book history

Aristotle in the Sex Shop and Activism in the Academy: Notes from the Joint Atlantic Seminar in the History of Medicine

By Editor Spencer J. Weinreich

Four enormous, dead doctors were present at the opening of the 2017 Joint Atlantic Seminar in the History of Medicine. Convened in Johns Hopkins University’s Welch Medical Library, the room was dominated by a canvas of mammoth proportions, a group portrait by John Singer Sargent of the four founders of Johns Hopkins Hospital. Dr. William Welch, known in his lifetime as “the dean of American medicine” (and the library’s namesake). Dr. William Halsted, “the father of modern surgery.” Dr. Sir William Osler, “the father of modern medicine.” And Dr. Howard Kelly, who established the modern field of gynecology.

1905 Professors Welch, Halsted, Osler and Kelly (aka The Four Doctors) oil on canvas 298.6 x 213.3 cm Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Baltimore MD

John Singer Sargent, Professors Welch, Halsted, Osler, and Kelly (1905)

Beneath the gazes of this august quartet, graduate students and faculty from across the United States and the United Kingdom gathered for the fifteenth iteration of the Seminar. This year, the program’s theme was “Truth, Power, and Objectivity,” explored in thirteen papers ranging from medical testimony before the Goan Inquisition to the mental impact of First World War bombing raids, from Booker T. Washington’s National Negro Health Week to the emergence of Chinese traditional medicine. It would not do justice to the papers or their authors to cover them all in a post; instead I shall concentrate on the two opening sessions: the keynote lecture by Mary E. Fissell and a faculty panel with Nathaniel Comfort, Gianna Pomata, and Graham Mooney (all of Johns Hopkins University).

I confess to some surprise at the title of Fissell’s talk, “Aristotle’s Masterpiece and the Re-Making of Kinship, 1820–1860.” Fissell is known as an early modernist, her major publications exploring gender, reproduction, and medicine in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century England. Her current project, however, is a cultural history of Aristotle’s Masterpiece, a book on sexuality and childbirth first published in 1684 and still being sold in London sex shops in the 1930s. The Masterpiece was distinguished by its discussion of the sexual act itself, and its consideration (and copious illustrations) of so-called “monstrous births.” It was, in Fissell’s words, a “howling success,” seeing an average of one edition a year for 250 years, on both sides of the Atlantic.

It should be explained that there is very little Aristotle in Aristotle’s Masterpiece. In early modern Europe, the Greek philosopher was regarded as the classical authority on childbirth and sex, and so offered a suitably distinguished peg on which to hang the text. This allowed for a neat trick of bibliography: when the Masterpiece was bound together with other (spurious) works, like Aristotle’s Problems, the spine might be stamped with the innocuous (indeed impressive) title “Aristotle’s Works.”

st-john-the-baptist-el-greco-c-1600

El Greco, John the Baptist (c.1600)

At the heart of Aristotle’s Masterpiece, Fissell argued, was genealogy: how reproduction—“generation,” in early modern terms—occurred and how the traits of parents related to those of their offspring. This genealogy is unstable, the transmission of traits open to influences of all kinds, notably the “maternal imagination.” The birth of a baby covered in hair, for example, could be explained by the pregnant mother’s devotion to an image of John the Baptist clad in skins. Fissell brilliantly drew out the subversive possibilities of the Masterpiece, as when it “advised” women that adultery might be hidden by imagining one’s husband during the sex act, thus ensuring that the child would look like him. Central though family resemblance is to reproduction, it is “a vexed sign,” with “several jokers in every deck,” because women’s bodies are mysterious and have the power to disrupt lineage.

Fissell principally considered the Masterpiece’s fortunes in the mid-nineteenth-century Anglophone world, as the unstable generation it depicted clashed with contemporary assumptions about heredity. Here she framed her efforts as a “footnote” to Charles Rosenberg’s seminal essay, “The Bitter Fruit: Heredity, Disease, and Social Thought in Nineteenth-Century America,” which traced how discourses of heredity pervaded all branches of science and medicine in this period. George Combe’s Constitution of Man (1828), an exposition of the supposedly rigid natural laws governing heredity (with a tilt toward self-discipline and self-improvement), was the fourth-bestselling book of the period (after the Bible, Pilgrim’s Progress, and Robinson Crusoe). Other hereditarian works sketched out the gendered roles of reproduction—what children inherited from their mothers versus from their fathers—and the possibilities for human action (proper parenting, self-control) for modulating genealogy. Wildly popular manuals for courtship and marriage advised young people on the formation of proper unions and the production of healthy children, in terms shot through with racial and class prejudices (though not yet solidified into eugenics as we understand that term).

The fluidity of generation depicted in Aristotle’s Masterpiece became conspicuous against the background of this growing obsession with a law-like heredity. Take the birth of a black child to white parents. The Masterpiece explains that the mother was looking at a painting of a black man at the moment of conception; hereditarian thought identified a black ancestor some five generations back, the telltale trait slowly but inevitably revealing itself. Thus, although the text of the Masterpiece did not change much over its long career, its profile changed dramatically, because of the shifting bibliographic contexts in which it moved.

In the mid-nineteenth century, the contrasting worldviews of the Masterpiece and the marriage manuals spoke to the forms of familial life prevalent at different social strata. The more chaotic picture of the Masterpiece reflected the daily life of the working class, characterized by “contingent formations,” children born out of wedlock, wife sales, abandonment, and other kinds of “marital nonconformity.” The marriage manuals addressed themselves to upper-middle-class families, but did so in a distinctly aspirational mode. They warned, for example, against marrying cousins, precisely at a moment when well-to-do families were “kinship hot,” in David Warren Sabean’s words, favoring serial intermarriage among a few allied clans. This was a period, Fissell explained, in which “who and what counted as family was much more complex” and “contested.” The ambiguity—and power—of this issue manifested in almost every sphere, from the shifting guidelines for census-takers on how a “family” was defined, to novels centered on complex kinship networks, such as John Lang’s Will He Marry Her? (1858), to the flood of polemical literature surrounding a proposed law forbidding a man to marry his deceased wife’s sister—a debate involving many more people than could possibly have been affected by the legislation.

After a rich question-and-answer session, we shifted to the faculty panel, with Professors Comfort, Pomata, and Mooney asked to reflect on the theme of “Truth, Power, and Objectivity.” Comfort, a scholar of modern biology, began by discussing his work with oral histories—“creating a primary source as you go, and in most branches of history that’s considered cheating.” Here perfect objectivity is not necessarily helpful: “when you make yourself emotional availability to your subjects […] you can actually gain their trust in a way that you can’t otherwise.” Equally, Comfort encouraged the embrace of sources’ unreliability, suggesting that unreliability might itself be a source—the more unreliable a narrative is, the more interesting and the more indicative of something meant it becomes. He closed with the observation that different audiences required different approaches to history and to history-writing—it is not simply a question of tone or language, but of what kind of bond the scholar seeks to form.

Professor Pomata, a scholar of early modern medicine, insisted that moments of personal contact between scholar and subject were not the exclusive preserve of the modern historian: the same connections are possible, if in a more mediated fashion, for those working on earlier periods. In this interaction, respect is of the utmost importance. Pomata quoted a line from W. B. Yeats’s “He wishes for the Cloths of Heaven”:

I have spread my dreams under your feet;

Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

As a historian of public health—which he characterized as an activist discipline—Mooney declared, “I’m not really interested in objectivity. […] I’m angry about what I see.” He spoke compellingly about the vital importance of that emotion, properly channeled toward productive ends. The historian possesses power: not simply as the person setting the terms of inquiry, but as a member of privileged institutions. In consequence, he called on scholars to undermine their own power, to make themselves uncomfortable.

The panel was intended to be open-ended and interactive, so these brief remarks quickly segued into questions from the floor. Asked about the relationship between scholarship and activism, Mooney insisted that passion, even anger, are essential, because they drive the scholar into the places where activism is needed—and cautioned that it is ultimately impossible to be the dispassionate observer we (think we) wish to be. With beautiful understatement, Pomata explained that she went to college in 1968, when “a lot was happening in the world.” Consequently, she conceived of scholarship as having to have some political meaning. Working on women’s history in the early 1970s, “just to do the scholarship was an activist task.” Privileging “honesty” over “objectivity,” she insisted that “scholarship—honest scholarship—and activism go together.” Comfort echoed much of this favorable account of activism, but noted that some venues are more appropriate for activism than others, and that there are different ways of being an activist.

Dealing with the horrific—eugenics was the example offered—requires, Mooney argued, both the rigor of a critical method and sensitive emotional work. Further, all three panelists emphasized crafting, and speaking in, one’s own voice, eschewing the temptation to imitate more prominent scholars and embracing the first person (and the subjectivity it marks). Voice, Comfort noted, isn’t natural, but something honed, and both he and Pomata recommended literature as an essential tool in this regard.

Throughout, the three panelists concurred in urging collaborative, interdisciplinary work, founded upon respect for other knowledges and humility—which, Comfort insightfully observed, is born of confidence in one’s own abilities. Asking the right questions is crucial, the key to unlocking the stories of the oppressed and marginalized within sources created by those in power. Visual sources have the potential to express things inexpressible in words—Comfort cited a photograph that wonderfully captured the shy, retiring nature of Dr. Barton Childs—but must be used, not mere illustrations. The question about visual sources was the last of the evening, and Professor Pomata had the last word. Her final comment offers the perfect summation of the creativity, dedication, and intellectual ferment on display in Baltimore that weekend: “we are artists, don’t forget that.”

The First of Nisan, The Forgotten Jewish New Year, Part II

By guest contributor Joel S. Davidi

In my last post on the history of the first of Nisan as a Jewish new year I discussed the history of this now mostly forgotten holiday into the tenth century. Until this point, this festival was celebrated among the Jews of Eretz Israel as well as their satellite communities across the Middle East (including a small “Palestinian-rite” contingent in Iraq itself). Over the next one hundred years, however, the celebration of the first of Nisan became the domain of only a very small minority of Jews. In a large measure, this was due to the long standing disagreements between the two great centers of Jewish learning at the time, Eretz Israel and Babylonia/ Iraq.   

