken, with whom copyright remains.  We kindly ask that you please respect this.

References

Normandie Syken, Little Red Witch, HS.74/2395

Carol F. Karlsen, The Devil in the Shape of a Woman: Witchcraft in Colonial New England. British Library shelfmark YH.1988.a.422 

"Witches' Marks Discovery 'Largest in Britain'.  Historic England: https://historicengland.org.uk/whats-new/news/witches-marks-discovery-largest-in-britain 

- F.D Fuentes Rettig

13 February 2019

A man of his word: Abraham Lincoln and the Proclamation of Emancipation

Abraham Lincoln was born on 12 February 1809 so we're taking a moment to shine a light on the 16th president of the United States of America through a new acquisition.

President Lincoln was responsible for issuing of the Emancipation Proclamation which declared forever free those slaves within the Confederacy in 1863. When a c.1865 edition of the Proclamation recently arrived in the Americas office for cataloguing, it did more than slightly pique the interest of the little historian/wannabe typographer/lover-of-all-things-beautiful inside of me.

Photo of the Proclamation of Emancipation with calligraphic portrait of Abraham Lincoln
Proclamation of Emancipation with calligraphic portrait of Abraham Lincoln, circa 1865

Designed and written by William H Pratt and printed by Augustus Hageboeck in Iowa, the delicate broadside features the Emancipation Proclamation text in a detailed calligraphic portrait of Lincoln, beard and all (for those hankering for more handwriting goodness, our Writing: Making Your Mark exhibition is open until 27 August 2019). Hageboeck used lithography to create this masterpiece – a process in which ‘lines are drawn with greasy ink or crayon on a specially prepared limestone, which is then moistened with water; an oily printer's ink, applied to the surface of the stone with a roller, is attracted to the image. This is then printed on to the paper under pressure.’ (R J Goulden, Aspects of the Victorian Book, Lithography in the Victorian age)

Is this the epitome of ‘embodiment’? A number of features can be seen within the impeccable writing of the portrait including wider spacing to create a ‘lighter’ effect of the backdrop and Lincoln’s shirt, bold font to create his hair, and a shadow is added to give an even darker result for Lincoln’s suit. Look closer still and extra curvature is added to the lettering to create the effect of the eyes. Interestingly over the eyes, the key words ‘That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three…’ can be seen. Possibly suggesting Lincoln’s looking ahead to a new time in the United States; his vision becoming reality and signifying a monumental shift for the nation.

The observations to pick up are seemingly endless. Further particulars include a banner depicting a rather fierce looking American eagle, illustrated seals of the States, and within the inner circle, the names of the members of Congress who supported the Constitution’s 13th Amendment.

A close-up of Lincoln's jacket in portrait showing use of bold calligraphy
A contrast of techniques create the details of the portrait including varied spacing between words, bold and shadowed fonts

 

A close-up of Lincoln's eyes in portrait showing use of different calligraphic styles and the years
It’s in the eyes: elaborate shaping of lettering creates the president’s features

 

A close up of the names of the members of Congress who supported the Constitution’s 13th Amendment
Names of the members of Congress who supported the Constitution’s 13th Amendment

 

Close up of the illustrations of the seals of the States including Florida and South Carolina
Illustrated seals of the States

Possibly produced for propaganda purposes, Lincoln here embodies his famous words. The calligraphic portrait demonstrating a unity between the subject and his work, almost giving more gravitas to the words themselves rather than the hero who issued them. The words quite literally shape the man.

This brief introduction barely touches the surface when it comes to the level of detail to be explored in this telling item. It’s sure to provide an interesting primary resource for researchers intrigued by its history, printing and design techniques, and the story of the man at its centre. We’ll be sharing the shelfmark details as soon as the item is available in the Reading Rooms.

In the meantime, happy belated 210th birthday, Abe.

Suggested reading

Lithography (English version by Julian Snelling and Claude Namy) by Renée Loche. Shelfmark: X29/3642

Typographics: a designer's handbook of printing techniques by Michael Hutchins. Shelfmark: W41/5588

Abraham Lincoln by Louise S Upham. Shelfmark: RB.23.b.7019.(243)

President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. Shelfmark: 1880.d.1.(35*.)

