Ariel Poems

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ariel_wolfe_troy_inside-cover

Illustration for the poem Troy by artist Charles S. Ricketts, poem by Humbert Wolfe, PR 1225 .A7 no. 12 ARIEL, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

In 1927, publishing house Faber & Gwyer (later Faber & Faber) published a series titled The Ariel Poems—a run of small, illustrated pamphlets that combined a poem with an artist’s illustrations. T. S. Eliot, one of the contributing poets, borrowed the title for the five poems that he wrote for the series, and those have become perhaps the most easily recognizable poems of that name. But twenty other poets and nineteen artists contributed to the series as well, creating thirty-eight beautiful pamphlets featuring the work of writers and artists such as Edith Sitwell, G. K. Chesterton, W. B. Yeats, Stephen Tennant, Albert Rutherston, and Blair Hughes-Stanton. The illustrations range from wood engravings, to drawings, to colored illustrations inside the front covers of the pamphlets. The poets’ work, newly written for the series, include overtly Christmas poems (the original focus of the pamphlet collection) but also encompass subjects including hope, life and death, nature, and the life of the soul. Several of the poets featured in the pamphlets also appear in the Burns Library’s manuscript collections: Edith Sitwell, G. K. Chesterton, W. B. Yeats, Hilaire Belloc, D. H. Lawrence, James Stephens, and AE (George William Russell). These pamphlets are an excellent starting point to access these intriguing twentieth-century poets.

<a href="http://bc-primo.hosted.exlibrisgroup.com/primo_library/libweb/action/dlSearch.do?institution=BCL&amp;vid=bclib&amp;onCampus=true&amp;group=GUEST&amp;loc=local,scope:(BCL)&amp;query=any,contains,ALMA-BC21345828030001021"><i>Nativity</i></a> by Roy Campbell, illustrated by James Sellars, PR 9369.3 .C35 N38 1954 General Folders, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Nativity by Roy Campbell, illustrated by James Sellars, PR 9369.3 .C35 N38 1954 General Folders, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

In 1954, Faber & Faber published a second series of Ariel poems. This second series was shorter than the first but the concept remained the same. The 1954 pamphlets are larger–almost twice the size of the first run–but follow the same format of a brightly colored paper cover, and a single sheet of folded paper inside with two illustrations and the poem. The 1954 Ariel poems are written by W. H. Auden, Roy Campbell, Walter De La Mare, T. S. Eliot, C. Day Lewis, Louis MacNeice, Edwin Muir, and Stephen Spender. The artists include David Jones, James Sellars, and Lynton Lamb. Each poem is housed in its original envelope. The envelopes are pastel colored and titled “An Ariel Poem” followed by the pertinent information for each pamphlet.

If you would like to look at the Ariel poems in person, visit the Burns Library Reading Room. For more information, contact the Burns Library Reading Room at 617-552-4861 or burnsref@bc.edu.

  • Rachel A. Ernst, Burns Library Reading Room Student Assistant & PhD student in the English Department

Works Consulted

“The Ariel Poems.” Faber & Faber. http://www.faber.co.uk/9780571316434-the-ariel-poems.html

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Johnson’s Quest to Define a Language

Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)

Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) single-handedly undertook the herculean task of assembling the first comprehensive dictionary of the English language.

Dictionaries can tell a lot about the history of English and its usage, especially the first truly comprehensive English dictionary, A Dictionary of the English Language, by Samuel Johnson. First published in 1755, Johnson’s dictionary was the foremost English dictionary until the publication of the Oxford English Dictionary over one hundred years later and was – as one reviewer called it – “a perpetual Monument of Fame to the Author, an Honour to his own Country in particular, and a general Benefit to the Republic of Letters throughout all Europe.”

Well before Johnson began his work, there had been calls for a large-scale, comprehensive English dictionary from such literary elites as John Dryden, Daniel Defoe, Alexander Pope, and Jonathan Swift. These men were calling for the creation of an academy to create a dictionary, like those that produced the comprehensive French and Italian dictionaries of the day, but Johnson determined to take on this colossal endeavor all on his own.

Johnson was uniquely well-suited for the herculean task of assembling a comprehensive dictionary. When he began the project, he was a well-respected, but still largely unknown, writer in London. He needed a large-scale project to provide a steady income and to earn him a wider reputation, and a dictionary seemed the perfect choice. At the same time, Johnson possessed the skills and temperament necessary for the undertaking and had an influential connection in the bookselling trade through his friend Robert Dodsley. It was through this combination of financial need, ability, and connections that Johnson came to answer the call for a comprehensive English dictionary.

Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language and the Oxford English Dictionary.

Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language, PE 1620 .J6 1755 Oversize, John J. Burns Library, Boston College. Johnson’s dictionary was a monumental undertaking that still seems substantial next to the 1970 edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. Unfortunately, the large size of this first edition discouraged the sales that Johnson had hoped would provide him with financial security and establish his reputation.

Johnson commenced with the help of a handful of assistants by compiling quotations to serve as authoritative examples of word usage. In finding quotes, he relied on books in his personal library, pulling from poetry, prose, theology, philosophy, history, politics, philology, art history, and technical works. In 1754, he traveled to Oxford to conduct research for the dictionary’s front matter: the preface, a history of the English language, and a short grammar. He sent sections to his printer, William Strahan, as they were finished, so the dictionary was not printed sequentially. Once Johnson had produced most of his copy, the printing process was quick and efficient—printers set type while he read proofs.

Johnson's definition of Dull

Johnson left a few hidden Easter eggs for careful readers. Here, he illustrates one definition of dull: “Not exhilaterating; not delightful; as, to make dictionaries is dull work.”

When the dictionary was published in April 15, 1755, it consisted of two folio volumes which were bound in paste boards. Wealthy purchasers would then have the book bound in a custom ordered or “bespoke” binding. The new dictionary met with positive reviews and was soon reprinted in a second edition that was sold in installments. Nonetheless, neither of these editions sold particularly well because they were too expensive for many readers, and many found them too cumbersome. In January 1756, the publisher released a two volume octavo abridgement that was cheaper and smaller, which in turn enjoyed healthier sales.

Johnson’s dictionary remained the preeminent English dictionary until the publication of the Oxford English Dictionary. Every lexicographer who followed Johnson had to confront the authority of his dictionary, with some embracing it while others, including Noah Webster, deliberately tried to undermine it. But the impact of Johnson’s dictionary was not just limited to Britain or the world of lexicography. The Founding Fathers of the United States referred to Johnson’s dictionary when writing the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Federalist Papers, and Supreme Court decisions still cite Johnson’s dictionary to determine the original meanings of the Founding Fathers’ words.

The inside covers of this 1755 first edition of Johnson's dictionary have a unique history of their own. These pastedowns were recycled from lists naming lieutenants promoted in the British Navy in 1803-1804. This copy later entered the libraries of the famous Astor family and bears the bookplate of Arthur Astor Carey (1857–1923).

The inside covers of this 1755 first edition of Johnson’s dictionary have a unique history of their own. These pastedowns were recycled from lists naming lieutenants promoted in the British Navy in 1803-1804. This copy later entered the libraries of the famous Astor family and bears the bookplate of Arthur Astor Carey (1857–1923).

The Burns Library at Boston College owns several copies of Johnson’s dictionary, including a first edition from 1755. Published by William Strahan in London, the two-volume folio edition is almost 16 inches long. The books have bespoke leather bindings over the publisher’s boards, although the leather is now flaking off, especially around the edges. Adding to the rich look of these books, the volumes feature designs printed in the front and back covers and marbled endpapers. Each volume contains an old owner’s bookplate bearing the name of one former owner: Arthur A. Carey, who was a descendent of the famous German American businessman John Jacob Astor.

Though Johnson’s dictionary was well-received and eventually popular, he did not enjoy many fruits of his labor. He was arrested for debt less than a year after the release of the first edition. Nonetheless, the physical presence of the book remains a reminder of the monumental accomplishment of this dictionary. The size of the volumes, the length and the number of entries included, and the extensive use of illustrative quotations all illuminate the extraordinary task Johnson undertook. And the Burns Library copy, with its decorated leather binding and marbled endpapers, underscores the importance this title held in the collections of its original owners.

If you would like to peruse this volume, visit the John J. Burns Library Reading Room. To learn more about other dictionaries at the Burns Library, read these posts on Jesuit dictionaries. For more information, contact the Burns Library Reading Room at 617-552-4861 or burnsref@bc.edu.

  • Kelli Farrington, Graduate Student in Professor Virginia Reinburg’s Fall 2014 Early Printed Books: History and Craft.

