The Writers’ Children: the Wolfert Family Papers

When the impractical and somewhat hazardous desire to write books is passed down through a family, the results are often dangerous. Consider the Wolfert family, whose papers I recently had the pleasure of processing here in the Special Collections Processing Center. The father, Ira Wolfert, was a well-known war correspondent (his coverage of the Battle of Guadalcanal won a Pulitzer) and the author of Tucker’s People, a novel concerning the numbers racket and political corruption in 1930’s New York City which was a post-war bestseller: a feat he would never again equal. The mother, Helen Wolfert, was a school-teacher, an intermittently successful poet, and a polemical essayist on a wide range of subjects, from the space program to the Song of Songs—but was beset throughout her life with rejection and persistent lack of recognition. Their son, Michael, fancied himself a novelist but could best be described as a career bohemian, turning down plum positions in UNESCO (the then-new cultural wing of the UN) and dragging numerous wives and children from Paris to Tangier to Sweden as he attempted to produce a novel that would justify these peregrinations.  (Their daughter, Ruth, seems to have briefly entertained literary ambitions, but decided—in a move that seems commendable and somewhat fitting—to pursue a career in family therapy.)

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Raman and the Rays of Light

Philosophical Magazine is one the oldest and longest-running scientific periodicals—published from 1798 to the present day (now published by Taylor & Francis). The name of the journal derives from when the term “natural philosophy” covered aspects of science including: astronomy, biology, botany, chemistry, geology, medicine, physics, and zoology; in addition to natural phenomena such as aurora, earthquakes, lightning strikes, and volcanic eruptions (Davis, 2010, p. 1).

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Chandrasekhara Venkata Raman (britannica.com)

Among the many notable scientists who have appeared in the pages of Philosophical Magazine—including Lord Kelvin, Niels Bohr, and Sir Joseph John Thomson—is Chandrasekhara Venkata (“C.V.”) Raman (1888–1970), an Indian physicist who won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1930 “for his work on the scattering of light and for the discovery of the effect named after him.” The Nobel Committee described the Raman Effect:

“When light meets particles that are smaller than the light’s wavelength, the light spreads in different directions. This occurs, for example, when light packets – photons – encounter molecules in a gas. In 1928 Venkata Raman discovered that a small portion of the scattered light acquires other wavelengths than that of the original light. This is because some of the incoming photons’ energy can be transferred to a molecule, giving it a higher level of energy. Among other things, the phenomenon is used to analyze different types of material” (Nobel Prize, 1930).

The newly processed collection Philosophical Magazine galley proofs for science articles, 1920-1921, Ms. Coll. 1329, consists of galley proofs of science research articles for Philosophical Magazine published from 1920 to 1921. Most of the galley proofs show proofreader edits, as well as some author edits, and many of the proofs are accompanied by manuscripts or typescripts of the articles, which makes for a fascinating glimpse into the publishing process for this scientific journal in the 1920s.

 

Before his 1928 discovery of the Raman Effect, Raman and fellow scientist Bhabonath Banerji published a 1921 article in Philosophical Magazine (volume 41, issue 243) entitled, “On the Colours of Mixed Plates” (the galley with handwritten edits is pictured above).

While the article, which investigates “the colours exhibited by a mixed plate or film consisting of two interspersed transparent media,” is far above the head of this non-scientist, I was able to appreciate the publication process exhibited in the files found in this collection (Raman and Banerji, 1921, p. 338). Along with the galley proof of “On the Colours of Mixed Plates,” included in the collection is the typewritten manuscript (pictured below).

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Box 2, Folder 16

Also included is the illustration used for the article, shown below (left) alongside the printed illustration (right), which is cut and pasted to a board– ah, the days before Photoshop!

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Box 2, Folder 16

This collection, which is now open, will be useful to researchers interested in the publication process for some of the most notable scientists of the 1920s and the journal that presented their groundbreaking ideas.

 

References

Professor E.A. Davis (2010). Philosophical Magazine Archive, Philosophical Magazine, 90:S1, 1-2, DOI: 10.1080/14786431003659149

The Nobel Prize (1930). Sir Chandrasekhara Venkata Raman – Facts. Retrieved from https://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/physics/laureates/1930/raman-facts.html

C.V. Raman M.A. & Bhabonath Banerji M.Sc. (1921). XXX. On the colours of mixed plates.—Part I, Philosophical Magazine, 41:243, 338-347, DOI: 10.1080/14786442108636226

“Women Ain’t No Fools” – The Paul Eldridge Papers

Paul Eldridge (1888-1982) was a poet, novelist, essayist, short story writer, and teacher. Eldridge was born in Bucharest, raised in Philadelphia, and spent most of his life in New York City. He married fellow writer, stage actress, and soprano, Sylvette De La Mar (also known as Sylvette De Lamar, née Sylvia Reiss). Whenever I catalog a collection, I love to find photographs that allow me to picture the collection’s creator as I work, so imagine my delight when I came across these dapper photos of Paul and Sylvette, below.

