Mining the Archive of Octavia E. Butler

Octavia E. Butler, ca. 1988, © Miriam Berkley. For alternative images and questions regarding usage, please contact photographer Miriam Berkley.

The papers of award-winning science fiction writer Octavia E. Butler (1947–2006) came to The Huntington in 2008. By the time the collection had been processed and cataloged, more than 40 scholars had already asked for access. Today, the Octavia E. Butler Collection is one of the top two most actively researched archives at The Huntington.

To better understand the insights gained by scholars using the archives, we are convening a daylong academic conference to explore the legacy of a writer whose relevance and influence continue to rapidly expand.

Titled “Octavia E. Butler Studies: Convergence of an Expanding Field,” the conference highlights the evolving, transdisciplinary work that scholars have done based on Butler’s archives. It will also foster conversations to examine how Butler’s life, writing, and research nurture a deeper understanding of the past, present, and possible futures.

Shelley Streeby, one of the conference presenters, has been studying Butler’s research on the environment and climate change, which Butler initiated in 1965. This image is of the outside of an envelope Butler used to file away the articles she collected on climate and the environment beginning in the 1980s. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. Copyright Estate of Octavia E. Butler. Click here to enlarge.

The Octavia E. Butler Collection contains more than 8,000 items, including her unpublished book drafts, diaries, research, notes, letters, and other ephemera. Our conference provides the first opportunity for those Butler experts who earliest delved into The Huntington’s archive to share and discuss their discoveries.

The conference showcases academics addressing a range of topics drawn from the Butler Collection. We are pleased to include Shelley Streeby, faculty director of the Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers’ Workshop and professor of Literature and Ethnic Studies at UC San Diego, who will expand on chapters written for her forthcoming book, Imagining the Future of Climate Change: World-Making through Science Fiction and Activism. We’ll also hear from Gerry Canavan, assistant professor of American Literature at Marquette University, who is the first to use the Butler archive to develop a biography, Octavia E. Butler. Canavan will discuss fragments of Butler’s unpublished novel Parable of the Trickster, the intended third installment in her Parable series.

Aimee Bahng, assistant professor of English at Pomona College, will discuss Butler’s research on the behaviors of slime molds, a topic explored in the Xenogenesis trilogy. Cassandra Jones, assistant professor of African American Studies and director of the American Studies program at University of South Carolina Upstate, will present on Butler’s character Anyanwu, the shapeshifter, in the Patternist novels. Jenny Terry, senior lecturer in the Department of English Studies at Durham University, will talk about art inspired by Butler’s novels. And Sami Schalk, assistant professor of Gender and Women’s Studies at University of Wisconsin, Madison, will explore Butler’s writings as disability literature.

Butler in Machu Picchu, unidentified photographer, 1985. Butler traveled to Peru to conduct research for her Xenogenesis/Lilith’s Brood trilogy, which takes place in a post-apocalyptic rain forest and in and alien space vessel. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

This long-planned conference comes on the heels of several other significant Butler programs over the last year or so. A Huntington Library exhibition, “Octavia E. Butler: Telling My Stories,” the first major exhibition to explore Butler’s life, runs through Aug. 7, 2017. The local arts non-profit Clockshop ran a yearlong series of events celebrating Butler called “Radio Imagination,” with several partners including ourselves and The Huntington. These events provided opportunities for Butler scholars, artists, students, readers, and fans to come together to discuss and celebrate the author’s work and legacy. We continue that tradition as co-editors of a forthcoming special issue on Butler in Palimpsest: A Journal on Women, Gender, and the Black International, a peer-reviewed journal published by the State University of New York.

We hope that 50 years from now, in 2067, people will look back on this conference as the beginning of an explosive golden age in the field of Butler Studies.

Related content on Verso:
Telling Their Stories (May 17, 2017)
Telling Her Stories (April 6, 2017)
Instagram Takeover with Lynell George (Oct. 5, 2016)
Seeing to It (Aug. 15, 2016)
Mentoring in the Afterlife (June 10, 2016)
Celebrating Octavia Butler (Jan. 27, 2016)
Writing Herself In (June 22, 2015)

You can read more about the conference program and registration on The Huntington’s website.

Ayana Jamieson is the founder of the Octavia E. Butler Legacy Network and the awardee of the Helen Bing Fellowship at The Huntington, where she will continue her scholarship on Butler’s life. She is also an interdisciplinary lecturer for State University New York, Empire State College.

Moya Bailey is the digital alchemist of the Octavia E. Butler Legacy Network and assistant professor of Cultures, Societies, and Global Studies and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Northeastern University.

Visualizing the Anatomy of the Eye

Vesalius’s first cross-sectional image of the eye, from Andreas Vesalius, De humani corporis fabrica (On the Fabric of the Human Body), 1543. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. Photo by Kate Lain.

As a historian of science, I’m fascinated with pictures that help make sense of past scientific ideas and practices. The Huntington’s vast collection of rare 16th-century science books document how intellectuals of the day perceived the eye and the process of sight. Chief among these works is the groundbreaking anatomy book De humani corporis fabrica (On the Fabric of the Human Body) by the Flemish-born anatomist and physician Andreas Vesalius (1514–64).

De fabrica was printed in 1543 in Basel, Switzerland, and, with its incredible woodcut images based on the burgeoning practice of human dissection, it marked a major development in the history of anatomy. Readers might be familiar with the book’s famous muscle men or the memento mori of a skeleton contemplating a skull. Although less well known, Vesalius’s detailed diagrams of the eye were among the first in a printed anatomical treatise. His cross-sectional diagram would become the model for almost all other visual representations of the eye in anatomy and optics until the mid-17th century.

