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What an Attic!
“Things” is not a tribute to a literary or historical figure, an anniversary talk, or a revisionist view. The exhibition is of things a library collects, things that accrue to a library rather than what its representatives actively seek for it. I think it proves a point: Institutions have a life of their own, and great institutions have a very full, willful, and sometimes unexpected life.
Leibniz, advising Peter the Great on what and how to collect, emphasized the pleasures of plenitude and scope:
Connoisseurs who assembled “cabinets” in the 18th century and earlier had standards, tastes, and organization systems different from our own. They wanted to serve the curiosity of mankind, but in doing so they wanted to omit nothing, even if the immediate use for which a particular object was saved might be unknown at the time. Twentieth-century librarians have become more systematic, but they have never lost that first lovely agnosticism which holds that they (or their system) might not yet know everything, might not yet know the use, the beauty, or the delight that this thing might offer.
This exhibition had its inception in 1956, when Donald Gallup and I put together in the Sterling Library near the old Rare Book Room an exhibition of objects for a staff holiday party. Many things that were in those cases are in this show, although I lament several that couldn’t be found: a bit of submarine cable cut “under galling fire” in Cienfugos, Cuba, during the Spanish-American War; a piece of shrapnel that hit Evarts Tracy’s tin hat in World War I; and William Howard Taft’s underpants, removed from his massive person during a freshman rush.
Some of these things were acquired by omnivorous collectors because they couldn’t stop themselves. Some were stolen from Yale by undergraduates who, later growing remorseful as alumni, eventually gave them back. Only God knows how some of these things got here. But here they are: hair, apparel, crockery shards saved from a dish-throwing riot in Commons, jewelry (a cameo belonging to George Eliot), weaponry, pieces of the True Cross (of whatever religious persuasion), scraps of flags, splinters of ironclads, a feather of a pet parrot, pictures of pets, banners and chairs and trowels, Walt Whitman’s last spectacles, bricks and pieces of bricks, dental casts, and rubber fingertips. A piece of the bullet that killed Lord Nelson. A pie plate from the Frisbee Bakery of New Haven, later remade in a commercial form as the Frisbee to become even more powerful than the hula hoop in our culture. A fragment of the Haymarket Bomb. Awards for this, for that, for the other: Medals of Freedom, a watch given by a czar to a tenor, another given by an orchestra to a pianist. A bronzed baby shoe. Pull toys.
These things tend to be hard to find on the shelves; their cataloging is less sure than that of books, because, hard to classify, they are even harder to shelve. Sterling Memorial Library’s Department of Manuscripts and Archives (from whose hoard much of the exhibition is drawn) has a system based on a classification of things somewhat surer than the way much of the Beinecke material is stashed. A show like this depends on the collective memory of a dozen curators and past curators, but it still necessitates a lot of list-reading and catalog-card turning. One object I never would have found had I not read lists was “Snuffbox with names of students (1861–2) stolen from an instructor in the President’s Lecture Room by a Freshman [William H. Sagel, Class of 1865]. It was a device for calling men up to recite. By picking a man’s [name] out of the box the instructor established a random method for recitations. The students preferred a predicted responsibility.’ (Or, rather, a predictable one.)
Such things sit in our wondering gaze (and later in our belief) like flies in amber, or, to select an object from the show to use as metaphor, like a baby shoe in bronze—the one in the show fit the daughter of Peter Newell, author of The Hole Book and The Slant Book. I always thought the fad for having infant footgear bronzed reached its apex in the 1940s. Yet this metal bootie could be dated no later than 1891. That Gertrude Stein wore waistcoats I suppose we were all dimly aware. That they were as lovely as the waistcoats in the exhibition perhaps we didn’t realize.
We are not prepared for the sentiment that some keepsakes arouse, even if we did not ourselves put them aside. Some of these things, before they ended up at Yale, were sought after and acquired by somebody. Collectors intent on finding and keeping every scrap of an author’s literary canon, or hot on the traces of a historical figure’s spoor, found they could not resist some piece of reality—call it a piece of the True Cross, or three-dimensional hard-stuff. Collectors want first-class relics but will take almost any class of relic they are offered. Relatives, cleaning house after a famous or near-famous death, cannot bear to throw out his glasses, her wedding dress, this mailing tube that once held his honorary degree from Princeton, so they phone up Yale or just send it along. Graduates when dining out hear about some piece of historical detritus and of course feel Yale must have it. (“They never had anything that wonderful when I was at Yale.”) Distinguished visitors to Woodbridge Hall bring formal gifts to the President of the University, and he (either because he remembers the rule of the U.S. Congress that a gift must be returned unless it can be drunk, smoked, or used up in one day, or because he wants to find somebody else to cherish it) sees to it that it is sent to the Beinecke or to Manuscripts and Archives with a nice note. Or they get it by transfer from another library. Public collections are like surviving relatives: In deaccessioning this flag or that bust they think which ought to be the next institution to cherish it. Yale often fills the bill.