 

Paul viewed Sylvette as his intellectual equal and dedicated all of his books to her. Alongside this respect for his wife and life partner, Paul Eldridge displayed a playful irreverence with regard to concepts of male and female roles, as is evident in the subjects and titles of many of his works.

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The Charlotte Cushman Club records: A Window on Philadelphia Theater History

Perhaps even more than their male colleagues, actresses are often treated like cultural icons dangerously running on the sharp edge between scandal and sanctity, supported and haunted at the same time by an endless flow of more or less authorized anecdotes, interviews, photographs, Instagram posts, Facebook likes, and Twitter followers. But a century ago, in an age in which theater districts still served as meeting places between prostitutes and their clients, the reputation of actresses, especially in the earlier stages of their careers, was often considered dubious unless otherwise proven. In Philadelphia, a group of wealthy theater-lovers thought that young actresses should at least have the right to escape “the brothel-like atmosphere of cheap hotels and the rude stares of corset drummers;” and in 1907, they opened a new organization, the Charlotte Cushman Club, to provide them respectable lodging while performing in the city.

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The Charlotte Cushman Club house at 239 South Camac Street, Philadelphia

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Samuel Roth, “Prometheus of the Unprintable”

Samuel Roth (1893 –1974) was an American publisher and writer. Yet, he was so much more, as I discovered when I processed the Jay A. Gertzman collection on Samuel Roth, 1926-2014, Ms Coll. 1315. Jay A. Gertzman, Professor Emeritus at Mansfield University, describes Roth:

“Samuel Roth publicized himself as a literary Johnny Appleseed, bringing to ordinary Americans the modern literature of two continents, despite its sexual explicitness. He was also a master of prurient advertising of borderline mail order sex pulps and sensational human interest stories. He put himself in the direct line of fire that municipal, state and federal law enforcement officials and moral entrepreneurs reserved for pariah capitalists.”

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Photo via Columbia University Rare Book and Manuscript Library

Roth faced many legal battles and short periods of jail time over the course of his career. He is most well-known for his unauthorized publication of excerpts from James Joyce’s Ulysses in the periodical Two Worlds Monthly. This unauthorized release of Ulysses provoked an International Protest organized by Joyce and Joyce’s publisher, Sylvia Beach, in 1927.

The minority ruling from his 1957 Roth v. United States case provided the precedent for the 1959 case Grove v. Christenberry, which changed the definition of obscenity, making it easier to publish explicit material if it had artistic, literary, political, or scientific merit.

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Box 3, Folder 2

This collection features research that Jay A. Gertzman conducted in preparation for writing his book, Samuel Roth, Infamous Modernist, which was published by University of Florida Press in 2013. There are photocopies of Roth’s publications, prison letters, and legal documents, as well as original research notes by Gertzman. Roth’s other publications included Bumarap: The Story of a Male Virgin, published in 1947 (below left), and the periodical Good Times: A Revue of the World of Pleasure, published from 1954-1956 (below right).

Among the most entertaining correspondence in the collection is from “anthologist of erotic humor” Gershon Legman (1917-1999) to Gertzman, a sample of which is below.

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This collection of research on Samuel Roth– aka the “Prometheus of the Unprintable,” as writer Robert Antrim referred to him in 1973– is now open for use. Researchers may also want to check out the Columbia University Rare Book and Manuscript Library, which has in its holdings the Samuel Roth papers, 1907-1994.

Frozen Dolls and Famous Actresses: A Tale of Two Charlottes

Somewhere in the New England countryside, first half of the nineteenth century. It is a cold winter night. In a lonely home on the side of a mountain, a young woman named Charlotte is dressing up to go to the ball. Only, the ball will be held in an inn fifteen miles away, and the only available means of transportation is the open sleigh of Charlotte’s boyfriend Charles. “Be careful,” says Charlotte’s mother to her daughter, “make sure to wrap up in a warm blanket, if you don’t want to freeze out there!” “There is no way, mom,” Charlotte responds, “how can I expect my splendid dress to be seen if I muffle myself up in that ugly blanket? My silken cloak will be quite enough.” The bottom line: Charlotte is found frozen to death by her beloved Charles at the end of their ride on the snow.

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Janeites unite to remember an amazing woman!

