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Shown here is a packet of seeds that Spencer wrote notes on and a copy of Dreer's Garden Book with an unpublished poem

Shown here is a packet of seeds that Spencer used to take notes  and a copy of Dreer’s Garden Book , open to  an unpublished poem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 annespencermuseum.com. To learn more about John M. Hall’s photography, please visit www.johnmhallphotographs.com.

On View Now: The Journeys of Vachel Lindsay

We are proud to announce the opening of our new First Floor exhibit, Troubadour, Vagabond, Visionary: The Journeys of Vachel Lindsay, curated by English graduate Student and Special Collections curatorial assistant Elizabeth Ott. Today on the blog, Elizabeth offers some reflections on the curatorial process in the following guest post. Thanks, Liz, and congratulations on your beautiful exhibition!

Poster design by Jeff Hill, U.Va. Library.

Poster design by Jeff Hill, U.Va. Library.

If there were a single collection in the Albert & Shirley Small Special Collections library that could represent all of the reasons special collections libraries exist, I think it would have to be the Vachel Lindsay Collection. Lindsay was an American poet of the early 20th century known for his tramping excursions of hundreds of miles across many states, when he traded poetry pamphlets and performances for food and lodging. He spent much of his life walking the lines between poet, painter, preacher, and philosopher. He’s exactly the kind of writer whose value to the history of literature is most easily lost in the ascetic pages of a Norton Anthology, where his booming vaudevillian voice, syncopated jazz rhythms, and elaborate tongue-in-cheek illustrations are reduced down to plain black ink on a white page.

Exhibition curator Elizabeth Ott and her supervisor, curator Molly Schwartzburg, installing Lindsay's bibles in the exhibition. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak)

Exhibition curator Elizabeth Ott and her supervisor, curator Molly Schwartzburg, installing Lindsay’s Bibles in the exhibition. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak)

To understand Vachel Lindsay, you need to see all his stuff. To understand Vachel Lindsay, you need to visit Special Collections. This is because the manuscripts, printed books, and other materials in the stacks of the Small Library tell a vibrant story, one that casts Lindsay in a kaleidoscopic light of colors and shades, speaking of a rich artistic career. Enterprising, energetic, and prolific, Lindsay traveled America as a self-styled troubadour, distributed art and ideas with an earnest faith in the twin powers of Beauty and Art, and made a name for himself reclaiming poetry as the province of performance. The Vachel Lindsay Collection is wildly eclectic, encompassing everything from oil paintings and cherished slippers to folksy illustrated pamphlets and the blocks used to print them.

One of Vachel Lindsay's Bibles, inscribed with his elegant script, ready to be installed in the exhibition. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak)

One of Vachel Lindsay’s Bibles, inscribed with his elegant script, ready to be installed in the exhibition. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak)

Because of Lindsay’s broad interests and the great scope of the collection, deciding what aspect of Lindsay’s career to exhibit was no small task. I wanted to showcase the range of his work while at the same time giving a sense of just how much he dovetailed with the intellectual and artistic concerns of his day. To me, Lindsay seemed so much a part of the American landscape—an America still in the process of building an identity. Lindsay, like many American poets, looked back to create something unique and new, breaking from tradition by invoking an almost transcendental link to a mythic and stylized past.

The exhibition installation process continues. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak)

The exhibition installation process continues. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak)

The decision to focus the exhibition on Lindsay’s journeys, both literal and figurative, grew out of two maps that now hang in the first case of the exhibition. Both maps are fairly ordinary, save that Lindsay has embellished both, labeling them with paint and pen. The first records his tramping journeys between 1904 and 1916. The second divides the country into regions of Lindsay’s devising, with his characteristic penchant for the symbolic over the literal. I wanted to tell the story of these two maps, of Lindsay’s actual treks across the United States, but also of his visions of the journey America, as a country, was to undertake.

Elizabeth supervises Molly as she levels one of Lindsay's maps. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak)

Elizabeth supervises Molly as she levels one of Lindsay’s maps. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak)

The resulting exhibition thus tells two stories. The first is the story of what Vachel Lindsay means to America—how his tramping journeys presaged the hobo culture of the 1920s and 30s and influenced generations of poets who drew inspiration from folk culture. The second is the story of what America meant to Vachel Lindsay, his mythopoeic universe with Springfield, Illinois (his hometown) at the center. Though this exhibition barely scratches the surface of his fascinating life and work, it samples a great range of the materials that survive in the Vachel Lindsay Collection, testifying to the life and works of this now obscure but enduringly influential American poet.