High on the list of relics in this exhibition is hair—Alfred Lord Tennyson’s and Lady Tennyson’s (snipped on their wedding day), John Keats’s, a lock of Lord Byron’s owned by the Elizabethan Club. Indeed, of Yale’s superior collection of hair it is difficult to say enough. It falls readily into categories: most disgusting, that of Major John André, the British spy whose corpse was dug up 40 years after his burial and a hank of his hair sent by his son to Benjamin Silliman, the youngest man ever to attain the full professorate at Yale. The lock of Napoleon’s hair was taken from his corpse and bound by Sangorski and Sutcliffe into a volume of St. Helena memoirs.
Hair, even bought hair, has status similar to that of a first-class relic: a piece of a saint. Things that could not rise to first- or second-class relic status, or rather things that had been denied the newly magical touch of a deceased blessed by one or another Muse, were nevertheless gathered by enthusiasts because of “associative value.” By touching such artifacts one might somehow come closer to past greatness. These things were sometimes little removed from souvenir-shop horrors. It has been said, perhaps hyperbolically, that there are enough fragments of the True Cross to build a new ark for Noah, but think of the souvenir barrels made of the oak from Lord Nelson’s flagship HMS Victory, turned out anew every time an old timber of the creaking antique is replicated by a new one: the rotting timber is not carted away but sent to the lathe to be made into little barrels for Americans (in many ways the modern equivalent of earnest Victorians) to cart home with them.
One rule for this exhibition from the outset was that what forms the bulk of most other exhibitions at the Beinecke—words, or rather, things with words on them, pictures that are documents—would have to be eliminated. Such an attempt to remove the literal from a collection that embraces the literal is not easy and was, of course, not entirely successful; a few words remain in the show. There is still a sign from the days of compulsory chapel, an ambulance certificate for Gertrude Stein and Alice Toklas, a desperate message written on cigarette paper by “Chinese” Gordon when he was besieged at Khartoum (from Robert Louis Stevenson’s collection), a photo album put together by a doomed Czarina, and autobiographical drawings of the great Lakota warrior Sitting Bull.
And musical memorabilia—enough to make a rhythm band for the largest kindergarten: Stevenson’s flageolet, an African drum from Carl Van Vechten, a tambourine signed by Langston Hughes, Arthur Ficke’s harmonica, Eddie Wittstein’s megaphone, and literally thousands of Benny Goodman’s cast-off clarinet reeds.
But these are at least whole things. Much of the exhibition consists of bits, fragments, splinters. Apparently fragmentizing, morsellating, and pulverizing the whole objects from which the relics came did nothing to reduce their power to fascinate, inspire, or incite, at least in the eyes of collectors or scavengers. In some cases, the more appropriate verb is to hypnotize, sometimes to fascinate and hypnotize, with posterity finding itself trapped like a vagrant deer in the glare of these peculiar headlights out of the past.
There is a piece of Napoleon’s carriage, a wooden fragment of the confederate ironclad Virginia, two pieces of Henry David Thoreau’s cabin at Walden, a piece of the rafter from the blockhouse on San Juan Hill (of Teddy Roosevelt fame), a piece of molding from the Mormon Church near Kirkland Lake County, Ohio, many pieces of the Old Yale Fence, and the hands of the Old Campus clock torn off by a politically furious undergraduate when Fort Sumter was fired upon.
There are also roses: from Gertrude Stein not even a rose but an empty envelope that once contained one, and a plate, a scarf, and a wax seal all bearing Stein’s famous A ROSE IS A ROSE IS A ROSE. A rose thought by a former curator to support one of Goethe’s botanical theories. A rose kissed by Byron and another kissed by Liszt. Were we as mad scientists able to perfect a way to salvage whatever DNA the celebrity transferred to the rose by kissing it, we might, in the manner of Jurassic Park, have for our collections an amusing poet and a tireless performer. At the moment all Yale has to show is, alas, the roses.
