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Friday, October 28, 2016

The Language of the Hand

Many years ago, I worked as a ghost tour guide in New Orleans and struck up a deal with one of the palm-readers who set up tables along the periphery of Jackson Square. I led my group to his table at the beginning of my tour, and he would choose a volunteer and read the shape of his or her hand: the spread of the fingers, the shape of the palm, the angle of the thumb. If he had time, he would ask everyone in the group to hold out their hands for a thumb reading. It was a good deal for both of us: by the time the palm reader was through, my group was completely in thrall to the spooky atmosphere of the French Quarter at night and ready to hear my tales of wandering spirits. To the palm-reader's benefit, some of my tour guests would return to him after my tour for a more personal reading.

I mentioned this story to my colleagues when we were planning our Halloween party, and our librarian Elizabeth Fuller remembered seeing a book about palmistry--or cheiromancy--in Marianne Moore's library. Moore's collection includes a handful of books on the arcane arts, including the 14th edition of Cheiro's Language of the Hand, an illustrated volume by the celebrated clairvoyant Cheiro. The 15th edition is online; I used this version to research a palm-reading station for our party.

Cheiro's language of the hand. London: Nichols & Co.; Chicago and New York: Rand, McNally & Co. 1900. p.78.

Intriguingly, Cheiro's biography is entangled with literary connections. Born William John Warner in Ireland, Cheiro purportedly learned the clairvoyant and arcane arts while traveling in India as a teenager. When he returned to London at the end of the 19th century, he gradually rose to fame telling fortunes and reading palms for the celebrities of his era. The book's appendix, which includes testimonials from satisfied customers (p. 199 in the 15th edition), reads like a transatlantic Who's Who of page and stage:
Oscar Wilde
Indeed, Cheiro, the mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.
Mrs. Frank Leslie [a New Orleanian author and publisher who was briefly married to Oscar Wilde's brother Willie]
Your palm-reading is so startlingly true that your possession of this mysterious skill or faculty might well inspire fear, were it accompanied by less of perfect trust and discretion.
Mark Twain
Cheiro has exposed my character with humiliating accuracy. I ought not to confess this accuracy, still I am moved to do it.
Other clients included the "Divine Sarah" Bernhardt, a famous actress who played the lead in the London production of Wilde's Salomé; Madame Nellie Melba, an opera singer after whom Melba toast and peach Melba were named; and Thomas Edison. What a time that must have been: during the belle époque before World War I, when both artistic production and scientific innovation were flourishing, a stylish salon might have included both the mystical Cheiro and the inventor Edison.

One hundred years after the peak of Cheiro's career, I paged through the 15th edition of Cheiro's Language of the Hand and realized that it's very similar to the readings I observed in New Orleans. Like my palm reader, Cheiro paid close attention to the shape of the palm and the fingers:

Cheiro's language of the hand. London: Nichols & Co.; Chicago and New York: Rand, McNally & Co. 1900. p. 29. 

He interprets the angle of the thumb:

Cheiro's language of the hand. London: Nichols & Co.; Chicago and New York: Rand, McNally & Co. 1900. p. 44.

But if you want to learn more about what these shapes mean, you'll have to visit us tomorrow night for a reading.

Friday, October 21, 2016

You’ve heard about group tours, now get ready for: troupe tours!

The Rosenbach collection has numerous connections with the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, Ireland. Our library houses some manuscripts of poems by William Butler Yeats, who was a co-founder of the Abbey Theatre. Yeats became close to an Irish-American lawyer and arts patron, John Quinn, who was the defense lawyer in the obscenity trial over the publication of James Joyce's Ulysses in The Little Review. Speaking of obscenity, in 1928 the Abbey Theatre staged the first Irish production of Oscar Wilde's Salomé, which was at the time was banned from the London stage; our collection includes an autograph manuscript of this controversial play.

So of course when we heard that a touring troupe from the Abbey Theatre would be performing The Plough and the Stars here in Philadelphia, we invited them to visit our library and see some of the theatrical highlights and Irish literary treasures of our collection. 




The first thing the troupe noticed when we entered the library was the series of architectural models which rest on top of the bookshelves: they immediately recognized the Globe Theater in miniature, and were interested to learn that the rest of the models replicated other scenes from Shakespeare's life, such as the house where he was born. From there the tour naturally moved to exploring some of our Shakespeare editions. In the above photo, we are comparing two different versions of Macbeth: one third folio from 1664 and one Restoration-era revision which cleaned up quite a bit of the language. Our visitors were amused to see that the 1674 version included new songs ("As opposed to all the old songs?" one joked), and we were treated to a Scottish professional actor's reading of the Scottish play in both forms.

