Friday, August 1, 2014

Carl Van Vechten photographs, 1932-1964

Brandeis’s Carl Van Vechten photographs, 1932-1964 showcases the work of a man fully immersed in the cultural world of the early twentieth century. Van Vechten (June 17, 1880 – December 21, 1964) is best known for his photographic portraiture, for which he used his many famous friends and acquaintances as subjects. Comprising 1,689 of these black-and-white portraits, the collection (donated to Brandeis in 1966 by the executor of Van Vechten’s estate) depicts clearly Van Vechten’s vast knowledge of and influence in the cultural world of his day.

Beginning his career as an arts critic for the New York Times, Van Vechten became acquainted with many of the artistic and intellectual greats of the first half of the twentieth century. At times, he even became a newsworthy subject himself, as his eccentric personal style and lifestyle garnered him notice among the fashion and gossip columns. His connections and influence led him to become a patron of the Harlem Renaissance, in which his interest in the arts united with his lifelong interest in black culture.
Van Vechten wrote a number of novels as well as several volumes of literary criticism. His career as a writer granted him access to the major artists and intellectuals of his time, but it is in his photography where his lasting influence is shown. With new portable camera options, affordable film, and financial independence secured through an inheritance, Van Vechten took up photography in 1932 without the need to worry about commercial success. In this way, he was able to record a burgeoning era of history as it unfolded, and his work is important for remembering this time and its most prominent cultural figures.

Van Vechten was known for throwing lavish parties that brought his black artist and powerful white friends together, hugely influencing the careers of many during the Harlem Renaissance. One such encounter orchestrated by Van Vechten was that between his close friend (and a leader of the Harlem Renaissance) Langston Hughes, and his friend and editor, Alfred A. Knopf. This meeting resulted in the publication of Hughes’s first book, The Weary Blues, for which Van Vechten wrote the introduction (Special Collections holds a rare signed copy). Later, both of these men would appear in Van Vechten’s portraits.

Van Vechten’s portraits reveal the personality of his subjects in a way that only true intimacy can show, and he himself would refer to photography as a way of capturing people. One photo that illustrates the personality of its subjects is that of Salvador Dali and Man Ray. Photographed in front of an exhibit in Paris, the two surrealists give a wide-eyed expression for Van Vechten, reflecting their own work as artists. His subjects appear sometimes in costume, sometimes with wild patterned backgrounds, and sometimes in dramatic poses that reflect their professions. Subtler shots too reveal something about their subjects, allowing larger-than-life personas to be translated to a static image. Van Vechten shot many of his portraits far from his New York City studio, during his travels abroad to places such as Paris and Florence.

Often his subjects were just on the cusp of stardom when Van Vechten photographed them, which can be seen as evidence of his taste as well as his influence. But Van Vechten caught his subjects before and amid success alike. His 1948 portrait of a young Marlon Brando is from the initial stage run of A Streetcar Named Desire, for which Brando would first become famous. Conversely, Van Vechten’s 1946 portrait of W.E.B. Du Bois was taken well into Du Bois’s long career championing civil rights.
Van Vechten’s many portraits illustrate not only the cultural world of his time but his influence in its formation. They provide a rare view into a world as seen by the man who seemed to know everyone in it.

Description by Brittany Joyce, Classical Studies and Italian Studies undergraduate student and Archives & Special Collections assistant.

The detailed finding aid for Carl Van Vechten photographs, 1932-1964 can be found here
The letters of Langston Hughes and Van Vechten can be found in the library stacks, here
The signed copy of The Weary Blues can be found here.

Monday, July 7, 2014

T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land

One could hardly hope for a more exquisite emblem of modernist print culture than the Hogarth Press 1923 edition of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, recently acquired by Brandeis University Special Collections. Printed in a run of 460 by Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s private press, with type set by Virginia herself, the Hogarth Waste Land offers tangible evidence of the interconnectedness of English modernism.

