Books with Personality-Sneak Peek 3

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Girolamo Mercuriale

De arte gymnastica…, 1577

This title loosely translates to “Of Jerome Mercvrialis the Art of gymnastics of book six: in which exercises of all kinds of ancient, places, modes, faculties. In short, whatever pertains to the exercises of the human body, carefully explained.”

Six books on the art of gymnastics is the oldest known book on physical culture and sports medicine. This particular book has survived 437 years and has a story to tell. Throughout the book there are many bookworm trails, brown foxing, tears, and a broken spine. By the looks of it, the life of the book seems to have been pretty rough, but useful. There are notes and underlining by a reader, possibly used as a study tool, but what is most interesting are the images. Classically inspired plates show images of men wrestling, fighting, bathing and exercising throughout the volume. It appears someone with access to the book took ink to paper, covering many of the male figures’ pelvic areas. We can only speculate why this was done. Could it be someone felt the images were not modest enough and were compelled to censor the images? Is the defacing akin to a more modern prank, such as drawing a mustache on a photograph? Was someone just plain bored? The reason may remain a mystery.

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Posted in Special Collections

Napoleon, the War of 1812, and July 4, 1814

00000001Have you ever wondered what Independence Day celebrations were like like 200 years ago?  For many people, the main event at Fourth of July festivities wasn't a fireworks display or even a concert; it was a sermon. The Fourth of July Orations Collection offers a glimpse into these commemorations and provides important documentation of American politics and identity from 1791 to 1925.

On July 4, 1814, the United States was still embroiled in the War of 1812.  As we saw last year, the American military was poorly trained and equipped compared to the British forces, but by the middle of 1814, its outlook was beginning to improve.  The American navy controlled part of the Great Lakes, plagued British shipping, and captured British warships.  American army troops repelled attacks from the British and allied Native American tribes.  

Throughout early 1814, many Americans were also paying close attention to the situation in Europe. Napoleon was forced to abdicate and exiled to Elba in April of that year - an event that many Americans celebrated, even though it was a victory for their enemy.

00000002Daniel Dana noted the problematic nature of the European peace in an 1814 Fourth of July speech.  Dana was a minister in Newburyport, MA, a member of the influential Dana family, and, for a short time, president of Dartmouth College.  In his speech, he celebrates the "deliverance of suffering Europe" from "France, the scourge of other nations" (8).  However, he acknowledges the awkward position this created for the United States:

Do any object, that to rejoice in the recent triumphs of the allied powers, is to rejoice at the success of our enemies?  Let me ask: Suppose it were a known, or a highly probable fact, that these successes would terminate in our injury; still, are we on that account wholly excused from rejoicing?  Am I permitted to grieve that a great good has come to my neighbor, or to the community, because thereby some degree of inconvenience accrues to myself?  No; the great law of love calls me to rejoice. (15)

Dana goes on to note that it is impossible to tell how the defeat of Napoleon would affect the conflict between Great Britiain and the United States, but remarks, "If peace is the blessing for which above all others, our country pants, the late Revolution in Europe is calculated rather to hasten, than to retard it" (16).  Dana ends his speech with a call for the world to embrace Christianity rather than warfare, hopeful that the nations would "imitat[e] not the Prince of darkness, but the Prince of peace" (18).  Little did he know that the Burning of Washington, a humiliating and traumatic event for the young republic, was less than two months away.

Read the entirety of Dana's speech online.  The entire Fourth of July Orations Collection is available at the University of Missouri Digital Library, and also in traditional format in the Special Collections Reading Room. 

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Posted in Rare Book Collection

Autograph of Alexander Blok

MeyerkholdCover

Sometime ago, while preparing books for visitors, I opened the first issue of the magazine Love for Three Oranges, January 1914, and was surprised to see Alexander Blok’s autograph on the title page. The slim, almost homemade, magazine was published by Vsevolod Meyerhold (1874 – 2 February 1940), a brilliant and provocative Russian theatre director, under the nom de guerre Doctor Dapertutto, and the playful, theatrical, and sometimes clownesque nature of the magazine didn’t immediately associate in my mind with the tragic figure of Blok.

Autograph 4One of the most famous Russian poets, Blok (1880-1921) was born in St. Petersburg to a refined, cultivated family of Russian gentry. The son, grandson and a son-in-law of the university professors, he was, by the definition of another poet, “the pampered child of a good home, who had been caressed by “tender women”, who, however, saw himself as an “orphaned outcast, and began to write most of his poems in the name of the man who was desperate, unsheltered, and buffeted by the wind” *Blok, student
Poet of doom and gloom, he enjoyed the unsurpassed admiration of his contemporaries, and perhaps of one or two generations thereafter.
It is impossible to convey the bewitching music of his poetry in translation, but I’d like to give this small example:
A night, a street, a lamp, a drugstore
A meaningless and dismal light
A quarter century outpours -
It’s all the same. No chance to flight.
-
You’d die and rise anew, begotten.
All would repeat as ever might:
The street, the icy rippled water,
The store, the lamp, the lonely night.

Or another version of the same:
Some night and street, some chemist's lantern
Is bringing senseless weary light.
Well, nothing changes, that's one pattern,
Live extra twenty-five and find.

You die to start a life all over,
All things repeat as did before.
That night, cold waters at quay border,
That light, that street, that chemist's store. (October 10th, 1912) 

Personally, I have never fallen under the spell of Blok’s poetry, even in my youth, clearly preferring to him Gumilev and Khodasevich at the beginning, later Pasternak and Mandel’shtam. But I happen to know people who could cite Blok’s poems by heart for a long time nonstop. Cultivated and highly intelligent women and men, they regarded him with almost divine reverence and admiration, not quite comprehensible to me. Even Nabokov wrote that Blok was “by far the greatest poet of the first two decades of this (20th) century”**
The inscription on the title page says: “to much esteemed Alexander Alexandrovich Smirnov as a token of sincere devotion. A. Blok.”
The addressee of this autograph was three years Blok’s junior and his complete name-sake. At 31, Alexander Smirnov (1883-1962) was a well-known and well placed philologist, specialist in Celtic, French and Spanish literatures of the Renaissance, professor at St. Petersburg University, closely acquainted with, and well established in, the circles of the poets of the Russian Silver Age. Alexander Smirnov 2
At times I think that one of the more interesting aspects of work in the Special Collections is that intoxicating thought of the many hands that had leafed through this or that old book and with whom you therefore are “in touch” throughout times and across continents. In this case, we happen to know the principal actors: Blok, Smirnov, and Meyerhold. In January 1914 they were all young, immensely gifted, looking forward to the future. The World War will begin only at the end of July***, then the atrocities of the revolution and the Bolshevik coup d’état would pounce upon them and everybody else in Russia, and their lives will be forever changed. Blok will stop writing and will drink himself to death soon thereafter; Meyerkhold will be arrested, brutally tortured by Stalin’s henchmen and finally executed in 1940; and only Smirnov will be living a long and seemingly uneventful life of a respected professor and scholar, loyal to the Soviet regime. But this small book, jolly and pert, is our window onto the world of a hundred years ago, where we can be very close to the trio of colorful characters, seemingly just one touch removed.Multicover 2.docx

*Kornei Chukovsky, “Alexander Blok as man and poet”, Ardis, 1982
**Vladimir Nabokov, Eugene Onegin, III:525, 1951-55
*** World War I started on 28 July 1914 and lasted until 11 November 1918

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