08 August 2023
Františka Schormová is a post-doc researcher at the Institute of Czech Literature, Czech Academy of Sciences and an Assistant Professor of American Studies at the University of Hradec Králové and was a 2023 Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow at the British Library.
To be a scholar outside of US/Canadian studies outside of North America means a transcultural perspective is a part of what we do and who we are. It allows us to think about the culture and region afresh and to reflect on our positions as mediators as scholars, educators, and public intellectuals. To be a scholar of US/Canadian studies from Central Eastern Europe and other regions outside of the usual trajectories of prestige might also mean that sources for our research are more difficult to obtain. This is why I went to the British Library to research Czech immigration to Canada.
In my previous research project, Translation and the Global Fifties: When the African American Left Went to Prague, I looked at the transnational journeys, exchanges, and allegiances between the African American Leftist intellectuals and early Cold War Czechoslovakia. One of the translators and mediators of African American literature in the 1950s and early 1960s, the Czechoslovak writer Josef Škvorecký, later became one of the almost twelve thousand people who fled to Canada after the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact invasion to Czechoslovakia in 1968. Following Škvorecký and his wife, Zdena Škvorecká-Salivarová to Canada opened up a new set of questions for me some of which I tried to answer during my time in the British Library.
Škvorecký was awarded the Governor General's Award for English Language Fiction for The Engineer of Human Souls, a novel translated by Paul Wilson. This cultural moment became my entry point in the Canadian cultural field in the 1970s and 1980s. I explored magazines and journals I found out about in the United States and Canadian Newspaper Holdings in the British Library Newspaper Library (for example, Nový Domov: The New Homeland)1, conference proceedings from the time, fictional and autobiographical accounts of the Škvorecký’s and other Czechoslovak authors, diverse secondary sources on culture and politics of the era, multilingual sources published in various places. What I was looking for were interconnections between Canadian literature, quickly developing at this time as its own discipline tightly linked to the nation state, the official politics of multiculturalism, and the position of the so-called ethnic writers within this cultural field.
These interconnections support my broader project in the framework of which I look at how the notion of whiteness has operated within the Canadian cultural field in the late Cold War in connection to various immigrant groups coming to the country. It builds on critical whiteness studies but also asks whether these concepts can be applied and/or translated to Central Eastern European contexts. The ambiguous status of the Slavic and other groups in and from this region has been noticed by scholars such as Ivan Kalmar or Zoltán Ginelli; the historians of immigration have also noted the various ways racial discourses have transformed throughout the 20th century. The Cold War has introduced new challenges, trajectories, and allegiances, race refigurings, and vocabularies of whiteness that has shaped how both the immigrants and the domestic populations in Central Eastern Europe were perceived.
I found some of the answers I was looking for: yet I left with further questions. The British Library is its own little universe. In the weeks of the fellowship, one wanders in awe through the various reading rooms and the packed hallways. As a visiting researcher, one is not left to navigate this world on one’s own: the fellowship also gives one the opportunity to talk to the Eccles staff, people who work and research in the British Library and know many of its secrets. And while they are incredibly helpful, it is better to come prepared (the sheer quantity of the material at your fingertips can get intimidating!) but also keep one’s eyes open for surprising turns the research route might take.
Searching through my keywords one day, I found sheet music based on the poetry of Langston Hughes, the African American poet, novelist, playwright, translator, and social activist . It was a 1966 composition by the Czech composer Jiří Dvořáček with lyrics in Czech, English, and German, published in 1978 (Image 1, above). Despite having dealt with Hughes’s Czechoslovak connections extensively, I have never known this sheet music existed and I could not help but hum the melody (albeit very quietly). Hughes was one of the writers Josef Škvorecký also translated before emigrating to Canada. This multilingual, translational, transmedial cultural artifact reminded me that it is important that our scholarship can cross the linguistic, cultural, and national borders in a similar way.
Nový Domov: The New Homeland. Toronto. Vol. 9, no. 19 etc. (10 May 1958 - 21 March 1970). Imperfect. British Library shelfmark: General Reference Collection Microform MFM.MC271.D
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
06 December 2022
The artist Aline Kominsky-Crumb, best known for her pioneering contributions to underground comics, passed away on 29 November 2022.
