28 November 2022
Tracing Italian Opera Performers in the Nineteenth Century Americas
Barry Robinson is the Robert Haywood Morrison Professor of History at Queens University of Charlotte and was a 2020 British Library Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow.
In August 1895 a committee of prominent musicians and members of the Italian community in Lima, Peru announced a benefit concert to be held on behalf of the seventy-seven-year-old composer Carlos Enrique Pasta. Their stated purpose was “to alleviate the pitiful situation in which the well-known and respectable maestro finds himself in his old age.”1 Pasta had first come to Lima in 1855 as part of the many waves of Italian performers who travelled through and to the Americas during the nineteenth century.
Italian migrants like Pasta brought European content to American audiences, but they also created new performances that drew from local themes and contemporary politics. Pasta’s zarzuela ¡Pobre indio! debuted in Lima on 3 March 1868. The performance included two yaravies and a huayno (indigenous Andean folk ballads and dance, respectively), with the overture incorporating the chorus of the Peruvian National Anthem.2 This cultural exchange filtered back across the Atlantic, with productions of American-inspired work making their way to the most prominent opera houses of Europe.
Pasta’s best remembered work, the opera Atahualpa, recast the Inca emperor as a tragic and nuanced figure, set to a melancholy and melodious score. His librettist, Antonio Ghislanzoni, also authored the libretto for Verdi’s Aida. Pasta returned to Italy for the debut of Atahualpa in November 1875 at Genoa’s Teatro Paganini, where critics reported “applause galore – more than twenty calls to the maestro – Bravo Maestro Pasta!”3 Atahualpa’s success continued at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan, but by January 1877 Pasta had returned to Lima for the opera’s Peruvian debut at the Teatro Principal.4 He continued to compose zarzuelas over the next few years. As of 1887 he was offering his services to the citizens of Lima as a piano and voice teacher.5
Along with my colleague, Dr. Lucia Galleno, I have been constructing a database of hundreds of individuals like Carlo Enrico Pasta to track the movement of Italian opera performers (singers, musicians, and empresarios) from Italy to the Americas in the nineteenth century. We are employing traditional historical research along with techniques from the digital humanities and geospatial analysis to identify broader patterns among the companies, theatres, and performers who formed part of this influential cultural transference. Their stories might best be visualized as a fluid network of journeys spanning the Atlantic and centering on urban hubs with theatres connecting to the international tour circuits.6
Lima makes for a revealing node from which to begin charting these transatlantic opera networks. Italian opera served as a vibrant element of the city’s cultural life, drawing large crowds of passionate supporters who often engaged in vigorous public critiques and debates, occasionally spilling over into physical violence.7 In 1896, the year after the benefit concert for Maestro Pasta, famed Peruvian literary figure Manuel Moncloa y Covarrubias recalled the vigorous partisanship surrounding the career of soprano Clotilde Barilli in the 1850s, labelling it “a scandal of colossal proportions.”8 Barilli’s fans developed such a furious rivalry with those of the O’Loghlin theatre company that in the 1852 season grave wounds were delivered with a rapiers and firearms, to the point that General Pedro Cisneros de la Torre called in an infantry battalion to restore order. In his Mujeres de teatro, Moncloa y Covarrubias notes that, given the politically fluid nature of those times, this action put the inhabitants of the entire city in a state of great alarm.9
The British Library Reader Pass has provided an invaluable opportunity to connect nineteenth century Italian migrants more fully to the communities in which they lived and performed, and to trace their movement across the Atlantic from cities like London, Madrid, and Milan through our focal point of Lima, Peru, and around the Americas to cultural hubs such as New York, Havana, and New Orleans.
