18 May 2023
Ben Fried was a 2022 Eccles Visiting Fellow at the British Library; he recently completed his PhD at Cornell University and is currently a British Academy Newton International Fellow at the Institute of English Studies in the University of London, where he is working on 'Migrant Editors: Postwar Migration and the Making of Anglophone Literatures, 1967-1989.'
I came to the British Library in search of publishing archives—the records of how books come into the world and reach their readers. As an Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow, I was beginning a new project on 'migrant editors,' on the postwar immigrants to London who created and reinvented the capital’s literary institutions. How did migrant-led publishing houses and magazines develop through the decades of decolonization and shape later twentieth-century fiction, both British and more broadly Anglophone? I was hungry to understand the extent to which these editors harnessed and redirected London’s cultural and commercial power. I wanted to learn how their own hybrid identities influenced the writers they cultivated and the works they released. I knew the answers lay in letters, memos, pleas for money, and the margins of manuscripts.
And so I spent my month sifting through three archives in particular: the Virago Press records,1 Carmen Callil’s personal archive,2 and the files of Granta magazine (which are still being catalogued).
The famed feminist Virago Press was founded in 1973 by the Australian Callil and later led by a Canadian, Lennie Goodings. Sitting in both the Manuscripts and Maps Reading Room, I opened folder after folder of author correspondence, business plans, reader reports, all of them illustrating the fates of individual works and the larger sweep of an upstart publisher’s progress. Callil died just a few months ago, in October 2022, and her courage (not to mention her crackling wit and energy) is everywhere apparent in these archives. The picture they paint is not a solitary portrait, however, but a scene of collective literary labour, illuminated by the sparks that fly off creative relationships. Callil was a necessary node in a much wider network of readers, professional and lay, mobilizing to bring women’s stories to the centre of literary life.
Take, for instance, the folders devoted to Angela Carter, perhaps the most emblematic of Virago’s contemporary authors.3 They reveal a Carter who was as important a reader to Virago as she was a writer. You can track not only the agonizingly slow development of Carter’s Sadeian Woman (1978)—a study of the Marquis de Sade and 'the culturally determined nature of women'4—but her backstage interventions on other writers’ behalf. She submitted reports on manuscripts; she connected aspiring authors to an ambitious publisher. She acted as a go-between, and practically a second editor, for her former student Pat Barker, passing along Barker’s first novel with twelve pages of luminously insightful notes. On 8 January 1981, Callil replied that 'I’m deeply grateful to you for getting the book to me; I’ve offered for it and asked at the same time that they will let me work with her incorporating your alterations and suggestions.'5 Barker’s revised Union Street was published in 1982 and quickly became one of Virago’s biggest sellers, proof that a press famous for reprinting forgotten classics could also launch startlingly original fiction.
Granta was similarly electrified by a fresh arrival’s energy. A venerable undergraduate magazine at Cambridge which ran out of steam in the 1970s, it was relaunched by the American graduate student Bill Buford in 1979. Initially a channel for American literary influence—its first issue purveyed 'New American Writing' and its third proclaimed 'The End of the English Novel'—it became over the course of the 1980s a much broader magazine for writing in English, one that has exhilarated generations of writers and readers. The Granta records open a window onto the alchemical process of bringing an issue together. Along with his co-founders Peter de Bolla and Jonathan Levi, Buford began by working his academic connections and wielding his university’s clout, coaxing established authors to contribute and letting would-be writers down gently, hustling for grant money and blowing past unpaid bills. Given such ingredients and such results, it’s rather fitting that Buford followed up his celebrated editorial career with an equally ravenous second act as a cooking-mad writer.
One of the most famous of all Granta issues—the Spring 1983 number devoted to 'The Best of Young British Novelists'—shows how vision and opportunism, readerly recognition and marketing flair, could combine in the editorial act. Buford neither initiated nor chose this list of promising young writers. Rather, the 'Best of British' began as a promotional ploy by the Book Marketing Council. But Buford and Granta seized the potential of the list as an issue-shaping, generation-defining, audience-enticing format.6 They built on the Council’s own marketing push, selected excerpts from each author’s work, and made the list palpable to the reading public. Buford’s textual suggestions were not universally welcome. William Boyd embraced the idea of shifting a story’s pronouns, while Maggie Gee 'rejected every one of the [editor’s] 47 emendations.'7 Nevertheless, the magazine reaped the reward. Its cachet as a cultural arbiter immeasurably enhanced, Granta has returned to the format every ten years to anoint a new cohort (its latest 'Best of Young British Novelists' issue dropped just weeks ago).
I think of editors like Callil and Buford as readers with power—the power to select, revise, and reject. Editorial reading can be a generous force, releasing the creativity of others and realizing the potential in the text. By the same token, it may also be damaging, turning the tap off as well as on. Insofar as they can be recovered in archives such as those held by the British Library, the editor’s contributions tell us a great deal about writers, readers, and publishing institutions—about where and how power and creativity intersect.