All in all, the competition between Babylonia and Eretz Israel ended in a decisive Babylonian victory. This was due to several factors not least of which is the fact that Babylonian Jewry experienced much more stability under Sassanian and later Islamic rule while its Eretz Israel counterpart was constantly experiencing persecution and uprooting. The final death knell for Minhag Eretz Yisrael was delivered in July of 1099 when an army of Crusaders broke through the walls of Jerusalem and massacred the city’s Jewish inhabitants, its Babylonian-rite,  Palestinian-rite communities and Karaite communities. With the destruction of its center began the decline and eventual disappearance of many unique Eretz Israel customs. It is only due to the discovery of the Cairo Genizah that scholars have become aware of many of those long-lost traditions and customs. At this time Babylonia’s prominence began to decline as the Sephardic communities of the Iberian Peninsula and the Ashkenazic communities of France and Germany were increasingly on the ascendancy. Both of these communities, however, maintained the Babylonian rite. (As Israel Ta Shma points out in his book on early Ashkenazic prayer, both the Sephardic and Ashkenazic rites have Eretz Israel elements. These are more evident in the Ashkenazi rite, probably due to the ties between the proto Ashkenazim and the Palestinian academy Academy in Byzantine Palestine.)

The latest evidence the celebration of the first of Nisan comes to us from the 13th century and it would seem that even by this time it was all but stamped out by those who were determined to establish the primacy of the Babylonian school. This period coincides with the increased activism of Rabbi Abraham Maimonides, the son of Moses Maimonides, the great Spanish codifier of Jewish law. Rabbi Abraham, who championed standardization based on his father’s codification, exerted great pressure against the Synagogue of the Palestinians in Fustat, Old Cairo to bring their ritual into line with Babylonian standards. He was for the most part successful but, as we have already seen, this unique  custom was retained (albeit in diminished form) among Egyptian Jews to this very day.

In an April 20, 1906 article for the English  Jewish Chronicle, Herbert Loewe provides an eyewitness account of an Al-Tawhid ceremony in the fashionable Abbasiya neighborhood of Cairo. Two years later, a more detailed description was recorded by the Chief Rabbi of Egypt, Refael Aharon ben Shimon in his book Nehar Misrayim (p. 65-6).

I reproduce it here (courtesy of Hebrewbooks.org):

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Screen Shot 2017-10-01 at 10.49.56 PM

After extolling this “beautiful custom”, ben Shimon laments how the custom had become so weakened and how so many had become lax in keeping it. He states that this was largely due to the fact that the city had experienced such large scale expansion and many members of the Jewish community had relocated to the suburbs. He concludes on an optimistic note with the hope that the custom will experience a renaissance in the near future.

Two other North African Jewish communities that I know of retain more pared-down versions of the celebration of the first of Nisan. In the communities of Tunisia and Libya, the ceremony is referred to as bsisa (and also maluhia). Bsisa is also the name given to a special dish that is prepared for this day which is made of wheat and barley flour mixed with olive oil, fruits and spices. Several prayers for the new year are recited whereupon the celebrants exchange new year greetings with each other. Many of these prayers contain similar themes to the Egyptian-Jewish Tahwid prayers I discussed in part I of this article. (For example: “Shower down upon us from your bounty and we shall give it over to others. That we shall never experience want– and may this year be better than the previous year.”) As in the Egyptian community, however, the new year aspect of the celebration is not especially stressed. As the eminent historian and expert on North African Jewry Nahum Slouschz points out in an article in Davar (April 7, 1944), “It is impossible not to see in these customs the footprints of an ancient rosh hashanah which was abandoned with the passage of time because of the tediousness of the Passover holiday and in favor of the holiness of the traditional [Tishrei] Rosh Hashana.”

(For more on the roots and contemporary practice of bsisa and maluhia see here, here, here, and here. For videos of the bsisa/ maluhia ceremony see here, here, and here.)

Although the observance of the First of Nissan is no longer as prominent as it once was in rabbinic Judaism, the two most prominent non-rabbinic Jewish communities, the Karaites and the Samaritans, have maintained the holiday into recent times. The Cairo Genizah contains leaves from a Karaite prayer book containing a service for the first of Nisan. This custom eventually fell out of the Karaite textual record as Karaite traditions fell in line with Rabbanite ones over the later middle ages. In his monumental study of the now extinct European Karaite community, historian Mikhail Kizilov discusses how Eastern-European Karaites underwent a gradual process of “dejudaidization” and “turkification” in the 1910s-20s. This was largely due to the work of their spiritual and political head, Seraya Shapshal, who, aware of growing  Anti-Semitism in Europe, was determined to present his flock as genetically unrelated to the Jews (claiming instead that they were descendants of Turkic and Mongol tribes). He likewise sought to recast Karaism as a syncretistic Jewish-Christian-Muslim-pagan creed. Among the reforms instituted by Shapshal was the changing of the Karaite calendar. Although the Karaites of old began the calendar year on Nisan, as per Exodus, they had long assimilated the Rabbinic custom of beginning the year in Tishrei. Shapshal sought to avoid a lining up of the Karaite and Rabbanite new years which is why he switched the Karaite new year to March-April, thereby ironically reverting back to the ancient Karaite custom. This particular reform never took off and the community continued to celebrate the new in year in Tishrei. Even the official Karaite calendars printed that date (which like the Rabbanites they called “Rosh Hashana”). Currently, Karaites do not actually celebrate this day or recite any special liturgy, however they do nominally recognize this day as Rosh Hashanah and they will exchange new year tidings.

Samaritans preserve the most extensive observance of this day. According to the Samaritan elder and scholar Benyamim Sedaka, the Samaritans celebrate the evening of the first day of the first Month – The Month of Aviv – as the actual Hebrew New Year. They engage in extended prayers on the day followed by festive family gatherings. They likewise bless one another with the traditional new year greeting “Shana Tova” and begin the observance, as the followers of the Palestinian rite once did, on the Sabbath preceding the day. The entire liturgy for the holiday is found in A. E. Cowley’s “The Samaritan Liturgy.” The fact that the Samaritans, who have functioned as a distinct religious community from Jews since at least the second century BCE, observe this tradition is the greatest indicator of its antiquity. The antiquity of this custom is also suggested by the fact that the springtime new year is likewise celebrated by many other ethnic communities from the Middle East including the Persians and Kurds (who call it Nowruz) and also, much closer to Jews linguistically and culturally, the Arameans and Chaldeans/Assyrians who call their New Year Kha (Or Khada) B’nissan (the first of Nissan) .

סידור_אר._ישראל

Siddur Eretz Yisrael, published by Machon Shiloh

Minhag Eretz Israel is now effectively extinct. Today, however, there is a small community of predominantly Ashkenazic Jews in Israel who seek to reconstruct this rite. Using the work of scholars who have labored to piece the Palestinian rite together based on the Cairo Genizah, this community endeavors to put it back into practical usage. Among many other customs, they celebrate the First of Nisan. The flagship institution of this movement is called Machon Shiloh and its founder and leader is an Australian-Israeli Rabbi named David bar Hayyim. In correspondence with me, Yoel Keren, a member of Machon Shilo, stated that his community observes the festival in the manner prescribed by the Geniza fragments. On the eve of the first of Nissan, the community waits outside to sight the new moon, then recites the kiddush prayer and finally sits down to a festive meal. The community has also recently published a prayer book called Siddur Eretz Yisrael, which is based on the ancient rite. You can listen to some prayers recited in this rite here, here, and here.

For an interesting interview with Rabbi Bar-Hayyim about the rite and its contemporary usage see here.

 

Appendix to Part I

Since publishing my original post about the first of Nissan’s history as a Jewish holiday a few other sources have come to light about the history of the day’s significance. Here are a few of the earliest sources that mention the day as a holiday (my thanks to Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein for bringing some of these to my attention).

The earliest of these comes from the  book of Ezekiel (45:18-19):

Thus saith the Lord GOD: In the first month, in the first day of the month, thou shalt take a young bullock without blemish; and thou shalt purify the sanctuary.

Ezekiel contains numerous laws and festivals that are not found in the Pentateuch. Many interpret these as being meant for a future (third) Temple. Ezekiel does not explicitly describe the first of Nissan as a celebration of the new year per se but this description is nonetheless the earliest evidence of the day having special significance.

We find a similar reference in the Temple Scroll (11Q19) of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Temple Scroll describes the ideal Temple of the Qumran sectarians. The Festival of the first day of the first month (Nissan) is one of three additional extra-biblical festivals that are mentioned in this work:

On the first day of the [first] month [the months (of the
year) shall start; it shall be the first month] of the year [for you. You shall
do no] work. [You shall offer a he-goat for a sin-offering.] It shall be
offered by itself to expiate [for you. You shall offer a holocaust: a
bullock], a ram, [seven yearli]ng ram lambs [without blemish] …
[ad]di[tional to the bu]r[nt-offering for the new moon, and a grain-
offering of three tenths of fine flour mixed with oil], half a hin [for each
bullock, and wi]ne for a drink-offering, [half a hin, a soothing odour to
YHWH, and two] tenths of fine flour mixed [with oil, one third of a hin.
You shall offer wine for a drink-offering,] one th[ird] of a hin for the ram,
[an offering by fire, of soothing odour to YHWH; and one tenth of fine
flour], a grain-offerin[g mixed with a quarter of a hinol oil. You shall
offer wine for a drink-offering, a quarter of a hin] for each [ram] …
lambs and for the he-g[oat] .

Joel S. Davidi is an independent ethnographer and historian. His research focuses on Eastern and Sephardic Jewry and the Karaite communities of Crimea, Egypt, California and Israel. He is the author of the forthcoming book Exiles of Sepharad That Are In Ashkenaz, which explores the Iberian Diaspora in Eastern Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. He blogs on Jewish history at toldotyisrael.wordpress.com.

