American Collections blog

223 posts categorized "USA"

14 November 2019

Women and Buddhism in the United States

As many readers will know, the British Library’s Buddhism exhibition has just opened to hugely positive reviews. More than 120 items are on display, ranging from sacred texts written on tree bark, palm leaves and gold plate to stunning silk scrolls, illuminated books, historical artifacts and ritual objects used in Buddhist practice today. The items span 2000 years of history and, not surprisingly, most of them are Asian in origin.

Yet, the history of Buddhism in the United States is also fascinating and multi-layered. On one hand it includes traditional narratives of migration and assimilation on the part of those who moved there first from China, and then later, Japan, Korea and other countries in East Asia. On the other, it is also intimately – and perhaps, uniquely – entwined with the counterculture and ‘alternative’ Americas; with Transcendentalism, the Beats and hippies.

One little known story involves Elizabeth Palmer Peabody’s translation into English of passages of the Lotus Sutra; one of the most revered and important texts in Mahayana Buddhism. Published in the January 1844 issue of the Transcendentalist magazine, The Dial, it is possibly the first-ever translation into English of a Buddhist text.

Dial preaching of buddha

['The Preaching of Buddha', The Dial, January 1844, Vol. 4, no. 3, p. 391; British Library shelfmark: P.P.6376]

Perhaps not surprisingly, this was not the first time that The Dial – founded in 1840 and subtitled ‘A Magazine for Literature, Philosophy, and Religion’ – had published extracts from non-western writings. In July 1842, with Ralph Waldo Emerson at the helm, the journal had launched a column it later called ‘Ethnical Scriptures’. Jointly organised with Henry David Thoreau, the purpose of the column was to share ‘a series of selections from the oldest ethical and religious writings of men, exclusive of the Hebrew and Greek scriptures.’ 1 In his announcement, Emerson fervently expresses his hope that the world's bibles will soon be collated, thereby bringing together ‘the grand expressions of the moral sentiment in different ages and races, the rules for the guidance of life, the bursts of piety and of abandonment to the Invisible and Eternal.’ 2 

‘Ethnical Scriptures’ appears in The Dial nine times between July 1842 and April 1844 and includes selections from Indian, Persian, Chinese, and Egyptian sources. Unlike these other selections, however, the passages from the Lotus Sutra are not preceded by a commentary by Emerson or Thoreau. Instead, under the title ‘The Preaching of Buddha’, they begin with an extract from an article about the origins of Buddhism by the French scholar, Eugène Burnouf.

Burnouf, who is now regarded as the founder of Buddhist Studies, was at this time working on a translation of the Lotus Sutra from Sanskrit into French. To do so, he was using Nepalese manuscripts that had been sent to him by Brian Hodgson, a pioneer naturalist and ethnologist and an officer in the British East India Company. Burnouf's complete translation of the Lotus Sutra was published posthumously in 1852. However, in April and May 1843 he submitted two essays about Buddhism to La Revue Indépendante, a periodical edited in Paris by George Sand. Both essays included extracts from his translation, and it is these that provide the source material for ‘The Preaching of Buddha’.

Until quite recently, The Dial's translation of this material from French into English had been attributed to Thoreau. Now, however, it is widely credited to Elizabeth Palmer Peabody.

Elizabeth Peabody

[Elizabeth Palmer Peabody; date unknown. Image courtesy of WikiMedia Commons]

Scarcely known today, Elizabeth Peabody was born into one of New England’s oldest families. Like her sisters, Sophia and Mary – who respectively married Nathaniel Hawthorne and Horace Mann – she had a reading knowledge of multiple languages, including Greek which she learned as a teenager alongside Emerson. She was an early advocate of Transcendentalism and one of only two women in The Transcendental Club; the other being Margaret Fuller. She also pioneered the kindergarten movement in the United States and was one of the nation’s first female book printers.

In 1840, supported by a wealthy backer, Peabody founded the ‘E. P. Peabody Book Room and Foreign Library’ at the family home on West Street, in the South End of Boston.

E Peabody library

[The Boston Almanac, Vol. 3, no. 2, 1846, p.84; British Library shelfmark: P.P.2524.c.]

The Book Room quickly became a rendezvous for the Transcendentalists. Many of Margaret Fuller’s ‘Conversations’ were held here, and it was from here that Palmer printed later issues of The Dial and fought to keep the magazine financially afloat. The Book Room was also the first store in the United States to handle French and German periodicals and the first to establish a circulating library of foreign books and periodicals. For $5 per annum, subscribers would receive access to more than 900 titles.

Both as a business woman importing periodicals such as George Sand’s Revue, and as talented linguist at the heart of the Transcendentalist community and Boston’s cultural elite, Elizabeth Peabody was perfectly placed to translate a Buddhist text into English, possibly for the very first time in the world. That she is now receiving credit for have done so, is a surely a cause for celebration.

(1) The Dial, July 1842, Vol 3., no. 1, p. 82.

(2) ibid.

