Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Burmese Palm Leaf Manuscripts

The Brandeis Archives and Special Collections Department is fortunate to own two 19th-century Burmese Buddhist texts, handwritten on palm leaves. Donated by Philip Pinsof, these make up part of the department’s Rare, Non-Western Manuscripts collection. The language of both manuscripts is Burmese but the exact dates and origins of the manuscripts are unknown. The more complete of the two manuscripts in Brandeis’s collection (#38) is composed of, literally, sixty-six leaves – rectangular, dried, cut, and smoked Palmyra palm leaves, or peisa – on which, using ink, a scribe has copied what is most likely a Buddhist text. The handwriting is beautifully clear, with little decorative flourish. The leaves measure roughly 5 cm wide by 50 cm long, and the manuscript is bound on each side with a wooden board. The edges of the two protective boards have been painted in red and maroon, and the edges of the manuscript leaves themselves have been gilded. The whole piece is held closed with two fabric cords which pierce the leaves and wood at either end, and allow the reader to open the manuscript like a fan. The second manuscript, #39, is a fragment of 25 palm leaves, tied with fabric cords threaded through the leaves, but without the protective boards. This is believed to be a Buddhist history of priests.

The use of palm leaves as material for manuscripts has a long tradition, dating to the pre-paper era - it is believed they were being used as far back as 5 CE. Likely having originated in India, palm-leaf manuscripts have appeared throughout South and Southeast Asia. It is believed that the initial durability and toughness of palm leaves made them ideal for Buddhist monks and others to use them as a writing surface, and, “unlike wood and bamboo, palm leaves require a simple manufacturing process of boiling and drying to render them suitable for writing.”(1) Unfortunately, due to the high humidity of the climate in Southeast Asia, palm leaves decay rapidly, and therefore it is rare to find examples of these delicately constructed manuscripts that are more than 200 years old. In fact, it was common practice to copy the manuscripts to new palm leaves as the old ones weakened and began to disintegrate. This practice only came to an end relatively recently, in the 19th century, with the advent of industrial-scale printing presses.(2) Most of the older examples which have been preserved are generally those that were carried by Buddhist missionaries to Central Asia, where a colder, drier climate – one less destructive to the materials – was prevalent. The earliest surviving palm-leaf manuscript dates to 9th century Nepal, and the most recent examples to be found date (like Brandeis’s manuscripts) to the 19th century.

Some scholars believe that the physical nature of the palm leaves was actually a central factor in the development of rounded scripts in Southeast Asia. Rounded writing would have been easier to copy onto leaves without causing damage to the writing surface, while more angular scripts were likely to split the leaf. (2) As well, the shape of the palm leaf itself was copied and can be seen in manuscripts made from a wide variety of materials, such as birch-bark (India), cotton cloth (Burma), and copper-plate charters (South and South-east Asia). “After the introduction of paper to India by the Muslims in the early 13th century, certain types of manuscripts retained the characteristic oblong shape of palm-leaf manuscripts and even the blank space in the text, originally left by the scribe to provide room for the cord; this became a focal point for decoration.”(3) Compared to the more ornamental Kammavaca palm manuscript (generally used for formal monastic ceremonies), the palm leaf manuscript is rather plain, yet still beautiful in its own way. Brandeis’s two palm-leaf manuscripts are available to all visitors to be viewed by appointment.

(1) and (4) Ward, Gerald W. R., (editor). The Grove Encyclopedia of Materials and Techniques in Art. Oxford University Press, Oxford: 2008, p. 356.
(2) Wikipedia. Palm-leaf Manuscript. Accessed June 6, 2016.
(3) Steever, Sanford “Tamil Writing;” Kuipers & McDermott, “Insular Southeast Asian Scripts,” in Daniels and Bright, eds., The World's Writing Systems, Oxford University Press, New York: 1996, p. 426, 480.

Description by Max Close, recent History graduate and former Archives & Special Collections assistant.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Brandeis Special Collections on the Internet Archive - Part II in an occasional series

We at Brandeis University Archives & Special Collections are dedicated to the preservation of the materials within our collecting remit. We are equally dedicated to making these materials freely and widely accessible. One of the ways we have been expanding this accessibility is by making many of our materials available online. As a member of the Boston Library Consortium, Brandeis University participates in the Open Content Alliance (OCA) project, which digitizes public-domain works from around the world. These digitized items are then made available on the Internet Archive (IA) ("a non-profit library of millions of free books, movies, software, music, and more") where they are beautifully presented, free, and openly accessible to anyone with an internet connection. This occasional series will highlight some of the 1,836 (and growing) valuable, unique, and highly requested research materials owned by Brandeis and scanned through the OCA project.