 

Blog by RSW (still losing herself in the treasures of the Library’s Americas collections)

01 February 2019

The Federal Theatre Project's 'Living Newspapers'

Last month we celebrated the life of Hallie Flanagan, director of the ground-breaking Federal Theatre Project (1935-39). This blog will look at one of the Federal Theatre’s most innovative and controversial accomplishments: the ‘Living Newspapers’. It will also share our realisation concerning the connection between Hallie Flanagan and Mary Eccles, co-founder of the British Library’s Eccles Centre for American Studies.

Flanagan first encountered living newspapers – in which social and political issues were given theatrical form – while visiting the Soviet Union in 1926. Such productions had emerged during the Russian Civil War as a means of promoting a pro-Soviet version of the news to the largely illiterate Red Army troops. Following the Bolshevik victory, this agitprop art form continued developing and expanding. In 1923 the hugely influential collective 'Blue Blouse' was founded under the auspices of the Moscow School of Journalism. By 1928 more than 7,000 Blue Blouse troupes had been established across the nation. Performances typically opened with a parade of ‘headlines’, followed by a dozen or so humorous or satirical  sketches on topics as diverse as trouble in a local factory to religion and international relations. Siniaia Bluza (Moscow, 1924-28; shelfmark ZA.9.d.615) - the irregularly published Blue Blouse periodical - supported these performances, containing suggestions for staging, sets and costumes as well as librettos for skits.  

Blue Blouse 1927

Siniaia Bluza, 71-72 (1927): 32. Moscow, 1924-28. Shelfmark: ZA.9.d.615

Flanagan attended several Blue Blouse productions in Moscow. In Shifting Scenes of the Modern European Theatre (London, 1929; shelfmark 011805.i.61) she notes: 'At Trade Union or Factory theatres, the Blue Blouses, workers by day and actors by night, perform original acrobatic plays'. She particularly recalls attending a production in which ‘three men and three girls glorify workers of the Army, the Navy, the farms, and factories’. [1] Rejecting elaborate props and sets, the actors energetically climbed imaginary rigging, planted imaginary crops and controlled imaginary machinery: 'Each motif reached its climax in a refrain taken up by the audience, a refrain consisting of the repetition of a single word, Comrade – half sung, half shouted: Tovarish! Tovarish! Tovarish! The effect of this exuberance was an amazing impression of having seen, not three men and three girls in an amateur song and dance, but a forest of ships with sailors in the rigging, a battalion of soldiers, a commonwealth of farm and factory hands all linked in a comradeship of work.' [2]

A decade later, in one of her earliest conversations with WPA director, Harry Hopkins, Flanagan suggested the Federal Theatre could produce a series of living newspapers involving many people taking on small parts. Hopkins immediately concurred and the Federal Theatre's principle Living Newspaper Unit was established in New York City soon after. Headed by playwright Elmer Rice – who, like Flanagan, had visited the Soviet Union – the Unit included theatre professionals and out-of-work journalists. From the outset it attracted controversy. Its first production – Ethiopia, about the recent invasion by Mussolini – was issued with a federal censorship order, prompting Rice’s resignation. And its third – Injunction Granted, with its pro-union/anti-big business stance – was criticised by federal government officials and closed early. Several living newspapers were hugely successful, however; most notably, One-Third of a Nation.

One-Third-of-a-Nation-Poster

Poster for One-Third of a Nation at the Aldelphi Theatre, New York City, 1938. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Inspired by President Roosevelt's second inaugural address in which he recognised that one third of the nation were ‘ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished’, the play dramatized the living conditions – the crime, disease, and powerlessness – endured by those in urban slum tenements. It also offered some solutions. After being workshopped at Vassar under Flanagan's direction in the summer of 1937, it was staged in cities across the United States, with revisions reflecting local conditions. In Philadelphia, for example, reference was made to a city tenement house that had collapsed two days before opening night.

Everywhere, reviews of One-Third of a Nation were positive. The Detroit Tribune declared it to be: ‘… of vital interest to every Negro living in Michigan’. The New Orleans Times-Picayune called it ‘timely and shrewdly staged’. In San Francisco it ran for nearly two years. And at New York’s Adelphi Theatre over 200,000 people cheered as the life-like slum housing went up in flames and the ‘The Consumer’ cried out to the government: ‘Can you hear me, Washington? Give me a decent home!’