Vesalius tells us that he drew a similar diagram for his students prior to performing an ocular dissection. A real eye has many fluid, transparent parts that are difficult to grasp (literally and conceptually) in a dissection, so Vesalius used a visual aid to bring order to the messiness of the anatomized eye—he was telling his students and his readers what they were supposed to see. But, by visualizing the eye before his students (or readers) would see an anatomized eye itself, what sort of order was he imposing?

Diagram of the cosmos, from Gregor Reisch, Margarita philosophica (Pearl of Wisdom), 1504. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

The eye Vesalius depicts in De fabrica was very much a product of the image-making culture of his age. Vesalius writes that the eye can be compared to the cosmos—an earth-centered cosmos, that is. The year 1543 was revolutionary for science. Nicolaus Copernicus, in the same year, published De Revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres), which had the earth revolving around the sun, rather than the reverse. Copernicus’s heliocentrism, however, took hold slowly. Geocentrism was the order of the day.

So Vesalius addresses readers who would be familiar with images of an earth-centered cosmos, for instance those found in the most popular university textbook in the first half of the 16th century, Gregor Reisch’s liberal arts textbook Margarita philosophica (Pearl of Wisdom), also in The Huntington’s collections. Vesalius draws upon this scheme and puts the lens at the center of the eye. Many implications from this concept of the cosmos are transferred over: for example, just as the universe was constructed according to a divine plan, so too was the eye.

Vesalius did not invent a new theory of vision. Most people at the time believed that the purpose of the ocular lens was not to refract rays of light and color but to receive and capture them. The basic idea was that, if what we see are the colors of things, then what we see with must be uncolored—that is to say, it must be transparent. This theory of perception, hailing back to Aristotle, ruled out the retina: it was too dark, too rough, too colored. The central place of the lens in Vesalius’s diagram showcases its central place in the visual theory of the time.

Detail from Vesalius’s idealized depiction of the shapes and sizes of the parts of the eye, and how they fit together. From Andreas Vesalius, De humani corporis fabrica (On the Fabric of the Human Body), 1543. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. Photo by Kate Lain.

Vesalius also provides a “deconstructed” image, which might be thought of as assembly instructions for Nature herself. At the top-left, you can see a lentil-shaped part of the eye—in fact, the English word lens comes from the Latin word for lentil. Reading from top-left to bottom-right, one sees the eye being constructed piece by piece. Notice that Vesalius rotates the parts to show them from different angles, helping us to generate a three-dimensional picture in our minds. Once we have built up a mental model, we can then scan from bottom-right to top-left to understand how to dissect the eye, instructions for which Vesalius gives in a subsequent chapter. Keep in mind that these are images of fluid humors and delicate membranes—what he shows is clearly not what one would actually see in a dissection.

Vesalius’s images were the first, in print, to try to accurately depict the relative sizes, shapes, and positions of the eye and its parts. But, paradoxically, to be faithful to anatomy, he had to present an ideal: he showed how to construct or dissect an eye in one’s mind. These and other images in the magnificent collection of books at The Huntington are windows into the world—the microcosm and the macrocosm—of the 16th century.

Detail from Vesalius’s idealized depiction of the shapes and sizes of the parts of the eye. From Andreas Vesalius, De humani corporis fabrica (On the Fabric of the Human Body), 1543. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens. Photo by Kate Lain.

Tawrin Baker is the 2016–17 Dibner Fellow in the History of Science and Technology at The Huntington. He was a Mellon Postdoctoral Associate in the History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Pittsburgh for 2015–16 and will be a postdoctoral fellow in the Visual Studies Program at the University of Pennsylvania for 2017–18.

Learning Real Life Solutions to Civic Problems

Los Angeles Service Academy (LASA) students gather at the Los Angeles River in Frogtown, March 2017. Photo by William Deverell.

Who will be the civic leaders of tomorrow and guide the decisions Los Angeles makes about infrastructure, transportation, homelessness, and other major issues?

It may just be some of the high school juniors involved in the Los Angeles Service Academy (LASA)—an educational program offered by the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West (ICW). LASA supplements regular schoolwork with an intensive introduction to the infrastructure and institutions of greater Los Angeles for students who have expressed an interest in public, civic, and civil service.

“LASA has the potential to change the lives and career paths of hundreds of high school students in the region,” says William Deverell, director of ICW and professor of history at USC. “Students learn how the metropolis works—and doesn’t work—and how they can solve problems through civic engagement and acquiring knowledge.”

LASA students overlook the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California’s main water treatment facility in La Verne, Calif., August 2016. Photo by John Lee.

LASA organizes a series of seminars and fieldwork guided by scholars and experts in the field. The program, now in its fifth year, enrolls 30 high school juniors each year from across the Los Angeles Basin. A week-long summer immersion seminar explores Los Angeles geography, seismology, history, and politics, and culminates in a kayaking trip along the Los Angeles River. LASA then meets one Saturday per month during the regular school year.

The winning essays from a recent contest sponsored by LASA show the impact the program can have on students’ will to solve problems facing the city.

Bryan Silva-Barajas, a student at the Applied Technology Center High School in Montebello, talked about how his encounter with people in front of Los Angeles City Hall who were hungry and homeless motivated him to get involved in politics. The messages he heard later that day at a talk held at the Los Angeles Public Library cemented his resolve. The advice he heard from Raphael Sonenshein, executive director of the Pat Brown Institute for Public Affairs at Cal State Los Angeles, was to “do what you like first and get lots of school, then go into politics.” Now Silva-Barajas plans to finish school and then become a political leader who can represent and help the homeless.

LASA founding director William Deverell with LASA students in the “gleaning room” of the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, January 2017. Photo by John Lee.

