Analyzing Civil War-Era Correspondence and Portrait Photographs: Lesson Plans for the John L. Nau III Civil War History Collection

This post is by Elizabeth Nosari, Project Processing Archivist at the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, who is currently working with the William Faulkner Collection. In her previous role, she served as the Nau Project Archivist for the John L. Nau III Civil War History Collection.

Black and white tintype portrait of two Black soldiers in uniform seated; American flag in background. Tintype portrait is encased in ornate gold frame.

Tintype double portrait of two unknown soldiers, ca. 1861–1865. John L. Nau III Civil War History Collection, MSS 16459, box 166, tray 1, PT0321, Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia.

Lesson plans for the John L. Nau III Civil War History Collection are now available to view and download directly from the collection’s finding aid, under the “External Documents” heading at the bottom of the page. The two lesson plans—Analyzing Civil War-Era Correspondence and Analyzing Civil War-Era Portrait Photographs—engage students with the two most significant record types in the Nau collection in terms of scope. These two mediums also speak to one of the greatest strengths of Mr. Nau’s collection: the documentation of personal, lived experiences during the United States Civil War, 1861–1865.

Yellow envelope with red stamp on upper left corner. Addressed to Miss Sarah A. Platt, Naugatuck, Conn.

Goodyear, Robert B., February 14, 1863. John L. Nau III Civil War History Collection, MSS 16459, box 43, folder 31, DL0006, Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia.

The Nau collection letters, found in Series 1 and written by white men as well as white women, connected men away fighting to loved ones and business associates at the home front; letters reflect their role as wartime lifeline and contain exchanges of everyday news about families, friends, and finances. Letters also offer firsthand accounts of camp life, hospital conditions, battlefield experiences, and political views. The portrait photographs in Series 2—in early photograph formats, including daguerreotype, ambrotype, tintype, and carte de visite—visually capture and document their mid-nineteenth-century subjects, including their wartime roles as evidenced in uniforms, insignia, and weaponry. Digital facsimiles pulled from Series 1 and 2 of the collection are an important part of the lesson plans and encompass a selection of letters written by white men and women as well as portraits of soldiers, including white men, Black men, a Native American man, and a white woman.

Tintype portrait of Frederick L. Rainbow, ca. 1861–1865. John L. Nau III Civil War History Collection, MSS 16459, box 157, tray 2, PT0424.0001, Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia.

The lesson plans engage with letters and photographs from the Nau collection as artifacts of history and material culture that served real and practical functions in the context of war. The reading materials and activities are designed for students to learn about the technologies that made letter writing and portrait photography possible on a mass scale in the mid-nineteenth century as well as their democratizing influences. As both practices increased in popularity over the course of the Civil War, literacy rates rose and a new, larger swath of American society was able to read and write. Portrait photography, which proliferated in part due to its convenience and affordability, allowed Americans across the social strata of the country to participate in portraiture for the first time. Mid-nineteenth century people could readily and self-consciously construct, capture, and memorialize their identities. They could also share their likenesses with friends and loved ones and mail these mementos back to the home front.

The Nau collection lesson plans invite students to read about Civil War-era letter writing and photographic portrait making, look at and analyze real-world examples, and create their own letters and portraits. Designed for grades 9 and up as well as grades K–8, they allow instructors to pick and choose which materials and activities best suit their students’ learning objectives.

Access the lesson plans and explore the John L. Nau III Civil War History Collection here.

If You Did It, Show It: A Confessory Manuscript for Deaf People

This post, by Ellen Welch, Manuscript and Archives Processor, is about the recent acquisition: Illustrated Manuscript Confessory for Deaf People (MSS 16803).

a single leather-bound illustrated manuscript for Deaf persons to confess their sins. They could identify their sins by the illustrations and ask to be absolved. Called a Confessory, it was made in Flanders or the Netherlands roughly between 1770 and 1790.

A single leather-bound illustrated manuscript for Deaf persons to confess their sins. They could identify their sins by the illustrations and ask to be absolved. Called a Confessory, it was made in Flanders or the Netherlands roughly between 1770 and 1790.

This leather-bound manuscript serves as a confessional aid, containing illustrations depicting a variety of sins from which a Deaf individual could show a picture of their sin to the priest and ask for absolution. The simple drawings depict sins such as being distracted in or late for church, missing confession, gluttony, gossip, theft, gambling, drunkenness, fighting, wishing another person dead, and lust, or “inappropriate libido”! This illustrated confessory was made in either Flanders or the Netherlands, between 1770 and 1790, and was probably created at a school for Deaf people.

Throughout history, societies have misunderstood and mistreated Deaf people because they could not communicate in the same way others could. As long ago as antiquity, influential figures like the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384–322 BC) falsely believed that Deaf people were incapable of reason (1). Legal tradition across Europe barred Deaf people from inheriting property, purchasing land, and getting married.  Within Christian communities, Deaf people were often excluded because it was wrongly believed that they were not able to receive the word of God and the sacraments, especially confession, which would absolve them of their sins. In the Bible, Paul reveals in Romans 10:17 “So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ.” (New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, Romans, Chapter 10, Verse 17). This type of message alienated Deaf people from collective worship and their religious community and insinuated that without the ability to hear or speak, they could not receive salvation in this life or the next (2).

Illustrated Confessory Manuscript: A Way to Confession and Absolution

The manuscript is composed of ninety-two leaves, with ten leaves left blank (possibly to leave room for sins yet to be illustrated). It contains two sets of drawings composed by different hands: the first set illustrated in black and white featuring a man and Latin captions, and the second in color picturing women with captions in Dutch.