This blog post comes from the Early Printed Books: History and Craft class, which was taught by BC History Professor Virginia Reinburg in Fall 2014.

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20th Century Propaganda from the Woodruff Collection

Front covers of various pamphlets from the Woodruff Collection, see more images at <a href="https://flic.kr/s/aHsk5WAqy6">https://flic.kr/s/aHsk5WAqy6</a>.

Front covers of various pamphlets from the Woodruff Collection, see more images at https://flic.kr/s/aHsk5WAqy6.

Collections tell stories about their former owners. (John) Douglas Woodruff’s personal collection, acquired from his estate many years ago, uncovers his interest in communist and fascist era propaganda.

Born in 1897, Woodruff was known for his erudition and wit. After his education in modern history at Oxford, Woodruff entered the world of journalism. He held posts with British publications such as The Times and a Catholic weekly, The Tablet. Over the course of thirty years as editor of the latter, Woodruff’s close affiliation with the Catholic Church and his Conservative leanings were documented in his witty prose.

hitlerwantstheworldPerhaps the journalist had a preoccupation with fact vs. fiction. These pamphlets, a tiny slice of the collection, certainly offer a glimpse at the whirlwind of texts explaining what people should and should not believe.  Hitler Wants the World! is the first collection of Dr. Herman Rauschning’s writings on Hitler. Rauschning is “the man who knows Hitler’s mind” as his 1938 book “Germany’s Revolution of Destruction” supposedly foretold Hitler’s plan. Including essays with titles such as “Nazis’ Plan to Set the World in Flames” and “Russia is Hitler’s Plum” this pamphlet holds Dr. Rausching’s attempts to expose what he saw as the horrors of Nazism and the attempts of Hitler’s regime to maintain a “new social order” (42).

 

truthaboutcommunistsAmter, charter member of the Communist party, published the 1930 pamphlet The Truth about the Communists to answer the question, “Who are the 55,000 Communists?” in the United States. The pamphlet outlines a Communist’s take on issues such as unemployment and civil rights, and devotes a section to Amter’s assertion that “Communists are Builders” (14). The back cover even addresses the problem of hearsay in an attempt to sell the Daily and Sunday Worker: “Has it ever occurred to you that Communism is one of the most talked about subjects of the day? Wherever you turn the word is on someone’s lips…Yet what do you honestly know about Communism? If you are the sort of person that isn’t satisfied with hearsay and opinion, you will find the Daily and Sunday Worker a stimulating newspaper…”

hitlersbritishdupesThough it will fit in the palm of your hand, the War Facts Press would surely suggest that Hitler’s British Dupes: Fifty Facts is chock full of information. The tiny pamphlet aims to counter propaganda spread by “Hitler’s dupes” in England. The pamphlet is part of a series published to provide “in handy form,” nonetheless, an “antidote to this poisonous propaganda.”

communist_infiltrationWith piles of pamphlets intended to sway the beliefs of citizens, in 1946 the Chamber of Commerce released Communist Infiltration in the United States: Its Nature and How to Combat It. This “how-to” guide provides insight into “Why People Become Communists,” but offers a “Counterattack” to the intrusion. The first step, according to this pamphlet, is to present true facts about Communism to the American public and calls for American organizations against the rise of Communism to band together in defense.

While cataloguing the Woodruff collection, I was surprised to discover the Catholic journalist’s penchant for propaganda. Yet, this was a style of text from his time. Though these pamphlets reflect a turbulent social and political atmosphere, I can’t help but wonder if Woodruff, known for his wit and humor, gathered these pamphlets to look back on with a slight grin, delighted by the power of words to educate and persuade.

If you’d like to browse photos of additional Woodruff Collection highlights, follow this link to the  head of the Burns Library Flickr page: https://flic.kr/s/aHsk5WAqy6.  To view catalog records for Woodruff’s books, go to the Holmes advanced search screen (http://bclib.bc.edu/advancedsearch) and search for “Woodruff” as a Local Collection name. If you have further questions, please contact the Burns Library Reading Room at 617-552-4861 or burnsref@bc.edu.

  • Mollie Kervick, Burns Library Student Cataloger & MA Student in English and Irish Literature and Culture
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Reframing the Present: The Renaissance Architecture of Andrea Palladio

Andrea Palladio (1508-1580), as painted by El Greco in 1575. Palladio's writings represent the apogee of Renaissance architectural thought.