1. Add MS 88904.
2. Add MS 889178.
3. In the 1970s and 80s, Virago was primarily known for reprint publishing: recovering and reissuing the works of neglected women writers. The Virago Modern Classics series, with its beloved green spines, introduced a generation to the books of Sylvia Townsend Warner, Stevie Smith, Christina Stead, Rosamond Lehmann, and many, many others. See D-M Withers, Virago Reprints and Modern Classics: The Timely Business of Feminist Publishing (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2021).
4. The Sadeian Woman and the Ideology of Pornography (London: Virago 1978), 1.
5. Add MS 88904/1/60.
6. See Myles Oldershaw, “Granta and the Advent of the Contemporary,” Journal of Modern Literature 43.1 (Fall 2019), pp. 150-168.
7. Deposit 11183 L. in 44.
07 February 2023
Cassie Quarless is a filmmaker was a 2020 Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow at the British Library.
As a documentary director, a large part of my job is mining my mind and my experiences for subjects that I am excited about and that I want to share with others. One such subject is the connection and exchange that exists between the music and musical cultures of the Caribbean, United States, United Kingdom and West Africa. During my time at the British Library I sought to research this further.
I was really struck by the British Library's collection and its wealth of Black British music, which spans a wide range of genres and styles, from early blues and jazz to contemporary grime and hip hop. The collection holds a wealth of resources for researchers, including sheet music, recordings, and concert programmes, as well as a range of scholarly publications and academic works on the subject.
One of the main issues that I had at the British Library - coming from the film/moving image space and having had a background as a DJ - was that I really wanted to be able to riffle through the Library’s collections like one would in a friend’s home or in a record store. After having spoken to and met with various incredibly knowledgeable members of the British Library staff, I ultimately got the hang of the different systems that the Library uses to catalogue its extensive collections and was able to navigate them in a more natural way.
One particular non-recorded music gem for me was the unpublished collection of correspondences by Andrew Salkey, a Caribbean-born writer and publisher who played a crucial role in promoting Black art and literature in Britain during the 1960s and 70s. These letters offer a unique perspective on the experiences and thoughts of one of the leading figures in the Black arts movement, and provide valuable insights into the cultural, political, and artistic context of the time.
I was particularly struck by Andrew Salkey’s correspondences with the Jamaican poet and academic Kamau Braithwaite and what they suggested about the expressed sharing of knowledge and thoughts about art (whether they be visual, literary or musical). Much of the correspondence that I read was dated from the mid-60s and onward into the 70s.
Both sides of my family are from the Caribbean (Grenada to be precise) and I was always regaled with stories of family ties and friendships that were lost through migration to the United Kingdom, other Caribbean islands or to Latin America. It had basically become a foregone conclusion for me that within the context of the Caribbean and its diaspora, the distance of the sea meant the death or at least serious atrophy of social connections during the 60s and 70s. When it came to music, it was felt that records from the Caribbean came to these shores with much of their context and intellectual intention removed - after all, only the most successful acts actually got to travel to the UK to perform and to spread their messages.
What Salkey’s correspondence with Braithwaite underscored was how much conversation was happening between interested parties across the Atlantic. People were not only exchanging art critique but also referring to their cross-nationally intermingled lives and social connections.
I am sad that my time as an Eccles Fellow at the British Library will end before the launch of its landmark exhibition centred on Black British music presented in collaboration with the University of Westminster. I was, however, definitely impressed by the British Library's collection and the breadth of materials that it contained. The collection not only documents the music itself, but also the broader cultural and social context in which it was created. This includes a range of materials that shed light on the experiences of Black musicians in Britain, including recordings of live performances, interviews with musicians and industry professionals, and articles and essays on the subject.
As a filmmaker and as a fan of music, my time at the British Library has definitely given me some new and valuable insights, but more importantly it has gotten me thinking even more deeply about the connections that I was looking to elucidate. I will be back here often as my project progresses.
17 January 2023
The Henry Moore Institute in Leeds is currently displaying seven items from British Library collections as part of their FREE exhibition, The Colour of Anxiety: Race, Sexuality and Disorder in Victorian Sculpture – open until 26 February 2023
Two of the items in the Institutes’ main galleries for this spectacular exhibition are from the Americas collections held here at the British Library. It’s always great to be able to loan items from the Library to other museums and galleries. For starters, it means more people gain access to viewing the works, those who might not ordinarily consult collection items in the Library’s Reading Rooms, or be in the London vicinity to see items on display at our St Pancras site. Secondly, it’s wonderful to see the items interpreted by a multitude of experts and curators, often placing the item in a completely different context from the library setting we’re used to. In this case, as the title of the exhibition suggests, the books are alongside an array of fantastic sculptures as the display brings into focus a rich yet largely overlooked body of sculptural work collected in Britain between 1850 and 1900. The exhibition examines objects that introduced colour and new materials into the sculptural process, situating them within the context of the anxiety which often weighed upon Victorian society in the face of social change and scientific advances.