The Woolfs first met the expatriated Eliot through publishing his Poems of 1919. Friendship followed, and Eliot promised Hogarth the British publishing rights to his epic in 434 lines. Typically interpreted as an elegy for civilization, “The Waste Land” draws together multiple modes and voices, as well as an erudite command of the poetic tradition, in sounding its themes of loss and decay (“These fragments I have shored against my ruins”). As much a feat of scholarship as poetic imagination, “The Waste Land” is a poem that demands elucidation. Virginia Woolf’s own first impression of the poem, recorded in her diary, was characteristic in its mix of admiration and confusion: “Eliot dined last Sunday & read his poem. He sang it & chanted it rhythmed it. It has great beauty & force of phrase: symmetry; & tensity. What connects it together, I’m not so sure. But he read till he had to rush… & discussion thus was curtailed. One was left, however, with some strong emotion. The Waste Land, it is called; & Mary Hutch [Hutchinson], who has heard it more quietly, interprets it to be Tom’s autobiography — a melancholy one”(1).

Indeed, Eliot himself would later plead that the poem represented “the relief of a personal and wholly insignificant grouse against life... just a piece of rhythmical grumbling”(2). And yet what grumbling! Autobiographical elements notwithstanding, the verses quickly came to be seen as a quintessential expression of modern disillusionment. For all the pessimism between its covers, though, the Hogarth Waste Land is an uncommonly beautiful volume, emblematic of the Woolfs’ idea of literature as a labor of love. Holding the book one is struck above all by its delicacy, the blue marble cover drawing the eye into its recesses (one thinks of William Gass: “Blue is [the] most suitable as the color of interior life”). It reminds us that before “The Waste Land” was crowned by Harold Bloom as “indisputably the most influential poem written in English in [the twentieth] century,” it was a thing to be passed between friends.


The Hogarth edition was actually the fourth printing of Eliot’s poem, following appearances in British and American magazines (The Criterion and The Dial, respectively) as well as a book edition brought out by the American house Boni and Liveright. Eliot was reportedly happiest with the Hogarth edition, which surely owed to Virginia Woolf’s care in preparing the pages. Historians note with characteristic understatement that “The Waste Land” is “typographically challenging.” Woolf put it more vividly in her letter to Barbara Bagenal of July 8, 1923: “I have just finished setting up the whole of Mr Eliots [sic] poem with my own hands: You see how my hand trembles.” The Woolfs were typically more staid in their poetry selections, and it’s tempting to imagine that Virginia’s experience typesetting “The Waste Land” by hand might have influenced her own increasingly experimental approach to language. Reading her later novels, one often has the sense that each discrete word and phrase has been carefully selected not only for its meaning but also for its sound and even its appearance on the page: a degree of attentiveness that is usually the province of poets.

The Woolfs would not be the last publishers to lavish special attention on Eliot’s epochal poem: in 2011, Eliot’s own publishing house, Faber & Faber, released an enriched version for the iPad. With its dazzling web of reference and allusion, “The Waste Land” would seem a natural subject for the electronic environment. The app proved a hit in spite of Wired’s amusing complaint that the program “eats up a staggering 951 MB of memory”(3). One imagines Eliot being disappointed that his erudition didn’t total a gigabyte and Virginia Woolf similarly disconcerted by the name of the app’s production company: Touch Press.

Description by Max Goldberg, Archives & Special Collections Reference Assistant.

See Cassandra N. Berman’s earlier Women in Publishing post for more on the Hogarth Press.

(1) Quoted in Willis Jr., J.H. Leonard and Virginia Woolf as Publishers: the Hogarth Press, 1917-1941. (Charlottesville, University Press of Virginia, 1992), 72.
(2) Quoted in Pericles Lewis’s article on “The Waste Land”:

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Buffalo Bill Dime Novels

The Dime Novel collection at Brandeis includes more than a thousand items characteristic of America’s turn towards mass market publishing at the turn of the last century. First introduced in 1860 by the firm Beadle & Adams, the dime novel exploited cheap printing, newly efficient distribution, and a broader reading public hungry for sensational yarns involving detectives, cowboys, and romantic heroines. Built with major donations by Edward G. Levy, Edward T. LeBlanc, and former Special Collections librarian Victor Berch (MA ’66), the Brandeis collection offers valuable material resources for students of popular culture and genre literature.

