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

Time - Place

In a notebook that still survives, for an evening sky that has long since vanished, an English writer in the sixteenth century notes how to use the astronomical instrument he has created with ink and paper to measure the position of constellations in the heavens.  In Paris, in the last decade of the fourteenth century, a merchant records his feast days and days for blood-letting, as assiduously and in as immediate and compelling a social context as that of these five New Yorkers managing their datebooks in the middle of the twentieth century.  

In the most immediate way, manuscript culture binds together time and place.  Manuscripts are written, by hand, by a particular person in a particular place; even when copied, they are always the products of individuals, transcribing, making errors, sitting or standing always in a particular space, in changing light over the course of individual hours and days.    As readers, we encounter these works with the same immediacy with which they were created; we are invited, as readers, to stand alongside our writers, holding and reading works created by them months, years, centuries before. 

“Every one has heard the story, which has gone the rounds of New England,” writes Henry David Thoreau, in a sequence on the archival dormancy and re-awakening of ideas, written in one sweep, with hardly a change or correction, in the surviving draft of the last paragraphs of his manuscript, Walden.  The story, in his telling, is that of a “strong and beautiful bug which came out of the dry leaf of an old table of apple-tree wood, which had stood in a farmer's kitchen for sixty years, first in Connecticut, and afterward in Massachusetts — from an egg deposited in the living tree many years earlier still, as appeared by counting the annual layers beyond it; which was heard gnawing out for several weeks, hatched perchance by the heat of an urn.”   The draft itself, like Thoreau’s image of dormancy, has followed its own series of lives: the three sides of blue writing paper were given in 1864 by Thoreau’s sister, Alice, to benefit the “fair for coloured orphans” held in Concord, Massachusetts, during the American Civil War.  The sheets made their way to the Yale graduate and American literature collector Owen Franklin Aldis, who gave them as part of his founding donation in 1911 of the Yale Collection of American Literature.   

This metaphor was not simply literary, not only a story heard or invented as archetype of a New England imagination, but represents as well the intensely literal, forensic understanding which Thoreau brought to his writing.  Thoreau’s insect was also one bug, among many others, quite literally observed and recorded in his natural historical observations, as can be seen in his entomological notes shown , the charts shown in the exhibition gathered over four years from 1851 to 1854, the year that Walden was published, after its own ten-year gestation.

The diaries kept by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark during their cross-continental expedition reveal two experienced military officers encountering a landscape which defied their expectations.   This sense of meeting and being revised by a landscape persists from nineteenth-century diaries kept by travelers across the United States (“I hear the hogs in my kitchen,” writes Mary Ballou, of her travel to and life in California); it is as audible in the journals of twentieth-century English travel author Robert Byron, and in the notebooks of Terry Tempest Williams, writing of the landscape and Mormon community of Utah.

These lost landscapes of the future, whether mapped for Thomas Jefferson, as audience, or for a public of late twentieth-century gamers, can be found, in their fragility, their ephemerality, in the archive.   “We have been awake through the night, my friends and I,” begins Filippo Tommasso Marinetti’s manifesto, in 1909, in a summons to Futurism and its embrace of technology, of violence, its rejection of the cemetery of the museum, for an audience long since fallen to the past.

Place is found, in this exhibition, both in motion and in all too static fixity.   “Arrived at Chihuaha much fatigued,” wrote Dr. Rowland Willard, of the travels from St Charles Missouri over the Sante Fe trail to Mexico which he recorded in the battered, often faint pages of his diary.   And the apothecary Joseph Pulsifer recorded his journey in 1832-1836 from the suburbs of Boston to New Orleans to Santa Anna, Texas, along the Neches River, where he set up in practice as a druggist and established the town of Beaumont.  This arc from motion to usually fleeting and often uneasy stasis can be seen as well in an account, written more than a century later by Keikichi Akana Imamura, Connecticut salesman and language instructor at Yale University, of his experiences at the Gila River Relocation Center, where he had been interned by his government because of his Japanese heritage, recorded in letters to his colleague and mentor Walter Millsap.


Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library
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Monday 10 am - 7 pm
Tuesday-Thursday 9 am - 7 pm
Friday 9 am - 5 pm
Saturday (Exhibitions only) 12 pm - 5 pm
Sunday (Exhibitions only) 12 pm - 4 pm

Holiday Schedule and Closed Collections Schedule