Andrea Palladio (1508-1580), as painted by El Greco in 1575. Palladio’s writings represent the apogee of Renaissance architectural thought.

In 1452, the Italian polymath Leon Battista Alberti (1404-1472) completed his De re aedificatoria, the first theoretical treatment of architecture since Vitruvius wrote his De architectura in 15 BC. This classical text served as the main inspiration for Alberti’s treatise, which in turn sparked a proliferation of architectural studies over the course of the Renaissance.

The apogee of these studies was Andrea Palladio’s I quattro libri dell’architettura (Four Books on Architecture). In 1570, Andrea Palladio (1508-1580) had been active as an architect in the north Italian Veneto for over three decades. It was then that he first published his treatise on architecture. The copy that belongs to the Burns Library is from a later edition of 1581, published in Venice by Bartholomeo Carampello. This volume is tall and wide but relatively thin. Its binding, which is in fair condition, possibly dates from the eighteenth century and combines a leather spine with composition board covers.

Palladio’s treatise built on the theories and practices that had been honed by classical Greeks and Romans. This body of knowledge was preserved only through Vitruvius, the only classical architect whose writings survived into the modern age. More recently, Vitruvius had been revived and championed by architects of the early Italian Renaissance, especially Leon Battista Alberti. This historical understanding helps situate I quattro libri in a discourse with thinkers from both the ancient and the more recent past, and it consequently allows for a better understanding of Palladio’s architectural achievements.

Title page to the fourth book of Palladio's I quattro libri dell’architettura.

Title page to the fourth book of Palladio’s I quattro libri dell’architettura, NA 2515 .P25 1581 General, John J. Burns Library, Boston College. Queen Virtue rules at the top, recalling a heroic Roman past.

I quattro libri thus joined a conversation that Renaissance architects had been sharing with the classical past for well over a century. In the dedication, Palladio relates, “I have seen with my own eyes and measured with my own hands the fragments of many ancient buildings [in Rome], which … provide, even as stupendous ruins, clear and powerful proof of the virtù and greatness of the Romans.” This concept of virtù that Palladio employs was, like his architecture, a revival of classical precedent. In this case, Palladio’s reference to the Latin virtus connotes the character traits—such as valor, excellence, and virility—which had been most valued in ancient Roman society.

By favoring a Roman style, Palladio rejected the Gothic architecture that had had a noticeable presence in the Veneto region where he worked. By doing so, he sought to contribute to Italy’s systematic purge of ostensibly foreign and barbarous influences—an effort that extended beyond the arts and into the realm of politics. Given that Palladio’s life coincided with the Italian Wars (1494-1559) and their aftermath, which saw the near complete subjugation of the peninsula by the foreign Habsburg dynasty, this tinge of xenophobia in his writing is perhaps understandable.

Column illustration from I quattro libri

Column illustration from I quattro libri. Palladio made the column his basic design element, using it to establish the proportions of exterior facades and interior rooms.

By couching his theories in the same philosophical musings that had so interested Vitruvius and other Renaissance architects, Palladio associated I quattro libri with the architecture of classical Rome and the early Italian Renaissance. He did not root his proportional guidelines, however, in the same grandiose abstractions that earlier theorists had borrowed from ideals of human anatomy or musical theory. Instead, he made the diameter of a building’s columns the heart of his design schemes. From this single measurement, he extrapolated ratios to govern a structure’s composition. Instead of regarding the column as merely an ornament whose properties derived from a building’s dimensions, as had been common practice throughout the Renaissance, Palladio flipped this formula on its head, making the totality of his structures derive from their columns’ dimensions.

I quattro libri - Villa Almerico Capra

Palladio included his design for the Villa Almerico Capra in I quattro libri. It’s plan hearkened back to classical motifs and rejected Gothic influence.

A strict reading of Palladio’s rules results in column diameter determining not only column height, the spacing of columns, and the size of the structures that the columns support, but also the placing of junctures between internal and external walls, which in turn determines the sizes of internal rooms. Thus by adapting a largely ignored principle from Vitruvius (using only small spaces between external columns) to a Renaissance-era practice of construction (aligning the placing of internal walls with the spacing of external columns), Palladio created an intricate system of relationships that dictated the forms that his buildings could take—all based on the size of a column’s diameter. Moreover, he applied these relationships rigorously. They may be seen, among other projects, in the Palazzo Chiericati (1550) and the villas Cornaro (1553), Badoer (1556), Foscari (1559), Emo (1564), and Almerico Capra (1567.)