The exhibition has had great reviews from The Observer and The Telegraph so don’t miss out on seeing it. Here’s a quick peek at the items from the Library’s Americas collections on display – if you want to find out more and see some remarkable sculptures do make time for a visit to Leeds.
The Time Machine by H. G. Wells (BL shelfmark: 012629.de.20.)
This science fiction novella by H. G. Wells is generally credited with popularising the concept of time travel by using a device to travel forward or backward through time. Indeed, the term itself, ‘time machine’, was coined by Wells and is now commonly used to refer to such a vehicle. This edition of The Time Machine was printed in New York in 1895 by the American book-publishing house Henry Holt and Company.
This first American edition, first issue, preceded the British edition and you’ll see the author’s name is misspelled as H. S. Wells on the title page and on the Authors Note as ‘H.S.W.’ – something that was later corrected in the British edition. Unable to let the error slide, a past reader ever in search of correctness has at some point noted in pencil the correction of ‘H. G. Wells’ on the title page under the misprint, initialled simply by the letter ‘K’. As well as the misspelling of Wells’s name being corrected for the English edition, according to science-fiction editor Mike Ashley, this American edition is a shorter version than the English but was published two weeks earlier and is regarded today as particularly collectable. It will certainly be interesting to see this item on display in the Henry Moore Institute Galleries as just one example illustrating anxieties about rapid social change and developments in science that were occurring during the Victorian era.
The Vampire. A poem ... Written for a picture by Philip Burne-Jones exhibited at the New Gallery in London, 1897. [With a reproduction of the picture.] by Rudyard Kipling (BL shelfmark: Cup.402.a.30.)
Also on display from the British Library Americas collections is The Vampire by Rudyard Kipling, printed by Woodward & Lothrop of Washington DC in 1898. Whilst doing some digging in the archives for approving this outward loan, I discovered the item was acquired by the Department of Printed Books at the British Museum Library in the spring of 1961. Purchased from a second-hand bookstore based in New York for the handsome price of £5 it was bought along with a scarce pamphlet on Rudyard Kipling entitled American Oats (BL shelfmark: Cup.503.l.26.). The Vampire was catalogued by the British Museum Library team swiftly as is shown by the red Library stamp dated 15 May 1961.
Kipling wrote the poem to gather publicity for what was then considered a mildly pornographic painting by his cousin, the artist Philip Burne-Jones, entitled ‘The Vampire’ (1897) – the piece would become Burne-Jones’s most famous work. The painting depicts a woman leaning over an unconscious man and was believed to have been modelled by the actress Mrs Patrick Campbell – with whom Burne-Jones had been romantically linked. This painting is an example of how, despite Victorian ideals of virginity and chastity circulating at the time, male artists responded to and reinforced an increasingly sexualised representation of the female body in art, reflecting fears regarding the changing role of women. Indeed, Kipling’s poem echoes this notion also.
Alongside items from British Library collections, visitors to The Colour of Anxiety: Race, Sexuality and Disorder in Victorian Sculpture will be able to see artworks from the Royal Academy of Arts, the Royal Collection Trust and Aberystwyth University School of Art Museum and Galleries and pieces created by artists sculpting during the Victorian period, as well as more contemporary spectacles from the likes of Sanford Biggers and Maud Sulter. The exhibition runs until 26 February 2023 and is free to visit. Find out more and plan your visit via the Henry Moore Institute website.
Blog by Rachael, Curator for North American Published Collections Post-1850
 Out of this world: Science fiction but not as you know it by Mike Ashley, page 49 (London: British Library, 2011), BL shelfmark: YK.2011.b.8873
14 November 2022
My thanks go to Alan Stein for granting permission to use images of his artwork in this blog
The Americas team is fortunate to work with some fascinating items that cross our desks for a variety of reasons from exhibition loans to Reader queries. Through the On my desk blog series, we ask the team three questions which will give you an insight into the work of curators and cataloguers at the Library and a behind-the-scenes peek at some of the items in the collections. Today’s post features Rachael, one of the curators for the Library’s North American Published Collections Post-1850.
What is the item?
On Spirit Lake: Georgian Bay Stories with wood engravings by Alan Stein and introduction by Tom Smart (RF.2022.b.35) – a fine press book from 2018 printed by The Church Street Press, based in Parry Sound, Ontario, Canada.
Why is it on your desk?
While standard Canadian monographs are processed by our teams in Boston Spa, the more delicate fine press items are invoiced, stamped, catalogued and stored at our London site in St Pancras.
On Spirit Lake: Georgian Bay Stories is on my desk because it's a new acquisition which needed to be stamped before passing onto the Americas Cataloguer who makes the item available and, very importantly, findable in the British Library catalogue.
I always love visiting the stamping room; seeing the team delicately place a handstamp on an item means it’s one step closer to being made available to Readers. The stamping team make sure all new acquisitions display a British Library stamp in a way that clearly shows a mark of ownership but which is discreet enough to not invade or obscure the content on the item’s pages. A steady hand is needed, particularly where artists’ books, fine press and other visually appealing items are concerned, materials you might see displayed in exhibitions for example.
