Isaac Gewirtz speaks about "Reading the Literary Archive: A Tale of Scholarship and Taste"

Posted by Julia Leef

An audience of approximately 60 students, faculty and community members were treated to the 25th Annual Fox-Adler Lecture on Thursday, Sept. 19 in Gannett Auditorium, in which guest speaker Isaac Gewirtz talked about the evolution of the Henry W. and Albert Berg Collection in regards to the changing literary perceptions and vales of contemporary society.

Isaac Gewirtz is the Curator of the New York Public Library's Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature, and has been for the past 13 years. He also has co-curated several other exhibitions, including the Mark Twain: A Skeptic's Progress and the Edgar Allan Poe: Terror of the Soul exhibitions, the latter of which opens at the Morgan Library this October.

"Rare book collections grow out of the reading interests of their collectors," said Dr. Catherine Golden, professor of English and director of the Honors Forum, who introduced the speaker and gave a brief history of his accomplishments. "It is my pleasure to welcome Isaac Gewirtz, a curator, a scholar, a collector and a reader."

Dr. Golden also gave the audience some background on the Fox-Adler lecture itself, expressing her regrets that Norman M. Fox himself was unable to attend the lecture due to health concerns.

The Fox-Adler Lecture is given each year in honor of the Fox family and the late Hannah Moriarta Adler, who loaned her collection of 18th- and 19th-century books to Skidmore College in 1967, which is now known as the Fox Collection. The collection remains at the College permanently through the efforts of Norman M. Fox, who was a friend of the late Adler.

Gewirtz began his lecture with a brief explanation of the collection's various pieces, which hosts approximately 35,000 printed items and 115,000 manuscripts from more than 400 authors, including Charles Dickens, William Makepeace, Vladimir Nabokov, Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Terry Southern and Annie Proulx. The collection also has several non-literary items as well, such as the table, chair, lamp and calendar of Charles Dickens.

Gewirtz explained that the collection's founders, brothers Dr. Henry W. Berg and Dr. Albert A. Berg, initially refused to collect manuscripts from recently deceased authors and most current ones, opting instead to mainly add printed material to the collection (including the purchase of the W.T.H. Howe collection in Sept. 1940), which opened on Oct. 11, 1940 and was dedicated to the memory of Henry W, who had died two years earlier

Dr. Berg later expanded his collection with the purchases of the Owen D. Young collection on May 8, 1941, with a discounted price that allowed Young to become a co-donor of the collection. Through the purchase of both these collections, the Berg had now become rich in manuscripts as well as in printed materials.

Gewirtz shared photos with the audience of some of the collections pieces, including a 1867 photo from New York of Charles Dickens, the last one he ever sat for, and several folios, letters and statements from William Burroughs.

"Of the 1149 research visits that were made to the Berg last year, more than fifty percent of them were devoted to author archives," Gewirtz said, adding that the majority of them had been acquired piecemeal over the decades.

An object of the collection that took up much attention was a prompt copy of Dickens' performance edition of A Christmas Carol which included his notes in the margins of how to perform the piece in regards to tone and expression.

Public readings were rare in 19th century Britain, Gewirtz said, as dramatized readings of an author's work were viewed as ridiculous and demeaning by critics. However, the public flocked to see Dickens' readings of A Christmas Carol at the Steinway Hall, which seated 2500 people and sold out at every reading, the first of which began in 1853.

Gewirtz showed more photos of Dickens' notes, explaining that the author had four major principles when editing a larger work to make it performable: he deleted or simplified complex sentences, deleted sentences revealing character thoughts of mind, which could otherwise be explained through the actions of the performer, made efforts to improve the style of the text rather than just shorten it and deleted passages that created a mood but that did little to advance the narrative.

Dickens, according to Gewirtz, preferred to emphasize family scenes at Christmas time in his performances, as people reacted more enthusiastically to the bright and cheerful scenes.

"We can see Dickens's willingness to reshape what he has written," Gewirtz said, something, he added, that would have been unthinkable to Milton or T.S. Elliot.

Gewirtz also said that, while the Berg collection initially focused on printed works, time has shown the value of manuscripts and unpublished material, which contributes to a textual history of an author's work and life.

"We learn that the published version is not necessarily better than the one that has remained unpublished, just different," Gewirtz said.

The lecture then opened up for questions from the audience, and Gewirtz talked about what has become lost with the popularization of computer-generated manuscripts, as well as the inherent similarities between authors such as Dickens and Burroughs.

"If you look at Dickens' writing about his own work, he talks very eloquently and movingly about how they come out of himself, really," Gewirtz said. "That is very similar to Burroughs and many of the Beats for that matter, who see aspects of themselves in the characters they create. They're sometimes denigrated as writing autobiographies, but if you know their autobiographies that's really not the case. I think Dickens is a monumental figure in the way he takes possession or ownership of that which he creates."

The Berg Collection is available on the third floor of the New York Public Library from Tuesday through Saturday.

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