William Nickerson Bates manuscripts on Euripides and Sophocles, or “where I fall in love with academia all over again”

I put aside my last collection, a former Penn professor’s manuscripts for books on Euripides and Sophocles, about two hours ago to head to some meetings with two of my most trusted professors. Our conversations centered upon my decision to go for a PhD in Ancient History, the process of applying to do so (for the second time around, but that’s another story), and my anxieties about the whole mess. A particularly long and winding portion of one conversation about my academic history ended with the question: “Are you saying all of this because you want to figure out how to put it in your personal statement, or is this you telling me that you’re having anxieties about whether or not you want to do this?”

My answer was so sudden and succinct that I could have sworn it jumped straight out of my heart or my gut, or whatever idiom suits it best in English (but I’m going to go with my φρήν, because, as per usual, the Greeks did it better). “No.” I said, “This is what I want to do. I want to do this because it is hard, because it is the only thing that has ever challenged me so much and so satisfyingly, and because it is the only thing in the world where I feel I could wake up every morning for a very, very long time still wanting to do it.”

And I came back to my collection with a wholly different mindset. The box I opened when I returned to my desk was not, as it had been previously, a box filled with my aspirations, the things I one day hoped to do in the optative; it was a box filled with my future indicative, despite the fact that its contents most certainly reflect something closer to the imperfect. It was no longer a pile of outdated theories that I could refute if, for one reason or another, my work led me to Classical reception from the late 1920s to the early 1940s; it was, however antiquated or disproven, a physical manifestation of the discourse that I pursue. This professor woke up every morning and did this thing that I am doing, and he did it from at least 1886 to 1940.

This, I realize, is an awful lot of depth for a collection that takes up 0.4 linear feet and fits neatly into one box, with not a single sheet protruding out of line. I think a lot of people probably find this kind of collection rather boring, page upon typewritten page of what would eventually become a book you can now purchase on the internet for three dollars, but I found it totally engrossing. Now, of course, this wasn’t totally unrelated to the fact that I’m a Classicist or that I happened to write my senior thesis on Euripides, but that certainly wasn’t everything. Earlier this year I worked on the Melvin Benarde papers, which dealt with health and the environment, neither of which falls anywhere near my area of expertise, and I loved the experience every bit as much as I did this one, so I figured there must be something more. It was the conversation with my professor that made me realize what it was: I am utterly fascinated by the history and process of academia.

Before the fortuitous confluence of all these ideas, I wasn’t totally sure how much of a purpose it really served to process collections like this one; I mean, if the published version of the book is out there, and if the author isn’t a famous historical figure, why would anyone schlep all the way to Philadelphia to come look at a typewritten copy with the occasional correction or note? The thing is: there’s really not much value if you’re only interested in reading the text, but if you’re interested in the process, these manuscripts are fascinating. The published books don’t show you where the author got tired and his handwritten notes began to look like squiggles, where he literally cut up his work and pasted it back together, or where he would have had to switch typewriters to change languages (which makes me feel awfully silly about whining over the two clicks it takes to switch back and forth from polytonic Greek). I’m sure I’m not the only nerd/scholar who feels this way, so here are some highlights from the collection. I hope you enjoy them as much as I have!

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