Palladio's Villa Almerico Capra.

Palladio’s Villa Almerico Capra (also known as the Villa Rotunda) captures many of the revived classical elements that gave the Renaissance its name.

Andrea Palladio’s I quattro libri dell’architettura arguably signaled the apogee of Renaissance architectural writing, the final and most sophisticated publication in a genre introduced by Alberti in the 1450s. As was the case with so many other intellectuals during the Renaissance, Palladio’s ideas did not interact solely with his near contemporaries but also with the thinkers of the classical world. Renaissance humanists like Palladio saw in the classical world a way of reframing their present reality according to a naturalism and rationale that contrasted sharply with the medieval era they desired to oppose. Such was Palladio’s aim in articulating his complex, highly refined style of architecture and basing it, at least in part, on Vitruvian principles.

If you would like to peruse this volume, visit the John J. Burns Library Reading Room. For more information, contact the Reading Room at 617-552-4861 or burnsref@bc.edu.

  • John Sullivan, BC ’15 & Student in Professor Virginia Reinburg’s Fall 2014 Early Printed Books: History and Craft

This blog post comes from the Early Printed Books: History and Craft class, which was taught by BC History Professor Virginia Reinburg in Fall 2014.

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One Story Draws Another: Irish American History in Boston

 

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These selections from the Irish American manuscript collections at the Burns Library are loosely bound together by common threads of shared affiliation with the University and with the City of Boston – its business and its politics. To each of us working on this section, the starting place for selecting Irish American related material was evident: Boston. Our initial choices included seemingly unrelated items from University Archives and alumni papers, Boston historical collections, political papers, and business records; however, as we talked, ideas came together and connections emerged.

Among the first Boston College students was James O’Brien, son of successful newspaper editor and Boston’s first Irish-born mayor, Hugh O’Brien. Here begins a tradition of Boston College alumni associations with local business and politics. Many Boston-area politicians were Boston College alums, including John F. “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald, John F. O’Connell, and Tip O’Neill, not to mention Boston College Law School faculty member Robert F. Drinan, SJ. Within our collections, political legacies are intertwined with social and commercial relationships. “Honey Fitz” was, of course, John F. Kennedy’s grandfather; the Kennedys vacationed with the Donnellys, another prominent Irish Catholic family whose sons attended Boston College.  Scion of the family Edward C. Donnelly, Jr. married infamous Boston mayor James Michael Curley’s daughter, Mary. The connections don’t end there! Musician P. S. Gilmore, Irish nationalist George D. Cahill, and author and editor John Boyle O’Reilly all fit into the tale of Irish American history in Boston.

The efforts of Boston’s Catholics were realized when the Commonwealth granted a charter to the Society of Jesus to operate a school for young men in its South End neighborhood in 1863. The College’s earliest students were sons of artisans, tradesmen, merchants, widows, and laborers. Newspaperman Hugh O’Brien, who would later become the city’s first Irish-born mayor, was one such parent.

As Boston continued to grow in the years following the Civil War, the influence of Irish Americans upon the life of the city also grew.  Bandleader P.S. Gilmore’s National and World Peace Jubilees were massive musical concerts in Copley Square that Bostonians of all walks of life enjoyed. On a smaller scale, Gilmore also provided entertainment for social events like Boston’s Fenian Brotherhood’s Annual Ball.

Irish immigrant George Cahill of Quincy was active in both local and Irish politics. His papers offer glimpses of the Boston area activities of the Irish National Land League, Irish National League of America, and Boston’s Fenian Brotherhood, and include communications with Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa and John Boyle O’Reilly.

Convicted Fenian John Boyle O’Reilly came to Boston after escaping British prison in Fremantle Australia aboard a New Bedford whaler, the Gazelle. Poet, novelist, and editor of the Boston Pilot,  O’Reilly was one of the city’s most celebrated residents.

Political clout increased for Boston’s first generation Irish Americans.  Charismatic John “Honey Fitz” Fitzgerald and Joseph F. O’Connell both attended Boston College. Fitzgerald – who served as congressman, senator, and mayor – closely advised his grandson, John F. Kennedy, the first Catholic president of the United States. Congressman O’Connell was a founder of the first Boston College football team and of a successful law practice.

