Friday, January 27, 2023

Congratulations and Condolences from Belle

A handwritten letter.The MacKaye Family papers is one of the biggest collections at Rauner Library. It includes nearly four hundred boxes of material documenting the lives of four generations of the family, and a lot of that is correspondence. Today we're going to look at a funny little example--a set of letters to Percy MacKaye written by a woman named Belle da Costa Greene.

Percy was a playwright and a poet, and the first letter concerns some congratulations on one of his works, a play called "The Scarecrow." Belle writes to him in 1911 to make sure that he has read a review of his play in that morning's paper. She says it is "one of the best criticisms of a play" that she has ever seen. There's not much more to it; the letter is complimentary and maybe a little schmoozey. The reason we're looking at it isn't because it's particularly interesting, but because Belle herself is fascinating.

Belle was the personal librarian to the financier J.P. Morgan, which means that she built his rather famous library of rare books and manuscripts. She spent an enormous amount of Morgan's money and moved in some very intense social circles. By the time she wrote to Percy, she was already a prominent socialite and had earned a reputation for being clever, charming, fashionable, and an absolute force of nature in the auction house. A few months after this penning this letter, she would make waves by purchasing a ridiculously rare printing of Le Morte d'Artur for $41,800. Needless to say, she held her own in a profession dominated by older white men.

Belle was born to African-American parents but, following their separation, she, her mother, and her siblings would begin to pass as white, a move that was both risky and advantageous for them. Certainly it was not a fact that came to light during her lifetime. Belle actually burnt all of her personal papers before her death, so professional correspondence and the letters she wrote to others, like this one to Percy MacKaye, are all that remain.

There are more letters from Belle to Percy here--dated almost fourteen years later. At this point, Belle was the director of the Pierpont Morgan Library, which she had helped to turn into a public institution. This time, she's responding to an inquiry from Percy, who has asked her about some autograph letters in his possession that he has high hopes for. She has to send him her condolences. They simply aren't worth very much.

To dig through the MacKaye Family papers, inquire about ML-5. For Belle's letter specifically, ask for Box 39, Folder 9.

Friday, January 20, 2023

No Quarter Shall Be Given

Letter from Dean Lloyd Neidlinger to students on probation for excessive absencesOn a snowy Friday in January, it seems only reasonable for students to think about skipping class and instead either wandering in a winter wonderland or curling up in bed with a good book and a hot cup of tea. The allowance of a certain number of absences from the lecture hall or discussion sections seems like a humane way to give students a break from the rigors of academia. However, that leniency can only be taken so far. For a select group of Dartmouth students who crossed the line back in the 1940s and were suspended from the College, there was no hope of another skip day for the rest of their college career.

In this letter, written to "Men Suspended for Unsatisfactory Attendance," College Dean Lloyd Neidlinger makes it crystal clear that even though these men may have been readmitted on a probationary status, their suffering will not end when their probation has concluded. Instead, if they receive even one unexcused absence from class for the remainder of their undergraduate experience, Dean Neidlinger says that they will be "permanently subject to immediate separation" from the college. It's unclear how many absences it took for the Dean to take a scorched earth approach, but it sounds like these "Men" must have been legends among their classmates.

To see more of the history of class absences, sneak over to Rauner and ask for the vertical file on "Absences and Excuses."

Friday, January 13, 2023

"The Inside Story of the Nobile Tragedy"

A newspaper story on the "Nobile Tragedy.""It is too soon to state anything definite as regards imperialistic Italy's undertaking to acquire a halo of scientific ardor and exploring enterprise by sending a crowd of southerners, accustomed to sun and heat, up to the cold, ethereal tracts of storm, ice, fog, and snow." This is how Swedish journalist Knut Stubbendorff begins his "Inside Story" on the 1928 crash of the airship Italia as it returned south from the North Pole. Stubbendorff may say that it's too soon, but the disdain in his opener is clear. His is only one of many pieces on the disaster found in Umberto Nobile's papers here at Rauner Library.

Nobile (1885-1978) was an enthusiast of semi-rigid airships, which he both designed and piloted. In 1926, he flew the airship Norge, along with expedition leader Roald Amundsen and a small crew, successfully over the North Pole, possibly the first to do so. His next ship, Italia, was a different story.

Italia made three trips, with Nobile acting as expedition leader and pilot, exploring different parts of the Arctic in May of 1928. The third flight reached the Pole as planned early on May 24th, circled for a time, and then started back. Over the next several hours, bad weather and ensuing equipment problems made the ship's situation increasingly dire until a crash into the ice became inevitable. The impact killed one crew member instantly and tore the ship's gondola from its envelope. The envelope began to rise again at the loss of weight, carrying away six men who would never be found. The remaining nine, many injured, were trapped on the ice.

The rescue of the Italia survivors involved many efforts by multiple countries and there were more deaths to come, including that of one of the crash survivors and those of Roald Amundsen and a crew of five others trying to reach the stranded men by plane. It took until July 13th for all survivors to be retrieved, including various would-be rescuers who became stuck during their own missions. As Stubbeddorff's article may suggest, there was significant controversy over assigning blame for the tragedy and you can read all about it here.

If you're interested in trying to sort out the various accounts yourself, ask for the Umberto Nobile papers,Stef Mss-113.

