American and Soviet “Truth”: Pravda in Special Collections

By Natasha Bishop, Reference Assistant

SCRC is home to the collections of many prominent twentieth-century American cartoonists and journalists, some of whose works deal with one of the century’s most omnipresent forces: the Soviet Union. Three of these figures, Communist activist Earl Browder and political cartoonists Bill Crawford and Don Wright, engaged with the Soviet Communist Party’s daily newspaper, Pravda in their articles and cartoons. In doing so, the three men showcase the distinctly different ways propaganda and bias emerged in Soviet and American presses at this time.

While multiple newspapers were published in the Soviet Union, none was more far-reaching than the Soviet Communist Party’s central organ, Pravda (Russian for “Truth”). The publication powerhouse ran under Communist control from 1912 to 1991 and, at its height of circulation, reached 11 million people daily. Through Pravda, the party disseminated official policy while also presenting a strictly controlled image of communism’s reception abroad.

Front page of Pravda featuring a state officials group photograph with Josef Stalin standing center, March 2, 1947.

In efforts to present an image of widespread international support for the Soviet Union, Pravda employed American writers and cartoonists living abroad as foreign correspondents, some of whose collections are now held in SCRC. Noted American radical artists William Gropper and Fred Ellis, for example, both worked for the newspaper while living in Russia in the 1920s and 1930s, respectively. And in 1966, SCRC acquired the papers of one of Pravda’s most prominent American correspondents, Earl Browder.

The Earl Browder Collection contains the activist’s manuscripts, correspondence, memorabilia, and photographs, in addition to over 1,350 titles from his personal book and pamphlet collection. It is a critical collection because Browder was the General Secretary of the Communist Party USA from 1930 to 1945 and a two-time U.S. presidential candidate. He was a seminal party member until being expelled in 1956 for promoting a peaceful coexistence between socialism and capitalism. Browder continued to write for Pravda in the years after his excommunication and remained a committed socialist until his death in 1973.

SCRC holds a number of articles Browder wrote for Pravda, all of which are exaggerated accounts of socialism’s influence in the United States. A potent example of this is the 1939 article, “Lenin and his Influence in America,” which Browder begins by declaring: “Fifteen years after the death of Lenin, the influence of his ideas in America has grown to the proportion of a major factor in the life of the country…Lenin’s penetrating vision revealed the many affinities existing between the people of the Soviet Union, land of socialism, and the people of the United States.” This faithfully reflects the serious manner in which Browder wrote his Pravda reports, amplifying the Soviet Union’s impact on the American general public.

Being a state-run political apparatus, the heavily regulated and serious Pravda existed solely to push Communist policy. SCRC’s issues of Pravda contain few images and no cartoons; the editors clearly prioritized policy over entertainment. Through Browder and other foreign correspondents, it kept the Soviet public abreast on American news, although always biased in favor of the Communist party.

Conversely, the American public maintained an awareness of information being circulated by Pravda throughout the twentieth century, as evidenced in two works in SCRC collections by prominent cartoonists, Bill Crawford and Don Wright. While Soviet news contributors wrote from a serious standpoint, American cartoonists could afford to be more glib in their presentation of foreign matters. No major periodicals were controlled by political factions and because the American press operates within the free-market economy, its news publications have always had the dual task of informing and entertaining to attract readers. Rooted in comedy, the cartoon remains a staple of American newspapers. It is an effective tool wielded to deliver sharply critical commentary made more palatable through humor.

Cartoon criticizing the two-faced nature of Soviet officials by Bill Crawford, ca. 1958-52.

Crawford’s cartoon, published sometime between 1952-58, shows Josef Stalin holding a mask in his right hand. “‘We are devoted to strengthening peace and cooperation with the U.S.’…New Soviet Ambassador Zarubin,” assures the mask to the American audience. Meanwhile, Stalin faces the opposite direction and speaks directly to the Soviets (as quoted in Pravda) “‘U.S. Ambassador is a slanderer disguised as a diplomat’…Pravda”. This showcases the deep cynicism of what Americans believed were false promises being made by the Soviets. Its message was clearly that the Soviets were not to be trusted, which stoked the flames of fear being nurtured during the Red Scare era.

