The Penn Triumvirate

Between 1968 and 1983, the Music Department of the University of Pennsylvania was lucky enough to employ three of the major American composers of the twentieth century: George Crumb, George Rochberg, and Richard Wernick. Nicknamed “the triumvirate,” these three men helped push American classical music out of strict adherence to the European serialist tradition and into the post-war period of heterodox experimentation. Having recently had a chance to process the Richard Wernick papers here at the Kislak Center, a collection which includes scores by all three men, I’ve been particularly fascinated by the record it provides of their productive collaboration: most specifically, marks which Richard Wernick made in his capacity as conductor on scores by Crumb and by Rochberg—as well as the beauty of the scores themselves, testament to the flee-flowing creative power of the three composers in their primes.

Continue reading

Can You Guess What This Soviet Poster Is Trying To Tell You?

«Вредители льна.» Внизу: «Плодитесь, размножайтесь и наполняйте землю.»
Dmitrii Moor, “The Flax Pests.” On the bottom: “Be fruitful, multiply and replenish the earth.” P-05, Print Collection 18: Early Soviet Posters.

Early Soviet posters aimed to end the Old Regime in every way, and that included religion. The poster above is a part of the collection of 48 Soviet propaganda posters from the 1920s and 1930s. This fascinating collection includes anti-religious and anti-capitalist messages, as well as instructional posters on the new ways of Soviet childcare and parenting. Many of them explicitly criticized the clergy, blaming them for clouding the minds of the masses with distracting messages.

«Паси овца моя.» Dmitrii Moor, “Herd my sheep.” P-07, Print Collection 18: Early Soviet Posters.

The previous version of the finding aid for this collection included a note for Poster #5 (P-05), the first image in this post, describing it as “Image of God creating pests.” However, it is unlikely that this man was meant to be God. It was not common for Soviet posters to do so, since according to Soviet communism, there was no God. So any form of religion and faith was depicted as the clergy or figures that that religion itself used, like Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and angels. Sometimes propaganda portrayed it as Jesus riding on a tank, see the image below.

«Мирные намерения Господа Нашего Иисуса Христа. » На перьях написано: «Мир!!»
Внизу на газетах написано: «Форвертс, Тайм, руль, Письмо Зиновьева..» Dmitrii Moor, “Peaceful Intentions of Our Lord Christ.” On the feathers, it says, “Peace!!” On the bottom, the newspapers say, “Time, Forwards, Rule, The Zinoviev letter…” P-03, Print Collection 18: Early Soviet Posters.

So considering that the majority of the posters in this collection condemned Orthodox Christianity specifically, could the man from Poster 5 be a priest? Do the insects represent enemies of the people or God’s punishment? Or does the poster literally refer to bad harvests? Most of the time these posters portray religious authorities as conniving, as opposed to this whimsical-looking man. Or could it be God in general? Bezbozhnik newspaper sometimes portrayed a somewhat similar-looking man as God. Could this be a scene from some religious text or does this deal with collectivization? Share your thoughts with us!

A Small, Maltese Qurʾān

Penn has an eclectic mix of Arabic, Persian and Ottoman Turkish manuscripts that are now being cataloged as part of the Manuscripts of the Muslim World (MMW) project. The project is cataloging and digitizing previously ‘hidden’ materials from Penn and other Philadelphia area repositories. Along the way, lots of fun discoveries are being made about items that have been sitting, uncatalogued, on the shelves for years.

One of the first discoveries we made as part of the MMW project is Ms. Codex 1904, a small format Qurʾān. It measures only 87 mm square and from the outside, it looks much like any other pocket-sized Qurʾān with a blind tooled cover and a flap-style binding. A binding with a flap on the left side that goes over the fore-edge and under the upper cover is quite common for codices produced in the Islamicate world.

UPenn Ms. Codex 1904, front cover, blind tooled with flap binding
UPenn Ms. Codex 1904, former housing

When this Qurʾān first came into the collection at Penn, in 1966, it was housed in a bright red box with “al-Qurʾān Arabic MS. in Kufic III Century A.H.” stamped in gold on the spine. Were that stamp entirely true, then the manuscript would have been produced in the 800s CE, which is too early to be in any way likely, since only very few Arabic codices exist from that time period. Guessing solely from the outside, the fact that the codex is square instead of rectangular gives us a clue that it is probably North African in origin.

When we open the codex, we see that the hand is, in fact, a neat Maghribī, a word used to describe the style of writing from North Africa. The text is written in brown ink with red vowels. There are also yellow and blue dots scattered over the text. The copy is missing the first folio, so it begins with the beginning of the second sūrah (chapter). The missing folio would have held the opening chapter, al-Fātiḥah, and would likely have had an illuminated border or headpiece as well.

UPenn Ms. Codex 1904, f. 1r detail, beginning of al-Baqarah (2)

Since there are two other illuminated headings in the manuscript (f. 50r, 172v) in addition to decorated sūrah headings, we can get an idea of what kind of illuminations the copy would have had on the first leaf verso, where texts usually begin in Islamicate manuscripts. The colors used are blue, red, yellow. And, although it doesn’t sparkle in the picture, the somewhat splotchy decorations around the chapter headings are a flaking gold color and look exactly as if they had been written in glitter pen.


