Alice Kessler-Harris, R. Gordon Hoxie Professor of History at Columbia University, made several trips to the Ransom Center between 2003 and 2011. Her biography, A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman, will be published by Bloomsbury Press on April 24. She has written many books, but this is her first biography.
Lillian Hellman sent her papers to the Harry Ransom Center in several different consignments. The initial agreement included only her manuscripts, but when she died, her will provided that all her “literary property” be conveyed to the library. The will also specifically excluded “such correspondence that is personal and confidential in nature or of no public or literary value.” The provision created a bit of a conundrum. Despite her celebrity, Hellman tried hard to control information about her private life; and yet to those interested in her place in twentieth-century politics and letters, every aspect of that life is of public interest.
As I worked through the 120 plus boxes of papers and material in the Ransom Center’s Lillian Hellman collection, I was acutely aware of this conundrum. How much of what I encountered was meant, even inadvertently, to shape Hellman’s image? How much would she have omitted had she been able to speak from the grave? Was I reading what Hellman would have wanted me to know about her? Could I read between the lines, find the odd document that revealed what she would have preferred to keep to herself?
My mind was set at rest when I discovered tucked into the files some of those wonderful public/private items that revealed her human face and that suggested that no matter how carefully one tries, the private will somehow become public. In Hellman’s case, I found among the several manuscripts of each play, among the letters to her agents protesting one decision and promoting another, among the records of who she wanted invited to which party, some far more humble papers. They were lists of instructions to the domestic helpers she employed. The lists tended to be quite specific, often filled with diatribes about what had been done wrong as well as what should be done to make her life comfortable. They ranged from mandating a daily bath towel and twice-weekly bedding changes to the frequency with which furniture should be polished and with what kinds of oil. They identified which items of clothing might be washed, which dry-cleaned, and which cleaners could best handle the most expensive garments. They noted the right time to fill ice buckets and provided instructions for waiting at the table. Sometimes these instructions were undated handwritten notes on lined paper, and others they were letters left for new members of her staff. All of them evoked the expectation of good and faithful service.
The private is, I now believe, concealed between the lines of the public—sometimes literally as it is in those boxes, sometimes symbolically—but always somewhere there.
Helen Moore, a fellow and Tutor in English at Corpus Christi College, University of Oxford, speaks Thursday night at the Ransom Center about the history of the King James Bible translation. The program will be webcast live at 7 p.m. CST.
Moore’s interdisciplinary research has been founded on bringing neglected texts back to academic attention. She was lead curator of Manifold Greatness: Oxford and the Making of the King James Bible, the exhibition held at the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford in 2011 in celebration of the 400th anniversary of the translation of the King James Bible. Moore and Julian Reid co-edited Manifold Greatness: The Making of the King James Bible, the book that accompanied its associated exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library and now at the Ransom Center.
In this video, Moore and other scholars discuss the challenging task that the translators of the King James Version faced.
This event is co-sponsored by Corpus Christi College, University of Oxford and The Wall Street Journal.
Many scholars rank the invention of eyeglasses among the most important contributions to humankind in the last 2,000 years. Yet, the inventor of this now thoroughly quotidian piece of technology remains anonymous. Indeed the inventor (or inventors) will almost certainly never be known, given the numerous conflicting claims, lack of specificity, and scarcity of surviving documentation.
What scholars do know about the history of eyeglasses is that they were probably invented at the end of the thirteenth century by a craftsman living near Pisa. The evidence originates from a passage by Friar Giordano da Pisa who recounts having met the anonymous craftsman in 1286. A friend of Giordano named Friar Allesandro della Spina learned how to make them shortly thereafter and shared the secret with the public. A number of other possible inventors of eyeglasses have been posited over the centuries, all of which have finally been proven spurious in recent scholarship.1
During the early period of the production of eyeglasses, they were referred to as vitreos ab oculis ad legendum (eyeglasses for eyes for reading) and oglarios de vitro (spectacles with glass lenses). Eventually these rather clunky terms were shortened to occhiali and ocularia. Either way, the evidence indicates that spectacles were probably invented in Italy at the end of the thirteenth century, and by the early fourteenth century, they were being produced and sold in Venice.
Scholars believe that by the end of the fifteenth century, spectacles were probably being sold and produced throughout most of Europe, with countries like England importing them by the thousands. Florence led the way in manufacturing and apparently produced some of the highest quality spectacles. Despite this widespread production, there are relatively few surviving specimens. Indeed, although Florence was known to be a major producer, archeologists have found only one pair of rivet spectacles in that city.
It is with this in mind that it becomes all the more significant to find evidence of a pair of medieval spectacles anywhere at all. One can imagine why the recent discovery of what appears to be an impression of a pair of medieval rivet spectacles in one of the Ransom Center’s early printed books was cause for excitement. While conducting a survey of manuscript waste found in early printed books I noticed a faint reddish-brown impression of a pair of spectacles on the rear parchment endpapers of a copy of the Opera of Fr. Luigi di Granata. The endpapers in this book comprise a piece of parchment taken from a page in a medieval manuscript (it was a common practice in the hand-press period to reuse old disbound parchment manuscripts for endpapers, pastedowns, stubbs, or spine linings).
A discovery like this is fairly uncommon. Among the many thousands of medieval manuscripts and early printed books in U.S. libraries, only a handful of similar discoveries have been made: a pair of spectacles found in the Folger copy 46 of the First Folio at the Folger Shakespeare Library; the outline of a pair spectacles carved into the wooden boards of a sixteenth-century volume in the rare books department at Catholic University of America and in a fifthteenth-century Breviary at the Fribourg, Bibliothèque Cantonale et Universitaire (seen in Christopher De Hamel’s History of Illuminated Manuscripts, fig. 193); and an impression in a manuscript at the Walters Art Museum. One medieval scholar who has conducted a survey of more than 3,000 manuscripts in the United States informed me that he had encountered only one such example.