The flags and pieces of flags have in common (as flags should) that in their former whole state they could inspire passionate belief. One is a piece of “The Star Spangled Banner”; another, a piece of a banner torn down by someone perhaps killed in the act by an angered Rebel; another ripped untimely from a Democratic Party parade by enthusiastic freshmen fraternity men, a bit of rather careless iconoclasm that led to the end of freshman fraternities at Yale. One was draped over William Howard Taft’s coffin as he lay in state at Arlington National Cemetery. Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas caused another American flag to be made for them by French seamstresses so that they could welcome properly the Armistice for World War I. The flag has the wrong number of stars for 1918, but the right number for the year Stein left our shores for her rich life of expatriation.
The piece of the sniper’s bullet that killed Lord Nelson at Trafalgar is probably Yale’s closest approach to a serious relic. But even for this grisly fragment the anecdotes are funny. Witnesses to Nelson’s death gathered soberly to cut the bullet in half so as to make two souvenirs. Then the owner of what was to become the Yale fragment took it ashore in Turkey and had a casket suitable for half a bullet fashioned for it of ivory and olive wood.
Commemorative trowels are probably a thing of the past, but what a past! Straight from the anni mirabili of American presentation silver, they come to us fresh from a day when the University tried not just to stay within its budget projections but to match its Manifest Destiny with bricks and mortar. At another spot in this exhibition may be seen the sextant by which Elias Loomis first observed the latitude of New Haven, the telescope through which Ezra Stiles watched the British make a landing at Savin Rock, and the last spectacles worn by Walt Whitman. Glory is here, however humble may be its physical remains.
Yale has the past’s jewelry tray. Medals, buttons, cockades, honors, kudos, the faded achievements of all its treasured greats: two Nobel Prizes (Sinclair Lewis’s and Eugene O’Neill’s), two Medals of Freedom, and three representing the Kennedy Center honors. And busts: of Marsden Hartley, Thornton Wilder, Gertrude Stein, William McFee, Fania Van Vechten, Robert Louis Stevenson, Hermann Broch, William Howard Taft, Ethel Waters, Charles Dickens, Glenway Wescott, Archibald MacLeish, Sir Walter Scott, a campus policeman, an undergraduate of the Class of 1832. Also, life-masks, death-masks, hand-casts. In short, just about everything except the original Handsome Dan, who remains amid the athletic splendor of the Payne Whitney Gymnasium.
Of course, some of Yale’s things have no authority of celebrity at all. There is a rather lovely ivory box evidently kept for its own sake. Inside it was a white handkerchief (9½ x 4 inches, the careful catalogers inform us) and in the bottom of the box was a note. “Edward and Esther, to be handed down to Ruth.” It is not thought that more profundity than this is available to the thing, but Yale keeps it still.
This exhibition does not question the guidelines of curators or the integrity of the collection. When I first took on the guest curatorship of this show I was intent that none of it should hold up any thing in the Yale collections to ridicule. And I think no thing has been. The things in this show have not only the value they had when they came to the collections, but also the value of being cherished by Yale, the value of preservation, of rarity, of puzzlement, of delight that only such a ragtag and bobtail of mixed greatness and absurdity, mortality and immortality, accidental preciousness and accrued pomposity can bestow.
It is not for us today to sit in judgment on posterity. Let us not cavil, or criticize these objects, hats, swords, casts of hands or teeth, piles of clarinet reeds, but rather rejoice in what they could once inspire in those who put them here and in that reliquary or at least residuary enthusiasm they may inspire in us. Let us also exult in what remains behind and cultivate the attitude of gratitude. Here’s to a plenitude of three-dimensional hard-stuff and gratitude for the enthusiasm that led to its preservation. It is somehow touching to think that a great University has found room for such things, tangible evidence both of institutional permanence and of individual patience.
In Robert Louis Stevenson’s cherished message from “Chinese” Gordon we can see the last gasp of 19th-century derring-do. In Elias Loomis’s sextant by which he first observed New Haven’s latitude there is not only a historical instrument (in every sense of that term) but something of a memento mori: evidence that there was once a time when New Haven hadn’t found even its own place on the map. It is somehow enough to know just that Liszt stopped playing long enough to kiss a rose. Ah, the past; ah, the gesture; ah, collective zeal! And things, like books, are seldom static. To put it somewhat grandly, the dignity of some of these things has flaked off like old paint as the years rolled by, while other things just got better and better. Finally, good things can move us up the Platonic ladder to the great women and men they were first kept to remind us of. It is a measure of Yale’s plenitude that such minor monuments—little things, or dear little things—could be so cherished for so long by so great an institution.
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