The first set includes thirty-six drawings of sins with a man as the subject, completed in pen and ink with pale washes of black and gray.

Graphite sketch of figure reclining but reaching for a pitcher and cup.

Illustration of a man drinking with the Latin caption “Ebrius” meaning drunk.

Sketch of two figures sitting at a table playing cards.

Illustration of the sin gambling. The Latin word for game is “Ludiem.”

Sketch of two figures sitting and holding hands.

The illustration for too much libido or lust. “Lubido” in Latin.

The second series includes forty-six drawings of similar sins with women as the subjects, done in iron-gall ink and colored with gouache and watercolor.

Sketch of two figures sitting at table playing cards.

Illustration of women playing cards and possibly gambling.

Illustration of three people sitting at table, eating.

Illustration of the sin gluttony.

Illustration of two groups of figures, one talking to the other; the other two pointing at the first group.

Illustration of the sin of gossiping.


Priests and Deaf Educators

In 1519, Protestant reformer Martin Luther (1483–1546) addressed the theological question of how Deaf people could hear God by turning to the teachings of Saint Jerome (347–420 BC), the patron saint of translators and librarians. Saint Jerome recognized Deaf people as God’s children. He said, “…to the word of God nothing is ‘deaf’ if only the inward ‘ears’ are willing to hear.” The answer for Jerome (and later, Martin Luther) lay in the figurative ears of the soul: “Whosoever has these,” Jerome wrote, “will not need physical ears to apprehend the Gospel of Christ.” In one of his sermons on Galatians, Martin Luther expanded upon Jerome’s reasoning: “…the word of God is not heard even among adults and those who hear, unless the Spirit promotes growth inwardly.” (2)

In the 1670s, the French Franciscan friar Christophe Leutbrewer created a confessory manual that featured definitions of sins that were printed on pre-cut paper. This allowed Christians who were Deaf to pull the slips up individually so that they extended over the paper margin, thereby serving as topical reminders for reflection and confession, which could be tucked under the margin again after the confession (3) (4)

Christophe Leutbrewer’s confessory book, with sins defined and printed on pre-cut paper, Leutbrewer, Christophe, “BRB1072,”

Hand Gestures and Sign Language (vs. Oralism)

French abbot Charles-Michel de L’Épée (1712-–1789), was the founder of the first free public school for deaf children in the world, the National Institute for Deaf Children of Paris (5). In 1755, he demonstrated that Deaf people could communicate among themselves and with the hearing world through a system of conventional gestures, hand signs, and finger spelling, much like modern French Sign Language. Following  L’Épée’s work, there were other educators and theologians, including Roch Ambroise Cucurron Sicard, principal of  L’Épée’s school after his death (6), Roch Ambrose Auguste Bébian, who was fluent in sign language (7), Laurent Clerc, a French man who was the first Deaf teacher of Deaf students and taught in America (8), Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet, who started the first Deaf school in America (9), and Jean Massieu, a Deaf person who taught Deaf children and formalized French Sign language (10). These educators fought for Deaf people to have their own language of hand signs and were opposed to the teaching method of Oralism, which banned sign language and tried to force Deaf people to conform by making them use lipreading or oral speech. Oralism was an oppressive method, as it infringed on deaf peoples’ ability to use their own language—sign language. Instead of bringing hearing and non-hearing people together, Oralism hindered Deaf people and stripped them of their identity, culture, and community (11).

In 1817, Roch Ambrose Auguste Bébian (1789–1839), the author of an important book of sign language titled Mimographie, wrote, “We do not speak, it is true; but still do you think us unable to express ourselves as well with our eyes, our hands, our smiles, our lips? Our most beautiful discourse is at the tips of our fingers, and our language is rich in secret beauties that you who speak will never know. And have we not our own art of Phoenicia to paint the words that speak into our eyes?” Bébian points out that Deaf people and their use of sign language are resilient. They can see the world more visually and have a sharper focus on communication and listening which gives them a unique and valuable perspective.

In 1850, French author and political activist Victor Hugo (1882–1885) wrote to his close friend, Deaf educator Ferdinand Berthier, who was a student of Bébian and a recipient of the French Legion of Honor for his activism of Deaf peoples’ linguistic rights. Hugo wrote, “You, Sir, who have the rare talent of being at once [Deaf] and eloquent, please tell your friends . . . that in my eyes the accession of the [Deaf] to civic and intellectual life must be counted among the most magnificent and decisive accomplishments in the history of the progress of humanity.” Hugo added, “What matters deafness of the ear, when the mind hears? The only deafness, the true deafness, the incurable deafness, is that of the mind.” Hugo’s message embraces the concept that Deaf people and those with hearing loss can see the world more visually, and have a sharper focus on communication and listening. They can thrive in a hearing-centric world by using other means of communication, embracing new ideas, and accepting different approaches, which can lead to more inclusive engagement with the world (12).

Honor and Awareness of Deaf persons and their Culture

Today, Deaf culture is a vibrant and diverse community that spans the globe. Deaf people have their own unique language, customs, and traditions and are proud of their identity and heritage. From Deaf artists and musicians to Deaf athletes and entrepreneurs, people who are Deaf continue to make important contributions to society and to shape the world around them (13).

Despite these gains, however, there is still much work to be done to fully recognize and honor the contributions of the Deaf community (13). Collections like this manuscript mark a beginning in sharing more materials that include Deaf people. Similar to this acquisition is a manuscript titled Emblems on Christian Doctrine for use by Deaf People (MSS 16804)  [Emblemi sulla Dottrina Cristiana ad uso de’ Sordo-Muti  Ottavio Giovanni Battista Assarotti (1753–1829), which is another recent addition that represents the identity of Deaf persons in our collections and community.