The career of Clorinda Corradi Pantanelli, credited by Basadre with “definitively popularizing” Italian opera in Peru during the season that began on 2 September, 1840, illustrates the scope of this movement.10 After initiating her career in Italy and Spain in the 1820s and 1830s, Corradi Pantanelli sang in Havana, Cuba as a part of a company managed by her husband, Raffaele Pantanelli, from 1836 to 1839. During an interim 1837 season at the St. Charles Theatre in New Orleans, two other performers “absconded” from the company and the empresario engaged in a heated financial dispute with the owner of the St. Charles.11
Corradi Pantanelli’s company arrived in Peru in 1840. The immediate popularity of Corradi Pantanelli’s performance in Lima prompted conservative literary figure Felipe Pardo y Aliaga to publish an essay entitled “Opera y nacionalismo” in October 1840, in which he critiqued what he viewed as a liberal, mercantile fascination with this foreign art form as an ornament of national modernity. Pardo y Aliaga protested that “Nonsensical nationalism has produced few more original phenomena than the one observed on the occasion of the arrival of the Italian company that today charms this capital.”12
Corradi Pantanelli’s company remained in Lima until April 1844, when they continued southward to Chile. They opened the newly constructed Teatro Victoria in Valparaiso in December.13 Corradi Pantanelli continued to perform in Chile over the next decade. Records of the University of Chile show that she took a post as a professor at the National Conservatory of Music in May of 1861.14
The career of mezzo-soprano Estefanía Collamarini provides a final example of the migrant trajectories of these performers. In 1898 Moncloa y Covarrubias characterized Collamarini as “the most splendidly beautiful Carmen we have had [in Lima]”.15 The following year Collamarini ranged as widely as Mexico City, San Francisco, and even Kansas City, Missouri, where she personally funded a reorganization of the stranded Lombardi Opera Company to enable it to complete its tour of the United States.16 Collamarini returned to South America where she continued to perform through at least 1905, when she performed at the Teatro de Sao Pedro d’Alcantara in Rio de Janeiro.17
The British Library affords world class access to a wealth of source material that is not accessible at our home institution, including memoirs, catalogues of performances, photos and paintings, diagrams of theatres, an outstanding general reference collection, and excellent nineteenth century newspaper collections (including both hard copy and digital databases). The Eccles Centre Visiting Fellowship has enabled me to track the locations and management of theatres, the movement of individuals and opera companies, and the public reactions and responses to their performances in the major cities of South and North America. These materials help us to transcend the violence of abstraction by putting a personal and individual contour onto the data, adding a human voice to the historic drama that the performers experiences represent.
1. El Comercio (Lima, Peru) 19 August 1895. British Library e-resources, Readex: World Newspaper Archive.
2. Jorge Basadre, Historia de la República del Perú (Lima, 1961-1968), Vol. IV, p. 1903, BL shelfmark: W31/3274. Basadre points out that this debut occurred during a period of heightened indigenismo in Lima. A zarzuela differs from an opera in that it intersperses the music and singing with sections of unaccompanied spoken verse. Vera Wolkowicz views the huayno and yaraví as part of the early foundation of national Peruvian music, and cites Pasta as the first composer of any nationality to incorporate Andean folk elements into his compositions. Vera Wolkowicz, Inca Music Reimagined: Indigenist Discourses in Latin American Art Music (Oxford University Press, 2022) p. 57.
3. Carlo Civallero, “Gazzetino di Genova,” 29 November and 9 Dicembre, in: Appolonio e Caprin, L'Arte: Rassegna di teatri, scienzi e lettere con annessa Agenzia. Trieste, 30 November 1875 No. 33, p. 3 and 13 December 1875, No. 34, p. 3.
4. On August 6, 2015, Lima’s Gran Teatro Nacional hosted a resurrected performance of Pasta’s Atahualpa for the first time since the nineteenth century. El Comercio (Lima, Peru) 7 August 2015. British Library e-resources, Readex: World Newspaper Archive.
5. El Comercio (Lima, Peru) 9 October 1887, British Library e-resources, Readex: World Newspaper Archive. The Hotel de Francia é Inglaterra was located at 204 Calle Judíos.