Cartoon by Don Wright featuring a newspaper merchant selling two Soviet and one American publications, undated.

 Although less explicit than Crawford’s cartoon, Wright’s still plays into the fearmongering aspects of anti-Soviet propaganda. This undated cartoon published in the Miami Herald shows a dejected man at his newsstand in Moscow selling three publications: Pravda, Izvestia, and the Wall Street Journal. The paranoia-imbued message Wright delivers says that the Soviets were closely monitoring the American economy.

The American and Soviet presses would keep their readerships informed on the current events of each other’s countries throughout the Cold War. Their delivery styles were markedly different due to the nature of state-run versus free-market publications, yet similarities are found in the biased and propagandistic nature of their foreign news content.

The William Gropper Papers (William Gropper Papers, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries), Fred Ellis Papers (Fred Ellis Papers, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries), Bill Crawford Papers (Bill Crawford Papers, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries), Don Wright Papers (Don Wright Papers, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries), and Earl Browder Papers (Earl Browder Papers, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries), are part of the Special Collections Research Center’s manuscript collections. Additional issues of Pravda are also available on microfilm at the Bird Library.

Additional Sources:

Dallin, Alexander. “America Through Soviet Eyes.” The Public Opinion Quarterly, vol. 11, no. 1, 1947, pp. 26–39.

Gruliow, Leo. “The Soviet Press: ‘Propagandist, Agitator, Organizer’.” Journal of International Affairs, vol. 10, no. 2, 1956, pp. 153–169.

Moore, Barrington. “The Communist Party of the USA; an Analysis of a Social Movement.” The American Political Science Review, vol. 39, no. 1, 1945, pp. 31–41.

White, James D. “The First Pravda and the Russian Marxist Tradition.” Soviet Studies, vol. 26, no. 2, 1974, pp. 181–204.

Voices from Attica

Student workers join the Special Collections Research Center over the summer to work on focused projects and internships. For the month of August we will be highlighting student work and student research projects from summer 2019. This week, we highlight a research post from one of our public services graduate student workers.

By Chris Barnes, Public Services Assistant

Cover of the Broadside Press publication Betcha Ain’t: Poems from Attica.

As part of its large collection of activism and social reform materials, Syracuse University’s Special Collections Research Center holds nearly 170 titles from poet Dudley Randall’s Broadside Press, a small press that sought to publish books by African-American poets such as Nikki Giovanni and Audre Lorde at affordable prices. The book of poetry Betcha Ain’t: Poems from Attica exemplifies the press’s commitment to publishing voices that may not otherwise exist.

On September 9, 1971, over 1,200 prisoners at the Attica State Correctional Facility in upstate New York took 39 corrections officers hostage and occupied the prison’s main yard for four days, demanding long-awaited improvements to the prison’s deplorable conditions. The standoff drew international attention as inmates negotiated for these changes with State Corrections Commissioner Russell Oswald. The negotiations eventually stalled, and on September 13, when Governor Nelson Rockefeller ordered state troopers to retake the prison by force. Some troopers dropped tear gas from helicopters while others stormed the prison and fired their rifles into the smoky yard killing hostages and inmates alike and ending with more than 40 casualties

Edited by Celes Tisdale three years after the rebellion, Betcha Ain’t contains poems by Attica inmates. Tisdale held multiple eight-week poetry workshops in Attica in 1972, working with 15 men chosen by a lottery system. In the workshops, the men discussed various poetic forms and workshopped their own original writing, honing their poetic voices. Tisdale then submitted the poems to the Broadside Press editor Dudley Randall, who then made the final selections. 

