Category:

Blog Archives

Blessed are the Merciful…, or Missouri to the Rescue

Only a few days separate us from Christmas, and at this time we especially remember people in need, and perhaps try to do something to help them. I wanted to recall a story of great generosity and humanity.

Russia, a major exporter of grain in the 19th century, in 1891-92 suffered one of the most disastrous famines in its history. It was a combination of inclement weather and severe drought that struck the Russian South. People starved, many died.

It was estimated that about 35 million people were affected. The exact death toll is not known, but Richard Robbins, an American historian, put it at about 300,000.

The government, and especially the royal family, did everything to alleviate the disaster; the Emperor himself gave half of his income, around five million rubles, to relief funds; he also appointed the heir to the throne, Grand Duke Nicolas, the future Emperor Nicolas II, as chairman of one of the major relief committees; many wealthy people generously donated money and personally participated in the relief efforts. Anton Chekhov, the famous writer who was a physician by training, went with other doctors to the regions stricken by cholera and typhus to treat the sick and needy; Leo Tolstoy collected and distributed relief donations and organized food stations for peasants.

Leo Tolstoy and the relief committee

Leo Tolstoy (center) and the relief committee

The United States responded swiftly and generously. Millers of Minneapolis organized a gift of flour; Nebraskans contributed one-and-a-half million pounds of corn meal; besides, Americans collected through charities about a million dollars in addition to several shipments of humanitarian aid. First to the Russian shores (the Baltic port of Libava, now in Latvia) came the steamer Missouri with the cargo of grain. Two more U.S. ships followed later.

The Missouri at sea

 The Missouri at sea ( from: W. C. Edgar, The Russian Famine of 1891 and 1892)

The future Emperor Nicolas II said:” We are all deeply touched by the fact that America sent us ships full of foodstuff.” A special resolution prepared by the distinguished representatives of the Russian public stated: “The United States show us the most moving example of brotherly feelings by sending bread to the Russian people at the time of such privation and need.”

One of the most famous marine artists, Ivan Aivazovsky, depicted the arrival of the Missouri to the Russian shores.

Ivan Aivazovsky. “Arrival of the ship “Missouri” with grain to Russia”.

 

And here is a depiction of the joyful reception of the American help in the Russian village by the same artist.

Aivazovsky, American help arrived

 

Tagged with:
Posted in Special Collections

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

Tagged with:
Posted in "In one touch"--books with autograph, Rare Book Collection, Special Collections

Teaching Spotlight : Professor Johanna Kramer, March 2014

Energetic, youthful, admired by her students, Professor Johanna Kramer is our guest for the month of March.

JohannaPhoto

Professor Kramer, please, tell us about yourself.

I am an assistant professor in the English Department. My area of specialization is Anglo-Saxon literature and culture. In my research I am most interested in Old English religious literature, especially homilies and saints’ lives, the transmission of patristic theology into vernacular poetry and prose, and popular religious texts and practices.

My first book, Between Earth and Heaven: Liminality and the Ascension of Christ in Anglo-Saxon Literature, a study of the ways in which the theology of the Ascension is taught and visualized in a wide range of Anglo-Saxon texts, will be published at the end of March by Manchester University Press.

 

At MU, I teach classes that concern the early Middle Ages, Anglo-Saxon England, and the history of English, for example, Women in the Early Middle Ages, World of the Vikings, Introduction to Old English, and History of the English Language as well as graduate seminars on various topics in Anglo-Saxon and other medieval literature.

How did you incorporate Special Collections into your teaching?

I take almost all of my undergraduate classes for visits to Special Collections. I take my students so that they can have at least minimal exposure to actual medieval materials. I want them to see what different types of medieval manuscripts look like (liturgical, biblical, philosophical, etc.), get a basic sense of manuscript production (both codicology and paleography), and recognize different writing surfaces (papyrus, parchment, even clay). Since I teach in an area—medieval literature—in which primary sources in their original form are not very accessible to students, showing them some of the wonderful materials we have at SC is a small way in which I can have students share the same space and even get in physical contact with manuscripts that were produced a thousand or more years ago. This way, students also become more alert to the fact that the original formats in which we find texts are radically different from the neatly edited and translated versions that students read in class. Aside from seeing what various medieval codices and scripts look like, students get the opportunity to see some of the beautiful illuminations and other depictions that accompany texts, be it a whimsical decoration of an initial, a miniature showing a biblical scene (like the Ascension at the opening of Acts), or a woodcut in an early printed book (like the cityscape of Nürnberg).

What outcomes resulted from your class visits? What were the effects on your students?

Students are typically blown away by what they see. The immediate encounter with medieval manuscripts really opens up their perspective of what “a book” is or looks like. Students tend to be especially intrigued by items that get them close to the human side of manuscript production. Thus, for example, many students love the notarial registry (La Turade), a well worn, leather-bound notebook with lots of professional notarial entries in varying scripts made at different times. Students may have a sense of elaborately decorated medieval manuscript, but the quotidian nature of an item like this registry is exciting on a different level and connects students on a more human level across a vast gap in time to the individuals who were originally writing these texts. Similarly, therefore, they love seeing marginal notes or little pointing hands drawn in the margins of manuscripts where medieval readers took note of remarkable passages (which makes students think twice about what they might write into the margins of their own books!). Another aspect that always impresses students is the sheer materiality of manuscripts. Seeing hair follicles and the remnants of veins in parchment, feeling parchment—both the silky, paper-thin kind and the thick, rough, and stiff kind—noting holes in the parchment, all of these aspects speak to the physical nature of the making of a book and the “live” origins of its component parts.

Johanna Kramer and children, January 2014

What advice would you give to faculty or instructors interested in using Special Collections in their courses?

There might be some hesitation to take a class to SC when an instructor does not expect the students to do a particular project or use specific holdings. In my view, there is always a benefit of taking students, whether a research project follows or not. Exposing students to resources that are unfamiliar to them is a valuable service we provide through our teaching. Equally, in my classroom instruction, I introduce students to select scholarship in my field, whether they end up incorporating it in a paper or not. Just knowing that this kind of scholarship exists and knowing that one could be interested in it and get excited about it is worthwhile demonstrating to our students. It’s part of our responsibility as teachers and scholars to model such interest and excitement for our students, and we can do that by showing them the widest possible range of resources, including the wonders of SC.

 

 

Posted in Classes, Learning through Special Collections, Special Collections, Spotlight, Teaching with rare books
Archives

Special Collections and Rare Books


Find Us on Facebook