31 October 2019

Poe, pumpkins and parades – it must be Halloween

It’s 31 October so seems appropriate to take a look at a few items from the collection perfect for All Hallows' Eve.

Poe

It seems that both Halloween (and a blog written by me) wouldn’t be complete without a nod to Edgar Allan Poe. The Library holds a number of volumes of the Southern Literary Messenger, a 19th-century literary magazine ‘Devoted to Every Department of Literature and the Fine Arts’. It was Poe’s friend, novelist John Pendleton Kennedy, who encouraged him to write for the Messenger. Poe both edited and had some of his works included in the periodical.

Photograph of the title page of The Southern Literary Messenger
Title page of The Southern Literary Messenger (shelfmark: P.P.6380)

Berenice – A Tale was first published in the March 1835 edition of the Messenger. Richard P. Benton writes that this is ‘one of Poe’s most sensational and horrible tales. Some readers have found it too horrible, and Poe himself confessed it to be such’ (page 123, ‘The Tales: 1831 – 1835’ in A Companion to Poe Studies, YC.1997.b.2189). Indeed, the story caused quite a stir when it appeared in the Messenger, which was considered a ‘refined’ kind of reading.

And it’s not surprising why. Even by today’s standards it’s grotesque. Egaeus, a man driven by his head over his heart, becomes fascinated with his beautiful cousin, Berenice. In contrast, Berenice is a loving woman guided by her emotions. When Berenice falls sick, her beauty fails and Egaeus is gripped by her demise: ‘An icy chill ran through my frame … a consuming curiosity pervaded by soul … my eyes rivetted upon her … My burning glances at length fell upon her face.’ (page 334, Edgar A. Poe ‘Berenice – A Tale’ in the Southern Literary Messenger, P.P.6380) He recounts her sunken eyes, her darkened hair and her thinned lips – a picture ‘lifeless and lustreness’ (page 334, ibid). It is her teeth that he becomes obsessed with. He gradually slips in and out of consciousness picturing the teeth and imagining holding and studying them.

Spoiler alert. It is only at the end of the story that Egaeus comes back to some kind of reality. He is told by a servant that a grave and body – still ‘palpitating’ – has been found. Egaeus notices his clothes are ‘muddy and clotted with gore’ (page 336, ibid), and that there is a spade in his room along with ‘instruments of dental surgery, intermingled with thirty-two small, white and ivory-looking substances’. (page 336, ibid)

Darkness. Monomania. Bloodshed. If you’re looking for a tale with bite, look no further than Berenice.

Black and white illustration by Henry Clarke showing Egaeus holding the frail body of Berenice
It was a fearful page in the record my existence: illustration by Henry Clarke for Berenice (shelfmark: 12703.i.44.)

Pumpkins

Rather get your teeth into something less revolting? We don’t blame you, so we’ve turned to Betty Crocker for some inspiration. You’ve made your Jack-o’-lantern, now what to do with the flesh you’ve scooped out from your pumpkin?

Betty Crocker’s New Picture Cook Book was printed in 1961 by the McGraw Hill Book Company, Inc, in New York. Designed as a guide for making both simple and sophisticated ‘foreign-inspired food and old-fashioned American dishes’, the opening pages boast that each basic recipe in the book ‘has been tested at least 100 times’. As well as being fool proof, the added bonus of calorie charts and ‘celebrities’ favorite menus and recipes’ are also included. Who knew President Eisenhower was a fan of sirloin steak followed by apple pie?

When it comes to pumpkins, the General Mills Betty Crocker Kitchens in the Golden Valley (amazing photos of said kitchens can be found on pages 2 and 3) are not short on ideas. Pumpkin muffins, pudding and, of course, pie (both autumn and spicy options), are all on the menu. Needless to say evaporated milk and sugar are vital components. We’re told that “Pumpkins, or ‘pompions,’ were a standby of the early New England settlements” and an old poetic verse is included with the recipe for those gifted enough to able to sing and bake simultaneously.

Photograph of inside spread of Betty Crocker book. Full-colour picture shows the pie in all its glory while the right-hand page shows the recipes with small illusrated characters.
One slice or two? Pages 350 – 351 Betty Crocker's New Picture Cook Book (shelfmark: 07938.cc.33.). The book contains an impressive 48 full-colour pages of food to show a number of culinary delights in all their glory.

And it’s not just pumpkins Betty’s got covered: Jack-o’-Lantern popcorn balls with gumdrops and candy corn and Batter Franks with catsup are also recommendations for a 1960s Halloween party.

Of course, pumpkins aren’t just for Halloween, also being key players on the Thanksgiving menu. The pumpkin is an unmistakable symbol of fall in the US. Whether as a Halloween prop or part of a Thanksgiving dessert, it is now so much more than the unassuming vegetable it once was: Jacqueline Mansky affirms that ‘the orange field pumpkin, especially the giant version, [has] became wrapped up in the American agrarian myth’ (How the Great Pumpkin Became Great, Oct 21 2019) and is an icon of key US holidays. Why? Read this very enjoyable article on JSTOR to find out.  