Isaac Leeser. Sefer Torat ha-Elohim/The Law of God. First edition. 1845.

Isaac Leeser was a nineteenth-century American Jewish leader and the leader of Philadelphia’s Sephardic synagogue Mikveh Israel. In addition to publishing many textbooks for children and translating the Sephardic prayer book, Leeser founded the first American rabbinical school and the newspaper The Occidental. In 1845 he published the first Jewish translation of the Bible in the United States. Leeser’s work was based primarily on German Jewish translations and on traditional Jewish Bible scholarship, while aiming to make its style as close to the King James translation as possible. The Leeser translation soon became widely accepted and remained the standard Jewish translation until the publication of the Jewish Publication Society translation in 1917. In 1996 the Brandeis University National Women’s Committee (now known as the Brandeis National Committee) donated a copy of Leeser’s 1845 translation of the Five Books of Moses, Torat ha-Elohim / The Law of God, to the Library. The Law of God was the millionth book added to the Brandeis Libraries' collection in 1996. We thought it fitting that this volume would mark our one thousandth contribution to the Internet Archive.

Click here to view this work on the Internet Archive.

Clarence Cook. Art and Artists of our Time. 1888.

Art and Artists of our Time is a six-volume set written by the distinguished nineteenth century critic Clarence Cook. Cook (1828-1900), considered to be the first professional art critic in the United States, was editor of the Pre-Raphaelite journal The New Path and longtime art critic for the New York Tribune. The six volumes of Art and Artists of our Time are profusely illustrated with engravings that reproduce the works of the most admired artists of the period (the book was published in 1888) and present a revealing glimpse into contemporary artistic taste, with its emphasis on aesthetics and morality over formalism.

Click here to view this work on the Internet Archive.

Charlotte Brontë. Jane Eyre: An Autobiography. First edition. 1847.

The first edition of Jane Eyre, published on October 16th, 1847, sold out within a few months, which was unprecedented at the time. A first edition of this book is extremely rare, because most copies of this edition were read to pieces. A second edition was published in January, 1848, and the third edition in April of 1848. The three-volume format was a popular one for novels at the time of publication.

Click here to view this work on the Internet Archive.

The History of the Boston Theatre, 1854-1901.
Compiled with the assistance of Quincy Kilby. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1908. xv, 550 p. illus., ports. 26 cm.

The History of the Boston Theatre is a four-volume set describing and illustrating the productions mounted by theater companies in Boston, season by season, between 1854 and 1901. The copy in the Brandeis collection, digitized and available on the Internet Archive, is unique: bound in with the existing pages are portraits of actors (many with original inscriptions), theater programs, theater reviews clipped from journals, and hand-written correspondence, making the set even richer for research. Some of the correspondence, programs, portraits, and signatures tipped in to the Brandeis set after it was published indicate that the additional materials might have been added by Wilmot Evans, a prominent Boston banker and politician. The set was given to Brandeis by Mr. and Mrs. Herman A. Mintz; Herman Mintz was a Boston attorney and founding partner of the prominent law firm Mintz Levin. Mr. Mintz had a special interest in Boston theater.

Click here to view the History of the Boston Theatre on the Internet Archive website

Monday, April 4, 2016

Langston Hughes treasures in Special Collections

James Mercer Langston Hughes was an American poet, social activist, novelist, playwright, columnist, war journalist, leader of the Harlem Renaissance, and one of the early innovators of the literary art form called jazz poetry. Born on February 1, 1902 in Joplin, MO, Hughes was a prolific writer whose works are regularly anthologized. He authored vast amounts of poetry, short stories, novels, operas, non-fiction essays and books, plays, and children’s literature. Over his lifetime Hughes served as an archivist of the beauty, struggle, and pain of his own domestic struggles as well as those of the Negro (to use the language of his time) in post-Emancipation America, and those struggling in the wars abroad. With his words, he was able to embody the complexity of revolution and its attendant hope and despair. In a time when the circumstance of his being born a black man in a virulently racist country lent a precarity to his own existence, much of Hughes’s work was propaganda for the furthering of the mental, emotional, and physical freedom of Negros. Langston Hughes died on May 22, 1967 in New York City, NY.(1)

In addition to the many of Hughes’s works which can be found in the library’s general collection, Brandeis University’s Special Collections proudly counts among its holdings a signed, first edition (second printing) of The Weary Blues (Hughes’s first published collection of poetry), a Spanish Civil War publication called Romancero de los Voluntarios de la Libertad, in which Hughes’s poem Song of Spain appears, I Hear the People Singing: Selected Poems of Walt Whitman, for which Hughes wrote the introductory essay "The Ceaseless Rings of Walt Whitman," and Braithwaite's Anthology of Magazine Verse for 1926 and Yearbook of American Poetry, which features several of Hughes’s poems. As well, the Carl Van Vechten Photographs collection contains several photographic portraits of Hughes taken by his close friend, Van Vechten.

