Our Visit to The Houghton Library

On Monday the class met at the Houghton Library at Harvard University for our final library field trip of the semester.  Trying to find the library was a bit challenging, and asking some Harvard students for help revealed that some of them were unfamiliar with the library.  Some students were very unsure of directions to the library even though it was pretty close by.  I must admit that I was a bit surprised by this since it is such an incredible resource!

Once we had all stowed our bags in the lockers, we went into the first room we visited on our tour.  We were surrounded by so many old and rare books in just that one room, it was amazing!  Unfortunately we couldn’t wander around the room to see the exhibit (which featured books selected by Harvard professors that they felt were meaningful) because some materials were set out for a group that was arriving after us.  Still, even from the part of the room we could go in, it became very clear that the library housed a truly amazing collection.

Next we made our way up a (super cool!) spiral staircase into a room that was specifically designed to look like a house in England during Samuel Johnson’s time.   Once we were all gathered in the room, we got to see a selection of the Houghton’s absolutely massive Samuel Johnson collection.  The room not only featured not only Samuel Johnson books, but also portraits of him and his inner circle.  They have the most extensive collection in the world, ranging from his personal set of of Bibles to first editions of his dictionary to his personal letters.  All of these items were collected by a couple who later donated them to the Houghton.  One of the items we looked at was a book that had never been folded, stitched together, or cut, so it remained in a pristine original condition.  It was very interesting to see especially since it was a good chance to see one of the stages of the book making process.  There was also a copy of the plan of the dictionary that was still in its original blue paper cover.

My favorite part of the whole tour came next!  Once we were done in the Samuel Johnson room, we went into the next room over to see the books and letters that were set out for us to look at.  Most of the items related to readings on our syllabus, so there was lots to see!  There was a copy of the Samuel Johnson dictionary (as well as his letters), other dictionaries (including one specifically for “hard words”), a Latin copy of the Philobiblon, a copy of Pale Fire, an 1818 first edition Frankenstein, and a first edition of Shakespeare’s Sonnets.  My two favorite items were Frankenstein and the book of sonnets.  The Frankenstein books were really neat to see.  The novel was split into three individual volumes like we had discussed in class, and it was kind of wild seeing the title page of Volume 1 since we had done a whole class activity relating to it!  The sonnets were also incredible because apparently there are very few copies of the book known to exist and the one at the Houghton is probably in the best condition of all of them.  It was beautiful and I felt so happy that I got to take a closer look at it (without touching, since it is apparently one of the most rare books in the library).  I did ask to see the page for Sonnet 106, which is my favorite, so I was quite excited about that!!

Our tour of the Houghton Library was very exciting and interesting.  We were reminded several times that this library is not just for Harvard students and that we are free to visit the library again and research the materials there!  There is an online catalog that books can be requested through and if you get a special ID you can work with them in the reading room.  It is great to know that this library is a great resource for us, and it is only a Redline ride away!


Do Not Touch The Lion

I hope everyone enjoyed the JFK museum visit as much as I did! We will not be holding class April 17th due to Patriot’s Day, but keep an eye on your inbox for details from Alex about our April 24th visit to Harvard’s Houghton Library!

The first thing that strikes you when you enter the JFK Presidential Museum and Library is the architecture. The massive glass windows take excellent advantage of the ocean view, giving the whole building an open feeling, despite the secure nature of the building.

Our visit to the JFK library was guided by Dr. Justice, a superhero name if I’ve ever heard one. She led us up to the mural room, where we dropped off our stuff in order to begin the tour.

We were then brought down to a main research room, where academics can examine the works archived in both the JFK Presidential archive, and the Hemingway archive. Luckily, the resident researcher of the day was out on lunch, so we were able to stay a while and listen to some of the amazing things that Dr. Justice has been able to facilitate, including an amazing little story about using the referential prowess of the Library’s archivists to hunt down an old toy that is certainly out of production.

It should be noted that the Library’s resources are generally open to us, as students at UMB. If you’re interested in using the archives, all you have to do is check out the website! The archivist made it seem like a great deal of the materials are digitized, but Dr. Justice was very clear the the Library takes Copyright seriously, so make sure you adhere to Fair Use laws!

After the main research room, we proceeded to Hemingway room! This room featured a great deal of Hemingway’s novels, many of which are translations of his work into other languages. Dr. Justice explained that Hemingway’s works have a way of coming back in force during harsh times around the world. I’ve always thought that there is a timeless quality to Hemingway’s stoic bleakness, and I suspect that this quality helps to fuel the global popularity of Hemingway’s writing. The Hemingway room also featured a great deal of artifacts, as well as a wall of original Hemingway papers, collected from his notebooks, correspondences, and writing drafts.

