Archive for October, 2010

[Posted by Henry Arneth, Watkinson staffer]

While shelving a book in Watkinson Library, I noticed the 1984 edition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and immediately thought of the awesome illustrations (woodcuts) by Barry Moser created for this edition.  I had first seen the illustrations, separate from the book, when I worked for an auction house and several copies of the woodcuts were being offered to raise funds by a local museum.  One of the images that stuck in my mind was of a number of body parts hung on hooks waiting to be used by Doctor Frankenstein.  I couldn’t resist.  I opened the book; I had to revisit not only the story since it was close to Halloween, but also the woodcuts I enjoyed so much.

After the title page, before the narrative even began, was a quote from Milton across from the image of a tree reminiscent of Yggdrasil, Odin’s tree of knowledge where Huginn (thought) and Muninn (memory) reside in Norse mythology:

“Did I request thee, maker, from my clay / To mould me a man?  Did I solicit thee / From darkness to promote me?”  [Adam, Paradise Lost (John Milton)]

Then we are left in Mary Shelley’s hands as she takes us on an unforgettable journey…

“My abhorrence of this fiend can not be conceived.  When I thought of him, I gnashed my teeth, my eyes became inflamed, and I ardently wished to extinguish that life I had so thoughtlessly bestowed.”  [Victor Frankenstein, Frankenstein]

So wrote Mary Shelley in her novel; she conceived the story when she was in her teens, wrote it as a short story and later expanded it into a novel with the help of Percy B Shelley.  When first published in 1818, her name wasn’t attached to the story—in fact, it was published anonymously.  Her name wouldn’t be connected with the narrative until it was translated into French a year later.  However, that still didn’t stop people from ascribing the work to her husband!  The reader is then left with a question: who was this woman who took Milton’s Paradise Lost  and retold it with her own spin, where man is the creator/God who abandons his creation to fend for itself in the wilds of the early nineteenth century?

Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin was the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, a feminist and philosopher and William Godwin, a philosopher.  They were the most intellectual couple of their time.  Mary herself must have inherited much of their fire and drive as well as their sense of perception—she seems to have been a learned intellectual as well.  And she took her knowledge and integrated it directly into her story blending folklore, literature and her imagination into a cohesive, timeless narrative.

Her style and voice were unique.  One of the interesting ironies of Shelley’s narrative is the overall biblical undertone of her novel, which is most likely due to the strong bond the work shares with Milton—ironic because of the subject matter of the story, the voice of the narrative, and even the progression of the story have no other true connection to the bible.

There are two texts the creature has with him to not only bring comfort during his exile, but to also educate—Milton, and Dr. Frankenstein’s journal.  From Milton, he learns about good, evil, and the divine roots of man as a being created by God, therefore entitled to an afterlife in the presence of the supreme deity.  He identifies with the rest of mankind as if he shared the same origins as every other man.  It is from Dr. Frankenstein’s journal he learns his actual beginnings as a creation of man, not God and how he was pieced together from an assortment of unwanted segments and scraps from cadavers—the dead, the vile of the vilest.  At that moment, he realizes he is not like every other man; because of his beginnings he has no soul, no chance of eternal life, and more importantly, he knows from his Milton there will be no admittance into the glories of heaven for him.  When he tries to interact with his fellow man, this important point is driven home with even more force.  He sees just how different he is, and what an abomination he is by viewing himself through the eyes of others.  The creature is alone, unwanted by both man and his creator.  His loneliness can not be eased.  Through what he perceives as unwarranted (and in the beginning, it is unnecessary) ill treatment, he becomes a wretched being with no hope of redemption for he also loses the faith in God he learns through reading Milton.

“I was trashed; a mist came over my eyes…but I was quickly restored by the cold gale of the mountains.  I perceived, as the shape came nearer, (sight tremendous and abhorred!) that it was the wretch whom I had created.”  [Victor Frankenstein, Frankenstein]

The Creature’s final blow comes when his creator, his God, Dr. Frankenstein, rejects him; his anger mimics what Adam must have felt as he was being expelled from the Garden of Eden by his creator; thus identification of the creature with mankind is intensified.  Underscoring this alignment is the absence of the word “monster” in the text—nowhere in the narrative does Shelley use that pronoun to describe her character.  This also helps the reader to identify with the creature, especially in the passages where we experience the story through the creature’s point of view—as we identify with the creature, we also sympathize with him.

It is in this sympathy that we find the enduring popularity of the story; it was popular even in the author’s lifetime.  The novel was published in 1818, and the first staging of the story began shortly after.  Interestingly, not all of these performances were plays—some performances were also operas.  The earliest operatic performance of Shelley’s story was titled Presumption: or the Fate of Frankenstein premiered in 1823 and was written by R. B. Peake.  According to Elizabeth Miller in her article “Dracula and Frankenstein a Tale of Two Monsters,” she credits this specific opera with coining the now iconic phrase; “It lives!  It lives!”

