25 September 2017
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
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
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
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
Above: a portrait of William Wells Brown from his book, Narrative of William W. Brown [BL shelmark: 10880.a.6]
[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
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.
19 August 2013
As a historian I’m spending much of my time in archives and libraries. Carrying huge folios or maps is the only physical activity involved in that – but sometimes my research takes me to other (maybe slightly more exotic) places.
I’ve just come back from an extraordinary trip to Ecuador and Venezuela where I followed the footsteps of Alexander von Humboldt for my new book ‘The Invention of Nature’. Armed with transcriptions of Humboldt’s letters and diaries – which were of course mostly done in the British Library – I climbed in the Andes, paddled down the Orinoco and got soaking wet in the Llanos.
From 1799, for almost five years Humboldt travelled through South America, Mexico and Cuba – I had only 15 days (and I skipped Mexico and Cuba). I went to the archives in Quito where I saw Humboldt’s passport from the Spanish king and many of the drawings he did while in South America. I saw river dolphins swimming in the Orinoco and capybaras playing in the flooded plains of the Llanos. Tarantulas were our breakfast, lunch and dinner companions – not quite what I’m used to in the Rare Books Reading Room in the British Library.
Most exciting of all, however, were the Andes. Humboldt spent months and months climbing along the mountain chains and valleys, gathering material for his new vision of nature. When he reached Quito in early 1802, he systematically climbed every volcano nearby. He crouched on a precariously small rock ledge on the Pichincha to stare into the deep crater, on the Antisana he encountered rain and wind so vicious and cold that it felt like ice–needles piecing his face, he tried (but failed) to reach the perfectly cone–shaped summit of the Cotopaxi and then went up the Chimborazo (then believed to be the highest mountain in the world).
I tried to do some of this – I got to the crater rim of the Pichincha, but no way I was going to hang over that ledge! On the Cotopaxi we were enveloped in thick fog and didn’t see a thing. My fabulous guide Juan Fernando Duran Cassola found the hut on the Antisana at 4000m where Humboldt spent a miserable night before climbing the volcano. Standing there last month on a clear sunny day with the glorious snow–capped peak of the Antisana behind us and four majestic condors circling above, we were suddenly surrounded by a herd of wild horses. Research can’t get better than that – or, so I thought … until we went up the Chimborazo.
It was on the Chimborazo that Humboldt’s vision of nature as a unified whole came to a conclusion – a web of life in which everything was connected. For Humboldt, climbing the Andes was like a botanical journey which moved up from the equator to the poles – the whole plant world seemed to be stacked up on top of each other. The zones of vegetation ranged from tropical plants to the snow line near the peak. There were palms and humid bamboo forests in the valleys, and further up conifers, oaks, alders and shrub-like berberis similar to those in the European and northern Asian climates. Higher still, Humboldt encountered Andean zones with alpine plants, many of which were similar to those he had seen in Europe. With ‘a single glance’, he said, he suddenly saw the whole of nature laid out before him.
As we scrambled up the barren slopes of the Chimborazo with the air getting thinner and every step getting harder, I couldn’t imagine how it must have been for Humboldt. At least I had seen photographs of the Andes before I went there, but here was Humboldt, a former Prussian mining inspector, dressed very inappropriately for such a climb and carrying his instruments up the volcano. Every few hundred feet, for example, he would measure the boiling point of water, he measured the blueness of the sky and bottled air to investigate the chemical components. Madness. I was wearing proper hiking boots and only a little rucksack with some food, extra clothes and water (and didn’t have to camp outside) but still every step was exhausting.
When we reached 5000m (the highest base camp today on the Chimborazo) we stopped – less than 1000m below where Humboldt went. The clouds came rolling in while we were bathed in sunshine. This really felt like being at the top of the world – and very close to Humboldt.
Andrea Wulf is an Eccles Centre Writer in Residence for 2013.
12 December 2012
This work (Jean Frederic Maximilien de Waldeck, Voyage Pittoresque et Archeologique dans le Province d’Yucatán, Paris, 1838) identified by British Library, is free of known copyright restrictions. [BL Shelfmark: 650.c.4.)
Matt’s blog post on the aftermath of the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo and a recent piece on 'Yucatan cool' in the New York Times, along with all the recent buzz about the Mayan calendar, has left me lost in thoughts about the shifts in political power and Mayan culture in the mid-nineteenth century and today.