As you’ll notice, this book displays a small British Library (BL) stamp and crown (unlike the larger round stamps used on standard monographs) in red ink, indicating this has been a purchase – rather than a donation (green) or arrived via Legal Deposit (blue).
Why is it interesting?
For me this item is interesting for a number of reasons. Firstly, having lived in Canada for a short time in my youth, I always find it a bit of a treat to look through books which focus on the unique landscapes found there.
Painter and a printmaker Alan Stein established Church Street Press in 1998; through his private press, he hand prints limited edition books which feature his own illustrations in wood engravings, like the ones here, or stone lithography. Alan states that much of his work ‘has been influenced by summers spent on Georgian Bay’, and this book, as the title implies, epitomises that. Alan’s archives are held at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, University of Toronto.
Georgian Bay – a large bay of Lake Huron – is located entirely within the borders of Ontario. As Tom Smart (art historian and curator) explains in his introduction, the book comprises a number of authors whose ‘prose poems, fictional narratives, autobiographical episodes and…invented passages from historical records’ examine the influence the Bay has had on their lives and works. I find it fascinating how the same natural spectacle has had such deep connections with so many authors and artists, many more beyond the pages of this book I’m sure, and how that influence manifests itself so differently from person to person; inspiring them to write on topics from climate change to culinary encounters.
One contribution that stood out for me when reading this item is Manido-gaming by Waubgeshig Rice. An eight-year-old Anishinaabeg boy fishes on the side of his lake, his grandmother beside him, the boy asking the elder about the Anishinaabeg presence that has been at the lake before his lifetime, and before hers. Through their exchange, the lake becomes a kind of metaphor for the Anishinaabeg experience: ‘It gives us all life. It’s sacred. And it’s your home, my boy’ his grandmother tells him. But looking at the town of recreational homes across the bay, reminders of displacement are ever-present: the young boy observes that ‘[u]nder the wind-swept evergreens of its shoreline, Georgian Bay’s flowing contradictions whirled.’ The title of this story, Manido-gaming, refers to the name by which the innumerable Anishinaabeg generations who have lived on or near the Bay’s shores, know the body of water: “Manidoo gaming,” or “spirit lake”.
As well as being of potential research interest to those studying Canadian and Indigenous authors and Canadian landscapes in literature, I should also mention the beauty of this book physically. The mottled watery effect cover invites the reader to dive into the pages.
Stein’s prints not only interpret the words as image, but also ‘trace a personal iconography testifying to his own deep connection to the land and water and to the histories of the place’. These comprise 14 wood engravings including one stunning hand-coloured in blue, green, yellow and red showing a more tempestuous scene printed on Gampi Torinoko. Alan kindly gave me some insight into the inspiration for this frontispiece image: this being a tale Alan was told by his friend, Canadian poet and diplomat, Douglas Valentine LePan, about the dream of a local native Ojibway guide by the name Peter Pemajuan. The rough, rocky-coloured pages add a real tangible element to reading the book will no doubt appeal to researchers interested in paper- and book-making techniques, engraving, printing and binding.
Remember you just need a free Reader Pass to gain access to this and hundreds more fine press items in the Library’s collections. Find out more about the titles available using our collections guide and the bibliographic guide from the Eccles Centre for American Studies.
 Lithography being a ‘flat-surface printmaking process in which a design is drawn onto a flat stone, or prepared metal plate, usually zinc or aluminium, and affixed by means of a chemical reaction’. Definition provided by The Metropolitan Museum of Art, for more details see https://www.metmuseum.org/about-the-met/collection-areas/drawings-and-prints/materials-and-techniques/printmaking/lithograph
 From the book’s introduction by Tom Smart
 ‘Ancestral Waters’ by Waubgeshig Rice, an excerpt from Locations Of Grief: An Emotional Geography: http://hamiltonreviewofbooks.com/blog/2020/5/15/ancestral-waters
 From the book’s introduction by Tom Smart
 ‘Gampi Torinoko is a strong, crisp sheet that is translucent, with almost no visible fibres. Gampi is a bush found in the mountainous, warm areas of Japan’. Definition provided by Legion Paper, for more details see https://legionpaper.com/gampi-torinoko
05 October 2022
Dr. Tatiani Rapatzikou is Associate Professor in the Department of American Literature and Culture, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece, and was a 2020 Eccles Visiting Fellow at the British Library.
My visit to the British Library in April and August 2022 was fully dedicated to the exploration of diverse primary and secondary sources that fall under the theme of book design, materiality, and storytelling in the context of print and digital American literary practice.
With the Library having in its holdings an array of uniquely made books by contemporary US-based print makers, I felt that I had only scraped the tip of the iceberg.
While searching for my own project, I came across and I was tempted to explore a number of paper-made gems that fueled my curiosity and whetted my appetite for this area of American literary, as well as publishing, experience. The first example I’d like to share is the Loujon Press 1966 volume titled Order and Chaos Chez Reichel by Henry Miller (see Fig. 1) that I had been reading about but had never seen.