Elizabeth puts the finishing touches on her exhibition. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak)

Elizabeth puts the finishing touches on her exhibition. (Photo by Sanjay Suchak)

Where’s Waldo?

This week, we are pleased to feature a guest post by Special Collections Public Services Assistant Ethan King, who is studying for his M.A. in the U.Va. Department of English.

A brash and turbulent man, a vigorous and luminous artist, Waldo Peirce was a striking figure, his imposing physique matching his powerful personality. Husky, bearded, a football player, an actor, a fisherman, an aspiring poet, and a prolific painter, Waldo Peirce was a jack-of-all-trades, and he was able to rival his variegated skill-set with a penchant for captivating a room with lewd stories and with the formidable ardor with which he lived his life. Yet he has not attained the notability equal to his person and his work.

Waldo Pierce, unidentified photographer. (MSS 8402, Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature. Image by Ethan King)

Waldo Pierce (undated, photographer not identified). (MSS 8402, Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature. Image by Ethan King)

Waldo Peirce with unidentified man (photographer not identified). The writing reads "How about a man who never totes a gun?" (MSS 8402, Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature. Image by Ethan King)

Waldo Peirce with unidentified man (undated, photographer not identified). The writing reads “How about a man who never totes a gun?” (MSS 8402, Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature. Image by Ethan King)

After his dazzling canvases found their way into leading museums when he was a young man, his artistic successes began to wane. After his death, he was all but forgotten in the annals of art history, and he was similarly reduced to a mere colorful figure alongside his much more accomplished friends—Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, James Joyce, and Gertrude Stein, among others. Peirce’s story is one of gruff eclecticism and shining vivacity in a burgeoning world of modernist art. One need only to rifle through his letters and his one published text, Unser Kent, to get a sense of this man and his life.

The Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library holds correspondence between Peirce and Harry Salpeter, an editor and writer for Esquire Magazine in the 1930s. Though the correspondence begins under the auspices of an article (“Rabelais in a Smock”) to be published in a July issue of the magazine in 1936, the letters reveal the evolution of an impersonal, working relationship into a genuine friendship in which Salpeter becomes for Peirce a family friend and a sort of artistic confidant. Stretching from the spring of 1936 to the fall of the same year, these letters highlight Peirce’s episodic life, his artistic vision, and his bawdy poetry.

Peirce begins his correspondence with Salpeter by sharing various anecdotes from his life abroad, writing in a strong but fluid style, evocative of the way he could control a room. These anecdotes range in topic from his brief acting career in a Tex Ingram film, for which he was paid in lobster; baseball and football games between his team of painters and sculptors and a team of “jockeys, international crooks, barflies etc” (TLS, 4 May 1936); his capture of a giant sea turtle with Ernest Hemingway during one of their fishing trips in Key West; his trading of girlfriends with John Reed, the American communist activist; and his inspiring a story of Hemingway’s by “grabb[ing] a town pimp by the ear,” and using the man’s body as a weapon (TLS, 25 April 1936). Reflecting upon these anecdotes, Peirce writes, “These episodes are all pretty good stories in themselves rather than just references to the eccentricity of the artist as a young man etc.. they are much more fun to live than to write hence it usually takes an outsider to do the chronicling etc” (TLS, 2 May 1936). In having Salpeter compile these stories, Peirce allows him to have control over the framing of the article, abdicating himself of biased narrativization. He writes, “I hope I dont appear as one of those .. ‘Go ahead and write yr own stuff’ etc and then begin to carp later. After all youre writing for the oaf publico and if you msut seperate the chafe from the groin etc give em the groin every time” (TLS, 29 April 1936).

This last quotation reveals not only his unabashed deferral of authorial control to Salpeter and his ribald humor, but also his characteristic writing style—rife with ellipses, et ceteras, misspellings, and lack of punctuation. Peirce champions this style as an almost Joycean linguistic play: “God knows how many mistakes in spelling I make.. especially on the machine.. where I don’t aleays hit the right letter. Sometimes fine new words are born this way” (TLS, 29 April 1936).

