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English and American Studies: Special Collections


Wheel of Fortune - detail from Lydgate's Siege of Troy, English MS 1The Library’s Special Collections provide a rich resource for English, American Studies and Creative Writing at the University of Manchester.

Our collections cover areas as diverse as recent and contemporary poetry, Middle English literature, avant-garde literary movements of the 20thcentury, 17thcentury pamphlet culture, Victorian fiction, 18th century literature and culture, and colonialism and the anti-slavery movement.

This guide will identify collection strengths and help you access the most relevant material.

Collection strengths

The Library's holdings in this area date from the Middle Ages to the present, and provide an outstanding resource for literary and cultural studies. They cut across chronological periods and can support learning and research in many broad subject areas and from a variety of theoretical perspectives including: the history of the book and materiality of the text; the transmission of texts, publishing, editing and criticism; life writing in all its forms; gender and sexuality; colonialism and post-colonialism; and literature in translation.

Some particular strengths include:

  • Middle English literature, in both manuscript and printed form.
  • Renaissance and Early Modern writing, and the print culture of the 17th century.
  • 18th century literature and letters - in both printed and archival collections.
  • The 19th century novel, poetry, criticism and letters.
  • Papers relating to slavery and plantation ownership in the West Indies, along with larger archives and printed collections relating to the 19thcentury anti-slavery movement.
  • A substantial body of modern literary archives providing an outstanding representation of 20thand 21st century poetries in English from Britain, the Americas and elsewhere.

The wider cultural, social and political life of many periods is also well-represented both in print and archival form. For the recent period, the Manchester Guardian Archive in particular contains correspondence with writers as well as journalists, politicians and other public figures from the 19thand 20th centuries.

Modern and contemporary poetry

Copyright © Estate of Edwin Morgan, by kind permission of Carcanet Press Ltd. Our extensive modern literary archives date from the late 19th century to the present and provide a unique resource for anyone interested in the literature and culture of this period. A particular strength is in 20th to 21st century poetries in English from Britain, the Americas, and across the globe, from Walt Whitman to contemporary writers like Sinéad Morrissey, Lorna Goodison and Sophie Hannah. These collections encompass poetic forms ranging from the traditional to the avant garde; poetries which acknowledge ethnicity, gender and sexuality; the publication, criticism, editing and reviewing of poetry; and poetry in translation. There is also a strong representation of significant 20thcentury writers of fiction and prose.

At the core of these holdings is the vast archive of Carcanet Press. Manchester based, yet with an international reputation, the press is committed to publishing contemporary poetry in English from across the world, poetry and some fiction in translation, as well as selections of work by writers from earlier periods. The archive contains the correspondence, manuscripts and proofs of hundreds of writers.

Poetry publishing is also represented in archives of literary magazines, such as Critical Quarterly. In addition, there are archives of diverse writers, editors, translators, collectors and academics, including Elaine Feinstein, John Heath-Stubbs, Dawson Jackson, Elizabeth Jennings, Grevel Lindop, Norman Nicholson, Walter Strachan, Katharine Tynan, and Dennis Welland.

18th and 19th century literature and culture

The Library holds an outstanding manuscript collection relating to Hester Lynch Thrale-Piozzi, Samuel Johnson and other figures prominent in 18th century literary, social and cultural life, including Frances Burney, Elizabeth Montagu and Anna Seward. This is complemented by the papers of diarist and courtier, Mary Hamilton. These two collections, dating from the 'golden age of letter-writing', contain thousands of original letters as well as literary manuscripts, drafts and diaries. There are also many contemporary editions of work by significant 18th century writers.  

The Library's 19th century holdings embrace major and minor writers, both Victorian and pre-Victorian. The novel, poetry and criticism are all well-represented. Our Elizabeth Gaskell archive and manuscript collection is the most important in the world, and there is significant material relating to other writers including Charles Dickens, Charlotte Brontë, Walter Savage Landor and George Gissing. Literature and the visual arts overlap in an important collection of John Ruskin's papers. As well as literary manuscripts, all published formats from this period are strongly represented in the collections, from individual instalments of serialised novels in pamphlets and magazines, through to high-quality periodicals and triple-decker novels.  

Early modern print culture

The Library holds first and early editions of work by many key writers from the Early Modern period - including all four Shakespeare Folios, and a copy of Shakespeare's Sonnets (published in 1609). Other writers represented include Jonson, Spenser, Milton and Bunyan and more as well as Restoration dramatists.

Many well-known writers of this period also penned tracts, of which the Library holds a very large collection. Reflecting the controversies and conflicts of the day, these cheaply printed pages provide a vivid insight into the vibrant pamphlet culture of the seventeenth century - particularly during the turbulent Civil War and early Commonwealth period. These are a rich resource, their subject matter ranging across political, economic, social and theological topics. Many of the tracts relate to Oliver Cromwell and Charles I - including eighteen separate editions of the Eikon Basilike.

Medieval literature and culture

The Library has significant medieval holdings, including many literary texts which are preserved in beautiful illuminated manuscripts. There are 41 Middle English manuscripts, dating from the mid 14th century to the early 16th century. These include works by Lydgate (notably a sumptuous illuminated manuscript of the Siege of Troy) and Chaucer (a complete manuscript of the Canterbury Tales as well as a two-leaf fragment from the illuminated Oxford Manuscript of the Tales). There are six copies of Layamon's Brut - the pseudo-history of Britain from its legendary Trojan foundation, with King Arthur at its heart - as well as numerous copies of the Wycliffite Bible. Many of our Middle English manuscripts have been digitised, and high-quality images of each page are available via Luna.

