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Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Banning Books: God, Sex, and Politics


The last week in September is marked annually by the American Library Association (and its numerous partners) as Banned Books Week. Given that the Rosenbach's best known collections include Ulysses (which was seized and banned in both the U.K. and the U.S.) and Maurice Sendak (whose In the Night Kitchen clocks in at #28 on the ALA's lists of "Banned Books 2000-2007"), it is perhaps unsurprising that we should be joining in the BBW festivities. This year we are celebrating the freedom to read by running Banned Books hands-on tours on Wednesday (9/30) and Friday (10/2) at 3 PM. Anthony Comstock can spin in his grave!

When we think about book banning, the first thing that usually comes to mind is sex. I must confess to loving Tom Lehrer's classic song "Smut" in which he extolls his hobby of "re-reading Lady Chatterly." And of couse many books (including Lady Chatterly's Lover) were banned for their prurient content. For Ulysses, it was masturbation in the Nausicaa episode which led the book to run afoul of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. For In the Night Kitchen, it was the nudity of the main character, Mickey, which sent librarians and parents up in arms and running to find their paint boxes to add pajamas and diapers.

But sex isn't the only reason that books have been banned. The other topics which are verboten for dinner party conversation--religion and politics--have been just as (if not more) important. Before it was abolished during Vatican II, The Catholic Church's Index of Prohibited Books (Index Librorum Prohibitorum) ran to over 4,000 titles; while smut was certainly one reason for books to be indexed, heresy was another. For example all of the works of Desiderius Erasmus were placed on the Index because his criticisms of the Church gave too much leverage to Protestants. And let's not get started on politics. All the way back in Roman times, Caligula apparently suppressed The Odyssey because it promoted Greek ideals of freedom. More recently, at the time of French Revolution the British government sued Thomas Paine for seditious libel and banned The Rights of Man for fear that it would encourage the Brits to emulate the French and the Americans. And in our time, in 2003, seventy-five dissidents in Cuba were arrested for distributing "subversive content" including the U.S. Constitution .


So celebrate your right to read something sexy, politically provocative, or religiously controversial. We do it all the time here at the Rosenbach, as indicated by the books discussed above, all of which are represented in our collection. I've even provided you with links to e-texts for starters, so you have no excuse. You don't have to like or agree with what you read--in fact, that is really the whole point; as Voltaire supposedly (but not actually) quipped, "I disapprove of what you have to say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it." So go forth and read.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

On Beyond Sendak

At the moment, everything at the Rosenbach is awhirl with getting Sue Johnson's exhibit Moore Adventures in Wonderland ready to open tomorrow and our Wild Things exhibit ready to open next week. But despite all the running around, we're still plugging away at some of our ongoing projects.

I've been spending a bunch of time over the past week doing photography and transcription of John Henry Brown's journal for the Civil War web project we'll be starting next fall. Those of you who read the 21st-Century Abe blog have already heard about this project, but for the benefit of our other readers, we're planning to do a blog-style web project starting November of 2010 in which we post Civil War materials from our collection 150 years to the day (when possible) after they were written. As you can imagine, it is a massive project!

Anyway, most of the work thus far has been done by a dedicated and outstanding corps of interns (thank you Louise, Hannah, and Meghan), but I decided to take on John Henry Brown's journal myself because it is extremely fragile--its 19th century binding has largely disintegrated-- and also because my previous experience with this manuscript suggested that it would be a lot of fun to work through. And I have not been disappointed.

John Henry Brown is NOT the John Brown who organized the raid at Harper's Ferry (although we do have some material related to him as well). He was was a miniature painter who was living in Philadelphia at the time of the war. In fact he had been commissioned in August of 1860 to travel to Springfield, Illinois to paint a miniature of Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln. He noted in his journal that “I hardly know how to express the strength of my personal regard for Mr. Lincoln. I have never seen a man for whom I so soon formed an attachment. I like him much and agree with him in all things but his politics.”

However much Brown liked Lincoln personally, he was a Democrat and he strongly opposed the war. He is also by nature something of a grump, so his journal makes for a fascinating reading. For example, here are his thoughts from August 31, 1861 in which his list of grievances against president Lincoln reminded me of the grievances directed against George III in the Declaration of Independence.


My business is dwindling down to nothing. I cannot lose sight of the fact that but for this odious war I would now have plenty of employment at increased prices. Aside from any personal or selfish feeling in the matter, I regard this war as most unholy. I think it madness to try and settle our troubles by the sword. The Union can only be held together by Equality, Kindness & brotherly love. In attempting to restore the Union by force of arms we may lose our liberties and be cursed with an odious military despotism. If we do overcome the south, we can only hold them by the strong arm of military power; what then becomes of the great principle underlying our form of government, enunciated in the Declaration of independence “That Government derives its just powers from the consent of the governed.” Already has the President, exercised powers not granted by the Constitution. He has increased the standing army, in direct violation of that instrument. He has suspended the writ of Habeas Corpus. He has refused submission to the mandates of the Supreme Court. He has authorized one of his military subordinates, to declare the law of a Sovereign state (Missouri) unconstitutional & to call on its citizens to disregard it. He has authorized the arrest of peaceable citizens, without lawful warrant. He has allowed the searching of private houses and the seizure of private papers. He has ordered the seizure of Telegraphic messages, thus violating the sanctity of private correspondence. He has curtailed freedom of speech & of the press, by closing newspaper offices in different parts of the country, which have been advocating the settlement of our troubles by peaceful means. These sentiments openly expressed would subject me to trouble. I wish I could think otherwise, but thinking as I do, I esteem right to express myself freely in this Journal. I regret to write thus of the president, of personally I esteem him highly.