This type of organic and creative spontaneity bleeds into his work. Often ending his letters, “I must quit and get to work,” a refrain that attests to his artistic diligence (TLS, 19 June 36), Peirce exemplifies the artist working in the throes of passion, constantly working himself into a frenzied rhythm more in the manner of Van Gogh than of Cézanne. His spontaneous retreats into his studio produced an incredible breadth of Impressionist paintings, whose subjects varied from sensuously colored landscapes to captivating sweeps of ordinary life. The circulation of his artwork was equally impulsive, as he would consistently shed his paintings and sketches wherever he went, giving them to friends, family, and acquaintances, and even one time burning them. Special Collections houses two stunning original watercolors of Peirce’s, which belonged to his friend John Dos Passos.

Special Collections also possesses one of only eighty-five copies printed of Peirce’s Unser Kent, a satirical and lusty poem about fellow artist Rockwell Kent (our copy once belonged to the famous book designer Merle Armitage). Intended to be recited to the music of Schubert’s “Der Erlkönig,” Peirce’s Byronic poem unfurls a euphemistic story of a man playing his flute. The frontispiece, done by Kent, shows an Olympian Peirce sitting above a group of fawning nymphs, reading his poem from a scroll that is generated from, of course, his groin. Hilariously dirty couplets abound in the poem, such as “He flutes through the fiercest wind that blows/ Arousing the unborn embryos,” “He fluted venereal legacies so/ That syphilis turned to a pleasant glow,” and “He leapt all frontiers a-waving his phallus/ Fluting Deutschland über alles.” This was not the only bawdy verse Peirce penned. Rather, it was the only one printed, for he alludes to more to Salpeter:

I got an epissel from Gingrich asking for my lyric effusions even if they werent printable for his own indulgence tho he’d like em printable mebbe. As you have been my officill hornblower as pote etc I think I’d better send [them] to you first for censorship.. I am scared of editors especially as most of my buffooneries are dam personal..the rhymes etc built around the actual names etc. these can be changed to a certain degree I suppose if by chance there were something he wanted. I dont know about sending too bawdy stuff through the mail etc. (TLS, 26 May 36)

However, the only poetry he seems to have shared with Salpeter is Peirce’s translation of Baudelaire. Yet in this moment, Peirce exhibits an intimate vulnerability and self-deprecation regarding his writing. Who knows, then, if Peirce’s inability to publish another poem or book of poems was a result of their lewd content or of his anxieties about publishing personal material.

So, what are we to make of Waldo Peirce, the enigmatic figure who maximized his artistic output all the while engaging in sport, film-acting, and rugged fishing excursions? His letters exude an infectious bravado; his vivid and daring artistic processes and productions bespeak an inexorable passion for the artistic life; and his jocular poetry radiates a captivating sense of humor and a keen eye for satire. All of these things showcase his wide skill set and seem to indicate that he was popular among an extremely popular group of artist friends. So then, when we look into the canon of established modernist artists, we must ask, “Where’s Waldo?”

This Just In: “Billy” Cook’s Verse Chapbooks

Front cover of Cook's Fremont: a poem (Salem, Mass., 1856) bound with The Eucleia (Salem, Mass., ca. 1865) (PS1378 .C7 1865; Robert & Virginia Tunstall Trust Fund)

Front cover of Cook’s Fremont: a poem (Salem, Mass., 1856) bound with The Eucleia (Salem, Mass., ca. 1865) (PS1378 .C7 1865; Robert & Virginia Tunstall Trust Fund)

Special Collections is world renowned for its printed and manuscript holdings of American literature, amassed through purchase, gift, and the happy receipt of several substantial collections, most notably the Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature. Deposited at the University of Virginia Library in 1960 and gradually given to the Library over the next three decades, the 250,000-item collection comprehensively surveys American literature in all genres from ca. 1775 to 1950. On its arrival the Barrett Library was rather awkwardly arranged in terms of “major” and “minor” authors—distinctions which of course lose meaning as literary reputations wax and wane and as scholarly interests shift.

