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Past events and conferences 2015

The Eccles Centre for American Studies regularly organises and supports conferences, seminars, lectures and other events on North American and transatlantic themes, often in partnership with other institutions and organisations.

Darker Hauntings: Imagery of the Southern Gothic

When Friday 16 January 2015, 18:45-20:00
Where British Library Conference Centre

This talk delved into the depths of the American gothic imagination as Susan Castillo Street explored what Southern Gothic reveals about America’s repressed past. Taking in Edgar Allan Poe, George Washington Cable, Charles Chesnutt, William Faulkner and Truman Capote, this wide ranging discussion considered how the South’s complex relationships with race and sexuality are manifested through powerful recurring images such as the collapsing haunted mansion, the racialized doppelganger and the monstrous feminine.

Susan Castillo Street, a native of Louisiana, is the Harriet Beecher Stowe Professor of American Studies at King’s College London. Professor Castillo Street is known for her interdisciplinary work on race, gender and ethnicity. Her research interests include the Southern Gothic, Native American and colonial writing. She is currently conducting research for her new book Darker Hauntings: Writing Race and Slavery in the Early Atlantic (Louisiana State University Press), and is co-editing an essay collection, A Handbook to the Southern Gothic (Palgrave Macmillan).

This event was part of the events programme for the Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination exhibition.

The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone

When Monday 26 January 2015, 18:45-20:00
Where British Library Terrace Restaurant

Writer in Residence Olivia Laing ventured into the lonely city, exploring urban loneliness by way of the work and lives of some of America's greatest artists, among them Edward Hopper, David Wojnarowicz and Henry Darger. Olivia Laing's forthcoming third book is a cultural history of urban loneliness, and she'll be discussing the research process and some of the major themes, from social isolation to the devastating stigma of the Aids epidemic.

Olivia Laing was 2014 Eccles British Library Writer in Residence and author of To the River and The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking (Canongate). She's a regular contributor to the Guardian, New Statesman and the New York Times and is the former deputy literary editor of the Observer.

Trapped in the Ice, Frozen in Time

When Thursday 5 February 2015, 18:30-20:00
Where British Library Terrace Restaurant

An evening of performance and talks was hosted by the British Library's Interactive Fiction Writer-in-Residence Rob Sherman, featuring JR Carpenter (artist and writer, who will be performing her poem Notes on the Voyage of Owl and Girl), Nancy Campbell (artist and writer, whose latest book is exhibited in Lines in the Ice) and novelist Kate Pullinger. Exploring themes connected to his research into the infamous lost Franklin expedition of 1845-6 and creative responses to this historical event.

Read more about Rob Sherman's project, inspired by Lines in the Ice, at Explore the interactive story of Issac Scinbank here.

Symposium: Alaska, the Arctic and the US Imagination

When Monday 16 March 2015, 09:30-17:30
Where British Library Conference Centre

To mark the British Library exhibition Lines in the Ice and the United States’ 2015 role as Chair of the Arctic Council, the Eccles Centre organised a one-day symposium on the US and the Arctic. Looking at the history of American interest in the Arctic, as well as its contemporary relationship with the area, the symposium asked what the roots of this enchantment are as well as how the Arctic influences the US view of itself and the rest of the world.

The keynote address was provided by Dr Michael Robinson (Hillyer College, University of Hartford), author of The Coldest Crucible: Arctic Exploration and American Culture.

Sessions covered new work on the Arctic by postgraduate researchers, artistic representations of the Arctic, the Arctic in popular culture and the role of the Arctic in historical and contemporary US politics. The full programme is available here. A blog post summarising the day can be found here.

Panel Discussion: The Future of the Arctic

When Monday 16 March 2015, 18:30-20:00
Where British Library Conference Centre

Marking the United States' 2015 role as Chair of the Arctic Council, this panel discussion and Q&A considered the future of one of the planet's last great frontiers. The panellists explored the political and environmental challenges and emerging opportunities arising from significant increases in Arctic activity as sea ice diminishes and a new Arctic environment emerges.

