In Touch with Literary History
PHILADELPHIA––It’s one thing to say the King James Bible is “weighty and authoritative,” and another to actually hold a first edition in your arms. Washington College English majors discovered this first hand October 2, during a field trip to the University of Pennsylvania Rare Book and Manuscript Library. Professor Elizabeth Foley O’Connor and Professor Courtney Rydel took 15 students from their James Joyce and Anglo-Saxon Language and Literature seminars to Philadelphia to see a range of archival material at both Penn and the Rosenbach Museum & Library of the Free Library of Philadelphia. The outing, funded through the generosity of the Ellen T. Thawley Fund, gave students the opportunity to actually touch and experience the history and literature they are studying in class.
At the Rosenbach, librarian Elizabeth Fuller walked the students through a range of Joycean archival material. The students saw Joyce’s hand-written manuscripts of several episodes of the novel, held a crumbling copy of the The Little Review that contained the confiscated “Nausicä” episode and perused novel proofs crammed with Joyce’s revisions. “I thought it was amazing to be able to see the first written manuscript of Joyce’s Ulysses,” said junior Kayla Kyle. “It gives us a lot of insight into how he wrote the novel just through being able to see his handwriting.”
A highlight of the visit for many students was a 1904 letter Joyce wrote to a friend and signed Stephen Dedalus, the name of an important character in both Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses. Echoing a common sentiment, junior Shelby Flippen noted, “It was really cool to see Joyce signing things in Stephen Dedalus’ name. For a moment, it was almost as though he really existed. In a way, he does since Joyce created him from his mind and assumes his identity at times.” The students also received a tour of the Rosenbach brothers’ library where they viewed a range of books, some more than 400 years old, and literary artifacts such as Joyce’s death mask.
Later in the day the students traveled to the Penn archives where they were able to look at a range of Modernist archival material. These literary treasures included hand-colored issues of Jack Yeats’s little magazine, A Broad Sheet (later titled A Broadside), volumes of poetry by J.M. Synge and William Butler Yeats that were hand published by the Dun Emer Press, and early editions of Ezra Pound’s poetry. Junior Sarah Mann was especially taken with the Broad Sheet editions. “We could see how they were printed and then the images were filled in with color by hand. There were multiple copies of some of the same ones, but the coloring on each was unique. It was interesting to see how poems and short stories were distributed during this time period.”
Library specialist John Pollack welcomed the Anglo-Saxon students with a brief lesson on archives and then invited them to start exploring the books—which included an English translation of the New Testament written by hand on parchment in the 1400s, a copy of the 9th century biography of King Alfred the Great printed in 1574 with Alfred’s own translations of texts into Anglo-Saxon, and the first printed edition of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle from 1692. The students were allowed to touch the books, turn their pages, and take photographs. “It really made me feel worthy that they trusted us to handle these books,” senior Meredith O’Connell remarked.
Students were able to identify familiar cities, rivers and sea monsters in the Map of Anglo-Saxon England, read the story of Cædmon creating the first English poem, and see for themselves how early punctuation developed. “I could have read those books for hours,” said Junior Meaghan Menzel. Her classmate Maria Come was grateful for the tactile experience the library provided. “When I was a kid I would go on field trips to DC and get in trouble for wanting to touch the chair that Thomas Jefferson sat in, so being allowed to actually touch the books is amazing,” she said. “It was inspiring to be around these smart people who still get excited about what they study.”
The visit culminated in a display of the 1461 Edward IV manuscript chronicle roll held at Penn. It was presented by expert Marie Turner, Ph.D. and elicited audible gasps of appreciation. This unique roll is 37 feet long and depicts in both text and pictures the story of the kings of England from their scriptural forebears Adam and Eve all the way to Edward IV. The quirky illustrations, use of gold leaf, and sheer scope of the chronicle roll made it a memorable sight. To students’ delight, Turner pointed out the portraits of King Arthur and King Lear, as well as the kings of Anglo-Saxon England they had just studied.