The poems are about an array of topics, such as prison life, societal racism, and celebrations of blackness. And, not surprisingly, many are about the Attica uprising and its bloody aftermath. For instance, in his poem “1st page,” Daniel Brown imagines himself physically freed from Attica, but still mentally gripped by it: “I’ll find a house or hut to live in / In a lonely countryside / With Atticka on my mind.” Such feelings of loneliness not only stem from the physical isolation of incarceration, but also the sense of being forgotten or disregarded by the outside world. John Lee Norris’s poem “Just Another Page (September 13-72)” grapples with similar themes, as it expresses the sense that a year after the uprising, the world beyond prison walls has already forgotten about the rebellion:

A year later
And it’s just another page
And the only thing they do right is wrong
And Attica is a maggot-minded black blood sucker
And the only thing they do right is wrong
And another page of history is written in black blood
And old black mamas pay taxes to buy guns that killed
    their sons
And the consequence of being free…is death
And your sympathy and tears always come too late
And the only thing they do right is wrong
          And it’s just another page.

Daniel Brown’s poem Just Another Page from Betcha Ain’t: Poems from Attica

Also included in Betcha Ain’t are excerpts from Tisdale’s personal journal about the workshops, along with individual biographies of each poet. The journal entries depict a relationship founded in a shared sense of respect and intellectual camaraderie: “The men joke with me as we enter and leave, but I still detect great respect, almost an awe, a stand-offish attitude. I see them as the men I relate to every day in the world outside. How it pains me when they go back to their cells, but linger and talk before the guard hurries them along. If I could only stay here a few days more.” His entries also attest to the difficulties of running the workshops in Attica, as he must compete with the vagaries of prison life that affect the poets. He describes one attendee who has become “unusually despondent these days. His cell was ‘raided’ by officials and his poetry and books confiscated. He has been very tight, recently.”  

The poems in Betcha Ain’t challenged contemporary media depictions of the rebels as a monolith of dangerous, radical leftists. But as my time working in the SCRC Reading Room reminds me, archives are not only a repository of materials, but are also institutions that help shape historical and cultural memory. Indeed, the historian Heather Ann Thompson explains in her book Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy that a comprehensive history of Attica has been difficult to write, as many of the important documents about what happened during the chaotic retaking of the prison have remained sealed in state archives or are available only in heavily redacted form through Freedom of Information Act requests.

1974 issue of the student publication The Syracuse Sun.

With important documents still inaccessible, a way of learning more about Attica rebellion is through the voices of those who helped shape the publication of texts such as Betcha Ain’t. For researchers interested in these voices, SCRC also holds Syracuse University student publications such as The Syracuse Sun, which covered trials against Attica inmates and also featured letters written by them that tell readers about the ongoing conditions in the prison. These materials offer a look at the ways local activists attempted to rally support on behalf of Attica inmates and to spread the word about the grave injustices continuing to take place at the prison.

The Special Collections Research Center is dedicated to providing opportunities for student learning and research. Stay tuned for more updates from our students throughout the month of August.

Betcha Ain’t: Poems from Attica and the Broadside Press publications are part of SCRC’s rare books collection (Rare books, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries) and the student publication The Syracuse Sun is part of SCRC’s Syracuse University Student Publications Reference Collection (Syracuse University Student Publications Reference Collection, University Archives Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries).

Additional Sources:

Leasher, Evelyn. “Broadside Press of Detroit.” Michigan Historical Review, vol. 26, no. 1, 2000, pp. 106-123.

New York (State). Special Commission on Attica. Attica: The Official Report of the New York State Special Commission on Attica. Bantam Books, New York, 1972.

Thompson, Heather A., 1963. Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and its Legacy. Pantheon Books, New York, 2016.

Virtual Plastic: SCRC as Creative Laboratory

By Courtney Asztalos, Plastics and Historical Artifacts Curator

During the academic year of 2018-2019, Jacob Riddle, a faculty member of Transmedia and the School of Art and I partnered with his Digital Fabrication and Transmedia courses.  The goal was for students to create 3D prints and VR sculptures utilizing SCRC’s Plastics Artifacts Collection. We accomplished this by creating a temporary lab space in Special Collections for the students to practice photogrammetry. Photogrammetry is a method of 3D scanning used by artists and cultural heritage institutions for documenting artifacts. Students used this process to create 3D models of objects from the Plastics Artifacts Collection. These models became starting points for the creation of virtual reality (VR) sculptures and 3D prints. The students’ sculptural and artistic renderings are akin to methods of collage art and remixing.

