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Félix de Azara: Drawn from Life

by guest contributor Anna Toledano

Decades before Darwin set out on his voyage on the H.M.S. Beagle, Félix de Azara (1742–1821) observed many of the same species of animals and plants that the famed Englishman would see during his journey. Charged by the Spanish army with the task of drawing maps of the Spanish and Portuguese territories in the Río de la Plata region of what is now Paraguay and Brazil, Azara arrived in South America on March 12, 1781 and remained in the region for twenty years. The expedition proved long and monotonous, providing the curious, assiduous Azara with much time to observe the wildlife and peoples near the Río de la Plata.

During his time in South America, Azara amassed a significant collection of natural history objects. In 1788, he sent an extensive set of birds for study to the Royal Cabinet of Natural Sciences—what is now the National Museum of Natural Sciences in Madrid—by way of José Moñino y Redondo, the Conde de Floridablanca (1728–1808), who was chief minister in charge of Spain’s foreign policy. Azara had preserved the birds using aguardiente, a strong grain alcohol. In a letter dated September 13 of the same year to Eugenio Izquierdo de Rivera y Lazaún, the director of the Royal Cabinet, Azara indicated that he hoped to “gather all of the species of birds, describe them and send them” to Spain (Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales and Calatayud Arinero 1984, 198). The box later arrived at the Cabinet with 107 specimens inside.

The personnel in Madrid did not view the specimens with as much enthusiasm as Azara did. The arduous journey—as well as the alcoholic aguardiente—had been unkind to the “avecillas.” Vice director of the Cabinet, José Clavijo Fajardo, sent his thanks to Azara via the Conde de Floridablanca, but only for drafts of Azara’s Remarks on the Natural History of the Birds of Paraguay and Rio de la Plata and not for the ill-preserved birds. The naturalists at the museum saw them as worthless for taxidermy and study. Tragically, the Cabinet could not accommodate the unidentified, aboriginally-named birds in Azara’s collection (Figueroa 2011). Since neither Buffon nor Linnaeus had referenced any of the species that Azara identified, Clavijo considered them uninteresting and disposed of them (Calatayud Arinero 2009, 90-91).[1]

While this anecdote serves as an example of the capriciousness of what survives the sands of time and what does not in terms of objects of natural history, it also illustrates the attitude at the Spanish institution—and among educated Spaniards themselves—toward Azara during his lifetime. The Cabinet rejected Azara’s specimens because it operated within a different knowledge paradigm that did not value the same objects and methods of science that Azara, separated by an ocean, had developed for himself. Azara was not Bernard Shaw’s itinerant British sailors in the South Pacific, for whom “the problem of observing and interpreting what they saw…was…a simpler matter…than for the exiles and missionaries who followed them” and began this new, foreign way of life. Azara was not enjoying merely “extended, if dangerous, holiday;” he had, in fact, a “deep emotional break…[from] a homeland never, perhaps, to be seen again” (Shaw 1950, 85).

Azara’s lack of professional training as a naturalist may have played a role: although he was well-versed in mathematics and the physical sciences, his practical biological knowledge was self-taught. Azara maintained that his observations of animals as they lived in the wild prevented him from drawing the same mistaken conclusions as European naturalists. In his introduction to his treatise on quadrupeds, Azara stressed that he

[put] all my care to tell the truth without exaggerating anything, and to know and express the characters of the animals whose descriptions I made in their presence. Because of this I have been less at risk to fall into the errors that those who have not been able to observe them alive have not been able to avoid; those who have beheld them emaciated, hairless and dirty in cages and chains; and those who have sought them in cabinets: where, in spite of care, the injury of time must have altered the colors heavily, changing the black into brown, etc.: and no skin, nor the best-prepared skeleton, gives the exact idea of the shapes and sizes (Azara 1802, i-ii).

He lambasted armchair scientists who made all of their discoveries not in the field but using stuffed skins and bones in the museum (Cowie 2011, 5).

Azara’s professional contemporaries at the Royal Cabinet did not refuse his work in its entirety. Azara enjoyed some success from his publications in his home country as well as other European nations. Yet his books were not as effective at describing the birds as were the birds themselves. Different forms of knowledge held value over others.

Through illustrations was one way that Azara could command an audience. As Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison argue in their work on objectivity, “Whatever the amount and avowed function of the text in an atlas, which varies from long and essential to nonexistent and despised, the illustrations command center stage” (Daston & Galison 1992, 85). Azara incorporated drawings of the bird and animal species he discussed in his numerous multi-volume tomes on the flora, fauna and ecology of the South American region where he lived. His best-known works include the aforementioned Remarks on the Natural History of the Birds of Paraguay and Rio de la Plata and Remarks on the Natural History of the Quadrupeds of Paraguay and Rio de la Plata, for which he tried his hand at illustration as well, despite his admitted lack of skill (Azara 1802, iv). For the French edition, Azara hired an illustrator, but he drew from the specimens in the Paris Museum rather than from life (Cowie 2011, 135). Azara could not have it all: he had to choose between his crude drawings from the field or professional depictions of dead museum specimens. Explore the pictures below to make your own assessment. What explanatory power do these images hold?

