The Bancroft Survey Project began in February 2008. Funded by grants from the Andrew W. Mellon and the Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Foundations, the survey project is intended to be a simultaneously broad and in-depth survey of all manuscript holdings of the Bancroft Library, which has been collecting for over a century. Four archivists were hired to scour the collections for a three year term, during which they will review the vast myriad of manuscript materials and use a survey instrument designed to gather data on collection scope, subject categories, and physical condition. The survey archivists are Marjorie Bryer, Amy Croft, Dana Miller, and Elia Van Lith, and they are also the authors of this blog.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Experiencing Borneo with Agnes Newton Keith

Agnes Newton Keith was a UC Berkeley grad and a writer who wrote about her experiences living in exotic locations around the world, most famously in Northern Borneo, but also the Philippines and Libya. Keith, who had some harrowing experiences early in her professional life as a journalist at the San Francisco Examiner, married Englishman Henry "Harry" Keith in 1934 and returned with him to Malaysia where he worked for the Government of North Borneo while Borneo was a British protectorate.

Agnes lived with Harry in Sandakan, Borneo for five years. She wrote about her experiences and at Harry's urging she entered and won the 1939 Atlantic Monthly Non-fiction Prize. These writings, which were serialized in the magazine, became her first book, Land Below the Wind, published later that same year to great interest and much positive response.

Some of the publicity materials (1940) for her first book are pictured below.

Also pictured is an unidentified pencil sketch found among her papers which depicts a Borneo jungle scene.

The Keith's first child George was born in Sandakan in April of 1940. Two years later when Japanese forces invaded Borneo, Agnes and baby George were interned in a POW camp near their home, while Harry was interned nearby. The family spent three and a half years shifting between three different internment camps before they were liberated by Australian forces in 1945. In 1947 the Keiths returned to Borneo and Agnes told their story of survival in her bestseller, Three Came Home, which was later turned into a Hollywood movie in 1950. The Keith's daughter Jean was born shortly thereafter*, and Agnes wrote yet again of their return to a changed post-war Borneo in White Man Returns.

The Keiths had further adventures living in the Philippines and Libya throughout the 1950s and 1960s, experiences which she continued to write about in her later non-fiction works. Keith wrote her first novel in 1972 after the Keiths had retired to British Columbia, and she completed her last book in 1975. Remnants of her life abroad that surface in the Bancroft's collection include the daily diaries that were direct sources for her books as well as hundreds of unidentified but nonetheless fascinating photographs.

The Agnes Newton Keith papers are an intriguing (and charming, for this archivist!) look at exotic parts of the globe from a mid-20th century American woman's perspective. They can be requested through the Bancroft off-site request system using title Agnes Newton Kieth Papers and call number Banc MSS 86/161.

-- D. Miller.

* A correction was provided by Jill, a site visitor: "Agnes' daughter Alison Jean was born when Agnes was about 26 years old ( probably within the period of her first marriage which did not work out). In 2007, Jean and her granddaughter Leslie, attended a special ceremony in memory of her mother who would have been 106 years old on that day. Jean was 80 years old and it was her first visit back back to Borneo since she was 17 years old. (Refer to "The Tea House Chronicle" August 2007 -Sandakan) [Alison Jean] was not born in the 1950's as is inferred in this article." (This would mean Agnes Keith's daughter, her first child, was born in 1927.)

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