It may not say much for my literary tastes. But among the 35,000 items and 2,000 linear feet of archives in the New York Public Library’s Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature, the one that excited me most was a copy of underground cartoonist R. Crumb’s “Zap #1” from 1968.
For Crumb enthusiasts, that should come as little surprise. After all, the inaugural work in the “Zap Comix” series included such iconic characters as Mr. Natural, Schuman the Human, Whiteman and two full pages of “Kitchen Kut-Outs,” featuring such lovable characters as “Dick Tater,” “Beatrice Bread Slice” and “Clever Mr. Ketchup.” That’s also the artist’s exuberant “Keep on Truckin’” visual riff.
But contemplate what else was on the table in “the Berg’s” hushed, wood-paneled room: two extremely rare copies of Edgar Allan Poe’s “Tamerlane.” “There are only 12 known copies in existence,” Dr. Isaac Gewirtz, the Berg’s curator, told me.
Sitting a few feet from “Tamerlane” was the first folio of Shakespeare’s plays from 1623. And then there was the heavily annotated stage copy, known as a “prompt copy” of “David Copperfield” that Charles Dickens used in his American public readings. Some paragraphs are crossed out completely; others have notes on their delivery, such as “very earnest.”
“It was especially true in ‘A Christmas Carol,’” Dr. Gewirtz explained. “He’d improvise; he’d cross out passages one night that he wouldn’t another night.”
“A Christmas Carol” wasn’t on the table. But that’s because it was down the hall in a Christmas-themed display case in the McGraw Rotunda. (The book and the rest of the case’s contents are being moved to the periodicals room for the duration of the exhibition until Jan. 5.)
The book sat alongside a greeting card from Maurice Sendak to the poet Randall Jarrell and his wife Mary, thanking them for a fruitcake and signed with a drawing of a bat.
There was also a 1965 letter with a pieta drawing in blue-and-red ink from Jack Kerouac to his future third wife, Stella Sampas, on the back of a printed Christmas card. I’d recommend the missive to any writer, or to anyone, for that matter, who feels shy about blowing his or her own horn.
In the letter Kerouac includes himself among America’s “great writers” and adds, “The fact of the matter is I’m not a best seller because people aren’t educated enough yet: just wait and see what the Astronauts of the year 2000 B.C. will be reading on Venus and Mars (‘t’ won’t be James Michener)….” Unless he was being ironic, I assume the “On the Road” author meant A.D.
The Berg collection was donated to the library in 1940 after extended negotiations with Albert Berg, according to Dr. Gewirtz. And the negotiations included details such as the Austrian oak used on the shelves.
Albert shared an East 73rd Street townhouse with his brother Henry. They were both accomplished surgeons and both bachelors, though their literary tastes apparently diverged, at least slightly. “One side of the room is Dickens,” Dr. Gewirtz said of Albert’s books while pointing to the room’s north wall, “and the south side is Henry, with Thackeray.” He was referring, of course, to Dickens’ literary rival William Makepeace Thackeray.
That’s why Dickens actual writing desk is set up in the north corner. (One of the guests at the collection’s opening was Mayor Fiorella La Guardia. “He sat in Dickens’ chair and broke the caning,” since repaired, Dr. Gewirtz reported.)
The collection also includes Dickens’ inkwell, at least one of them, and his steal-nibbed writing pen. However, my favorite item, a gift to the author from his sister-in-law and housekeeper, Georgina Hogarth, is his unintentionally surrealist ivory letter opener. It is inscribed “C.D. In memory of Bob. 1862.” Bob refers to Dickens’ beloved cat. So beloved that the handle is fashioned from one of the deceased Bob’s paws. “He trained his cat to put out his night candle,” Dr. Gewirtz reported.
The collection, which is open to researchers, only has a fraction of its items on view in the Berg reading room. Therefore, Dr. Gewirtz couldn’t simply reach for the nearest shelf when I expressed an interest in R. Crumb.
That required a return visit. “We bought it about a year ago,” the curator explained as he handed me the sacred document, protected by a Melinex sleeve. “We’re documenting the literary aspects of the counterculture.”
He saw Mr. Crumb’s work following in the antiestablishment tradition of such other Berg collection holdings as the Beats, the Living Theater and the Black Mountain poets.
He declined to say what the library paid for the comic, purchased from a dealer. I was asking for somewhat selfish reasons since I also own a first edition of the comic. Nonetheless, the proximity the library offered to some of my literary heroes filled me with a sense of gratitude and uncharacteristic generosity.
Thus, I’m thinking of donating to the Berg a flier that I saved from the original production of “Hair” on Broadway. (The musical also marked the first time I saw a nude woman.) The psychedelic slip of orange paper, decorated with symbols of some sort, was handed out by the actors during the performance.
Dr. Gewirtz at least feigned interest.