“I would liken you
To a night without stars
Were it not for your eyes.
I would liken you
To a sleep without dreams
Were it not for your songs.”
--­­­ Ardella

First published in 1926, this poem (which can be found in The Weary Blues) gets to the heart of Hughes's work and to one of his main goals in writing: to create a language with which to express the beauty he saw in the world. Ardella also illustrates Hughes’s commitment to pro­Black (pro­Negro) politics. In this poem, Hughes addresses the social reality of Blackness being associated with darkness, despair, and a profound hopelessness and in comparison, offers a new ideology of beauty as blackness’s sole attribute.

Hughes was invested in the uplifting of oppressed people, especially those of African descent. He served as an activist poet and journalist in the Spanish Civil War. During this war, Hughes continued in his tradition of uplifting the marginalized through his moving language. He writes:

“Flamenco is the song of Spain:
Gypsies, guitars, dancing,
Death and love and heartbreak,
To a heel tap, and whirl of fingers
On three strings
Flamenco is the song of Spain”
-- Song of Spain

The juxtaposed imagery of dancing, death, and heartbreak in this poem creates a portrait of a wartime existence too complicated to be seen as one-dimensional: Hughes illustrates the complexity of struggling with the realities of war while also maintaining joy and light in the midst of darkness. This contradiction echoes Hughes’s own complicated existence, having been born to a white father and a black mother in a time so close to the period of slavery.

Hughes’s artistic and political agendas were not mutually exclusive and it is fascinating to hone in on those aspects of Hughes’s work that render it Jazz Poetry. Rebecca Gross writes: “Hughes felt that jazz poetry could be a uniquely African American literary form, distinctive among the venerable—and very white—poetic canon. When he wrote about jazz, Hughes often incorporated syncopated rhythms, jive language, or looser phrasing to mimic the improvisatory nature of jazz; in other poems, his verse reads like the lyrics of a blues song. The result was as close as you could get to spelling out jazz.”(2) Here, Gross not only illuminates the music in Hughes’ work but also its political and racial subtext. This video of Hughes reciting The Weary Blues, with a backing jazz band, gives a sense of the rhythm inherent in many of Hughes's works.

Emulating the grammar of a song by one of the great jazz musicians, Hughes writes:

“Does a jazz band ever sob?
They say a jazz­band’s gay
Yet as the vulgar dancers whirled
And the wan night wore away,
One said she heard the jazz band sob
When the little dawn was grey”
-- Cabaret

Scholars and lovers of poetry, music, language, and history will find great food for thought in the Hughes treasures held in Special Collections. These materials are open to the public and we welcome all who are interested to come and see these special and rare editions of the works of this great thinker, poet, social activist, and wordsmith.

1. Langston Hughes, Wikipedia entry.

2. Gross, Rebecca. "Jazz Poetry & Langston Hughes." April 11, 2014.

Description by Kesi Kmt, undergraduate student in Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies and Archives & Special Collections assistant.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Colonel Edward H. McCrahon Family Collection of World War I Posters

Born in Brooklyn, New York, Edward McCrahon joined the French Army in fighting World War I two years before the United States did. When the U.S. began fighting alongside the Allies, McCrahon joined the American Army and rose to the rank of colonel. He was fascinated by the war poster art he saw throughout his service abroad. When the war ended, McCrahon began to collect these pieces of artistic propaganda and by the 1930’s had developed the largest known collection of war posters. The majority of this collection was put up for auction in 2015, but some of the posters came to Waltham…(1)

Brandeis University Archives & Special Collections is proud to announce the recent and exciting donation of the Colonel Edward H. McCrahon family collection of World War I posters. Consisting of over 500 of McCrahon’s posters, this collection joins the roughly ninety American WWI posters in the World War I and World War II propaganda posters collection. In addition to the sheer number of new poster images that this donation brings, the McCrahon family collection is particularly special for bringing in non-American posters. This collection was generously donated to Brandeis by the family of Colonel McCrahon. New York auction house Guernseys and the Ettinger family were instrumental in the donation.