Sachi Thomsen, a student at Polytechnic School in Pasadena, explained how her LASA experience made her aware of the huge amounts of waste in the city’s food and clothing industries. She is currently working with her school to develop an on-campus clothing trading center. The idea is that “students from Poly as well as other schools in the area would be able to donate pieces that they no longer wear but are unique,” Thomsen wrote. “The clothes would be cleaned and resold . . . . All of the money would go to support a small sustainable clothing business.”

Other essays discussed additional field trips and seminars. This year’s group visited the Los Angeles Harbor with the former port director of Los Angeles, worked a shift at the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank, and toured the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California’s main water treatment facility, among other excursions. Whenever possible, the program brings in the perspectives of local scholars.

Both Silva-Barajas and Thomsen believe that LASA has planted the seeds for life-long perspectives on the complexities of Los Angeles civic life as well as keen insights into some solutions.

That’s music to the ears of Elizabeth Logan, associate director of ICW and LASA’s executive director. “Our students become engaged leaders of tomorrow with the assistance of LASA and the powerful partnership among The Huntington, USC, and local schools.”

A group of LASA students kayaks along the Los Angeles River in the Sepulveda Basin, August 2016. Photo by John Lee.

You can watch a video about LASA’s recent trips to the Los Angeles River and the Port of Los Angeles on YouTube.

You can learn more about LASA on its website.

Diana W. Thompson is senior writer for the office of communications and marketing at The Huntington.

Railroad Confidential

McKeen Motor Car, 1906. The sleek McKeen motor car, a gasoline-powered railway vehicle with innovative porthole windows and an aerodynamic “wind-splitter” front end, was the brainchild of engineer William R. McKeen Jr. (1869–1946). Unidentified photographer. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

Patent papers. Drawings of railcars. Engineering notes. Photographs of trains and machine shops. These were the kinds of materials I expected to encounter as I began organizing the personal papers of William Riley McKeen Jr. (1869–1946), a mechanical engineer and innovator who developed some of the first gasoline-powered railroad cars in the U.S.

But an entirely different world emerged when I opened a weathered brown envelope scrawled with “Lawsuit and settlement, 1913.” Brothels. Gentlemen’s clubs. Private detectives. Prostitutes.

It turned out that, in 1912, while overseeing the design and manufacture of the stylish “McKeen Motor Car,” McKeen became embroiled in a court battle in Omaha, Nebraska, brought by his new wife’s ex-husband, Charles W. Hull.

William R. McKeen Jr. (left) and Charles W. Hull, from Omaha: The Gate City, and Douglas County, Nebraska / A Record of Settlement, Organization, Progress and Achievement, Arthur C. Wakeley, ed., (Chicago: S. J. Clarke, 1917). Unidentified photographers. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

Hull, one of Omaha’s leading businessmen, filed suit to avoid paying $91,000 in alimony to his former wife, who had become Mrs. Mary McKeen. The couple fought back. They hired a private detective, intending to prove that Hull was little more than a drunken philanderer and loyal patron of the city’s most notorious houses of “ill fame.” The detective struck gold.

As I dug through the contents of the envelope, I read how Detective H. J. Pickett interviewed 200 witnesses over the course of eight months. He discovered that Hull and a large coterie of Omaha’s business elite were habitués of the city’s “sporting district” underworld. The detective’s 41-page transcript of interviews with prostitutes, brothel owners, barmaids, and other employees of Omaha’s social clubs resulted in a report rich in social and cultural detail. There were eyewitness accounts of sexual escapades, raunchy behavior at poker games, public drunkenness, and backdoor assignations, all of which identified the full names of both the witnesses and the prominent society members involved.

“A Good Pair to Hold,” advertising card, ca. 1890. Jay T. Last Collection of Graphic Arts and Social History. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

In sometimes graphic language, the report revealed the underbelly of Omaha’s high society and how it operated. Titillating and damning details aside, the document also uncovered telling details regarding societal norms, race, gender, and class.

For instance, the account by brothel owner Gertrude Broomfield tells a little of her life history: “I have lived in Omaha for more than 22 years. During all that time, except six months I have been a keeper of a house of prostitution . . . and had as my patrons some of the best men in Omaha . . . .” She went on to explain how visiting brothels was often a family affair, as she counted among her clients “the young Hamilton boys, the Krug boys, the Metz boys, the Kountz boys . . . and hundreds of women and men you would little suspect of visiting that district.”

Nellie Jacks, whom the detective reported “was located for me by Tom Vann, a notorious vamp about town,” began her statement plainly: “For nine years I was night door maid at Minnie Fairchild’s house of prostitution, 120 South 9th Street.”

Excerpt from Detective H. J. Pickett’s 41-page transcript of interviews with prostitutes, brothel owners, barmaids, and other employees of Omaha’s social clubs. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

Bradley Walker, a waiter at the Omaha Country Club and the Rome Hotel, explained: “I do not want to have anything to do with this case, because the waiter who does will be blacklisted for life . . . no colored person can give evidence in this case on either side and remain in Omaha at any of the ordinary occupations.”

One witness offered his insights into human nature and class. Lee Travis, who was employed in the hotels and clubs in Omaha for 20 years and knew Mr. Hull well, said this: “You know how rich men take liberties with women along moral lines. [Hull] was fly with women, especially when he was in his cups. I have seen him do many immoral things.” The detective noted Travis’s reticence to testify because “he wanted to get back to work and feared that Hull could prevent it.”

As evidence mounted against him, Hull dropped the suit, and the case never went to court.