Parades

This broadside from 1932 promotes the all-important components for Halloween in the aptly named Wildwood, New Jersey: ‘FUN… GOBLINS… WITCHES’. Attendees are told to ‘Be prompt’ for the 8pm parade and that only decorated vehicles are permitted.

Photograph of broadside for Hallowe'en Parade
Hallowe’en Parade broadside. Currently being catalogued and available in Reading Rooms soon.

Traditionally in Europe in the 12th century, criers would parade the streets on Halloween in memory of lost souls. Yet the parades that we may be more familiar with today and that became popular in the US during the 20th century include fancy dress, music and elaborately dressed floats. Events like the well-known Village Halloween Parade in New York City, one of the largest in the world, is now in its 46th year and attracts tens of thousands of spectators to the night-time spectacular.

The Halloween parade referred to on this broadside is held ‘Under the Auspices of Wapella Tribe, 238, I. O. R. M’, the IORM being the Improved Order of Red Men. Despite its name, the group was for white men only. Their membership was at its peak in the 1930s when this item was made. The event was organised by this men's fraternal group that claimed descent from the Sons of Liberty and the Boston Tea Party and based itself on a stylized but problematic interpretation of Native American culture.

(Blog by RSC)

Suggested reading

Officially Indian: symbols that define the United States by Cecile R. Ganteaume; foreword by Colin G. Calloway; afterword by Paul Chaat Smith. (Washington, DC: National Museum of the American Indian, 2017) Shelfmark: YD.2019.b.673

Southern Literary Messenger (Richmond, Va: J. R. Thompson, 1848-1864) Shelfmark: P.P.6380

A Companion to Poe Studies edited by Eric W. Carlson (Westport, Conn.; London: Greenwood Press, 1996) Shelfmark: YC.1997.b.2189

Tales of Mystery and Imagination by Edgar Allan Poe, illustrated by Harry Clarke (London: G. G. Harrap; New York : Brentano's, 1923) 12703.i.44.

Betty Crocker's New Picture Cook Book. Decorations by Joseph Pearson (New York: McGraw Hill Book Co, 1961) Shelfmark: 07938.cc.33.

Death Makes a Holiday: a Cultural History of Halloween by David J Skal (New York, N.Y.: Bloomsbury, 2002) Shelfmark: m02/39931

Celebrating Ethnicity and Nation: American Festive Culture from the Revolution to the Early Twentieth Century edited by Geneviève Fabre, Jürgen Heideking and Kai Dreisbach (New York, NY: Berghahn Books, 2001)

Object Analysis of the Giant Pumpkin by Cindy Ott from Environmental History, Vol. 15, No. 4 (OCTOBER 2010), pp. 746-763 (18 pages)

How the Great Pumpkin Became Great by Jacqueline Mansky, Oct 21 2019

17 October 2019

Black History Month

October is Black History Month in the UK and has been celebrated here for nearly 40 years. The month marks an annual commemoration of the history, achievements and contributions of black people in the UK. Originally founded to recognise the contributions made by people of Caribbean and African backgrounds, the focus of Black History Month has now expanded to include the history of African, Asian and Caribbean peoples and the importance of their contributions to the culture of the UK.

To mark Black History Month, we have selected a few items from our collections which highlight significant moments in black history around the world. The British Library will also be hosting Caribbean Fest events on Saturday October 19th including poetry, food and performance.

 

Ottavia Salvador, Fabrizio Denunzio, Morti senza sepoltura. Tra processi migratori e narrativa neocloniale (Ombre corte, 2019) YF.2019.a.14806
 
Chosen by Valentina Mirabella, Curator Romance Collections (Italian)
 
Front cover of 'Morti senza sepoltura. Tra processi migratori e narrativa neocloniale'
Cover of: Ottavia Salvador, Fabrizio Denunzio, Morti senza sepoltura. Tra processi migratori e narrativa neocloniale (Ombre corte, 2019) YF.2019.a.14806

 

Migrations in the Mediterranean are the subject of a lot of Italian books at the moment. I chose this title because the authors don't shy away from holding neo-colonialism responsible for the immigration process. The title 'Dead without Burial' evokes the horror of dying in a foreign country, in exile, often without a grave with a name on. Like French sociologist Abdelmalek Sayad (more from him, also in English in our collections) says in the essay in the appendix, the way a country treats a foreigner who dies on its soil says a lot.