1 Anteater

The black anteater, one of the two varieties that Azara studied, as illustrated in the French edition of his Voyages. Azara commissioned these illustrations from specimens that he identified in the museum in Paris as correctly corresponding to those in his notes from South America (Azara 1850, 4). He corrected a falsely held notion in Europe that every anteater was female and that their proboscides substituted for something more phallic in the act (Azara 1802, 65).

2 Azara's rat

Azara was the first to identify a significant number of animal and plant species during his time near Río de la Plata, including this species of rat. Modern evolutionary biologists continue to examine his own taxonomic and naming practices as well, since he classified many mammals and birds using hybrid binomials that scientists still employ today, despite his ignorance of proper practice in Linnaean nomenclature. One set of researchers, hailing from institutions such as the American Museum of Natural History as well as the National Museum of Natural Sciences in Madrid, updated Azara’s taxonomic description of varieties of opossums in order to conform with present-day research. They state that Azara’s “descriptions are detailed enough to permit unambiguous identifications of many species” (Voss et al. 2009, 406-407).

3 Azara's bird

Forty pages of descriptions and notes accompanied the birds that Azara sent to the Royal Cabinet, which totaled 84 specimens of 61 different species. He listed the birds’ descriptive, hybrid indigenous-and-Spanish names such as the “Tugüay-machete” and the “Yby̆y̆aù sociable” (Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales and Calatayud Arinero 1984, 197). In a detailed four-columned list, he also included the sex and assessments of the condition of the individual specimens (Figueroa 2011).

4 Azara map 1809 English

Azara did adhere to his original mission, lest one forget what that was. He made some efforts to draw maps of the region, such as the snippet of this comprehensive one included in the beginning of the 1838 English edition of his treatise on quadrupeds. The act of surveying proved extremely difficult not just for him but also for the Spanish representatives sent to other South American regions. Historian of Latin America Tamar Herzog describes the hurdles that they encountered, such as

treaties [that] often mentioned rivers, settlements, and mountains that never existed or were not located where the parties had imagined. Others had a different name in Spanish and Portuguese. Because the territory was not only huge but also unknown, experts[’]…work degenerat[ed] into endless debates regarding where rivers flowed and where mountains were located.

Just as with the sixteenth-century treaty of Tordesillas, Herzog writes, “these experts thus failed to reach concord on how a theoretical, imaginary line described in a European document would become a concrete, material reality in the Americas” (Herzog 2015, 32).

5 Azara Goya

A work featuring Félix de Azara appears in yet another Spanish institution, but it is perhaps neither in the expected medium nor in the expected museum. In 1805, the Spanish artist Francisco Goya painted Azara’s portrait, which now hangs in the Goya Museum in Zaragoza, Spain. Azara wears his military regalia, replete with sword, cane and well-pressed uniform. Yet, his intellectual pursuits also figure into the symbolism of the scene. He holds in his right hand a paper, indicating he is a learned man. Most wonderfully, behind him is a veritable cabinet of curiosities. Taxidermied felines grace the lowest shelf while his beloved birds overflow on the others, tucked away for study when necessary.

Anna Toledano is pursuing a PhD in history of science at Stanford University. A museum professional by training, her research focuses on natural history collecting in early modern Spain. Follow her on Twitter at @annatoledano.

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

by contributing editor Erin McGuirl

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.”

Lerman Correspondence.jpg
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.

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Reading for Pleasure and Shelf-Satisfaction: The Reading Sheffield Oral History Project

by guest contributor Elizabeth Ott

Debates about the proper function of public libraries—what readers they should serve, what kinds of reading they should promote, what sorts of books should stock their shelves and (perhaps most importantly) how those books and shelves should be paid for—have dogged discussions of public libraries since their first inception. These debates have never been politically neutral, yet they have been particularly charged in recent years, as conservative economic policies have forced the closure of many libraries around the United Kingdom. In this climate, libraries, librarians, and library users are charged to articulate what value public libraries offer to offset the cost of their operation.

Often these articulations rely upon the rhetoric of moral improvement: reading becomes synonymous with education, a safe activity that guards against the dubious pleasures of modernity. The library itself is cited as a place of community-building, a neutral space of wholesome civic engagement. These lines of argument have the effect of casting public libraries in relation to a sense of time: either libraries are preserving a sense of the past, a golden moment in history when reading (usually figured as inherently superior to, say, television, the internet, etc.) was ubiquitous, or libraries are a gateway to progress, an investment in national advancement.