Humanist Pedagogy and New Media

by contributing editor Robby Koehler

Writing in the late 1560s, humanist scholar Roger Ascham found little to praise in the schoolmasters of early modern England.  In his educational treatise The Scholemaster, Asham portrays teachers as vicious, lazy, and arrogant.  But even worse than the inept and cruel masters were the textbooks, which, as Ascham described them, were created specifically to teach students improper Latin: “Two schoolmasters have set forth in print, either of them a book [of vulgaria] . . ., Horman and Whittington.  A child shall learn of the better of them, that, which another day, if he be wise, and come to judgement, he must be fain to unlearn again.”  What were these books exactly? And if they were so unfit for use in the classroom, then why did English schoolmasters still use them to teach students?  Did they enjoy watching students fail and leaving them educationally impoverished?

Actually, no. Then, as now, school teachers did not always make use of the most effective methods of instruction, but their choice to use the books compiled by Horman and Whittington was not based in a perverse reluctance to educate their students.  Ascham sets up a straw man here about the dismal state of Latin teaching in England to strengthen the appeal of his own pedagogical ideas.  As we will see, the books by Horman and Whittington, colloquially known as “vulgaria” or “vulgars” in schools of the early modern period, were a key part of an earlier Latin curriculum that was in the process of being displaced by the steady adoption of Humanist methods of Latin study and instruction and the spread of printed books across England.  Looking at these books, Ascham could see only the failed wreckage of a previous pedagogical logic, not the vital function such books had once served.  His lack of historical cognizance and wilful mischaracterization of previous pedagogical texts and practices are an early example of an argumentative strategy that has again become prevalent as the Internet and ubiquitous access to computers has led pundits to argue for the death of the book in schools and elsewhere.  Yet, as we will see, the problem is often not so much with books as much as with what students and teachers are meant to do with them.

“Vulgaria” were initially a simple solution to a complicated problem: how to help students learn to read and write Latin and English with the limited amount of paper or parchment available in most English schools.  According to literary scholar Chris Cannon, by the fifteenth century, many surviving notebooks throughout England record pages of paired English and Latin sentence translations.  It seems likely that students would receive a sentence in Latin, record it, and then work out how to translate it into English.  Once recorded, students held onto these notebooks as both evidence of their learning and as a kind of impromptu reference for future translations.  In the pre-print culture of learning, then, vulgaria were evidence of a learning process, the material embodiment of a student’s slow work of absorbing and understanding the mechanics of both writing and translation.

The advent of printing fundamentally transformed this pedagogical process.  Vulgaria were among the first books printed in England, and short 90-100 page vulgaria remained a staple of printed collections of Latin grammatical texts up to the 1530s.  Once in print, vulgaria ceased to be a material artifact of an educational process and now became an educational product for the use of students who were literate in either English or Latin to use while working on translations.  The culture of early modern English schools comes through vividly in these printed collections, often closing the distance between Tudor school rooms and our own.  For example, in the earliest printed vulgaria compiled by John Anwykyll, one can learn how to confess to a fellow student’s lackadaisical pursuit of study: “He studied never one of those things more than another.” Or a student might ask after a shouting match “Who made all of this trouble among you?”  Thus, in the early era of print, these books remained tools for learning Latin as a language of everyday life. It was Latin for school survival, not for scholarly prestige.

As Humanism took hold in England, vulgaria changed too, transforming from crib-books for beginning students to reference books for the use of students and masters, stuffed full of Humanist erudition and scholarship.  Humanist schoolmasters found the vulgaria a useful instrument for demonstrating their extensive reading and, occasionally, advancing their career prospects.  William Horman, an older schoolmaster and Fellow at Eton, published a 656 page vulgaria (about 5 times as long as the small texts for students) in 1519, offering it as a product of idle time that, in typical Humanist fashion, he published only at the insistence of his friends.  Yet, Horman’s book was still true to its roots in the school room, containing a melange of classical quotations alongside the traditional statements and longer dialogues between schoolmasters and students.

By the 1530s, most of the first wave of printed vulgaria went out of print, likely because they did not fit with the new Humanist insistence that the speaking and writing of Latin be more strictly based on classical models.  Vulgaria would have looked increasingly old-fashioned, and their function in helping students adapt to the day-to-day rigors of the Latinate schoolroom were likely lost in the effort to separate, elevate, and purify the Latin spoken and written by students and teachers alike.  Nothing more embodied this transformation that Nicholas Udall’s vulgaria Flowers for Latin Speaking (1533), which was made up exclusively of quotations from the playwright Terence, with each sentence annotated with the play, act, and scene from which the sentence was excerpted.

Loeb Facing Page Translation

Terence. Phormio, The Mother-In-Law, The Brothers. Ed. John Sargeaunt. Loeb Classical Library.  New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1920.  https://archive.org/details/L023NTerenceIIPhormioTheMotherInLawTheBrothers   

The vulgaria as printed crib-book passed out of use in the schoolroom after about 1540, so why was Ascham still so upset about their use in 1568 when he was writing The Schoolmaster?  By that time, Ascham could assume that many students had access to approved Humanist grammatical texts and a much wider variety of printed matter in Latin.  In a world that had much less difficulty gaining obtaining both print and paper, the vulgaria would seem a strange pedagogical choice indeed.  Ascham’s own proposed pedagogical practices assumed that students would have a printed copy of one or more classical authors and at least two  blank books for their English and Latin writing, respectively.  Whereas the vulgaria arose from a world of manuscript practice and a straitened economy of textual scarcity, Ascham’s own moment had been fundamentally transformed by the technology of print and the Humanist effort to recover, edit, and widely disseminate the works of classical authors.  Ascham could take for granted that students worked directly with printed classical texts and that they would make use of Humanist methods of commonplacing and grammatical analysis that themselves relied upon an ever-expanding array of print and manuscript materials and practices.  In this brave new world, the vulgaria and its role in manuscript and early print culture were alien holdovers of a bygone era.

Of course, Ascham’s criticism of the vulgaria is also typical of Humanist scholars, who often distanced themselves from their  predecessors and to assert importance and correctness of their own methods.  Ironically, this was exactly what William Horman was doing when he published his massive volume of vulgaria – exemplifying and monumentalizing his own erudition and study while also demonstrating the inadequacy of previous, much shorter efforts. Ascham’s rejection of vulgaria must be seen as part of the larger intergenerational Humanist pattern of disavowing and dismissing the work of predecessors who could safely be deemed inadequate to make way for one’s own contribution.  Ascham is peculiarly modern in this respect, arguing that introducing new methods of learning Latin can reform the institution of the school in toto.  One is put in mind of modern teachers who argue that the advent of the Internet or of some set of methods that the Internet enables will fundamentally transform the way education works.

In the end, the use of vulgaria was not any more related to the difficulties of life in the classroom or the culture of violence in early modern schools than any other specific pedagogical practice or object.  But, as I’ve suggested, Ascham’s claim that the problems of education can be attributed not to human agents but to the materials they employ is an argument that has persisted into the present.  In this sense, Ascham’s present-mindedness suggests the need to take care in evaluating seemingly irrelevant or superfluous pedagogical processes or materials.  Educational practices are neither ahistorical nor acontextual, they exist in institutional and individual time, and they bear the marks of both past and present exigencies in their deployment.  When we fail to recognize this, we, like Ascham, mischaracterize their past and present value and will likely misjudge how best to transform our educational institutions and practices to meet our own future needs.

The Revival of Harper’s Weekly, 1974-1976

 by Erin Schreiner

The story of the revival of Harper’s Weekly, a magazine published from 1857 to 1916 and then 1974 to 1976, begins with William (Willie) Morris. As Editor-in-Chief of the Monthly from 1967 to 1971, Morris changed the tone of Harper’s Monthly by publishing long-form, liberal-minded pieces by writers like Norman Mailer and William Styron. In 1971, magazine owner John Cowles, Jr. pressured Morris to take it easy, blaming his lefty writers for driving away advertising revenue. Morris refused, and much like the mass resignation of editors at The New Republic in 2014, many of Harper’s best writers, including Mailer, Syron, and Bill Moyers, walked out with him, leaving behind a lot of big shoes to fill.

Hired four months after Morris’s departure with his staff, Editor-in-Chief Robert Shnayerson (formerly of Time) needed to retain the interest of the new readership built up under his predecessor’s leadership without driving away much needed ad revenue. Enter Tony Jones, and a new section in the magazine: WRAPAROUND. First appearing in 1973, WRAPAROUND, edited by Jones, was a riff on the Whole Earth Catalog. In fact, there’s a direct link between the two, because Stewart Brand and the Catalog were the cover story of the April 1974 issue, and guest editor of WRAPAROUND. Like the Catalog, WRAPAROUND published reviews of tools for living and solicited content directly from it’s readers. “Above all,” Jones wrote in his first editorial, “the WRARPOUND invites your participation. …[We] would like you to think of these pages as an extension of your own processes of discovery, as a place to contribute whatever information, perspectives, resources, and conclusions you have found valuable in your own life – and share them with all Harper’s readers.” This is a page taken directly from the Whole Earth playbook. Stewart Brand and his team published regular Supplements to the Catalog that included content (fiction, poetry, and non-fiction) solicited directly from readers. Anyone could submit their own work for publication in both the Supplement and the Catalogs, and all printed contributors were paid for the work. And very much like the Catalog, each WRAPAROUND included an order form, so that readers could order anything they read about in the magazine directly from Harper’s offices.

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From the Library of the New-York Historical Society.