 

John Michael Vlach, Back of the Big House: The Architecture of Plantation Slavery (Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press, 1993). q93/15775

Chosen by Cara, Deputy Head, Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library

Cover of 'Back of the Big House'
Cover of: John Michael Vlach, Back of the Big House: The Architecture of Plantation Slavery (Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press, 1993). q93/15775
Book open to show photographs and plans of buildings
Inside pages of: John Michael Vlach, Back of the Big House: The Architecture of Plantation Slavery (Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press, 1993). q93/15775;

 

This book made a deep impression on me when I first came across it as part of an MA course on the built environment in America.  I was impressed by how thoroughly Vlach managed to bring the lived experiences of the enslaved into sharp focus through the architectural landscapes they had inhabited.  As he says himself in his Preface his “main objectives here are first to describe, in broad terms, the architectural settings of plantation slavery and then to suggest some of the ways in which black people may have transformed those architectural settings into places that best served their social needs” (p.x).  The major source for the visual material in the book is the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS).  Originally founded in 1933, it still operates as a division of the National Parks Service.  During the 1930s and later, HABS teams documented large numbers of slave buildings and associated spaces and Vlach uses these photographs and plans to great effect in his book.  These are then complemented by another Depression-era source, the oral histories of formerly enslaved people conducted by interviewers for the Federal Writer’s Project.  As Vlach explains “My description of the architecture of slavery thus meshes information from two archival projects that have been separated for more than half a century” (p.xiii).  I found this mixture of first-person accounts, as well as other archival evidence (business records, personal letters etc), with the structures that had shaped people’s everyday lives to be incredibly evocative.  I came away from the book with a deeper understanding of the importance of vernacular spaces to historical enquiry, as well as more especially a better understanding of the way the built environment shaped, and was shaped by, the lives of enslaved African-Americans and their white overseers and owners.  I’ve found myself thinking about this book often over the years, especially as discussions around how to more fully represent the experiences of enslaved people have come to the forefront in heritage and tourism contexts (for example, the incorporation of slave buildings and stories into the interpretation offered to visitors at plantation sites in the US, most notably at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello home).

For more information on Federal Writer’s Project holdings at the British Library, including the accounts of former slaves, see the guide prepared by my Eccles Centre colleague, Jean Petrovic.

 
 
 
The Color Purple by Alice Walker (Boston, Mass: G.K. Hall, 1986), Nov.1987/702
 
Chosen by Rachael (Curator, American Printed Collections Post 1850)
 
Book cover of 'The Color Purple'
First edition cover of The Color Purple. Image from Wikimedia Commons sourced from Biblioctopus.

 

I was introduced to the The Color Purple while in my first year as an undergraduate at the University of Nottingham. It was like nothing I’d read before, in both voice and content. I’d never encountered a character like Cecile, nor the abuse she endures in a novel, and I remember being interested in the contrasting ways the various females in the book are portrayed. Told in an epistolary format as Cecile writes to God, she tells of the horrors she suffers at the hands of her father and later her husband, and the life that eventually leads her to Shug – a woman who opens her eyes to a different way of living. The Color Purple won the Pulitzer Prize in 1983 and frequently features on lists of banned or contested books (see more of these on our Banned Books Week blog).

 
Land Rights Before Games poster (Brisbane, Australia: 1982) shelfmark tbc
 
Chosen by Lucy (Curator, Australasian Published Collections Post 1850)
 
Campaign poster on Aboriginal flag background with slogan 'Land Rights Before Games'
Land Rights Before Games poster (Brisbane, Australia: 1982) British Library shelfmark tbc

This poster represents a key piece of 20th century campaign material in Australian history. The 1982 Commonwealth Games in Brisbane were the focus of a series of protests from Indigenous Australians who aimed to bring the issue of land rights to the international stage. The campaign called for rights over indigenous lands in Queensland and control over mining in those areas. The Queensland premier at the time, Joh Bjelke-Peterson, declared a state of emergency and banned street marches during the games. Yet around 2000 people still took to the streets of Brisbane on 26th September in support of the campaign and in protest of the continuing oppression of Indigenous Australians. Further sit-ins and marches were held throughout the games with hundreds of arrests made by police. The protests gained international attention and remain a significant moment in the indigenous civil rights movement in Australia. In 2012, the State Library of Queensland held an exhibition called 'State of Emergency' to mark the 30th anniversary of the protests.

 

 

 

23 September 2019

‘To Robert Frank I now give this message: You got eyes’

And who would disagree with Jack Kerouac’s assessment of the Swiss-born American photographer, who died at the age of 94 on 9th September. There have already been numerous obits etc on Frank by others more expert on the subject than me, so I thought I would just take a brief look at the publishing history of Frank’s most well-known book -The Americans.

Frank was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship in 1955 for his project 'to photograph freely throughout the United States, using the miniature camera exclusively…,' his application having gained support from a number of photographer luminaries such as Walker Evans and Edward Steichen. The funding enabled him to make several trips from New York over 1955/56, including one 8 month trip to the West Coast in a 1950 Ford Coupe. Frank took over 20,000 images on nearly 800 rolls of 35 mm film, many of them being processed and contact printed en route, which no doubt enabled him to more easily review and develop some of the themes which recur in his work – symbols of popular culture, race and class, religion, music etc. Frank later wrote “I have attempted to show a cross-section of the American population. My effort was to express it simply and without confusion. The view is personal….” (quoted in The Book of 101 Books, edited by Andrew Roth, PPP Editions, New York, 2001, p.150).