Deaf Awareness Month, which is celebrated in September, provides an important opportunity to learn more about the history, culture, and achievements of the Deaf community. The Community Services for the Deaf (CSD) website states, “Deaf history is a testament to the strength and resilience of the human spirit. Despite centuries of discrimination and marginalization, Deaf people have persevered and created a culture that is vibrant, unique, and enduring. By celebrating Deaf history and culture, we can honor the contributions of Deaf people and promote a more inclusive and compassionate world for all” (13).

Ways to support Deaf Awareness

  • Watch Deaf films and documentaries, such as 2021 film CODA by Sean Hader, 2009 film See What I’m Saying by Kaycee Choi, and 2023 film The Hammer about wrestler Matt Hammil
  • Read books by Deaf authors or that accurately depict Deaf character
  • Support Deaf-owned businesses in your area
  • Learn Sign Languages
  • Donate to organizations that advocate for the deaf community
  • Advocate for improved accessibility, education, and workplace protections for deaf people
  • Listen to and share the stories of Deaf creators


  1. Gannon, Jack, R. “Deaf Heritage: A Narrative History of Deaf America.” Gallaudet Classics in Deaf Studies Series, Volume 7, June 30, 2012
  2. Oates, Rosamund. “Speaking in Hands: Early Modern Preaching and Signed Languages for the Deaf.” Past and Present. Oxford Academic. Volume 256, Issue 1, August 2022, Pages 49–85 Accessed 7/24/23
  3. Smyth, Adam. “Slicing the Page: Christophe Leutbrewer and Raymond Queneau” Text! April 22, 2022.
  4. Leutbrewer, Christoph.  “BRB1072,” Bridwell Library Special Collections Exhibitions, Southern Methodist University. accessed September 19, 2023,
  5. “Charles-Michel de l’Épée.” Wikipedia. Accessed 9/19/23
  6. “Roch Ambrose Cucurron Sicard.” Wikipedia. Accessed 9/19/23
  7. “Roch-Ambroise Auguste Bébian.” Wikipedia. Accessed 9/19/23
  8. “Louis Laurent Marie Clerc.” Wikipedia. Accessed 9/19/23
  9. “Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet” Wikipedia. Accessed 9/19/23
  10. “Jean Massieu.” Wikipedia. Accessed 9/19/23
  11. “Oralism.” Wikipedia. Accessed 9/19/23
  12. The Mind Hears Mission Statement, a blog by and for deaf and hard of hearing academics. The Mind Hears website. Accessed 9/19/23
  13. Community Services for the Deaf (CSD) website. “Exploring the Rich Heritage of Deaf People.” Accessed 7/24/23

A Curator’s Wunderkammer: A Decade of Collecting for UVA

On the occasion of his retirement—after a decade of curatorial work at the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library—David R. Whitesell departs the University of Virginia Library having made significant contributions to the collection.

Upon his arrival in 2012, David brought with him deep expertise and experience in acquisitions, bibliography, cataloging, and curation from prestigious institutions, as well as essential knowledge of the rare book and manuscript trade. The Library has benefited from David’s work and has grown in extraordinary ways, all to the betterment of teaching and research. 

Our current exhibition, A Curator’s Wunderkammer: A Decade of Collecting for the University of Virginia (on view in the First Floor Gallery of Harrison/Small through July 9, 2022) celebrates and chronicles the stories behind David’s selected acquisitions, opening the door to an insider’s perspective on the work of a curator—where curiosity is always a key to success.

Celebrating a decade’s worth of acquisitions by Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library curator David R. Whitesell on the eve of his retirement: a Wunderkammer, or cabinet of curiosities that illuminates UVA’s current collecting policy, the ins and outs of the unpredictable and highly competitive acquisitions process, and how curators add value to the collection, one acquisition at a time.

Since 2012 I have shared with curatorial colleagues the privilege of augmenting UVA’s truly remarkable rare book and manuscript holdings. My remit has been primarily pre-1900 materials in all formats. As I prepare to hand this responsibility to a new curator, it seems an opportune time to reflect on a decade’s worth of acquisitions. In this exhibition I offer a small selection with comments intended to illuminate UVA’s current collecting policy, the ins and outs of the unpredictable and highly competitive acquisitions process, and how curators add value to the collection, one acquisition at a time.

Even with a healthy budget, UVA curators can acquire only a tiny fraction of the material appropriate for UVA’s diverse research and teaching needs. No precise count is possible, but my purchases for UVA total approximately 15,000 items; the gifts I have helped bring in may exceed 100,000 items. This constitutes less than 2% of a collection that has been abuilding for two centuries. Still, I hope to show that the value I have added is more than negligible, even if ultimately unquantifiable.

Were my acquisitions arrayed in one massive display, they would likely perplex the beholder by their apparent randomness—more akin to a Wunderkammer, or cabinet of curiosities, than a considered, curated selection—until placed within the larger context of UVA’s collection. This is inevitable given the capricious process by which we acquire rare, often unique, materials—a process dependent not only on funding, but especially on knowledge, considered selection, hard work, timing (from lightning response to extreme patience), relationships, market savvy, and luck.

The small sampling on display in the exhibition has been ruthlessly pared by omitting gifts and items representing many areas in which I have collected. Despite having some topical and linear arrangement, it remains more a Wunderkammer than a coherent whole. I encourage you, then, to explore this exhibition in your own way, engaging with those curiosities which attract your gaze and, I hope, some that do not. If I have done the job well, these disparate objects will generate serendipitous connections, insights, and meanings for you, for whom we assemble our collections.