WRAPAROUND must have been popular with reader/writers, because Harper’s Weekly: A Journal of Civilization was revived in 1974 using the one-year-old Harper’s segment as its model. Announcement of the weekly was something of a media stunt: Jones placed ads in local newspapers around the country similar to this full-page editorial/ad he published in The New Republic, explaining that he was reviving the Weekly, and he intended to exclusively publish content written by its readers. Here’s a summary of his intentions, in his own words:

“I want to offer a variety of communications from real people about just anything. … In a real sense, this communication would be a collection of points of view. A swath of our consciousness. An ongoing biopsy of our civilization. … So I’ve decided to revive the famous HARPER’S WEEKLY, a national newspaper that flourished concurrently with Harper’s Magazine from 1857 to 1916. The people who ran it had the temerity to call it ‘a journal of civilization.’ Well, that is exactly what I have in mind for the new Harper’s Weekly.”

As in the Whole Earth Catalog, writers would be paid for submissions that wound up in print; $25+ for features (a relative value of $116-140 in 2017 when calculated as labor earnings), $15 for items published in the “Running Commentary” section, $10 for “clippings, quotes, or other research material (please include primary sources.)”

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The Harper’s Weekly offices in New York, published in the magazine. From the Library of the New-York Historical Society.

Published from November 1974 to May 1976, the revived Harper’s Weekly is an extraordinary body of work. Readers from all over the country submitted more content than Jones and his team of editors could use (more on that in a minute), and the editorial board was in constant communication with its writer-readers through the printed magazine. In April of 1975, Harper’s Weekly published a frank editorial about its design, admitting that it had not yet achieved the quality and uniformity it aimed for.  They published readers’ suggestions for improvement of the layout, logo, and typeface, and invited anyone to join their ongoing conversation. Perusing issues of the Weekly, one sees the staff working with new ideas – using larger typefaces, experimenting with heading styles and graphics, and moving regular sections from one page to another. Under Jones’ direction, however, they never abandoned the Harper’s Weekly 19th century masthead, and the paper’s tagline, “America’s Reader-Written Newspaper” always appeared in bold nearby.

The reader-contributed articles often focused on local or obscure issues. An issue highlighting the world of the American snake handler featured interviews with self-ordained Reverend Carl Porter of Cartersville, Georgia, snake handler Robert F. Wise, Jr. of Charleston, West Virginia, and William E. Haast, director of the Miami Serpentarium. Another reader, Robert Cassidy of Chicago, profiled Laurie Brandt and Julian Sereno in “Turning Words into Type,” an article describing their one-room typesetting business, Serbra Type. These young entrepreneurs were the compositors behind University of Chicago publications like Current Anthropology. The Weekly established regular departments, notably a Critics Corp that featured regular reviews of movies, books, records, television shows, organizations, and conferences.  They even printed a Critics Card that readers could clip from the magazine and present at an event, and printed readers’ accounts of what happened when they tried using it. Alongside this diverse and unusual content – which is remarkably well written – the revived Weekly featured ads by major corporations. Mobil, the Bell Telephone Company, and Smith Corona all bought prominent space.

The journal reported on its operations in both issues of December 1975. The Weekly received 125,000 mailed submissions, and printed 3 million copies of the magazine for distribution by subscription and in newsstands. Jones and his team also published a remarkable account of its readership, including demographic information (gender, educational background, income, marital status, employment) gathered from a survey completed by more than half of the randomly selected sample of 2,000 subscribers (a response rate of more than 50% is remarkable), and compared that to information collected in similar surveys of subscribers to Time, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal.

In 1976, however, something changed in the Weekly, and at Harper’s. That year, Lewis Lapham replayed Robert Shnayerson as editor in Chief, and the Weekly gradually declined and died. The issue for the weeks of May 10 and 17 appeared on newsstands without the historic 19th century  masthead. The large photographic image on the cover, the typography, and the layout were unmistakably different from everything that came before it; most importantly, however, the “America’s Reader-Written Newspaper” tagline was conspicuously missing. A notice appeared on the first page of the paper:

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Harper’s Weekly, Weeks of May 10 and 17, 1975. From the Library of the New-York Historical Society.

Inside the paper, long feature-length articles with prominent bylines replaced the shorter pieces. Peter McCabe, an editor at both Harper’s and Rolling Stone, took over as Editor of the Weekly, but it wasn’t the same magazine after Jones left because its core mission to publish the work of the common reader had been abandoned. The Weekly ceased publication sometime in the late summer or fall of 1976.

Those familiar with John McMillian’s Smoking Typewriters might read the revived Weekly as an outgrowth of the underground press movement, and the magazine itself certainly speaks to that. But the magazine itself was modeled on something that was also akin to, but not part of, the underground press. At a moment of crisis for a landmark American magazine, seasoned editors used the Whole Earth Catalog as a model for a new section of the Monthly, WRAPAROUND.The model worked, and Harper’s Weekly`was reborn in the wake of its success. This speaks not only to the impact of the Catalog across a broad spectrum of American publishing, but also, and most importantly, to the impact of its model on a growing body of readers who really wanted to access and exchange information. I see model as fundamentally bibliographic, and participatory.  Within that framework, discovery (or the act of reading) engenders participation by a community of readers and writers sharing a printed resource about tools for living. In From Counterculture to Cyberculture, Fred Turner makes important connections between Stewart Brand and Whole Earth community, and the early days of Silicon Valley and the internet. By publishing its readers’ own writing and drawing them into the editorial process, Harper’s Weekly fostered a short-lived community of engaged participants with shared concerns who assumed the roles of critic, local historian, anthropologist, and activist, and then shared their experiences with a national audience through the magazine. This sounds a lot like what so many of us engage in online everyday as readers, blog writers, Tweeters… the list goes on. Harper’s Weekly is yet another example of the how the Whole Earth model took root in American information and popular culture, in the moment just before the dawn of the digital age.

“Herman Melville’s New York, 1850” at The New York Society Library

by guest contributor Charles Cuykendall Carter

Circulation ledger featuring Melville's Society Library borrowing history, 1847-50. New York Society Library.

Circulation ledger featuring Melville’s Society Library borrowing history, 1847-50. New York Society Library.

The New York Society Library’s current pop-up exhibit explores the life and experiences of Herman Melville in New York City, during the time leading up to the 1851 publication of Moby-Dick. The more specific, and more intimate, concern of the exhibit is the symbiotic relationship between an author and his library, both as a site of research and as a vehicle for promotion.

For much of 1848, and then again for a time in 1850, the Society Library was Melville’s library. (He did also personally own a good number of books, many of which he annotated; some can be seen in digitized form through the impressive Melville’s Marginalia website.) While in the throes of composing his masterpiece, Melville regularly spent time doing research in the reading room of the Society Library, then on Broadway and Leonard Street. He was again a Society Library member in the years before his death in 1891.

Some treasures from the Society Library’s archives featured in the exhibit vividly demonstrate Melville’s membership and activity. One charming display item is a facsimile of Melville’s 1850 Society Library membership certificate, reproduced on cardboard and able to be handled and examined up close. Other indices of Melville’s personal relationship to the Library include a contemporary city directory listing Melville’s home address at “103 Av. 4,” about a half-hour’s walk away; and his large autograph signature in a circulation ledger, dated 1850.

Most exhibition materials reflect Melville as author. Among them are the first published excerpt of Moby-Dick in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine of fall 1851, and a facsimile of an early manuscript invoice showing Society Library purchases of Melville books.

The largest exhibit piece is a pin-board chart covered with index cards, which are connected with tightly-strung lengths of different colored yarn. The cards represent specific Society Library readers; the yarn, Melville’s first seven novels. The display renders visible for the viewer what is addressed by most modern introductions to Moby-Dick: upon publication, it was a commercial dud.

Melville’s earlier, less complex, more straightforward travel adventures—Typee, Omoo, White-Jacket—were in frequent circulation at the Society Library in the late 1840s–early 1850s. Moby-Dick was borrowed fewer than twenty times during the period represented by the chart. Melville’s next book, Pierre, was even less popular—and, as the exhibit points out, earned him the headline “Herman Melville Crazy” from a contemporary reviewer.

Perhaps the most amusing exhibit item shows a unique exchange between Society Library readers of Melville. In what amounts to a nineteenth-century version of internet comments (including insults and a silly pseudonym), at least three Library members left penciled notes at the end of a chapter of White-Jacket:

[annotator 1:] This is a bad chapter. / E. B. / July 5 1860
[annotator 2:] Why the devil don’t you put the real date in. (Signed) Adolphus Fitz Noodle
[annotator 3:] I should think you were a noodle indeed. G.J.V.

Also on display are several mid-nineteenth-century scenes—prints and photographs of the New York City harbor—artfully paired with quotations from Moby-Dick. A panoramic engraved view of the city from the East River accompanies Ishmael’s opening admission that seafaring adventures are his cure for frustrations with obnoxious city life, when “it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off . . . .”

The absent star of the exhibit, the barely-circulated first edition of Moby-Dick belonging to the Society Library, is unfortunately now lost, perhaps disappeared in its depths.

Herman Melville’s New York, 1850” is on display, free to the public, at the New York Society Library, in the Peluso Family Gallery, until November 7.

Charles Cuykendall Carter is the Assistant Curator of the Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle at the New York Public Library. He is also Associate Editor of the Shelley-Godwin Archive, and is on the board of The American Printing History Association.

Impermanent Dwellings: Bookstores and Feminist Approaches to History

by contributing editor Brooke Palmieri

It would make an amazing opening sequence to a film: the camera catches the glint of chrome, leather, motorcycle, boots, asphalt. A helmet is secured, and a stack of books and belongings piled onto the back are double-checked for safety. On the top of the stack is the silver-on-blue imprint of a peacock, the book is Rita May Brown’s Songs to a Handsome Woman.

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A voiceover narrates a poem from the book, “For Those of Us Working For a New World”:

The dead are the only people
to have permanent dwellings.
We, nomads of Revolution
Wander over the desolation of many generations
And are reborn on each other’s lips
To ride wild mares over unfathomable canyons
Heralding dawns, dreams and sweet desire.