In the context of shifting geopolitics, the discussion considered how international cooperation can be sustained to maintain a peaceful Arctic region and how the Arctic powers can work together on issues such as search and rescue and pollution prevention and response, whilst at the same time benefiting from new economic opportunities in the region, including energy resources and shipping routes. The panellists also explored how rapid climate change is affecting Arctic ecosystems and the needs of indigenous communities in the region.

Panel chair, Professor Klaus Dodds (Royal Holloway) was joined by distinguished policy-makers, diplomats and scientists Alan Kessel (Deputy High Commissioner for Canada), Ed Heartney (Counsellor for the Environment, Science, Technology and Health issues at US Embassy London), Lord Teverson (Chair of the House of Lords Select Committee on the Arctic) and Dr Gabrielle Walker (scientist, author and broadcaster).

This event was part of the events programme for the free Lines in the Ice exhibition.

Presented in collaboration with the United States Embassy, London and the Canadian High Commission.

Inside the Nixon White House

When Tuesday 17 March 2015, 18:30-20:00
Where British Library Terrace Restaurant

Deputy Assistant to President Richard Nixon, Alexander Butterfield, shared his memories of Nixon and the Watergate scandal.

A trusted member of the Nixon's staff since the President's inauguration in 1969, in February 1971, Butterfield was instructed to oversee the installation of the now infamous White House taping system. In 1973 he revealed its existence to the Senate Select Committee and the Watergate investigation was transformed. Butterfield discussed his experiences in the White House, his memories of Richard Nixon and the Watergate scandal in conversation with Professor Iwan Morgan (Commonwealth Fund Professor of American History, University College London).

Presented in collaboration with University College London Institute of the Americas.

Symposium: Home, Crisis and the Imagination

When Monday 30 March 2015, 10:00-16:00
Where British Library Conference Centre

A one day interdisciplinary symposium organised by the AHRC-funded network "Home, Crisis and the Imagination" based in the School of English, University of Leeds.  The day explorde how home and crisis are interlinked in the imagination, and investigated the extraordinary power that home has as both a physical location and an object of representation.

The morning included a symposium discussion of shared texts; the afternoon keynote address was given by Professor Cindi Katz (CUNY), "Domesticating the Crisis: Children and the Management of Insecurity". The full symposium programme is available here.

For more about the network see: and

The workshop was hosted by the Eccles Centre, with support from the AHRC and the University of Leeds.

Black Dandyism

When Friday 17 April 2015, 18:30-20:00
Where British Library Terrace Restaurant

Twentieth century dandyism was deeply rooted in nineteenth century literary and performance cultures. Michèle Mendelssohn examined two of dandyism’s intertwined roots: the European dandy tradition (synonymous with Charles Baudelaire and Oscar Wilde) and the blackface minstrel show dandy. Her talk asked what this genealogy reveals about nineteenth century dandyism’s descendants, and the cultural burdens they bore? And asks what place do our cultural genealogies make for dandyism’s dark brother, minstrelsy?

This talk considered how early twentieth century African American writers renegotiated their relationship to dandyism and how one man in particular sought to make black dandyism new. In this talk, Dr Mendelssohn discussed W. E. B. Du Bois’s struggle with this theme in Dark Princess: A Romance – a fascinating, cosmopolitan novel that engages some of dandyism’s most problematic legacies. She explored how this most influential Renaissance Man of African American letters grappled with this fraught tradition and, in the process, attempted to redraft literary modernity’s lines of transmission.

Michèle Mendelssohn is Associate Professor in English and American Literature at Oxford University.

Presented in collaboration with the ‘Aestheticism and Decadence in the Age of Modernism: 1895 to 1945’ conference at the Institute of English Studies, University of London.