Kominsky-Crumb leaves an impressive legacy of ‘intimate, self-deprecating, and liberating’ comics, some of which were created with her husband, fellow cartoonist Robert Crumb. After relocating from New York to San Francisco in the 1970s, where she met Crumb, she became heavily involved in the underground comics scene, contributing to various publications for the subsequent decades, by boldly illustrating and giving voice to particularly feminist issues concerning sex, motherhood, family life and abortion.
The British Library holds a number of materials authored by Kominsky-Crumb and/or featuring her artwork, many of which have arrived via years of generous donations by J. B. Rund, an American book publisher and businessperson. Rund, owner of Bélier Press, has sent the British Library regular donations of underground comics and related ephemera since the 1970s. He is a prolific collector of monographs, comics, literary materials, original illustrations and erotica, many of which contain inscriptions, annotations and inserts from their contributors and creators, including some from Aline. Items by Robert Crumb are perhaps among the most prolific and sought after in Rund’s collection and Bélier Press’s 1976 creation R. Crumb’s Carload O’Comics (RG.2019.b.23), remains one of the press’s most successful outputs. With Crumb and Rund working closely together comes a number of (sometimes) rare and important pieces from Kominsky-Crumb making their way into our holdings thanks to Rund’s depositing practice here.
Bursting into what was typically seen as the male world of underground comics; Kominsky-Crumb unashamedly shone a light on contemporary issues and everyday life that was specifically based on women’s experiences and perspectives, skilfully doing so with humour and her characteristically unapologetic brashness. In the introduction to Kominsky-Crumb’s Love that Bunch, American comic book writer Harvey Pekar explains as much in his observations of Aline’s style. He writes:
‘Even if you like Aline Kominsky’s work a lot, as I do, you’ve got to admit that it’s loaded with ugliness. Her characters look ugly and frequently talk (“tawkh”) ugly, with whiny … accents. Aline’s at least as hard on herself as anyone else; her work is full of self-loathing. You’ve got to know this to understand her stories.’
Indeed, the strapline to this particularly title affirms Kominsky-Crumb’s self-effacing humour: ‘Read this book! It’s cheaper than therapy!’
Below are just a few highlights from the British Library’s collection of Kominsky-Crumb donated by J. B. Rund, as you’ll see, some contain examples of the personal inscriptions mentioned above, showing both a the professional and personal working relationship that evolved between Rund and the Crumbs.
Interestingly, and perhaps testament to Kominsky-Crumb’s importance and influence as a female comic artist, Aline and Robert’s daughter, Sophie Crumb, would also go on to become a recognisable artist within the same comics scene years later. Sophie would get her first credit in a comic aged just six years old, alongside her mother, in Wimmen’s Comix #11 (April 1987). Registered British Library Readers can view a fully digitised version of this publication on their personal device using the e-resource Underground and Independent Comics.
From the collection donated by Rund, Readers can also find this book of chronological drawings compiled to show Sophie’s development as an artist from age 2 to 29. Aline writes the introduction to the book. In it she praises the talents of her ‘precious little “genius”’, as any mother would, but her irreverent tongue-in-cheek manner is ever present to ease the flow of too much ‘gushing.’ Aline’s introductory piece sits alongside a portrait by Sophie of her mother. Similarities between the two women’s artistic styles can certainly be seen.
I particularly enjoyed reading Françoise Mouly’s insightful and illuminating words about her friend Aline in this recent New Yorker piece. Mouly quotes her husband, cartoonist Art Spiegelman, whose work also features heavily in Rund’s donation to the British Library, and whose description paints a picture of honesty in Aline. I think it is a fitting note on which to end this very short homage to Aline Kominsky-Crumb:
“She is the precursor to Lena Dunham, Amy Poehler, Amy Schumer, Sarah Silverman—women who are trying to grapple with their identities in a way that is not prettified. They are just trying to live and breathe as women with all their contradictions. And it’s a liberated and liberating way of looking at oneself.”
All of the Library’s Aline Kominsky-Crumb holdings can be viewed in our Reading Rooms – you just need a free Reader Pass to gain access.