Detail of map of Omaha, Nebraska, 1887. This detail shows the vicinity of some of the brothels downtown by the railroad tracks and the river: “House of all Nations” at 9th and Dodge Street. (on map at the top of the second “R” in “3rd WARD”); “Mongrel House” at South 16th Street; and “Minnie Fairchild’s” at 120 South 9th St. (on 9th, just below Dodge Street). The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

When all was said and done, Detective Pickett described how this unsavory, bribery-filled undertaking required patience, intelligence, and nerves of steel—but what motivated him? He wanted the report to serve a larger social purpose, and at several places in the document, he takes on a personal, cautionary note. His hope, he said, was that the report would provide a “permanent source of information” to “. . . help others avoid the fate [of prostitution].”

Did McKeen forget the salacious report was part of the railroad materials he handed over for posterity? We’ll probably never know, but The Huntington now has a fascinating slice of social history for scholars to study.

Suzanne Oatey is a project archivist in the Library’s curatorial department, where she is currently organizing a collection of railroad materials from the estate of Donald Duke.

Literary Ties That Bind

Elizabeth Jane Howard, ca. 1965. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

Imagine my surprise when I read the following words in the acknowledgment section of Elizabeth Jane Howard: A Dangerous Innocence, Artemis Cooper’s 2016 biography of the late English novelist. “At the Huntington Library I thank Steve Hindle, Sue Hodson, and, above all, Gayle Richardson, the archivist who had cataloged Jane’s papers. Gayle’s ‘Finding Aid’ for the Papers . . . proved to be an invaluable work of reference, and Gayle was the greatest possible help—both at the research stage and during the writing.”

Wow! I must admit to standing in Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena over the years and scanning acknowledgment sections of various books to see if The Huntington and my name were listed. But Artemis’s kind words far surpassed all the thank-yous I’d discovered in the past.

Elizabeth Jane Howard (1923–2014) as a child, ca. 1927. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

My job is to catalog manuscripts that come into the Library. This involves sorting through massive amounts of material, placing it in folders and boxes, and describing the contents of the papers in a detailed finding aid. Most of the time my efforts at making order out of chaos are hidden away in the depths of the Library, seen by few researchers and staff. But, every once in a while, my work has an immediate and vital impact, as it did when British biographer Artemis Cooper came here to do research.

Cooper is renowned for her biographies of British cooking legend Elizabeth David and travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor. In 2013, she was asked to write the authorized biography of another celebrated British personality, Elizabeth Jane Howard (1923–2014). Artemis, as I came to know her, first contacted me in 2013 to inquire about the Elizabeth Jane Howard Papers, which arrived here in several batches starting in 1995. In March 2014, Artemis traveled from her home in England to San Marino to start her research.

Elizabeth Jane Howard and her father at Christ Church in Paddington, London, on the day she married her first husband, Peter Scott, April 28, 1942. A note that accompanies the photo in The Huntington’s archives reads: “Lace dress by Christabel Ampthill—lace not rationed . . . dress later dyed black.” The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

Howard was a British writer who died in 2014; she is not that well known in the U.S. but she was widely published in England as a novelist, journalist, and reviewer. In 2000, Queen Elizabeth II awarded her Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, a distinction granted for prominent national achievements. When she was younger, Howard had worked as a model and actress and was married three times, most famously to the writer Sir Kingsley Amis from 1965 to 1983.

The Huntington Library began collecting the papers of modern literary authors in the 1970s with the acquisition of the Wallace Stevens Papers, followed by the Kingsley Amis Papers in the 1980s. It was through this acquisition that Howard came to know The Huntington, and the Library began acquiring her papers in 1995 and continued to do so until 2014, shortly after her death.

Elizabeth Jane Howard with her third husband, the novelist Kingsley Amis, on the Greek island of Rhodes, 1966. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

In Howard’s papers, I found a trove of drafts of almost all of her novels and other writings. I sorted through decades of correspondence and hundreds of photographs; altogether I cataloged 6,907 items in 169 boxes.

Howard’s novels include the Cazalet Chronicle, which was dramatized on “Masterpiece Theater,” and Falling, also made into a television movie. Her correspondence involved such noted individuals as Kingsley Amis, Hilary Mantel, Cecil Day-Lewis and his son Daniel Day-Lewis, Iris Murdoch, and Julian Barnes.

Over the next two years, I helped Artemis with her research by providing dates of material, confirming quotes, and suggesting items that might be useful. At one point, I shared with her a manuscript titled “A Chronicle: writing exercise for therapy.” Artemis told me later that it had provided valuable insights into Howard’s life. This manuscript “is turning out to be pure gold—lots of little nuggets to tuck into earlier chapters,” she wrote. “Thank you so much for sending it.”

Elizabeth Jane Howard and Kingsley Amis at Ascot, ca. 1968. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

A year or so later, I was privileged to read an early draft of the biography. I thought it an insightful portrait of a complicated woman and found it so satisfying to see how the information contained within the hundreds of boxes I had cataloged helped to create this nuanced portrait. The biography was published to glowing reviews in the autumn of 2016.

After the biography was published, I asked Artemis about her next book project. I wanted her to have another reason to come to the Library to do research, so I suggested for her consideration a few literary authors whose papers also reside at The Huntington.

Artemis and I have developed a great working relationship and friendship. These bonds have made my job as a cataloger both fun and rewarding. So, thank you, Artemis, for writing a sensational biography. And thank you, Elizabeth Jane Howard, for living an amazing life that made for such rich storytelling.

Elizabeth Jane Howard with black cat, ca. 1965. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

Gayle Richardson is a catalog librarian and archivist at The Huntington.

Telling Their Stories

In a classroom at Rockdale Visual and Performing Arts Magnet, an elementary school in Eagle Rock, an image of science fiction writer Octavia E. Butler appears surrounded by her quotes and student drawings of creatures inspired by her work. Photo by Kate Lain.