You can see some of our Shakespeare editions and revisions on our Shaping Shakespeare Hands-On Tour; the next one takes place on November 6.


William Shakespeare (1564-1616), Macbeth: a tragedy: acted at the Dukes-Theatre. London: Printed for William Cademan, 1673. [EL1 .S527ma 673] 

While on the subject of plays, we looked at the French manuscript of Salomé. There is something incredible about seeing the handwriting of authors you love and admire; perhaps it's the rarity of seeing a unique, original document from a previous century, or perhaps the physical trace of pen or pencil makes us feel closer to the process of creation. In any case, our guests were very excited to see the manuscript, and pronounced Oscar Wilde's writing to be "a comely hand."

You may remember Salomé from Everything is Going On Brilliantly, our Oscar Wilde exhibition of spring 2015. Kathy Haas, who was conducting the tour, pointed out that in this manuscript Salomé's infamous dance is only indicated by the stage direction elle danse, whereas in the typed manuscript owned by the Free Library's Rare Book Department, the direction indicates elle danse la danse des sept voiles. The difference between the two is like a physical trace of Wilde's invention of the seven veils, a vivid and enduring image which is not included in the biblical story of Herod.

Of course we visited a few pages of our Ulysses manuscript. Our Abbey Theatre guests reminded us that John Quinn not only defended Ulysses but also defended the Abbey Theatre from an obscenity charge in America, incurred while touring The Playboy of the Western World by John Millington Synge around 1911-1912. Quinn was successful in releasing them from the charge; more successful than he was in defending Ulysses, Kathy noted.

We only had an hour to show off some of our favorite pieces, but we had just enough time to visit the manuscript poems by Yeats, including "Never Give All the Heart." "Hold something back for dessert," one of the Theatre members joked in reference to the title, but as he read the poem aloud for us it did seem like something important was saved for last.



"Never Give All the Heart" was written in 1904, a year of political tensions and literary interest. It is the year that the Abbey Theatre opened its doors to the public and staged its first production in Dublin. It is the year in which all of the action in James Joyce's Ulysses takes place, and also the setting for a play called Dublin By Lamplight which will be performed by our friends Inis Nua Theater Company this fall. 1904 was a year of conflict and restlessness that presaged the eventual Easter Rebellion, which is the topic of the play our Abbey Theater visitors were in Philadelphia to perform. Although they concern the politics of a century ago, these works still captivate us today.

We truly enjoyed sharing our collection with the Abbey Theatre, who shared so much of their own knowledge and insight in return. But we'll be opening up conversations about Irish literature, history, and culture in several events this fall. If you'd like to see some of these manuscripts for yourself, join us on November 18 for a Hands-On Tour featuring Irish authors. If you'd like to hear present-day Irish poets recite their award-winning poetry, join us for In Conversation with the Rosenbach on November 17. And if the political plays performed by the Abbey Theater and Inis Nua Theater Company caught your attention, catch up with 21st-century Irish politics with political scientist Brendan O'Leary on December 8.

Friday, October 14, 2016

What would you include on a 2016 Freedom Train?

The Freedom Train 1947-1949 exhibition at the Rosenbach is arranged to encourage visitors to walk a narrow path bordered by panels set in a zig-zag pattern, mimicking the original Freedom Train experience of traveling through train cars mounted with diagonal displays. Our "train" conducts visitors through the triumphs and challenges of the original exhibit, and when visitors reach the final station of the exhibition, they face a sign that asks "What would you include on a 2016 Freedom Train?"

After a season of political events and historic speeches, our visitors had many ideas to tack onto our bulletin board.

Credit: Ryan Brandenberg Photography.

The 1947 Freedom Train celebrated some milestones in citizens' rights such as the 19th Amendment, and the American Heritage Foundation provided materials for cities to create inclusive events in honor of religious organizations, labor unions, veterans, and so forth. But the fact remains that many American citizens felt left out of the vision of democracy; namely, critics such as celebrated poet Langston Hughes and the NAACP president Walter White expressed concerns about an exhibition celebrating freedom in an era that still practiced restrictive Jim Crow laws.

In 2016, many visitors left sticky notes that expressed a desire to see even more inclusivity in a future Freedom Train. Some of these notes suggested a need for greater representation of certain groups while others referenced slogans or recent political movements that may be documented in future histories of our era.
  • Equal Pay for Equal Work!
  • Hands up Don’t shoot
  • Black Lives Matter
  • Black Trans Lives Matter
  • Trans medical coverage and workplace rights
  • Recent legislations granting civil rights
  • Freedom not to stand for national anthem
  • Freedom for women to wear what they want
  • Freedom for women to have control over their bodies
  • Perspectives of people whose voices are marginalized—women, communities of color, the LGBTQ community, working class folks—their voices matter.
Credit: Ryan Brandenberg Photography.