View the full exhibition catalog online here

Every day—now through mid-June—we’ll highlight one object from A Curator’s Wunderkammer on our social media channels. Follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and/or Instagram!

The exhibition will be on view through July 9, 2022 in the First Floor Gallery of Harrison/Small.


“Flaming Angel”: Introducing the Papers of Petra Vogt

This week we are pleased to present a guest post by English PhD student Annyston Pennington, who works as a curatorial assistant here in Special Collections. Annyston assists with many incoming collections, and we asked them to share their perspective on this fantastic new acquisition after spending several hours unpacking and inventorying its delicate contents. Thanks, Annyston!

Black and white double-exposed photograph with double exposure of a blonde woman's face in profile. She is wearing a jewelled choker and bracelets, and holding up her left thumb.

Mylar photograph of Petra Vogt by Ira Cohen, ca. 1970-1979. As a performance artist, Vogt contributed to Cohen’s body of work not as a passive subject but as a multimedia collaborator. MSS 16480, Box 6.2-3

Cracking open a binder of photographs, you meet a cool gaze, her sleek center-part and graphic eye-liner placing the portrait somewhere between 1970s fashion editorials and the beauty influencers of your Instagram feed. Her image emerges amid snapshots of skulls and children on the streets of Kathmandu, as if the world were a stage set for the dark, the fanciful, and the extreme. She is the proto-goth girl of your dreams. Within this recently acquired collection, Petra Vogt peers out, unflinching, from a time at once alien to and rhymed with our own.

A round graphic in black pen and ink with red, green, yellow, and brown additions and content below, on white paper.

Astrological chart for Petra Vogt by Alden Taylor Mann, 1974. A detailed manuscript explanation of Vogt’s alignments accompanies the chart. MSS 16480, Box 4.6

The personal archive of Petra Vogt, which covers the years 1966-1978 and was acquired during the summer of 2020, is now processed and prepared for researchers to explore. The UVA Library boasts impressive holdings in the poetry and poetics that arose in the post-war era, particularly in the voluminous Marvin Tatum Collection of Contemporary Literature. Vogt’s papers, however, shed new light on the Beat Generation from the perspective of a multidisciplinary, female interlocutor.

Vogt came of age in Berlin, Germany, developing an artistic and spiritual practice in a world effulgent with the violence, transnational movement, and creative experimentation that mark our contemporary understanding of the twentieth century. In 1962, Vogt joined The Living Theatre, an experimental theatre company, based in New York City, that performed for both American and international audiences. While touring in the United States with The Living Theatre for their performance of “Paradise Now,” Vogt met poet, photographer, and publisher Ira Cohen. One might say, the rest is history, but the papers of Petra Vogt communicate less a traceable narrative than they provide a tantalizing glimpse into the life and mind of an unsung contributor to late-Modernist art.

A page of a magazine, with the left margin torn, and a black and white photograph of a Black man with his mouth open wide, holding a white woman who is upside down with her mouth wide open, accompanied by a column of text on the right.

Magazine clipping featuring review of The Living Theatre’s production of “Paradise Now,” 1969. Petra Vogt performed in the 1968 productions of this play, which Ira Cohen attended. MSS 16480, Box 5.1

In the early 1970s, Vogt immigrated with Cohen to Nepal, where the pair linked up with other creatives and wanderers, such as Nepalese hippies Jimmy Thapa (born Saraj Prakash Thapa), Trilochan Shrestha, and other notable visitors to “Freak Street,” or Jhocchen Tole, a street in Kathmandu dubbed so for its hippie population. While in Nepal, Vogt expanded her artistic horizons from performance art into literature, visual art, and print material. While often footnoted as a “muse” for Cohen, Petra Vogt was, undoubtedly, a maker. 

A hardcover book with black endpapers lies open on a surface, open to the title page. The verso is a deep purple, and the recto holds the title information and a black and white photographic image of a man.

Title spread from  “Poems from the Cosmic Crypt,” a Bardo Matrix title, which features black and white illustrations by Vogt, 1976. Cataloging in process: record XX(8890369.1)

A hardcover book with black endpapers is open on a table. It is open to a page spread with a mounted print of a drawing on the verso, and a narrow column of verse on the recto.

An interior page spread from “Tales from the Cosmic Crypt.”


In her eleven-box archive, drawings, paintings, and collages by Vogt mingle with hand-made scrapbooks and artists’ books, modified commercial texts, and Bardo Matrix Press woodblock prints. In addition to manuscript items, Vogt’s archive includes select Bardo Matrix titles, such as Poems from the Cosmic Crypt, for which she provided pen illustrations to accompany Cohen’s poetry.

A single sheet of white paper with a printed street map in English in black ink on a pink background, with the title "Patan City" in bright blue ink.

Map of “Patan City,” featuring the Darbar Square area, in a tourist brochure for Patan, 1974. “Freak Street,” a hub for artists and hippies during Vogt’s time, falls south of Darbar Square. MSS 16480, Box 5.13

Vogt and Cohen’s lives in Nepal are documented in romantic grayscale and occasional lush color, if the term “document” can encompass both Cohen’s hallucinogenic Mylar photographs and snapshots of the local community’s domestic, public, and funerary rituals. Her papers are aesthetically shocking, even dark, with images of death and the occult filling almost every folder. But human intimacy and tenderness peek through: affectionate notes penned on the backs of polaroids; postcards conveying enigmatic epigrams and well-wishes; hand-made scrapbooks of jewel tone tissue paper hold pages self-adhered with silver leaf; torn-out magazine pages of 70s fashion and fetish gear; and even casual group portraits (with one shot guest-starring Mick Jagger). Candid and staged, curated and altered, Vogt’s archive pays homage to the oddity and beauty of the bohemian everyday, be it newspaper clippings, lotka paper prints, or pictures of Nepalese market stalls. In these papers, we see her artistic impulse to highlight the sensuality latent in such materials.

