When asked to write an article on the Beinecke’s “By Hand” manuscript exhibition, I decided, in the spirit of Method-style journalism, to take notes by hand. It’d been a while.
The exhibition includes journals, cartoons and many other forms of writing culled from the library’s nearly 800,000-volume collection. The Beinecke, built in 1963, organized the exhibition in honor of its golden anniversary, and they’ve done a splendid job of it. The curators of the “By Hand” exhibition have paid special attention to showcasing the diversity of the Beinecke’s collection — both a smart way of attracting visitors and a nod to the institution’s wealth and range.
Among the unique displays are a few staples — for instance, two lavish copies of the Gutenberg Bible, as well as copies of Audobon’s richly illustrated “Birds of America.” Of greater interest, however, are the lesser-known works the Beinecke has put on display. One can see John Keats’ copy of the “Inferno,” with a sonnet scrawled on a blank page: “A Dream, After Reading Dante’s Episode of Paolo and Francesca.”
The exhibition also benefits from its everyday items. In one display case, we see a letter written by Zora Neale Hurston, author of “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” to patron Carl van Vechten on a potential play called “Mule Bone.”
“Dear Carl,” she writes, “Here is the play at last. Of course it is tentative. It is my first whack at the play business.” By a little carrot, Hurston inserts the word “serious” before “whack.” This carrot hints at some authorial self-consciousness and perhaps a bit of embarrassment at previous immature or stillborn efforts. Details like this make the collection sparkle. They give the viewer not just interesting artifacts, but show the organic and raw process of great minds writing by hand.
Even better, this collection humanizes the authors that it celebrates through artful juxtaposition. We see a letter written by Langston Hughes alongside Hurston’s, also addressed to van Vechten. He complains, “[Hurston] is evidently claiming the comedy as entirely her own. At least she could have told me she wanted it that badly. We had been such good friends.” It is a clever move on the part of the curators to show a venerated poet’s concerns with a petty rivalry with his fellow writer. It portrays the faults as well the accomplishments of famous writers like Hurston and Hughes. The exhibition’s curators avoid the mistake of merely showing a bunch of old books without any context by providing a thread to connect these objects.
On looking back on my notes, I noticed that I too had scribbled out words, inserted phrases and drawn arrows. Writing by hand showed me just what this exhibition highlights — the messiness, awkwardness and distinct personality of handwriting.
The “By Hand” exhibition will be on display until April 29.