Title page verso to William Cook, the Eucleia: works (Salem, Mass., ca. 1865)

Title page verso to William Cook, The Eucleia: works (Salem, Mass., ca. 1865) (PS1378 .C7 1865; Robert & Virginia Tunstall Trust Fund)

This week’s post highlights one of these “minor” authors—William “Billy” Cook—whose work deserves wider recognition.  The son of a ship captain and a lifelong resident of Salem, Mass., Cook (1807-1876) studied at Yale before his ambitions were checked by physical and mental illness. Back in Salem he conducted a private school for some years, where his students studied Latin, Greek, and mathematics (at which Cook excelled). He also studied for the ministry and conducted religious services at his home, though Cook never advanced beyond the rank of deacon. Beloved for his eccentricities and known locally as “Reverend,” Cook was for decades a fixture of Salem life.

Back cover of Cook's The Ploughboy, part third (Salem, Mass., 1855) and front cover of his The Telegraph, or Starr-banner song (Salem, Mass., 1856); both bound with The Eucleia (Salem, Mass., ca. 1865) (PS1378 .C7 1865; Robert & Virginia Tunstall Trust Fund)

Back cover of Cook’s The Ploughboy, part third (Salem, Mass., 1855) and front cover of his The Telegraph, or Star-banner song (Salem, Mass., 1856); both bound with The Eucleia (Salem, Mass., ca. 1865) (PS1378 .C7 1865; Robert & Virginia Tunstall Trust Fund)

Finding himself jointly summoned in the early 1850s by the Muses of Poetry and Art, Cook began composing verse in which Salem and its residents, contemporary political events and figures, and various philosophical themes loomed large. Unable to afford the services of a commercial printer, Cook salvaged some worn type and a small cast-off jobbing press from a local newspaper office. With this equipment Cook could print only a page or two at a time, but time was a commodity he had in abundance. Over the next two decades Cook issued nearly 50 broadsides and poetry chapbooks, the latter hand-stitched by Cook in printed wrappers or bound in decorated cloth covers. Many were illustrated with Cook’s charming woodcut illustrations, which were typically heightened with pencil (mostly to correct uneven inking) and sometimes in colors. Because Cook often assembled and hand-bound his chapbooks in customized collections, his works exist in many variants.

Many of Cook's woodcut illustrations (this one heightened with pencil) are useful contemporary depictions of Salem street scenes, such as this view of Liberty Street.  William Cook, The Columbia (Salem, Mass., 1863) (Barrett PS586 .Z93 C673 C6 1863)

Many of Cook’s woodcut illustrations (this one heightened with pencil) are contemporary depictions of Salem street scenes, such as this view of Liberty Street. William Cook, The Columbia (Salem, Mass., 1863) (Barrett PS586 .Z93 C673 C6 1863)

Strictly speaking, one might classify Cook’s works as examples of “mendicant verse,” a not uncommon sub-genre of 19th-century American minor poetry. Cook supplemented his modest income by peddling these chapbooks on Salem’s streets and to the increasing number of visitors who sought out his singular company. Late in life Cook took up painting, establishing a gallery in his home on Charter Street which attracted a new generation of visitors and chapbook purchasers. Although it would be stretching a point considerably to compare him with, say, William Blake, Cook is undeniably a fascinating practitioner of “folk” or “outsider” art.

Frotn cover of Cook's The Columbia (Salem, Mass., 1863) (Barrett PS586 .Z93 .C673 C6 1863)

Frotn cover of Cook’s The Columbia (Salem, Mass., 1863) (Barrett PS586 .Z93 .C673 C6 1863)

At one time it was not hard to find Cook’s ephemeral publications in New England, but today these are rarely encountered. Until recently the Clifton Waller Barrett Library could boast of holding only 13 Cook chapbooks. Now we have added ten more, increasing our holdings to approximately half of Cook’s recorded oeuvre. Fortuitously, all ten are gathered in one of Cook’s nonce collections, entitled The Eucleia with special added title page, hand bound by Cook in a remnant of striped cloth with woodcut title block stamped on the front cover. As far as we can tell, nothing has been written about Cook since 1924, when Lawrence W. Jenkins’s short article and checklist appeared in the Proceedings of the American Antiquarian Society. Perhaps by having now gone “under Grounds,” Billy Cook will soon receive the attention he deserves.

