sometime in november, my brother S called home and reported that he and his colleagues had been taken on a tour of the library of congress. as part of that tour, they had seen various rare books, including a first edition of some blake poetry and books exchanged between whitman and thoreau, among other things. ever since that conversation, i’ve been filled with booklust. there’s something magical about seeing books that old—books that would have been read by an author’s contemporaries; books that show me what the texts i love were like when they were originally published; books with the original supplementary marketing material inside their covers; books with interesting provenances.
when i went to d.c. for a friend’s wedding and S suggested he could set up an appointment at the library of congress for me to see some books, i immediately jumped at the opportunity. so the first day i was there, i made my list—whitman, thoreau, hawthorne, and dickinson from my American interests; eliot, collins, and charlotte bronte from my british interests—and S sent it off in an email asking if it was possible for us to visit the library the following monday. and within half an hour or so we had our answer: monday morning at 11:00 for a visit to the rare books and special collections room and to the manuscripts division.
so that monday morning, S and i made our way from his office through the network of tunnels that runs under capitol hill to the library of congress for our visit. we started in the rare books and special collections room, where we were shown into the rosenwald room to see the books they had pulled for me. the room was beautiful—the furniture, shelves, and décor an exact replica of the benefactor’s private library in his home, most of it in art deco style. we sat at a table and the librarian started a grown-up version of show-and-tell:
an original 1830 edition of the book of mormon. i have a replica of this book that my dad gave me, but i’d never stopped and looked at the note from joseph smith to the reader trying to explain the circumstances of the 116 pages lost and the various rumors spreading about him. looking at the original edition made me think about the contemporary readership of that book, which put the note in a context that made me take note. they also presented us with the title page and clerk’s record from an 1829 attempt to copyright the book. apparently there had been intentions to publish it in that year in a slightly larger format, but it never happened.
books exchanged between thoreau and whitman. thoreau paid a visit to whitman in 1856. during that visit, whitman presented thoreau with a copy of leaves of grass and thoreau gave whitman a copy of a week on the concord and merrimack rivers. whitman made a rather extensive note in the front flyleaf of the thoreau recording the visit and the exchange of books. the two books came to the library in two separate gifts and it was only discovered afterwards that they had been exchanged at that 1856 visit. i was a little surprised by the format of leaves of grass. i had been told in a seminar that it was a larger than normal book—something akin to a coffee table book—, but this book was the same size as all the others we saw. maybe my professor was referring to one of the many revised editions whitman published.
dickens’ walking stick with an ivory handle that had a dog’s head carved into it. apparently dickens carried this stick with him regularly. it was very short—probably for someone closer to 5’6 than my own 6’.
the first American edition of wilkie collins’ armadale, which included marketing material inside its front cover. they also had a copy of collins’ play the frozen deep. the cover page attributes it solely to Collins, but has dickens’ name inscribed in pencil below Collins. dickens was heavily involved in editing, writing, and producing the play.
a manuscript copy in kipling’s hand of the first chapter of the jungle book.
lewis carroll’s scrapbook from his college years, in which he collected clippings from newspapers and popular magazines.
a first edition of charlotte bronte’s Shirley. apparently the library doesn’t have much by bronte, which i suppose is not very surprising since she’s british rather than american. the librarian explained that most of the non-american items in rare books and special collections are at the library because they were originally collected and then left to the library by a prominent american.
a first edition of george eliot’s silas marner, which was a lovely example of a Victorian triple-decker.
hawthorne’s house of the seven gables, which i’ll likely be reading in the next few weeks.
poe’s “murder in the rue morgue” in pamphlet form, which left me wondering how most of his stories were originally published.
the first book of dickinson’s poetry published following her death (few of her poems were formally published during her life). i loved flipping through the book to see how mabel loomis todd (dickinson’s brother’s mistress) and thomas wentworth higginson (dickinson’s mentor) edited dickinson’s punctuation, capitalization, and rhyme schemes.
a 19th century American penny press literary newspaper which they just happened to be processing that morning in the rare books room.
after an hour spent perusing rare books, S and i and our host left the Jefferson building for the Madison building, which houses the library’s manuscripts division. we were met by the library’s literary manuscript historian, who took us into the manuscript “ranges” to see what the library had of dickinson, hawthorne, thoreau, and whitman’s manuscripts.