As Matt’s blog showed, the early to mid-nineteenth century was a crucial period in the history of Mexico and the United States. Mexico had only recently gained its independence from Spain in 1821 when tensions and violence surrounding the annexation of Texas heated up in the north – leading to the eventual U.S. invasion of Mexico in 1846. At the same time, Mexico, in general, and Mayan society in particular, attracted the attention of anthropologists and naturalists from the U.S. and Europe. The most important Mayan sites that fixated their imaginations were Uxmal, Copan, Palenque and Chichen Itza.
This milieu of anthropologists, naturalists, and artists – such as John Lloyd Stephens, Frederick Catherwood, Jean Louis Berlandier, Jean Frederic Maximilien de Waldeck, and Claude-Joseph Désiré Charnay – are well represented in the British Library’s collections. Many of these men were financially supported by rich industrialists or on missions for their respective governments. And often the lines between their scholarship and politics were blurry at best.
In our historical manuscripts you will find a collection of philological and ethnographic papers by Jean Louis Berlandier relating to his work in Mexico from the late 1820s through the late 1850s, including an examination of the Mayan language and descriptions of his travels through the Yucatán (BL shelfmark: Add MS 41684). Alongside his ethnographic work, Berlandier served as a captain at the outbreak of the war between the United States and Mexico in the spring of 1846. Berlandier was also part of the ‘Comision de Limites’ or the Mexican boundary commission, a special Mexican government commission set up to study and report on the northern border with the U.S. prior to and after the war. We hold a copy of the commission’s report, authored in part by Berlandier and published in Mexico City in 1850 (BL shelfmark:10481.g.28). Though the report’s explicit focus was the physical and natural features of northern Mexico, it is filled with detailed observations regarding the local economies and cultures.
You will also find in our historical manuscripts the journal of Jean Frederic Maximilien de Waldeck (Add MS 38720). The journal is a piece of personal writing on his research and travels that makes an interesting companion to his 1838 publication: Voyage Pittoresque et Archeologique dans le Province d’Yucatán (BL shelfmark: 650.c.4.) a compendium of vocabularies of indigenous languages, images of local people and detailed drawings of Mayan archaeological sites. Many of Waldeck’s early lithographs were used in an 1827 publication by the Mexican National Museum on their collections (BL shelfmark: 557*.h.23)
Among our rare books collections are several works by John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood, including the latter's Views of Ancient Monuments in Central America, Chiapas and the Yucatán (BL shelfmark Cup.652.m.68). Stephens was sent from the U.S. as the Special Ambassador to Central America in 1839. His writing on Mayan Central America and Mexico was central to the so called ‘rediscovery’ of Mayan society. Stephens was accompanied on most of his travels by the British architect and artist Frederick Catherwood. Catherwood’s drawings and lithographs of Mayan archaeological sites are still considered some of the best studies of Mayan society. Stephens became an official in the Ocean Steam Navigation Company, which led him to meet Alexander von Humboldt. And as president of the Panama Railroad Company, he oversaw the construction of the railroad across the isthmus until his death in 1852.
This work (Frederick Catherwood, Views of Ancient Monuments in Central America, Chiapas and the Yucatán, London, 1844) identified by British Library, is free of known copyright restrictions. [BL shelfmark Cup.652.m.68]
The French photographer Claude-Joseph Désiré Charnay, famous for his photographs of the Yucatán, was strongly influenced by the work of Stephens and Catherwood. He was commissioned to travel in Mexico by the French Ministry of Education between 1857-1861 – just before the invasion of Mexico by Napolean III. We have a significant collection of Désiré Charnay’s photographs of Mayan and Zapotec archaeological sites taken during this time. Needless to say, our collection of works on Mayan culture, and Mexico, doesn’t stop there.
The refashioning of American and European power in the middle of the 19th century coincided, and often went hand in hand, with a new fascination with Mayan culture. I'm not sure what this tells us about current day interest in the Mayans, but I have a feeling we have a few books that may shed some light on the subject.
American Collections blog recent posts
- Following Sarah Royce
- Have you tried the Electroburger? A 1962 menu for the North Shore Line’s Electroliner dining car
- The Kingdom of Flying Men
- Mark Twain and the SS Batavia
- Lakeland Meetings: the Crafts and Harriet Martineau
- Federal Writers' Project publications
- Andrea Wulf: Out of Archives and Libraries
- Exploring the Yucatán and Mayan Culture
- From the Collections: Captain Cook and the Nuu-Chah-Nulth
- Post the Post-Tropical Storm