Tag Archives: Houghton Library Blog

A Trip through the Spiritual

This post is part of an ongoing series featuring items from the newly acquired Santo Domingo collection.

High TideIn his book High Tide, Brad Johannsen really brings Herman Hesse and Lao Tzu’s writing to life with colorful and psychedelic illustrations.  The book contains the story ‘Piktor’s Metamorphasis,” a spiritual tale telling of loneliness after Piktor has been tricked by a serpent and wished to be turned into a tree.    Luckily, in the end a young girl comes and joins him in tree form and he is able to truly understand the importance of creation and how it is always continuing.

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The book also includes an adapted fable by Lao Tzu about the Frog King and his bottom frogs.  The bottom frogs are told that a skylark that comes and sings of a beautiful other place is speaking of a world that they will go to after they die if they do the king’s bidding.  A philosopher frog speaks up and claims that maybe the skylark is really speaking of a place that exists now, but in the end they capture the skylark and put him in a museum.

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The Vetālapañcaviṃśati, A Manuscript Divided

The Vetālapañcaviṃśati, or the twenty-five tales of the corpse-possessing spirit, is an Indian story collection dating back to at least the 11th century CE. The framing narrative tells the story of a king who is tricked into helping an ascetic perform a necromantic ritual in a cremation ground. The king is tasked with the fetching of a corpse hung from a nearby tree, only to discover that the corpse is possessed by the title’s eponymous vetāla, or spirit.

The last page of MS Max Müller memorial f. 1 in the Bodleian Library, Oxford University, which contains the first 10 tales of the Vetālapañcaviṃśati.


The first page of MS Indic 1200 in the Houghton Library, Harvard University, which begins at the 11th tale (f. 182) of the Vetālapañcaviṃśati.

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THE REEL PLATH: On the Handwritten Track-Lists of Sylvia Plath’s 1958 and 1959 Sound-tape Reels

Graphology is not necessarily a part of my job description. But, as the curator of the Woodberry Poetry Room, I’ve had occasion to grow curious about the convergence of an author’s handwriting with the audio recordings in our collection. Sound archives offer a particularly compelling constellation of human tools and technology. In the case of our Sylvia Plath materials, handwritten track-lists, typewritten manuscripts and sound-tape reels all participate in her poems’ cumulative—and continued—becoming.

Reel-to-reel box, with handwritten track-listings by Sylvia Plath. Courtesy of the Woodberry Poetry Room, Harvard University. PS3566.L27.A6 1959x

When Plath first arrived at the Poetry Room in June 1958 to meet the curator Jack Sweeney, she was still two years away from the publication of her first collection, The Colossus. (In our archive, the oral version of a poem frequently precedes any printed incarnation and, in several cases, the recording constitutes the sole form of publication of a given poem.)

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You’ve Got Mail: “It takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose”

Photograph of Theodore Roosevelt, 1912. Roosevelt 560.7 1912The process of campaigning for the position of U.S. president can be an arduous one. For Theodore Roosevelt, the 1912 presidential campaign very nearly turned deadly.

TR had already served two presidential terms, from 1901-1908. Despite claiming he would never again seek that office, TR was not terribly eager to retire from public life. His successor, William Taft, did not hold popular support that way TR had (and still did). When he did not win the nomination of his own party, TR and his supporters quickly formed a new party, the Progressive or “Bull Moose” Party, whose platform supported numerous liberal social reforms, including women’s suffrage, the creation of a minimum wage, the formation of a national health service, and the prohibition of child labor, as well as limiting the power of large corporations and trusts, encouraging and supporting the conservation of natural resources and landmarks, and much more.