As acting president of The Huntington, I am having the great pleasure of immersing myself in the wide-ranging activities that take place in this extraordinary institution. Our exhibitions program is chief among them, as it showcases both our research and educational missions.

Curators work for months on the planning of an exhibition, and, depending on its complexity, dozens of other staff members jump in—from conservators to graphic designers to lighting specialists. Once every object is placed in its case or mounted on the wall, the labels affixed, the banners hung, and the lights flipped on, it all somehow appears effortless. That’s part of the magic. But there is often much more to an exhibition than meets the eye.

The Huntington’s educators developed a curriculum based on the life and legacy of Butler, involving creative writing for Rockdale’s fifth and sixth graders. Students created illustrated journals in which they described a day on an alien planet. Photo by Kate Lain.

I am particularly excited by what our Education staff has been doing with “Octavia E. Butler: Telling My Stories,” a Library exhibition on the renowned science fiction writer Octavia Butler, whose papers reside at The Huntington. In partnership with Rockdale Visual and Performing Arts Magnet, an elementary school in nearby Eagle Rock, our educators developed a “deep learning” curriculum based on the life and legacy of Butler, involving creative writing for the fifth- and sixth-graders and a Butler-inspired art project for the entire school—all 300-plus students.

This was a pilot project and a labor of love. Huntington staff spent many weeks developing curricula for the classroom and professional development materials for teachers. The idea was to use Butler’s work as a platform from which to inspire students to imagine their very own alien world, and, through art and writing, to describe a day in the life there. The curriculum was designed to meet fifth- and sixth-grade Common Core state standards in English language arts. By encouraging students to dig deep into their own creative imaginations, we hoped to transform their learning experience and demonstrate measurable improvement in their writing skills.

Children in Pam Chirichigno’s fifth-grade class at Rockdale learned how to make prints of their alien worlds by etching a design onto a sheet of styrofoam. Here, Denise Eichenauer applies ink to a roller. Photo by Kate Lain.

Fifth- and sixth-graders spent time learning about Butler and her writing process by reading samples of her published work along with her motivational notes and drafts. Her process guided their own as they emulated how she went about her work: keeping journals, drawing sketches, and conducting detailed research. In a sense, Butler became their mentor. Their imaginations caught fire.

Across all grade levels, students were encouraged to conjure their own creatures through art. And conjure they did! When the Butler exhibition opened in April, 19 works of art by Rockdale students were on display in the gallery alongside Butler’s own work. Many students came with their families to see the artwork they had produced. (You can see all 313 of the student artworks on Flickr.)

Nicanor Taylor, another student in Pam Chirichigno’s fifth-grade class, focuses on getting just enough ink onto the roller. Behind him are examples of prints by other students. Photo by Kate Lain.

In a follow-up survey of the fifth- and sixth-graders, students expressed how much they enjoyed unleashing their imaginations to create new worlds populated with alien inhabitants. Ninety-seven percent—that’s right, 97—said they now enjoy creative writing more than they did before.

Rockdale’s principal, Desiree De Bond Vargas, called the pilot project “dynamic and transformative” and an “amazing learning and growing experience for everyone.” Her teachers have reported enthusiastically that they envision using the teaching materials again and again. Said Vargas: “Butler certainly made the right decision in bequeathing all of her life’s writings, memoirs, journals, and documents to The Huntington.” We couldn’t agree more.

We can’t help but think how satisfied Butler would be to know that her stories are enabling young school children to tell theirs. The exhibition continues through Aug. 7. Please stop by and see what Octavia Butler, and these remarkably creative students, have to say.

Ava Valencia, a student in Elson Wong’s third-grade class at Rockdale, created this work of art. It’s on view in the “Octavia E. Butler: Telling My Stories” exhibition at The Huntington through Aug. 7. Photo by Kate Lain.

Related content on Verso:
Telling Her Stories (April 6, 2017)
Mentoring in the Afterlife (June 10, 2016)
Celebrating Octavia Butler (Jan. 27, 2016)
Writing Herself In (June 22, 2015)

You can learn more about the Octavia E. Butler collection here.

Steve Hindle is acting president and W. M. Keck Foundation Director of Research at The Huntington.

Fictive Histories and Historical Fictions

Detail from Hilary Mantel’s historical novel Wolf Hall, winner of the 2009 Man Booker Prize. Photo by Kate Lain.

The last decade has seen a surge of interest in historical fiction. Led by Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies—novels that chronicle the rise to power of Thomas Cromwell (1485–1540) in the court of King Henry VIII—these stories have dominated bestseller charts and shortlists for literary prizes. Meanwhile, public appetite for their adaptations on stage and screen continues to grow.

Many historians and literary scholars welcome this trend, contending that historical fiction gives readers new ways of understanding historical experience and encourages them to engage with history in more critical ways. Others argue that, in an era of fake news, we should keep facts separate from fiction.

A conference I’m convening at The Huntington takes the recent popularity of the historical novel as a starting point to explore relationships between various calibrations and understandings of history and fiction. Titled “Fictive Histories/Historical Fictions,” it takes place on May 12 and 13 in Rothenberg Hall.

The conference delves into the connection between history and fiction from many different angles. We will look at the boundaries that might exist between them, and in what ways they overlap, considering the intrinsic ethical and political implications. We will also examine whether the recent success of historical fiction can be viewed as a new development, or rather, should be seen as a return to (or inflection of) an older literary tradition.

A display of several items from the Hilary Mantel Papers. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

Another angle will be to study whether this success poses any danger to academic history and literary historicism. Or might it rather offer opportunities to bring critical and creative approaches together to develop new lines of thought and practice? Finally, we will look at how creative and critical manifestations of history respond to cultural and political imperatives of the 21st century.