6. John Rosselli has identified a number of seasonal patterns to this movement, which he categorizes into three distinct circuits: 1) Austral America (including Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina), 2) the Circum-Caribbean, including Havana, Caracas, and major cities in the Eastern United States, and 3) a Pacific circuit extending from Mexico up to San Francisco and down through Central America to Peru and Chile. John Roselli, “The Opera Business and the Italian Immigrant Community in Latin America 1820-1930: The Example of Buenos Aires.” Past & Present, May, 1990, No. 127, pp 165-166.
7. Robert Stevenson’s Foundations of New World Opera (Lima: Pacific Press, 1973) BL shelfmark YM.1991.b.9 and Chad Gasta’s Transatlantic Arias: Early Opera in Spain and the New World (Madrid: Iberoamericana, 2013) BL shelfmark YD.2014.a.786, identify Peru as a center of early New World Opera through the eighteenth century, but scholars of nineteenth century opera tend to overlook Peru.
8. Moncloa y Covarrubias often used the pen name M. Cloamón. M. Cloamón, “De telón adentro,” El Comercio (Lima, Peru) 29 May, 1896, British Library e-resources, Readex: World Newspaper Archive. His extensive Diccionario teatral del Perú (Badiola y Berrio, 1905) offers a vital foundation for identifying specific Italian opera performers at a date and theatre in Lima, and identifying their company and the works they performed.
9. Enrica Jemma Glickman, “Italian Dramatic Companies and the Peruvian Stage in the 1870s,” Latin American Theatre Review, Spring 1973, p. 43; Manuel Moncloa y Covarrubias, Mujeres de teatro: apuntes, perfiles, y recuerdos (Callao, Imp. El Progreso, 1910) p. 11.
10. Jorge Basadre, Historia de la República del Perú (Lima, 1961-1968), Vol. II, p. 399, BL shelfmark W31/3272.
11. Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana) 8 June 1837. British Library e-resources, Readex: World Newspaper Archive; Katherine K. Preston, Opera on the Road: Traveling Opera Troupes in the United States, 1825-60. (Music in American Life. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993) pp. 113-117, BL shelfmark 93/24434.
12. Felipe Pardo y Aliaga, “Opera y nacionalismo,” in: El espejo de mi tierra. Edición y estudio preliminar de Alberto Tauro (Lima: Editorial Universo, 1971) pp. 74-89, BL shelfmark X.907/12764.
13. José Manuel Izquierdo Konig details the process of constructing the Teatro Victoria in: “The Invention of an Opera House: The 1844 Teatro Victoria in Valparaiso, Chile,” Cambridge Opera Journal, Vol. 32, 2021, p. 140.
14. Anales de la Universidad de Chile: memorias científicas y literarias, Volume 18 (Universidad de Chile, 1861) p. 603, BL shelfmark Ac.2693.
15. Moncloa y Covarrubias, Diccionario teatral del Perú (Badiola y Berrio, 1905) p. 51.
16. Manuel Mañon, Historia del Teatro Principal de México (México, 1932) p. 209, BL shelfmark, 11795.tt.36; “Stranded Opera Company Reorganizes.” New York Times (1857-1922); Oct 24, 1899.
17. Richard Langham Smith and Clair Rowden, eds. Carmen Abroad: Bizet's Opera on the Global Stage (Cambridge University Press, 2020) p. 162, BL shelfmark YC.2022.b.205.
22 January 2022
Commemorating Roberta Bondar's voyage into space
Today we celebrate the 30th anniversary of Dr Roberta Bondar blasting off from the John F. Kennedy Space Center and becoming Canada’s first female astronaut and the world’s first neurologist in space!
Bondar had dreamt of this moment from an early age. As a child she showed an aptitude for science and when she was around 12 years old her father built her a laboratory in their basement. Following high school, she obtained a Bachelors degree in Zoology and Agriculture, a Masters degree in Experimental Pathology, and a PhD in Neurobiology. She became a medical doctor in 1977 and was admitted to the Royal College of Physicians and Surgeons of Canada (in neurology) in 1981.
