Friday, September 13, 2019

Feast and Famine

first page of Sims letterHere in Special Collections, we're fortunate enough to have one of the world's best collections having to do with polar and cold region exploration. The Stefansson Collection is named after its original owner, Vilhjalmur Stefansson, a lecturer at Dartmouth College who himself was an Arctic explorer in the early 20th century. Many people know about the numerous smaller collections that reside under the broad umbrella of the Stefansson Collection, such as the papers of Ada Blackjack, Admiral Robert Peary, or the diary of Thomas Orde-Lees, quartermaster and machinist for Ernest Shackleton's ill-fated Endurance expedition.

However, not many people know about the sizable collection of Stefansson's correspondence that we have here at Rauner Library. Later in life, Stefansson became a public intellectual of sorts, at least when it came to anything having to do with Arctic exploration or indigenous communities within the Arctic Circle. He lectured widely across the country and, as a result of his popularity, was often sent letters by people seeking his approval or authentication for their own various books, projects, or speaking tours. Sometimes, he responded positively, supporting the petitioner's project. Often, however, he filed their requests, or the information they wanted him to validate, in a correspondence file titled "Fakes (Popular Errors & Misconceptions)."

Stefansson's correspondence is arranged by year and then alphabetically, so we have many many
"Fakes" files. One of my personal favorites is a letter sent to him in 1927 by a Mr. Earl Sims of the law firm Weltner & Sims based in Atlanta, Georgia. In his
second page of Sims letter letter, Sims takes to task one Dillon Wallace, a fellow lawyer who wrote a best-selling book about a failed exploratory trip through Labrador. On the trip, which happened in 1903, Wallace's partner Leonidas Hubbard took ill and died of starvation, while Wallace was able to make it out alive. The book, published in 1905, took hold of the popular imagination. However, some people, Mr. Sims among them, took issue with the book. In his letter, Sims questions the validity of basic claims made by Wallace (for example, whether or not the two explorers had an axe along with them) as well as a very important detail related to the issue of starvation. Sims catalogs the copious number of fish that Wallace claims they caught and consumed during their period of so-called "famine." Sims concludes, rather tartly, that he is "prepared to believe that Hubbard may have died of over-eating, but not that he starved to death."

To read more about various fakes, falsehoods, and popular misconceptions about the Arctic, come to Special Collections and ask to see a Fakes folder from the Correspondence of Vilhjalmur Stefansson (MSS-196).

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Our Favorite Box

Spine of boxThe book that has been inside this box is pretty important, but today it is all about the box. You see, in 1913, the members of the all-male book collecting club in Cleveland, the Rowfant Club, pooled together to present their outgoing president, Willis Vickery, a gift: a copy of Shakespeare's first folio from 1623. That is a hell of a gift, and it needed a proper presentation. So the old boys at the club had a box made at the Rowfant Bindery.

The box is a work of art all by itself. Stamped on the green morocco spine is:
First Folio
Closed doors within box
That makes it look damned impressive on a bookshelf. Then, when you open it up, you see ornate gold-stamped doors that remind you again, "Shakespeare, First Folio, 1623." Got it, the box is holding the first folio.

Swing those doors open, and you enter the silk-lined reliquary for the most revered book of English literature. Gold stamped on the sides are the names of each member of the Rowfant Club that contributed. Nice touch, they each get a kind of forever association with the book!

Opened doors within box revealing silk-lined interior
The Rowfant Bindery only lasted four years (1910-1914), but it did some fabulous work and this box may be their crowning achievement. It stands alone as a masterpiece in binding work, but for anyone using this copy of the first folio it also creates a sacred aura by building layers of cultural trappings the reader must traverse to reach the book within.

Gold-stamped gopher with candle holder
One Easter egg for those looking: the Rowfant Club emblem is twice stamped on the box: a gopher holding a candle holder. Each member of the Rowfant Club has his own candle holder that they use to claim their spot during their dinners. When a member dies, the Club puts a snuffer over the candle holder and places it on a shelf in their old mansion in Cleveland. The candle holders remain, snuffed, as a reminder to all of the living members of their attachment to the club, but also their own mortality. But here, the emblem of the candle is commemorating a book that they found to be immortal.

To take a look, ask for Hickmott 1.