Made out of a range of materials such as coloured paper, cork and tissue-lace paper, and coming in a decorated cardboard slipcase, this is a unique codex creation. This special volume contains, in addition to Miller’s own text, an introduction contributed by Lawrence Durrell, one of his close friends, written in red ink on light blue and beige-coloured paper. In the opening paragraph of the introduction, Durrell writes: “This little book is, if my memory serves me right, only one of several which Miller completed around this time (1937-38) and gave to his friends as personal gifts” (7). This particular book creation was dedicated to Miller’s painter friend, Hans Reichel, whom he met during his Paris days in the late 1930s. Building on Miller’s initially handwritten book-letter to Reichel on printer’s dummies, Jon and Louise "Gypsy Lou" Webb, the founders of the New Orleans-based Loujon Press, published Miller’s Order and Chaos in six limited editions, each one resorting to different materials and bindings.
The specific book mentioned here serves as a memento of a special friendship. Ιt is the tactile and visual as well as colour quality of the materials used (paper, cork, tissue, ink) that transfer to the readers Miller’s diverse thoughts and feelings for his painter friend.
The second example, I’d like to point at is the limited edition of a broadside poem project (see Fig. 2), which started in 1982 with Alastair Reed and continued in 1984 with Dana Gioia, aiming to bring together a diverse range of poems by American poets residing in fourteen different US states. Amidst the poets who participated in this special endeavor were: May Swenson, W.S. Merwin, Jay Parini, Judith Hemschemeyer, Amy Clampitt and others. This project was completed in collaboration with James Trissel, who was the designer and printer of the letterpress and book arts studio known as The Press at Colorado College in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
In the booklet accompanying the broadside poem creations, Gioia writes in her “Introduction”: “Printed on one side of a single sheet of paper, a poetry broadside is the most intense and unified genre of printing. […] While a book may have hundreds of pages to create its effect, a broadside has only one forceful gesture to satisfy simultaneously the requirements of both literature and design.” While in “The Printer’s Comment,” contained in the same booklet, Trissel notes: “These twenty four broadsides […] represent the opportunity to deal with poetry in an expansive range of typographic situations” by resorting to special paper materials and an array of printing techniques. He also points out that, “Unlike the book, the broadside tries within a single plane to strike a resonance between the poetic text and its visual circumstance.” These two comments offer an insight into the crucial role materials, typographic design and printing can play in the delivery not only of an aesthetic effect but also of a multilayered and synthesizing experience.
It was thanks to the Eccles Centre's US Fine Presses Established after 1945: A Guide to the British Library's Holdings, which is available both on the Centre's website and in the British Library's Shared Research Repository, that I was able to systematize and expand my research as well as broaden my knowledge about American specialist presses and their print-based projects.
What is certain is that materials enhance the experience of writing, since they strive not merely for a conceptual, but also a bodily and even gestural engagement with the texts composed and the narratives brought forward. Each one of the examples presented here sheds light on a different way of printing and manifestation of creativity. These kinds of material creations both bring to our attention an alternative artistic and literary activity that values craftsmanship and collaboration between the print-maker and the writer or the poet, while also personalizing the overall experience and establishing a meaningful connection with the readers on the basis of the materials and printing method chosen.
In a reality governed by mass production and commercialization, material design and book-making invite us to reevaluate literary practice. This has become even more pertinent since the turn of the 21st century due to the ubiquity of digital technologies. It is not accidental that in the context of current scholarship on American literary production there is a resurgence of interest in digitally-assisted book design and materials, with “bookishness” being the term that is now used in order to mark this kind of turn. Jessica Pressman interprets bookishness as a “creative movement invested in exploring and demonstrating love for the book as symbol, art form, and artifact” (1), which increases in intensity as our every day actions also demand an increased engagement with digital technologies.
Considering this observation in tandem with the examples shared in this short blog, one can realise that materials, even though overlooked at times, play a decisive role in enhancing the literary experience by multiplying the opportunities readers have for imaginative exploration and immersion into the story told.
Henry Miller, Order and Chaos Chez Reichel. Tucson, Ariz.: Loujon Press, c1966. British Library shelfmark: YA.1992.b.1551.
Jessica Pressman, Bookishness: Loving Books in a Digital Age. New York: Columbia University Press, 2020. British Library pressmark: YC.2022.a.2100.
Alastair Reed and Dana Gioia, editors. The Printed Poem/The Poem as Print: Twenty-four Broadsides of American Poetry. Colorado Springs, Col.: The Press at Colorado College, 1985-1986. British Library shelfmark: HS.74/2350.
03 October 2022
The Americas and Oceania team is fortunate to work with some fascinating items that cross our desks for a variety of reasons from exhibition loans to Reader queries. Through the On my desk blog series, we ask the team three questions which will give you an insight into the work of curators and cataloguers at the Library and a behind-the-scenes peek at some of the items in the collections. Today’s post features Rachael, one of our curators for North American Published Collections Post-1850.