Jean Wolfendale, Sheffield Reader
Jean Wolfendale, Sheffield Reader

The tension between these two modes of articulating value in public libraries can be seen in a recent interview in the Guardian with writer Neil Gaiman. Gaiman’s interlocutor, Toby Litt, asks a series of leading questions, such as this one: “Isn’t the future of libraries dependent on not having gatekeepers who are scary, on libraries not looking ancient, and not being about distant, old knowledge?” This question is loaded with valuations of what is good (progress, youth, the future) and what is bad (history, age, the past). It is impossible to read it without jumping to a conclusion about the kind of library he is indicating: the scary gate-keeping crone who guards ancient tomes in a derelict Carnegie building whose sagging walls speak of years of civic neglect. Gaiman is largely uninterested in engaging this discourse, and instead uses the space of the interview to explore his own personal and imaginative interaction with libraries as a young reader. Nevertheless, his metaphor of the library as “seed-corn” which ends up titling the article, contributes to a progress narrative.

In this context, the Reading Sheffield project is delightfully radical. Though in many ways the project tropes the library as a preserver of history (the main page of the website invites readers to “be transported to Sheffield’s past. To a time without Google or Apple, a time when the world went to war and then re-built itself, a time when most children left school at 14 and most women did not work outside the home”), it significantly places no value whatsoever on reading as an improving activity, instead championing reading as an activity of leisure. Against the backdrop of a largely working class readership, Reading Sheffield is “a resource for anybody seeking to explore, celebrate, or promote reading for pleasure.”

At the core of the Reading Sheffield project is series of sixty-two interviews with residents who lived in Sheffield, England during the 1940s and 1950s, conducted over a two-year period by twelve trained volunteers. These oral histories of reading are fully transcribed and available on the website, along with embedded audio files. Interview subjects recollect how they accessed the library, when they first became readers, what they read, and how their reading intersected with their daily lives. These recordings have significant historical value as a record of reader activity—an aspect of reading history that’s especially fleeting and difficult to capture—and as markers of social history. In recounting their memories of library use, each interviewee also records detailed information about the culture of post-war Britain in which they read. Archival quality audio recordings of the interviews have been deposited with the Sheffield Archives and Sheffield Hallam University, in addition to being made available online.

One Sheffield reader mentions trips to the Hillsborough Library, which hosted a reading club group for young people on Wednesday evenings.
One Sheffield reader mentions trips to the Hillsborough Library, which hosted a reading club group for young people on Wednesday evenings.

Because of the average age of interview participants, the Reading Sheffield oral histories recall the privation of post-war England in the 1940s and 1950s. Readers reference the scarcity of paper, shortages of food, the sheer difficulty of visiting library branches when tram rides proved too expensive and a trip across town meant an arduous trek in both directions. The interview format prompts recollections along a defined pathway: when did you first learn to read? What were your first books?  Which library branches did you visit and how did you get there? What books did you own and what books did you borrow? This last question is one that particularly highlights the library’s function as a place of pleasure reading, as often interviewees make a distinction between the kind of practical books purchased for the home (bibles, trade manuals, school books) and the books vividly recalled from library visits: “Well the books from the library I think were all novels.”

Beyond its function as a repository of oral history, the project seeks to imaginatively engage with readers’ histories in a variety of ways—most interestingly through its Readers’ Journeys: “interpretive articles based on our readers’ interviews,” written by project team members, that may “not necessarily represent the views of the interviewees.” These articles attempt to match oral histories with the places and spaces they recollect, drawing out tangential narratives that emphasize the importance of libraries and library buildings in the social life of the community.

Sheffield, like many cities in the United Kingdom, has weathered threats of library closure. It was the site of community protests in 2014 over the planned closure of approximately 16 branch locations; these closures were only avoided through the use of volunteer labor, replacing professional and staff positions at many branches. Reading Sheffield, too, is built on the labor largely of volunteers, whose efforts to preserve community history in the face of erasure are commendable, as is their message that readers deserve a community space for shared pleasure, outside any system of utilitarian value.

Elizabeth Ott is Assistant Curator of Rare Books at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill Libraries. Her doctoral work is on the history of subscription and circulating libraries in England.