The numbers of The Buffalo Bill Stories, for instance, present the reader with a wellspring of enduring iconography and storytelling tropes. Buffalo Bill (né William Cody) was already a legendary figure and bona fide international celebrity by the time these books were published. After stints working as a cattle driver, teamster, innkeeper, and military scout, Cody found his calling as a guide to wealthy easterners desiring a “true” experience of the west. He caught the eye of Ned Buntline, an early dime novel impresario who prevailed upon Cody to play himself in a Chicago stage melodrama called Scouts of the Prairie in 1873. Cody soon formed his own touring company, and from here it was a few short steps to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, a hugely popular pageant of historical melodrama and spectacular displays of marksmanship, riding, and other feats of derring-do. Prominent westerner Larry McMurtry contends that,

William F. Cody’s “invention,” begun with a nudge from Ned Buntline and developed with the help of his long-suffering assistants Nate Salsbury and John Burke, was to take the kind of pageants current in Barnum and others and focus them on the West, the winning of which thus came to seem a triumphant national venture. The audiences not only bought it, they loved it, at least as long as Cody was there himself, on his white horse. What his career proved is that there is almost no limit to how far a man can go in America if he looks good on a horse; and Buffalo Bill looked so good on a horse that it was almost as if the animal had been created just for him to ride.1

One person taking careful note was Theodore Roosevelt, who would eventually nick Cody’s “Rough Riders” brand for his own run at the White House. Authenticity was a key element of the Wild West’s publicity machine: eastern audiences could see skirmishes re-enacted by historical actors well before the actual conflicts had been settled. The cycle of history, performance, and myth could become quite dizzying, as when Cody interrupted a Wild West tour to join up with the Fifth Cavalry at first news of Custer’s Last Stand. He killed a Cheyenne warrior during the engagement, shrewdly working the event into his act within a few months and even going so far as to invite the very Indian warriors with whom he previously battled to join his Wild West show.

Given this backdrop, it’s hardly surprising that many of the issues of The Buffalo Bill Stories in the Brandeis Dime Novel Collection should come with a prefatory note admonishing the reader to “Beware of Wild West imitations of the Buffalo Bill stories. They are about fictitious characters. The Buffalo Bill weekly is the only weekly containing the adventures of Buffalo Bill, (Col. W. F. Cody), who is known all over the world as the king of the scouts.”

The air of realism extends to the back matter included after the stories: how-to guides of dubious practicality to the largely urban readership (“How to Tie a Wire”) and pseudo-ethnographic excursions (“The False-Face Dance”). The books also follow the example of the Wild West plays in offering dual titles: for instance, “Buffalo Bill’s Cumbres Scouts: or the Wild Pigs Corralled.” The economic logic here is obvious enough (why settle for trying to hook the audience with one title when you can use two?), but André Breton himself would have been hard-pressed to best the likes of “Buffalo Bill and the Pool of Mystery: or the Hand of the Prophet.”

If the dime novels were somewhat late arrivals to the burgeoning Wild West industry, their cover illustrations and dialogue-rich scenarios provide a crucial link between the touring circuit and the coming nickelodeon boom. With its emphasis on action and heroic figures, the western genre proved natural fodder for the new medium—even as early westerns like The Great Train Robbery (1903) were filmed no further west than New Jersey. In the cover illustrations of The Buffalo Bill Stories we find the basic repertoire of gestures and compositional framings familiar from thousands of western movies. Cody’s body is invariably outstretched, and the corresponding text boxes offer a complimentary burst of excitable talk (“‘Up with that left hand of yours, quick, Death Notch Dick, or my bullet hunts your heart!’ cried Buffalo Bill”). Even in those illustrations not depicting daring rescues, action remains paramount. Take the cover of No. 418 (May 15, 1909), in which the only weapon being brandished is the umbrella of an “irate female.” In the foreground of the image, a barrel has been knocked over on its side. It appears mid-fall, a photographic freeze of action that seems to hasten the retreat of the “thieving Yankee” as an assembled crowd watches on.

Cody himself would find himself on the sidelines when the film medium encroached upon his territory. His 1913 film epic, The Indian Wars, was by all accounts a flop, and Cody eventually fell back upon a series of ill-advised business ventures and cut-rate performances. So too did the dime novels eventually give way to the neatly packaged narratives available via radio and cinema. But even with their all-but-inevitable obsolescence, the issues of The Buffalo Bill Stories remain ripe for rediscovery—not only as fascinating objects in themselves but as documents of a popular culture still very much with us.

description by Max Goldberg, Archives & Special Collections Reference Assistant

A preliminary finding aid to the Dime Novels and Juvenile Literature collection is available here

1. Larry McMurty. “Inventing the West,” The New York Review of Books, August 10, 2000,

Friday, May 2, 2014

Once upon a time...Rare and Fine Press Editions of Fairy Tales

“I liked magic, the unreal, the more than real.”(1)