Other Arthurian texts can be found among the early printed collections, including one of only two surviving copies of William Caxton's 1485 edition of Malory's Morte Darthur, and a unique copy of Wynkyn de Worde's 1498 edition of the same work. There are over 60 books in English printed by Caxton, including his first two editions of the Canterbury Tales, and the first book ever printed in English, The Recuyell of the Histories of Troye, printed in c.1473 in Bruges, before Caxton set up his Westminster press.

American Studies: literature and culture

American literature from the late 19th century onwards is represented in several of our modern literary archives.

There are two archives relating to Walt WhitmanImage of Walt Whitman used to advertise the 'Koh-I-Noor' pencil, Sixsmith Whitman collections, Eng MS 1331/1/6/18 (and his links to Bolton, Lancashire), along with an important Whitman book collection. The Upton Sinclair Collection includes important editions of Sinclair’s work as well as correspondence, papers, and rare ephemera. There is a small collection of papers relating to the poet Wallace Stevens and his association with the Cummington Press in the 1940s. The archives of Elaine Feinstein and Jeff Nuttall contain correspondence and papers relating to key figures in avant-garde American literature from the 1950s-60s, including several writers associated with Black Mountain College (Robert Creeley, Charles Olson, Denise Levertov, Paul Blackburn and others) as well as Beat writers such as William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Gregory Corso. The Carcanet Press Archive contains manuscripts, proofs and correspondence relating to anthologies of American poetry published by the press, new editions of work by earlier US writers (like William Carlos Williams, Delmore Schwartz, Elizabeth Bishop, Djuna Barnes and Frank O’Hara), and new work by recent and contemporary poets like John Ashbery, Louise Gluck, Jorie Graham, John Peck and Robert Pinsky. The correspondence files contain further letters from many more American poets as well as translators, editors, critics and publishers. 

Other well-known American literary figures are represented by single letters or autographs in other collections; these include figures as diverse as James Fenimore Cooper, Harriet Beecher Stowe and John Steinbeck. 

Papers relating to American film can be found in the papers of Robert Donat (correspondence with American actors and film directors from the 1930s-50s) and Basil Dean (files relating to the film companies Paramount Famous Lasky Corporation, and R.K.O).

American Studies: history

The Library holds good examples of early American printing, with topics covering theology, medicine and politics. There are also examples of scripture translated into Native American languages from the 17th century onwards, including John Eliot’s early translations of the Bible into the Massachusett language. 

Also from the early period, military papers of Lieutenant General Sir John Caldwell (1756-1830) relating to the American War of Independence can be found among the Bagshawe Muniments. From the 19th century, the Raymond English Anti-Slavery Collection contains papers of George Thompson (1804-78), an indefatigable campaigner against slavery who travelled extensively in Britain and America. 

Some of the Nonconformist Christianity collections also contain valuable material for American history. These include the papers of Thomas Coke (1747-1814), who is regarded as one of the founders of the Methodist Church in the US and West Indies; the papers of Methodist minister John Prior Lockwood (1813-87) relating to his interest in the growth of Methodism in North America, including material relating to the Georgia colony; correspondence between members of the Wesley family with numerous references to America; the Primitive Methodist Conference Archive which includes papers relating to the Philadelphia Mission dating from c. 1830; the Papers of John Nelson Darby (1800-82), one of the founders of the Christian Brethren movement, and widely regarded as a key influence on modern fundamentalist Christianity in the USA; and the Papers of Leonard Sheldrake (1885-1952), an itinerant Brethren preacher, which include detailed accounts of his travels in the USA. The Papers of Frank Owen Salisbury (1874-1962), a Methodist artist, contain letters from significant figures whose portraits he painted, including Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Billy Graham, and members of the Rockefeller family. 

Twentieth-century American history is also represented in the Guardian Archive, in the form of letters from various US correspondents for the newspaper, most notably Alistair Cooke, whose letters span the period 1945-1975. 

Further individual items with relevance to American Studies are scattered across miscellaneous autograph collections or form part of other archives. Examples include single letters from significant Americans like Abraham Lincoln, George Washington and Benjamin Franklin; two letters home from men seeking their fortune in the California Gold Rush; and a scrapbook compiled by a fan documenting the British tours of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show in the late 19th/early 20th centuries.

What are Special Collections?

picture of a Chaucer manuscript and an iPad image of the same manuscript

What are Special Collections?

The University of Manchester Library holds one of the finest collections of rare books, manuscripts, archives and visual collections in the world. These collections are mainly concentrated in the magnificent building on Deansgate, The John Rylands Research Institute and Library, in the centre of Manchester. They are also housed in the Main Library on the University campus and at the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah RACE Centre, in Manchester Central Library. This resource introduces the different types of materials found in Special Collections and explains how they can be used to support your studies. For general tips on accessing digital and physical collections and visiting our reading room please look at our other Medium resources.

Using Special Collections

You are welcome to make use of Special Collections in your learning and research.

Due to the special nature of the material, we provide access in a controlled environment and there are some restrictions on use and access, particularly for fragile material or modern archives which may contain sensitive data.

Please read our guidance pages on the web for details.


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