The earliest spectacles comprised two convex glass disks enclosed in metal or bone rims with handles centrally connected by a rivet and could either clamp onto the nostrils or be held before the eyes. Later specimens had wire and even leather rims. We know this not only from surviving examples but also from artistic depictions. A painter from northern Italy working in 1352 provides us with the first depiction of spectacles. It appears in a fresco that adorns the Chapter House of a Dominican monastery in Treviso, Italy. The Cardinal Hugh of St. Cher can be seen hard at work in his study with quill, parchment, and a pair of early spectacles on his nose. St. Jerome, the famous scholar-saint and translator of the Latin Bible, also was frequently depicted wearing spectacles in his study.
Advanced scientific methods for dating aside, we can get a good estimate of the age of the eyeglasses that left the impression on the parchment by first examining the script on the parchment (to establish the earliest possible date) and then by looking at the shape of the impression itself. The text is what is known as Southern Textualis or Rotunda. Southern Textualis was popular in Italy and Southern Europe between the late 1200s and the late 1400s. Alternately, the 1568 publication of the printed text provides us with a possible later date. Regardless, the spectacles conform to the physical features and rough time period for early medieval leather-framed spectacles.* But dare we hope for more? Because the book was printed in Venice, Italy, the tantalizing possibility exists that the wearer who deposited his spectacles in between the parchment leaves may have been using a pair of the earliest eyeglasses ever made, because Florence, where eyeglasses were invented, is less than 165 miles from Venice. Although we may never know exactly how (or when) these spectacles left their mark on the parchment, their faint impressions nevertheless offer an intriguing glimpse into the early history this important invention.
1This topic, and the history of spectacles in general, is thoroughly summarized in Vincent Ilardi’s Renaissance Vision from Spectacles to Telescopes (Philadelphia, PA: American Philosophical Society, 2007).
*The author now concludes that the shape of the spectacles is closer to that of leather-framed spectacles, not rivet spectacles, as this post originally stated. Consequently, a better date range would be late 1400s and circa 1500s. Thanks to David Fleishman for his assistance with identification. For an example of leather-framed spectacles, see those of Willibald Pirckheimer (1470-1530).
Please click on thumbnails for larger images.
Image: Rear flyleaf: It’s difficult to tell exactly how the spectacles left their impression, but they must have been sandwiched between the two parchment endleaves for an extended period of time. Photo by Pete Smith.
The Ransom Center’s current exhibition The King James Bible: It’s History and Influencetells the little-known story of one of the most widely read and printed books in the history of the English language. Exhibition co-curator Danielle Brune Sigler offers a list of recommended reading that traces the history of the influence of this translation.
Few writers have been as biblically obsessed as John Bunyan (1628–1688). In his spiritual autobiography, he writes of being literally accosted, struck, and pursued by Bible verses wherever he went. His life, like his writings, was a biblical allegory. One of his most famous works, The Pilgrim’s Progress,was the most popular book in English, apart from the Bible itself. Bunyan wrote the allegory during his imprisonment for preaching without the sanction of the Church of England. The novel follows the central character Christian on his journey “from this world to that which is to come,” and is evocative of such works as Dante’s Divine Comedy. The plan or map helps readers follow the protagonist’s journey and provides an effective plot summary as well, as it depicts major events of Christian’s voyage to the Celestial City. Both the style and language of The Pilgrim’s Progress demonstrate the profound influence the King James translation had on Bunyan.
From the very beginning of printing, the Bible was regarded as the ultimate challenge. It presented printers and artists with the daunting task of creating an appropriate medium for communicating sacred text. They met this challenge with widely divergent methods. Some favored sharp, clean typography and traditional artistic approaches, placing as little as possible between the reader and the word. Others celebrated the text with elaborate typographical or artistic interpretations of biblical passages.
One such example of the latter is this large publication in which the text of Exodusis paired with 24 color lithographs by artist Marc Chagall (1887–1985). The prints show Chagall’s expert use of color and are representative of the lyrical, dream-like scenes for which the artist is known. The Story of Exodus represents a major focus of Chagall’s work, namely Judaic spirituality and Hasidism. One of the great lithographers of modern art, Chagall produced more than 1,000 original lithographs over the course of his career.
Author and journalist Max Holland accessed the Ransom Center’s Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein Watergate Papers while researching his book Leak: Why Mark Felt Became Deep Throat (University Press of Kansas, 2012), which is now available. Holland describes his work at the Center:
The genesis of Leak: Why Mark Felt Became Deep Throat began when I read a news item in 2007 about the opening of materials relating to Mark Felt in the Woodward and Bernstein Papers at the Ransom Center. Having done research in archives for years, one thing I’ve learned is that newly opened papers invariably contain new insights into a historical event, no matter how much it has already been written about.
I wasn’t disappointed after perusing the collection.
The single-most important documents, of course, were Bob Woodward’s typewritten notes from his encounters with W. Mark Felt, a.k.a. Deep Throat. Other Woodward notes from contemporaneous interviews with L. Patrick Gray III and Donald Santarelli were useful too. Early drafts of All the President’s Men, particularly those portions about Deep Throat that were excised from the published book, illuminated the Woodward/Felt relationship. Finally, an interview that Carl Bernstein and Woodward conducted with the late Howard Simons was vital for my book, since he was the only Post editor I could not interview myself.