November 30th, 2017

Aspects of Edward Lear (Part I)

Houghton Library at Harvard has an incomparable set of materials relating to Edward Lear—the largest, most diverse collection in the world: his natural history illustrations, thousands of landscape paintings, travel journals, diaries, letters, nonsense books and manuscripts, and personal documents including musical scores. This is the first of four blogs by Matthew Bevis, Professor of English Literature at Keble College, Oxford University, celebrating Lear’s work and exploring how Houghton’s collection can shed new light on his achievements. For a scrupulously-detailed checklist of the collection at Houghton, see Hope Mayo’s Appendix in the Harvard Library Bulletin, 22.2-3 (Summer-Fall 2011), 97-159.


‘How pleasant to know Mr. Lear!’ The pleasantry of one of the poet’s most famous lines also contains a wry smile at those who think they have got to the bottom of him. When Emily Tennyson told Lear that a certain Miss Cotton admired him, he replied: ‘Alack! For Miss Cotton! And all admirers. But we all know about the beautiful glass jar—which was only a white one after all, only there was blue water inside it.’ What we all know, then, is that we don’t always quite know what we’re admiring. Lear’s metaphor may be read in different ways: a person made of glass could be fragile or tough; maybe he’s less transparent than he seems; perhaps he only appears to be beautiful when he’s feeling ‘blue’; and so on. The poet was fascinated by the ways in which people are read (and misread), and by how beautiful surfaces conceal hidden depths.

Take his Old Person of Bar. Many of Lear’s limerick figures initially seem to be fantastical, nonsensical, other-worldly creatures, yet they are often being tacitly observed or judged by society. Houghton’s collection contains some revealing draft drawings for his nonsense books, including this one:

MS Typ. 55.1

There was an Old Person of Bar,

Who passed all her life in a jar,

                                         Which she painted pea-green, to appear more serene,

That placid Old Person of Bar.

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November 22nd, 2017

On “On Pornography”

[page 3] Fault lines / Brion Gysin ; Keith Haring. EC95.G9995.986f

Here at Harvard we recently concluded Sex Week, an annual week of events focused on issues of sex, sexual health, sexuality, gender, gender identity, relationships, and more. In my capacity as 75th Anniversary Fellow here at Houghton, I brought a Sex Week focus into my work with Houghton and examined the collection for materials related to the history of sexuality, from erotica and pornography in their many forms to academic and critical pieces on the topic. Sex is actually widely represented in the Houghton collection, and the materials I came across were a mix of the intellectually enticing and the bizarre. Looking through so much from so long ago, however, got me thinking about how different the experience of a 19th or early 20th century pornography consumer was from the way modern society perceives and uses pornography. As I was mulling over this, I came across a fascinating book review by none other than Gore Vidal. Titled “On Pornography,” it does much to analyze the way in which people interact with textual pornography in creative and collaborative ways, harnessing the imagination and weaving our own mental creations into the text to excite ourselves. That was, however, when I began to realize that this is not how most modern porn works anymore.

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November 13th, 2017

Collections Now Available for Research: November 2017

Houghton Library is pleased to announce that the following collections now have descriptive finding aids and are available for research in the library’s reading room.

Eily Beadell Papers circa 1896-1971 (MS Thr 1683) – processed by Melanie Wisner

José María Castañé Collection of War-related Photograph Albums, circa 1920-1950 (MS Span 183) – processed by Michael Austin

D. H. Dubrowsky Papers, circa 1917-1940 (MS Russ 139) – processed by Ashley Nary

Lucille Elmore Photograph Albums and Related Papers (MS Thr 1657)—processed by Melanie Wisner

Claudia Goreva and Ivan Kireef photographs and ephemera, circa 1902-1993 – processed by Magee Lawhorn

Hubert François Gravelot Drawings, 1738-1764 (MS Typ 404-MS Typ 404.2) – processed by Susan Wyssen

Phoebe Andrews Luther Theater Scrapbooks, circa 1881-1907 (MS Thr 1700) – processed by Magee Lawhorn

Mechanicals and Related Records for Five Centuries of Books and Manuscripts in Modern Greek (MS Am 3149)—processed by Melanie Wisner

Daniel Seltzer Promptbooks, 1959-1968 (MS Thr 157) – processed by Irina Klyagin

Collection of Visual Material Relating to the Woodberry Poetry Room, circa 1960s-1980s (MS Am 3147) – processed by Melanie Wisner

October 30th, 2017

A Long Whip with a Snapper

As a cataloger at Houghton, I am frequently tasked with correcting minor errors or otherwise improving particular catalog records in response to suggestions from readers or fellow staff. Edits as simple as fixing a typo nonetheless have an immediate and positive effect, and so I always take satisfaction in these easy victories. As an added bonus, corrections sometimes point the way to previously unrecorded features and culminate into something noteworthy, as occurred in the instance of this 1541 Ingolstadt edition of Alexandreis, an epic about Alexander the Great, composed in Latin by the poet Walter of Châtillon around the end of the 12th century.