Miller also notes that Mary Shelley eventually attended a performance of a play “…and commented that she was ‘much amused and it appeared to excite a breathless eagerness in the audience’…” I can only assume that she was one of those audience members!  An interesting aside Miller also offers is “A second adaption opened the same year, as did a trio of comedic versions.”  My mind reels with the possibilities of what a comedic treatment of Frankenstein would be like in 1823 without Abbot and Costello, the Bowery Boys, and the Three Stooges!

Sources: Frankenstein, or The modern Prometheus by Mary Wollstonecroft Shelley; “Dracula and Frankenstein a Tale of Two Monsters” by Elizabeth Miller; and class notes.


Eat your heart out, Indy!

   Posted by: rring    in Uncategorized

[Posted by Mary Jordan, ’11, who works in the Watkinson]
The rather bland title of The Persian Cuneiform Inscription at Behistun, Deciphered and Translateddoesn’t quite capture the Indiana Jones tactics that Major Rawlinson went to in the mid 1800s in order to write his book about the inscription. The Behistun Inscription was chiseled into a cliff in what is now Iran, under the direction of Darius the Great between 522 BC and 486 BC. It is essentially a relief and description of how awesome he was as ruler of the Persians.
Since the cliff is, well, a cliff, getting close enough to read it was not easy. First Rawlinson scaled the cliff to get to the narrow ledge below the Old Persian section. But the Elamite inscription was across as a chasm, and the Babylonian was four meters above. He made it across the chasm by doing a balancing act on wooden planks spanning the divide. He paid a local boy to climb a crack in the rock to put ropes across the Babylonian inscription so he could make papier-mâché casts of the writing.
The dangerous work made the linguistic study of ancient Assyria possible. Once all the inscriptions had been copied, Rawlinson and other historians were able to translate the Babylonian and Elamite by using the Old Persian sections. The book, which includes translations and lots of pull-out illustrations of the inscription, was printed through the Royal Asiatic Society in 1846.
Rawlinson was dangling off a cliff to get to this writing almost a full century before Indiana Jones began saving the world’s antiquities. That’s pretty impressive back-story for a old book about cuneiform.

What Fools These Mortals Be

   Posted by: rring    in Uncategorized

[Posted by Sally Dickinson, Special Collections Librarian, Watkinson Library]

Today in the Watkinson we were filling an interlibrary loan request and were having trouble finding the requested cartoon.  Henry Arneth was looking at the German version of the weekly Puck but coming up empty-handed.  I suggested looking in the American edition, which was easier to navigate.  And guess what?  We found it!  What could be more timely considering the upcoming elections, than this picture of senatorial shenanigans we discovered?

Puck was a satirical rag published in New York in the 1880’s.  You could buy it on the street corner for 10 cents every Wednesday.

I also got a kick out of the cover of the Jan. 2, 1889 issue:


Recruiting with Grog; or, swilling into service.

   Posted by: rring    in Uncategorized

[Posted by Dan Milner, University of Birmingham (England); recent link:]

Stan Hugill was the last seaman known to have sung sea shanties aboard a British merchant ship.  Hugill was also a prolific maritime painter and author of books on sea songs.  In Sailortown (1967), he mentions a New York shanghier who operated a combination hostelry-cum-grogshop named Larry Maher.

About 10 years ago, I found a Civil War period broadside sheet titled “Larry Maher’s Big 5-Gallon Jar” printed by H. De Marsan at 54 Chatham Street. New York, and I made mention of the piece in “Irish Maritime Songs from New York’s 19th Century Music Emporiums,” a presentation I made at the 2006 Mystic Seaport Music of the Sea Symposium.  It is quite evocative, as shown in this passage:

Come, all you jolly sailors bold, that lives both near and far; / I’ll sing you a short ditty concerning Larry Maher: / He keeps a slop-up boarding house, and sells rot-gut to the tars, / And the scourge of New-York City is… his big five-gallon jar.

So, if you want chain-lightning, step into Larry Maher, / And he’ll serve you with abundance from his big five-gallon jar.

When first I came to New-York, I came here on a spree, / And hearing tell of Larry’s place, I went the sights to see: / Some drunken shells in the corner lay more swilling at the bar, / And Larry was supplying them from his big five-gallon jar.

Now, one glass of Larry’s beverage will make your heart to ache, / And, when you get keeled over, your cash he’ll surely take; / But when you wake next morning, you’ll be far outside the bar, / Removed away to Liverpool by… gallus Larry Maher.

Two years later, I found an entry in a Manhattan city directory, “Maher Lawrence, liquors” beginning in 1857.  But the name of the song’s composer eluded me until August 2010 when I set my eyes on a second “Larry Maher” ballad sheet at the Watkinson Library, printed by J. Wrigley of “27 Chatham Street (opposite City Hall Park) New York.”  James Wrigley and Henry De Marsan were competitors and both were located at the addresses printed on their broadsides between 1861 and 1864.  The texts vary slightly, but the Watkinson broadside has one additional piece of information.  It specified the lyricist as G.W. Watson.

As I begin writing my Ph.D. dissertation on Irish life in New York City, the Wrigley broadside is a most welcome find.  Thanks to you, Peter Knapp and your colleagues for the helpful hospitality shown during my visit.