When Canada's National Research Council set up the Canadian Astronaut Program, Bondar immediately signed up. She was selected in December 1983. In 1986 the Challenger disaster threatened the entire space shuttle programme. However, a three-year investigation resulted in its revival and in 1990 Bondar learned she would be the next Canadian astronaut to go into space. 1
Along with six colleagues, Bondar was on board the Space Shuttle Discovery from 22 - 30 January 1992 as part of the first International Microgravity Laboratory mission - the precursor to the International Space Station. The main goal of the mission was to study the effects of microgravity on a variety of organisms and the physiological changes that occur in a weightless environment. As ‘Payload Specialist 1’, Bondar conducted over 40 advanced experiments for 14 countries. Many of these focused upon the effect of weightlessness on the human body - for example, on eye motion, the inner ear, the elongation of the spine and back pain, and energy expenditure during a spaceflight. Others explored the effects of microgravity on other life forms, including shrimp eggs, lentil seedlings, fruit fly eggs and bacteria.
Bondar's ground-breaking work enabled NASA to better prepare its astronauts for long stays on the International Space Station. Following her career as an astronaut, she collaborated with NASA and led a space medicine research team investigating the neurological symptoms seen after spaceflight and their connections to neurological illnesses on Earth, including Parkinson’s disease and stroke.
After many years working as a scientist, Bondar forged a new path and became an Honours student in Professional Nature Photography at the Brooks Institute of Photography in California; here, she was profoundly influenced by the work of renowned American photographer, Ansel Adams. She later created the Roberta Bondar Foundation and writes of this transition:
It took time, considerable reflection and detailed planning to build a Foundation focused on two of my passions, the environment and education. Following the razor-sharp focus and discipline involved in being an astronaut and scientist, I chose to apply my love of photography to foster sustainable development. Few get to view our earth from space. It puts unimaginable perspective on life and our stewardship of the planet. I made it the catalyst to a new career. My camera lens is my way of giving back in exhibits, seminars, schools across Canada and overseas.
For her book Passionate Vision: Discovering Canada’s National Parks (Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 2000; British Library shelfmark LB.31.b.21551), Bondar photographed Canada’s 41 national parks from Gwaii Haanas in the west to Terra Nova in the east, and Point Pelee in the south to Quttinirpaaq in the north; the book includes 100 of her photos as well as six images from space.
Now in her mid-70s, Roberta Bondar remains tireless in her commitment to environmental and scientific education and to deepening humanity's love for planet Earth. She is an Officer of the Order of Canada, a Specially Elected Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, holds the NASA Space Medal and has her own star on Canada’s Walk of Fame.
1. On 5 October 1984, Marc Garneau became the first Canadian to go into space; he went on two further missions in 1996 and 2000. Roberta Bondar was the second Canadian in space.
25 September 2017
Following Sarah Royce
In 1849, Sarah Royce left her Iowa home and set off with her husband and daughter for California. Reading Royce’s stoic memoir, A Frontier Lady (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1932; shelfmark: 010409.ee.40) I wondered how she really felt as she crossed America in pursuit of her husband’s dreams. My curiosity evolved in my second novel, which follows two women from Chicago to California during the Gold Rush.
Sarah Royce. A Frontier Lady: Recollections of the Gold Rush and Early California. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1932. (Shelfmark: 010409.ee.40)
I’ve been studying first-hand accounts of other women who made that very journey—from the good-natured letters of Mary-Jane Megquier to the pessimistic journal of Mary Bailey. But though these accounts are often vivid, I’ve struggled to imagine the landscapes they describe—the blankness of the plains, the bitter waste of the desert, the steep green relief of the Sierras. So, with the support of the Eccles Centre, I decided to make the journey myself.