Despite Tip O’Neill’s assertion that “all politics is local,” Boston’s Irish American political leaders have excelled on an international scale. Among the examples with ties to Boston College were repeated visitor John F. Kennedy, alumnus Tip O’Neill, and faculty
member Robert F. Drinan, SJ. Will Boston College alumnus Mayor of Boston Martin J. “Marty” Walsh continue this international trend?

The exhibit, One Story Draws Another: Staff Selections from the Irish Collections at the Burns Library, is on display at the Burns Library through May 8th, 2015 and is open during regular library hours.  The exhibit is divided into five sections:  Irish American History in Boston, Irish American Fine Press Books, Irish Traditional Music, Irish Literature, and  Researcher Stories.   To learn more about this exhibit, read the exhibit handout or view this slideshow.  If you have further questions, please contact the Burns Library Reading Room at 617-552-4861 or burnsref@bc.edu.

  • Shelley Barber, Reference & Archives Specialist
  • Amy Braitsch, Head Archivist
  • Xaviera Flores, Archives Assistant
  • Adrienne Pruitt, Processing Archivist

Burns Library Archival Collections Consulted

Posted in Archives & Manuscripts, Archives Diary, B. C. History, Digital Projects, Exhibits & Events, Featured Collections & Books, Staff Posts, University Archives | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

One Story Draws Another: Researcher Stories

osda_exhibitpostertomay8The fifth and final section of  the Burns Library exhibit One Story Draws Another, featuring publications that draw on one or more Burns Library Irish collections, is now on display in the Ford Tower.   This Researcher Stories section joins the four  main sections of this exhibit, which focus on Irish American Fine Press Books, Irish Traditional Music, Irish American History in Boston, and Irish Literature as seen through the materials in the Burns Library’s Irish collections.  The entire exhibit is on display at the Burns Library through May 8th, 2015.

Researchers are at the core of the work of the Burns Library. Scholars and writers spend many hours in the Burns Reading Room studying books, manuscripts, and archival holdings in the Burns Library’s Irish collections.  They then use this research to write books and articles on a variety of Irish subjects and topics.The stories these researchers tell explore the history, relationships, and accomplishments of Irish and Irish American subjects.  Whether they tell stories of peace or imprisonment, politics or physical space, these publications ask us to engage with the shared lineage of Ireland and how it informs and connects these various works to each other. We hope you enjoy these books and articles from researchers who have worked with our Irish collections and the stories they tell.

To learn more about these publications researched in the Burns Library’s Irish collections, click on the images below for a slideshow with commentary from the researchers themselves.  The One Story Draws Another exhibit is on display at the Burns Library through May 8th, 2015 and is open during regular library hours.  You can also view a selection of images from the other sections of the exhibit in this slideshow.  If you have further questions, please contact the Burns Library Reading Room at 617-552-4861 or burnsref@bc.edu.

Posted in Archives & Manuscripts, B. C. History, Exhibits & Events, Featured Collections & Books, Researcher Posts, Staff Posts, University Archives | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Black Literature as American History: The Works of Phillis Wheatley, Countee Cullen, and Richard Wright

The <a href = "http://www.naacp.org/blog/entry/naacp-commemorates-black-history-month-2015">NAACP's</a> poster for Black History Month 2015.

The NAACP’s poster for Black History Month 2015.

Black History Month has been celebrated during the month of February since its precursor—Carter G. Woodson’s Negro History Week—was first observed in 1926. Black History Month provides an opportunity to commemorate the various contributions of black Americans to the history and culture of the United States, but this tribute should extend throughout the calendar year rather than be confined to a single twenty-eight day period.

Although the Burns Library is best known for its collections relating to Irish studies, Jesuitica, Catholic liturgy and life in America, and Boston history, the library’s expansive holdings include many materials outside of these topics. In efforts to extend the spirit of Black History Month, this post highlights a less prominent portion of the Burns collection: the works of black American writers such as Phillis Wheatley, Countee Cullen, and Richard Wright. These writers were essential contributors to the American literary canon and their texts help illuminate not just African American history, but American history more broadly from the antebellum period through the twentieth century.