The goal of this assignment was not to reproduce the artifacts into a virtual or physical existence but to reimagine and create new works of art. By partnering with Jacob and his classes, it was the first time that Special Collections and these departments worked together with artifacts and 3D scanning as both inspiration and material. One of the benefits of hosting Jacob’s classes in both fall 2018 and spring 2019 was the ability to review lessons learned in the Fall and immediately implement changes during the Spring.

Click on image to play gif.

During both semesters, Jacob brought his classes (ARI 300/500 & 600 Digital Sculpture, TRM 351 Advanced Transmedia Studio) to SCRC for a one-hour instruction session introducing students to SCRC, archival research, and the Plastics Artifacts Collection. Students engaged with a wide range of historical artifacts, documents, photographs, and books.

Materials displayed during the session included celluloid and nylon objects shown alongside related product literature, collector newsletters, original photographs, and advertisements.

During the fall, students worked in groups, and 3D scanned together. Jacob and I pre-selected a limited group of artifacts for the students to photograph. We selected artifacts that represented a wide range of plastics material culture. Artifacts were chosen for how they would scan properly and alternatively for how they could pose a challenge due to reflectivity and transparency. Jacob wanted students to explore the limitations of photogrammetry through this active learning.

Students choosing their artifacts in Fall 2018.

Jacob Riddle teaching students how to scan their objects.

Jacob Riddle teaching students how to scan

Student 3D scanning artifact with assistance from Courtney Asztalos.

During the spring semester, Jacob and I switched things up. Students came in again for a one hour historical plastics session. During this session, students learned about the different facets of the SCRC process and registered as researchers. After this session, they had two weeks to select one plastics artifact each. Once artifacts were chosen, students came back to SCRC to 3D scan their objects individually. During this scanning session, they also consulted with me for an individualized introduction to researching their object with SCRC materials and SUL resources. Our decision to have students choose their own artifacts proved to be a fruitful choice. Through choosing artifacts, students were engaging with inquiry-based learning while strengthening their research skills with primary source materials. We were excited by this improvement during the spring semester as it inspired significant insights and innovations in form and concept. An outstanding example of this success is evident in the work of Darcie Brown.

The celluloid, blow-molded swan ornament (artifact accession number 2011.072) Darcie Brown selected as her plastic object.

The 3D-printed mutated version of the plastic swan ornament created by Darcie Brown as part of her final presentation for the class.

Darcie Brown, a Master of Fine Arts graduate student, was inspired to work with a celluloid, blow-molded swan ornament (artifact accession number 2011.072) manufactured in the early twentieth century by the Viscoloid Company, which was later acquired by the Du Pont Company in 1925. Her research in SCRC’s Reading Room with manuscript materials brought to light the disparity of plastics chemicals manufacturing companies’ outwardly expressed concerns for the environment versus their toxic manufacturing processes that polluted the environment. Brown demonstrated this disparity by altering the appearance of the traditional celluloid swan ornament into a 3D-printed mutated version of it. Of her work, Brown writes: “If DuPont and other companies continue to carelessly dispose of hazardous waste, this strange swan that looks like it lives on an alien planet could become a reality.”

The poster for the “Virtual Plastic” public program and exhibition in SUL’s Peter Graham Scholarly Commons.

Some of the 3D printed student work on exhibition at the “Virtual Plastic” presentation.

Jacob and I presented the final results of our first-semester collaboration at a public program and exhibition in SUL’s Peter Graham Scholarly Commons called “Virtual Plastic.” During our presentation, audience participants were able to view the sculptures by wearing Oculus headsets. A variety of 3D printed student work was on exhibition as well. When the academic year was over, it was exciting to reflect on our unusual partnership and how the Plastics Artifacts Collection transformed SCRC’s classroom into a space for creativity and active learning with Special Collections materials.

The Plastics Artifacts Collection is part of SCRC’s special collection materials (Plastics Artifacts Collection, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries).