The papers of Hilary Mantel, who has been at the forefront of the renaissance of historical fiction, are housed at The Huntington, which began acquiring her papers in 2001 and continues to receive additional material. The collection contains more than 1,300 items, including literary manuscripts, correspondence, photographs, and ephemera. Reflecting these strengths of The Huntington’s collections, the focus of the conference will be the interplay between fictional histories and historical fiction written in or about Britain—and Mantel’s writing in particular. This topic will be embedded and addressed within wider international, methodological, and generic contexts.

The creative-critical focus of the conference will be replicated in its line-up of speakers and in the forms of their presentations: historians and literary scholars will speak alongside novelists. (Indeed, many of our speakers perform more than one of these roles simultaneously and will reflect on that experience). The first day will focus on calibrating new understandings of the relationship between the creative and the critical, and the second will focus in a more granular fashion on the ways in which historical fiction, past and present, frames and articulates these relationships.

Prize-winning historical novelist Hilary Mantel. Photo © Els Zweerink.

Hilary Mantel, whose work inspired the conference, will be delivering two plenary sessions over the course of three days. On Thursday, May 11, at 7:30 p.m., she will deliver the Ridge Lecture, “I Met A Man Who Wasn’t There,” in Rothenberg Hall. (The lecture is already sold out, but you may watch it in real time on Livestream.)

As she works to the conclusion of the Cromwell trilogy that began with Wolf Hall, Mantel will describe her 10-year effort to pin to the page her compelling and elusive subject. On Saturday, May 13, at 4:15 p.m., she will reflect further on her own work and the themes of the conference in a conversation with Mary Robertson, a Tudor historian and former curator of British manuscripts at The Huntington, to whom Mantel dedicated Wolf Hall. (This event is restricted to conference attendees.)

You can read more about the conference program and registration on The Huntington’s website.

In conjunction with the conference, The Huntington is displaying two items of special interest for readers of historical fiction in the East Foyer of the Library’s Main Exhibition Hall through Monday, May 8. One page of Hilary Mantel’s notes for Wolf Hall is on view. (Another page of notes may be viewed nearby in the “Library Today” gallery.) Also on display is a first edition of The Scottish Chiefs (1810)by Jane Porter, a best-selling British novelist of the early 19th century. The Scottish Chiefs, which tells of the exploits of William Wallace (1270–1305), a leader of the Wars of Scottish Independence, is one of the earliest examples of the historical novel. The Huntington holds the archive of Jane Porter’s papers.

Sophie Coulombeau is lecturer in English Literature at Cardiff University.

Born and Raised in Hawai‘i

Nathaniel Bright Emerson (1839–1915). Unidentified photographer. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

One of the greatest joys for historians doing archival research is the opportunity to become lost in someone else’s world. I had this experience during my recent fellowship at The Huntington as I delved into the papers of Nathaniel Bright Emerson (1839–1915), a physician, ethnologist, and author of several books on Hawaiian mythology.

I’d suspected Emerson would be a figure of interest in my research into the religious dimensions of American empire building in the Pacific Ocean in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. What I didn’t anticipate was how the richness of his personal papers would draw me in. As I got to know Emerson, I saw a complex figure emerge whose published works did not appear to fully represent the thoughts of the man himself. This complexity suggested something broader about the uncertainties of American engagement with the Pacific in this period.

Emerson was born in Waialua on the Hawaiian island of Oahu to Ursula Emerson and the Reverend John S. Emerson, who arrived from the United States as missionaries in 1832. Educated first at Punahou, the school for mission children in Honolulu, Nathaniel then studied at Williams College in Massachusetts, served in the Union Army during the Civil War, and trained as a medic at Harvard and in New York. He returned to Hawai‘i in 1878, ultimately taking up the presidency of the Hawaiian Board of Health.

Title page of Emerson’s book Unwritten Literature of Hawaii: The Sacred Songs of the Hula, published by the Smithsonian Institution’s Bureau of American Ethnology in 1909. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

Despite his medical expertise, Emerson’s greatest passion was for the Hawaiian past, and he pursued this interest with vigor from the end of his tenure at the Board of Health in 1890 until his death. In particular, he was a keen collector of Hawaiian folklore, asserting the need to gather and commit to paper fragments of oral tradition before the onslaught of “civilization” transformed Hawai‘i beyond recognition. Emerson published three major works on the subject of Hawaiian tradition, beginning with a translation of Hawaiian historian David Malo’s work in 1898, released under the title Hawaiian Antiquities. Next came Unwritten Literature of Hawaii: The Sacred Songs of the Hula in 1909, followed by Pele and Hiiaka: A Myth from Hawaii shortly before his death in 1915.

Through his ethnological studies of the Hawaiian people, Emerson was able to enhance his reputation as a man of science. In particular, Unwritten Literature of Hawaii was picked up and published by the Bureau of American Ethnology of the Smithsonian Institution, leading one reviewer in the New York Daily Tribune to proclaim that Emerson’s conclusions were “asserted on the authority of Uncle Sam himself.” Emerson’s books suggested that he was dispassionately to add to the sum of the world’s knowledge about indigenous peoples. But what struck me as I pored over his unpublished essays, literary work, and correspondence was that in private he appeared to understand Hawaiian tradition in rather more poetic terms.

Detail of an article about Emerson’s book Unwritten Literature of Hawaii in the New York Daily Tribune, Sunday, Jan. 23, 1910. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

I got the sense that Emerson felt somewhat alienated from modern American life and was looking for an outlet through which he might express his sense of connection to the natural beauty of the land of his birth. He disdained urban life, prudish and inflexible moral codes, and the ignorance of Americans regarding Hawai‘i, even claiming that “I have been ready at times to exclaim with Wordsworth: ‘Great God! I’d rather be a pagan.’” He meanwhile celebrated Hawaiian tales as being “saturated with the salt air of the Great Ocean,” “redolent of perfumed mountains and rustling palms,” and “reminiscent of the glory and awe of volcanic mysteries.” Emerson’s private ambition to be a short-story writer failed to bear fruit, but he identified in Hawaiian tradition a source for the words which he could not find. He styled himself as mediator between Hawaiians’ responses to the landscape around them and the written word.

