The NY Public Library’s Collection of Weird Objects

On March 28, 1941, Virginia Woolf took her final walk to the River Ouse near her home in Sussex. She did it with her trusty cane in her hand, the very cane that can be seen in the video above in New Yorker alongside other Woolf-related artefacts. Its five minutes provide a brief introduction to the “weird objects” of the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library, an archive containing, in the words of Gareth Smit of New York, “approximately two thousand feet of linear manuscripts and archival materials” donated in 1940 by Henry W. And Albert A. Berg, doctors who were also “avid collectors of English and American literature—and literary paraphernalia.”

The NYPL labels as “realia” such non-paper items as Woolf’s cane as well as “Charlotte Brontë’s writing desk, with a lock of her hair inside; Jack Kerouac’s trinkets, including his harmonicas, and a card on which he wrote ‘blood’ in his blood; typewriters belonged to S.  J. Perelman and Paul Metcalf. Mark Twain’s pen and wire glasses. Vladimir Nabokov’s butterfly drawings and the death masks of the poets James Merrill and E. E. Cummings.”

All this may sound grim, but these objects bring their viewers much closer to the long-standing literary figures who once possessed them. “If you look at, say, Jack Kerouac’s lighter or his boots, you see the man in a sense,” says Declan Kiely, director of exhibitions at NYPL, in the video. “What you’re trying to get closer to is the creative spirit at work, and I think that’s why these objects are so evocative.”


in History, L. | A. 9th. The “Weird Objects” in the New York Public Library’s Collections: Virginia Woolf’s Cane, Charles Dickens’ Letter Opener, Walt Whitman’s Hair & More. Open Culture.

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