I’ve become quite the exhibit addict. None struck my attention this month as much as the exhibit put on by the librarians at the Osborne Collection of Rare Books library within the Lillian H. Smith TPL Branch. This fall the exhibit featured the illustrated works of Edward Gorey. Reading The Gashlycrumb Tinies (1963) is by far the most elegant way to learn the alphabet after all. Gorey is such an enigma. On one had, in groups of people drawn to the morbid and macabre he’s not only popular, but a downright classic; and yet, he’s rarely mentioned in mainstream literary discussions–even those entirely on children’s literature. Known to be the grand-daddy of Goth, Gorey remains strangely “unclassifiable.” He’s weird, macabre, and downright creepy, but he’s also secret, hidden, private. His illustrations are famous and widely-found, and he’s still surrounded by mystery.
What this exhibit brought to my attention was just how many illustrations he’s completed in his lifetime. Some don’t surprise me. I can certainly see Gorey being drawn to illustrate Dracula in his coffin, or The House with a Clock in Its Walls, but finding out that he was also illustrated Oscar Wilde, The Aeneid, Tom Jones, Winnie the Pooh and Alice in Wonderland, among several other fairy tales really took me by surprise and it was very interesting to see his take. I prefer it. His style is so unique for its time. Now we–in the macabre community– are spoiled with the visuals of Tim Burton and del Toro’s films and Chris Riddell’s and Tony DiTerlizzi’s illustrated works; but to imagine a time where not many illustrators were playing around with dark humour for children, or experimenting in the darker toned illustration, Edward Gorey stands apart. It was also very interesting to see a collaboration between Gorey and Charles Addams, famously known for his illustrations of what later became The Addams Family.
Overall, I really enjoyed this exhibit, and if you have the opportunity to go see it before it closes. I highly recommend it. It will be on until October 2nd, so try to go see it within the next week.
I took a brief trip to NYC and explored several bookstores and the exhibition at the Morgan Library: Tennessee Williams No Refuge but Writing, hosted in the Engelhard Gallery. It only took a quick glimpse to realize this exhibition was the effort of many skilled librarians and curators. Manuscripts were brought from the Harry Ransom Center, Columbia University, New York Public Library, Harvard, and many others. The exhibition was made possible by generous donors, and it is exemplary work by the librarians and curators at the Morgan Library. Walking through the exhibition I felt absolutely inspired! Inspired to write, to learn, to read, to live! The way the exhibit was set up, the information provided, the research done, all was put together so well that—in my mind at least— it brought Tennessee Williams back to life.
The way my high school English courses were set up, and coincided with my theater classes, I accidentally had to read A Streetcar Named Desire about five times—not only read it, but study it, memorize it, and write several essays on it, as well as performing parts of it on stage. In undergrad I studied The Glass Menagerie, and this put me on a bit of a Williams crusade. His tragic female characters who cannot let go of an idealized past, his confrontational men who are mere bullies incapable of understanding the delicate nature of their sexuality, in addition to the intensity of the plot—are absolutely unforgettable.
The way the exhibition is set up we get glimpses into Williams’s life in chronological order. Artefacts include one of his many typewriters, keys he collected from hotels, manuscripts and first drafts of his plays, elaborate plans for some of his character development, as well some of his well-deserved awards. Because Williams wrote on the cusp of the Golden Age of Hollywood, there are many playbills from Broadway, images of Elizabeth Taylor, Vivien Leigh, and Marlon Brando, and posters/still images of these great actors playing a role in one of his many plays.
