Prose & SongCorrespondence & Poetry

First Day at The Library of Congress

Today I had my induction at the Library of Congress in Washington DC, where I will be based for the next six months.

My fellowship is part of the AHRC’s International Placement Scheme, and I have been fortunate enough to be given an office space at the Kluge Centre for scholars in the iconic Jefferson building. I will be making use of the extensive resources in the Jefferson Reading Room and the American Folklife Centre, in the hope of unearthing more information regarding the critical reception, dissemination and influence of Burns’s work in America.  More broadly, I will also explore the manner in which Scottish culture – in the form of song, poetry and dialect – was transmitted in America through both Scots emigrants and early printed materials.

The day began with a tour of the library, which is a tourist attraction itself due to its grandiose beauty and historical significance. Thomas Jefferson played an important role in the Library’s early formation, signing on January 26, 1802, the first law establishing the structure of the Library of Congress.  Jefferson’s personal book collection is still available to view in the Library’s main hall today. The library is also connected to the US Capitol (which is located directly opposite) and the US Supreme Court (next door) via underground tunnels, which, to my surprise,  were a hive of activity with workers and library fellows scurrying back and forth beneath the main engine rooms of the United States.

My research in Glasgow has, until now, focused primarily on Burns’s ‘poetic view’ of America during his lifetime. That is, I have attempted to determine how he deals with the American Revolution and its consequences in his written correspondence, poetry and letters. Burns wrote two poems, one song and a handful of letters that directly engaged with America and its politics during this period. For a man who, particularly in the nineteenth century, has been regularly associated with American ideals of freedom and democracy, this output seems slightly disproportionate. However, to suggest that Burns wasn’t particularly inspired or intellectually stimulated by American politics on this basis would be wrong.  Particularly in the revolutionary decade, it’s understandable why Burns might have repressed certain political views towards the new Republic.   Burns was 17 when America officially declared itself free from British rule, and clearly the idea of the new Republic struck a chord with him.

My time in the States gives me the opportunity to switch from exploring Burns’s own views of America, to how his work was received and disseminated in the United States. In other words, my time ‘wore the sea’ is a chance to flip the focus to America’s view of Burns, rather than the other way around.   I will be digging around for old American newspapers and periodicals, exploring how his songs may have travelled across the Atlantic on the ‘bows of fiddles’ of Scottish emigrants, and also looking at key US literary figures who were influenced by his work in some form.

I hope to keep you updated on the blog with various findings and anecdotes along the way.


Project PhD Researcher

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