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Humanism in the Archives: The Case of Ellesmere MS EL 34 B 6

by guest contributor Elizabeth Biggs

I’m sorry not to have been at the Renaissance Society of America Conference in Boston this last weekend. In the spirit of that conference, I want to introduce you to a wonderful renaissance manuscript currently on the other side of the country. The Italian mid-fifteenth century Ellesmere MS EL 34 B 6 at the Huntington Library contains the satires of Persius and Juvenal copied in a particularly lovely early humanist hand on paper and parchment with at least three hands’ annotations from the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. I want to use it, and its (possible) successive owners to examine possible networks of intellectual culture in the early Tudor period among those in royal service. There are also studies of the men who worked in royal administration under Henry VII and Henry VIII, but little appreciation of how connections made by those working for the king might feed into the larger networks of intellectual culture around them (Watts, “New Men,” 201-3). In this micro-study of one manuscript and its hints at possible connections of ideas and reading between individuals, I want to speculate about how one particular book traveled and was taken up in the intellectual world of administration.

EL 34 B 6 f. 9r showing John Gunthorpe’s dense annotations on the start of Persius’ Satire 5.
EL 34 B 6 f. 9r showing John Gunthorpe’s dense annotations on the start of Persius’ Satire 5.

The Juvenal manuscript and the biography of the man who first owned it emphasize the importance of administrative connections for early humanists, as many of them were also priests working for the king who knew and helped each other. John Gunthorpe was many things including dean of the Chapel Royal, canon of St Stephen’s, Westminster, and finally in retirement dean of Wells Cathedral until his death in 1498 (Reeves, 311-17). These church posts came in part from his distinguished career in royal service, as an ambassador under Henry VII, as a theologian and a lawyer who served on the Privy Council in the 1490s, and earlier as Keeper of the Privy Seal under Richard III. He can also be appreciated as a humanist who studied Latin rhetoric under Guarino da Verona in Ferrara in 1460, was a papal chaplain in Rome until 1465 and received his baccalaureate in theology at Cambridge. More generally, he helped to bring the Italian humanism of the mid fifteenth century to England. It was probably at Ferrara that he acquired the Juvenal manuscript and started to add his own dense notes to it, usually commenting on allusions and mythology in Latin, English, and occasionally in Greek, just as he is known in 1460 to have been copying and annotating Seneca (Reeves, 311).

Gunthorpe was just one of the highly educated priests whose humanist education, often abroad, allowed him to be used by the English kings Edward IV, Richard III and Henry VII for their own needs as a councillor, ambassador, administrator, and senior churchman. Contemporaries at St Stephen’s, for example, included Christopher Urswick, and Henry VII’s Italian secretaries, Pietro Carmeliano and Andreas Ammonias, as well as the doctor Thomas Linacre later in his life. While Gunthorpe didn’t leave books to individuals in his 1498 will, he did use fellow royal servants and canons, including Richard Hatton, also a canon at Westminster and Wells who worked in Chancery, as his executors (Early Somerset Wills, 361). Hatton in his own will of 1509 called Gunthorpe his benefactor and endowed masses for Gunthorpe as well as himself. We need to see Gunthorpe not just on his own as a talented scholar, but also as part of friendship and patronage networks at the intersection of the church and royal service.

EL 34 B 6 f. 100v with the sixteenth century ownership inscription.
EL 34 B 6 f. 100v with the sixteenth century ownership inscription.

We know for certain that Gunthorpe owned this book because the handwriting of the first layer of annotations seems to match his handwriting in the surviving Bodleian manuscripts he owned, and also because a later sixteenth-century hand wrote on the back flyleaf “iuvenalis oli(m) gu(n)thorpi, welli quo(n)da(m) decani, nu(n)c a(u)te(m) heroni” (Juvenal once [the possession] of Gunthorpe, at one time dean of Wells, now that of Heron). Heron was interested in humanist works and clearly respected Gunthorpe as a humanist; the same hand also wrote in a book list on an earlier folio that includes several of Erasmus’ works including Enchiridion Militis Christiani (1503) and De Conscribendis (1522). In addition, the book list includes eminently humanist classical texts such as Ovid’s Metamorphoses and the letters and works of Cicero. Finally, Heron added a few annotations to Persius and Juvenal about the meanings of particular words, usually on folios that Gunthorpe had not commented on. Perhaps most interestingly, he copied on the first folio of the manuscript the short summary piece that appears on the title page of a 1505 Parisian Persius. As far as I can tell, the printed edition and commentary was not reprinted in England, and is not included in Early English Books Online, although the Bodleian owns a copy of the 1507 printing (Bodleian MS Douce 81 (3)). Heron had access to specialist commentaries and thought this brief introduction to the arguments of the satires was worth copying into his own manuscript copy, an intriguing interplay of print and manuscript in the sixteenth century.

EL 34 B 6 f. 15r Booklist on bottom third of page, and at the top, the third major hand in this manuscript, perhaps early sixteenth century.
EL 34 B 6 f. 15r Booklist on bottom third of page, and at the top, the third major hand in this manuscript, perhaps early sixteenth century.