Thirty-three of these photos appeared at the end of 1957 in US Camera Annual, but Frank's intention had always been to produce a book. From his huge collection of images, he somehow managed to select just eighty-three photos, but finding a publisher proved to be even more difficult. It was Frank’s friend Robert Delpire, the influential Paris-based art publisher, editor and curator, who was eventually to publish ‘Les Américains’ in 1958. It’s interesting to take a closer look at this first edition since it’s a very different book to the later and much better known American edition, even though the photos and the sequence of them is exactly the same. Delpire had a strong interest in documentary photography - and his own distinct vision for the book. In addition to contributing his own writing, Alain Bosquet (poet, novelist and translator) gathered together texts by writers as diverse as Simone de Beauvoir, Erskine Caldwell, John Dos Passos, Benjamin Franklin, Abraham Lincoln, Richard Wright, Walt Whitman and many many more to accompany the photos. Appearing in Delpire’s Encyclopédie Essentielle series in 1958, Les Américains also includes sections on significant dates in US history, population statistics, and encompasses themes such as politics, religion and so on. Frank’s photographs therefore become more like illustrations to a sociological and political text. Each photo faces a page of text and our reading of the photos is inevitably influenced by what appears in that text. As David Levi Strauss has commented, ‘That powerful image from Dolores Park in San Francisco where the African American couple turns toward the camera in anger is wholly influenced by the facing page quotes from Faulkner and John Brown (The Book of 101 Books as above). As you will also see from the below image, no photograph was included on the cover, rather it has some drawings by Saul Steinberg.

2IMG_20190916_1422342
Les Américains. Photographies de Robert Frank [RF.2017.a.63]

It’s not surprisingly that Frank wasn’t overly happy about this edition, and sought to persuade Grove Press to publish an American edition. Fortunately he was successful and this time all the texts were removed, not least because some of them were considered too critical of the US, un-American in fact. For this we can be thankful. As already mentioned, the eighty-three photos and their sequencing remain the same, but now each photo is opposite a white page, blank save for a small caption which provides the location of each image (much like the format of Walker Evans’ earlier and influential American Photographs, which Frank so admired). Now we have the space to appreciate the photographs and we can interpret just as we want all those images of flags, funerals, cars, jukeboxes and so on. The one other difference is that this edition, of course, carries an introduction by Jack Kerouac. The two men had met at a party in 1957 and Frank had shown Kerouac some of the photos from his road trips. It’s not hard to imagine why they had appealed to Kerouac, whose novel On The Road appeared in September of that year. ‘The humor, the sadness, the EVERYTHING-ness and American-ness of these pictures!’ The introduction is an almost perfect accompaniment, and also helped to situate Frank as a part of the Beat Generation. In fact, by the time the edition appeared in 1959, Frank was already exploring the medium of film and was making Pull My Daisy with Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso et al.

Surprising as it might now seem, the reception of The Americans on publication was quite mixed. Some people loved it, but it also attracted a lot of criticism, both for the quality of the images (described as blurry and grainy) but also some considered it to promote a too negative view of America. It is also hard to believe that the MOMA bookshop even refused to stock it at first. Of course now it has become one of the most influential and celebrated photobooks of the Twentieth Century. As David Campany has written, it was a survey of ‘all that seemed uncomfortable in the American psyche, captured by a photographer with a rare ability to turn the most unpromising moments into new symbols,’ describing it as the ‘visual equivalent to jazz’. (David Campany, The Open Road, Aperture, 2014, p.25). The jazz analogy often appears in writing on the book, and I particularly like this sentence on the sequencing of the photos from Martin Parr and Gerry Badger’s The Photobook: a history, vol. 1. ‘Ideas ebb and flow, are introduced, discarded, recapitulated, transfigured, transposed, played off and piled up against each other with the exuberant energy of a Charlie Parker saxophone solo.’ (Phaidon 2004, p.247).

Sadly the BL does not have a copy of the first edition of The Americans since what we now refer to as photobooks were usually not considered for acquisition for the old reference collections in the past. Consequently, the only copies of many American photobooks that we have are often in what used to be the old lending collections. Some gaps have been filled more recently but first editions are usually too expensive these days as they have become so collectable. At the end of the day, it’s the images that you want so reprints still work for many purposes.  In this case, the Library has an Aperture edition from 1969 (shelfmark AL69/4991) which includes a section of filmstrip images at the end (Frank comments that they ‘represent for me the continuation of my work’) plus several later reprints and editions. We do, however, have Les Américains (Shelfmark RF.2017.a.63). David Levi Strauss has said that ‘The French edition is sociology, the American edition is poetry.’ You can look at them both and decide for yourself.

I started with Kerouac so I’ll end with him too:

‘Robert Frank, Swiss, unobtrusive, nice, with that little camera that he raises and snaps with one hand he sucked a sad poem right out of America onto film, taking rank among the tragic poets of the world!’

1IMG_20190916_1353407

(above copy of The Americans is my own copy of the 50th anniversary edition, published by Steidl in 2008)

 

By Carole Holden

06 August 2019

A tribute to Toni Morrison

In the midst of the very sad news that author Toni Morrison passed away on 5 August 2019, aged 88 years old, we shine a light on one of Morrison’s many items held in the Library’s collection: the beautiful, ‘Five Poems’ – a fine press book with illustrations by Kara Walker.