Friday, January 6, 2023

Awe-some Bibles

Aitken bible perched atop the King James Bible
This week the New York Times published an article about how experiencing awe might be good for your mental and physical health. Well, we just acquired a few awe-inspiring books if you want to get a dose of this wonder drug: a first printing of the King James Bible from 1611; and a copy of the “Aitken Bible,” from 1782, the first English Language bible printed in America. It is hard to overstate the importance of the King James Bible to the religious lives of the English-speaking world, but also to its literary and cultural realms. Setting this book next to our copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio from 1623, you can see the sources for so many of the common idioms of the English language, as well as understand the literary significance of this translation. Similarly, when it's placed next to our first printings of the Geneva Bible and the Great Bible, you can see the development of the Protestant Reformation in England. It is a truly monumental work.

First chapter of Genesis from King James Bible
Title page from Aitken bible
The Aitken Bible, so much smaller in stature, has a great story behind it. Great Britain had a monopoly on English-language Bibles in its colonies, but the Revolutionary War cut off the supply and the warring colonies found themselves with a shortage of Bibles. So, in 1781, Robert Aitken petitioned the Continental Congress to allow him to print a Bible. The book, issued as a defiant act of independence, helps us better understand the publishing world in colonial America, but also helps situate our copy of the earlier Eliot Bible (
the first Bible printed in the new world, notable because it is a translation into an Indigenous language and was printed nearly 120 years before the Aitken Bible) as the unique artifact that it is. 

To be awed ask for the King James Bible at Rare BS185 1611 and the Aitken Bible at Rare BS185 1782 .P5.

Wednesday, December 21, 2022

Friends and Fellow-Culprits

A small card printed with text about the winter solstice.
"Cheer up folks, here we are again, with the prow of Good Ship Earth in darkest shadow." So begins a small card from Benton MacKaye celebrating the 1939 Winter Solstice. The MacKaye Family papers include a set of four such cards, dated from 1937 to 1940. In each, Benton writes a brief but florid missive to his "friends and fellow-culprits," half description of the Old Sol's movements and half update on the goings-on of his life. 

Today is the shortest day of the year and so we'll be quick as well. If you want to read Benton's funny little cards, ask for Box 192 of the MacKaye Family papers (ML-5). Until next time, Happy Solstice and we'll see you in the New Year!

Friday, December 16, 2022

Hanukkah Hijinks

Image of Herschel crushing an egg while a tiny goblin looks on in horrorThis Sunday marks the first night of Hanukkah, a Jewish festival that lasts for eight nights and days. The festival celebrates the Jewish people's liberation of Jerusalem from the Seleucid Empire of Syria and the rededication of the Temple in 164 BCE. Upon regaining the Temple, the Maccabees discovered that all of the ritual olive oil had been profaned except for one sealed jar. Although that jar contained only enough oil to keep the menorah lit for a single day, the flames miraculously burned for eight continuous days, long enough to prepare more oil. Using a shamash, or "helper candle," one candle is lit on each night of the eight-day festival until all nine candles glow brightly on the last evening. The menorah is usually placed in a window or other location of high visibility, because its light is meant to remind those who see it of the miracle of Hanukkah.

Here at Rauner, we are preemptively celebrating Hanukkah by reading through our copy of Hershel and the Hanukkah Goblins, a wonderfully illustrated children's book written by Eric Kimmel and illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman of Lyme, New Hampshire. This charming rendition of an old Jewish folktale received the distinction of being a Caldecott Honor Book in 1990; it recounts how Herschel of Ostropol outwitted a motley pack of goblins who were preventing a small village from celebrating Hanukkah. The titular character, who appears in several Yiddish folktales, is believed to be based on an actual person who lived in western Ukraine in the 1800s. To look through this beautiful edition of an enduring tale, come to Rauner and ask to see Illus H997kih.

Dust jacket of Herschel and the Hanukkah Goblins

Friday, December 9, 2022

Maxfield Parrish's Palette

Earlier this week, or perhaps it was last week, we had the good fortune to witness a beautiful sunset while walking out onto the Green. The radiant pink and purple clouds were stunning with the blue sky behind them, and it brought to mind the color palette of a certain painter and illustrator who lived and died in Plainfield, New Hampshire, only a dozen miles or so from the Dartmouth campus. Maxfield Parrish was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1870; he was raised in a Quaker society and attended Haverford College, like any good Pennsylvania Quaker should. He then attended the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and studied under Howard Pyle at the Drexel Institute of Art, Science, & Industry.

In 1898, Parrish and his wife moved to Plainfield, where he became an
important member of the Cornish Art Colony. Famous sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens was at the center of this gathering of artists and other creatives, which at times swelled to nearly one hundred people in size. After Saint-Gaudens died in 1907, the colony slowly dissolved. However, the Upper Valley had clearly made an impression on Parrish. He continued on in New Hampshire until 1966 when he died here at the ripe old age of 95.


Parrish was a wildly successful illustrator for over fifty years and the Upper Valley was his muse. Whenever we step outside and behold the glory of another New Hampshire/Vermont sunset, we always feel a kinship with him and, perhaps, that same sense of awe that he first felt upon settling here. Come to Rauner if you want to stumble upon even more stunning vistas within the Maxfield Parrish papers (ML-62).