I will admit that I had an ulterior motive for attending the Beyond the Text: Literary Archives in the 21st Century symposium recently at Yale. I had never before been to the Beinecke.
The Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library of Yale University is a wonder. Completed in the 1960s, the building has a modern, geometric design. Within the translucent marble walls, the atmosphere is dim and hushed, as in a cathedral, yet in the center an enormous glass cube rises, rows upon rows of glorious old books enclosed within like candies behind a glass bakery case.
The Beinecke is one of the largest libraries of its kind in the world. The collections include two — count ‘em, two — Gutenberg Bibles, on display in large, glass cases on the mezzanine.
Also on permanent display are two enormous, gorgeously illustrated folios of Audubon’s Birds of America.
As if that wasn’t enough, during my visit there was an exhibition of manuscripts that included such treasures as John Keats’ handwritten sonnet in an 1814 copy of Dante’s The Vision; or, Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise; Goethe’s annotations in Faust II; Isaac Newton’s reading notes on alchemy, ca. 1700; a holograph draft of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence; proof sheets of James Joyce’s Anna Livia Plurabelle with handwritten corrections by Samuel Beckett; handwritten letters and postcards of Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Edith Wharton, Henry James, and Charlotte Bronte (two authentic; one forged); and the infamous Voynich Manuscript.
I was so grateful to see this suberb exhibit highlighting the many scholarly insights to be gained from manuscripts (the word “manuscript” deriving from the Latin “by hand”). The various drafts of a work illuminate the writer’s creative process; annotations in books offer glimpses into the writer’s thoughts; correspondence reveals friendship and love; the material elements of a document offer evidence of authenticity. The paper and penmanship alone lend an incredible, tactile element to a handwritten manuscript that nothing else can match.
Although the manuscript exhibition has now ended, there are other things going on this year, as the Beinecke celebrates its 50th anniversary! There is another exhibition on now until September 14th titled “Permanent Markers: Aspects of the History of Printing” that I would be sad to miss, and there are always online exhibits to check out as well. Visit the Beinecke website for all their upcoming exhibitions, programs and events.