Harvard May Bid $10,000 For Poem

Texan Paid 50 Cents For Item at Tag Sale

Harvard has until five o'clock today to decide whether to bid for what may be an original working copy of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem "The Village Blacksmith."

The manuscript, which Pinehurst, Tex. resident Mark G. Holmes bought in a frame for 25 cents at a garage sale last year and retrieved from his closet two months ago, appears to be in Longfellow's handwriting. Scholars believe it to be a rough draft of one of Longfellow's most famous poems.

The Harvard College Library, which encompasses the entire library system, may offer to buy the manuscript from Holmes, Curator of Manuscripts Leslie A. Morris said yesterday.

"We are interested [in purchasing the manuscript] because of Longfellow's Harvard connection," Morris said.

Longfellow was Professor of Modern Languages at Harvard from 1837 to 1854. Houghton Library currently houses many of his papers and manuscripts, including an original copy of "The Children's Hour" and corrected proofs of "Evangeline."

But Morris said the College Library would not add "The Village Blacksmith" to the Houghton collection if the manuscript were too expensive.

"It's completely dependent on what the price will be," she said. "We're not going to pay fantastic sums for this."

"We do have other [Longfellow manuscripts], so it's a question of looking atthe price and seeing what else we might purchasewith that money," she added.

Morris said she considered the manuscript, ifauthentic, "to be worth under $10,000."

Dorothy Z. Baker, a professor of Americanliterature at the University of Houston who helpedHolmes verify the manuscript, said yesterdayHolmes has been contacted by "between five to tenbidders" with bids ranging "between $8,000 and$10,000."

Holmes said he will stop accepting bids for themanuscript at five o'clock today.

When he bought the manuscript, Holmes said heand his wife Deborah had never heard ofLongfellow.

"I bought it for the frame," he said. "I don'tknow anything about early 19th century literatureat all. I went to antique dealers, and one antiquedealer said I should start calling professors."

The Harvard College Library will try todetermine the manuscript's academic value beforedeciding whether to make a bid, Morris said.

"The first thing we consider [when buying amanuscript] is its research value--[whether it is]something students at Harvard would be interestedin working on," Morris said.

Yet, given this measure of value, Longfellow'smanuscript is not very valuable, according toMorris.

"Longfellow is not a poet who is particularlystudied these days--he's not in fashion," Morrissaid.

But Susan B. Ravdin, assistant in specialcollections at Bowdoin College, which Longfellowattended as an undergraduate, disagrees.

"It being one of his most famous works, if itwere authentic, it would probably give scholars alot of clues, especially since Longfellow isbeginning to come back into his own," Ravdin saidyesterday. "[Longfellow] is starting to come backto being recognized in the academic community."

"[Houghton] would be a very logical place for[the manuscript] to end up," Ravdin added."Personally, I'd hate to have something like thatend up in private hands. Scholars wouldn't haveaccess to it."

Morris, who said she had seen only a facsimileof the manuscript Holmes found, listedverification of the manuscript's authenticity asanother pre-bid consideration.

"The handwriting is very, very similar to theLongfellow manuscripts that are here," Morrissaid.

"But we would never buy anything without seeingthe original because you simply can't tell[authenticity] from a fax," she said.

"The manuscript was found in a somewhatunconventional way....We don't know how it got toTexas," she added.

"That makes me a little bit more conservativein my approach to it than if a descendant ofLongfellow had come into my office with it," shesaid.

Baker, whom Holmes contacted in April, was thefirst academic to examine the manuscript. She wasthe only professor who gave it any attention,Holmes said.

"[The others] said I shouldn't have any [ofLongfellow's] works down in Texas," he said.

Baker quickly verified its authenticity, shesaid yesterday.

She said she was "cautious, but intrigued" whenshe heard of the document.

"I agreed to meet with [Holmes] and take a lookat his garage sale finding," she said.

"Almost immediately, it was clear to me that ithad to be reckoned with," she added. "It wasclearly a working copy of the poem, and the kindsof changes I saw in the manuscript...weresignificant for me."

Baker said she sent photocopies of Holmes'smanuscript to several scholars.

After examining the manuscript copies, no oneshe contacted doubted the authenticity of thefind, she said.

Part of the manuscript's academic value lies inthe many corrections the author made in it, Bakerand other scholars said.

"It's an interesting document because it givesus a glimpse of Longfellow's composition process,"Baker said.

"We see changes in word choice, rhyme, fulllines--we get a sense of what he was about in theact of poetic creation," she said.

"A working copy gives a view into theintellectual development or artistic developmentof a piece," Ravdin said.

Originally published in 1841, in Longfellow'scollection Ballads and Other Poems, "The VillageBlacksmith" is one of Longfellow's "morewell-known poems," according to Assistant Curatorat the Longfellow National Historical Site T.Michele Clark.

"That's often one of the poems people can quotewhen they come to the site," Clark said yesterday