The California Zephyr train travels the 2,438 miles from Chicago to San Francisco. It broadly follows Royce’s route; but where Royce’s journey took six months, the train takes fifty-two hours. It was a thrill to watch scenery I’d previously encountered only in books—the lonely prairies, the great bloody sunsets, the strange sunken rivers of the high desert.
The prairies of Iowa. Image, author's own.
Seeing the landscape first-hand made a journey that was previously only an idea, a reality. And while I often encountered the unexpected—I hadn’t grasped that the trail was continuously flanked by mountains from the onset of the Rockies, nor had I anticipated that the Utah desert would look so like the moon—much of the landscape was as I had pictured it in the library.
A sunken river in Utah. Image, author's own.
The trip was revelatory; but it also gave me confidence to write what I’d already imagined. For me, confidence is one of the most important outputs of researching fiction. As Zadie Smith said, “It’s such a confidence trick, writing a novel. The main person you have to trick into confidence is yourself.”
Hannah is a joint winner of this year's Eccles British Library Writer's Award. More information about this Award, and all of the Eccles Centre's activities, can be found at www.bl.uk/eccles-centre
Sources: Apron Full of Gold: The Letters of Mary Jane Megquier from San Francisco, 1849-1856, edited with an introduction by Polly Welts Kaufman. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1994 (shelfmark: YA.1995.a.22660); Ho for California!: Women's Overland Diaries from the Huntington Library, edited and annotated by Sandra L Myres. San Marino: Huntington Library, 1980 (shelfmark: Document Supply 80/24701).
03 February 2017
Have you tried the Electroburger? A 1962 menu for the North Shore Line’s Electroliner dining car
Restaurant cars in trains are disappearing fast and with them a lot of the charm of travelling by train, including the possibility of encounters of the kind depicted in films from North by Northwest to, more recently, Almodóvar's Julieta . For train lovers who daydream of dining on board the Orient Express but are more likely to find themselves eating a sandwich squeezed in the seat of a budget airline, our collection of menu cards can provide some inspiration.
The Chicago North Shore and Milwaukee Railroad, also known as the North Shore Line, was an interurban railway line that covered the route between Chicago and Milwaukee. This striking menu card [YD.2016.b.444], printed in 1962, shows the dishes on offer at the Electroliner’s Tavern-Lounge car, where passengers could sit down and enjoy a full service diner-style meal or a snack.
The star item in the menu is the Electroburger, served on a roll with potato chips and relish for the price of $1, including coffee. The menu also contains a wide selection of sandwiches, including ‘flavor-rich’ sardines’, ‘young, tender, selected tongue’, and ‘Milwaukee-style liver sausage’. Passengers had an ample choice of drinks available, from sherry to a dry martini, and could even purchase playing cards for entertainment.
Those travelling in the morning could also enjoy a cooked breakfast, as shown in this earlier Electroliner menu from c.1955 [YD.2016.b.443]
The British Library holds a rich collection of menus, including a collection of menu cards spanning the years 1890–1904 which were donated by the American collector Miss Frank E. Buttolph – for more information please see this blog post. All of them are available from our Explore catalogue.
16 December 2015
The Kingdom of Flying Men
For various reasons, I have been looking back at my time in Team Americas, and thought it may be interesting to do some short posts about the items we've acquired since 2004. Looking back at the files, the first thing I ordered was a novel from 1956: Frederic Nelson Litten's The Kingdom of Flying Men (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press; shelfmark YD.2004.a.3998). The bookseller noted that it was 'a beautiful copy' and described it as 'a novel about the hazards & difficulties of the relatively new field of air cargo.' Was I, in my then-new post, drawn to the parallel novelty of a new field of work? Was it the $100 cost that swung it? I passed on the Women in Sports Car Competition (1958) that was offered above it in the dealer's list, a decision that time may not have vindicated, given the research potential such an item clearly has given the growth of sports studies (not to mention gender studies). Still, I saved the Library $85, and may have been put off by the cost and the NF DJ (near-fine dust jacket) which we tend to avoid for our collections.
