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?
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.