I know I’ve written here about how much I love the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City; the library itself is fabulous, three gorgeous rooms packed with books and with art, manuscripts, and rare books on display (including a Gutenberg Bible). They also have the best exhibits. I was thrilled to see the one on Jane Austen last year, and this year they have one on diaries (until May 22nd) and on “The Changing Face of Shakespeare” (until May 1st). They are small exhibits, usually in just one room, but that’s perfect, I think, because you can see the entire library and museum in an hour or so and leave satisfied without feeling exhausted.
The diary exhibit is wonderful. They have a diary written by Charlotte Bronte and a textbook she had when teaching in Brussels where she wrote on the inside cover how she misses Anne, Emily, and Branwell. Her handwriting is tiny and perfect. They have journals by Thoreau, including a page that has a drawing of a feather. One of the coolest things they have is a journal of Hawthorne’s where he jotted down the idea for The Scarlet Letter: “The life of a woman, who, by the old colony law, was condemned always to wear the letter A, sewed on her garment, in token of her having committed adultery.” There is also a diary he and his wife Sophia kept together, documenting their lives and responding to each other, and another that shows drawings their children later added to their journals. There is a page from Pepys, not from his diary, but a page of notes written in the code he used in the diary. They also have diaries from Joshua Reynolds, Edward Gibbon, Walt Whitman, Sir Walter Scott, John Ruskin and some twentieth-century writers such as Tennessee Williams, Anaïs Nin, and Albert Einstein.
Doesn’t that sound awesome? All these things are in one room, and I couldn’t help but think about the creative power all those pages represent. When I see original letters, diaries, or manuscripts, I don’t try to read them — too often the handwriting is inscrutable. I just stare at the pages and think about the fact that Charlotte Bronte or whoever actually touched them. It’s a tiny link with the writers themselves and it makes it somehow easier to imagine them existing as real people.
The exhibit on Shakespeare was also interesting; this one is in a closet-sized room and has just a few items, but they are great: the centerpiece is the Cobbe Portrait from c. 1610, which is possibly a portrait of Shakespeare painted from life, the only one we have. From what I can tell, there is debate about the authenticity of this picture, but the Morgan Library says it has “strong claims to be the only surviving life-time portrait of William Shakespeare.” The exhibit has a couple imitations of the original Cobbe Portrait and also lays out the arguments for and against its authenticity.
Oh, I just saw that they are going to have an exhibit on Charles Dickens next fall — yay!
After finishing up at the Morgan, we did what we usually do, which is to visit some of our favorite bookshops, including the Strand, St. Mark’s, McNally-Jackson, and Shakespeare and Co., all within fairly easy walking distance (although I have to say my feet were aching by the end of the day). I brought home a few books: The Best American Essays 2010, Words in Air: The Complete Correspondence between Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell, Brian Moore’s The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, James Purdy’s Eustace Chisholm, and Siri Hustvedt’s The Shaking Woman or A History of my Nerves.
All in all, a very nice day, I think.