Frankenstein and Poe at the Morgan

I finally got out to the Pierpont Morgan Library on Sunday. It’s a weird jumble of ancient and modern texts and artifacts collected by J.P. Morgan’s tycoon father and displayed under glass in airy rooms or inside locked cabinets in musty ones.

nullMary Shelley’s own annotated copy of Frankenstein (at right; larger version here) sits alongside the only intact Caxton edition of Le Morte D’Arthur. Hemingway’s first short story collection abuts a case devoted to The Gutenberg Bible. Offerings from Chaucer and Blake lie nearby. Elsewhere in the same room are the ninth century gospels, but you can only see their bejeweled covers.

With the other volumes, you do at least get a look at whatever two pages the curator left them open to, but sometimes that glimpse is more frustrating than satisfying. Standing in front of Frankenstein, I actually spent a couple of minutes wondering how much I’d be able to leaf through before they hauled me off to jail if I broke through the glass.

Upstairs, we wandered through the manuscript room and marveled at Poe’s “A Tale of the Ragged Mountains,” which consisted of (and here I quote the placard) “small half-sheets of paper, pieced together with sealing wax to form a continuous scroll.” His careful penmanship was, as Kevin said, “as insanely perfect as one of his stories.”

Willa Cather, on the other hand, wrote like someone with two broken arms. I’m good at parsing out the meaning of illegible cursive, but I could only make out every fifth word of her letter to a friend. I felt sorry for the friend. According to the placard, Cather was pouring her heart out about something; but the poor woman would never know what Cather was on about, only that she was distraught and would love to see her at xokho dokem when lsokme New York omwhtom winter.

We saw manuscripts from each of the four Brontës. (Tim Bradford’s “Writers’ Workshop: Healthy Competitiveness with the Bronte Sisters” sprang to mind.) Pope’s An Essay on Man and Austen’s Lady Susan were also on display, as was Hemingway’s letter declining an Art of Fiction interview request from George Plimpton. “I might say, ‘Fuck the Art of Fiction,'” Hemingway wrote. (He later did the interview.)

nullWe also learned that Oscar Wilde, Mark Twain, Fanny Kemble, and Henry James “were among the first major authors to use typewritten texts as elements of composition.” They’d send their handwritten manuscripts out to a typist, get the pages back and revise them, and then send the whole thing back off for a new typed copy. A revised manuscript of Wilde’s An Ideal Husband is pictured at right.

We each paid $12 to get in. So, after we exhausted the literary offerings, we felt compelled to pore over every last musical score and Rembrandt self-portrait. We revisited the Near Eastern cylinder seals display. Then we lingered in Pierpont’s ostentatious study, trying to feign interest in the garish bowls and pock-marked vases and other ancient and ill-explained tchotchkes (or maybe I was just tired by then) he bought during his lifetime.


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