Engraving of Phillis Wheatley from <a href = "http://bc-primo.hosted.exlibrisgroup.com/primo_library/libweb/action/dlSearch.do?institution=BCL&vid=bclib&onCampus=true&group=GUEST&loc=local,scope:(BCL)&query=any,contains,ALMA-BC21371939730001021">Memoir and Poems of Phillis Wheatley</a>, PS 866 .W5 1838, Boston Collection, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Engraving of Phillis Wheatley from Memoir and Poems of Phillis Wheatley, PS 866 .W5 1838, Boston Collection, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

In 1761, Phillis Wheatley endured the Middle Passage of the transatlantic slave trade and arrived in colonial Massachusetts, where she was purchased by Boston merchant John Wheatley as a ladies maid for his wife. Phillis learned to read and write from the Wheatleys’ daughter Mary and soon demonstrated an “uncommon intelligence” and a proclivity for poetry. In 1773, with the publication of Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, Phillis Wheatley became the first published African American woman.

Memoir and Poems of Phillis Wheatley, a Native African and a Slave was originally published in Boston in 1834. In the Burns Library’s Boston Collection is a copy of this text’s third edition, published in 1838, which contains the full text of Wheatley’s 1773 anthology in addition to extensive biographical information provided by Margaretta Matilda Odell, “a collateral descendant of Mrs. Wheatley.” Odell’s account is the only comprehensive documentation of Wheatley’s life, continuing to serve as the primary source of biographical material for modern biographers of Wheatley. Odell chronicles the life of Wheatley, describing her girlhood in Boston, travels in London, emancipation, marriage, motherhood, decline into poverty, and ultimate death at the age of thirty-one.

Title page from <a href = "http://bc-primo.hosted.exlibrisgroup.com/primo_library/libweb/action/dlSearch.do?institution=BCL&vid=bclib&onCampus=true&group=GUEST&loc=local,scope:(BCL)&query=any,contains,ALMA-BC21371939730001021">Memoir and Poems of Phillis Wheatley</a>, PS 866 .W5 1838, Boston Collection, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Title page from Memoir and Poems of Phillis Wheatley, PS 866 .W5 1838, Boston Collection, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

In response to tempered praise of Wheatley as talented, but “a solitary instance of African genius,” Odell insisted that other enslaved individuals would have undoubtedly demonstrated similar intelligence had they, like Phillis Wheatley, fallen into “generous and affectionate hands.” According to Odell, slavery fettered both the bodies and minds of the individuals in its grip. “How then can it be known,” Odell implored, “how often the light of genius is quenched in suffering and death?”

Interestingly, Odell’s anthology also contains the works of George Moses Horton, who became the first black poet published in the American South in 1829. His first book of poems, entitled The Hope of Liberty, was published while he was still a slave in Chatham County, North Carolina. In combining the work of Wheatley and Horton, Memoir and Poems of Phillis Wheatley, a Native African and a Slave, represents two of the three black American authors (the third is Jupiter Hammon) who were published while still enslaved.

Front cover of <a href="http://bc-primo.hosted.exlibrisgroup.com/primo_library/libweb/action/dlSearch.do?institution=BCL&vid=bclib&onCampus=true&group=GUEST&loc=local,scope:(BCL)&query=any,contains,ALMA-BC21379413330001021">Caroling Dusk</a>, PS 591 .N4 C8, General Collection, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Front cover of Caroling Dusk, PS 591 .N4 C8, General Collection, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Born in 1903, poet Countee Cullen was raised in Harlem, New York City. After attending high school in the Bronx, Cullen entered New York University, where his work enjoyed wide publication and received numerous awards. In 1925, Cullen matriculated at Harvard University to pursue a masters degree in English. In the same year, Cullen’s poetry was first anthologized in a collection entitled Color. Countee Cullen was a central figure in the Harlem Renaissance—the 1920s cultural movement that produced an outpouring of African American art, literature, music, and cultural expression. His poetry was nationally known, he received more literary awards than any other black writer in the 1920s, and he received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1928.