Late at the Library: Freedom of Expression, featuring Saul Williams and Tongue Fu

When Friday 15 May 2015, 19:30-23:00
Where British Library Entrance Hall

A night of extraordinary words, performance and sounds, free speech and beats. We were proud to present an exclusive European appearance by incomparable emcee, poet and rap artist Saul Williams, together with his band. In addition, spoken word collective Tongue Fu present some of the best in the UK: Dizraeli, Salena Godden, Vanessa Kisuule and Chris Redmond plus Belgium’s Baloji. And if this wasn’t enough, DJ Norman Jay MBE played a special music selection. Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy was open on the night and entry was included in the ticket price.

This event was part of the events programme for the Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy exhibition.

Inventing The Great Gatsby: 1922-1925

When Monday 18 May 2015, 18:30-20:00
Where British Library Conference Centre

In the 2015 Sulgrave Manor Watson Chair Lecture, Professor Sarah Churchwell reflected on the gestation and creation of F Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. On publication in April 1925, the novel was greeted with some admiration, but also a great deal of puzzlement and bemusement, as well. The one thing most critics recognized was that it was an acidic satire of contemporary American life, but today, satire is very far from most people’s conception of this great American novel. Using original archival material and newly discovered contemporary responses, in this talk in honour of Gatsby’s 90th birthday, Professor Churchwell told the story of Fitzgerald’s developing ideas and the ways in which he conceived his novel, and the different ways it has been received in the 90 years since its publication.

Sarah Churchwell is Professor of American Literature and Public Understanding of the Humanities at UEA. She is the author of Careless People: Murder, Mayhem and The Invention of The Great Gatsby, The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe, and her literary journalism has appeared in the Guardian, New Statesman, TLS, New York Times Book Review, and the Spectator, among others. She comments regularly on arts, culture, and politics for UK television and radio, has judged many literary prizes, including the Bailey’s (Orange) Prize for Fiction and the 2014 Man Booker Prize for Fiction. She is the recipient of the Eccles British Library Writer in Residence award for 2015.

Presented in collaboration with Sulgrave Manor.

Magna Carta's American Adventure

When Monday 1 June 2015, 18:30-20:00
Where British Library Conference Centre

Magna Carta came to America with the first charters, which guaranteed colonists the "privileges, franchises, and immunities" of English law. In the years leading up to the Revolution, Americans drew upon Magna Carta in framing their arguments against British policies. Ideas drawn from English constitutionalism, including Magna Carta, helped Americans shape their state constitutions and the Federal Constitution, especially the Bill of Rights. The story of American constitutionalism is one of both tradition and innovation.

In the 2015 Robert H Smith Lecture in American Democracy, Professor A E Dick Howard explored how Magna Carta has left an indelible mark on American constitutionalism. At the core of this legacy is the idea of the rule of law. Another principle, influenced by Coke's reading of Magna Carta, is constitutional supremacy—the idea of a superstatute superior to ordinary laws. Magna Carta's assurance of proceedings according to the "law of the land" is the direct ancestor of American ideas of due process of law. And, just as Magna Carta proved adaptable to the crises of later times, so has American constitutionalism proved to be organic and evolving.

A E Dick Howard is the White Burkett Miller Professor of Law and Public Affairs at the University of Virginia. A Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University, he was a law clerk to Supreme Court Justice Hugo L. Black. His writings include The Road from Runnymede: Magna Carta and Constitutionalism in America. He has consulted extensively with constitution-makers in other countries, especially in post-communist Central and Eastern Europe. Recently the University of Virginia conferred on him its Thomas Jefferson Award -- the highest honour the University accords a member of its faculty.

This event is part of the events programme for the Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy exhibition.

Presented in collaboration with Benjamin Franklin House and the US Embassy London.

Conference: Firearms and Freedom: The Relevance of the Second Amendment in the Twenty-First Century

When Thursday 11 June 2015, 9.30-17.00
Where British Library Conference Centre

A one day conference that explored one of the most controversial aspects of contemporary American life.