Other sticky notes listed more general concepts and slogans, which may be suggestions for a future Freedom Train's mission or simply ideas about what is needed in a narrative of democracy.
  • Jobs with good wages and benefits
  • I would want people to feel happy
  • Jesus Christ is where freedom lies
  • We all eventually learn to be tolerant
  • What society do we live in, where the people who are sworn to protect us, drive us to fear for our own lives
  • Something to promote less divisiveness over civil rights. We need UNITY.


Credit: Ryan Brandenberg Photography.
 A few visitors took the concept of re-launching a traveling exhibition very seriously, and offered some material suggestions for a future Freedom Train:
  • Food café car
  • I would love to do a new Freedom Train in 2016 but it could be online so more people could access it.
Freedom Train 1947-1949 is open through November 1. Be sure to catch the exhibition before it leaves this station!

Friday, October 07, 2016

When Willie Wet the Bed

Unless you come from the Midwest or from Amherst, Massachusetts., the name Eugene Field may not instantly ring a bell. However, you probably know some of the works of this poet and newspaper columnist best remembered for his sentimental pieces for children and about childhood (although he also translated Horace and wrote an erotic story that was the most seized work by Anthony Comstock).  Among many other works, he penned "Wynken, Blynken and Nod," which was made into a short by Walt Disney, a song by Carly Simon, and is still reprinted in storybooks and anthologies for children, 




While shelf reading in the fine press collection I came across another, less famous, work by Field, entitled "Little Willie." The humorous poem is in the voice of a grandfather looking back on when his son was small. This is a common literary theme, but in this case he is specifically recalling how the son would wet the bed.

Eugene Field. Little Willie. San Francisco: John Henry Nash, 1921. Collection of the Rosenbach.


When Willie was a little boy,
  No more than five or six,
Right constantly he did annoy
  His mother with his tricks.
Yet not a picayune cared I
  For what he did or said,
Unless, as happened frequently,
  The rascal wet the bed.

Closely he cuddled up to me,
  And put his hands in mine,
Till all at once I seemed to be
  Afloat in seas of brine.
Sabean odors clogged the air,
  And filled my soul with dread,
Yet I could only grin and bear
  When Willie wet the bed.

‘Tis many times that rascal has
  Soaked all the bedclothes through,
Whereat I’d feebly light the gas
  And wonder what to do.
Yet there he lay, so peaceful like;
  God bless his curly head,
I quite forgave the little tyke
  For wetting of the bed.

Ah me, those happy days have flown.
  My boy’s a father, too,
And little Willies of his own
  Do what he used to do.
And I! Ah, all that’s left for me
  Is dreams of pleasure fled!
Our boys ain’t what they used to be
  When Willie wet the bed.

Had I my choice, no shapely dame
  Should share my couch with me,
No amorous jade of tarnished fame,
  Nor wench of high degree;
But I would choose and choose again
  The little curly head,
Who cuddled close beside me when
  He used to wet the bed.
Eugene Field died suddenly in 1895 at the age of 45, shortly after writing this poem. His New York Times obituary claimed he had become "as familiarly known as any writer of verse in this country." "Little Willie" was not published in his lifetime, but there were a number of private printings, beginning as early as 1896. Our copy dates from 1921 and was printed by John Henry Nash of San Francisco.

Eugene Field. Little Willie. San Francisco: John Henry Nash, 1921. Collection of the Rosenbach.

Interestingly, the poem also seems to have circulated in a  number of medical journals from the 1890s through the 1910s; perhaps they were seen as appropriate places for a poem about urination. A quick Google Books search suggests that it appeared in the Western Medical Journal, Atlantic Medical Weekly, the Carolina Medical Journal, the Medical Standard, the Denver Journal of Homeopathy, the Iowa Medical Journal,  the Medical Times, the Cincinnati Lancet-Clinic, and even the American Dental Journal.  Three of these journals only printed the first four verses, leaving our the fifth stanza, which alludes to prostitution or dissipation. This verse is included in the Nash printing.

Eugene Field. Little Willie. San Francisco: John Henry Nash, 1921. Collection of the Rosenbach.

I'm not sure how many other odes to bed wetting have been penned over the years, but this one made me laugh and I'm glad to have run across it.



Kathy Haas is the Associate Curator at the Rosenbach and the primary poster for the Rosen-blog