A few weeks ago one of the Houghton Library curators let me know that me that a bookdealer had offered for sale a copy the 1541 Ingolstadt Alexandreis. The dealer had dutifully checked HOLLIS and determined that of the three 16th-century printed editions of this work, all of which are scarce, Houghton owned only the 1513 Strasbourg edition. Our curator did some searching of his own, and finding that Houghton does in fact own the 1541 edition, declined the opportunity to buy a second copy. But he was troubled that his search had not turned up the 1513 edition said by the dealer to be at Houghton. As turns out, Houghton holds not only 1513 edition (MLg 528.3), and 1541 edition (Sum 157), but also the 1558 Lyons edition (Typ 515.58.439). Here were two sophisticated and experienced catalog users searching HOLLIS for all early editions of a particular work, yet one of them finds only 1513 edition, the other only the 1541 edition and both missed out on the 1558. The fault was not in the users but in the cataloging. Such a failure underscores how easily a special collections library can spend large sums of money acquiring undesired duplicates as a result of inadequate cataloging. (I hasten to repeat that no duplicate was purchased this time.)
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October 23rd, 2017

Collections Now Available for Research: October 2017

Houghton Library is pleased to announce that the following collections now have descriptive finding aids and are available for research in the library’s reading room.

Harvard Theatre Collection of Playbills and Programs Concerning Male “Stars” (TCS 71) – processed by Elizabeth Amos

Irene Mikus Photographs and Ephemera, circa 1910-1943 (MS Thr 1690) – processed by Magee Lawhorn

José María Castañé Collection of Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris Correspondence, 1972-1980 (MS Eng 1813) – processed by Michael Austin

Sanders Theatre (Memorial Hall, Cambridge, Mass.) programs, 2001-2017 (MS Thr 1677) – processed by Melanie Wisner

Socialist Labor Party Records, circa 1880-1910 (MS Am 3145) – processed by Ashley Nary

Sylvia Sprigge Papers, circa 1947-1959 (MS Eng 1814) – processed by Ashley Nary

October 19th, 2017

“Outrageous Attention to Detail”: The School-to-Work Program at Houghton

Cambridge Rindge and Latin graduate, Armanie Deleon, assists with the archival housing of the Theodore Roosevelt Collection: Political Cartoons: original cartoon drawings. pfMS Am 1895-1895.1

For the fifth consecutive year, we have had the opportunity to hire a paid intern from the Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School (CRLS) to learn about our work by helping end-process our collections. Through the School-to-Work program, (STW), the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers (HUCTW) coordinates with the Cambridge Office of Workforce Development, Harvard schools/departments, and Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School to provide job training as well as learning opportunities for high school students.

Joie Gelband (HUCTW) helps select students to work in departments for three afternoons a week as paid interns. Each student has a supervisor who is an HUCTW member. The supervisor gives the student an overview of the work and specific assignments. They explain how the student’s work fits in to the mission of the department, and check in regularly with updates and feedback.
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September 6th, 2017

Collections Now Available for Research: August 2017

Houghton Library is pleased to announce that the following collections now have descriptive finding aids and are available for research in the library’s reading room. 

Vera Allen papers, circa 1942-1986 (MS Thr 1670) – processed by Melanie Wisner

Harvard Theatre Collection of New York Yiddish Theater Playbills, circa 1880s-1890s (MS Thr 1655)  – processed by Adrien Hilton

Harvard Theatre Collection of clippings on theater-related subjects, circa 1800-2010 (HTC Clippings 6) — processed by Elizabeth Amos

Harvard Theatre Collection of playbills and programs from New York City theaters, circa 1800-1930 (TCS 65) — processed by Christine Jacobson and Hannah Spencer, with assistance from Adrien Hilton and Micah Hoggatt

Julian Marshall collection of broadside ballads, 1650-1800 (MS Mus 277) — processed by Dana Gee, with assistance from Andrea Cawelti and Adrien Hilton

Ludlow-Santo Domingo collection of photographs of drugs and drug use, circa late 1800s-2001 (MS Am 3143) – processed by Elise Ramsey

Photograph and Memorabilia Albums of Bella Prince and Walter Neiss, circa 1890-1947 (MS Thr 1656) – processed by Melanie Wisner

New England Science Fiction Association APAs, 1970-1999 (MS Am 3142) — processed by Melanie Wisner

I. A. Richards papers, circa 1930s-1970s (MS Eng 1811) — processed jointly by the Manuscript Section

Paul Maylor Sweezy papers, circa 1900-2004 (MS Am 3024) — processed by Adrien Hilton

September 5th, 2017

In Memoriam: John Ashbery

John Ashbery is gone. A pivotal figure in 20th– and 21st-century literature, few poets have been as honored as he: recipient of the Bollingen Prize, the National Humanities Medal, a MacArthur “genius” grant, and numerous other awards. His 1975 collection, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, won the American book world’s triple crown: the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle prize. Noted for his wordplay, for combining everyday expressions with high classical references, his poetry was sometimes described as elusive, challenging, puzzling, or surreal, but no one denied its brilliance, and it has proven deeply influential to the next generation of poets.

John Ashbery in Rome at the Villa Madama.