What is the item?
Double Persephone by Canadian author Margaret Atwood – which is a self-published poetry collection written in 1961.
Why is it on your desk?
Our team were recently tasked to update some British Library webpages related to the collection areas we are responsible for. Jobs like this always make for a great opportunity to dive into the collections and gain a better understanding of our holdings. Alongside lesser-known authors, I was looking for particularly interesting or unexpected titles by popular Canadian authors which might help give Readers approaching our collections an idea of the sheer breadth of what’s available at the British Library. It was a real delight when I discovered we held a copy of Margaret Atwood's rare first book, the poetry collection Double Persephone (Cup.503.i.1.)
Why is it interesting?
Margaret Atwood would have only been around 21/22 years old when she self-published (meaning, ‘made public’) the chapbook, Double Persephone. The collection would see her enter and win a poetry competition for students at the University of Toronto, awarding her the E. J. Pratt Medal. I wonder if the selection committee reading those poems and deciding on Atwood as the winner knew the gem they were holding in their hands at the time, or what lay ahead for the young author?
Her follow-up poetry collection published three years later would win the Governor General's Award (The Circle Game, of which the British Library holds the fourth printing at X.950/8654.). As we now know, Atwood would go onto publish in excess of 100 works, from poetry collections to short fiction, novels, graphic novels, television scripts, works of non-fiction, and children’s books. To think this unassuming-looking little collection of seven poems was the start of that, I think is quite amazing.
The small, private press, Hawkshead Press of Kitchener and Toronto, in Atwood’s home province of Ontario, published Double Persephone. In order to afford to self-publish the collection, student Atwood was hands-on in the design and publishing process; she handset the book herself with a flat bed press, designed the cover with linoblocks, and only made 220 copies. The copies were sold for 50 cents apiece.
In a talk Atwood delivered in 2011 (which is available to watch online – see link below in footnotes), she joked at wishing she’d made and kept more of the publication – on the market today, the item can fetch some considerable amounts. The Library’s copy has a red British Museum Library stamp with the date 15th December 1961, so whoever was responsible for purchasing the item some 60 years ago acted quickly indeed, securing a copy for the Library in the same year the item was published, and at what is now considered a bargain price no doubt!
Double Persephone is available to view in the Library’s Rare Books and Music Reading Room in St Pancras, London. Anyone with one of our FREE Reader Passes can order and consult the item, as well as the thousands more collection items available for your research, inspiration and enjoyment held at the British Library.
 TOC 2011: Margaret Atwood, "The Publishing Pie: An Author's View" https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-6iMBf6Ddjk#t=784s
 Rare book library celebrates Canada’s small presses by Nick Davies (published 3rd July 2013) https://www.mhpbooks.com/rare-book-library-celebrates-canadas-small-presses/
16 June 2022
We are delighted to let you know that the Eccles Centre has just published its first Caribbean-focused bibliographic guide: Caribbean Publishing: A Selective Bibliography of British Library Holdings, 1800-1974, by Naomi Oppenheim.
Caribbean Publishing: A Selective Bibliography of British Library Holdings, 1800-1974 is the unexpected outcome of research conducted for my doctoral thesis, ‘“Writing the Wrongs”: Caribbean Publishing in Post-war Britain from a Historical Perspective’. This thesis uses publishing as a channel to explore socio-political transformations and the relationship between print and politics. The bibliography emerged from what I had initially assumed would be a quick research exercise in which I’d call up a selection of nineteenth and twentieth-century Caribbean publications in order to garner a sense of key publishers. It soon became a much more ambitious task!
In essence, I decided to go on a mission to locate everything in the British Library collections that was published in Barbados, British Guiana, Grenada, Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago, between 1800 and their respective independences: 1966, 1970, 1974, 1962 and 1962, excluding Government Printing Office publications. This entailed creative navigations of the online catalogue, using a combination of territories, cities and date ranges.
Although the bibliography began as personal research endeavour for my thesis, doing a PhD Placement with the Eccles Centre at the British Library – where I worked on the Caribbean Foodways project – meant that I had time to continue working on it with guidance from the Centre’s staff and thus turn it into a public resource. By the end of the project, I had tracked down over 500 books, many of which I had called up and looked at, driven by the curiosity that a sparse catalogue record provokes.
I believe that books are vessels for producing knowledge about history, culture, politics and the nation. My interest in the Caribbean publishing landscape as a lens to understand societal and cultural shifts motivated me to create a detailed subject index for the bibliography: I wanted to know what types of books were being published, by who, and when. I divided this subject index into 11 categories – including Cultural, Economics, Geography and Space, History, Literature, Slavery, Travel and Tourism, and Religion – and I gave each of them multiple sub-categories. The index reveals that history texts, which were the most popular genre, account for a quarter of all books published between 1800 and 1974. Likewise, a quarter are literary - poetry, fiction, memoir, folktales and plays.
As well as aiding British Library users’ navigation of the Caribbean collection, this subject index also helps us to understand historiographical, literary and print trends. And there is
a list of more than 50 digitised items that are accessible from the comfort of your home, local library or school.