But back the the Flying Men. It has provenance: there is a bookplate 'From the Books of Elsie W. Hoffman', and a curious publishing history. Westminster is known for its religious publishing, put produced the odd novel to raise funds. This is a rare example of such a thing. And it's true; it is a beautiful, if slightly austere, example of mid-century printing. Good untrimmed paper, and clean boards, and an object that sits well in the hands, asking to be read.
The author, the Foreward reveals, flew for the Army in the 1930s, when the 'sky kingdom' was 'uncharted, little-known'. Today, he writes with only slight hyperbole, 'Time and linear measurement have lost significance; Europe is within commuting distance'. So, as well as an example of US publishing history, the novel offers an insight into aviation, something which has indeed changed the world, and is now a subject of study from a range of perspectives; not least environmental history. Litten himself was a prolific author (born in 1885), specialising in aeronautical tales, many of which were aimed at a younger audience. Here's his Air Mission to Algiers, via HathiTrust. He also published over 600 short stories, at a time when periodicals were a viable outlet for an author. Indeed, he developed the '8-Step System of Plotting', the secrets of which could be add via Frederick Litten Associates for $1, or advice on 'How to Write for a Living' for $2, according to a contemporary advertisement in The Writer magazine. Again, more examples of how mid-century authors got by. He also seems to have done his research, as there is a considerable list of thanks to those he consulted while researching the book.
It starts well, with the young pilot Johnny Caruthers returning home from WWI on board the SS Rawlins Victory, writing to the director of Personnel at Trans-American Airlines in Chicago suggesting a scheme employing ex-servicemen as civilian pilots. He, however, needs an airmail stamp, and we are introduced to 'Stormy' Morgan, an injured pilot, who Caruthers persuades to return to skies. Several adventures and 247 pages later, we arrive at the last lines: 'Stormy's vision looked beyond to a sky that was filled with planes. The rolling thunder of their exhaust reached him across the frontiers of the kingdom of flying men.'
13 November 2014
Mark Twain and the SS Batavia
Last week, taking some time away from the redbrick and slate beehive that is the British Library, I headed to the Jeffersonian columns and crinkle crankle walls of Charlottesville, VA. Taken from the third best coffee shop in town, this cameraphone photograph shows – if you look hard enough – one of America’s best-loved actors, Hal Holbrook, in town for a performance of Mark Twain Tonight! at the Virginia Film Festival. Holbrook has been performing his one-man Twain play for over sixty years (and filmed in 1967). A documentary, Holbrook/Twain: An American Odyssey, which explores his iconic portrait of the writer, was also screened during the festival.
Sadly, I didn’t catch any of it (although I did manage to do some work in the coffee shop). But there is never an excuse to miss a dose of Twain, thanks to The Mark Twain Papers & Project (MTP) at The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley. For the second of a possible series of posts on Atlantic crossings (see the first, Taking the Train to America), we can join Samuel Clemens on board the Cunard Steamer SS Batavia in November 1872. Twain had been touring Britain but was returning to his wife and surviving child. He had planned on publishing a book about his tour, and was looking forward to satirizing English ‘institutions and customs’, the MTP editors suggest, taking this quotation from an interview in the Chicago Evening Post in December 1871 as a harbinger of the tone he would take (on the Prince of Wale’s recovery from typhoid – see the medical bulletins and other materials in the Lowe-Elkington papers at Add MSS 78749, ff. 91-115; 78751 A & 78752 A).
I’m glad the boy’s going to get well; I’m glad, and not ashamed to own it. For he will probably make the worst King Great Britain has ever had. And that’s what the people need, exactly. They need a bad King. He’ll be a blessing in disguise. He’ll tax ’em, and disgrace ’em, and oppress ’em, and trouble ’em in a thousand ways, and they’ll go into training for resistance. The best King they can have is a bad King. He’ll cultivate their self-respect and self-reliance, and their muscle, and they’ll finally kick him out of office and set up for themselves. (“Brevities,” 21 Dec 71, 4)
But once in England, the writer instead ‘found himself reluctant to mock cherished beliefs or traditions for fear of offending his new English friends’, the editors note. As Twain put it, it did not want to cause a 'a violation of the courteous hospitality'.
