Meanwhile, in the Stacks...
First and foremost, the Z-Closet contains a surprising number of famous people’s death masks. Although this sounds morbid, death masks are a fascinatingly personal way to come into contact with figures who were larger than life. Death masks also bring us closer to a quintessentially human aspect of these timeless personalities: their mortality. Among the death masks at Houghton, one can find those belonging to American poet e. e. cummings, Irish novelist James Joyce, Harvard professor and renowned philosopher and psychologist William James, American novelist Henry James (supposedly cast by William James, who was his nephew, after a request by American impressionist painter John Singer Sargeant), English dictator Oliver Cromwell, Emperor Napoleon I of France, American editor and scholar Charles Eliot Norton, Italian poet Dante Alighieri, and American poet Walt Whitman, among others.
A few weeks ago, I began curating a Houghton exhibition that is to be put up around the time of Inauguration, celebrating the most powerful office in the land. Despite the unforeseen result, the exhibition will go on. One of the remarkable features of this nation is its people’s incredible faith in its institutions, of which the Presidency has been the most revered. We will see if this picture will change in the next few months.
To start off on a more orthodox note, Houghton possesses a fair share of first editions of the Gothic novels that terrorized 19th century minds and made our high school nights a bit more sleepless (mostly because it took hours to read them). Among its holdings are the 1818 first edition of Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” (access to which is, unfortunately, restricted due to its fragility—the microforms can be found at Lamont under HOLLIS no. 006587145), the 1897 first edition of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” in its yellow cloth binding stamped in red (009433204), and plenty of original Edgar Allan Poe serials and books.
When I decided to begin a project to link pieces in the Houghton collection to each of the Harvard College concentrations, therefore, I was both exhilarated and apprehensive. I knew that subjects such as history, English, and comparative literature would be a piece of cake: Houghton has a preposterous numbers of First Folios, letters to and from chiefs of state, and manuscripts in countless languages. Leaving those traditional fields, however, the struggle seemed all too real: Without even thinking about the sciences, where to begin addressing the fields in the humanities and social sciences that did not put Western civilization on a pedestal?
Some people, however, venture to ask me about the human-skin-bound book. “Wait, isn’t that where they keep it?” they say, their expressions a mix of disgust and wonder, something that only the bizarre can catalyze. “Have you ever seen it?”