New Acquisition: Jantzen Swimwear Advertising Portfolio

What is the value of a new acquisition? Curators must consider how new items fit into already existing collections and why a new piece is relevant and worthwhile to add. SCRC’s recent acquisition of a portfolio of Jantzen Swimwear advertising photographs from the 1930s and 1940s features 111 silver gelatin prints of swimwear from this era, bringing value to our collections in relation to plastics, fashion, advertising and photography materials. Three staff members discuss the value of this acquisition below.

Cover of the Janzten advertising portfolio.

Cover of the Jantzen portfolio which is embossed in red with “Jantzen Swimwear” in the center and “Jantzen Knitting Mills Portland, Oregon” in the lower right corner.

Fashion and Plastics
Courtney Asztalos, Plastics and Historical Artifacts Curator

This acquisition of the Jantzen Swimwear advertising portfolio illustrates the relationship between American fashion, the textiles industry, and the rise of the plastics industry during the 1930s and 1940s.

Black-and-white photograph of a woman posing in a 1930s style swimsuit.

Advertising photograph from the 1930s showcasing the new types of fabric and styles introduced by Jantzen.

The photographs in the Jantzen portfolio are evidence of artificial and synthetic fibers’ role in transforming American swimwear. One rubber yarn present in these swimsuits and of particular historical importance is Lastex. This “miracle fiber” was patented in 1931 by Percy Adamson, of the Adamson Brothers Company. The Adamson Company quickly became a subsidiary of the US Rubber Company (a company under the ownership of the Du Pont family starting in 1927), and Lastex entered the market for distribution in 1931. Lastex earned the title of the “depression solvent” because of its ability to hold shape and its reputation for durability through the laundry process. Lauded in its time as one of the most inventive achievements in the manufacturing of textiles—Lastex was latex in thread form. Latex was created by manufacturing a rubber tree’s milk and then extruding the result into a round thread form. This new thread was then tightly enclosed with wound layers of yarn such as cotton, wool, acetate, silk or rayon.

Americans were skeptical of artificial fibers in the earlier part of the twentieth century because of their unpredictability, particularly through processes of washing and ironing. Through the process of cleaning these garments, such as early rayon, consumers found clothing would stretch out and become gummy and unwearable. However, with innovations in textile manufacturing and the practice of combining various types of new fibers to achieve more durable fabrics, American trust shifted.

Black-and-white photograph of two women posing in 1930s style swimsuits,

Models posing in palm-tree print bathing suits from the Jantzen portfolio.

By 1932, Jantzen was one of the most recognized trademarks in the world due to their advertising strategies and the popularity of the Diving Girl logo. Jantzen’s utilization of Lastrex helped them to further develop their brand as “smart swimming apparel.” As the 1930s advanced, Lastrex allowed Jantzen to create new bathing suits that differed from the previous woolen suits known for soaking up water and drooping. The ways human bodies were on display in public swimming spaces drastically began to change—shapes now could be smoothed, structured, or suppressed in an infinite number of ways.

Hollywood and Advertising
Grace Wagner, Reading Room Access Services Supervisor

The Jantzen Swimwear portfolio brings value to SCRC’s collections for what it tells us about twentieth-century fashion, through the lenses of Hollywood fashion, advertising, and popular culture. During the 1930s, Jantzen’s innovative approach to fabrics and textiles, coupled with a persuasive and pervasive advertising department, led the brand to dominate the burgeoning swimsuit industry. Jantzen’s advertising emphasized the essential nature of swimming as a leisure activity, no longer available only to wealthy resort-goers, but a democratic, all-American pursuit.

Black-and-white photograph of two models standing on a boardwalk wearing bathing suits from the 1930s.

Models posing near the boardwalk in the Jantzen portfolio.

Jantzen struck a balance between glamour and accessibility in its advertising. This essential balance is evident in the photographs in Jantzen’s advertising portfolio. In addition to traditional posed studio shots, models for the Jantzen line lounged near pools, frolicked in the water, and smiled on boardwalks. They accessorized with espadrilles and cover-ups and stood next to wicker furniture, highlighting the expanded role that swimming was assuming in American life through a range of products. Looking at the Jantzen portfolio of photos, the stylish swimwear and photography set-ups mimic standard glamour shots and fashion styles popular in Hollywood during this time.