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You’ve Got Mail: A British Artist Worthy of the Name

Photo of Fred Barnard, 1892.Today marks the 116th anniversary of the death of Frederick Barnard. “Frederick who?” you might well ask. Though he’s not well known today, in late nineteenth-century London Fred Barnard was a highly regarded illustrator, caricaturist, and painter. He was considered one of the best “black and white artists” of his day. His pen and ink drawings were published in numerous popular journals, such as Punch, Judy, Illustrated London News, and Fun, but his best known work was for Chapman and Hall’s Household Edition of Dickens. Between 1871 and 1879 Barnard supplied over 450 illustrations for twenty-two volume series. He was selected for the job by the Brothers Dalziel, the pre-eminent engravers whose firm was granted total control over the production of images for the edition by the publishers. For Barnard the brothers had nothing but the highest praise:

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You’ve Got Mail: A P.S. Without a Letter

Herman Melville's copy of Hawthorne's Mosses from an Old Manse. AC85.M4977.Zz846hHerman Melville was given this copy of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Mosses from an Old Manse (New York: Wiley and Putnam, 1846) in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, on July 18, 1850, by his “Aunt Mary,” according to his autograph inscription on the verso of the front free endpaper. Mary A. A. Hobart Melvill, the widow of Melville’s beloved Uncle Thomas, was then living with her son Robert on the old family farm, with its impressive mansion house, where Melville had visited many times as a boy and where, in his late teens, he had spent a summer helping to run the farm. In 1850, cousin Robert was working the farm (owned by his grandfather’s estate) and running the mansion as a summer boardinghouse where Longfellow and former President John Tyler had lodged. Melville, his wife, and young son stayed there from mid-July to mid-September. Aunt Mary’s gift of this collection of tales and sketches came only a matter of weeks before Melville met Hawthorne himself on an excursion to Monument Mountain. The two authors shared an intense and challenging friendship until the Hawthornes moved from Lenox in late 1851, shortly after Hawthorne finished The House of the Seven Gables and just after Melville published Moby-Dick, dedicated to Hawthorne.

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You’ve Got Mail: Some Beautiful Observations of the Georgium Sidus

MS Eng 1128, Engraved portraitThe excitement of this week’s transit of Venus was somewhat dampened in Boston by cloudy skies and rain. To make up for this, we offer a bit of astronomical history from the time of the first widely viewed transits of Venus in the 18th century. Though we’ll never see it transiting the sun, William Herschel’s (1738-1822) Georgium Sidus was arguably the most important single discovery in the heavens since the time of the ancients.

A musician by trade and training, as was his father, Herschel’s love for amateur astronomy blossomed after he settled in England from his native Hannover. His successful musical career led him to be organist of the Octagon Chapel in Bath. It was there that he found time to begin serious astronomical observations. These observations would have been impossible without the his younger sister, Caroline, who served as his assistant.

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Recently Digitized Works

An exciting array of materials have recently been digitized at Houghton. They include manuscript material from Joanna Baillie, George Eliot, John Keats, Charles Lamb, Percy Shelley, Robert Southey, Alfred Tennyson, Hester Thrale and George Washington. A 15th century breviary and Belgian incunable, multiple musical scores, cartoons, broadsides and more may also be viewed fully online.

Inc 9380.5 (32.3), c5

Arne, Thomas Augustine, 1710-1778. Gentle youth, ah tell me why : an air in the opera of Love in a village / composed by Doct.r Arne. Dublin : Printed for the author, and may be had of all the music sellers in the United Kingdon, [180-?]. 2010TW-28 [Box 1, no. 17b.]

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You’ve Got Mail: “Excuse the Unpoliteness of a Printed Letter”

Portrait of Sir John Fielding, MS Hyde 76 (1.6.422.1)A new acquisition in in the Early Modern Books and Manuscripts Department shows the inner workings of what one might think of as the 18th century precursor to Craigslist: the Universal Register Office. The Office was founded in 1751 by Sir John Fielding, the blind magistrate who played a crucial role in creating London’s first professional police force, the Bow Street Runners, and his half-brother Henry Fielding, the prolific writer best known as the author of Tom Jones, and Sir John’s predecessor as Chief Magistrate.

The purpose of the Universal Register Office was to act as clearinghouse for many of the functions that would later be served by newspaper classified ads: listings of places for rent, job placement, auction listings, and facilitating connections between wholesalers and retailers. Its existence is a reflection of the difficulties at that time of transactions which we take for granted in the information era.

At the Universal Register Office, opposite Cecil-street, in the Strand, all persons who have any lodgings to lett... *95-260 PF(br)

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