Testimonials - Michael Kuczynski

photo of Michael Kuczynski
Michael Kuczynski
Department of English
Tulane University

One of the best spots on campus, for literary scholars, students, and visitors to Tulane, is the Rare Books Collection on the second floor of Jones Hall. Last fall, Rare Books celebrated the birthday of one of our chief English writers, Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), with an exhibition, Johnson at 300, organized around a first edition of the Great Man’s landmark English Dictionary (1755). The book, in two volumes, had been discovered in an attic and was given to the university by Tulane alumnus and former Ambassador to Finland, John G. Weinmann (A&S 1950), and his wife, the former Virginia Lee Eason.

A surprise of the exhibit, which I helped to curate, was the range of Tulane’s holdings in Johnsoniana and related materials. Rare Books houses many first editions of works by Johnson himself and an equally large number written and published by his contemporaries, including a fine two-volume first of James Boswell's biography of his famous friend, The Life of Samuel Johnson (1791). The exhibition concluded with a group of nine pocket-sized books, frail and held together with white strips of cloth, like bandages.

promotional material image from Johnson at 300 exhibit
Johnson at 300
Special Collections Gallery

These were the initial, serial printings of Laurence Sterne’s novel, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759-67). As a bonus, several of the volumes were inscribed by the author. There was a special irony to our including them in the exhibit, since Johnson had quite disapproved of Sterne’s literary experiments and salacious humor: “Nothing odd will do long. Tristram Shandy did not last.”

A certain reader who helped to make Tristram Shandy “last,” Johnson's critique notwithstanding, and who gave Tulane its first edition, was local philanthropist and bibliophile, William B. Wisdom (1900-1977). Wisdom was a literary omnivore, whose tastes ran across historical and national boundaries. In a 1962 letter to a friend, he described how in his library he had “books on chairs, books on tables, books on the desk, books on the floor, books double-parked on shelves—and, worst of all, books, magazines, and newspapers in corrugated boxes, piled in front of the opaque wooden doors of the cabinets at the bases of my shelves.” Wisdom introduced one of his favorite writers, the American novelist Thomas Wolfe, to New Orleans’ cuisine at Antoine’s. The story goes that Wolfe was so taken with the aromas of the restaurant that he got down on his knees to sniff the cedar shavings on the floor. Following the author’s death in 1938, Wisdom bought up all of his notes, manuscripts, and books and kept them together, as Maxwell Perkins, Wolfe’s editor and literary executor, had wished.

photo of William Wisdom
William B. Wisdom

He gave the entire collection in 1947 to the Houghton Library at Harvard University, where Wolfe had taken his M.A. in 1922. According to a 1959 article in the Harvard Crimson, the collection quickly became one of the library’s “most important, and certainly … best known” sets of holdings on a single author. Wisdom’s equally strong Faulkner collection, like his Wolfe materials, is a multi-course bibliographic feast. It contains not only first editions of all of Faulkner’s books but many autograph manuscripts, too, and other volumes owned by Faulkner that contain his notes. Unlike the Wolfe cache, it did not migrate to Boston but remained here in New Orleans—along with Tristram Shandy and hundreds of other books that William Wisdom collected and gave to Tulane.

Many of these books deserve to be better known: I’m always sending students to look at and write about them. For instance, there are Wisdom’s first editions of works by Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682), seventeenth-century physician and polymath. These include his well-known, elaborately rhetorical treatise on ancient English funerary customs, Hydrotaphia, Urne-buriall, or, A discourse of the sepulchral urnes lately found in Norfolk (1658). Thanks to Wisdom, students who read excerpts from Urne-buriall in my British survey class can explore it more intimately in Jones Hall. And those whose appetites are whetted concerning the fenlands of Norfolk can then sample Rare Books’ unusually extensive holdings, from the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries, on English shire and county histories. Indeed, last spring, for an essay I’m writing on the provenance of a medieval manuscript now at Harvard, I consulted our copy of Francis Blomefield’s mammoth Essay towards a topographical history of the county of Norfolk, containing a description of the towns, villages, and hamlets, with the foundations of monasteries ... and other religious buildings ... Collected out of ledger-books, registers ... and other authentic memorials (five volumes, 1739-75). (I had previously used the work in pursuing some ideas about our copy of Browne's Hydrotaphia.) So far as I know, Tulane’s is the only research library in the Deep South to own the rare first edition. Our copy of Blomefield’s Norfolk, as the five books came to be called together, wasn’t given to us by William Wisdom. It testifies, however, like the presence of Wisdom’s Tristram Shandy in last year's Johnson exhibit, to how independent items and collections in Rare Books can intersect in their concerns and open up new avenues of intellectual pursuit to students and scholars alike.

photo of page from King James Bible
King James Version of the Bible
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The other day this lesson came home to me once again, when I discovered that we have in Jones Hall a first edition (second printing, with corrections) of one of the most famous translations of the Bible into English, the King James Version, known in England simply as the Authorized Version and published originally in 1611. This translation is the one that most deeply impressed itself on the rhythms of the English language and English and American literary history, from the plays of Shakespeare through Toni Morrison's Beloved. 2011 happens to be the four-hundredth anniversary of the KJV's appearance—a coincidence that made my pleasure in holding the huge book and turning its pages especially strong. Much of my work as a medievalist centers on the Psalms, so I turned in Tulane's King James Bible to the page on which the Psalter begins. There I took in the stately and cautionary words of Psalm 1 (“Blessed is the man that walketh not in the counsel of the ungodly”) and, facing these, on the left hand side of the volume’s gutter, an elaborate ownership inscription by one “John Wharrick” (an idiosyncratic spelling of “Warwick”), dated 1746.

photo of page from King James Bible
A page from the King James Version
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Some people like to download their books onto the smooth surface of a Kindle, where they slide across cyberspace and leave, once the machine's turned off, no mark. I prefer my books in the raw, well used and scribbled upon, the weighty artifacts of textual and personal histories. These are real rather than virtual links with the past. Tulane's 1611 Bible made my scholarly taste buds tingle. As a second course I plan to graze on our significant holdings concerning eighteenth-century Yorkshire to learn about a John Wharrick who could have been the man who owned Tulane’s copy of the KJV and who could have drawn a pointing hand next to October 22 in the calendar at the front of the book, to record the christening of a child or some other noteworthy event. More bibliographic birthdays perhaps—certainly more surprises!

Michael Kuczynski is a medievalist in the Department of English at Tulane. He can be contacted at mkuczyn@tulane.edu.