One-Third-of-a-Nation-Set

Photo of the New York set of the Federal Theatre Project's One-Third of a Nation, 1938. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

And it seems that Washington did hear, but in both a positive and negative way. Eleanor Roosevelt believed One-Third of a Nation achieved more than any speeches by her, Langdon Post (Head of the New York City Housing Authority), or even her husband ever could. But numerous senators were offended that their views on housing – taken word-for-word from the Congressional Record – were included in the play.

Flanagan later reflected in Arena: The History of the Federal Theatre (New York: Benjamin Blom, 1965; shelfmark X.900/3282) that: ‘Enemies made by the living newspaper were, I believe, powerful enemies, instrumental in the final closing of the project.’ [3] Yet, she never regretted her decisions. And she never lost her conviction in the power of this art form. Indeed, in 1948 she co-wrote a new play - E = mc2: A Living Newspaper about the Atomic Age - boldly declaring in its foreword: ‘The theatrical effectiveness of the “living newspaper” was conclusively demonstrated in the productions of Power and One-Third of a Nation. This latest edition of the "living newspaper" compares most favorably with the previous ones.' (New York: Samuel French, 1948; shelfmark 011791.c.47) 

Atomic 2

Hallie Flanagan, E = mc2: A Living Newspaper about the Atomic Age.  New York: Samuel French, 1948. Shelfmak: 011791.c.47

Finally, we wanted to share our recent realisation that Mary Eccles – co-founder of the British Library’s Eccles Centre for American Studies – was a student at Vassar College at the very time that Hallie Flanagan established the Vassar Experimental Theatre. Colleagues at the Centre knew about Mary's doctoral  thesis, 'Playwriting for Elizabethans, 1600-1605'. We were also aware anecdotally of her interest in avant-garde theatre. Yet, we had never connected Mary with Flanagan. With hindsight, it seems inconceivable that Mary would not have worked with, and surely been influenced by, this extraordinary, ground-breaking woman. In this vein, we will conclude with this wonderful, scandalous newspaper clipping about Mary (née Crapo) breaking conventions and enjoying a 'healthy drag' on a cigarette during her college years! 

Mary Crapo smoking

References:

[1]. Hallie Flanagan, Shifting Scenes of the Modern European Theatre. London: George G Harrap & Co., 1929, p. 108. Shelfmark: 011805.i.61.

[2]. ibid., p. 109.

[3]. Hallie Flanagan, Arena: The History of the Federal Theatre. New York: Benjamin Blom, 1965, p. 221. Shelfmark: X.900/3282.

Jean Petrovic, Eccles Centre for American Studies

21 January 2019

To Edgar, from Aubrey: bringing Poe’s tales to life

Gothic author Edgar Allan Poe was born on 19 January 1809 in Boston, Massachusetts. To mark this moment 210 years ago, I took to the collections to explore some of the most iconic illustrations of his stories, and of the man himself.

For some time I’ve been rather taken by Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations of Poe’s mysterious and startling tales; his style seemingly a perfect fit for some of Poe’s most grotesque and alarming scenes. Privately printed in 1926 in Indianapolis, Illustrations to Edgar Allen Poe (British Library shelfmark 7852.t.19.) features a striking golden cover and contains an array of Beardsley’s interpretations of Poe’s work including images for ‘The Black Cat’, 'The Mask of the Red Death', and ‘The Murder in the Rue Morgue’.

Front cover to ‘Illustrations to Edgar Allen Poe’ by Aubrey Beardsley including gold illustration of The Black Cat
Front cover to ‘Illustrations to Edgar Allen Poe’ by Aubrey Beardsley

Beardsley, born in Brighton in 1872, was said by poet, critic and friend Arthur Symons, to have had ‘a more personal originality of manner’ and ‘so wise an influence on contemporary art’ (Aubrey Beardsley by Arthur Symons, London: At the Sign of the Unicorn, 1898, page 13) than any other artist of his day (‘certainly whose work has been in black and white’ Symons states).

Maybe it’s the darkness of Poe’s twisted tales that suit Beardsley’s bold black ink drawings. One of my favourites from the book pictured above is of the unnamed narrator in ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’, possibly of the scene at the beginning of the tale as he approaches the doomed house by the lake. The darkness from above encroaching into the frame (a sign of the impending tragedy perhaps) while his composed demeanour and regal dress are a stark contrast to the dishevelled character we see fleeing the scene by the end of the story.

