The “Weird Objects” in the New York Public Library’s Collections: Virginia Woolf’s Cane, Charles Dickens’ Letter Opener, Walt Whitman’s Hair & More

On March 28, 1941, Vir­ginia Woolf took her final walk, into the Riv­er Ouse near her home in Sus­sex. She did it with her trusty cane in hand, the very cane you can see laid out along­side oth­er Woolf-relat­ed arti­facts in the New York­er video above. Its five min­utes pro­vide a short intro­duc­tion to the “weird objects” of the New York Pub­lic Library’s Berg Col­lec­tion, an archive con­tain­ing, in the words of the New York­er’s Gareth Smit, “rough­ly two thou­sand lin­ear feet of man­u­scripts and archival mate­ri­als” donat­ed in 1940 by the broth­ers Hen­ry W. and Albert A. Berg, doc­tors who were also “avid col­lec­tors of Eng­lish and Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture — and of 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; trin­kets belong­ing to Jack Ker­ouac, includ­ing his har­mon­i­cas, and a card upon which he wrote ‘blood’ in his own blood; type­writ­ers belong­ing to S. J. Perel­man and Paul Met­calf; Mark Twain’s pen and wire-rimmed glass­es; Vladimir Nabokov’s but­ter­fly draw­ings; and the death masks of the poets James Mer­rill and E. E. Cum­mings.” We’ve pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured Nabokov-drawn but­ter­flies here on Open Cul­ture, as well the let­ter open­er seen in the video that Charles Dick­ens had made from the foot of his beloved cat Bob.

All this may sound on the grim side, but these objects bring their behold­ers that much clos­er to the long-passed lit­er­ary fig­ures who once pos­sessed them. “If you are look­ing at, say, Jack Ker­ouac’s lighter or his boots, you’re see­ing the man, in a sense,” the NYPL’s direc­tor of exhi­bi­tions Declan Kiely says in the video. “What you’re try­ing to get clos­est to is the cre­ative spir­it at work, and I think that’s why these objects are so evoca­tive.” Though vis­i­tors to the Berg Col­lec­tion can only do so by appoint­ment, the library, as Kiely told Smit, “does intend to have an exhi­bi­tion to present these and oth­er trea­sures in the Gottes­man Hall by 2020.” Some­thing to look for­ward to for any­one who yearns to approach the cre­ative spir­it — and who among us does­n’t?

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The New York Pub­lic Library Lets You Down­load 180,000 Images in High Res­o­lu­tion: His­toric Pho­tographs, Maps, Let­ters & More

The Smith­son­ian Design Muse­um Dig­i­tizes 200,000 Objects, Giv­ing You Access to 3,000 Years of Design Inno­va­tion & His­to­ry

Vladimir Nabokov’s Delight­ful But­ter­fly Draw­ings

Charles Dick­ens Gave His Cat “Bob” a Sec­ond Life as a Let­ter Open­er

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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