Toni Morrison was born Chloe Anthony Wofford on 18 February 1931 in Lorain, Ohio. Her portrayal of the black female experience through her writing has moved readers around the world for more than 50 years, and will continue to do so. The Bluest Eye was published in 1970 and would become a Nobel Prize winner, and further bestselling novels would follow, namely Song of Solomon (1977), Beloved (1987) and Jazz (1992). It was not long before Morrison and her work were established firmly as ‘part of the fabric of American life … woven into high school syllabuses up and down the country’ (Richard Lea, The Guardian). Alongside her Nobel Prize, Morrison would be honoured with the Pulitzer Prize and a Presidential Medal of Freedom in celebration of her literary achievements during her lifetime.

Photograph of slipcase and cover of Toni Morrison 'Five Poems'
Slipcase and cover detail for Five Poems by Toni Morrison with silhouettes by Kara E. Walker, Las Vegas: Rainmaker Editions, 2002.

Upon joining the Americas Team just one month ago, one of the first treasures a colleague introduced me to was Five Poems (RF.2019.b.96) – a breath-taking fine press book compiled of Toni Morrison’s words and illustrations by Kara Walker. As I began to turn the pages, I was intrigued (and blown away) to say the least. ‘I never knew Toni Morrison wrote poetry’ I thought, careful not to share out loud for fear of making a fool of myself in front of my new team of experts. But upon closer investigation of the book, I realised there was perhaps a reason for this oversight of mine…

Photograph of title page of Five Poems
Title page for Five Poems by Toni Morrison with silhouettes by Kara E. Walker, Las Vegas: Rainmaker Editions, 2002.

Published in a limited run by Rainmaker Editions of Las Vegas, between the large books’ pages readers will be entranced by ‘Eve Remembering’, ‘The Perfect Ease of Grain’, ‘Someone Leans Near’, ‘It Comes Unadorned’ and ‘I Am Not Seaworthy’. Five short poems which compile Morrison’s only poetry book, alongside them are silhouette illustrations from the New York-based artist, Kara Walker.

Reading an article by Stephanie Li (‘Five Poems: The Gospel According to Toni Morrison’) in a bid to find out more, it transpires that, at the time of Li's research, ‘in the numerous interviews Morrison has given since the publication of Five Poems she [Morrison] has never mentioned the book or discussed her approach to writing poetry’ (p 899).

Photograph of Toni Morrison's 'Even Remembering' with silhouette print of a woman, by Kara Walker
‘Eve Remembering’ from Five Poems by Toni Morrison with silhouettes by Kara E. Walker, Las Vegas: Rainmaker Editions, 2002.

The book is said to have come about thanks to Wole Soyinka (the playwright, poet and essayist) who invited ‘Morrison … on behalf of Rainmaker Editions to submit an original unpublished manuscript. Morrison sent five short poems, the full text of the collection’ (p 899). Upon receiving the manuscript, the book’s designer, Peter Rutledge Koch, suggested that illustrations be included as well. Si explains that Kara Walker, whose work explores themes of gender, race and ethnicity, has often praised Morrison and the influence the author had on Walker’s own creativity; Koch saw the potential for the two artists’ work to complement each other in this endeavour. Walker was contacted and the book was made with Morrison’s words and Walker’s five relief prints side by side.

This edition is one of the 425 issues printed and has been signed by the author, illustrator and binder. It really is a fusion of skill, care and total masterfulness from across the United States. Alongside the contributions from Morrison and Walker, Peter Koch Printers printed letterpress from digital imaging and photo-polymer plates in Berkley, California, while the binding and housing was done by Jace Graf at Cloverleaf Studio, Austen, Texas. It’s a work of art in every sense.

Photograph of Toni Morrison's ‘It Comes Unadorned’ with silhouette print of a woman, by Kara Walker
‘It Comes Unadorned’ from Five Poems by Toni Morrison with silhouettes by Kara E. Walker, Las Vegas: Rainmaker Editions, 2002.

It is with great sadness that we have lost one of the world’s, not just America’s, most prolific writers. As chance would have it I’m currently reading Jazz and I’ll be sure to savour Morrison’s storytelling even more than normal during the commute home this evening, on a train journey that will be tinged with more than a little melancholy.  

[RSW]

05 August 2019

A Tour of Indigenous London

Tee Yee Neen Ho Ga Row portrait

Above: 'Tee Yee Neen Ho Ga Row, Emperor of the Six Nations' from Add MS 5253.

On July 22nd, the Eccles Centre was pleased to host a group of students from the University of British Columbia’s Institute for Critical Indigenous Studies, who were visiting London as part of their course led by former Eccles Visiting Fellow, Professor Coll Thrush. The plan for the day, however, was a little bit different from our usual student visit days. As part of our work with the Beyond the Spectacle project, we wanted to go beyond the usual collections display and highlight research being done on these collections and how students and members of the public could take a lead role in disseminating the findings of this research.