Given Emerson’s obvious romanticism, it is interesting that his conclusions should end up being accepted as scientifically authoritative. His insistence on the primarily poetic, literary nature of Hawaiian tradition obscured insights into the ways in which Hawaiians understood their island world. For them, traditional accounts were profoundly connected to the narration of Hawaiian history and had ongoing resonance in contemporary politics and society.

By denying the relevance of Hawaiian lore as a historical source, Emerson partook in the efforts of his fellow mission children and grandchildren to undermine the indigenous population and to lay their own claims to dominance. This position would become most visibly expressed by the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy in 1893 and the annexation of the islands to the United States in 1898.

Emerson and other mission descendants also shared an uncertain identity, caught between Hawaiian birth and American “civilization.” The fact that these architects of American empire in Hawai‘i experienced such uncertainties suggests to me that the foundations of American empire in the Pacific were often shaky. In the end, it made me wonder if we should understand American imperialism as something other than all-powerful or inevitable.

A page of Emerson’s unpublished and undated essay “General Remarks on Translation.” The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

Tom Smith is a doctoral candidate at the University of Cambridge and a 2016–17 Arts and Humanities Research Council–Huntington Fellow.

Evelyn Waugh as Reader, Writer, Collector

Evelyn Waugh, pictured here around 1950, loved books as literature and beautiful objects. Photographic print from the Evelyn Waugh Papers. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

Early in his life, the celebrated British writer Evelyn Waugh (1903–1966) thought he’d make furniture for a living; he also studied art. While he ultimately abandoned those paths, his desire to make beautiful things never ceased. Loren and Frances Rothschild’s 2013 gift of their Evelyn Waugh collection made The Huntington the home of many of those beautiful objects. Waugh’s books are works of art beyond the quality of the sentences they contain. He devoted tremendous effort to polish his prose, but he also took great care with the production of finely bound autograph manuscripts and gift editions of his books.

During Waugh’s lifetime, and even in the years following his death, it was easy for his personality to eclipse the importance and pleasure of his writing. That began to change with the remarkable television adaptation of Brideshead Revisited in 1981, when a consensus emerged, acknowledging the elegant craft on display in virtually every bit of work he created without denying the frequently prickly nature of his behavior.

Naomi Milthorpe, a presenter at the Waugh conference, has been studying Waugh’s juvenilia at The Huntington, including “Heath Mount BC 55,” a humorous depiction of Heath Mount School in Hampstead, England, as it might have appeared in ancient times. Waugh attended the school from the age of 10 to 14. Illustration by Waugh and Hooper, 1916, Evelyn Waugh Papers. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

Waugh’s appreciation for the book as object and as literary art is the inspiration behind the conference “Evelyn Waugh: Reader, Writer, Collector,” taking place on May 5 and 6 in Rothenberg Hall. The Rothschilds’ gift—which includes 250 rare books and reference books and 135 letters and manuscripts by the author—is the catalyst for the conference, a collaboration between The Huntington, the Evelyn Waugh Society, and the UK-based Complete Works of Evelyn Waugh project.

Members of The Complete Works of Evelyn Waugh project are working with Oxford University Press to produce a 43-volume scholarly edition of all Waugh’s works, with the first volumes scheduled to appear in the months following the conference. Many of the project’s editors are also members of The Evelyn Waugh Society, which was established in 2008 and produces Evelyn Waugh Studies, a peer-reviewed quarterly journal.

Duff Cooper bookplate pasted inside the autograph draft of Waugh’s travelogue Ninety-Two Days, Evelyn Waugh Papers. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

Both groups have lost no time in exploring The Huntington’s new holdings: Naomi Milthorpe, a 2015–16 short-term Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Fellow at The Huntington, has already incorporated her findings into a book, Evelyn Waugh’s Satire: Texts and Contexts, while Douglas Lane Patey, Sophia Smith Professor of English Language and Literature at Smith College, has been studying the manuscript of Waugh’s Ninety-Two Days for his new edition of the travelogue. Both will be presenting at our conference, along with leading Waugh biographers, archivists, and editors.

Together, we will be exploring the concept of editing as an act of collection (gathering materials and collating across continents) and investigating what Waugh’s own collections of fine books and paintings can tell us about his life and work. The participation of archivists and one speaker who was present when the first of Waugh’s possessions made it to the United States will encourage us to reflect on the role institutions play in maintaining, interpreting, and promoting collections.

Waugh’s popularity continues to rise, both as a subject of study and as a first-class literary writer and entertainer. The Waugh Society and the Complete Works project members are thrilled to partner with The Huntington as we celebrate the Rothschilds’ gift and the access it gives scholars to Evelyn Waugh’s world.

Books from the Evelyn Waugh Papers, with Waugh’s autograph manuscript of his travelogue Ninety-Two Days at bottom right. The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

You can read more about the conference program and registration on The Huntington’s website.

In conjunction with the conference, The Huntington will display, in the East Foyer of the Library’s Main Exhibition Hall, two items from the Rothschilds’ gift to the Library.  The autograph manuscript of Ninety-two Days, with its slipcase, will be on view. This is Waugh’s 1933 account of his travel to Guyana and Brazil. Also on display will be the corrected typescript of Waugh’s first novel, Decline and Fall (1928), a satire of the honor codes of the British gentleman, the culture of Oxford, and the foibles of upper-class society.

