Last Friday, the John Rylands Library provided the venue for the inaugural reading group of BrANCA – the British Association of Nineteenth-Century Americanists. At an event organised by Dr Michelle Coghlan and funded by The University of Manchester’s English, American Studies and Creative Writing department, delegates gathered to discuss some recent critical texts on the theme of ‘Archival Pleasures’.
The event included further archival pleasure in the form of a collection-based session enabling delegates to view and discuss some of the Library’s nineteenth-century American holdings. Through a selection of manuscript and printed material, we explored a wide range of topics, including the birth of Primitive Methodism in America, transatlantic literary, political and social networks, the cult of celebrity, the myth of the Wild West, the nineteenth-century tourist experience, and the trade in smuggling London-made clothes into New York (to name but a few!)
The Library has very strong anti-slavery collections, which include a significant amount of material relating to America. We looked at the first British edition of An Appeal to the Christian Women of the South (1837), an abolitionist text by the pioneering activist and women’s rights campaigner Angelina Grimké (1805-79). Born into a plantation-owning family in the American South, Grimké witnessed the appalling treatment of slaves first-hand as a child. At the age of 13, she refused to be confirmed into the Episcopal Church because of its support for slavery. She subsequently moved to the North to pursue a remarkable career of campaigning, lecturing and writing in support of abolition and women’s rights.
A text which will be much more familiar to people today is Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave, which was made into a powerful and critically acclaimed film last year.
Our copy is an American edition dating from 1859. Originally published in 1853, the book became a huge bestseller, being reprinted several times in the nineteenth century before falling into obscurity for over 100 years. The Rylands copy is special because it bears the bookplate of Wicobank Hall – home to Mary Anne Rawson (1801-87), a prominent member of the Sheffield Female Anti-Slavery Society. It also has a written inscription to the Sheffield society from the Rochester Anti-Slavery Association. Delegates at the event confirmed that this was likely to be the association established in Rochester, New York, in 1837 – which would explain why an American edition of the text was chosen as a gift for presentation.
From later in the century, we looked at some material relating to the great American poet, Walt Whitman. Not Whitman’s own archive, which is (as it should be) in America, but the archives generated by a small band of enthusiastic ‘Whitmanites’ based in Bolton, Lancashire. This informal group, known as the Bolton Whitman Fellowship, or Eagle Street College, met at each other’s houses to read and celebrate Whitman’s work at a time when his poetry was not widely known in the UK. In 1887 two leading members of the group (J.W. Wallace and John Johnston) ventured to write directly to Whitman on his birthday. The archive includes a lovingly preserved copy of their letter, in which they expressed how much his poetry meant to them, and – wishing to send ‘some little tangible proof of our love’ – enclosed a cheque for £10.
John Johnston – a Bolton GP – was an enthusiastic amateur photographer, and kept a fascinating visual record of the Bolton Whitmanites. They sent Whitman himself many of these photographs, and on his momentous visit from Bolton to meet Whitman at his home in Camden, New Jersey, J.W. Wallace was gratified to see some of these displayed on Whitman’s mantelpiece. The diary of his visit also records Whitman’s first words to him: ‘Well, you’ve come to be disillusioned, have you?’
Finally, we looked at the ‘Buffalo Bill Scrapbook’, which has been the subject of a previous blog post by Gareth Lloyd. Collection-based sessions like this always provide good opportunities for the Library’s curators to learn from academic experts, and one delegate drew my attention to the rather wonderful Buffalo Bill Project which those with an interest in our scrapbook will certainly find illuminating.
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