A Letter from America XVI: A Trip to Emory University, Special Collections (July)

From the Antiquarian Book Review

I spent the horrid winter over here going to as many warm places as I could, then trying to fly back into New York, usually in a blizzard. Among the places I touched down was Atlanta, a city that is in many ways the exemplar of the New South. Many European visitors will know Atlanta only through its cruel airport, in which I have been marooned for uncountable unedifying hours at different times, or as the hot and sticky venue for the Olympics. It is also home to some notable book collectors and collections.

As it happens my father grew up in Atlanta, and when he got out of college in the mid-1930s, he got a job with a little ol’ soft drink company called Coca-Cola, then just beginning its march to world hegemony. The man who hired him, Robert Woodruff, was the architect of that expansion. If there is a person who sits at the right hand of God (if not across the table from Him) in the Atlanta cosmos it is the late Mr. Woodruff, whose vast fortune was largely distributed to endow good works all over town. The greatest single beneficiary was Emory University, which had practically rebuilt its campus on the strength of his gifts since I was last there. It was thus to the Woodruff Library that I went to give a talk at their Special Collections and Archives.

Emory Library Special Collections is a fine example of how a focused approach to collecting can allow an institution to build significant research collections even in the 21st century. Emory is probably best known to the book world for its modern literature, especially Yeats and Lady Gregory, Irish literature, and the archives of Ted Hughes and James Dickey, as well as authors from the American South. Its most rapidly expanding area, though, is its African American collections, especially black print culture, expatriate African American writers and artists, and the post-civil rights movement. The curator, Randall Burkett, has focused particularly on the explosion of material produced in the United States from the end of Reconstruction after the Civil War (1876) onward. As he points out, an increasingly educated African American population, encouraged by the rapid growth of black religious, political, and cultural institutions, sought to counter in print the racist depictions of the Jim Crow era. Much of this material is extraordinarily rare today; several key early directories or magazines have only survived in the copy at Emory. The literary aspect of the collection is highlighted by the papers of James Weldon Johnson. There is a rapidly increasing group of archives relating to 20th-century social and political movements.

What brought me to Emory, though, was the expansion of their holdings on Southern history and print culture through the acquisition of the J. Durelle Boles collection of southern imprints. Boles, an Atlanta collector, had focused on the printing history of the South, particularly Georgia, from the earliest imprints up to the Civil War. Within this broad range, he particularly sought material in original condition or original bindings. This is not an easy area in which to collect. Until the modern era of air-conditioning, the local climate was destructive to paper, especially in Florida (I was once in a non-climate controlled warehouse in Florida where you could practically hear the giant local cockroaches eating their way through the piles of books). Add to that the losses of the Civil War, and it is not surprising how many items only survive in unique copies. Boles was assiduous in scooping these up for many years, and the result is a collection rich in the unusual and ephemeral. Emory has published a handsomely produced catalogue of their exhibition of highlights of the Boles collection, well worth getting for the reference shelf (see http://web.library.emory.edu).

Printing really started in the deep South in Charleston in the 1730s. One of the most impressive books in the Boles Collection is also the first major southern imprint, the 1736 South Carolina Laws, printed by Louis Timothy, the first printer to last long enough to produce such a work in the malarial climate. Timothy’s early French training is evident in the wide margins and ample letter spacing, and the wealth of the planter class can be seen in the beautiful imported French paper. At the same time, the original deerskin binding reminds us that Carolina was still very much a frontier, and that deerskins were the biggest export after rice. If there ever was an argument for the importance of the artifact to understanding the text, this is it; the physical book tells us of the nabob world of colonial Charleston and its Atlantic economy as surely as verandahs and black cypress wood define its architecture.

The greatest rarity in the Boles exhibition is undoubtedly A TREATISE ON THE MODE AND MANNER OF INDIAN WARFARE, by Col. James Smith, published in Paris, Kentucky in 1813. One of only three known copies, this was obtained by Boles at the Siebert Sale in 1999. Rather erratically printed on a frontier press, it also speaks to us of its place and time. This is a how-to manual on fighting dirty, an on-the-spot description of the "dark and bloody ground" of the western frontier during the War of 1812 (not surprisingly, the British were pretty good at adapting to Indian warfare as well). Such works could never have been produced in large numbers, and most probably ended their days in a Kentucky outhouse.

The great strength of the Boles collection, however, is its breadth. Emory added hundreds of scarce imprints to their collections, with almanacs, religious tracts, speeches, and broadsides on many topics. It was a great addition to a sterling Special Collections effort which has defined its mission well and pursued it in depth. If you’re in Atlanta (or stuck in the airport between connections) go over and check it out.

– William S. Reese