Front cover of William Cook's nonce collection of some of his works, The Eucleia: works (Salem, Mass., this copy assembled ca. 1865)

Front cover of a William Cook nonce collection containing ten chapbooks, The Eucleia: works (Salem, Mass., this copy assembled ca. 1865). Cook bound this copy in a “publisher’s binding” covered in a striped cloth remnant with woodcut title stamped in red. (PS1378 .C7 1865; Robert & Virginia Tunstall Trust Fund)

Walter Whitman, before Leaves of Grass

This week, we feature a guest post from Special Collections staff member George Riser:

When Walt Whitman released his ‘idiomatic book of my land’ in 1855, he was thirty-six years old. Leaves of Grass, then twelve untitled poems in free style verse, was fully the work of an author who financed the printing, assisted in the typesetting, designed the extravagant cover, and acted as publisher and salesman. Though praised by Ralph Waldo Emerson in a private letter–“I greet you at the beginning of a great career”–the poems initially bewildered or shocked most early readers, not only in their lack of conventional rhyme and meter, but also in their use “of language and subject matter so coarse and crude as to be not fit for a mixed audience” (Charles Eliot Norton, Putnam’s Monthly: A Magazine of Literature, Science, and Arts, 6 September 1855).  Not all of the critics were so kind. Rufus Griswold in his review in Criterion in November 1855 wrote, “as to the volume itself…it is impossible to imagine how any man’s fancy could have conceived such a mass of stupid filth unless he were possessed of the soul of a sentimental donkey that had died of disappointed love” (Oddly, one of our Library’s copies of the first printings is a presentation to Rufus Griswold). Charles A. Dana, writing in the July issue of The New York Daily Tribune, notes “the poems certainly original in their external form, have been shaped on no pre-existent model out of the author’s own brain. Indeed, his independence often becomes coarse and defiant. His language is too frequently reckless and indecent.”

Can a work of art as original as Leaves of Grass spring out of “no pre-existent model,” simply from “the author’s own brain?” Our library holds twenty-five items that pre-date the first printing of Leaves of Grass in 1855. A look at this publication history can give, in many cases, insight into the genesis of the wild, innovative poems that formed the then revolutionary book of poems.

Whitman’s first published piece, “Death in the School-Room” appeared in The Democratic Review in August 1841. Written when Whitman was 21, the story drew on his experience as an itinerant teacher and was an indictment of what he called “the old-fashioned school-masters with their reliance on discipline and corporal punishment.”

Front cover of The United States Magazine and Democratic Review, (December 1841), which featured Whitman’s story “Bervance: or, Father and Son.” (PS3222 .B47 1841, Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature. Photo by Molly Schwartzburg.)

An early poem, “Death of the Nature-Lover,” appearing in Brother Jonathan in March 1843, and attributed to Walter Whitman, uses a strict meter and rhyme, though it employs Whitmanesque themes:

Not in a gorgeous hall of pride

Where tears fall thick, and loved ones sigh,

Wished he, when the dark hour approached

To drop his veil of flesh and die.

The title page from Brother Jonathan, (New York, N.Y.: March 11, 1843) featuring Whitman’s poem, “Death of the Nature-Lover.” (PS3222 .D45 1843, Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature. Photo by Molly Schwartzburg.)

Whitman worked for many of the serial publications that printed his early work, usually as compositor, pressman, or editor, including a stint with John Neal, publisher of Brother Jonathan. Neal, a popular novelist of the time, wrote in his 1823 novel, Randolph, “I do, in my heart, believe we shall live to see poetry done away with–the poetry of form I mean–of rhyme, measure, and cadence.…poetry will disencumber itself of rhyme and measure and talk in prose–with a sort of rhythm, I admit,” lines that Whitman seemingly took to heart.

Whitman’s “Death of the Nature-Lover” as it appeared in Brother Jonathan, above. (Photo by Molly Schwartzburg.)

Ralph Waldo Emerson contributed to many of the same publications as Whitman, and called upon American writers to “strike an original relation with the universe.’”Whitman took heed, writing, ‘”I was simmering, simmering, simmering; Emerson brought me to a boil.”