It’s not obvious who this Heron is. No one with that surname appears in Erasmus’ letters, so he doesn’t seem to have been active in scholarship himself during the early sixteenth century. There are a couple of Herons who were writing classically inspired verse under Elizabeth I, and previous readers at the Huntington have suggested that either of them might be our Heron. I’m skeptical of this suggestion because around seventy years would then separate Gunthorpe’s death and the writing of the book list and the inscription. The assumption that Heron must be someone who wrote in a humanist style, even if much later, is problematic given that Erasmus was a popular author. In addition the book list seems earlier to me, given the mix of titles and the presence of material from the 1505 Persius edition. Certainly, the presence of De Conscribendis provides the absolute earliest possible date that the list could have been written, although it could also be much later in the sixteenth century. By that point Gunthorpe himself had been dead for well over twenty years and many of his colleagues at Wells, at Westminster and as humanists would also have died. Yet there was enough memory of his status as a scholar that Heron wanted to commemorate his ownership of this manuscript. The question we really should be asking is how was a book owned by one humanist remembered as having been connected with Gunthorpe for at least a generation? I want to suggest that it wasn’t the sorts of humanist networks or patronage ties that have been the focus of study that maintained the manuscript’s remembered connection with John Gunthorpe but quite possibly the institutional ties of royal service and the church patronage that royal service still opened up under the early Tudors.

EL 34 B 6 f. 1r with the summary from the 1505 edition of Persius on the right-hand side.
EL 34 B 6 f. 1r with the summary from the 1505 edition of Persius on the right-hand side.

As mentioned above, Gunthorpe’s will did not mention his books, save one bequest to his old Cambridge college. Unless he had already disposed of his books, it would have been the executors’ task. We know that both Wells (where he died and was buried), and St Stephen’s had libraries of their own, including some classical works alongside the working liturgical books and law books. St Stephen’s certainly received a variety of books from canons and former canons, and was careful to identify them as associated with the relevant benefactor. It’s not completely out of the question that this Juvenal remained associated with Gunthorpe because it remained in the library of one of his former homes until it was acquired by someone with an interest in its contents. This is by no means anything more than a very tentative identification, but in 1535 a Dr. John Heryng was appointed as a canon of St Stephen’s, Westminster by Henry VIII, possibly as a reward for his work on Henry’s divorce from Katherine of Aragon or his work on the theology of the new Church of England. We really don’t know much about him and his interests, nor do we know what books he owned. Yet like Gunthorpe, he was a canon of both Wells (from 1543) and St Stephen’s, and in royal service. It may be pure coincidence that Heron, whoever he was, wanted to memorialize Gunthorpe as dean of Wells at least a generation after his death. Yet, I think it is worth at least considering that, in this manuscript, we are looking at continued humanist thought and humanist interests among the traditionally-trained priests who worked for the early Tudor kings. If John Heryng were the man who wrote the inscription and the book list in the 1530s or later, then a man that we would not otherwise have encountered as a humanist was using the networks of royal service to advance his literary interests.

Elizabeth Biggs is a Ph.D. student in History at the University of York. She is researching Stephen’s College, Westminster, from 1348 to 1548, as part of a larger AHRC-funded project on St Stephen’s Chapel from 1292 to the Blitz in 1941. Her work focuses on the people who worked at the college, donated money and lands to the college, or who knew it through its presence at the heart of the medieval Palace of Westminster. She can be reached on Twitter and via email.

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Sadie P. Delaney: Our Lady of Bibliotherapy

by contributing editor Brooke Palmieri

The debate over whether reading is good or bad for your health is as old as the habit itself. In The Anatomy of Melancholy reading and scholarship sometimes cause, sometimes cure, Robert Burton’s depression; the publication of The Sorrows of Young Werther inspired a Wertherfieber, causing young men in Germany to dress and act like Werther, possibly to commit suicide like Werther, and with other novels it contributed to a public health debate in Germany over the consequences of reading. Robert Darnton’s “First Steps Toward a History of Reading” cites J.G. Heinzmann, who in 1795 wrote that reading caused “susceptibility to cold, headaches, weakening of the eyes, heat rashes, gout, arthritis, haemorrhoids, asthma, apoplexy, pulmonary disease, indigestion, blocking of the bowels, nervous disorder, migraines, epilepsy, hypochondria, and melancholy.” On the other hand, in 1812 Benjamin Rush advocated strongly in favor of reading in Medical Inquiries and Observations Upon the Disease of the Mind. Departing from the exclusive prescription of the Bible, he wrote that “when there is no relish for the simple and interesting stories contained in the Bible, the reading of novels should be recommended to our patients.” The power of reading binds together the fate of the body and mind, and transforms them both—if you ever took duality for granted.