Tennessee Williams’s inner life, however, was most intriguing to me. On display was a letter Williams sent to his grandfather explaining how anxious he was for receiving a grant from the Rockefeller fellowship, the ways in which he based Belle Reve (the location from which Blanche arrives—the idealized past) on a poem he wrote many years prior, the way he dissects Blanche’s character and psyche before writing her into dialogue, and his many oil paintings. This was new information to me—I had no idea Williams painted—in a style I very much admire. His painting style resembles a cross between Cezanne and Van Gogh—a form of expressionism/impressionism but with a flat brush. I remember a moment from Streetcar where he went through a lot of trouble to outline the setting by means of a painting:
“There is a picture of Van Gogh’s of a billiard-parlor at night. The kitchen now suggests that sort of lurid nocturnal brilliance, the raw colors of childhood’s spectrum. Over the yellow linoleum of the kitchen table hangs and electric bulb with a vivid green glass shade. The poker players—Stanley, Steve, Mitch and Pablo—wear colored shirts, solid blues, a purple, a red-and-white check, a light green, and they are men at the peak of their physical manhood, as coarse and direct and powerful as the primary colors.” (Streetcar Named Desire)
According to one of the information panels next to his drafts of Streetcar, Williams got the idea for the play when living in New Orleans with his new lover Pancho Rodriguez where he famously wrote:
“’I was and still am Blanche…[although] God knows I have a Stanley in me, too,’” drew on their tumultuous relationship for the play. This he wove together with elements from earlier poems, shorter plays, and character studies to draft and redraft The Poker Night, the immediate precursor to A Streetcar Named Desire.”
Clearly, he drew a lot from Van Gogh’s art and allowed it to guide the poker night scene which became the heart and beginning of his most famous play.
Lastly, and what I found most interesting, was the way Tennessee Williams regarded writing as a kind of madness. In a diary where he noted anxieties about his play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which he feared was a failure, he wrote:
“I love writing too much, and to love anything too much is to feel a terror of loss: it’s a kind of madness”
Then, below the typewriter on display The Morgan Library wrote:
“Two of Williams’s most important possessions were his copy of Hart Crane’s Poems (also on view) and his typewriter. As a young man, he would write through the night, seeming to subsist on strong black coffee and creative expression alone. Even at his poorest, when his typewriter was seized by his landlady, he borrowed one. When he pawned the borrowed typewriter, he found another and promptly spent 15 cents of his last $2.00 on paper. ‘I must be mad,’ he wrote in his journal, ‘It’s all a little too much, too much.’”
It was so interesting to see it all laid out and to get so close to his handwriting, and most prized possessions. The exhibition has been put together in a library catalog titled Tennessee Williams No Refuge but Writing, which is available for purchase online.
Note: all pictures above were taken by me (no flash) at the Morgan Library, and are the property of the sources listed in the opening paragraph. According to their website: “Images may be printed out for study, or downloaded for presentations, dissertations, or non-commercial websites or blogs.”
“I had already noticed the peculiarities of the typewriter, and wrote to the man himself at his business address, asking him if he would come here. As I expected, his reply was typewritten and revealed the same trivial but characteristic defects. The same post brought me a letter from Westhouse & Marbank, of Fenchurch Street, to say that the description tallied in every respect with that of the employee, James Windibank. Vila tout!” – Sherlock Holmes, “A Case of Identity”
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s chemistry and print culture knowledge embedded in his iconic character Sherlock Holmes comes from his medical background and hands on experience with the publishing world. The letters exchanged between Doyle and The Strand Magazine’s editor H. G. Smith validate just how detail-oriented Arthur Conan Doyle was when it came to the ways in which his stories were represented in the paper—from selecting his favourite illustrators, to showing concerns for how his work would be perceived by his readers.
In Canada, the largest collection of Doyle’s works can be found on the fifth floor of the Toronto Reference Library –part of the Toronto Public Library system. The idea of a special Doyle collection was conceived in 1969 when a local collector, Mr. Hugh Anson-Carwright sold 200 books from his collection of Sherlock Holmes to the Toronto Library. At the same time, another Torontonian, a “S. Tupper Bigelow, [had] a splendid collection of secondary material –books, pamphlets and magazines about the Sherlock Holmes stories.” The library’s Literature Department purchased the large Doyle collection from Anson-Carwright, the Bigelow collection, and the smaller Mortlake collection. The Collection became accessible to the public in 1971 and continued to grow rapidly since. According to the collection’s current curator, the library back in 1969 could afford to make such purchases based on its allotted budget from donations made by Friends of the Library, benefactors, and/or Sherlock Holmes Specific groups—such as The Bootmakers of Toronto.
Since then, the Toronto Reference Library has purchased secondary material such as “critical, biographical and bibliographic studies” and ephemera such as tickets, brochures and advertisements related to any Sherlock Holmes play, film, exhibit, in addition to literary works that are written by other writers but inspired by Sherlock Holmes (even House M.D featuring Hugh Laurie is such a secondary work because it’s inspired by Holmes).