Whitman also worked for and contributed to The Broadway Journal at the time it was owned and edited by Edgar Allan Poe. The 29 November 1845 issue features a piece by Whitman, “Art-singing and Heart-singing,” that gives credit to a popular, though low, American singing style. In the November 20 issue of the same year, Poe responding to criticisms of a recent poetry reading, takes issue with a number of critics (to one: “we advise her to get drunk, too, and as soon as possible—for when sober she is a disgrace to her sex—on account of being so awfully stupid”), and ends with “a note to correspondents – ‘Many thanks to W.W.’”  Whitman may have learned a lesson in withstanding critical condemnation from Poe, who spent his editorial career inviting invective.

The opening lines of Whitman’s essay, “Art-Singing and Heart-Singing,” printed in The Broadway Journal, (November 29, 1845). This issue was edited by Edgar Allen Poe. (PS3222 .A7 1845, Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature. Photo  by Molly Schwartzburg.)

Poe thanks correspondents for their assistance in his “Editorial Miscellany,’ for The Broadway Journal issue, (November 22, 1845), including ‘W.W.,’ purportedly Walt Whitman. (PS3222 .A7 1845, Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature. Photo by Molly Schwartzburg.)


Poe and Whitman were linked more than once in professional publications. In this image, we see editor Thomas Dunn English thank collaborators, including Edgar A. Poe and Walter Whitman, in the opening pages of the March 1845 issue of The Aristidean. (A 1846 .A75, Tracy W. McGregor Library of American History. Photo by Molly Schwartzburg.)

In 1942, Whitman published his only full length novel, Franklin Evans or The Inebriate: A Tale of the Times in Park Benjamin’s paper, The New World. Franklin Evans was a novel of temperance that was an embarrassment to Whitman in his old age, but reflected an early concern for alcoholism, which may have affected his father and his brother-in-law. It is also a theme that appears in later editions of Leaves of Grass, though lacking the sensationalist style popular at that time.

The front cover of The New World (New York, N.Y.: 1842) featuring the first printing of Walt Whitman’s Franklin Evans; or, The Inebriate. A Tale of the Times. (PS3222 .F7 1842, Clifton Waller Barrett Library of American Literature. Photo by Molly Schwartzburg.)

These are but a few examples of Whitman’s early writings that can give insight into the origins of the remarkable book of poems, Leaves of Grass.

In closing, we include a passage from that volume’s first edition, and one last contemporary commentary:

Walt Whitman, an American, one of the roughs, a kosmos, disorderly, fleshly, and sensual, no sentimentalist, no stander above men or women or apart from them, no more modest than immodest…

–Leaves of Grass

Walt Whitman is a printer by trade, whose punctuation is as loose as his morality, and who no more minds his ems than his p’s and q’s.

–Anonymous from The Washington Daily National Intelligencer, (18 February 1856)


This Just In: An Artist’s Book from CODEX

In mid-February, I took a trip out to the San Francisco Bay Area to attend the biennial Codex International Book Fair, which began in 2007 and has emerged as the premier venue for artists, printers, and dealers to display and sell artists’ books, fine press editions, and book art, with a particular emphasis on fine limited editions. Held this year at the beautiful Craneway Pavilion in Richmond, which overlooks the San Francisco Bay, the fair was a light-filled, dazzling display of creative production and craftsmanship. This new venue was necessitated by the growing number of visitors and exhibitors at the last fair. If, as they say, the book is a dying medium, “they” haven’t seen the diverse productions of book artists in recent decades, nor have they observed the increasing visibility of artists’ books beyond the small world of book artists and collectors.

Looking down on the Codex booths and buyers. (Photo by Molly Schwartzburg)

I went to the fair seeking items that would help us expand Special Collections’ already robust and diverse collection of artists’ books and fine press editions, which are used widely in teaching by academic and Rare Book School faculty alike. I left having met dozens of artists, printers, and publishers from around the world, and waited eagerly for the arrival of my various purchases for the collection.

A great artist’s book is like a great poem. When you read such a poem the first time, you see it whole, appreciate its beauty and formal sophistication, grasp it fully on some level. When you reread it, you suddenly find that you do not understand it at all, and you’re not even sure what questions you need to ask of the poem before you can begin to understand it again. The deep pleasure that poetry brings me begins when I start formulating these questions, and it does not end until I must put down the poem to go wash the dishes or answer my email. It is this type of engagement I seek when I am selecting artists’ books for the collection.