During his stay, Twain travelled, met Henry Morton Stanley, inspected the London Zoological Gardens and the Brighton Aquarium, was startled by a cat in Westminster Abbey, made a meal of a Dover sole (or 'soul') and visited the Albert Memorial – on which a ‘group [of statuary] represents America—an Indian woman seated upon a buffalo which is careering through the long prairie grass; & about her are half a dozen figures representing the United States, Canada, South America &c…. One cannot convey, with words, the majesty of these stony creatures—the ease, the dignity, the grace, that sit upon them so royally.’ And, of course, he visited the British Museum:
I am wonderfully thankful for the British Museum. Nobody comes bothering around me—nobody elbows me—all the room & all the light I want under this huge dome—no disturbing noises—& people standing ready to bring me a copy of pretty much any book that ever was printed under the sun—& if I choose to go wandering about the great long corridors & galleries of the great building, the secrets of all the Earth & all the ages are laid open to me. I am not capable of expressing my gratitude for the British Museum—it seems as if I do not know any but little words & weak ones.
This all achieved, he sailed back to the States from Liverpool on the SS Batavia after concluding ‘I do like these English people—they are perfectly splendid—& so says every American who has staid here any length of time.’
En route, some 1,500 miles from land, the SS Batavia caught sight of a foundering barque, the Charles Ward, after a night of howling gale. The barque had lost its sail and was in a pitiful state; the survivors were close to losing their minds. Twain watched on as the captain of the Batavia and her crew staged a daring rescue of nine souls, while offering as much assistance as he could (despite his lack of umbrella).
Twain may not have been a great deal on use on board deck, but he then did what he knew best, and took up his pen, writing to the newspapers from the ship, requesting recognition for the captain and crew by the Royal Humane Society:
If I have been of any service toward rescuing these nine ship-wrecked human beings by standing around the deck in a furious storm, without any umbrella, keeping an eye on things & seeing that they were done right, & yelling whenever a cheer seemed to be the important thing, I am glad, & I am satisfied. I ask no reward. I would do it again under the same circumstances. But what I do plead for, & earnestly & sincerely, is that the Royal Humane Society will remember our captain & our life-boat crew; &, in so remembering them, increase the high honor & esteem in which the society is held all over the civilized world.
The editors suggest that the letter to the Royal Humane Society is now lost, but you can read his account, and a good deal more besides, on the MTP site, as well as in several newspapers, for example, the Somerset Herald (Pennsylvania) (.pdf on the Library of Congress's site].
Twain was clearly quite struck by the event, and followed up on it, and enquired avidly about the medal and monies the men should have received (see his letter to the captain of the Batavia, 22 Jan 1873). He was also impressed by the work of the Royal Human Society, which he noted had no American equivalent, and aimed to donate the income from a lecture to them.
The SS Batavia continued to plough the seas, and some thirty years later set a record for the number of passengers to arrive in New York City – 2,584 (8 June 1903). And, closer to home, albeit slightly further north than in Twain's day, people still stand ready to bring you pretty much any book that ever was printed under the sun – and more besides.
01 July 2014
Lakeland Meetings: the Crafts and Harriet Martineau
Above: a portrait of William Wells Brown from his book, Narrative of William W. Brown [BL shelmark: 10880.a.6]
These works are free of known copyright restrictions.
