Voices from the Past: Rediscovering the Library’s Bound Manuscripts
Cornell University Library owes much of its excellence to the generosity of donors, including discerning collectors who gave their collections. A case in point is the bound manuscripts held in the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections. While some were purchased, many more were donated by faculty members or given by collectors such as Benno Loewy, whose vast collection arrived in several railroad boxcars after his death in 1919. As Library staff today work to put the catalog records online for these volumes, many of the works are being fully described for the first time. For those lucky enough to work with them, examining these long-neglected volumes is like opening a new present every day.
One such find is the orderly book kept by John Whiting, a soldier in the Continental Army in the Revolutionary War, who served successively under Generals Arnold, Gates, and Washington. Beginning at Totowa, New Jersey, in late November 1780 and ending at West Point in February 1781, his neatly written book records general and garrison orders, official messages, and congressional resolutions affecting the army, but also vivid details of regimental life. Whiting describes General Washington’s praise of the conduct of the Marquis de Lafayette; the taking of Fort St. George, on Long Island, by Major Talmadge and his troops; and the acquittal of Major David S. Franks of complicity in Benedict Arnold’s treason. His orderly book ends with a detailed account of the Battle of Cowpens, South Carolina. For anyone studying the history of the period, this volume will be a rare treat: an eighteenth-century eyewitness account.
A revealing look at another war is contained in the eight small volumes of a German soldier’s diary from World War II. Known to us only as Siemers, the soldier carefully glued into his diary newspaper clippings about the war and wrote down the daily bulletins of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht (OKW), the German army’s high command. The clippings, from German newspapers, give us a German view of the war’s progress. It is startling to open a volume of the diary and see the newspaper headlines in the simplified Gothic type font that was characteristic of the Nazi period.
On a happier note, the scholar investigating the state of France at the end of the seventeenth century will find a comprehensive overview in the thirty-five beautifully bound volumes prepared from 1697 to 1700 for the instruction of Louis, the Duke of Burgundy (1682-1712). Louis, the heir to the French throne, needed to be briefed. Under the direction of the Duke of Beauvilliers, questionnaires concerning every aspect of political, social, and economic life went out from Paris to the administrators of every province of France. The detailed replies that came back fill these volumes with firsthand data, province by province, on the state of the nation. There were various copies of this valuable compendium at the time, with slightly differing text. The text was also later edited and digested and appeared in print throughout the eighteenth century—a testimony to its value as an overview of France on the eve of the Enlightenment.
Historians of music and theater—and people who just like to look at old photographs—will revel in the theater and opera scrapbooks artfully put together by an anonymous collector from 1902 to 1918. These three large volumes are filled with programs, publicity photographs, newspaper illustrations, and reviews of plays, operas, and vaudeville performed in London before and during the Great War. Besides the expected programs and publicity stills from performances of Shakespeare, George Bernard Shaw, Verdi, Wagner, and Gilbert and Sullivan, there are many photographs of actors and actresses. Some of them are now little remembered but were clearly revered at the time: Ellen Terry, Sir Henry Irving, Winifred Emery, Ernest Mainwaring, Gerald Du Maurier, and Annette Kellerman, to name a few. The effect of these lively scrapbooks is to immerse us in the London theater scene at the dawn of the twentieth century.
These four examples are just a sample of the wide range of vivid historical artifacts in the Library’s bound manuscripts collection. Many more of them remain to be rediscovered, so stay tuned!
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