Black and white illustration from The Fall of the House of Usher - the narrator heading towards the House
The Fall of the House of Usher from ‘Illustrations to Edgar Allen Poe’ by Aubrey Beardsley

As a certified cat lover (demonstrated in my previous cat blog), I tend to gravitate towards anything moggy. Despite the gruesome events of ‘The Black Cat’, Poe’s Pluto is no exception. In Beardsley’s interpretation, the feline protagonist sits atop a female – the murdered wife of the troubled narrator maybe – brazenly displaying his one-eyed face which was the result of the furious hand of his master. And, in what some would see as true cat fashion, wearing a distinctly unimpressed expression.

The evil eyebrows probably provide invaluable evidence for the ‘why cats can’t be trusted’ argument of dog people all over the globe. (Can cats be trusted? Make up your own mind with a visit to our Cats on the Page exhibition.)

Black and white illustration from The Black Cat - the cat sits atop the head of a human (possibly its owner, the narrator)
The Black Cat from ‘Illustrations to Edgar Allen Poe’ by Aubrey Beardsley

While carefully leafing through the pages of this precious item (which is one of only 107 printed for Members of the Aubrey Beardsley Club), it’s impossible not to pause on Beardsley’s portrait of Poe. Through dark and solemn eyes, to me Beardsley certainly manages to convey something of the troubles and torments Poe experienced in his lifetime.

Black and white head and shoulders portrait of Edgar Allen Poe
Portrait from ‘Illustrations to Edgar Allen Poe’ by Aubrey Beardsley

Perhaps the most arresting of the illustrations in this book is a self-portrait of Beardsley (spelled Bearsley in the caption) with Poe’s Raven in the backdrop.

Black and white self portrait of Beardsley - he sits in a chair in a dressing gown with glasses of wine on the table and surrounded by books on the floor
Self-portrait of Aubrey Bearsley dying from ‘Illustrations to Edgar Allen Poe’ by Aubrey Beardsley

Both author and illustrator had untimely deaths (Poe died aged 40), with Beardsley’s talents lasting only until he was 25 when he died of tuberculosis. Symons recalls meeting with Beardsley during his sickness and seeing him ‘lying out on a coach, horribly white’ (Aubrey Beardsley by Arthur Symons, page 7). A description hauntingly similar to the figure of Roderick Usher in the opening of Poe’s tale, who we’re told is ‘lying at full length’ and has ‘a cadaverousness of complexion’ (The Fall of the House of Usher and other writings edited by David Galloway, Penguin, 2003 ELD.DS.195031, pages 259.1-260.5). Even the setting here has a likeness to the House of Usher where ‘Dark draperies hung upon the walls’ and ‘Many books…lay scattered about’. (The Fall of the House of Usher and other writings, page 259.1).

Although Symons goes on; despite his illness Beardsley was still ‘full of ideas, full of enthusiasm’ (Aubrey Beardsley by Arthur Symons, page 7) something perhaps illustrated in this self-portrait – the wine on the table a sign of life’s little indulgences and the scattering of books on the floor and Raven appearing at the back of Beardsley’s mind implying that his lust for art, reading and writing was far from dying even as his physical health deteriorated.

Our friends over in the European Collections have more on some of the flights of Poe’s Raven and Beardsley, ‘the British master of Art Nouveau’.

Suggested reading

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

Aubrey Beardsley: A Biography by Matthew Sturgis, Pallas Athene, 2011 (YK.2018.a.1551)

Aubrey Beardsley by Stephen Calloway, V & A Publications, 1998 (YC.1999.b.3863)

Aubrey Beardsley by Arthur Symons, Baker, 1966 (X.429/1677.)

Aubrey Beardsley by Arthur Symons, London: At the Sign of the Unicorn, 1898

Tales of Mystery and Imagination by Edgar Allan Poe, Readers Library Publishing Co, 1940 (012206.ee.1/87.)

The Fall of the House of Usher and other writings: poems, tales, essays, and reviews by Edgar Allan Poe edited with an introduction and notes by David Galloway, Penguin, 2003 (BL Online Resource DRT ELD.DS.195031)

 

Written by RSW, Americas Curatorial Placement