Publishing was hugely important in shaping ideas of the Caribbean through articulations of history, literature and vernacular language: whether it’s Frank Cundall’s prolific writing about Jamaican bibliography, biography and history, published by the Institute of Jamaica in the late nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries [Fig. 1], Claude McKay’s Songs of Jamaica (1915) [Fig. 2], or Eric Williams’ self-published Historical Background of Race-Relations in the Caribbean (1955).1
Published in Kingston in 1912 by Aston W. Gardner & Co., Songs of Jamaica is one of the earliest printed examples of Creole poetry. The introduction was written by Walter Jekyll, a planter who had a keen interest in collecting the songs and stories of the Jamaican peasantry, writing works that reproduced and appropriated this folk culture such as Jamaican Song and Story: Anancy Stories, Diggins Sings, Ring Tunes and Dancing Tunes (1907).2 Jekyll classified Jamaican Creole as a ‘feminine version of our masculine language’ and introduced the volume as offering ‘the thoughts and feelings of a Jamaican peasant of pure black blood.’ Despite his deeply essentializing and gendered framing of McKay’s poetry, Songs of Jamaica gives us insight into the early blossoming of Creole literature and the profound importance of publishing as a vehicle to express and circulate vernacular cultures. Published during a period of proto-nationalist sentiment – the Jamaican National Club was founded by Sandy Cox in 1910 – the book was indicative of a Caribbean, especially Jamaican, publishing boom that signified shifts in terms of author, language and audience.
Caribbean Publishing contains all of these works and a plethora of riches, yet like any research guide, it has its limitations. Publishers across the British Empire were required by law to send copies of all published works to the British Museum, so, technically the British Library should hold a copy of everything that was published in the Caribbean before independence. Yet, this is not the case, for several reasons to do with collecting and archiving. For example, ephemeral publications – which likely included radical, unofficial and DIY pamphlets – would have escaped legal deposit, thereby never becoming part of the collection. And even once items had arrived safely, they were vulnerable to loss, damage and destruction. For example, many of the cookbooks in the bibliography, including Caroline Sullivan’s The Jamaica Cookery Book: Three Hundred and Twelve Simple Cookery Receipts and Household Hints (Kingston: A. W. Gardner & Co., 1893) and 100 Jamaica Recipes (Kingston: Gleaner Co., 1934), were destroyed by bomb damage to the Museum during World War II. Despite these gaps, I hope that this bibliography will support further study of Caribbean publishing, book history, literature, and any of the subjects covered in this extensive guide.
I would like to end by noting that it was thanks to the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s student development fund that I was able to do a placement at the Eccles Centre focusing on Caribbean collections. And I would like to thank all of the wonderful Eccles Team!
Dr. Naomi Oppenheim
1. Eric Williams, The Historical Background of Race Relations in the Caribbean. Trinidad: [s.n.], 1955; British Library shelfmark: Document Supply W9/3965.
2. Walter Jekyll, Jamaican Song and Story: Anancy Stories, Diggins Sings, Ring Tunes and Dancing Tunes. London: Published for the Folk-Lore Society by David Nutt, 1907; British Library shelfmark: Ac.9938/24.
20 April 2022
In this first installment of a series of blogs, Philip Clark shares his experience of being a 2022 Eccles Centre and Hay Festival Writer’s Award winner. The Writer’s Award offers £20,000, a year’s residency at the British Library to develop a forthcoming book, and the opportunity to showcase work at Hay Festival events in the UK and Latin America. Philip’s book – Sound and the City – will be a history of the sound of New York City and an investigation into what makes New York City sound like New York City.
At last, I’ve made it. After two years of pandemic travel bans, followed by an embarrassing gaffe with my visa back in January, I’m writing this blog sitting in the café at Barnes & Noble bookstore on Union Square in New York City. Since my arrival, I’ve checked in religiously every morning at 9am for a few hours’ writing; ingrained habits, even when in the city in which we’re told sleep is optional, die hard. Wake up, write. That’s the rhythm. The Barnes & Noble café – the equivalent of the café in Foyles, Charing Cross Road, my usual haunt – is quiet, comfortable and studious. I write surrounded by fellow scribes and ferocious readers – also a young couple gazing into each other’s eyes over a chessboard, who were here yesterday, too. This café has character, although not so much character that I’m distracted from my work. And best of all – the book I’m writing, Sound and the City, a history of the sound of New York City, will, in a few years’ time, be sitting on one of the shelves here. In this space where it was partly written, an idea which appeals to me very much.
My book opens an investigation into what makes New York City sound like New York City, a soundscape completely different from, say, London, Paris or Berlin. What my book is not is a history of music in New York. Instead, the project is to piece together interwoven histories from architecture, geology, immigration, politics and city planning to explain the unique relationship this city has with sound. Alongside, I’m exploring how writers and musicians who have called this endlessly fascinating resonating chamber home have dealt with the sound of the city – a long, impressive role-call that includes Henry James, John Dos Passos, Antonín Dvořák, Edgard Varèse, Duke Ellington, John Cage, Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Philip Glass, Bob Dylan, Meredith Monk, Ornette Coleman, Debbie Harry, Lou Reed, Don DeLillo, Grandmaster Flash, Cecil Taylor, Gloria Gaynor, DJ Kool Herc and Wu-Tang Clan.