The year is 1974 and the woman on the motorcycle is Carol Seajay, and she’s about to ride from Kalamazoo to San Francisco. Forget Shakespeare’s sister Judith in a room of her own — this is Jack Kerouac’s younger, smarter, and politically awakened sister’s On the Road. Revolutionary without the misogyny, nomadic without the exploitation. The screenplay to this film would be written by Sarah Schulman in the style of Girls, Visions, and Everything. The protagonist Carol Seajay really did ride across the country in 1974, stopping at the kinds of bookstores that sold books like Songs to a Handsome Woman. Other women would make similar trips to these feminist bookstores, which in the 1970s began to open all over North America in a glorious manifestation of the energy and passion of the Women’s Liberation Movement. The film documenting this explosion of over a hundred bookshops would begin with Seajay’s ride to San Francisco, feature a pitstop at the Amazon Bookstore in Minneapolis. It would show her arrival as a volunteer at the bookstore ICI: A Woman’s Place, in Oakland. It would cut to 1976, when Seajay opened Old Wives’ Tales in San Francisco 40 years ago this Halloween. In that same year, it would show her typing up and collating Feminist Bookstore News, the publication that the transnational network of bookstores used to communicate and coordinate with one another when they weren’t travelling to meet in person at the Women in Print conferences they planned. The Feminist Bookstore News was a tool for calling out racism within the sprawling community of feminists; it was a tool for sharing information about books worth stocking; it was a tool for coordinating campaigns to keep books by female authors in print; and it was a tool for fighting against the rise of large chain booksellers and amazon.com, and their impact upon the sustainability of independent bookstores. The movie would end in 1995, when Old Wives’ Tales closed.

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Carol Seajay at Old Wives Tales, c. 1980.  Image courtesy of Found SF.

Cross-country travel linked Old Wives’ Tales with hundreds of other bookshops between the 1970s and 1990s. Kristen Hogan’s The Feminist Bookstore Movement: Lesbian Antiracism and Feminist Accountability (2016) details the story of the women who ran Old Wives’ Tales, the political and social contexts and plain hard work that allowed for it and so many other bookstores to flourish. This is also taken up in This Book Is an Action: Feminist Print Culture and Activist Aesthetics. The influence of bookstores upon their local communities is difficult to pin down, but diffuse in the opinion of Carol Seajay, who described to Hogan in The Feminist Bookstore Movement the importance of finding the right book at the right time in these terms:

I brought those books back and said to friends of mine, “These are the lesbian books with good endings. These are going to change our lives.” And they all looked at me, like, “Yeah, yeah, Carol. All about books, Carol, again. Yeah, yeah, yeah.” “No these are going to change our lives. No, you have to read this. Songs to a Handsome Woman, you have to read these!” They did read them. And it changed some of their lives and not some of them. But I do think that there being lesbian books changed even the lives of the women who didn’t read. Because it changed the lives around them.”

Sometimes a book’s message, or the feeling of having read it, can be felt by those who haven’t picked it up — the sight of that radiance in the face of the reader can change the quality of a room. Sometimes the book’s existence becomes a distinctly distant comfort: unread, alongside others on the shelf, it is not alone, and neither are you. Libraries and bookstores produce those comforts, working in tandem to foster existing communities , and to imagine those that do not — although less on the level of the imagined national communities of Benedict Anderson than on the level of the neighborhood. Yet the latter is a precondition to the former, as Kay Turner put it, speaking almost directly to the “dreams and sweet desire” from “To Those of Us Working For a New World”: “The dream of a common language couldn’t exist without the dream of a common bookstore.”

Scholarship in history of the book has concerned itself with the dreams imagined by individual books — the imaginary readers, the individual houses a book has inhabited. It has scaled up to think about the history of libraries. But in The Feminist Bookstore Movement and This Book Is an Action, the authors and editors expand our understanding of the reading experience by thinking about the relationships between books and their audiences within pre-sale geographic and economic contexts. Particular to the feminist bookstore movement was the repeated use of the bookstores as platforms for transnational and international conversation and debate. Bookstores themselves (during road trips especially) and the Feminist Bookstore News, were the sites of sometimes-painful arguments about the practices of inclusive feminist activism in real time. Bookstores were incubation chambers where theory turned to to practice. The presence of books that addressed racism, colonialism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia head on encouraged and informed the discussions and practices not only of bookstore workers, but also for the community that took shape in and around the shops. For example, in 1989 Sharon Fernandez, and Cindy Beggs, in tandem with the Toronto Women’s Bookstore collective, published the Women of Colour Bibliography documenting publications of and by women of color in the 1980s to make it easier for other bookstores to keep those titles in stock. There was nothing like it at the time, even in the academy. The bibliography was much more than a list of books — it was a record of the pain and struggle within as well as outside feminism to come to terms with its own systemic racism, and to hold readers accountable for theirs. This was a bibliography that meant something, not just to the people that wrote it and the authors of the books they documented, but to a larger community that strove to address the needs and experience of women of colour.

The feminist bookstore movement offers a powerful model for analysing the influence of bookstores as units of intellectual meaning as well as forces for social change beyond the Women’s Liberation Movement. The history of libraries is increasingly well documented and theorised within scholarship, but the history of bookstores is only beginning to receive a similar level of attention — such as with the University of Pennsylvania’s Gotham Book Mart Project, work documenting the influence of Shakespeare & Co. in Paris, or New Beacon Books in London. Focus on these bookshops facilitates a shift within book history as a subject taught in English and History departments to one requiring the tools of the anthropologist or sociologist, of doing fieldwork to square up the changing realities of bookstores today and their staff and patrons. It is fitting that this work might take as its model the work of The Feminist Bookstore Movement and This Book Is an Action — thinking socially about the collective action fostered by communal spaces is an inherently feminist methodology. To focus on the sociology of bookstores also realizes the dreams set forward by scholarship focusing on much earlier time periods. Bookshops, like public libraries, offer modern heirs to the ‘textual communities’ of medieval heretics Brian Stock documents in The Implication of Literacy, or complementing the observations of Margaret Ezell’s Social Authorship and the Advent of Print or Helen Smith’s Grossly Material Things to think about the highly collaborative nature of the production of books, and the role readers and booksellers play in that collaboration. Finally, the fusion of history and experience that has given rise to these works of scholarship also allows us to acknowledge the role bookshops play in the individual development of scholars and writers — The Feminist Bookstore Movement, for example, is as much a memoir as it is a work of intellectual and cultural history.

A bookshop is impermanent by nature: its contents are always changing, and there is a constant threat of closure if the rent isn’t paid. The closure of Old Wives’ Tales at the end of my movie on the feminist bookstore movement would fulfil the opening poem, “For Those of Us Working For a New World,” as if it were a prophesy. Bookstores must remain impermanent dwellings if they are to remain faithful to the reality of the changing needs of changing times. Their impermanence and precariousness makes them feel more human and more real than the institutions that take on an immortal purpose and character. Every great bookstore gives us something connect with – perhaps even to fight for – when it’s going, and model revive when it’s gone. For instance, in July 2016 Her Bookshop opened up in East Nashville, Tennessee, another heir to Seajay’s work. Loss can be formative, and it can build resilience. The stress dream of impermanence generates a very different worldview from the escapist dream of endlessness—the trick is, in the case of bookshops, to document the worlds they create before they vanish.

 

Greek to Me: The Hellenism of Early Print

by guest contributor Jane Raisch

The difficulties of printing Greek are something of a refrain amongst its earliest printers. “Anyone who criticizes me is quite unjust and ungrateful,” the acclaimed printer of the classics, Aldus Manutius, complained in the preface to his Herodotus, Hesiod, and Theognis (1496), “I would not wish them anything worse than that they too should one day print Greek texts.”[1] For Aldus and other printers in the incunabular period, printing Greek did indeed pose genuine, technical challenges. Unlike Latin, Greek is accented, not only above but also below the line, and determining the most efficient and cost-effective way to render its accents in movable-type was an ongoing problem. Additionally, the so-called “Greek humanist hand” popular in the late fifteenth century incorporated a number of complex ligatures, abbreviations, and flourishes which required cutting even more distinct pieces of type. And while Aldus’ Greek type design would ultimately become the standard, influencing the appearance of printed Greek for the next two centuries, exploring various experiments with Greek typography in the incunabular period (and the decades just after), especially the innovations of the Byzantine scholar, Janus Lascaris, reveals the dynamism and creativity that surrounded early attempts to reconstruct ancient Greek via print.

A few decades before Aldus and Janus Lascaris, the Cretan émigré and printer Demetrius

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Sweynheym and Pannartz’s Lactantius (1470). Image provided courtesy of the Albert & Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia.

Damilas addressed the challenges of printing Greek in the dedication to his edition of the Erotemata of Constantine Lascaris (1476), the first book to be printed entirely in Greek: “with difficulty I have found at last how Greek books might be printed too, not only in the composition of the letters which is sundry and complex in Greek, but especially in those places marked with accents, which is certainly a difficult business and it requires no little consideration.”[2] Before Damilas’ Erotemata, Greek text had been printed, but only as quotations or proper names within primarily Latin texts. The Lactantius of Sweynheym and Pannartz (1470) is perhaps the most famous example. These earliest attempts to print Greek, however, used noticeably reduced, sometimes non-existent, systems of Greek accents, making Damilas’ introduction of fully accented Greek type a crucial innovation. Nonetheless, printers after Damilas continued to experiment with and refine various strategies for typographically representing accented Greek on the printed page.