Now that we know this Qurʾān was likely produced in a North African context, we can see if the colophon tells us anything else about the writer.

UPenn Ms. Codex 1904, f. 238r, colophon framed in a yellow braid-pattern box with marginal medallion in red and blue

The colophon says that the copy was completed on Thursday morning in the mosque of the Muslims on the island of Malta, on 16 Muḥarram 1065 A.H (which is November 26, 1654 CE). The copyist gives his name as Muḥammad ibn ʻAbd al-Wāḥid ibn ʻAbd al-Qādir al-Fāsī (from Fez, Morocco). He further says that he is currently a prisoner on Malta, adding ‘May God destroy it’ after each mention of the island. That refrain implies that although he was able to produce art while being imprisoned, he certainly was not happy to be there and did not see eye to eye with The Order of the Knights of St. John who were ruling Malta at the time of the copying of this Qurʾān.

Although the colophon gives a comparatively large amount of information about the timing and location of the production of this copy, what we know about this manuscript’s journey begins and ends there, for now. Once this Qurʾān was produced, we know virtually nothing about where it went and how it got there. We can say that at some point in its more recent history, an owner of this manuscript added some blue lined paper written in bright pink ink describing how much and when to read portions of the book to the inside back cover and the last page verso.

Although we cannot come to very many definitive conclusions about this manuscript, the fact that it is a Qurʾān produced on Malta in the 17th century makes it an intriguing holding for the Penn libraries. The digital version of this manuscript and the other Islamicate manuscripts donated by Gordon A. Block, Jr. in 1966 are all now available on OPenn. His Arabic donations, given as a memorial to his mother Mrs. Reba Fleisher Block, include two copies of a popular prayer book, Dalāʼil al-khayrāt, several other Qurʾāns and a lovely calendar scroll. They are all available on OPenn so that anyone who likes may take images and do more research on these newly-cataloged items.

A Travelogue to the Holy Land: CAJS ms. 477

CAJS RAR Ms 477 caught my eye in December, and when I cataloged it I realized that it is a manuscript which is very multi-faceted and stands out in a number of ways.

The title of the manuscript is Hibat ha-kodesh, which is translatable as “the affection for the holy”. This is the title written on the title page, and it resounds with the tone of the writing; Feivush Friedmann, a “hasid” of the dynasty of Sadigur, embarked on travel from his hometown in the Ukraine to the Holy Land, and after a long and arduous journey settled in Safed in the Upper Galilee, today in Northern Israel.

Continue reading

Some Things About Joseph Eyer

In 1974, a doctoral student at the Penn Biology Department named Joseph (Joe) Eyer was in the process of crossing disciplinary borders in his scholarly work on social causes and health effects of stress. His research reflected an eclectic fusion of natural and social sciences. However, it is his unpublished personal essay (Jeremy Brecher collection of Joseph Eyer papers, Box 2, Folder 8, “Some Things About Myself,” undated) during his time in graduate school that leaves one in awe of the uniquely reflective nature of this individual. Below you may see a graph of Eyer’s life, in which the vertical axes represent “up” or as he identifies it with enthusiasm, attraction, fulfillment versus “down” or frustration, anger, depression. This graph is a perfect illustration of how he used his natural sciences background to reflect on the personal.

His essay gives a glimpse into his childhood, his struggles with mourning and mental health. In this writing, Eyer provides the reader with a multi-faceted perspective on his parents, in particular, how their genders and political beliefs affected their lives. He certainly also tried to provide a complex picture of his life, particularly, as he navigated his depressive and manic episodes. He mentions a learning curve of how he dealt with his bipolar disorder, how he used to resort to anger and passive-aggressive behavior when interacting with others. He writes that it required courage to strive to be alive and open. This desire to persevere seems to have inspired a series of his fascinating academic works, which tackled how socio-economic conditions affected one’s health, as well as his creative writing and poetry.  The Jeremy Brecher collection of Joseph Eyer papers includes published and unpublished works on a wide range of topics, from infant mortality to the effects of capitalism on one’s health, as well dozens of letters between him and his colleagues and friends.

An appropriate monument for the current city of Philadelphia

Earlier this year, we acquired the Monument Lab records … a fairly small, but truly powerful collection largely documenting a project that asks, “what is an appropriate monument for the current city of Philadelphia?”  There are 45,000 answers in this collection, but more than that, this collection answers other questions: Who are Philadelphians? Of what are we proud?  What do we want to change?  And what makes us and this city unique?

Continue reading

Heroines Behind the Scenes of War

World War II provides much of the lore and mystique which fuels the modern American culture.  From movies, books, and television documentaries, it is hard to escape the particular monopoly this time period has on popular media.  When it comes to women of World War II, media tends to focus on those who have driven ambulances onto battlefields, stitched up patients on bloody stretchers, or spied behind enemy lines; but women served heroically in many ways, on the home front and overseas.  The Jane Wright Proctor Wallis family papers (Ms. Coll. 1310) tells one such story.