Petra Vogt’s presence persists, radiant, in her papers. The eccentricity of her biography alone makes the material worth exploring, but it is the collision of the ephemera of an individual life, lived on the outskirts and in constant motion, with the residue of conflicting identities and politics that produces a collection greater than the sum of its parts.

The text side of a commercial postcard with rippled edges, heavily soiled. Printed text is collaged onto the background, "Flaming angel / Remember that when we walk". The address is in violet ink and there are stamps.

Postcard addressed to Vogt in India, sent care of Banana Joes, 1978. Features Ira Cohen’s glyph in upper-center and reads “Flaming Angel Remember that when we walk” in cut-out print text. MSS 16480 Box 5.9

Note: Thank you to archival processor Sharon Defibaugh of Special Collections Technical Services, who processed and housed the collection and created the magnificent finding aid, all during a pandemic. To see more of the collection, we encourage you to visit our reading room or submit a reference request.

This Just in: The Lewis M. Dabney, III Papers

We are proud to announce the acquisition of a major collection of the papers of Lewis M. Dabney, III, the late scholar of American literature and Professor of English at the University of Wyoming. Dr. Dabney is best known for his magisterial 2005 biography, Edmund Wilson: A Life in Literature, and a large body of scholarship on Edmund Wilson.

Lewis M. Dabney, III, undated, courtesy of Elizabeth Dabney Hochman

The UVA Library is now home to three groups of Dabney’s papers: his voluminous and meticulously prepared Wilson archives; a small set of materials documenting his book on William Faulkner, The Indians of Yoknapatawpha (1974); and a collection of papers of Dabney’s mother, Crystal Ray Ross Dabney, documenting her romantic relationship with John Dos Passos in the 1920s.

The earliest letter from Edmund Wilson to Lewis Dabney in the collection (Box 12.7). The correspondence begins with answers to Dabney’s questions about a  school periodical from Wilson’s youth, and moves on to many other topics.

Dabney’s heavily annotated copy of William Faukner’s “The Bear” (Box 19), used in his research for “The Indians of Yoknapatawpha.”

Each of these groups of materials individually has significant connections to existing collection strengths at the library: the Faulkner materials join our more than eighty archival collections related to Faulkner, and the Crystal Ross-John Dos Passos collection is an essential complement to the Papers of John Dos Passos. Edmund Wilson’s profound reach across American literary modernism means that Dabney’s research files for this project will have important links throughout the archival collections in the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature. We are grateful to Dabney’s family for choosing the University of Virginia as a home for these materials: his widow Sarah Dabney, daughter Elizabeth Dabney Hochman, and son Lewis M. Dabney IV (CLAS 1992).

An example of the tantalizing folder headings in just one box of the collection. Dabney worked with a professional archivist to organize his papers in the years leading up to his death in 2015.

Dabney’s scholarship on Edmund Wilson began while he was still a graduate student and came to know Wilson personally. It includes not just the biography but major editions of Wilson’s work, including The Portable Edmund Wilson; The Edmund Wilson Reader; The Sixties: The Last Journal, 1960-1972; and Edmund Wilson: Centennial Reflections. He also edited two Library of America volumes, Edmund Wilson: Literary Essays and Reviews of the 1920s and 30s, and Edmund Wilson: Literary Essays and Reviews of the 1930s and 40s.

File copy of a letter from Dabney to Malcolm Cowley, from an extended correspondence on the structure and contents of Dabney (ed.), “The Portable Edmund Wilson,” 1978 (Box 3.48).

Wilson looms large in the history of twentieth-century literature and culture, and it is no surprise that Dabney’s biography was the work of a lifetime. The biography will never be surpassed due to the access Dabney achieved to the living record of Wilson’s life: his files hold his communications with Wilson himself and Wilson’s friends and colleagues, including figures such as Malcolm Cowley, Donald Hall, and Lionel Trilling; also present are transcripts from his interviews with eminent literary figures such as Wilson’s one-time wife Mary McCarthy, Elizabeth Hardwick, Svetlana Alliuyeva, Isaiah Berlin, Elena Wilson, Roger Straus, and others; in some cases, cassette tapes of the original interviews are present. Much of this material remains unpublished. Dabney’s notes from the interviews offer a taste of Wilson’s dramatic romantic and literary relationships, and like the rest of the collection, offer valuable insight into the biographer’s process.

Dabney’s notes from his multi-day interview with Wilson’s friend Adelaide Walker in 1984, heavily annotated (Box 7.29)

Dabney’s notes from interview with Elizabeth Hardwick regarding Wilson and Mary McCarthy’s relationship, 1984 (7.21)

Among the materials in the collection is Dabney’s prized typescript copy of Edmund Wilson’s journals. This copy was one of two made at the request of Wilson’s longtime publisher Roger Straus since Wilson’s handwriting was apparently nearly indecipherable.  Straus gave one copy to Dabney, and the other resides with Wilson’s papers at the Beinecke Library at Yale.

The William Faulkner and Edmund Wilson portions of the collection will be made available to researchers as soon as they have been processed.

Crystal Ross and John Dos Passos

 At the time of his death, Dr. Dabney had recently completed a draft of a book on the relationship between his mother and John Dos Passos. The two were briefly engaged in the 1920s, and remained friends their entire lives. Dabney’s family are publishing the book, and once it is released this portion of the collection will become available to scholars. When that happens, we will post again to this space.