Title page featuring decorations by Aaron Douglas from <a href = "http://bc-primo.hosted.exlibrisgroup.com/primo_library/libweb/action/dlSearch.do?institution=BCL&vid=bclib&onCampus=true&group=GUEST&loc=local,scope:(BCL)&query=any,contains,ALMA-BC21379413330001021">Caroling Dusk</a>, PS 591 .N4 C8, General Collection, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Title page featuring decorations by Aaron Douglas from Caroling Dusk, PS 591 .N4 C8, General Collection, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

The Burns Library has a first edition copy of Countee Cullen’s Caroling Dusk: An Anthology of Verse by Negro Poets. Published in 1927 by Harper and Brothers, Caroling Dusk collectively presents the poetry of many prominent and lesser-known black poets of the Harlem Renaissance era, including Langston Hughes, Anne Spencer, Claude McKay, Gwendolyn Bennett, James Weldon Johnson, Mary Effie Lee Newsome, Georgia Douglas Johnson, and Countee Cullen himself. The book also includes decorations by black artist Aaron Douglas, another famous figure in the Harlem Renaissance.

The purpose of Caroling Dusk, as Cullen explained in the foreword, was to make more widely available the collected works of black poets gaining popularity during the Harlem Renaissance. Although Cullen was committed to publicizing the work of black poets, he was insistent that the art of poetry transcended racial difference. In the text’s foreword, Cullen explained his reasons for subtitling his anthology “An Anthology of Verse by Negro Poets” rather than “An Anthology of Negro Verse.” According to Cullen, skin color was the only factor distinguishing black poets from white poets in the early twentieth century. “This country’s Negro writers may here and there turn some singular facet toward the literary sun,” Cullen wrote, “but in the main, since theirs is also the heritage of the English language, their work will not present any serious aberration from the poetic tendencies of their times.” Cullen believed that black poets were fundamentally American poets and that any distinction between the two was “needless.”

Front cover  of <a href="(BCL)&amp;query=any,contains,ALMA-BC21356194250001021">Native Son</a> with original dust jacket, 03-187, General Collection, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Front cover of Native Son with original dust jacket, 03-187, General Collection, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Richard Wright was one of the most widely acclaimed black writers of the twentieth century. Born in 1908 in Mississippi, Wright left the Jim Crow South for Chicago in 1927, where he joined the Communist Party and began developing his writing craft. In 1937, Wright moved to New York. Wright came to national attention after the publication of his short story collection Uncle Tom’s Children in 1938, which also earned him a 1939 Guggenheim Fellowship. In 1940, Wright published the novel Native Son, followed by Black Boy in 1945. In 1946, disillusioned by the racial climate of the United States, Wright moved to Paris and became a permanent American expatriate. He continued to write extensively until his death in 1960.

Title page of  <a href = "http://bc-primo.hosted.exlibrisgroup.com/primo_library/libweb/action/dlSearch.do?institution=BCL&vid=bclib&onCampus=true&group=GUEST&loc=local,scope:(BCL)&query=any,contains,ALMA-BC21356194250001021 >Native Son</a>, 03-187, General Collection, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

Title page of Native Son, 03-187, General Collection, John J. Burns Library, Boston College.

The Burns Library possesses a first edition of Wright’s Native Son. The book retains its original dust jacket and was originally owned—as evidenced by an extant bookplate—by Gertrude M. Dagnino of Wakefield, MA. The novel is illustrative of the themes of race, violence, and class that emerge throughout Richard Wright’s work. Native Son follows the character of Bigger Thomas, a black nineteen year old living in Chicago’s South Side who commits two murders and is put on trial for his life. In Native Son, Wright sought to demonstrate the systemic societal, economic, and political forces behind black crime and poverty. The novel was a best-seller, and was the first book written by a black American author selected by the Book of the Month Club. Despite its popularity, Native Son drew criticism—most notably from James Baldwin—for its stereotypical depiction of a brutish black male. The popularity and controversy surrounding Native Son is a testament to the novel’s significance within American history and the American literary canon.

In addition to possessing great literary merit, these three texts guide readers through several of the most significant moments in American history: slavery, the Harlem Renaissance, and the tense racial climate of mid-twentieth century US. The works of Phillis Wheatley, Countee Cullen, and Richard Wright therefore underscore the literary and historical significance of black writers to a broader understanding of American cultural history. Their work should be read, discussed, and appreciated throughout the year, not only in February.

If you would like to learn more about these books, contact the Burns Library Reading Room at 617-552-4861 or burnsref@bc.edu.  For more information on African American Literature, read BC Librarian Brendan Rapple’s African American Literature Guide and the American Antiquarian Society’s African American History Resources page.

  • Grace West, Burns Library Reading Room Student Assistant & BC’15

 

 

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