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Demetrius Damilas’ Erotemata of Constantine Lascaris (1476). Image provided courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Printing, indeed even learning, Greek in this early period was further inflected by a certain amount of controversy. As Simon Goldhill has explored in Who Needs Greek?, learning Greek was initially met with resistance by certain clerics who perceived it as a threat to Christian Latinity. In the early sixteenth century, the monk Nicolaus Baecham went so far as to declare, in an attack on Erasmus’ new translation of the Greek New Testament, that Greek was “the font of all evil”[3] (Goldhill, 26). Erasmus himself was both a great champion of Greek studies and actively involved in the world of early Italian Greek print: a friend of Aldus, Erasmus spent many months at the Aldine Press in Venice perfecting his Greek and working on various scholarly Greek projects. According to Erasmus, the suspicion surrounding Greek (and even Hebrew) went beyond just reading the language or translating scripture. In his famous Letter to Martin Dorp, Erasmus mocks  “certain individuals who pass for serious scholars” who “hastened to implore the printer, in the name of everything sacred, not to allow the insertion of a single world of Greek or Hebrew: these languages were fraught with immense danger and offered no advantage, and served only to satisfy men’s curiosity.”[4]

This anxiety Erasmus describes links the visual potency of simply representing the Greek alphabet on the page to an almost perverse voyeurism; seeing, not even reading, Greek is a prelude to disaster. And indeed, since the number of literate individuals who could read Greek in this period was tiny, viewing rather than comprehending would have been the more common form of readerly engagement. The visual design of Greek letters on the page, then, carried a particular significance: implicitly shaping how both readers and non-readers of Greek encounter the newly recovered language via a kind of extra-textual legibility.

Aldine Hero and Leander

Aldus Manutius’ first edition of Hero and Leander (1494(?)). This offers an example of one of Aldus’ earliest Greek types in which a number of abbreviations, ligatures, and flourishes are visible. Image provided courtesy of the University of California, Los Angeles, Special Collections.

Aldus elected to base his type off of contemporary Greek handwriting, the “humanist hand” that the Byzantine scholars directly involved in the dissemination of Greek learning used themselves to copy Greek manuscripts. Accordingly, in his letter requesting a privilege to protect his new Greek type design (1495), Aldus specifically lauded the ability of his type to “print so well and so much better in Greek than can be written with a pen.”[5] In choosing handwriting as his model, however, Aldus ran into the problem of ligatures and abbreviations. As we can see in his earliest attempts to print Greek, such as his first stab at Hero and Leander (1494?), his type was replete with complicated conjoined letters and even more elaborate abbreviations that required (and still require) their own decipherment. While later Aldine Greek types reduced the number of these special characters, as we can see in his edition of Julius Pollux (1502), Aldine Greek texts needed an astonishing number of pieces of type in order to be printed.

Aldine Pollux

Aldus Manutius’ first edition of Julius Pollux’s Onomasticon (1502). This offers an example of one of Aldus’ later Greek types, in which fewer examples of abbreviations, ligatures, and flourishes are visible. Image provided courtesy of the University of California, Los Angeles, Special Collections.

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Janus Lascaris and Lorenzo de Alopa’s editio princeps of the Greek Anthology (1494). This was the first book to feature Lascaris’ striking Greek font, using both small and large uppercase letters. Image provided courtesy of the Bancroft Library.

An original alternative to Aldus’ design came from Lascaris, the prominent Byzantine scholar, who, in collaboration with the Florentine printer Lorenzo de Alopa, developed a Greek type that took not contemporary handwriting but rather ancient Greek inscriptions as its visual model. While this was not it and of itself so uncommon (Latin types had been using inscriptional letters for a few decades), what was exceptional was Lascaris’ choice to make the entire font uppercase inscriptional letters. In other words, Lascaris did not envision the lettering of ancient inscriptions as models primarily suited for titles or headings (as they were in Latin types), but rather as the most elegant and practical way to print entire works. Lascaris, therefore, designed his type to include both small and large uppercase letters and debuted this new type in the first edition of the Greek Anthology (1494). In the dedicatory epistle of his Greek Anthology, Lascaris justified his unorthodox choice by appealing to both the aesthetic dimensions of type design and the technical exigencies of cutting type:

Taking this new opportunity of printing, which will be so useful for students of literature, I set myself to rescue the elements of Greek letters from misshapen and really unbecoming corruption. When I thought of the letter-forms provided now for use in printing, which are not convenient for engraving and cannot be properly fitted to each other, I took all the more care to seek out the primary form of the letters [priscae literarum figurae], long out of use, and I provided a model for the printers adapted to the technical processes of printing by the engravers and craftsmen.[6]

While Aldus celebrated the ability of his press to present Greek on the printed page in a way that exceeded the writing of a pen, Lascaris shifts the emphasis away from the solely visual and from the end product alone. He imagines print’s intervention in Greek cultural recovery to involve every step in the printing process, beginning with the engraving and cutting of type. Seen from this perspective, where the appearance of the page is only one dimension of what print means, the ancient practice of carving stone for inscriptions and the Renaissance practice of carving metal pieces to make type do indeed seem to be analogous material procedures. The abbreviations Aldus dutifully reproduced were also the product of a scribal culture where rapidly transcribing and recording information was essential, something print makes essentially irrelevant.  Thus, while Lascaris’ typeface was unsurprisingly short-lived (he only printed six other texts in his all-capitals font), it reveals not merely the innovative energy that surrounded the early printing of Greek, but also the layers of legibility, of significatory possibility, understood to operate within the early Greek printed page.

Looking closely at the ways in which the earliest printers addressed these challenges, we can begin to understand how the material concerns of Greek print, from the sources used in the graphic design of the typefaces to the technical challenges of translating an alphabet from manuscript to moveable type, were themselves inflected by multiple material contexts, ones that stretched from the contemporary Hellenism of the fifteenth century back to Greek antiquity itself.

Jane Raisch is a doctoral student at Berkeley in the Department of Comparative Literature. She focuses on the reception of Greek in Early Modern English literature and the intersection between scholarship and poetics.


[1] Aldus Manutius, The Greek Classics, ed. and trans. Nigel Wilson (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2016), 25.

[2] Richard Breaden, “The First Book Printed in Greek,” Bulletin of the New York Public Library. 51 (1947): 3.

[3] Erica Rummel, Erasmus and His Catholic Critics I, 1515-1522 (Nieuwkoop: De Graaf, 1989), 139. Also cited in: Simon Goldhill, Who Needs Greek?: Contests in the Cultural History of Hellenism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 26.

[4] Erasmus, “Letter to Martin Dorp,” in Praise of Folly, trans. Betty Radice (New York: Penguin Classics, 1985), 242.

[5] Nicholas Barker, Aldus Manutius and the development of Greek script & type in the fifteenth century (New York : Fordham University Press, 1992), 92.

[6] Barker, 39n21.

Further Reading:
Robert Proctor, The Printing of Greek in the Fifteenth Century. Oxford: Printed for the Bibliographical Society at the Oxford University Press, 1900.

Barker, Nicholas. Aldus Manutius and the development of Greek script & type in the fifteenth century. New York: Fordham University Press, 1992.

Simon Goldhill, Who Needs Greek?: Contests in the Cultural History of Hellenism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002).

 

Cavendish’s Daughters: Speculative Fiction and Women’s History

by guest contributor Jonathan Kearns in collaboration with Brooke Palmieri

Nor is the empire of the imagination less bounded in its own proper creations, than in those which were bestowed on it by the poor blind eyes of our ancestors. What has become of enchantresses with their palaces of crystal and dungeons of palpable darkness? What of fairies and their wands? What of witches and their familiars? and, last, what of ghosts, with beckoning hands and fleeting shapes, which quelled the soldier’s brave heart, and made the murderer disclose to the astonished noon the veiled work of midnight? These which were realities to our fore-fathers, in our wiser age —

— Characterless are grated

To dusty nothing.

— Mary Shelley, “On Ghosts,” London Magazine, 1824

Literary canon in general, and the canon of weird or speculative fiction in particular, is haunted by half-remembered absences. We think we know the details of all of the high points: Frankenstein (1822), The Vampyre (1819), Varney the Vampire (1847), Dracula (1897); the works of Edgar Allen Poe (1809-1849), or Sheridan Le Fanu (1814-1873). But in reality, we’re just glossing over all the places where we weren’t paying attention: namely, the vast catalogue of stories written by women over the centuries that play a formative role in the creatures and creeping feelings of horror that we take for granted as canonical. An important chapter worth writing in women’s history, and in the history of women writers, is that which considers the particularly feminine perspective that has imagined into existence some of the weirdest works of literature.

For example, there are stranger early modern alternatives to Shakespeare than Virginia Woolf’s portrait of his sister Judith. Margaret Cavendish (1623-1673), Duchess of Newcastle, scientist, philosopher, poet, patron of all things strange, was the first woman to attend a meeting of the Royal Society and get annoyed with Hooke, argue with Hobbes, and raise an eyebrow at Boyle.
In 1666 she published two works together: Observations upon Experimental Philosophy, which argued against the most popular scientific worldview of its time, mechanical philosophy; and The Blazing World, equal parts utopia, social satire, and straight-up weird fiction. It’s a masterpiece of fish-men, talking animals, and submarine warfare—written significantly earlier than Jules Verne, despite including a journey to another world, in a different universe, via the North Pole. Should we not describe his works as Cavendishian? Scholarship more frequently cites Ludvig Holberg’s Niels Klim’s Underground Travels in connection with Verne, although that too bears clear hallmarks of Cavendish’s influence. Cavendish’s dual publication of a work of natural philosophy with a work of speculative fiction have arguably only met their synthesis in the twentieth century, when scientists admit the influence of science fiction in their research, and “hard science fiction” like that of Kim Stanley Robinson has fully blossomed as a sub-genre. In other words, re-conceiving the canon of science fiction, speculative fiction, horror, and weird fiction begins with reconsidering their muddled origins in works like those of Margaret Cavendish, the foremother of so many strange ideas, imagined and real.

The industrious half-beast, half-human characters populating Cavendish’s Blazing World—the bear-men philosophers, the jackdaw-men orators, the spider-men mathematicians—translate the myths, the folk tales, the monstrous births and miraculous occurrences of a declining world of superstition into new centuries, with new narrative possibilities. Alongside their afterlives in the realms of science fiction, their hybrid forms are also a starting point for horror and considerations of the supernatural.

