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NY Public Library Mounts Writers' Exhibit - 2002-05-25


A new exhibition at the New York Public Library allows visitors a special look at the creative process behind some of the English language's best-known fiction and poetry.

The library is calling the exhibition "Victorians, Moderns and Beats." It includes manuscripts, letters, diaries and personal items from major British, Irish and American writers from the late 1800's through the so-called "Beat Generation" of the 1950's.

Curator Isaac Gewirtz explains the details of a display case showing various versions of the poem "On A Wedding Anniversary," which Dylan Thomas wrote for his wife. "We have eight versions," he said. "You can actually see the evolution. In the third one, you can see sketches of a butterfly and a four-legged animal. The last version is the last version in his own hand that we have. So it is a really great insight to see the poet's working, crossing out and changing and arranging."

Visitors can also read handwritten drafts of poetry by W.H. Auden, letters from James Joyce, correspondence between the sisters Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell, an essay in which Edgar Allan Poe, the father of the mystery, admits to plagiarism and letters from Sylvia Plath that are accompanied by her own drawings.

Among the most valuable items on display, Mr. Gewirtz says, is the seminal poem of Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass," which a collector discovered pasted inside of an album in the early 1990's. "You are looking at material that has not been seen in 100 years at least," said Isaac Gewirtz. "This first one is called 'Sailing Down the Mississippi.' This is from a very early version of 'Leaves of Grass.'

Herman Melville is best-known for his epic "Moby Dick." But the Library is showing a rare, inscribed copy of the author's story collection, "Piazza Tales." It includes a list written by Melville's wife of her favorite stories. This item is one of the most significant American acquisitions in recent years, according to Rodney Phillips, the director of humanities and social sciences for the New York Public Library. Another, he says, is a manuscript by the American novelist Thomas Wolfe. "It has sections from both 'Time and the River' and 'Look Homeward Angel.' So, it was used in many different books actually," he said. "There are unpublished parts too. It is a very significant, major manuscript of Thomas Wolfe and probably the last one that was available."

But the show's real emphasis is on the Beat era and the generation of writers of the 1950's. And the exhibition is providing the New York Public Library an opportunity to show off its recent acquisition of the archives of Jack Kerouac, the writer who coined the term "Beat Generation." Kerouac's novel "On The Road" was the manifesto of the Beat Generation. His difficulties in getting it published are part of the Kerouac lore, although curator Isaac Gewirtz says the unorthodox writer exacerbated the problem. "He famously brought the scroll, 120 feet long [36 meters], into [publisher] Robert Giroux's office, threw it out on the floor and Giroux said 'What am I going to do with this?' Kerouac got insulted, thinking he was being turned down entirely and stalked out," he said.

The Kerouac archive is a treasure trove, containing more than 1,000 items novels, poems, journals, notebooks and short stories.

It also exposes an unexpected side of Kerouac, who was a passionate sports fan. The author created a fantasy world of baseball as a child which he continued until the time of his death in 1969. Kerouac created a complex, imaginary baseball league with 16 teams, which he documented with statistics. At one point, he even wrote newsletters about the teams. The newsletters decorate the walls of the exhibition's Kerouac section along with publicity posters of movies made from his books.

The Kerouac archive adds to what is already one of the world's most significant collections of Beat Generation writing.

The New York Public Library's Berg Collection of rare books, memorabilia and manuscripts contains more than 70,000 items.

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