Almost every day as I drag myself out of bed (I am not a morning person), I wish that I could spend the day curled up with a book and a lovely cup of coffee. Today, however, I am recommending that we all take at least a few moments, select our favorite Jane Austen novel (everyone should have at least one!!!), and drink a cup of tea to celebrate and remember this extraordinary woman who is still so very much alive 200 years after her death on July 18, 2017.

From films, tv shows, to new novels based on or inspired by her originals, the lovely Jane is very much present in our world.  You can join a society and you don’t even have to live in the UK to do so … the Jane Austen Society of North America even has an Eastern Pennsylvania Region chapter.

Here is a watercolor portrait, presumably of Jane Austen … we don’t know who painted it or when, but it was found in Volume I of a three-volume edition of Emma (London: J. Murray, 1816), held by the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts. (call number: PR4034.E5 1816).  The watercolor can be found in box 1, folder 35 in our Miscellaneous Manuscripts collection.

Sing Ho, the Franklin Inn Club!

The lives of writers and scholars in early 20th century Philadelphia often involved the Franklin Inn Club, the artistic society, founded in 1902, which claimed among its members a large percentage of the city’s leading cultural lights. But despite the collective intellectual and artistic intensity housed within its relatively small space, the atmosphere at the Franklin Inn was remarkably relaxed; the building on Camac Street served as a gathering place for lunch, after-work dinner and drinks, and occasional picnic outings to nearby scenic locales. It also hosted an impressive number of amateur theatricals, one of which was held yearly to celebrate Ben Franklin’s birthday—and, judging by the programs I’ve found in the papers of John Louis Haney, president of Central High School from 1920 to 1943, noted scholar of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and long-term member of the Club, these theatricals were pretty riotous affairs, and prove that a literary society of that era was never in danger of taking itself too seriously.

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We begin with an evening’s entertainment from 1917: The Yellow Dye, or, the Moulting Hero: a farce tragedy in five acts, being a pirated dramatization of Jorg Jib’s popular novel The Yellow Dove. Where to begin with the many joys on display within this small piece of paper? For one thing, we have a window into the literary tastes of the Club members; The Yellow Dove, an enormously successful popular novel at the time, clearly came in for some riotous and none-too-kind ribbing for lines such “she sank low in her armchair, her senses numb from the horror of the revelation. Her thoughts became confused like that of a sick person awaking from a nightmare to half consciousness, peopled with strange beautiful images doing the dark things of dreams. Cyril—her Cyril—a spy!”

From the gently sarcastic character appellations (“the hanemic hero,” “the ‘usky ‘eroine”; clearly George Gibbs had a fondness for cockney dialect) to the name itself, one can imagine the sort of “farce tragedy” the audience would have to deal with. All this, in addition to the all-male cast (the Franklin Inn didn’t admit women until 1980) would have lent the evening an air of appealing absurdity.

But if the adaptations were charming, it was the original plays that were the most riotous. The one-act play advertised for January 6, 1921 simply entitled Hootch has no relation to any other extant literary work, and perhaps that’s all for the best—but the tantalizing glimpses provided by the program raise all sorts of questions. Who is this family, the Swags—and what are they interested in? Why is Volstead Hunter “a martyr to duty?” And—perhaps most importantly—how can anyone with the name Swag, no matter how young, truly be an “innocent child?”

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(Actually, the most important question is probably how Dr. (Ellis Paxson) Oberholtzer, famed biographer and club secretary, managed the “mature but still fascinating” role of Mrs. Swag.)

Calling such a play Hootch may have had to do with the play’s contents, but it also signals the implied state of the audience attending such a performance—and indeed, we have written evidence of the fondness for alcoholic refreshment evinced by the club’s members, in the form of an ode to cultural drinking.

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While undated, one can imagine, considering its inclusion in the archives among other Franklin Inn material from the period, that its ironic repudiation of demon liquor was a reaction to the rules of Prohibition. But regardless of its era, its lines—alongside the spirited amateur theatricals it complements—give a sense of the ways in which the Inn’s membership melded high culture with a high tolerance for satire and spirits.

“I was very much disappointed …”

The last thing I anticipated when processing a collection of 19th century business letters (the Austin and Austin business letters) from a paper mill, was to discover a character like Ruth Benjamin (1770-1857). She first caught my attention, because the vast majority of those who were writing to the company Austin & Austin were men putting in requests for paper orders and discussing money. Amongst this sea of men, both Ruth’s gender and the tone she used in her letters stood out.