Prominent, in the center of the room, is a giant lion pelt.  Apparently Simba (as referred to by Dr. Justice) was the victim of one of Hemingway’s various safaris. We were told not to touch the lion, and I assumed Dr. Justice was just asking for our courtesy to not touch the valuable artifact. Later, we learned that both Simba and Eddie (his gazelle compatriot) are in fact covered in Arsenic, and this warning was for our own good!

Upon our arrival back in the Mural room, Dr. Justice told us an amazing story about how she was able to draw a connection between Hills Like White Elephants and Hemingway’s transition from his first to his second marriage, using primary documents. At first, she was troubled by the content of the story. Upon an initial reading, the story seems like an aggressive, privileged man forcing his lover to have an abortion. Dr. Justice was able to find solace in the realization that Hemingway wrote himself as the girl, allowing the abortion to function as a powerful metaphor for his failed marriage and potential new love.

We finished up our visit by doing an activity in the Mural room. Dr. Justice printed off a few packets of source document photocopies, allowing us to view Hemingway’s creative process as he turned his raw teenage angst into a timeless and memorable short story. We were asked to find differences in the various drafts, and Dr. Justice guided us through these differences, giving us context. As a book nerd, the experience was sublime. It is truly a gift to be able to see the creative process of a recognized genius like Hemingway.

Nabokov’s Selling Out!

Hey everyone,

I hope that your week has been going well! My thesis is in… so I am not necessarily a basket case anymore. Hooray for that!

We started this Monday’s class by noting that next week, 4/10, we will be meeting at the JFK library from 2:30 to 4:30. Bring your love for Hemingway because they have some of the best Hemingway archives in the world… found this out from one of my most beloved professors in undergrad. I personally cannot wait to see them! Also everyone should be very excited to read Hemingway’s “A Very Short Story” which comes from his In Our Time collection, and its brilliant and lovely and all things wonderful. Before next class however, you should email Alex a 250-word summary of what you are considering doing your digital exhibition on. Good luck to all of you in finding interesting works to showcase.

Alex then went over a brief biography of Nabokov where we learned that he was born in St. Petersburg, his father was assassinated, and he moved to the U.S. at the very onset of WWII. He taught locally, and published Pale Fire in 1962. Alex (and Duncan White, by the way) failed to mention that Nabokov was also obsessed with butterflies, which I believe to be an incredibly telling influence in the production of Pale Fire. (Just thought I’d mention that).

Next, we discussed our own readings of the novel. The strategies we used, the order in which we read the sections (if we read it by sections at all). Alex pointed out that most of us hadn’t read the index even though he had specifically told us to read everything. I guess that some of our reading habits are just too difficult to break. We also decided that many of us were resistant readers because we had refused to read the novel the way in which Kimbote (or Nabokov) had told us to. I was very interested in our distinction between docile and resistant readership, and what that means especially in light of the history of the book. When we speak of the ways that title pages or covers are going to impact the way we read things are we speaking of docile readership? How are these things going to impact resistant readership then?

At the next part of class we split into groups to discuss the four sections of the novel. We each picked specific passages that we thought were reflective of the aims and decisions of the poem, and then shared them with our classmates. We discussed a number of interesting things, I had jotted down in my notes the way that Nabokov hated Freud but continually refers to him or references his theories e.g. when he has Kimboth fetishize the notecards upon which the fictional poem “Pale Fire” is written. (Duncan White later told us that he thought Nabokov doth protest too much in his resistance to Freud’s theories on the human psyche). We tried to solve the riddle of the italics, but again, as Duncan White noted later, the book seems to tempt the reader into this very trap of overreading. We examined the index which contained a self-referential, ever-repeating loop of entires—and from this we gathered that Pale Fire encourages a sort of textual assembly, but it is an assembly which does not make sense.

We then skyped with Duncan White who told us about his most recent project on Nabokov wherein he hopes to demystify his genius. In regards to our interests, his book sounds like it acts as a historicist insertion that seeks to provide contextual clues as to why Nabokov wrote Pale Fire when he did. White noted that Nabokov was constantly struggling against his own marketable value, and might have written Pale Fire in response to Lolita’s runaway success. One metaphor I thought particularly funny was when White noted that “like a rock band, Nabokov did not want to sell out”. We discussed the various ways in which Pale Fire seems to contain an anxiety about a madman Kimbote taking over our text. Nabokov, preceeding Barthes, still seems to have believed in the control of the author, although death appears to Nabokov as being principle threat. Lastly, White asked us if we felt that the poem was actually a good poem, which I find to be a fascinating question because I don’t actually believe it is. However, we feel about that though, White told us that “Pale Fire” the poem had been published in the past sans its commentary—which seems to be completely missing the point of the whole exercise.

For the last period of class, we worked on annotating the first few paragraphs of the forward in the novel. For next class, we are to have annotated and commented upon the other person’s annotations that we received when it was passed back randomly. I hope everyone got interesting annotations! See you all at JFK!