If you have questions about any portion of the Dabney papers, please contact curator Molly Schwartzburg at


Signed with a Kiss: Linnie’s Love Letters to Guy, 1944-1945

This week, we are pleased to share a guest post from archival processor Ellen Welch, who, from time to time, shares her processing discoveries with colleagues over email. Posting on the blog for the first time, Ellen shares a collection that provides a glimpse of wartime love-letter conventions in the 1940s.

You are so fine and true and the swellest husband on earth. You just have to come home to me. I’ll wait for you always. Be a good sailor, dear, and take care of yourself for you are precious to me.

Detail of one of Linnie’s letters, signed with her name, numerous “x” marks, and a bright red lipstick kiss. (MSS 15588)

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to read your parents’, grandparents’, or great grandparents’ love letters from World War II?  Here at Special Collections, we have many collections of letters from wartime. The latest addition is a collection of 1944-1945 love letters written by Linnie Ethel Davis to her boyfriend (and then husband) Guy Elwood Webb, a sailor in the U.S. Navy. The couple were married when he visited her on leave in Richmond, Virginia in May 1944. Linnie’s letters show her complete devotion to Guy, her constant worry for his safety, and her desperate desire to have him safely at home. She reassures him of her love and encourages him to be strong and learn as much as he can while he is there and tells him that he will back home soon. “You are the sweetest, noblest, finest, darling, sweetheart a girl can have,” she writes; she loves him “more than anything in the whole wide world.”

Linnie’s letters reveal the sacrifices of the “home front”: she makes and sends him care packages and saves most of his monthly earnings for their future. Instead of going out with other young people after work, she goes straight home in case he telephones–and works overtime in order to pay for those long-distance calls. She tries to be brave by not crying in front of anyone, even family. The letters briefly mention air raids, gas rations, and the absence of any young men in town.

Some of Linnie’s many letters, now available for researchers (MSS 15588)



Linnie makes a scrapbook for Guy and fills it with cards from him, newspaper clippings about the war, commercial naval photographs, and postcards from his time in Hawaii. The letters describe her making the scrapbook–and the actual scrapbook is also part of the collection. We follow him from boot camp in the Great Lakes, Illinois to continued service in Haywood and Shoemaker, California, and Honolulu, Hawaii. Linnie writes, “Tis hard being married to a sailor. You never know where he is or where he is going.”

One assumes from the collection that he made it home safely, as the letters stop after he sends a telegram that says that he is departing San Francisco for home in 1945. Indeed, they were reunited, and remained together even after death, as can be seen by their shared gravestone in Richmond, Virginia.

Guy’s final message to Linnie (MSS 15588)









Thanks, Ellen!

John Dunlap, Charlottesville’s First Printer

The Philadelphia printer John Dunlap (1747-1812) is best known for having printed the so-called “Dunlap Broadside”—the first printing of the Declaration of Independence—of which the Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library is privileged to possess two of the 26 known copies.  Less well known is Dunlap’s distinction as the person responsible for bringing printing to Charlottesville, Virginia, in 1781.  On the eve of July 4th, and in celebration of having acquired our very first John Dunlap Charlottesville imprint, here is the story of Dunlap’s brief career as Charlottesville’s pioneer printer.

Title page of U.Va.’s newly acquired 1781 Charlottesville imprint, the first and only item from Charlottesville’s first press to have entered the U.Va. Library collections.

Eighteenth-century American printers were eager for significant business and steady cash flow, which were more easily obtained through newspaper publishing and government printing contracts than through other printing work. John Dunlap did well on both accounts. He immigrated from Ireland to Philadelphia in 1757 and, after serving an apprenticeship in his uncle’s printing establishment, took over the business. In 1771 Dunlap launched the weekly Pennsylvania Packet, or the General Advertiser. Taking advantage of his Philadelphia location and the urgent need for public printing during the American Revolution, Dunlap secured printing contracts not only for the state of Pennsylvania, but also for the Continental Congress.

The two-line imprint crediting John Dunlap and James Hayes as Charlottesville’s first printers. Although undated, this work was printed during September and October of 1781.

In August of 1780, Dunlap expanded his public printing portfolio to Virginia. Directed by Virginia’s House of Delegates to engage a public printer, then-Governor Thomas Jefferson recommended acceptance of the proposal submitted by Dunlap and his business partner (and former apprentice) James Hayes. That fall a press and supply of printing types was dispatched to Richmond, where Hayes was to establish and manage a printing office. But its opening was delayed when the shipment fell into British hands. A second press was sent from Philadelphia to Richmond, and Hayes was at long last able to begin printing in April 1781.

A two-page opening from the Acts Passed at a General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Virginia (Charlottesville, 1781).

The following month, however, the arrival of British forces under General Cornwallis prompted Virginia’s state government to flee Richmond, first to Charlottesville, and then to Staunton. Hayes packed up his printing equipment and followed. But in late June, near Charlottesville on his way back from Staunton, Hayes was captured by the British and then released on condition that he not print “until properly exchanged.” This was soon arranged, and in July 1781 Hayes set up his press in Charlottesville. It remained in operation into October, but by early December Hayes had relocated the press to Richmond. All the while Dunlap remained in Philadelphia.

The list of acts contained in the 1781 Virginia session laws printed in Charlottesville.

In its three months of operation, the first Charlottesville press is known to have printed at least four items: two broadsides, the 52-page Journal of the House of Delegates of Virginia for 1781, and the 1781 Virginia session laws. It is a copy of this last publication—a 20-page folio publication titled Acts Passed at a General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Virginia—that has now been acquired by U.Va.  Given the constraints under which Hayes is known to have operated, it is tolerably well printed, bearing the Virginia seal on its title page above the two-line imprint:  CHARLOTTESVILLE: Printed by John Dunlap and James Hayes, Printers to the Commonwealth.