The Collection itself is composed of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s letters to the press, specifically to Mr. Herbert Greenhough Smith—whom he always refers to in letters as “My dear Smith.” Doyle traveled across Canada in 1914 (staying mainly in Alberta at Jasper Park) where his wife kept a handwritten journal which is also currently in the TPL Special Collection. Doyle’s notes on fauna and flora (beasts, birds, fishers) of North America, which he saw on his subsequent trips in 1922-1923 on his American Lecture Tour, his notebook on coin collecting, and notes for a speech delivered in Canada, are all part of the manuscript collection at the Reference Library. Equally important are two rough drafts for his literary works intended for publication and/or performance of The Crown Diamond (a short Sherlock Holmes play) and The Marriage of Brigadier Gerrard.
Doyle’s manuscripts have been acquired over time by the library at various auctions in the ‘70s, by means of donations, and from private collectors. In London a significant portion of Doyle’s manuscripts was sold at an auction where the work became instantly scattered—“Christie’s held the sale in London at their King Street location on 19 May 2004.” The Toronto representative at the 2004 Christie’s auction was Doug Wrigglesworth (chair of the Friends of the ACD Collection of the Toronto Public Library and contributor to The Magic Door newsletter). When it comes to a collection like Doyle’s, due to such a large fan-base worldwide, his works are purchases by extremely wealthy collectors at times where libraries can barely stand a chance in the competition. Such collectors appear on mainstream book-selling websites like AbeBooks where they sell either hardcover first editions, or manuscripts for prices that are difficulty to match with a library budget.
If you happen to visit the special library you will come across a small room with a wooden desk, a lovely carpet, and walls lined from the ceiling to the floor with books that have to do with Sherlock Holmes retellings. The rooms have decorations like busts of Holmes, chess pieces shaped like Sherlock characters, and illustrations. The special collections I mentioned above have to be requested in advance from the librarians. If you do access them make sure to follow the instructions from the librarian on how to use them: no pen, clean hands, delicately and carefully.
Letters to Sherlock Holmes
While I was at the library exploring the collection, I was told this anecdote on tour, which I would like to share with you. As it turns out, over time, people from all over the world wrote letters to Sherlock Holmes at 221b Baker Street. Little did they know that in London at this address was the location of a bank. The bank received so many letters they hired a secretary to archive these letters, and at times, respond to them. Richard Lancelyn Green compiled some of the best and funniest letters in 1985 and published Letters to Sherlock Holmes. The book is available at the public library and for sale on bookseller websites. This is one of those books that makes you laugh out loud. There are people asking Holmes for his picture, for information on mysteries in their home towns, personal questions like: “I want to buy your violin, how much does it cost?” or “what kind of tobacco do you smoke?” There are letters from children asking him for math or chemistry homework help, people who truly believe he is real, or making inquiries for meeting him.
Here’s an example from one letter:
Dear Mr. Holmes
I often wondered how you met Dr. Watson, and what was your hardest mystery, and have you ever made love to any of your clients?
Sincerely yours, Robert Lawrence (Deer Park, NY, USA)
If you want to have a good time by yourself and laugh, I recommend you find this book and read it. It can be easily done in one sitting so there’s no pressure.
I hope you enjoyed this post. I was very happy when I discovered this library two years ago, so I wanted to know as much about it as possible. If you get a chance, do stop by because the librarians there are some of the most wonderful people you will ever meet, and the room is highly atmospheric. Just being there will make you want to run home and read all the Sherlock Holmes books.
 Toronto Reference Library. Arthur Conan Doyle Collection. Toronto: Toronto Reference Library, 2015. Print.
I often check the Toronto Reference Library’s Exhibit Room because they have some of the most wonderful exhibits. Often they are in collaboration with other libraries and collections, and I can’t help myself from taking pictures of my experience. This exhibit showcased paintings, drawings and prints of post-war Toronto from the library’s Canadian Documentary Art Collection, demonstrating the fast-paced changes in our city in the mid-late Twentieth Century. More information HERE.
I really enjoyed the sense of community this project inspired, particularly in the way they requested that people share their best pictures of Toronto and added them to the collection.