And for those who believe in the transformative power of reading, now and throughout history, Sadie Peterson Delaney (1889-1958) is a modern hero. Reading’s health benefits were not a theoretical pursuit for her, but a matter of will. As the chief librarian of the Veterans Administration Hospital and a “Pioneer Bibliotherapist,” she ensured it had a positive influence on her patients.

Delaney in 1950, receiving an honorary doctorate from Atlanta University. Wikimedia Commons.
Delaney in 1950, receiving an honorary doctorate from Atlanta University. Wikimedia Commons.

Bibliotherapy, the idea of reading certain books for their healing purposes, is not new: Diodorus Siculous tells us that the Egyptian King Ramses II inscribed “House of Healing for the Soul” over the entrance his library, and lived to be ninety. Religions of the book—Islam, Judaism, Christianity—incorporate a notion of bibliotherapy into the reading of sacred texts. Institutions like the York Retreat in England, a Quaker-run asylum, prescribed sacred texts, but Benjamin Rush’s more wide-ranging reading recommendations were influential over the course of the nineteenth century in American asylums, including the Hartford Retreat, the Bloomingdale Asylum, the McLean Hospital, and the Friends Asylum. But the word “bibliotherapy” was only coined in an Atlantic Monthly article from 1916.

Since then, above all thanks to the work of women like Sadie P. Delaney, there has been a rise in the body of bibliotheraputic writing and research that would make an immense resource and library for the historian of reading practices if gathered together in one place. The practice connects the efforts of library and medical professionals alike. Both feature reading lists and their application to case studies: bibliotherapy is applied to children in order to change their attitudes towards race, class, and disability; it’s applied to those whose parents are divorced or who have experienced abuse; it’s applied to adults who suffer from alcoholism or post traumatic stress disorder. A dissertation has been conducted on the effects of reading Zhuang Zi’s fables on stressed Taiwanese college students (“the results show the beneficial effects”); another dissertation applies a “bibliotherapy approach to preventing dating abuse in adolescent girls” through readings of Twilight, True Love, and You (2011)—an intervention that “did not demonstrate clear effects…. but there was some indication of change in attitudes regarding romantic myths and identification of controlling behaviours in relationships.”

Eleanor Frances Brown shows in Bibliotherapy and its widening applications (1975) how much of the widening application of bibliotherapy has been made possible by Delaney herself. In 1920, Delaney was assigned to the 135th Street Branch of the New York Public Library. She would have worked with African-Americans as well as immigrant communities of Italian, Chinese, and Jewish heritage. During that time—according to a profile on her life by Betty K. Gubert in the American Libraries journal—Delaney especially worked with building the library’s collections of books in Braille and Moon Point (another language for the visually impaired), learning both languages herself to better aid visitors to the library, and working with “juvenile delinquents.” The NYPL’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture houses the Sadie P. Delaney Papers, featuring correspondence from the time between Delaney and W.E.B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes, Booker T. Washington, and other black luminaries of the time.

Selected works by Sadie P. Delaney.
Selected works by Sadie P. Delaney.

In 1924 she was appointed chief librarian at the Veterans’ Hospital in Tuskegee, Alabama. The library opened with two hundred books in 1925 and increased to four thousand volumes by the end of the year. Likewise, book circulation began at 275 and increased to 1,500, based on Delaney’s practice of getting to know patients on an individual basis and recommending books to them, creating circulation lists and pamphlets, holding a weekly radio talk, and establishing book clubs and other activities to connect readers with one another. She started debate clubs and stamp clubs, taught bookbinding and natural history, and installed “talking books” and projectors to display books onto the wall or ceiling for patients who couldn’t physically hold them. She continued her work with the blind, teaching no less than six hundred patients to read Braille and creating a special department for the blind at the hospital library in 1934.

Within a decade of her librarianship, there were around six thousand books in the Veterans’ Library collection, including a pioneering collection of books by and for African-Americans. Delaney saw her library as a tool for correcting the injustices of a segregated, unequal society. By including works about black soldiers, she could use books to help the veterans who were her patients “in [their] upward struggle to lay aside prejudice, all sense of defeat, and to take in that which is helpful and inspiring by the means of books.” Delaney wrote about the experience in a 1932 article for the Wilson Library Review, “The Negro Veteran and His Books,” which was also a rallying cry for the publication of more books by black people. Today, institutions like the Sadie Peterson Delaney African Roots Library carry on her important work in addressing racial injustice through access to education and to books.