[In last week's post Ellie Bird wrote about her research on anti-slavery narratives and 'The North Star' anti-slavery newspaper. This week Ellie shows some of the other stories that have come out of her research]
Looking through the holdings of Frederick Douglass’s paper in 1851 (then entitled The North Star) I find something that intrigues me; a letter to Douglass from former slave William Wells Brown (NS, April 17 1851, p3). In 1851, by this time a bestselling author of his own 1847 slave narrative, Brown toured Britain with fugitive slaves Ellen and William Craft and his letter is written from the Lake District house of Harriet Martineau. Martineau, whose anti-slavery sentiments are evident in her writing, supported the Crafts during their stay in Britain. I am struck by William Wells Brown’s soothing description of the isolated setting of the Lake District,
"A cold ride of about fifty miles brought us to the foot of Lake Windermere, a beautiful sheet of water, surrounded by mountains that seemed to vie with each other which should approach nearest the sky."
Above: a view of Windermere from Martineau's, Guide to Windermere [BL shelfmark: 10351.b.28]
Part travelogue his letter describes the rich literary inheritance of the Lake District, name-dropping Wordsworth and Coleridge in addition to the titles of many of Martineau’s texts, demonstrating Brown’s well-read mind as much as the famous literature of that region. At the close of his letter a throwaway line reads,
"The evening was spent in talking about the United States and William Craft had to go through the narrative of his escape from slavery."
A reminder that as well as slave narratives being a best-selling genre of their day and the celebrity-like status of many fugitive slaves who toured the United States, Britain and Canada, telling slave narratives could also be a private, domestic event, a form of evening entertainment and spoken spontaneously as well as read.
Above: a portrait of Ellen Craft from, Running a Thousand Miles for Freedom [BL shelfmark: 10880.a.39]
Here that fleeting moment is captured in a letter made public and printed in a newspaper. If we read into Brown’s use of ‘had’ that William ‘had’ to tell his story it suggests eagerness on Martineau’s part to hear the narrative as part of a wider conversation on America, and a need for William to tell his story to smooth relations with his host.
Registered British library readers can currently access Douglass’s newspaper remotely via remote e-resources; Readex: Early American Newspapers, series 1.
04 February 2014
Federal Writers' Project publications
Wikimedia Commons, provided by the National Archives and Records Administration
The Federal Writers’ Project was established by President Franklin D Roosevelt in 1935 – six years into the Great Depression. At its peak it provided employment for more than 7,500 writers, editors, historians and other white collar workers.
Yet while its primary aim was to provide economic relief, the Project’s highly ambitious first Director, Henry Alsberg, regarded it as a means by which to vividly document America’s rapidly changing cultural landscape.
Today, the Project is perhaps best known for its American Guide Series – a set of travel guides to the 48 states, plus Alaska territory, Puerto Rico and Washington, DC. Unlike traditional guides, these included not only driving tours documenting what could be found at every stop, but long photographic essays detailing the economic, cultural and historical resources of each state. All but a few of these are held by the British Library, as are many of the regional, county, city and town guides that were also produced.
Festivals of San Francisco, James Ladd Delkin [in association with] Stanford University, 1939. Printed at the Grabhorn Press. This particularly fine edition was part of a gift of 90 American imprints to the Eccles Centre in 2002 from Princeton University Library to celebrate the 90th birthday of Lady Eccles.
In addition to the guides, the Project produced ethnic studies such as The Italians of New York (shelfmark: L.70/641) and The Armenians of Massachusetts (shelfmark: YA.1991.a.15502); urban and rural folklore collections, including Nebraska Folklore (shelfmark: X.700/21082) and Drums and Shadows: Survival Studies among the Georgia Coastal Negroes (shelfmark: 010007.h.70); and nature studies.
The Project also collected the narratives of more than 2,300 former slaves in seventeen states, although most of these remained unseen until the multi-volume The American Slave: A Composite Autobiography was published in the 1970s (refer to guide below).
The Library’s extensive holdings are listed in The Federal Writers' Project: a guide to material held at the British Library.
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- The Kingdom of Flying Men
- Mark Twain and the SS Batavia
- Lakeland Meetings: the Crafts and Harriet Martineau
- Federal Writers' Project publications
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