HoneyinmaskWhen the United States entered World War II, many families and individuals answered the call to serve anyway they could.  One such person was Honoria Wallis (Honey), the eighth child in the Wallis family, who after college, was working as a social service worker in Philadelphia. Upon joining the Red Cross Medical Corps, Honey was trained at the 46th General Hospital at Fort Riley, Kansas, from September 1942 to June 1943.

In July 1943, Honey was sent overseas, eventually serving “somewhere in North Africa,” in England, and “somewhere in Italy” as head medical social worker, where her job including “writing letters and securing comforts for sick and wounded soldiers to wrangling a circus tent for use as a recreation center.”

ms1310 nursing crew 1

Honey wrote to her mother whenever she was able, offering what news she could share, as well as her impressions of her surroundings. In addition to reassuring her family of safety measures for the social workers and describing eating out of mess kits, “a system which should have been organized in [her large] family years ago,” Honey wrote requesting light and diverting reading material to be sent for the injured soldiers (“western, mystery, and detective stories are badly wanted!”).  A letter from January 15, 1944  reads:

“We continue to be exceedingly busy, going as many hours as we can hold out…Our days are spent in the wards, giving out comfort articles which the men need.  Both sick and wounded, they come in from the front without any of their personal articles.  Many men cannot write their own letters.  We wrap and censor packages for mailing.  We help them with necessary telephone calls or telegrams.  We read to them and give any comfort and sympathy in our power.”

Typical nursing scenes

A scrapbook page documenting time in Naples, Italy 1944

Honey’s letters are fairly cheerful, but she clearly experienced hardships.  She writes of bad weather tearing down tents, illness, lack of sanitary facilities, long hours, and, of course, watching patients suffer.  In addition to the general miseries of war, some of Honey’s friends were killed in a plane crash and others were sent home with tuberculosis.  By the end of the summer of 1944, only Honey and one other woman from her Fort Riley class remained.  Despite all the difficulties, Honey stated, “I have never worked so hard nor been so happy in all my life.”  Although Honey “preferred to work directly with patients,” she was promoted to hospital supervisor, and she was assigned to hospitals in Naples and Rome until the end of the war.

After the war in Europe was over, Honey was Acting Field Director at Fitzsimons General Hospital in Denver, Colorado, which treated mostly tuberculosis patients, many of whom were released from Japanese prison camps. Honey was no doubt seen as a great hero to the bored and lonely patients recuperating in military hospitals.  With books, music, movies, puzzles and recreation centers, she provided diversions from terrible memories and brought laughter into the dark world of war.



A daughter’s love–Helen Weiss’s courage and empathy

Sometimes, right from the opening of a box, I know that I am going to love a collection–and that was the case with the Frank Weise collection of Helen Weiss material.  This small collection packed a quick punch–as I peered in the box, I saw letters (always a favorite of mine), some music by Weiss and music-y ephemera, and some mysterious memorial material.  It was the memorial material that piqued my interest almost immediately–I kept thinking that I was reading things wrong because Helen died in 1948 when she was only 28 … adding to puzzle was the very vague description of the cause of her death (“an accident of the slightest kind, occasioned the initiation of the evil (disease) that caused us to lose her”) in an obituary written by Carlos Raygada (box 1, folder 11).

Continue reading

Lifetime(s) of work

One hears of a “labor of love” and a “lifetime of work” pretty frequently, but one truly sees its meaning in the Gordon A. Wilson notes and papers relating to the works of William Romaine Newbold.  It all starts with Aristotle!  William Romaine Newbold was a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who lectured on philosophy and worked extensively translating Aristotle’s Metaphysics. According to the long history of the translations, before his death in 1926, Newbold handed over his work to one of his students Hartley Burr Alexander. Alexander proceeded to work on the manuscript with one of his students, Gordon A. Wilson, until his death in 1939. And then, Wilson worked with the manuscripts until his death in 1974. In case you are worried, I don’t think it was the manuscript that finished off any of the scholars mentioned above.

Continue reading

The Many Battles of Little Sparta

It seems a fair rule: artists should never respond to criticism of their work. But few artists are able to resist the temptation, and the outsized role that critics play in an artist’s success, especially in more rarified fields, makes it almost inevitable that the result will be rancorous. The critic has the privilege of print and access to a large readership. How can the artist hope to respond to opinions with which they disagree, especially when these opinions seem to present an existential threat to their reputation and livelihood?

In the case of Ian Hamilton Finlay, famous concrete poet and landscape architect—whose work I had the pleasure of archiving recently, through a collection sold by Graeme Moore, a landscape artist and Finlay’s longtime associate—the answer was a form of ideological warfare. In 1986, two architecture critics, Gwyn Headley and Wim Muelenkamp, under the auspices of the UK’s National Trust, published Follies, a guide to what they saw as eccentric buildings and gardens throughout the United Kingdom. The authors included Finlay’s Little Sparta, a garden full of sculpture and concrete poetry, in this volume. Perhaps they meant this as a harmless designation, or even a way to drum up interest in what they saw as an unfairly neglected site.

Continue reading