The immovable object of women in speculative fiction is obviously Frankenstein (1818), first imagined two hundred years ago this past June at the famous Villa Diodati. Nobody nowadays really argues with Mary Shelley’s pre-eminent position as the mother of all reanimated corpses. John William Polidori (1795-1821), also present at the first telling of the story, probably features fairly strongly in the role of medical advisor, especially with his experience in the dissection theaters of Edinburgh and considering his academic preoccupations. Taking the staples of weird, speculative, horrifying, and supernatural fiction as a whole, most of the major tropes were the product of female authorship. Frankenstein’s Monster—scientific aberration, stitched-up King Zombie, vengeful revenant—is only one such pillar: a hybrid in the style of Cavendish’s Blazing World, yet a ghost in his own right, ruthlessly haunting his creator.

And ghost stories too have a place in women’s history: Elizabeth Boyd’s Altamira’s Ghost (1744) describes a disputed succession adjudicated over by a spirit. Although supernatural in content, it is essentially a commentary on social injustice narrated by a ghost and dealing with the famous Annesley succession case, in which an orphan’s inheritance rested upon proof of his legitimacy. One peculiarity of the case is that a maidservant named Heath, claiming James Annesley illegitimate, was found guilty of perjury on one occasion, then acquitted on another, effectively allowing James to be ruled both bastard and not bastard simultaneously. Boyd was primarily a paid “hack” of notable skill, but it should be mentioned that her openly supernatural works (“William and Catherine, or The Fair Spectre” (1745) being another) fall thematically into the fantastically interesting category of female apparition narrative, in which female ghosts appear in order to provide insight into male wrongdoing and most notably domestic violence. A ghost woman can talk about things a live woman may not, and thus assist in the administration of justice. At one time an accepted literary device in its own right, this seems to have been forgotten along with Boyd and her contemporaries.

The pattern has a tendency to repeat. But the women of nineteenth-century weird fiction after Mary Shelley were more interested in giving their ghosts a body, much like the monster of Dr. Frankenstein. In 1828, only ten years after Frankenstein, Jane Loudon produced The Mummy! Or A Tale of The Twenty-Second Century (published by the piratical Henry Colburn, who published Polidori’s Vampyre under Byron’s name in 1819). Both of Loudon’s parents were dead by 1824, when she was 17, and she was forced to find some way to “do something for [her] support”:

I had written a strange, wild novel, called the Mummy, in which I had laid the scene in the twenty-second century, and attempted to predict the state of improvement to which this country might possibly arrive.

Already well-traveled and with several languages under her belt, Jane Loudon was clearly not without either smarts or skills. Her husband-to-be sought her out after writing a favorable review of the novel, believing her, naturally, to be a man. Once the shock of her femininity had worn off, they were married a year later.

Loudon’s resurrected Cheops is a sage and helpful corpse, granted life maintained by a higher power rather than by human error and hubris. Loudon’s twenty-second century is an absolutely blinding bit of fictional prophecy, on par with William Gibson’s Neuromancer for edgy prescience. The habit of the time was to view the future as the early nineteenth century, but with bigger buildings and with the French in charge, but Loudon’s 2126 AD goes for women striding about independently in trousers, robot doctors and solicitors, and something that’s not too far from an early concept of the internet. Her strange, wild story, in which corpsified Cheops helps rebuild a corrupt society, addresses much of the underlying horror of Shelley’s Frankenstein with a more redemptive take on the reanimation of dead flesh. It was also a definite influence on Bram Stoker’s better-remembered “Jewel of The Seven Stars,” published in the 1890s, and possibly even on Poe’s “Ligeia” in 1838, in which a man painstakingly wraps his dead wife in bandages prior to her burial.

There’s an argument for suggesting that writing weird fiction, at least in the form of ghost stories, became something of a fashionable exploit for nineteenth-century ladies. The Countess of Blessington (“A Ghost Story,” 1846), Mrs. Hofland (“The Regretted Ghost,” published in The Keepsake in the mid-1820s) are just two examples. On one hand, they might be seen as a natural evolution of the legacy of the Gothic giants Clara Reeve and Ann Radcliffe, alongside Jane Crofts’ hugely successful (and frequently necessarily anonymous) forays into the profitable world of Gothic novels and chapbooks (“The History of Jenny Spinner, The Hertfordshire Ghost,” 1800) and C.D. Haynes (“Eleanor, Or The Spectre of St. Michaels,” 1821). On the other, there is something innately rebellious, hinting at manifest destiny, in the feminine colonization of weird fiction as a form in which women can express themselves.

cavendish1Women who were already making a living as authors of anonymous romances and social sketches bent their efforts to the weird and supernatural with no apparent intent of turning a profit, but apparently more as an endorsement of the genre as something inherently theirs. Mrs. Riddell, Mrs. Oliphant, the Countess of Munster and Mrs. Alfred Baldwin were all successful, comfortable women with no particular need to deviate from a working formula, but they all ventured into what they clearly considered a darkness to which they had a right, and produced some of the very best weird stories of the nineteenth century.

cavendish2Mrs. Riddell’s (1832-1906) Weird Stories, published by Hogg in 1882, is one of the rarest and most beautifully written collections of supernatural stories of the last two hundred years.

cavendish3Mrs. Margaret Oliphant (1828-1897) wrote an incredible body of work—numbering over 120 published novels, historical works and collections of short stories—from the 1840s until the late 1890s, spanning almost the entire Victorian age in all its manifold weirdness.

The Countess of Munster, Wilhelmina FitzClarence (1830-1906), Scottish peer and illegitimate granddaughter of William IV, only became a novelist later in life. She published her Ghostly Stories in 1896, displaying a tremendous talent for the weird.cavendish4

Florence Marryat’s (1833-1899) The Blood of The Vampire, published the same year as Stoker’s Dracula and now shamefully almost forgotten, is a nuanced and complex (albeit erratic in execution) look at nineteenth-century male-dominated societal norms, race, sexuality, gender, and xenophobia, couched in the terms of the supernatural. Its mixed-race heroine is exploited by men and rejected by other women; the fact that she might be infected with vampirism is a secondary (and never cavendish5actually resolved) possibility when placed alongside how she is treated, regardless of supernatural influence. Marryat wrote over seventy published works, toured with the D’Oyly Carte company, had her own successful one woman show, ran lecture tours preaching female emancipation, and, during the 1890s, ran a women’s school of journalism.

It’s almost inconceivable that the “stuff of extrapolation” has preserved Klim, Polidori, Stoker, Le Fanu, Rymer and their legions of successful cohorts as the manifest summits of weird fiction in the nineteenth century, and yet rarely even mentions Jane Loudon, Mrs. Riddell, or even Mrs. Oliphant, who had a body of work larger than that of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Mary Shelley’s 1824 essay “On Ghosts,” which began this post, had at its heart two main questions: “What have we left to dream about?” and “[I]s it true that we do not believe in ghosts?” The catalogue of weird fiction produced by Shelley and those after her shows that women had a great deal left to dream about. Female weird fiction frequently deals with minorities and outliers: wronged gypsy women, beaten wives, revenant witches, overly prescient children, the occasional voodoo priestess, and a preoccupation with the righting of wrongs, the application of a certain balancing justice. Unlike in the masculine variants, the menaces and threats are more often laid to rest or propitiated, or indeed left to float off on an ice floe—rather than being chopped up, burned up, stabbed up, or staked up by a gang of bros armored by either science or God, the two being interchangeable when fighting darkness.

One thing is for certain: the influence of women writers, whether anonymously, writing under male pseudonyms, or under their own names upon the landscape of the weird is not only significant, but momentous. If one can identify a trope or a device, the chances are that if one goes back far enough it originated somewhere in the untended and rarely-visited forest of female writers of the irresistibly odd and disturbing. As for Shelley’s second question, it is now their ghosts which haunt literary history and which must be remembered. Yet to believe them, requires that they be seen.

Jonathan Kearns has been working in the book trade for over twenty years and is the proprietor of Jonathan Kearns Rare Books & Curiosities. He is also a faculty member at the York Antiquarian Book Seminar.

Imagining Communal Intellectual History: Libraries and Their Readers

by guest contributor Rob Koehler

Intellectual history and the histories of libraries have always had a peculiarly tangential relationship to one another. Intellectual history as practiced in the United States often pursues the transmission and transformation of ideas through texts, but less often engages with the means by which books got from place to place or how networks of readers at a given institution interacted with ideas to which they had joint access. Similarly, library historians have tended to focus less on the possibilities for exploring the diffusion of ideas through libraries and more on their developing institutional forms or the changing political valences of their founding, operation, and institutional self-presentation to the communities in which they existed. Yet, the development of large sets of digitized borrowing and holding records from historical libraries, along with efforts to preserve reading experiences through oral histories, offers a fruitful moment to re-consider how the methods of intellectual and library history might be productively fused to develop new insights into the life of the mind in previous historical epochs. Through examples provided by the rich records of the City Readers project at the New York Society Library, I want to offer two observations about how the resources and methods of library history might usefully broaden the purview of intellectual historians.

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The New York Society Library at its third location on Broadway at Leonard Street, which also housed the Academy of Design, c. 1840. In 1856 the Library sold the building to the publisher and bookseller D. Appleton & Co., and moved to a new location on University Place. Image courtesy of the New York Society Library.

The first observation is that library records challenge any easy assumptions about the methods of reading and motives for reading of people in the past. Take for example, the borrowing records of Alexander Hamilton—a figure enjoying a powerful renaissance in popular culture as financial genius and self-made immigrant. Hamilton became a member of the Library immediately after its refounding in 1789; he was not particularly active as a borrower, he checked out only two books, but those two books open suggestive questions about Hamilton’s intellectual activities as he was beginning work as the first Secretary of the Treasury. Hamilton checked out two novels: The History of the Honourable Edward Mortimer, a recent British romance that was popular with many of the library’s subscribers, the other, Eleanora, an English translation of a novel by Goethe. Often understood as a hard-bitten elitist with little sympathy for popular tastes, Hamilton could not have been more in the mainstream of popular literary taste in his selection of novels. Fifty other subscribers—of all different political persuasions—checked out these same books in 1790; Tunis Wortman, soon to be a powerful voice in opposition to the Federalist fiscal and military policies of Hamilton, checked out Edward Mortimer immediately before Hamilton.