John Cook Wyllie’s bibliographical description of the 1781 Virginia session laws (Charlottesville, 1781) with (at bottom) a census of copies known ca. 1960.

All four known 1781 Charlottesville imprints were printed by Hayes in his role as public printer, and all are very rare. It is likely, however, that Hayes printed a few other items, e.g., broadsides, printed forms, and other jobbing work, during his Charlottesville sojourn. Some day we may be able to identify these through careful typographical analysis. The history of Charlottesville’s first press has yet to be written–this précis is based on unpublished research by former U.Va. Librarian John Cook Wyllie, which is available for consultation in the Small Special Collections Library.

Following Hayes’ departure, Charlottesville would remain without a printing press for another four decades, until Clement P. and J.H. McKennie established a newspaper, The Central Gazette, in 1820.

On View Now: Sacred Spaces: The Home and Poetry of Anne Spencer

Our latest exhibition, Sacred Spaces: The Home and Poetry of Anne Spencer, offers a glimpse into the exquisite world of Civil Rights activist, librarian, gardener, and poet Anne Spencer (1882–1975). Spencer spent over fifty years turning her house and her garden into a more beautiful and gentle world than the one outside her gates.

Inspired by the photographs taken by noted architectural and landscape photographer John Hall, the exhibition explores how each space was sacred in its own unique way. In “Any Wife to Any Husband, A Derived Poem,” Spencer writes, “This small garden is half my world.” With a myriad of flowers, a lily pool, and a cottage study, Anne’s garden was her own private poetic Eden. At the same time, her house, the other half of her world, was a welcome refuge for African Americans who would have been prevented from finding lodging in Lynchburg because of the color of their skin. The Spencers hosted civil rights activists, writers, and other famous African Americans such as Gwendolyn Brooks, George Washington Carver, Countee Cullen, W.E.B. DuBois, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Thurgood Marshall, and even Martin Luther King Jr.

House case

However, for Spencer, poetic creation and political activism were not separated by the boundaries of architecture. Rather, they were wreathed together by Spencer’s own hand in the house and in the garden. She wrote about politics on seed packets and gardening catalogues in her garden cottage, but at the same time, a poem she wrote about her favorite flower, “Lines to a Nasturtium (A Lover Muses)” is, to this day, painted on the kitchen wall.

Shown here is a packet of seeds that Spencer wrote notes on and a copy of Dreer's Garden Book with an unpublished poem

Shown here is a packet of seeds that Spencer used to take notes  and a copy of Dreer’s Garden Book , open to  an unpublished poem

The exhibition is broken down into three parts—house, garden, and garden cottage (known as “Edankraal”)— in order to show how politics and poetry, public and private, the past and the present converge in the sacred spaces Anne Spencer created. To compliment John Hall’s stunning photographs of the house and garden, we have tried to fashion each of Spencer’s sacred spaces through the physical artifacts—manuscripts, books, letters, gardening paraphernalia— she left behind.

“Sacred Spaces” is on view through January 27, 2017 in the first floor gallery of the Harrison Small building. Spencer’s home is open to the public today as the Anne Spencer House and Garden Museum. For more information, see To learn more about John M. Hall’s photography, please visit

On View Now: Sisters of the Press: Radical Feminist Literature, 1967-1977

This week we are pleased to feature a post by graduate student Kelly Fleming. Kelly is a Ph.D. candidate in English and a curatorial assistant in Special Collections. She writes for us here about her first solo exhibition.

The word “feminist” is lit up in bright lights these days, and not just thanks to Beyoncé. Celebrities use their place in the spotlight to complain about the gender wage gap. Young women wear t-shirts with a crowned Ruth Bader Ginsburg, emblazoned with the words “Notorious RBG.” Students, unprompted, use the word “intersectional” in my classroom, deploying a piece of feminist terminology that was coined the year I was born.

Fifty years ago, in 1966, when Betty Friedan and other feminists formed the National Organization of Women (NOW), their statement of purpose declared, “The purpose of NOW is to take action to bring women into full participation in the mainstream of American society now, exercising all the privileges and responsibilities thereof in truly equal partnership with men.” While we still need to work toward a “truly equal partnership” in this country, feminism has become mainstream. In fact, it has hit mainstream society with such force and such flare that there is debate about the rise of a new wave, as well as new names: “pop feminism” and “marketplace feminism.” At least in part, we are living out Friedan’s dream in this very moment.

Yet in this moment, we are at risk of forgetting the women who wore the word “feminist” like a medal of honor into battle. Perhaps because they did not want to be part of “mainstream” American society, the achievements and work of radical feminists are the most often forgotten. “Sisters of the Press: Radical Feminist Literature, 1967–1977” is an attempt to shed light on this particular history of feminism.

Radical feminists took the second-wave feminist mantra—the personal is political— and made it into a lifestyle. Because they believed that American society was underpinned by a patriarchal system stretching back centuries, they sought to destroy its institutions, hierarchies, and beliefs. To work within the system was to be complicit in the oppression of all American women by men, a fact that the “mainstream” feminist movement, epitomized by NOW, would not formally acknowledge. As a result of this conviction, radical feminists did more than just join consciousness-raising groups. They formed collectives, they lived in non-hierarchical all-female communities, and they dispensed plastic speculums for personal use. But more than anything else, they wrote. They penned scathing critiques in easily disseminated materials, such as manifestos, periodicals, pamphlets, petitions, and flyers, that circulated to sisters nationwide and that provided the basis for radical action.