At first, it was unclear to me what her relationship with the owner of the paper mill, Abner Austin (1771-1848), was. In her letters to Mr. Austin in 1817, at which point she would have been 47, only a year older than he, she takes the tone of a stern mother. She berates him in each letter, voicing her “disappointment” in him over and over in each letter for not sending her money, or sending her less money than she had wished for. Though the topic of these is the same as many of the other letters in this collection, her tone is far from professional. At first, I thought that she might be family member, looking for Abner to help her with her financial woes, as various family members of his had done in other letters. However, in one instance, she signs a letter to him “your friend” which, though uncharacteristically friendly in tone for Mrs. Benjamin, suggested that she was not in fact a family member.

After a bit of poking around, I discovered that Abner Austin and his brother had originally procured their paper mill and the land it stood on from a Mr. Nathan Benjamin in 1813. According to death records, Mr. Benjamin had passed away that same spring. As the Benjamins had only one daughter, Lucy (1791-1892), and no one else to take over the family business, it seems likely that either Mr. Benjamin’s death, or some circumstance that may have led to his demise, instigated the sale of the mill and property. However, this does not explain why the widow Benjamin continued to remain in contact with Abner Austin, or why she continued to ask him for money. Unfortunately, the handful of letters contained in this collection provide no real answers to this mystery.

Whatever the ongoing nature of the relationship between Ruth Benjamin and Abner Austin was after the purchase of the paper, one thing is clear, she was a firebrand who had no compunctions about demanding what she felt was due to her.

Through Being Cool: Arthur Hobson Quinn and the Modernists

Now that the worth of literary Modernism has become a commonplace within academic circles, one can forget how hostile most American academics were to experimental work in the first part of the 20th century. How delightful, then, to stumble, in his papers, across a handwritten note by Arthur Hobson Quinn, longtime professor of English at the University of Pennsylvania, assessing the early work of T.S. Eliot:

“He can work phrases that are bitter and at times clever, and he has become very superior to all forms of life; he does not hesitate however to speak of his aunt as living in a fashionable neighborhood, and he betrays other signs of arrested development, such as a belief that being up at dawn is an achievement.”

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No contemporary academic would dare treat an iconic Modernist with such flippancy! But even by 1950, when this note was written, the place for the movement within the academy was by no means clear, despite Eliot’s preeminent position of influence; traditional scholars like Quinn were still openly hostile to what others saw as innovations. That academics like Quinn ended up the losers in the debate only makes their reactions fascinating, fruitful, and often quite funny; the way he treats contemporary writers who exhibit Modernist (or even moderately experimental ) tendencies represents just how wide the chasm really was, even twenty years after the movement’s height.

In Quinn’s lecture notes, one can see this hostility expressed over and over again, especially in his assessment of contemporary poetry. For example, his dismissal of Marianne Moore’s 1944 collection Nevertheless as “only 7 poems on Elephants, etc – not important,” and his inclusion of her in a folder called “Contemporary Poets, B Grade.”

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What, exactly, did Quinn present in opposition to such experiments? His aesthetic perspective is laid out well in a lecture entitled “Eliot and Others,” the notes for which are contained in this archive. “The best definition of poetry is that it is rhythmical language containing the elements of truth and beauty,” Quinn writes. “Contemporary American poetry has given up all three of these qualities to a marked extent.” Perhaps fittingly for a scholar of American theatre, Quinn sees the only hope for contemporary American poetry in musical theater, where “there are verses often of an unusual quality.”

Clearly, Quinn felt that contemporary American poetry was taking a turn for the worse—or, perhaps more importantly, a turn away from his own comprehension. In reading Quinn’s notes, one can sense a frustration with his inability to penetrate verse which seemed to him purposefully obscure, and his hostility to “difficulty” as an aesthetic project. In his assessment of Wallace Stevens, for example, he writes: “In his verse ‘Man Carrying Thing’ [Stevens] says, ‘the poem must resist the intelligence / almost successfully,’ which explains why he is not a poet.” The definition of who is (and, more importantly, who is not) a poet is one of Quinn’s rhetorical commonplaces. In order to reject the Modernist project, it was necessary to exclude them from the poetic canon entirely.

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But what did it mean to be a poet? To Quinn, poetry was meant to be expressive, clear, and above all populist, even nationalist. In his lecture “The Magnificent Phrase,” he claims that the easy transmission of a phrase—its memorable nature, its accessibility—is what allows for poetry’s greatness, and its greatness is linked to a project of national identity. It’s telling that the contemporary poet Quinn references in this lecture, Edwin Arlington Robinson, is featured for his stanzas on Lincoln: “The face we see was never young / nor could it ever have been old.”  Clearly poetry is particularly successful when wedded to an iconic representation of political power.

