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By Hand: Celebrating the Manuscript Collections
Friday, January 18, 2013 to Monday, April 29, 2013

Love - Work

Charity nurses her child, while trampling on the figure of Disdain below, in this hand-painted tarot card commissioned by the Visconti family in Italy in the mid-fifteenth century.   The child gazes out as directly from the miniature as the voice of Langston Hughes springs from a letter to his aunt, complaining of his tooth, in early twentieth-century Kansas.   It is in manuscript that we record the histories of our children; in manuscript that they learn to read and write, often in the margins or flyleaves of our books.   The owner of this English notebook records the births of five children between 1663 and 1673.   That this sentiment is not a historical constant, that we are bound in childhood as economic and political units, is made transparently clear in this bill of receipt from September 17, 1853, recording the purchase of a “negro slave named Mary and her child Louisiana”; in 1789, the expenses of the three princes of the British royal family are listed in an account book.   

Love too is written and survives by hand.   In a notebook made of paper scraps, sewn by hand, the American theologian Jonathan Edwards argues for the manifestation of a divine love, God the author, we the actors.    Of the fragment, Prussian blue, of the wedding dress of Edwards’s wife, Sarah Pierpont Edwards, the poet Susan Howe asks:  “Outside the field of empirically possible knowledge is there a property of blueness in itself that continues to exist when everything else has been sold away?”  This question is asked of divine and secular love by John Donne in his poems, recorded by hand by readers in seventeenth-century England.  And: “Ir / Re / Sis / Ti / Belle,” writes Gertrude Stein in a love note to Alice B. Toklas, a scrap of poetry in a pocket notebook, as ephemeral, and lasting, as the goodnight kiss given by artist George O’Keefe to her lover Alfred Stieglitz. 

The collections capture our momentary presence with others, our ability to carry our memories of friends from our early days together through all that happens later.   Here Ernest Hemingway—“Hem”—can be found in the most fleeting of conversations in 1924, in postcards to Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, and Gerald and Sara Murphy, excitedly telling his friends all about his new fascination, bull-fighting.   In another postcard home to a friend:  “Climbing cliffs and fording torrents / Here we are at last in Florence,” writes Edith Wharton while traveling in Italy, to her friend Henry James.  And a moment of affectionate wit, in the postcard from the artist Joe Brainard, traveling on a Fulbright scholarship, back to his friend, the poet Ron Padgett, in New York.   “Dear Rock Hudson,” he quips, “Ron and Pat Padgett are very popular in Europe.”  These ephemeral moments are held for us here afterwards, knowing, as they did not, what happened next.   The bulls and bull-fighting were not a passing phase for “Hem.”   Wharton would mourn her friend and literary mentor, her “Cher maître,” when he died five years later.   Ron Padgett would write a memoir, Joe, commemorating a friendship that ran from their high school literary magazine, The White Dove Review, publishing Allen Ginsberg and others, to Brainard’s death from AIDS-induced pneumonia in 1989.    

Love and money intersect in the collections as well as in life.   The forty pieces of silver are exhibited to Judas in a sixteenth-century English arma Christi roll, as the temptations of the loan and gift can be seen three centuries later in Henry Miller’s notebook of money owed, kept in a small three-ring binder. Miller scrupulously lists his debts, each person on a separate page, and the narrative arc which resulted from these.  Of Carl Van Vechten’s loan of $25 on March 19, 1955, he notes, in green ink, “Gift!”   Each time, on almost every page, the translation of loan into gift is marked by an exclamation point.

Now silent in the exhibition: the Ouija board and teacup with which, over four decades, James Merrill channeled spirits from the other world into notes towards his poetry—often with friends, over a glass of wine, after dinner.

Manuscripts bear witness as well to the creative process, and the variations of an idea in its many stages, from conception through to their appropriation—and mis-appropriation—by readers, both at the time and over time, engaging with a continually shifting textual heritage.  So Wharton, in her memoir’s backward glance upon her twelfth novel, The Age of Innocence, for which she won the Pulitzer Prize in 1921:  “I showed it chapter by chapter to Walter Berry; and when he had finished reading it he said: ‘Yes; it’s good.  But of course you and I are the only people who will ever read it.  We are the last people left who can remember New York and Newport as they were then, and nobody else will be interested.”  This memory is tracked physically in the text, as Wharton cuts and pastes, moving the text within itself in her editing.    “Women forget all those things they don’t want to remember,” writes Zora Neale Hurston the 1937 draft of Their Eyes Were Watching God, “and remember everything they don’t want to forget.” Marc Allegret’s notebook from Voyages au Congo, with Andre Gide, shows him moving between print and film, literally tipping film clips in among his notes. In a similar fashion, the stage manager’s part of Thornton Wilder’s manuscript of Our Town  moves between text and the machineries of performance.   The collector Frederick Koch has resurrected the manuscript of Claude Debussy’s Pelleas et Melisande, re-uniting fragments into an entirety.  James Joyce can be read here in proof, corrected by his readers, Samuel Beckett and Alfred Peron, just as we read over the shoulder of Langston Hughes, correcting and changing and perfecting his typescript in Harlem in 1948-49:  “A dream deferred / Does it dry up like a raisin / in the sun?”

 

 

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