The stylish advertisements presented the idea to Americans that they could be as glamorous as Hollywood stars in their Jantzen swimwear. And, in fact, Jantzen’s relationship with Hollywood extended beyond the design of their advertising photographs. The company frequently enlisted up-and-coming stars to model for the Jantzen brand, beginning with actress Loretta Young, who was awarded the title of “Miss Jantzen” in 1931, and continuing throughout the 1930s and 1940s with other stars, including Esther Williams, Marilyn Monroe, and James Garner. The styles of the company’s swimwear naturally echoed styles worn by stars on screen as well. For example, a glamorous hooded beach coat (pictured below) bears a noticeable resemblance to Lana Turner’s iconic white beach coat and bathing suit in 1946’s The Postman Always Rings Twice.

Black-and-white photograph of two models posing in a hooded swimsuit cover-up.

Jantzen’s glamorous hooded cover-up echoes similar styles worn by Hollywood stars in the 1930s and 1940s.

Cover-ups like this beach coat helped make the company’s otherwise cheeky bathing suit designs respectable. The practice of putting a wholesome cover-up over a scandalous suit applied to both male and female bathers at this time. Several pictures in the advertising portfolio feature male swimmers dressed in what appears to be a men’s one-piece bathing suit. In fact, a zipper separates the upper and lower halves of the swimsuit, making the adjustable swimsuit versatile for the wearer, as many public beaches at this time required men to cover their chests.

Black-and-white photograph of two male models in a 1930s swimsuit.

Jantzen’s one-piece adjustable men’s bathing suit.

Teaching and Research
Colleen Theisen, Chief Curator of Exhibitions, Programs, and Education

When considering whether to acquire an item being offered as a donation or being sold from a bookseller, a primary concern for a curator is how the item will be used by researchers and in particular how interesting it will be for teaching here at Syracuse University.

Black-and-white photograph of Jantzen models from the 1930s.

Glamorous Jantzen models pose in the new bathing suit styles from the 1930s.

The Jantzen Swimwear advertising portfolio has crossover interest for many departments on campus and so it is a good fit for using in our classroom with a wide variety of materials. Classes studying the history of advertising have an example of one company’s internal documentation of their marketing images, and they can take a look how the shots are staged, or investigate the larger social construction of race, class, and gender through marketing at the time. Classes interested in photography have 111 example of silver gelatin prints and can study the physical prints themselves, or photography in the context of marketing in the 1930’s. The glamorous Hollywood style images are so visually compelling that they can be paired with any mix of materials for a introductory class demonstrating the wide variety of material available for historic research in a special collections. Beyond their contextual and historic information, the binder is sturdy and the photographs are in clear sleeves which means the pages can be turned by students in classes without having to pull out white gloves to handle the photographs, which means it is easy to use and can physically withstand classroom use.

The Jantzen Swimwear Photographs are part of SCRC’s special collection materials (Jantzen Swimwear Photographs, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries).

Special thanks to the team at Between the Covers for their research while listing and selling this item without which our team could not have started to dream up uses for it.

Additional Sources:

Craig, Hazel Thompson, 1904-, and Ola Day Rush. Clothes With Character. Boston: Little, Brown and company, 1941.

Lenček, L., & Bosker, G. (1989). Making waves: Swimsuits and the undressing of America. San Francisco: Chronicle Books.

Richmond, Clifford A. The History And Romance of Elastic Webbing. [Easthampton, Mass.: Printed at the Easthampton news company, 1946.

Ward, Susan. “Swimwear.” Encyclopedia of Clothing and Fashion, edited by Valerie Steele, vol. 3, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2005, pp. 250-255. Gale Virtual Reference Library.

Wallance, Don. Shaping America’s Products. New York: Reinhold, 1956.

 

 

Blake’s Prints: 1789 Songs of Innocence by William Blake

By Sheridan Bishoff, Public Services Assistant

A woman is seated on a chair with two young people leaning over a book held in her lap, while whimsical tree branches curl and twist up from the right of the page forming the title, “Songs of Innocence.”