Smash Sexism

Detail from the February/March 1973  issue of the radical feminist periodical, Off Our Backs.  (HQ1101. O34 v.3 no.6)

While these radical feminists texts may not be as famous as Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (1949), or Betty Friedan’s The Feminist Mystique (1963), their clear, concise messages still inspire change today. I am not alone in having read the Radicalesbian’s essay, “Woman-Identified Woman,” during my undergraduate studies, and imagine my excitement (which was effusive), when I found that we had Rita Mae Brown’s personal copy, complete with editorial marks, in the archives.

Woman Identified Woman

Shown here is  last page of the essay, with the signatures of co-founder Rita Mae Brown and other members of the Radicalesbians. (MSS 12019)

Another item in the exhibition that I know has impacted women today, and women at UVA in particular, is a letter from a feminist group called the Women’s Alliance. UVA did not admit female undergraduates until 1970 and only did so then because it was court mandated. In response to the “traditional sex stereotyping” female students continued to see in UVA classrooms, the Women’s Alliance demanded in 1977 that the university hire more female faculty members and create a women studies’ program. Even though radical feminists wanted to tear down institutions, their arguments did transform one institution, the university, from within. The UVA Women’s Center and the Women, Gender & Sexuality Program are the result of their efforts.

Women's Alliance Letter

The letter the Women’s Alliance sent to UVA President Hereford, regarding their petition for a women studies program, which reached nearly 3,000 signatures.  (RG-2/1/2.791)

“Sisters of the Press” may not be as powerful as Beyoncé standing in front of the word “feminist” at her concert, but it will remind of us of the women who were feminist before it was cool.

“Sisters of the Press” is on view through August 31st in the First Floor Gallery of the Harrison/Small Building. Come take a look!

This Just In: Problematic Provenance

My previous post on the acquisition of U.Va.’s first papyrus manuscript has been a popular one, made more so by a subsequent U.Va. news release. Two readers have since contacted me with a question unaddressed in the blog post and news release (the latter now amended): What is the document’s provenance, that is, its recent ownership history? This follow-up post seeks to summarize what little is known at this point about its provenance, acknowledge an error of judgment in this instance, and touch upon an important ethical issue concerning the antiquities trade.

P. Virginia 1, U.Va.'s first papyrus document, measures 16.5 x 8 cm. It was written in Greek, probably in Egypt during the 3rd century CE. Purchased on the Associates Endowment Fund.

P. Virginia 1, U.Va.’s first papyrus document, measures 16.5 x 8 cm. It was written in Greek, probably in Egypt during the 3rd century CE. Purchased on the Associates Endowment Fund.

UVa’s papyrus fragment was purchased at the March 19, 2015 public auction (lot 71) of Swann Galleries, a major New York auction house. The lot description offered no provenance information, nor (as is common in the auction trade) was the consignor identified. When the papyrus was unpacked at U.Va. on May 7, I saw on the glass mount, sealed with a distinctive “papyrus”-patterned tape, an identification label with the handwritten notation “M30305/2.” Neither feature had been visible in the cropped image accompanying the lot description. Was this a collection inventory number, or, more likely, a dealer or auction house number? I have since done what I should have done initially, prior to bidding, and that is to contact the auction gallery for all documentation the gallery and the consignor may have on the papyrus’s ownership over the last several decades. Swann Galleries has confirmed that the label bears its “internal cataloguing number.” Swann has also requested documentation from the consignor, “a dealer with whom we have done business on a number of occasions,” and we are awaiting a response.

So far my other efforts to trace this fragment to a known collection, to a previous auction or trade sale, or to other pieces have been fruitless. If readers have any knowledge of other papyrus documents in mounts sealed with the same tape (visible in the attached images), I would be grateful to hear from you.

Provenance is no small matter, for we want to avoid acquiring, whether through purchase or gift, collection items for which we do not have clear title. The matter is a complicated one, for we obtain a wide chronological and geographical range of materials, in a variety of formats, from many different sources. In the case of antiquities (and certain categories of books and manuscripts), provenance is paramount, for many countries now require a license for the export of such objects, or for export after a specified date from their country of origin.

The verso of P. Virginia 1 clearly shows the vertical papyrus strips which form the document's secondary layer. Additional lines of Greek text--perhaps docketing, or unrelated manuscript notes--are also visible.

The verso of P. Virginia 1 clearly shows the vertical papyrus strips which form the document’s secondary layer. Additional lines of Greek text–perhaps docketing, or unrelated manuscript notes–are also visible.

For papyrus documents of Egyptian origin, the primary statute is Egypt’s 1983 law on the protection of antiquities, which henceforth prohibited their export without a proper license. Many, of course, were exported before the law took effect. What if we cannot trace the document’s ownership prior to 1983? That would neither prove nor disprove that the papyrus was properly exported. Here, however, assuming proper export in the absence of contrary evidence is not sufficient, for ethically we would want assurance that U.Va. was not supporting, in even the smallest way, the illegal antiquities trade.

The situation could have been avoided, of course, had I sought provenance information prior to bidding; if the document’s history could not be verified earlier than 1983, there would be no point in bidding. To my regret, I did not. I am deeply indebted to the readers who have enlightened me by sharing information on what is apparently an active, illegal market in papyrus manuscripts, online and elsewhere, conducted by dealers outside the established antiquities and manuscripts trade channels. Accounts such as those posted by Brice Jones and Dorothy King present a disturbing picture of this market, which is likely replenished by continuing illegal exports and supported by buyers who neither demand full documentation, nor convey it to the next owner. Often the provenance information supplied is either insufficient or dubious.

It may take some time to complete our investigation into the document’s provenance and then settle on a course of action. Readers will receive an update in a future blog post.