Then and now, the reading of popular novels is often portrayed as a frivolous and even somewhat morally suspect behavior, but that didn’t stop even the most elitist of the Founding Fathers from reading them anyway. As Elizabeth Ott recently pointed out on this blog in reference to the Sheffield Reads oral history project, we have little understanding or exploration of the intellectual history of reading for pleasure rather than improvement, perhaps because—just as Hamilton himself likely would have—we wish to distance ourselves from such dissipated and putatively non-intellectual practices. More generally, because of the intellectual seriousness that governed both the public behavior of the Founding Fathers and the sometimes almost suffocating decorum of the intellectual histories of the Founding Era, we have few investigations of the impact of works of popular literature on elite culture and the mechanics by which knowledge of them spread through communities. While I do not want to claim that we need an intellectual history of popular literature of the Founding Era, several suggestive studies—including those of Cathy Davidson, Julie Ellison, and Bryan Waterman—already exist and provide intriguing insights, I do want to suggest that beginning with borrowing records can disrupt otherwise entrenched perspectives on the intellectual investments or predispositions of well-studied figures and eras.

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The Society Library’s first bookplate, designed by William Livingston (1723-1790) and etched by Elisha Gallaudet (1728-1779). Image courtesy of the New York Society Library.

Following that hope, my second observation is that library records can open up entirely new ways to engage the spread and transformation of ideas in the communities they served. Rather than beginning with an individual, faceted records allow the opportunity to begin with other, non-anthropocentric perspectives. For example, as librarians and bibliographers have been doing for years, one can begin with the life cycle of a single book: how it arrived at an institution, how long it was checked out by each individual who read it, and when it either disappears from records or stopped being checked out altogether. To take another perspective, one can begin with a given year and explore all of the books that were checked out in that year: what were the most and least popular books, when were users particularly active or inactive, and more generally, how did diurnal and seasonal cycles impact intellectual pursuits in the pre-modern era? Or, to take a third perspective, perhaps the most intriguing to me: what books were held by the library but never checked out by a user; what book or books never appealed to a reader in early New York?

Turning to these questions would open on to a broader intellectual history of a particular community, in this case New York City, but that could be taken up elsewhere as well. Digitized holdings records are available for other libraries as well, including those of English Dissenting Academies of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and of the Muncie, IN Public Library from 1891-1902. Making use of different interfaces to expose their data, these early efforts each offer different insights into their collections and suggest different questions that might be asked. The New York Society Library also plans to continue expanding its collection of digitized records, with the long term goal of making all of its borrowing ledgers from 1789-1909 available digitally. With a record set that rich and diverse, it is possible to begin imagining writing a more comprehensive intellectual history of New York communities from below, beginning with those groups of readers—whether they were reading the newest popular novel or the most austere moral philosophy—who came to the same book and engaged with it as part of their individual intellectual life.

Rob Koehler is a PhD. candidate in English at New York University. He works at the intersections of education, literature, and publishing in early America, examining the political, legal, and cultural origins of schools and libraries as public institutions.

Mai-mai Sze and Irene Sharaff in Public and in Private

by contributing editor Erin Schreiner

I’ve written about Mai-mai Sze on this blog three times, and in those pieces I have focused on her life as a reader and writer. I am neither a historian nor a biographer by training – I’m a librarian – but I think that I must acknowledge a responsibility to Sze as her amateur biographer because I have written most about her. Up to now I have felt no real urgency to discuss Sze’s life-long partnership with Irene Sharaff. While neither makes mention of their relationship in the work for which they are known, glimpses of their private life together survive in the fragments of correspondence that remain in the archives and the memories of those who knew them. Although we can ignore the fact that Sharaff and Sze had a same-sex relationship when considering their work, exploring how they might have shaped each other’s lives and legacies adds depth and nuance to the story of how they made it.

From the mid-1930s until her death, Mai-mai Sze and the costume designer Irene Sharaff were a devoted couple; every person I’ve interviewed about Sze has used that word to describe the relationship. They lived together in New York in an apartment on 66th Street, and Sze always accompanied Sharaff to filming locations in Hollywood and all over the world. We find evidence of this in Sze’s correspondence, and even in her reading. Many books survive with loose sheets of notes written on stationery from the Beverly Hills Hotel, and her surviving correspondence often describes her travels with Sharaff. Sharaff’s letters make frequent mentions Sze, and they often signed letters to friends together. Jeannette Sanger, the owner of the now-closed Books & Co., described how the couple always appeared together not only at the store but also at literary parties. They were inseparable and their love and admiration for one another was apparent to everyone who knew them. Despite the fact that they were well-known as a couple, however, neither makes any mention of the other in their published work. Both Sze and Sharaff published autobiographies: Sze’s covers her childhood, and Sharaff exclusively writes on her work as a designer. Neither mentions the other anywhere in the texts. In both women, we find an intense separation between the person they presented to the public, and private life they lived together.

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Irene Sharaff, 1910-1993

While we cannot confidently use the word lesbian to describe either the women themselves or their relationship because we just don’t know if either identified as such, I think that the Sharaff-Sze story can be read as lesbian history, and that ways of looking at lesbian life can shed light on both women’s lives as individuals. Sharaff and Sze’s relationship exhibits many of the “subliminal signs that we read as lesbian” described by Frances Doughty in her article, “Lesbian Biography, Biography by Lesbians.” They were “intimate woman companions who … shared housing and daily life;” both were engaged in “a self-defined work that is a central theme in the subject’s life” (Sharaff’s work in film and theater in New York and Hollywood, which have historic connections to LGBT communities, deserves mention here); Sze maintained an “active interest in and struggles on behalf of other oppressed or deviant groups;” and the couple had friendships with gay men, most notably Leo Lerman and Gray Foy. (Doughty, 78) Their relationship also fits Lillian Faderman’s definition of lesbian relationships, as both private records and anecdotes of those who knew them firmly establish that their “strongest emotions and affections [were] directed toward each other.”

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Letter from Sharaff and Sze to Leo Lerman and Gray Foy, January 1, 1990 (author’s photo; Leo Lerman Papers; Box 19; courtesy of the Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University Library)

Examining their lives within the context of lesbian history, we can begin to understand why Sharaff and Sze’s private selves are so different from their public selves. Both women came of age in the late 1920s and ’30s, times that saw a major shift in the perception of lesbianism in America. While the ’20s were a time of greater sexual freedom across the general population because of the mainstream acceptance of Freudian psychology, it was also the first time that lesbianism was described as a disease. In the 1930s, the idea of homosexuality as an illness was broadly accepted across the medical community and also in some areas of popular culture, like pulp fiction and the theater. Times continued to change, and throughout their lives these women witnessed seismic shifts in perceptions of homosexuality.

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Mai-mai Sze (1909-1992), c. 1940 by George Hoyningen-Huene

Throughout most of their adult lives and particularly at a time when both women were taking a firmer foothold in their careers in the 1950s, any public admission of their private relationship – however they would have defined it – may have had a harmful effect on their success. It seems reasonable to suggest that the McCarthy era witch-hunts for homosexuals in the 1950s would have worried them, particularly because so many of Sharaff’s colleagues were targeted in Hollywood. Whether or not they wanted to live publicly as a loving couple, obscuring the details of their relationship may have been one way of ensuring that they achieved their personal goals.

In their private lives, however, Sharaff and Sze’s relationship facilitated the achievements which defined their public personas. Throughout much of the twentieth century, women chose same-sex relationships for many reasons, one of which was the freedom that their choice allowed them. By rejecting the traditionally female roles of wife and mother, women like Mai-mai Sze and Irene Sharaff gave themselves the time, and the emotional and intellectual support they needed to reach a level of professional success that would have been unthinkable for most straight women of their generation. Sharaff and Sze’s shared life and their devotion to one another gave them the freedom to pursue their self-defined creative, intellectual, and professional goals.

In their public selves, Sharaff and Sze did not enjoy the same level of success, despite the fact both were equally devoted to the work they chose for themselves. Sharaff was a hugely successful costume designer who was nominated for eleven Academy and nine Tony Awards, five of which she won. A feminist reading of this situation would suggest that nature of her public successes allowed Sharaff to embody male values of achievement in her career, and she was rewarded by the male-dominated entertainment business. As I’ve previously written, Mai-mai Sze appears to have been so devastated by James Cahill and Nelson Wu’s rejection of her first published book that she spent the rest of her life trying to rebuild her confidence as a thinker and translator, and never published another word. In contrast to Sharaff, a white woman whose a profession as a costume designer was judged as suitable for her gender,  Sze was thwarted in her scholastic career. It is in her heavily annotated books, however, that we see that she never stopped working. Sze the reader remained dedicated to study and scholarship until her death.

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The Music and Meditation Pavilion at Lucy Cavendish College, built following a donation by Sharaff and Sze. The two never visited Lucy Cavendish, but their ashes rest under two halves of the same rock beside the Pavilion’s entrance.

Irene Sharaff lived for only eleven months after Mai-mai Sze died in 1992, but in that time she saw to the deposit of her partner’s books at the Society Library.  The gift can be read as Sze’s final presentation of her public self, and Sharaff’s part in it beautifully illustrates how she supported Sze’s vision of it. There’s no doubt that we must continue to look carefully at the work these wanted to be remembered for, and in recognizing that work, we can also honor private ways that Sharaff and Sze helped one another to live, doing the work they loved together.


Many thanks to Elizabeth Ott, whose criticism greatly improved this piece.