Title page from Songs of Innocence

I am an Art History graduate student at Syracuse University, so it is always an exhilarating experience to stumble upon a work of art while working in the Special Collections Research Center at Syracuse University Libraries. SCRC holds a diverse group of rare books, including a 1789 edition of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence. Blake (1757-1827) was an English poet, painter, and printmaker. In 1794, Blake expanded Songs of Innocence into its final version Songs of Innocence and Experience (1794). Together, they show the two contrary states of the human soul.  

The pages of our volume were removed from their binding and matted for preservation. My introduction to Blake’s Songs of Innocence came when I was asked to number the matted plates. The pages of Songs of Innocence contain a collection of poems and works of art copied from copperplate engravings and then hand-painted. I saw great care placed into each etching when I was observing the book. While prints are considered a means of duplication, every color wash by Blake gives a different life to his artwork. Some editions explore various ranges of light and shade, expanding beyond expectations of local color.

Largely dismissed in Blake’s lifetime, his work is now considered an important example in the history of English poetry. The popularity of Blake’s writing today has led to easy access of his poems in print and online. However, it is not always easy to see a full range of watercolor washes and prints integrated with his poetry.  SU’s Songs of Innocence contains unique relief etched impressions with color choices unlike other editions created during the late eighteenth century.  Today, there is even an online William Blake Archive that allows you to compare the different artistic decisions. For example, the Blake Archive contains a copy of the 1789 Songs of Innocence that is currently held at the Yale Center for British Art

When comparing Yale’s to our version from the same publication year, there are striking differences in how Blake colored each individual copy. Our edition contains darker lines from the original print while Yale’s has golden undertones. Several of our prints also depict a vivacious wash of a red to blue as seen in the lower half of “The Ecchoing Green.” That poem in Yale’s copy does not contain this coverage or vibrancy of color on the lower half of this poem.

Figures merrily playing and resting beneath a full tree fills the upper frame of the page, while the lower half of the image portrays “The Ecchoing Green” poem with two children and vines undulating through space.

“The Ecchoing Green” from Songs of Innocence

Similarly, there is a variation in the overall tone of the poem“Infant Joy.” SU’s copy of the poem places a blooming flower against a soft blue. The background leads the observer to place the plant in an environment, against the blue sky. Yale’s copy of “Infant Joy” instead contains a flattening range of colors through the sparse application of blue and green. This minimal use of tone alters the audiences’ perception of space. The use of color in Yale’s “Infant Joy” therefore becomes less of a whimsical birth and more ambiguous in its surroundings.

Whirling green vines swirl up to the rood bloom that holds a small fairy and women in yellow with a baby on her lap.

“Infant Joy” from Songs of Innocence

Blake’s skill as a craftsman and printmaker is evident in his integration of text and image in Songs of InnocencePoetry creates its own visual language just as pictures do. Poetic words form a world in your mind, and Blake provides a form to that world by interweaving the words prominently among the color and forms of his poems. As seen in “Infant Joy,” the poem is placed amidst the fluid growing form as the first letter softly touches the curving neck of the blossoming plant. The leaves bend to complement the space the plant holds, creating an integrated composition. There are examples of poems that have more separation between word and image. Even in these separated images, such as “Spring” and “The Little Boy Lost” (see below), Blake fluidly activates the space of words with intricate details of wispy trees and dancing vines. Reading Blake’s poetry in mass production, only existing as words, loses some of the complexity of his original integrated compositions. 

“Spring” from Songs of Innocence

A small haloed boy in the darkness of a looming tree, runs with arms straight out to the left of the image with the poem on the bottom half of the page surrounded by winged figures.

“The Little Boy Lost” from Songs of Innocence

It was a pleasure to have the opportunity to work with this rare work of art.  If you are interested in viewing this work, visit the Reading Room at Syracuse University’s Special Collections Research Center.

William Blake’s 1789 edition of Songs of Innocence referenced in this post is part of our rare books collection (Rare books, Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries).

 

Additional Sources

“William Blake,” from the Poetry Foundation, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/william-blake

The William Blake Archive, http://www.blakearchive.org/

 

This post has been revised 7/15/2019 to reflect an updated description of printing technique.