Keynote Speakers:

  • Professor Joyce Malcolm, Patrick Henry Professor of Constitutional Law & the Second Amendment at George Mason University
  • Professor Saul Cornell, Paul & Diane Guenther Chair in American History at Fordham University
  • plus nine other academics from the USA and the UK

The full programme is available here. The conference was coordinated by Kevin Yuill ( and Joe Street (

Organised in collaboration with the United States Embassy, London, the University of Northumbria and the University of Sunderland Faculty of Education and Society Research Beacon.

Crossroads of Curiosity: The British Library meets Burning Man

When Saturday 20 June 2015, 19:00-late
Where British Library Conference Centre & Piazza

On the summer solstice, we celebrated the unveiling of a major installation at the British Library, Crossroads of Curiosity, originally exhibited at the Burning Man Festival 2014. The evening started with talks from speakers including the creator of the installation, David Normal, and Larry Harvey, founder of Burning Man. The installation unveiling at dusk was accompanied by a series of outdoor performances and displays from artists, musicians, comedians and digital researchers.

The event was supported by the Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library, Friends of the British Library, Black Rock Arts Foundation and other private donations.

Conference: In the Shadow of The Birth of a Nation: A Centennial Assessment of Griffith's Film

When Thursday 25 - Saturday 27 June 2015
Where University College London

The Eccles Centre is delighted to have supported the Commonwealth Fund Conference in American History. Organised by Melvyn Stokes and Iwan Morgan of UCL, the conference focused particularly on resistance and opposition to D W Griffith's controversial film, The Birth of a Nation. The conference included keynote lectures from Jane Gaines (Columbia University), Robert Lang (University of Hartford), Paul McEwan (Muhlenberg College), Cedric Robinson (University of California-Santa Barbara), Jacqueline Stewart (University of Chicago) and Linda Williams (University of California-Berkeley).

The full conference programme is available here. For more information on the conference visit

The Power of Iconic Documents

When Monday 29 June 2015, 18:30-20:30
Where British Library Conference Centre

Once written down, some texts take on a power that makes them touchstones of human wisdom; inspiring movements, brave individuals and even whole nations. The audience at this exceptional event heard Geoffrey Robertson on Magna Carta, Jill Lepore on the US Bill of Rights and Michael Ignatieff on The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This was followed by a discussion chaired by Sarah Churchwell, Professor of American Literature and Public Understanding of the Humanities, UEA and Eccles British Library Writer in Residence for 2015.

This event was part of the events programme for the Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy exhibition.

Independence Day

When Saturday 4 July 2015, 10:00-14:00
Where British Library Piazza

US expats and lovers of Americana were invited to visit the Magna Carta exhibition and pay their respects to the Declaration of Independence while enjoying a morning of razzmatazz, live music, food and fun around the building.

The wonderful 20-piece I C Big Band performed a special set of American classics and 2014 Dance Grand National Champions, Zoo Fever London Cheerleaders, gave two performances.

This event was part of the events programme for the Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy exhibition.

Facing America: viewing the face in American art and visual culture

When Friday 10 July 2015, 9.00-18.30
Where British Library Conference Centre

A one-day Visual Art and American Studies symposium, organised by SAVAnT (Scholars of American Visual Arts and Text).

Keynote speakers: Professor David Peters Corbett (UEA) and Professor Celeste-Marie Bernier (Nottingham). Full programme available here.

"The face is a veritable megaphone."

"How do you dismantle the face? [...] This takes all the resources of art, and art of the highest kind."

- Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus

As Deleuze and Guattari suggest, the face is indeed culturally, socially and historically very loud. So what would be at stake in dismantling it, or thinking about it critically? What regimes has the face propped up? Who or what might be exposed by its interrogation? Nowhere more than in the practice of art has the face played a prominent role. This symposium thus reflected on the face in American art and visual culture.