Her innovations were recognized where it mattered, making their diffusion widespread: library schools in Illinois, North Carolina, and Georgia built links with the Veterans’ Hospital so that their students could train with Delaney. Veterans’ libraries across America studied and implemented her approaches. She collaborated with the Antabuse Clinic in Tuskegee to use bibliotherapy to treat alcoholism. The United States Information Service (USIS) profiled her and her methods, and distributed that information to no less than a hundred different USIS branches across 75 countries.

An illustration from the American Libraries profile of Sadie P. Delaney, 1993.
An illustration from the American Libraries profile of Sadie P. Delaney, 1993.

But at the same time, the greatest testimony to Sadie P. Delaney’s hard work and lasting contributions is the most frustrating and insulting of all: her ideas have diffused so widely that she is not credited enough by name. The New Yorker featured an article on bibliotherapy with no mention of Delaney at all. The free online course from the University of Warwick, “Literature and Mental Health: Reading for Wellbeing,” bears no mention of her efforts (yet). While she is a staple in articles by library and medical professionals, her recognition within popular culture and history is not nearly as extensive as she deserves—vast as her influence would be if traced within a twentieth and twenty-first century of reading. Histories of reading are much more likely to pay homage to the Frankfurt School than to cite the many decades of one woman’s applied generosity—her gift of time and accessibility in order to find the perfect book from which a person can grind a lens for looking at their own life. This is important in a time where algorithmic culture is beginning to bear more seriously on how people read, and it also is a way of linking reading history with politics, activism, and education. There is both a history of reading to be written of Sadie Peterson Delaney’s far-reaching contributions, and a model for reading history to be drawn from her deeply personal, richly emotional, systematically individualized approach to reading. It is a model that puts the huge scope of influence and lifelong struggles of the librarian in the central position that they deserve.

Categories
Think Piece

Mai-mai Sze and the I Ching

by contributing editor Erin McGuirl

“What is the I Ching?” was the title of Eliot Weinberger’s recent review of two new translations of the I Ching. It’s an excellent question, and in his review he expertly summarizes the history of the text, from its mysterious origins in the seventeenth century BCE through its introduction to European audiences in the eighteenth century, continuing into the height of the book’s popularity in the West in the mid-twentieth century. As he summarizes, the I Ching meant a lot of different things to a lot of different people, particularly in the West. Hegel thought it was a load of nonsense, Leibniz “enthusiastically found the universality of his binary system in the solid and broken lines,” and English sinologists like James Legge, Herbert Giles (both of whom translated the book) and Arthur Waley (who didn’t) were skeptical of its value as a philosophical text. In the 1950s and ’60s, artists, writers, and musicians, from Philip K. Dick to Bob Dylan to Merce Cunningham, found inspiration in the enigmatic poems they read in the Legge and Wilhelm translations. In the ’60s and early ’70s especially, the book appears all over the popular press. A search for “I Ching” or “Book of Changes” in a historical newspaper database turns up a trove of reviews of translations, interviews with artists and cultural figures, and editorials that mention the book in a variety of ways.

One can get lost in references to the I Ching in the popular press (truth be told, my research for this piece was so entertaining that it threatened to derail my writing completely). But I set out to find out what the I Ching meant to Mai-mai Sze. As JHIBlog readers well know, Sze is an enigmatic and fascinating woman whose dogged pursuit of knowledge across a wide range of subjects comes to life in the penciled notes she left in the vast collection that she bequeathed to the New York Society Library. One of very few traces of her scholarly life survives in William McGuire’s archive: a note at the bottom of a letter she sent him in 1979—thanking him for a copy of Iulian Shchutskii’s Researches on the I Ching—identifies her as a Bollingen author and “scholar of the I Ching” (Sze to William McGuire, 27 Sept. 1979. Box 47 Folder 9, William McGuire Papers, Library of Congress).

The index to her Tao of Painting—a translation of the Manual of the Mustard Seed Garden, or Jieziyuan Huazhuan—lists thirteen references to the I Ching, and one is an extended passage covering several pages. In this section, forming a major part of her introduction to the text, Sze references the Legge translations in her footnotes. This is a bit odd, as the Wilhelm translation was available by 1950, in the midst of her work on the project.

Wilhelm, Richard & Baynes, Cary F. (translator). The I Ching, or Book of Changes. New York: Pantheon Books, 1950. Volume 1. Copy in the New York Society Library, Sharaff/Sze Collection.
Wilhelm, Richard & Baynes, Cary F. (translator). The I Ching, or Book of Changes. New York: Pantheon Books, 1950. Volume 1. Copy in the New York Society Library, Sharaff/Sze Collection.