What does New York do to an artist’s sense of pacing, proportion, structure? Of the sort of material they’re minded to put into their work and the way it behaves once they’ve put it there? In his memoir Words Without Music, published in 2015, Philip Glass claimed “My music sounds like New York”. Which is undoubtedly true. But so does the bebop of Charlie Parker, the modernist composition of Edgard Varèse, the rock of Debbie Harry and the nimble vocal gymnastics of Meredith Monk – none of which sound remotely like Glass. Could factors beyond musical style and idiom knit all this work together? It is my duty to find out.
As life drifted on between lockdowns, and I wondered whether travel would ever be a realistic proposition again, a fantasy New York ran riot inside my imagination. That said, ever since I discovered modern jazz, West Side Story, Morton Feldman and Bob Dylan in my mid-teens, some thirty-five years ago, I have always carried around my own inner-New York. The environment of the city, transferred to reality, felt entirely familiar to me when I started visiting seriously around 2005, testament to how much information its sonic footprint carries within it. New York played a crucial role in my previous book, a biography of the jazz pianist Dave Brubeck, A Life In Time, but there I needed to curb my enthusiasm; editing out superfluous city history became a continual necessity. Now the time has come to fully understand my New York fixation – why that fascination with the sound of its sound, and the sound of its music, has never left me alone.
Last year was spent immersing myself in histories of the city, and also in a pair of works that I knew would give my book its starting point: Edgard Varèse’s orchestral Amériques and John Dos Passos’ Manhattan Transfer. Dos Passos’ novel was published in November 1925, with the premiere of Varèse’s composition following only a few months later in April 1926. The degree to which these panoramic captures of the city mirror each other virtually word-to-note and note-to-word is uncanny. The steamboat whistles and fire engine sirens which Dos Passos describes so vividly are not merely evoked in the fabric of Varèse’s music – he literally wrote both machines into his piece, urban objets trouvés he made sing and holler.
Surely Varèse and Dos Passos had enjoyed long discussions about the meaning of art, life and the universe itself in various hostelries around the East Village? The closeness of their art suggests they must. Having won the Eccles Centre and Hay Festival Writer’s Award at the end of 2021, and now with the whole British Library at my disposal, this was one of the first questions I set out to answer: did they ever meet? Varèse, I read, enjoyed the company of the composers Carl Ruggles and Carlos Salzedo, the conductor Leopold Stokowski, the violinist Fritz Kreisler, the artist Marcel Duchamp – and there is also a documented encounter with the writer Theodore Dreiser. Dos Passos’ associates at the time included the writers E E Cummings, Hart Crane and Dawn Powell. At the British Library, I was very happy to find an extended critique by Sinclair Lewis of Manhattan Transfer, published in 1926, in which Lewis describes Dos Passos’ novel as “the moving symphony itself” and talks up the central role sound takes in the narrative (although Lewis’ respect for Dos Passos was, sadly, not reciprocated).
Plotting the various addresses before I left home where Dos Passos and Varèse lived in the mid-1920s – and then this week walking between them – I discover that they criss-crossed each other constantly and, during different periods, lived but a few blocks from each other. The hotel in which Varèse took up long-term residence when he first arrived from his native France in 1916 – The Brevoort on the corner of 8th Street and 5th Avenue – is where two characters in Dos Passos’ novel, Elaine Oglethorpe and George Baldwin, conduct their affair.
Novelist and composer are traceable to some of the same bars and cafés. Romany Marie’s famous bistro-tavern, the place in the Village where artists, musicians and writers met to talk, was a regular meeting place of Varèse’s – and surely Dos Passos went there too. Walking a block from 188 Sullivan Street, Varèse’s home from 1925 until his death in 1965, I find Caffe Reggio – the first café to bring cappuccino to the city is the boast – which opened its doors in 1927. Given Dos Passos’ love of European culture and Varèse’s yearning to find tastes of Europe in New York, could their paths have crossed there? And then there’s McSorley’s Old Ale House, opened around 1860, and subject of a poem by Dos Passos’ close friend E E Cummings. And we know that Varèse loved ale. His wife, Louise, in her memoir, Varèse: A Looking Glass Diary, tells us how he took a shine to a barmaid – who called him ‘Dearie’ – in a London pub, near Broadcasting House, when the BBC performed his piece Hyperprism in 1924. Degrees of separation melt away by the moment.
But even if they managed never to meet, my thesis holds firm. Varèse and Dos Passos walked those same sidewalks, listening deep into the sound of the city, and you feel that kinship in the work they produced. New York works as an artistic matchmaker apparently – even when artists are not aware it is happening.
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