The face in all its many formations and deformations was considered: from faces in portraiture to the face as landscape, the face of the earth, or the disappearance of faces in big data. Rhetorics of expression, pathos, belonging, recognition, encounter, identity, and threat are often articulated in facial terms. How have these rhetorics been figured in American art and visual culture? Conventionally it's the eye that has loomed large in the study of art; what would it mean to turn to the face?

Facing America was organised by SAVAnT (Scholars of America Visual Art and Text), a research network fostering collaboration and dialogue between American Studies and Art History.

The conference was also supported by the University of Sussex Centre for American Studies and the British Association for American Studies.

Bryan Stevenson: Just Mercy

When Tuesday 14 July 2015, 18:30-20:00
Where British Library Conference Centre

Bryan Stevenson was a young Alabama lawyer when he founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal practice dedicated to defending those most desperate and in need; the poor, the wrongly condemned and the mentally disabled, trapped in the farthest reaches of the criminal justice system. He has gone on to be one of the most celebrated and influential crusaders for justice alive today.

This event is part of the events programme for the Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy exhibition.

Summer Scholars Friday 17 July

  • Joseph Zobel, French Caribbean author

Louise Hardwick discussed Joseph Zobel’s work and its contribution to understandings of Négritude, colonialism and post-slavery Martinique.

  • Loyalist Lawyers in Exile

Sally Hadden (Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow) explored what life was like for loyalist lawyers in exile from Revolutionary America once they arrived in England as refugees.

Summer Scholars Monday 20 July

  • US Presidents and Iran during the Cold War

Ben Offiler (Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow) explored the importance of personal relationships between heads of state in influencing US policy towards Iran.

  • Presidential Power Meets Today's Middle East

Andrew Rudalevige asked what do the Obama administration's policies and actions in the Middle East tell us about the scope and scale of contemporary presidential power?

Summer Scholars Monday 27 July

  • “Vaudeville Indians” on the British Stage

Christine Bold (Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow) uncovered some of the hidden history of Native and non-Native vaudevillians “playing Indian” on global circuits, starting in 1893 with Seneca performer Go-won-go Mohawk in Liverpool.

  • Cliveden, Canadians and the First World War

Martin Thornton (Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow) discussed the First World War hospital at Cliveden, the Astor estate at Taplow, Buckinghamshire and asks what it meant for Canadian political sovereignty, empire, the broader role of women and the question of sacrifice for Canadians.

Summer Scholars Friday 31 July

  • Writing Detroit

Benjamin Markovits (Eccles British Library Writer in Residence) read from his new novel, You Don't Have to Live Like This (Faber, 2015), in a discussion about race, Walden and the death and life of the great American city. 

Summer Scholars Monday 3 August

  • Ghosts and Authors: Reading The Turn of the Screw

Sarah Churchwell (Eccles British Library Writer in Residence) explored the different ways we read, using Henry James's The Turn of the Screw as a forum for discussing the possibilities. Do we read for character, plot, emotion, ideas, realism, escapism? How far should authors’ intentions, or what we think we know about those intentions, shape our ideas about the books they produce?

Summer Scholars Friday 7 August

  • Over the Ice: When Polar Explorers Took to the Skies

Marionne Cronin (Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow) discussed her research into how the use of new, cutting-edge technologies reshaped the popular culture of polar exploration.

  • Sea Birds, Lost Bodies, and Phantom Islands on the Event Horizon of the New World

J. R. Carpenter (Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow) presented her research on the strange tales of an Island of Demons off the coast of Newfoundland which have persisted in maps and literature from the early 1500s to the present day.

Summer Scholars Monday 10 August

  • Transportation Stories: Servants, Convicts, and Class Formation in the Literature of Colonial America

Matthew Pethers (Eccles Centre Visiting Fellow) discussed the indentured servants and felons who were transported to America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and their role and representation in an emerging tradition of American working-class literature.

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