The day started with some of the Library’s more historic items. The Library’s founder collectors, especially King George III, Sir Hans Sloane and Thomas Grenville, had a strong interest in North America and, as a result, collected significant works relating to the indigenous peoples of Canada, the Caribbean and the United States. A significant part of the Library’s eighteenth-century collections are various materials relating to the ‘Four Indian Kings’ a visiting delegation from the nations of the Mohawk and the Mahican during the reign of Queen Anne. Etow Oh Koam, Sa Ga Yeath Qua Pieth Tow, Ho Nee Yeath Taw No Row and Tee Yee Ho Ga Row journeyed to England and London to make their case for greater support and interest from the monarch and their words were variously recorded and distributed. There were also illustrations made of the delegation, some crude and westernised while others, such as those found in the collection of Hans Sloane and reproduced here, are detailed and vivid. The display also highlighted the breadth of Library collections that speak to the history of contact between indigenous nations, North American colonists and Europeans, with material spread across the Library’s manuscript, map, newspaper, printed book and other collections.

Indigenous London display

Above: the display taking shape. Image by Cara Rodway.

These collections, specifically those relating to indigenous travellers to Britain across the centuries, are being used by the Beyond the Spectacle project, on which the Eccles Centre and other British Library colleagues are partners. In the second half of the day researchers from the project, Jack Davy and Kate Rennard, worked with Roberta Wedge, who frequently runs Wikipedia editathon days with the Library, to illustrate how collections such as those at the Library can be used for research and to improve the information found on public websites and encyclopaedias, such as Wikipedia. It is not unfair to say that some of the students started this part of the day dubious as to how they could use their learning and recent research to update something like Wikipedia but the day provided openings to a different perspective. Roberta’s work with Wikipedia and organising group edits of Wikipedia pages focusses on how the site can only reach its full potential if a wide range of individuals, publics and perspectives are contributing to the editing process. If this can be achieved, the content of Wikipedia and other online forums will reflect the diversity of the world in which we live and its complex history.

IMG_5262

Above: students from the group researching and editing. Image by Phil Hatfield.

Part of the afternoon focussed on encouraging students to conduct their own research, based on the display from earlier in the day and using online archives and resources to dig into some of the other materials the Beyond the Spectacle project has been using. We are grateful to the British Newspaper Archive and Adam Matthew (creator of the American Indian Newspapers database) who both provided access to students on the day so they could engage with the materials held in their collections and use them in research and editing. Students used these materials to update entries on a number of Wikipedia pages, adding information to the page, ‘Four Mohawk Kings’, the page for St. Olave’s Church (London), setting up a new page on the playwright and actor Gowongo Mohawk and making a number of other edits.

By the end of the day many of the students were motivated by the realisation of how much agency they have to develop content on sites like Wikipedia and excited by the new research skills they had learnt by using the resources of the British Newspaper Archive and Adam Matthew. For me a favourite moment was when a student, asked how the day had influenced their perspective on Wikipedia noted that now, ‘Wikipedia is my new stomping ground’. The day showed the potential of supporting students and other researchers in gaining access to historic and digitised collections, it also highlighted how the knowledge gained from these can contribute to influential public sites. We hope to run similar events again, on a wide range of subjects, and thank Adam Matthew, the British Newspaper Archive, Wikipedia, Beyond the Spectacle and UBC for their support and partnership.

[PJH]

01 August 2019

Herman Melville at 200

Today – 1 August 2019 – marks 200 years since the birth of Herman Melville.

To celebrate we are sharing a few images from Lakeside Press’s beautiful 1930 edition of Moby Dick (British Library shelfmark: L.R.50.b.1) illustrated by artist, printmaker, writer and voyager, Rockwell Kent. 

Moby dick title III  Moby dick real tale 2 Moby dick tail 3

(Herman Melville, Moby Dick. Chicago: Lakeside Press, 1930. 3 Vols. (British Library shelfmark: L.R.50.b.1)) 

While now regarded as a masterpiece and one of the greatest American novels of all time, such acclaim could never have been predicted for Moby Dick when it was first published in 1851. Unlike Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847) in which Melville exploited his own sailing and whaling adventures to critical acclaim and commercial success, his sixth novel - published as The Whale in London and as Moby Dick; or, The Whale in New York shortly thereafter - garnered mixed reviews and poor sales. Indeed, Melville published his final work of prose just six years later and by his death in 1891 his reputation was in the doldrums.

Thankfully, his centenary in 1919 prompted a reappraisal of his work, so much so that in 1926 R. R. Donnelley and Lakeside Press chose Moby Dick as part of its 'Four American Books' campaign - the other three being Poe's Tales, Thoreau's Walden, and Richard Henry Dana Jr.'s 1840 memoir Two Years Before the Mast, which whilst little known today was one of America's first literary classics and a work Melville himself declared to be 'unmatchable'. 