I had this kind of experience when I came across the elegant Spandrel, a collaboration between Frank Giampietro and Denise Bookwalter, published by Small Craft Advisory Press at Florida State University, which had a booth at the fair:

The front cover of Spandrel. The book is very thick and has the appearance of great heft, but is surprisingly light when you pick it up. This is due to the cut interior and the Hosho paper, which is thick and fluffy. (Photo by Molly Schwartzburg)

The title is an architectural term that refers to the empty space at the side of an arch (I can’t seem to explain this in words–I recommend that you Google it!). The press provides an excellent description of the book’s form: “Spandrel uses traditional and non-traditional processes to play with the reading of a poem.  One poem is on the first page and slowly transforms through the 150 pages into the second poem, which is on the last page.  In the middle of the book the text is unreadable but as the viewer nears the end the text comes back into focus.”

What this description doesn’t note is that none of this is printed: the text is an absence, cut out of the book with a laser, its font like a stencil. The shadows produced by the stacks of slowly shifting cuts on subsequent pages produces the visible text:

The first page of the text proper. (Photo by Molly Schwartzburg)

A detail view of two words on the first page of the book reveals the edges of cuts below. (Photo by Molly Schwartzburg)

The laser printing very slightly singes the page, producing a tinge of brown around each letter. Near parallels between the text of the poem and the form of the book begin to emerge as one considers the opening page: the singed pages and “roasted almonds” share the same color. The receding darkness behind each cut on the page seems somehow connected to the “dark cabinet.” There are disjunctions too: laser cutting is a relatively new technology associated with high-tech industry, while mason jars evoke homemade preserves. But this jar doesn’t hold preserves, just as this book doesn’t hold printing. Both hold something singed by heat. There is a sort of symmetry here.

But what happens next is more interesting. Looking at the first page, one might imagine that the entire text block (the “stack” of all of the book’s pages), was laser cut in one step. Page after page, the same poem appears again and again, but soon, it begins to shift slightly, and then more, until it moves towards illegibility and then back to legibility. Each page is cut separately from a series of digitally generated tempates:

Photo by Molly Schwartzburg

Photo by Molly Schwartzburg

Photo by Molly Schwartzburg

In the final pages, the text becomes clearer and clearer, and lighter and lighter, as there are fewer shadows to define the text. It finally resolves into this chilling poem, which takes more effort to read than the first one did:

Photo by Molly Schwartzburg

The image of domestic comfort in the opening poem is replaced by one of urban violence in the latter: ball-peen hammers are a dangerous weapon. The poem’s opening symbol of happiness–whole almonds protected in a clear jar inside a closed cupboard inside a home–is replaced by an image of the layers of someone’s skin, then skull, then brain being violently broken, shattered, and compressed respectively by a heavy blow. The lack of human actors in the first poem suddenly becomes apparent.

The second poem seeks actively to shock: mason jars are replaced by snot, and the strange elegance of the opening page is utterly lost.The reader begins shifting back and forth between the two poems, seeking to understand the differences between them, the justification for their juxtaposition, the physical location in which one word or phrase replaces another. I find my own mind running down multiple interpretive paths: which wins out in this book, happiness or the social self? What would happen if the two poems traded places, and it began with the social self and ended with happiness?  Once I come to the word “ball peen” this suddenly seems to be a book about a man, since I only associate this kind of violence with men. Is he the subject of both poems? Is there a woman in the domestic space of the kitchen? And why are there almonds in the jar instead of preserves? And while I’m at it, what does any of this have to do with spandrels? It has something to do with empty spaces, with round holes produced by a hammer, with jars, cupboards. With absence–an empty house with an empty space in a cupboard, and a “social self” who experiences only violence. What lesson am I to learn from all of this? What is the poet  telling me? What is the book telling me?

There are likely no clear answers to these questions; the two poems are not entirely symmetrical, do not have some kind of straightforward causal relationship. If they did, the book would fail because it would be clever, even smug. Instead, its mysterious, discomfitting texts and physical form together produce a fertile space for contemplating the poetry, heightening the reader’s capacity to observe the very specific elements of sentences, phrases, and lines. It is a dazzling example of the productive relationship that can exist between a book and its contents.

This is just one of the many wonderful items found at the fair. Too bad I have to wait two years for the next one!

If you get overwhelmed looking at books at Codex, step just outside and take in the view. The Bay Bridge may be seen on the left. (Photo by Molly Schwartzburg)