John Ashbery in Rome at the Villa Madama. Photographer unknown [possibly his friend Nardo], 1963. From the John Ashbery papers (*89M-58, box 49), Houghton Library, Harvard University.

His Harvard ties were deep, beginning with his time as an undergraduate (class of 1949), where he began life-long friendships with fellow poets Frank O’Hara, Kenneth Koch, Barbara Guest, and Robert Creeley. His interest in poetry was nurtured by attending campus poetry readings by W.H. Auden, William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, T.S. Eliot, and Wallace Stevens, and he chose to write his senior honors thesis on Auden. And Auden just happened to be the judge who awarded Ashbery the Yale Younger Poets Prize for Some Trees, an award that launched Ashbery’s career. Perhaps remembering his own undergraduate experience, he was generous in giving many readings on campus as his fame grew. He gave the prestigious Norton lectures at Harvard in 2000, and received an honorary doctorate from the University in 2001. He was awarded the Harvard Arts Medal in 2009, and the Harvard Film Archive celebrated “John Ashbery at the Movies” with the poet’s commentary on some of his favorite films.

At Houghton, Ashbery’s papers are one of the pillars of the Library’s American poetry collection, along with T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, and Robert Lowell. Papers of his artist friends, Jane Freilicher and Nell Blaine, provide added depth in considering Ashbery’s relationship with the contemporary art scene. He was a noted art critic, and allusions to art, and the subject of art, recur throughout his poetry.

In some ways, Ashbery’s poetry is resistant to the efforts of the Library to document his work through his papers—although Karin Roffman’s recent biography, The songs we know best: John Ashbery’s Early Life, makes good use of the archive. The poet should have the last word. “I don’t find any direct statements in life,” Ashbery explained to the London Times. “My poetry imitates or reproduces the way knowledge or awareness comes to me, which is by fits and starts and by indirection. I don’t think poetry arranged in neat patterns would reflect that situation.”

David Kermani and John Ashbery. Photograph by Clarice Rivers, Summer 1977. © Clarice Rivers. From the John Ashbery Papers, (*89M-58, box 49), Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Leslie A. Morris, Curator of Modern Books and Manuscripts, contributed this post.

August 28th, 2017


This post is part of an ongoing series complementing the upcoming exhibition Altered States: Sex, Drugs, and Transcendence in the Ludlow-Santo Domingo Library on display in the Edison and Newman Room from September 5 – December 16, 2017.

Art Spiegelman is best known for Maus, his graphic novel based on interviews with his father, a Polish Jew and a Holocaust survivor. Serialized in Raw beginning in 1980, the first volume was published as a graphic novel in 1991.


Panel from “The Slithery Slibb,” Bijou Funnies #2

Spiegelman was a part of the San Francisco underground comix scene in the 1970s. bijouThrough the Ludlow-Santo Domingo Library, Houghton holds a sizeable collection of underground comics. Among them are many featuring Spiegelman’s work. Some of these shed light on Spiegelman’s artistic path to the creation of Maus.

Spiegelman moved to San Francisco in 1971, where he quickly became active in the local counterculture movement and comics scene. He was a regular contributor to such underground publications as Bijou Funnies, Young Lust, and Bizarre Sex, often using various pseudonyms such as Joe Cutrate, Skeeter Grant, and Al Flooglebuckle. In 1975, with Bill Griffith, he co-found and co-edited Santo Domingo Underground Comics Collection Arcade: The comics review.

In 1972, he was asked by fellow comic artist Justin Green to contribute to a comic anthology Green was editing. The idea was that the artists would create stories featuring anthropomorphized animals. The comic was called Funny Aminals. Spiegelman struggled with a concept for his contribution. While visiting a friend in upstate New York, Spiegelman sat in on this friend’s film class. The class included a viewing of old cartoons. While showing Mickey Mouse in Steamboat Willie, Spiegelman’s friend spoke of Mickey Mouse as a form of minstrelsy, “just Al Jolson with funny round ears on top.” (Conan interview)
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August 25th, 2017

What Do Those Archivists Do? An Inside Look at Creating Titles

DACS Bingo This post is part of a new series, “Behind the Scenes at Houghton” giving a glimpse into the inner workings of the library’s mission to support teaching and research. Thanks to Adrien Hilton, Head, Manuscript Section, for contributing this post.

I started as the Head of the Manuscript Section at Houghton Library in February 2016. As a unit, we consist of seven archivists and manuscript cataloguers and function as the group to accession, arrange and describe, and make accessible online descriptions of Houghton’s manuscripts and archives, this includes single items as well as multi-box collections. We are part of the Technical Services Department comprised of book catalogers, acquisitions and end-processing, and metadata librarians.

The library and special collections landscape is rapidly changing. In Technical Services, like other functional areas in the profession, we can no longer afford to rely on traditional ways of thinking and doing. What may have worked 50 years ago or even 5-10 years ago is already obsolete. There are new theories that embrace more equitable and open access to our library spaces, collections, and collection descriptions. Navigating this ever-evolving environment is one of the most exciting challenges about being an information professional today. We must continually learn and engage with both the theory and practice of archives.
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