Blog by Rachael, Curator for North American Published Collections Post-1850
 Harvey Pekar from the introduction to Love that Bunch by Aline Kominsky Crumb; edited by Gary Groth (Seattle: Fantagraphics, 1990), YA.1993.b.10691, page iii
 Aline Kominsky-Crumb from the introduction to Sophie Crumb: Evolution of a Crazy Artist, edited by S., A. & R. Crumb (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, ), RF.2018.b.149, page 7
23 November 2022
The British Library has digitised and made available online the only known copy of Una Marson’s pioneering play ‘At What a Price’ (1932).
Una Maud Marson was born in Jamaica in 1905. Throughout her lifetime she would live and work in the Caribbean, the UK and the USA. An editor, poet, playwright, activist, writer and BBC producer, Marson had a versatile and prolific career. The phenomenal breadth and range of Una Marson’s creative and critical outputs are yet to be fully appreciated, but there has been a recent renewed interest in the contributions she made to the cultural landscape of the British Empire and North America. Una Marson was the subject of a BBC production, Una Marson: Our Lost Caribbean Voice, which brought to life her incredible career and creations. Many of those creations can be found here, in the British Library, including her poetry collections. However, some of her works are a little harder to find.
Through a recent project at the British Library, the Eccles Centre for American Studies has been supporting the research of Professor Kate Dossett and her project ‘Black Cultural Archives & the Making of Black Histories’. Part of this project involved examining the Lord Chamberlain’s Play’s (LCP) collection for plays produced in Britain written by Black playwrights. The LCP’s are the largest collection of manuscripts in the British Library. The collection consists of plays collected by the Office of the Lord Chamberlain from the years 1824 to 1968. They were collected because the censorship laws which existed at the time specified that plays had to be approved for a licence before a performance. This collection therefore provides an illuminating record of drama performed in the UK up to 1968. The research project has utilised this collection to find and promote the, often hidden, work of Black theatre makers in the early twentieth century.
One of the plays within the collection is Una Marson’s, ‘At What a Price’. Marson first wrote this play whilst living in Jamaica where it staged in 1932. The play was so successful that she used the profits to travel to London, England, where it was staged before British audiences. In London she got involved in anti-racist activism and became secretary to the League of Coloured Peoples, which fought for racial equality in the UK. The league and its founder, Harold Moody, sponsored Marson’s London production of her play in 1933. Yet, despite its international popularity no copy of the play’s script is known to have survived beyond the one kept in the Lord Chamberlain’s Plays collection.
The play follows Ruth Maitland, a young Jamaican woman who moves from the countryside to Kingston, Jamaica, to work as a stenographer where she is pursued by a white Englishman. The play examines women’s agency in love and work, as well as issues of interracial relations and sexual harassment. The unique play script that Una Marson and her production team sent to the Lord Chamberlain’s Office has now been digitised in its entirety and has been made accessible through the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts website. Researchers can now view this play and the related reader’s report from the Lord Chamberlain’s Office which outlines the department’s response in terms of whether the play was suitable for licensing. These images are available to view here.
With the digitisation of this play and related Lord Chamberlain’s Office correspondence, we hope to preserve and widen access to Una Marson’s many and varied cultural outputs. With the digitisation of this play, and others created by black theatre makers, researchers and audiences can discover ways in which black playwrights across the British Empire and Americas were frequently creating new cultural narratives and were at the forefront of movements for change that were an integral part of the British theatrical landscape in the early 20th century.
Jessica Gregory, Project Officer, Modern Archives and Manuscripts
Digitisation funded by the Eccles Centre for American Studies.
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.
Americas and Oceania Collections blog recent posts
- Cold War Whiteness: Literature and Race between Canada and Czechoslovakia
- Tracked Changes: Looking for Migrant Editors in Publishing Archives
- Outernational: Researching Black music and its transatlantic connections
- Sculptures, time machines and vampires: items from the Americas collections on display in Leeds
- Celebrating the work of Aline Kominsky-Crumb
- Black Theatre Makers: Una Marson
- On my desk – On Spirit Lake: Georgian Bay Stories from Church Street Press
- Delicate Materials - Imaginative Texts
- On my desk: Double Persephone by Margaret Atwood
- Publishing in the Colonial Anglophone Caribbean: A New Guide to the British Library's Holdings