their holdings of dickinson, hawthorne, and thoreau are relatively minor, as most of those author’s original manuscripts are held in ivy league libraries in new england. however, they did have a handful of items for each—some random diplomatic records hawthorne kept while employed by the government; a short essay on education by thoreau, in which he calls for the government to provide universal education; a commonplace notebook in which thoreau recorded passages from books.
my favorite of the small collections was dickinson’s—unsurprising given my fascination with her. they weren’t original manuscripts; they were holograph images of four poems (one with an accompanying transcript) and a letter. but it was wonderful to see her poems in her own hand and to show S how she used dashes rather than standard punctuation and erratic capitalization in her handwritten manuscripts. and the letter had been written significantly earlier than the poems, so we could see the evolution of her handwriting (which is how they’ve dated her poems).
after seeing these small collections, ms. birney took us further into the manuscript ranges to look at the library’s much larger whitman manuscript collection. apparently they have received three or four gifts, leaving them with one of the largest (if not the largest) collections of whitman manuscripts.
she started by showing us manuscripts of several whitman poems, including his most famous poem “o captain! my captain!” which he wrote on the occasion of lincoln’s assassination. it was interesting to see multiple examples of whitman’s poetry, as “o captain! my captain!” differs rather drastically from the poetry he typically wrote in that it uses a fairly standard verse form and rhyme scheme. ms. birney also explained that whitman came to dislike that poem as he was always begged to recite it throughout the remainder of his life whenever he made public appearances.
as she showed us the poetry manuscripts, ms. birney called attention to whitman’s tendency to use any scrap of paper he could. for instance, one poem was originally written on the back of an envelope. she pointed out in one of his commonplace notebooks how he went back to the beginning of the book and wrote information in blank spaces—information dated much later than other information on the same page.
after showing us the samples of poetry and the commonplace notebook, ms. birney told us a tale of bibliographic intrigue. early in the 20th century—something in the twenties or thirties—the library received a gift that included 24 whitman notebooks. and a cardboard butterfly (more on that in a moment). during world war II, the notebooks (and the butterfly) were moved from the main library buildings to a military base for safety purposes. when they were brought back, ten of those 24 notebooks—and the cardboard butterfly—were missing. for more than 50 years those ten missing notebooks and the cardboard butterfly were the American manuscripts directors' mystery. the fbi even had a hand in the investigation.
until one day in the mid-90s when sotheby’s called the ms. birney and explained that they had some whitman notebooks to auction and they had reason to believe they were similar to notebooks once held by the library of congress—were they missing any? to which ms. birney responded: ‘yes, we’re missing ten notebooks and a cardboard butterfly.’ it was the cardboard butterfly that made the sotheby’s representative sure their four notebooks belonged to the library of congress. so ms. birney and the fbi agent made a trip to new york to bring the notebooks—and the butterfly—home.
she showed us one of the notebooks. it used to be called the ‘albot’ notebook, until they realized there was a ‘t’ in front of that. the ‘talbot’ notebook (if you're interested, you can flip through the entire notebook on the LoC webiste). the first few pages had been cut out. the edges of the pages that remained were lined with numbers, so scholars speculate that it had initially been used for bookkeeping. whitman, being a paper conservator (as most people at the time probably were), re-used the book. the early pages were fairly similar to those in the other commonplace notebook. notes jotted quickly. appointments. then he skipped a page or two (remember, he used paper so carefully that he wrote on the backs of envelopes). and after those blank pages came prose writing that was more philosophical and introspective. then two more blank pages. and after that—poetry. lines from ‘song of myself’ immediately recognizable to anyone who’s every spent much time with that poem. seeing those lines of poetry and recognizing them was a magical moment--understanding that this notebook contained the evolution of a brilliant man’s thought and style.
and then there was the cardboard butterfly. it was brilliantly colored on one side. and on the reverse there was an easter poem (not whitman’s). if you look closely at the butterfly, you’ll find a thin wire that runs through its body. that’s because whitman, being the rather eccentric man he was and being a bit obsessed with self-portraits, used the wire to attach the butterfly to his finger and pose for a picture.
my day in the library was wonderful. i couldn’t have asked for a better excursion. even if you can’t make private appointments to meet with librarians, take the time to go there next time you’re in d.c. the building and the public exhibits are well worth the visit.