Events connected with the War crowd so thick & fast upon us, that I cannot find time or room in this journal to make a note of each as it occurs.



Anyway, there will be more to come once the Civil War project gets rolling, but I thought I'd share this just to whet your appetite.

Monday, September 14, 2009

A Tricycle Built For ???

Many thanks to Richard Brozenec for sending in this picture of Rosenbach Company motorized tricycle, which he found at the Industriemuseum Brandenburg. We had no idea that it existed!

It was made by the Brennabor company which was based in Brandenburg and was the largest German car producer in the mid 1920s. Apparently the label indicates that the trike was found in Chicago--how it made its way there from Philadelphia is a puzzle we'd love to figure out.

The Rosenbach Company or Rosenbach Galleries was a fine/decorative arts and rare book dealership run by Phillip and A.S.W. Rosenbach from 1903-1953. It was at the Walnut Street address shown on this trike from 1903-1943. This trike must have been used as a delivery vehicle; we know from the company records (which are still housed at the museum) that most customers had their purchases delivered.

Now that we know this exists our next step is to get in touch with the folks in Germany and see what else we can find out about the vehicle. Who knows, maybe there are more lurking out there somewhere.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Catch up on Your Classics--21st-Century Style

If you're anything like me, visiting the Rosenbach (or in my case working there) creates a burning desire to read (or re-read) some of the classics represented in our collection. I must confess to not yet having the courage to tackle Ulysses, but I have enjoyed reacquainting myself with Dracula, the Canterbury Tales, the poetry of Robert Burns, and many others.

Although I typically like to read my books in hard copy, my new favorite toy is the Stanza e-reader app for the iPhone/iPod. Although reading on a small screen is always a bit odd, the controls for this e-reader are pretty good. But what's really great is that has over 25,000 books from Project Gutenberg to download for free. So I always have some great Rosen-reading at hand. It even has Ulysses, if you're brave enough to tackle Joyce on a 3" screen.

Another fun site for your iPod/MP3 player is Librivox. Essentially Librivox is to audiobooks what Project Gutenberg is to regular books--works in the public domain are read and recorded by volunteers and can be downloaded as MP3s. As one might expect, the quality of the recordings is somewhat uneven, but if you like to listen to your literature it is worth checking out.

And of course, long after all of the modern electronic gizmos go the way of the mimeograph machine and the VCR, the Rosenbach will still be here with the real books on our shelves. We are mostly definitely NOT going the way of Cushing Academy, which recently scrapped all of its library books in favor of Kindles. So after you refresh your memory of Sherlock Holmes or Alice in Wonderland on your iPod, you can come by and enjoy the real thing all the more.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Long Lost Triplets

One painting in the Rosenbach collection which is rarely seen by the public is this painting of Anne of Cleves, which normally hangs in a staff meeting room here at the museum.

For those of you who don't recall all of your Tudor history, Anne was Henry VIII fourth wife. It was a singularly unsuccessful marriage which lasted only six months before being annulled--the marriage was never consummated and after their wedding night Henry famously claimed "I liked her before not well, but now I like her much worse." He complained about her appearance and said she had bad body odor.

In any event, this painting was listed on an old catalog card as being possibly by Holbein (who painted the famous picture of Anne of Cleves now at the Louvre), so when I was looking for objects to include in our upcoming exhibit "Friend or Faux: Imitation and Invention From Innocent to Fraudulent" (which opens November 11) I thought this painting might bear a little looking into its back story. Little did I know what I'd be getting into.

It turns out that there is a nearly identical painting of Anne which belongs to St. John's College, Oxford.

An article on the St. John's version in Burlington Magazine (1992) noted the existence of our version, which the authors knew about from old auction catalogs, but listed it as "whereabouts unknown". So it was a real pleasure to be able to contact the folks at St. John's and let them know where Anne's twin painting was hiding out. Even more intriguing, there is apparently a third nearly identical version which was once in the shop of the dealer Dowdeswell, but its whereabouts are also unknown.
So what's going on? Which is the original and which is the copy? As it turns out all three paintings may well have come from the same workshop at around the same time; it was not unusual in the time of the Tudors for an artist's workshop to make multiple copies of a famous sitter’s portrait from a prototype. So one of them might be the original prototype, but it could just as well be that they are all copies of yet another (lost) painting. To know more it would be very helpful to be able to put these paintings side by side, but given the geographic distance between the two known versions and the unknown whereabouts of the third, that seems unlikely to happen any time soon.

This only scratches the surface of the questions that have swirled around the Rosenbach's painting--when was it painted, what about the artist, is it even really Anne of Cleves? To get the whole scoop you'll have to mark your calendars for the Friend or Faux exhibit. Of course if you don't like any of these three versions of Anne of Cleves there's always Joss Stone from HBO's the Tudors...