Sunday, June 12, 2011

Back from the 2011 Manuscript Society Annual Meeting

I've just returned from the Manuscript Society's annual conference, and boy, was it a blast this year! In case you're not already familiar with the Manuscript Society, it is an "international organization of persons and institutions devoted to the collection, preservation, use, and enjoyment of autographs and manuscripts." So, it's basically a club for fellow collectors, dealers, and curators. The annual meeting is one of the highlights of my year and takes places in different cities each time to visit important manuscript collections.

This year we chose a city very near and dear to my heart - Providence, RI - home to my alma mater Brown University. As such, I was already familiar with some of the treasures that awaited our eager minds at Brown's John Hay library - Walt Whitman's personal copy of Leaves of Grass, George Orwell's original manuscript of 1984, and the infamous Andreas Vesalius anatomy book from 1642 bound in human skin. I had spent countless hours at the Hay while an undergrad at Brown pouring over the rare and unique documents held in its special collections.

But...I'm getting ahead of myself here. First and foremost what I love about the Manuscript Society is the people. When my wife Stephanie and I arrived in Providence on June 1, we were quickly reunited with many friends from all over the country - former Manuscript Society president Ed Bomsey, Executive Director Shirley Sands, Special Assistant to Secretary at U.S. Department of Education Reyna Aylward, Beverly Hill from Goldberg Auctioneers, former curator of manuscripts at the Lilly Library Saundra Taylor, UACC (Universal Autograph Collectors Club) President Michael Hecht, and many more. Some of our favorite Manuscript Society members aren't even curators, collectors, or dealers. One standout is Allan Stark, who just adores the history and the intellectual camaraderie that the Society offers.

The meeting this year started off with the excitement of a live auction. All sorts of treasures were donated by Manuscript Society members to raise money for the organization (part of our mission is to offer graduate study grants). That night I was extremely happy to bring back to my hotel room a number of wonderful items - a magazine signed by President Gerald R. Ford and First Lady Betty Ford, an autographed Victor Borge book, and personally signed photos of Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau from the Odd Couple, Douglas Fairbanks Jr.Nancy Reagan, Steve Allen, Shirley Temple with Buddy Ebsen, Anthony Quinn, Van Johnson, Dudley Moore, Doris Day, Kirk Douglas, Lana Turner, Lillian Gish, and Tony Curtis.

The next day we visited the John Hay Library and the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University. At the Hay, we were fortunate to have a presentation on Lincoln-related books and manuscripts by Society member Frank Williams, retired Chief Justice of the RI Supreme Court. He even supplied us with a list of his 68 favorite Lincoln books published in recent years! Judge Williams asked us how many of us had Lincoln items in our collection, and I didn't think to raise my hand. I was thinking of rare historical treasures like UACC president Michael Hecht's handwritten Abraham Lincoln manuscript. Michael told me that he prizes that piece above anything else in his collection - except for the autograph that his own father had given him while Michael was in Elementary school, sparking his collecting passion. When I didn't raise my hand, my wife reminded me that even I (with my focus in 20th century popular culture) have Lincoln in my collection. I have a cast of a famous Lincoln life mask created in 1860 in my "cabinet of curiosities." It's just another Evidence of the ubiquity and relevance of our 16th President!

That afternoon at the John Carter Brown Library, we learned about its collection of over 450 colonial-era manuscripts (held in spite of the mandate the JCB founders issued to exclude manuscripts in favor of printed books and engraved maps). The current JCB librarians also shared with us their efforts to publish online their extraordinary collection of Haiti-related documents through the website Remember Haiti.

On Friday, June 3, we attended a presentation by the Rhode Island Historical Society Library and examined a few of their manuscript treasures documenting the early days of Rhode Island. I found their colonial women's diaries particularly fascinating. Then it was off to a tour of the John Brown House Museum, the premier 18th century house in the state. Next stop (my favorite that day) - the Providence Athenaeum. The Providence Athenaeum is an independent membership library that traces its history back to The Providence Library Company, founded in 1753. Its special collections reveal the history of the reading tastes of library patrons with rare first editions (Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, etc.), two medieval manuscripts, eight incunabula (books printed before 1501), and original letters and ephemera related to two of Providence's most famous literary residents - H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe. We concluded the day with a visit to the Rhode Island School of Design Fleet Library.

Frontispiece from Stephane Mallarmé's French translation of Poe's The Raven with illustrations by Édouard Manet. Inscribed by Mallarmé to Poe's champion poet Sarah Helen Whitman. Collection of the Providence Athenaeum.

Last but not least, we took a 2-day whirlwind tour of Newport, RI with a little help from the Preservation Society of Newport County. We visited the Naval War College Museum and Library, Marble House (built in 1892 by the Vanderbilts), the Elms (built in 1901 by the Berwins), the White Horse Tavern (est. 1673 - the oldest tavern in the U.S.), the International Tennis Hall of Fame (where they somehow neglected to show us their library), and Touro Synagogue (American's oldest Jewish synagogue). My favorite stops were the Redwood Library and Athenaeum (America's oldest lending library - where my wife translated  for the Redwood curator a portion of a colonial-era journal written in French), and the home of Society member and Manuscripts Curator for the Georgetown University Library Nicholas Scheetz. Nicholas and his guest Dr. Scott Gwara, Professor of English at the University of South Carolina, shared with us manuscript treasures from their personal collections. It's not every day that I get to thumb through the pages of a 15th century illuminated manuscript. What a rare and special treat!

Back at the hotel in Providence, after our closing dinner where we said our bittersweet farewells, we had an illuminating presentation by Brown University's Linwood Fisher. We learned as much as one can within the short span of an hour about Native American manuscripts from 1600-1800. The annual meetings of the Manuscript Society are always enjoyable and educational experiences. And so, until next year in Quebec City, Canada - I can't wait!

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