February 20th, 2018

Aspects of Edward Lear (Part III)

‘Verily, I am an odd bird’, Lear once confessed. He was also a superb illustrator of odd birds, as his Illustrations of the Family of Psittacidae, or Parrots attests. Working from live models in the gardens of the newly established Zoological Society in London the 18-year-old Lear produced his book without any formal training, independent funding, or institutional support. The remarkable story of his work on this volume—alongside other commissions—has recently been told in Robert McCracken Peck’s The Natural History of Edward Lear. ‘Parrots are my favourites’, Lear noted, but there is also another bird that haunts his imagination, one that makes its presence felt across his oeuvre (from his ornithological draughtsmanship to his travel journals, from his landscape painting to his nonsense poetry, and beyond). Enter The Pelican.

He began drawing these birds early. Houghton Library holds a lovely preparatory sketch of a pelican that Lear would later work up for John Gould’s The Birds of Europe (1837):

The Pelican

“The Pelican”. Edward Lear drawings of animals and birds, ca. 1831-1836
Houghton Library, MS Typ 55.12, f. 2

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February 15th, 2018

Collections Now Available for Research: February 2018

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.

Francis C. Browne Journals and Ephemera, 1840-1895 (MS Am 3156) – processed by Magdaline Lawhorn

Filipino American Performing Arts Broadsides and Posters, 1979-2002 (MS Thr 1724) – processed by Magdaline Lawhorn

Paolo Gruppe Papers, circa 1909-1972 (MS Thr 1727) – processed by Melanie Wisner

Howard Guild Collection of Subscription Publishing Prospectuses, circa 1860-1912 (Typ 9000) – processed by Simmons intern, Alice Iu under the supervision of Susan Wyssen

William Morris Hunt Papers, 1960-1990 (MS Thr 408) – processed by Adrien Hilton

Vladimir Nabokov Family Papers circa 1920-2000 (MS Russ 140) – processed by Magdaline Lawhorn

The New York Hippodrome : Drawings, 1905-1908 (MS Thr 1716) – processed by Melanie Wisner

Christy Obrecht Family Papers, 1913-1975 (MS Thr 1711) – processed by Magdaline Lawhorn

Roberto Paoli Correspondence, 1905-1997 (MS Ital 206) – processed by Melanie Wisner

Patrick Putnam papers, circa 1920s-1950s (MS Am 3144) – processed by Simmons intern, Alice Iu under the supervision of Susan Wyssen

Arturo Ripstein Papers, circa 1935-2014 (MS Span 186) – processed by Melanie Wisner

Pauline Billings Taylor Collection of Theater Designs, 1892-1968 (MS Thr 1708) – processed by Irina Klyagin

George Doane Wells Family Papers, circa 1704-1934 (MS Am 3154) – processed by Ashley Nary

Kirk Alan Winslow Papers, 1955-2003 (MS Thr 1709) – processed by Adrien Hilton

February 2nd, 2018

Born-Digital Blog Post #1: The Beginning

This post continues the 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 Magdaline Lawhorn, Administrative Fellow & Project Archivist, for contributing this post.

Floppy disks from the Vladimir Nabokov Family Papers, circa 1920-2000. Houghton Library, MS Russ 140.

Vladimir Nabokov Family Papers, circa 1920-2000. The collection contains 107 floppy disks belonging to Vladimir Nabokov’s son, Dmitri Nabokov. Houghton Library, MS Russ 140.


Born-digital backlog! Everyone has one. When you think of Houghton Library and other special collections, I’m sure that the first thing that comes to mind are old tomes, handwritten letters and other historical documents. So you may be surprised to know that Houghton is home to born-digital material. Floppy disks, USBs, external hard drives, Jaz drives mixed within unassuming archival collections forgotten, just waiting to be re-discovered by researchers. The papers of John Updike, the Vladimir Nabokov family and Jamaica Kincaid as well as the multimedia poem Fragments of Light. 6, represent twentieth-century and near contemporary holdings we definitely know to have born-digital materials, but these represent just a small fraction of Houghton’s collections. So, where are all the other born-digital materials hiding? Here at Houghton Library we have begun to tackle our born-digital backlog, in search of our hidden gems. In November 2017 the library formed its first Born-Digital team comprised of staff members Susan Pyzynski, Associate Librarian for Technical Services; Adrien Hilton, Head of the Manuscript Section; Melanie Wisner, Accessioning Archivist; and myself, Magdaline Lawhorn, Administrative Fellow & Project Archivist.

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January 15th, 2018

Aspects of Edward Lear (Part II)

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word backstories enters the language in 1982. But it would seem that Edward Lear invented the word over a century earlier (it appeared in his diary entry for 19 March 1876). The diaries themselves—a mixture of confession, bewilderment, recollection, and fantasy—contain a range of backstories that take us beyond the received, public image of Mr Lear as gently quirky, or inoffensively nonsensical, or merely pleasant to know. Biographers and researchers have drawn on the diaries (30 volumes of which survive, all housed at Houghton), and Marco Graziosi has provided invaluable transcriptions of some of them. A microfilm of the whole collection is now available online, and it offers a fresh opportunity to listen in as Lear talks to himself day by day, night by night, over three decades. ‘How wonderfully strange are my feelings!’, he exclaims. The more of the diary you read, the stranger things get.

Sometimes the diaries simply allow Lear to be enjoyably rude about friends and acquaintances behind their backs. Having dined with John Gould, he admits that he found him ‘less disgusting than sometimes – but he is always a hog’, and having been treated to a tune from a lady, he observes: ‘Mrs Alderson sung – sung? – the last rose of summer – & I had rather have had a tooth taken out . . . Fir the laaaa Roo,ooo,ooo,ooo,o,ooza saa – r’. Elsewhere, though, he touches on more ambiguously painful feelings. Thinking of two women who bring out particularly strong emotions in him, he scribbles down: ‘Wrote to Gussie Bethell: a long letter — but beside the mark: also to Emily Tennyson – much more besiderer: — but it is not possible to write as one would’. For Lear, the diary becomes a space to gesture towards the unwritable—and the unspeakable.

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December 8th, 2017

Collections Now Available for Research: December 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.

Claudia Goreva and Ivan Kireef Photographs and Other Papers, circa 1902-1993 (MS Thr 1693) – processed by Magdaline Lawhorn

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

Fragments of Latin manuscripts, circa 1100-1540 – processed by Susan Wyssen

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

Paul Kahn Collection of Bezoar Materials (MS Am 3152) – processed by Melanie Wisner

Benjamin Rand Papers, circa 1873-1934 (MS Am 1082) – processed by Ashley Nary

Warren Family Correspondence of Missionaries Serving With the ABCFM in Japan, 1848-1984 (MS Am 3153) – processed by Melanie Wisner

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

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