For Donnelley and Lakeside Press, 'Four American Books' represented an opportunity to demonstrate the capacity of its modern machinery to produce fine press editions that would capture the imagination of the mass market. William A. Kittridge, the company's Head of Design and Typography who commissioned Rockwell Kent, believed their three volume version of Moby Dick to be 'the greatest illustrated book ever done in America' and nearly a century later it is still regarded as one of the finest books printed in the United States. Only one thousand copies of the three volume edition were published. However, a few months later Random House issued a one volume trade version that included all of Kent's illustrations, thereby bringing this incredible work to a wider and hugely appreciative readership. 

Moby dick smash 2 Moby dick ahab 2

(Herman Melville, Moby Dick. Chicago: Lakeside Press, 1930. 3 Vols. (British Library shelfmark: L.R.50.b.1)) 

Finally, and somewhat as an aside, readers might like to know that while Lakeside Press is included in Modern British and American Private Presses (1850-1965): Holdings of the British Library (London: British Museum Publications, 1976; shelfmark 2708.aa.36), the Eccles Centre is currently compiling a list of American fine presses established since 1965 that have works held by the British Library. Updates to follow in due course. 

07 June 2019

Is ‘America’s National Pastime’ Up for Grabs?

Professional baseball heads to London later this month with its sacred status in American culture once more in the spotlight. While the two-day series between the historic rivals, the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees, was an instant sell-out in London, back home crowds are declining, television ratings are falling and, despite the best efforts to speed-up play, games are dragging-on for longer than three hours - an eternity in today’s era of instant gratification. Those fans that do attend games or watch on TV are older and whiter than America as a whole. On social media Major League Baseball is dwarfed by the sporting behemoths of the NFL and NBA, the fame of baseball’s elite players a fraction of that enjoyed by the global superstars of professional football and basketball. It’s not surprising that each new season begins with commentators questioning whether the so-called ‘national pastime’ is in irreversible decline.

Baseball blog June I

Ed Linn, The Great Rivalry: The Yankees and the Red Sox, 1901-1990. New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1991. British Library Shelfmark: General Reference Collection Mike Ross 281.

And yet this simple contest of pitcher and batter is this year celebrating its 150th anniversary as a professional sport with its role as an emblem for American culture still jealously defended. Indeed, that very longevity is a source of strength:  baseball’s romanticized all-American creation story, which rejects its origins in the English game of rounders, may now be acknowledged as myth, but it provides the bedrock for its many cultural claims.  Ever since 1919, when the philosopher Morris Cohen first declared baseball a ‘national religion’ which offered ‘redemption from the limitations of our petty individual lives and the mystic unity of the larger life of which we are part’, baseball-obsessed scholars and multiple purveyors of cultural output have offered the game as a lens through which to view the complexities of American history. It is a rural game popularized in America’s industrializing cities; a team sport of democratic instincts soiled by its shameful record of racial and gender exclusion. It captures the essence of American capitalism in the endless struggle between owners and players over the division of its revenues. With baseball’s twentieth century expansion south and west, and the suburbanization of its fan base, it mirrors the march of post-war prosperity into new regions of the country; and all the time it demonstrates its capacity to cater simultaneously to two conflicting strains of the national character - unbridled consumerism and anxiety-fueled nostalgia.

Baseball blog june 2019 2

Morris Cohen, 1880-1947. Painted by Joseph Margulies. CCNY Library collection. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Re-enforcing these connections, a lively stream of cultural output still flows – in literature, language, film and music – which celebrates the continuity of American life and the mythical role of fathers in the generational transmission of American values.  Baseball’s story, so the argument goes, is America’s story

Of course, not everyone accepts these sweeping metaphorical claims – the baseball historian Daniel Nathan has lamented the sentimentality, ignorance and nationalism that ‘becloud our sense of baseball history and reality’. In baseball, Nathan asserts, romance has obscured the reality of the commercial and cultural onslaught from America’s other big sporting beasts. Similarly, Edward White has complained of the ‘unfounded assertions, rampant over-generalizations and exercises in wish fulfilment’, made by baseball’s scholarly and media boosters.

So which side is right in this long-running battle over cultural inheritance? Is the label of America’s ‘national pastime’ up for grabs, or was it surrendered long ago? These issues will be debated in a special event at the British Library, Take Me Out to the Ballgame: Baseball and American Culture, on Friday 28 June, 19.00 – 20.15, the eve of the Red Sox-Yankees London series. Taking part in the panel discussion will be distinguished baseball writers, baseball historians and past-practitioners of the game, with the event chaired by Matthew Engel, the eminent cricket writer, now a wholehearted convert to America’s game. If you want to join the conversation, book your tickets here: https://www.bl.uk/events/take-me-out-to-the-ball-game-baseball-and-american-culture

Chris Birkett

The British Library is the home to the Mike Ross Collection of baseball books and memorabilia which contains more than 300 items relating to America’s national pastime.

Chris Birkett is undertaking postgraduate research on the Clinton presidency and baseball at King’s College London, where he is a Professor Sir Richard Trainor Scholar, supported by the Eccles Centre at the British Library

American Collections blog recent posts

Archives

Tags

Other British Library blogs