Diary exhibit at the Morgan and other weekend pleasures

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.


Filed under Books, Life

13 responses to “Diary exhibit at the Morgan and other weekend pleasures

  1. It sounds like a wonderful day. An hour to 1 1/2 hr exhibit is perfect and this one sounds just delightful.


  2. There has been tremendous flutterings at the Shakespeare Birthplace (where I spend a lot of my time) about this exhibition because many of the people who work there were involved in setting it up. I know they’ve had a great time and been really pleased with the reception. However, you’re right, the Cobbe has caused great controversy and having spent a lot of time listening to its defenders I have to say that much as I would love them to be right I think there is some wishful thinking going on here and on balance I would go something like 40/60 against and even then I might be being optimistic. But, the whole back story as to its discovery is so good it’s hard not to get carried away.


  3. This sounds like a lovely day! Wow – what a fascinating exhibit all those diaries must make. I would love to have seen that.


  4. That does sound like a great, enviable day! I know what you mean about just thinking about those being the actual objects touched / used by someone of such significance. The most fun I had on a trip to England a while back was being in Carlyle’s house. Not only is 90% of the furniture etc. actually his and Jane’s, but they have a visitors’ book dating back to the earliest days the house was open to the public–signed by Vanessa and Virginia Stephen.


  5. Call me so jealous! It sounds like a fantastic day. I would love the diary exhibit. And you have Dickens to look forward to. Fun!


  6. I’m with Stefanie – a bit jealous over here! That sounds so wonderful. Being that I love to journal I get such a kick out of seeing diaries.


  7. What’s criminal is that I’m just across the river in New Jersey and have never been to this library! Thanks for calling it to my attention, Dorothy!


  8. Sounds like a great experience! I’d love to be able to see the letters–something so personal about seeing a person’s thoughts in the original handwriting. I love diaries and letters and Words in Air sounds like a great read.


  9. Michelle

    Wow, this sounds like a really wonderful exhibit. I’d heard about it because an elementary school friend of mine works at the Morgan and she’d been posting little teasers on Facebook, all of which made me drool.

    Your book haul is lovely, as well! I’ll be curious to see what you think of the Hustvedt. I’ve got two of hers I’d like to read this year.


  10. I’m envious. I was in NYC a couple weeks ago and didn’t have half as much fun as it sounds you did.


  11. This is awesome. So are all of these diaries in the collection at the Morgan? I suppose they must be. Such an interesting thing for a super-rich guy to collect. Makes me think I should be going by the Huntington more regularly, just to see what they’re putting up next to the permanent collection. You might swing by the NYPL sometime too, if you get a chance, right around the corner. Last time I was at the Morgan the temp exhibit at the NYPL, on the Yaddo writers colony, was better.


  12. I knew about the Jane Austen exhibition last year and already was lamenting my situation in life… yes living thousands of miles away from NYC. And now, this superb Diary Exhibit! While I regret what I miss, I thank you for sharing and keeping me in touch with the literary world that is so out-of-reach from my humble station here.


  13. This sounds like such a great place to visit. Imagine working there and organizing exhibits–dream job! 🙂 Sounds like you had a great time and I would love to be in the presence of so much greatness. I think you’re right–smaller is much better as you can actually really look at what’s there. Didn’t you wish you could have picked those books up and turned the pages. But, nice to at least look.


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