Considering this positivist, patriotic conception of poetry, it’s no wonder that the particular combination of pessimism and ambiguity that unified disparate strands of Modernism would be so difficult for Quinn and other traditional academics to accept. It was more than simply an aesthetic challenge; it was an assault on an entire worldview. (At the same time that he was writing these notes on contemporary poetry, Quinn was overseeing the creation of a massive textbook of American Literature entitled The Literature of the American People, and had already undertaken a vast socio-historical investigation of national identity entitled The Soul of America.)  In the wake of World War II and the beginning of the Cold War, academics like Quinn, invested in the idea of American Literature as a viable, coherent academic discipline, would find little common cause with the late Modernists, for whom fragmentation and ambiguity were the rule. Consider Quinn’s judgment of the work of William Carlos Williams: “no poetry=no unity or coherence.”

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But even this seemingly ironclad judgment on Williams contains a kernel of self-doubt: “the Wanderer is a narrator—seems to be symbolic but I can’t tell about what.” This inability to comprehend, to make sense of the fractured nature of late Modernism, represented a threat to Quinn’s position as an authority. To add insult to injury, Quinn’s eyesight was fading, which made repetitious reading literally painful.  Several times in his notes, Quinn reminds himself to ask his wife, Helen, to read the poems and see if she can make anything of them; whether this is a reference to physical or metaphorical legibility is impossible to say.

This brings us back to Quinn’s attacks on Eliot.  As a poet/critic who managed to move from the vanguard of Modernist experimentation to a more comfortable position as one of the main critical influences of New Criticism, Eliot represented a much greater threat than Moore or Stevens or Williams. It was easy enough for Quinn to repudiate the work of individual Modernist poets, and exile them to the land of “not-poetry,” but Eliot seized the power of definition for himself. His work represented a reorientation of poetics towards a kind of academic Classicism, the antithesis of the broadly populist and even nationalist vision which Quinn championed. “It is an example of the semi-profound type of criticism,” Quinn writes. “very positive in statements, at times discriminating, but constantly shedding implications of profound depths of knowledge on Eliot’s part, especially of Foreign Literature and criticism, usually of books which the general reader would certainly not know, and which impress him or not, just as he is impressionable or not by that ex cathedra criticism.” For Quinn, interested in a common cultural legacy for the U.S. reader, prizing clarity and transmissibility above all things, Eliot’s insistence on difficulty and on European cultural tradition seemed an elitist boondoggle.

In hindsight, one can see in Quinn’s reaction to Eliot certain commonalities with the very poets he maligned. In his blanket hostility to Modernist experimentation, Quinn failed to realize that there were many practitioners who disliked Eliot’s academic orientation just as much as he did. Of his first reading of “The Waste Land,” William Carlos Williams wrote: “I felt at once that it had set me back twenty years, and I’m sure it did. Critically Eliot returned us to the classroom just at the moment when I felt we were on the point of an escape to matters much closer to the essence of a new art form itself—rooted in the locality which would give it fruit.” Indeed, with a work like Paterson, Williams’ practice of historical quotation as method of establishing an American “voice” hewed more closely to Quinn’s conception of clarity and accessibility than he might have realized, albeit in a fragmented, anguished form.  But Quinn’s anti-experimental perspective couldn’t allow for such nuances. He seemed to feel that the very idea of experimentation was a fad: an aberration in the development of cultural understanding. “Perhaps he wants simply to be fashionable,” he writes of Eliot, in the last in a series of notes in response to “Four Quartets.”

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In response to this dangerous fad, Quinn—ever the scholar of drama—turned away from written poetry and towards the Broadway stage, where he could still find the sort of direct, plainspoken lyricism that he felt epitomized the “spirit of America”: most notably, Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma. In this, he prefigured some of the interest Postmodernist critics would have in popular culture as a whole—though not in the manner Quinn would have liked. The sort of unified nationalist cultural project he trumpeted was soon lost forever, a casualty of the 60’s, and the ironic gaze of Postmodernism, which turned the tools of the Modernists onto the very pillars of American popular culture that Quinn championed.

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All this makes Quinn’s notes seem like something of a last stand. When looking over the production of his favorite poets from the early 20th century, his notes bemoan that so many of them simply stopped producing work as the century moved on. Seeing examples of the work he champions, one can easily see why. The strict meter, clear rhymes, and somewhat simplistic images contained in “Lilacs of the City,” by Brian Hooker, one of the librettists who Quinn claimed “surpasses anything I have seen by contemporary poets,” are so out of step with what has happened to poetry in the second half of the 20th century that we can see, in hindsight, that Quinn was right to make the terms of the argument “poetry v. non-poetry.” The whole nature of the form was being redefined before his eyes, and Quinn was on the losing end.