The posters in this collection differ widely in terms of country of origin, language, message, and physical state. A large portion of the posters are American, though there are a significant number from other countries, including both Allied and Central powers. An initial count shows one Canadian, three Italian, fifteen British, twenty-one German, and sixty-five French posters. The collection includes several additional non-English language posters that were printed in America but directed at immigrant communities. As such, the McCrahon family collection provides a good representation of the propagandistic messages disseminated throughout the War, offering researchers a glimpse into the atmosphere of many of the warring countries.

A theme common to almost all of the posters, no matter the language or country of origin, was that of the public’s monetary involvement in the war. These posters called on the citizens of the various warring countries to support the war financially through the purchase of war bonds and loans. Many German posters in the McCrahon family collection feature the term “Kriegsanleihe,” or “war loan,” similar to the Liberty Bonds and Loans advertised in American posters. Such poster titles reflect how, around the world, countries motivated and incentivized donations to the war effort. Though at war with each other, the citizens of both Allied and Central powers probably heard a lot of the same messages from their governments. Give money to support your country!

The regular and pragmatic message that can be taken from the posters it is that money funds war and that almost everything else must fall in line with that reality. This is apparent in other themes common to many of the collection’s posters: those regarding the need to save food in order to feed soldiers and the encouragement of women to aid in the war effort. The encouragement of women to work was not so much a feminist impulse as it was a pragmatic response to the lack of able men available to work. In other words, it was vital to support the war effort by any means possible.

Bearing in mind that the majority of the posters in the McCrahon family collection are American, and a full comparison is not entirely possible, it does appear that American posters generally presented a more threatening attitude than their European counterparts. For example, the American posters tended to portray racist, xenophobic attitudes towards the German people. Consider posters such as “Keep these off the U.S.A.” and “Beat back the Hun with Liberty Bonds” - both suggesting keeping the German people off of American soil. Other images depicting ruined monuments played on the American fear of the European dystopia encroaching on U.S. soil. One such poster, “That liberty shall not perish from the earth / Buy liberty bonds / Fourth Liberty Loan” presents an image of America, specifically the Statue of Liberty and New York City, being engulfed in flames. The poster’s message suggests this disaster to be an inevitability without the American citizenry’s support for the war.

As wartime propaganda pieces, the vitriolic, bombastic messages sent through many of these posters is not unexpected, though several posters do indeed look to promote unity among peoples. “Americans All! Victory Liberty Loan” features an ‘honor roll’ of common immigrant surnames. This serves as a call to America’s large immigrant population that they too are Americans, and that they too should be lauded for supporting the war.

While most of the French posters join in the effort to raise money, there are several which are noteworthy for exposing the less glamorous aspects of war. They can be viewed in contrast to the American posters, which often expressed a strongly gung-ho attitude and encouraged its Armed Forces to kill opposing soldiers. One French poster offers support to those maimed by war: “Aux Mutilés” depicts men with amputations working for the war effort despite their injuries. Such an image shows the harsher realities of life after service, but it also illustrates the message that the French people can overcome any obstacle. A poster bearing a similar message: “Protection du réformé, no. 2. Assistance aux malades et blessés de la guerre, réformés sans pension. Crédit Foncier de France” [Support for category no. 2 veterans. Aid for the sick and wounded discharged without pension. Crédit Foncier de France] offers to support to soldiers after they return home from the front. These are the only two posters in the McCrahon family collection which consider the soldiers’ post-war fates. Of course, many others incite opposition to the Central Powers. However these two are remarkable for expressing a foresight, or perhaps simply a willingness to acknowledge life after wartime.

The images and words used in these posters are intense, forceful, and often incredibly disturbing and frightening. No matter where the posters originated, they were designed to encourage a beleaguered populace to support a violent and costly war; they were intended to bring the citizenry in line with the government’s war-footing. There was no room for gentle encouragement. That being said, the poster images are often stunningly beautiful and were created by some of the best artists of the time - including American artist Norman Rockwell. Whichever the country of origin, WWI poster artists used alluring paintings, telling photos, and shocking text to grab the viewer's attention and to illustrate the messages their governments wanted to impart.

The entire collection has been inventoried and the finding aid is in process of being created. Please contact us with any questions regarding the McCrahon family Collection.

1. https://www.guernseys.com/v2/WWI_Posters.html

Description by Archives & Special Collections undergraduate project assistants Rochelle Fayngor (Neuroscience) and Adam Gurfinkel (English and Creative Writing).