“The best single description I know of the world of the fairy tale is that of Max Lüthi who describes it as an abstract world, full of discrete, interchangeable people, objects and incidents, all of which are isolated and are nevertheless interconnected, in a kind of web or network of two-dimensional meaning. Everything in the tales appears to happen entirely by chance—and this has the strange effect of making it appear that nothing happens by chance, that everything is fated.”(2)

Brandeis University’s Special Collections is home to a number of rare and fine-press books of fairy tales. Some of these stories are familiar and others less so, though all are strikingly illustrated so as to heighten the unreality delivered by the text.

It is well known that many of the stories we learned as children were less “written” than collected, massaged and crafted into text by their fabulists. The Grimms’ Hansel and Gretel, Rumpelstiltskin, and Cinderella, for example, began as old German folk tales, and though the origins of Little Red Riding Hood, Blue Beard, and Sleeping Beauty are debatable, they surely did not spring entirely from the mind of Charles Perrault himself. Versions of the stories Perrault wrote in the seventeenth century had been in existence for years before he forged them into Les Contes de ma Mère l’Oye (Tales of Mother Goose).

What is less well known is that authors quite often softened the original folk tales and made them “more suitable” for editions marketed to children. While we are all familiar with the sometimes frustrating Disneyfication of our favorite fairy stories as they are rendered toothless for the cartoon audience, even the Grimms were not averse to a little retouching in the name of good business. In fact, in response to public criticism the Grimms removed many a salacious plot point—though they shrewdly left in (and often increased) the violence.(3) The emphasized violence was not only a sure way to attract a younger audience; it also served as a useful tool for parents seeking to teach their children about right and wrong. Even modified though, it is the rare fairy tale that is intended only for a youthful audience, and many are often disturbing, heartbreaking, frightening, and thrilling stories that have a great deal to offer the adult reader.

A number of the fine press editions held in Special Collections were donated to Brandeis by Henry and Hannah Hofheimer. These were published in limited runs by Peter Pauper Press and decorated by celebrated illustrators like Cobbledick, Valenti Angelo, Floyd Hildebrand, and André Durenceau. They comprise the aforementioned Grimm: Fairy Tales (1931, English), Oscar Wilde’s The Selfish Giant (1932), and several collections of non-Western fables, such as Chinese Fairy Tales: Being a Collection of Ancient Legends (1938), Persian Fairy Tales (1939), and Lafacadio Hearn’s Japanese Fairy Tales (1936). Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark (1939) and Edward Lear's  Nonsense Songs & Laughable Lyrics (1935), which fall more in the camp of literary nonsense than fairy tale, were similarly aimed at adults as much as at children.

Some of the lesser-known fairy tale collections in our holdings include: Stories for Children (Lu Lu tales): A book for All Little Girls and Boys (1853), edited by Mrs. Colman of Brookline, Massachusetts, and Fairy Frisket, an 1874 publication in which Charlotte Maria Tucker (writing as “A.L.O.E.” (A Lady of England), introduced the youth of her day to the world of science through whimsical stories of children taught by a fairy and turning into the insects that are the objects of their study.(4) Rockwell Kent, famed for his stunning illustrations, created his own fairy tale: On Earth, Peace: A Christmas Fairy Story, published in 1942 by the New York American Artists Group. Our copy, signed in 1961 with a gift note to Bern Dibner (who in turn donated it to Brandeis), includes an amusing and rather ironic handwritten note by the author/illustrator relating to the expression on the face of one of his characters.

These and more fantastical stories can be found in Brandeis’s Special Collections.

(1) and (2) Byatt, A.S. “Introduction by A.S. Byatt.” The Annotated Brothers Grimm. Edited by Maria Tatar. New York: W.W. and Co., 2004, xvii and xix, respectively.

(3) Tatar, Maria. “Reading the Grimms’ Children’s Stories and Household Tales.” The Annotated Brothers Grimm. Edited by Maria Tatar. New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 2004, xliii-xlv.

(4) Zimmerman, Virginia. “Natural History on Blocks, in Bodies, and on the Hearth: Juvenile Science Literature and Games, 1850–1875.” Configurations, 19:3, Fall 2011, pp. 407-430.

description by Surella Evanor Seelig, Archives & Special Collections Coordinator