Chip Long, associate professor of International and European Studies at Portland State University, is editing a new edition of Waugh’s Life of Right Reverend Ronald Knox (1959) and is chairman of the Evelyn Waugh Society. Barbara Cooke is research associate for the Complete Works of Evelyn Waugh project at the University of Leicester and is co-editing Waugh’s autobiography, A Little Learning (1964).

Five Lessons Learned in the California Garden

The striking blues, pinks, and purples of the Australian native Acacia baileyana ‘Purpurea’ at the center of the allée often stops visitors in their tracks. While not a California native, it does well in this climate. Photo by Kate Lain.

As you stroll through the Frances and Sidney Brody California Garden, you may find it hard to believe that, just a few years ago, the same space was used primarily as a walkway and parking lot.

The new garden opened in 2015 as part of the Steven S. Koblik Education and Visitor Center (EVC). Today, fruitless olives, several varieties of oaks, and a selection of native and other drought-tolerant plants greet visitors with a stunning display of colors, textures, and fragrances.

But like plants in most (if not all) new gardens, some didn’t perform as expected. We asked Seth Baker, head gardener of the EVC, to share the top five lessons he has learned while taking care of the new plants.

Clumping grasses, like this Slender Veldt Grass (Pennisetum spathiolatum) near the 1919 café, grow quickly, make a dramatic impact, and are inexpensive, according to Seth Baker, head EVC gardener at The Huntington. Photo by Kate Lain.

1. Be flexible
“We selected a wide range of plants to see what would acclimate. What you see are the things that have done well.” For instance, Baker loved the bright white blooms of coastal yarrow (Achillea millefolium ‘Sonoma Coast’), but without coastal winds moving through the plant, it developed powdery mildew. The plants had to be removed. On the other hand, a variety of coastal buckwheat (Eriogonum grande var. rubescens) with beautiful reddish-pink flowers grew splendidly. “We’ve planted more of that one,” he says.

2. Pay attention to the soil (and then keep foot traffic away)
When the EVC was under construction, roughly 20 acre feet of topsoil was removed to avoid its becoming compacted by heavy machinery. After construction was done, the topsoil was returned. The plants grew extremely well in the loose soil, in many cases reaching mature size after a single season. But in one area where people created a shortcut by passing through a hedge of toyon, the plants on either side are stunted. “Roots grow more easily and live longer in soil that’s not compacted,” says Baker.

Finding the right amount of water to get native sages started can be tricky, especially in summer. This Autumn Sage (Salvia greggii) is one of the more forgiving species, tolerating some regular watering. Photo by Kate Lain.

3. Tweak the water schedule
The California Garden opened in the month of April, not long before the onslaught of summer heat. To establish the plants, the gardeners gave them abundant water. But many native plants are notoriously fickle and don’t like their roots to become wet in summer. Quite a few native plants succumbed to root rot. Then the garden crew cut back on water too dramatically, and other specimens whose roots couldn’t withstand the long periods of intense heat were lost. After a period of trial and error, Baker and his team hit upon a successful schedule for natives: water briefly for three days in a row, then wait two weeks. (Now that the plants are established, he’s extended that waiting period to three weeks.) Each planting area has unique conditions, so take time to figure out what works well in your garden.

4. Three cheers for grasses
Baker has been impressed by the performance of clumping grasses. They’re inexpensive, tolerant of different soil and moisture conditions, and make a big impact quickly while you wait for slow growers to fill in. He especially likes the field of Festuca mairei between the Celebration Garden and the Huntington Art Gallery (technically just outside of the California Garden), and deergrass (Muhlenbergia) peppered throughout the garden. Other well performing grasses include Carex divulsa (around the California pepper trees at the entrance) and Lomandra longifolia ‘Breeze’ (in the Stroll Garden and in pots along the allée of the California Garden).

The California Garden functions as a sort of idea lab, providing a space for experimenting with differing combinations of plant color, texture, and height. Seen here are bright yellow Hartweg’s Sundrops (Calylophus hartwegii), Silver Spurge (Euphorbia rigida), and the upright, blue-green Sea Squill (Urginea maritima), which will produce tall stalks of white blooms in late summer. Photo by Kate Lain.

5. Common plants are common for a reason
After losing quite a few of the more unusual plants, Baker has newfound respect for unique varieties of common plants. A case in point: he’s had great success with Roman Beauty rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis ‘Roman Beauty’) and Spanish lavender (Lavandula stoechas ‘Wings of Night’). He achieved the swells of green leaves and purple flowers he was after—no mildew, root rot, or dieback in sight.

His overarching advice: Be willing to adapt your design. “Gardening is not like choosing tile for your kitchen. When you put in a garden, you’re not done,” he says. “It’s a process.” Gardens evolve over time, letting you know what works and what needs tweaking. For Baker, the ever-changing nature of a garden is also one of its most appealing characteristics. “Each day brings surprises,” he says.

Related content on Verso:
Top Ten Water-Wise Plants (April 18, 2016)
If Not Lawn, Then What? (October 6, 2015)
A California Garden (March 27, 2015)

Thinking of adding a few new selections to your garden this spring? Why not explore the 43rd Annual Plant Sale, taking place April 28–30, 2017? On offer will be a wide range of drought-resistant plants, vegetable seedlings, herbs, fruit trees, unusual cacti and succulents, and much more. The sale is open to Members only on Friday, April 28, from 10 a.m.–5 p.m. and Saturday, April 29, from 10 a.m.–1 p.m. All Huntington visitors can shop at the sale on Saturday, April 29, from 1–5 p.m. and on Sunday, April 30, from 10 a.m.–5 p.m.

Diana W. Thompson is senior writer for the office of communications and marketing at The Huntington.