Although she does include an in-depth discussion of the I Ching and its relationship to Chinese painting in the introduction to the Tao of Painting (Bollingen, 1956), Sze seems to have turned to the I Ching in earnest quite late. A note on the title page of her copy of the two-volume set of the Baynes-Wilhelm I Ching directed me to her copy of the one-volume edition (which wasn’t published until 1968) for “notes + Chin. text.” Over a decade after the publication of the Tao of Painting, Sze studied the I Ching as closely as she studied other classics of Chinese philosophy (such as Laoze, the Confucian Analects, and the works of Mencius). I’m sad to report that her copy of the one volume Baynes-Wilhelm translation is now lost, leaving a gaping hole in the record of her interaction with this book. However, she did leave notes in the other translations that she owned, as well as in her copies of secondary sources on the I Ching in English. They reveal a bit about what she was up to.

Sze’s most heavily annotated copy of the I Ching is one of only a few English translations with the text printed alongside the original Chinese. (She also owned an edited and annotated beginner’s edition entirely in Chinese, but this contains none of her characteristic penciled notes.) The Text of the Yi king (and its appendixes) Chinese original with English translation by Z.D. Sung, published in 1935 in Shanghai, contains typical Sze marginalia and inserts. Some characters are circled, and in the English text below she makes notes in English for alternate translations. On the inserted sheet of paper, she’s drawn out characters in question and jotted down a Wade-Giles pronunciation guide, with some further explorations of a possible English translation below.

Annotations and inserts in Mai-mai Sze’s copy of the Z.D. Sung translation of the I Ching. New York Society Library, Sharaff/Sze Collection.
Annotations and inserts in Mai-mai Sze’s copy of the Z.D. Sung translation of the I Ching. New York Society Library, Sharaff/Sze Collection.

As David Hinton points out in the introduction to his new translation, the “texture of open possibility suffuses every dimension of the I Ching” because of the “wide-open grammar” of classical Chinese. The meanings of the characters are never precise. Verbs don’t indicate time with tense, and no punctuation was used, making it extremely difficult to extract a convincingly accurate English phrase from a cryptic string of graphs. To show how this works in practice, Hinton’s illustration looks much like one of Mai-mai’s annotations:

Hinton, David. I Ching: The Book of Change. New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2015, xvi.
Hinton, David. I Ching: The Book of Change. New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2015, xvi.

The original Chinese appears above English words whose meanings aren’t always closely related. This suggests that Sze was aware not only of the many possibilities for an English translation of a Chinese word, but also of the vast open territory to be covered by the translator in rendering the English into the Chinese. Her inclusion of phonetic transcriptions of the Chinese characters also indicates that she was clued into the importance of the sound of the original, which often rhymed.

The Sung translation of the text was described in the excellent 2002 annotated bibliography of the I Ching as a “convenient arrangement of the Legge translation,” as opposed to a totally new interpretation of the text in English. Sze referenced the Legge translation throughout the Tao of Painting, and kept up with new translations and secondary sources about the I Ching as they came out. Her collection includes copies of the Blofeld translation (Allen & Unwin, 1965), the previously mentioned two-volume Baynes-Wilhelm translation, and three studies of the book published by the Bollingen foundation by Richard Wilhelm, Hellmut Wilhelm, and the Russian scholar Iulian Shchutskii. All of them show the telltale signs of Sze’s intense engagement: TLS reviews are taped to the front covers, and the texts contain annotations in English and Chinese, with cross-references from one book to another.

Based on the surviving record, it seems clear that Sze’s most intense scholarly engagement with the text took place during the 1960s and 1970s; this period and the interaction were defined primarily by her engagement with the text in the original Chinese, as well as in English translations and studies published by the Bollingen Foundation. While the Bollingen angle is certainly worth investigating (particularly from a Jungian point of view), I’d rather close this piece by turning again to Hinton’s introduction and especially his discussion of how to read the I Ching. “As a poetic/philosophical text,” he writes, “it can be read like any other text, from beginning to end. However, even in this conventional reading, the book frustrates expectations of coherence. It is made up of fragmentary utterances, mysterious enough in and of themselves. And these fragments often feel quite disparate in nature: poetry alternates with philosophy, bare image with storytelling, social and political with private and spiritual, plainspoken and earnest with satire and humor” (xvii). As I’ve written previously on this blog, Mai-mai Sze’s interests were as wide ranging and complex as the I Ching that Hinton describes. Her library reveals her explorations of poetry and philosophy, visual art and literature, politics and social life, and spirituality, and I believe she saw all of these things at work in the I Ching.

With so many ellipses in the story of Sze’s life, it’s almost certain that there’s a more to this story than what I’ve been able to describe here. Like the I Ching, there’s always room for new interpretations when it comes to Mai-mai Sze. I hope these posts will inspire a new investigation.