The Beinecke’s current exhibition, “Multitudes: A Celebration of the Yale Collection of American Literature, 1911-2011,” exists to boast the impressive abundance and historical significance of Yale’s American literature archive. The exhibit is not what the name might suggest. Rather than a collection of great American works, it is an exploration of what makes American literature great: its impact on its own cultural moment.
Organized chronologically, the exhibition began with American classics such as “Gone With the Wind” and “Little Women” before moving on to the likes of “Moby Dick,” “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Essays” to round out the 19th century.
As the literature enters the 20th century, the pieces shift in tone. An entire display section is dedicated to African American literature, particularly Langston Hughes’ work. The “lost generation” of literature, however, was scattered throughout: Gertrude Stein’s works and personal journals were front and center while Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” was relegated to a spot facing the wall.
Although most of the displays were well known books, “Multitudes” also has a playful (and sometimes irrelevant) side. A collection of books all about cats sits next to a duo of elaborate feline figurines. Opposite the cats is an original copy of the Yale Literary Magazine from 1914. Playbills and cartoons are sprinkled throughout the exhibit to contextualize the accompanying piece of literature.
Along with the books were various memorabilia pieces that elucidated the personal significance of the works in Yale’s archive. In the Langston Hughes section, photographic proofs of him and his publisher sit next to an original copy of “Shakespeare in Harlem”; screenplays and original manuscripts accompanied “Gatsby.” The collection of Gertrude Stein’s personal effects range from a locket with her likeness to a note from her friend Pablo Picasso written in black paint on a tile. These additions to the exhibit truly displayed the level of historical detail achieved by Yale’s archive.
Although the materials in the exhibit were well chosen, the organization was questionable. Located on the second floor of the library, it was as if there were two bookcases facing each other separated by a museum-style display case. What was puzzling was that there were vital parts of the exhibit on the opposite side of the bookcases, hidden from view and easy to miss.
The display itself takes on a meaning larger than the work it encompasses, showing the influences that the literature had on various aspects of American culture. Newspaper articles explaining its impact were shown alongside “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”, and Henry David Thoreau’s annotated copy of Emerson’s “Essays” followed Emerson’s other work.
The exhibit was obviously meticulously crafted by its curator. Every single book seemed to have something else from the archives accompanying it that increased its social relevance. Correspondences about womanhood between Edith Wharton and the poet Anna Catherine Bahlmann accompanied Wharton’s poems in “The Age of Innocence.” The poster advertising “Gatsby” was placed next to the script of the movie, all underneath two separate copies of the original book. Drawing from the archive’s varied collection of media highlights the real social impact that American literature can have, making the exhibit worth visiting, despite its unorthodox layout.
Much of what was displayed was contributed by Carl Van Vechten and Yale College graduate Owen Franklin Aldis 1874, who contributed everything from books to correspondences to photographs.
“Multitudes: A Celebration of the Yale Collection of American Literature, 1911-2011” will be on display at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscripts Library until Oct. 1.