Friday, June 09, 2006

an intervening post

[Which of course means that Summer Seminar Part II is still in progress. What can I say -- I appear to be learning to procrastinate even from my procrastination.]

So I finally remembered to ask my boss if it's ok to blog about what I've been doing at work. As she's given me the go-ahead, I've decided there is no time like the present. As I may have mentioned before, I'm spending the summer working at the library of the small southern university I attended as an undergrad -- Wake Forest (see the picture above -- and yes, I'm an incredibly lucky person to have attended someplace so gorgeous. That picture was taken in DECEMBER). My job, more specifically, is in the Rare Books Room and I'm currently doing the physical processing for a new manuscript collection that was donated by one of our professors.

So, for the moment at least, the theme of my summer is Metamorphoses. I italicize that not for effect – at the moment, my life is caught up in a translation of the Metamorphoses of Ovid, published in 1995 by poet and translator Allen Mandelbaum. It's liable to be a name that seems familiar -- after all, he translated The Divine Comedy, The Aeneid, The Odyssey. My job this summer? To sort everything out, beginning to create a workable structure so that other scholars can go through the materials and see what's what, be able to find what they're looking for. There's a great deal of material, mostly related to his many publications.

Needless to say, when my boss offered me my old job back for the summer I was thrilled -- this is a pretty stunning opportunity for a medievalist, as Allen Mandelbaum is one of the most erudite professors I've met, and an incredibly talented translator. I'd meant to take his Dante class while in undergrad -- I didn't try for it my sophomore year, and though it was to be offered again when I was a senior, the class was cancelled. I was disappointed, and figured my chance to work with Dr. Mandelbaum was over.

And then my boss asked me to work on the physical processing of Mandelbaum's papers. I've been consistently amazed by the sheer size of the collection, from the first time I laid eyes on it last August. Shelves of brown expanding files, filled with materials and labelled by project and content. I managed to fill an entire book truck with only folders related to the Ovid translation. Much has been done to organize it already, and that's a good thing -- even with the most preliminary organization done, there's still a great deal to work through, sort out, and archive properly. And I know there's more to come, too -- there's still a lot in Dr. Mandelbaum's office that I haven't even looked at, aside from a casual glance when I met with him late last summer.

As I've gone through the papers related to Ovid, I've been overwhelmed by the work that went into both translating the work and to documenting it. Xeroxes of every notebook. Everything preserved, and written, more importantly, by hand. Dr. Mandelbaum is of another school of work -- he doesn't type. Everything is done in handwriting, and his is exquisite.

I've seen multiple drafts of several pieces, ranging from preliminary notes to final galley proofs. From the Afterword, there's a part where he describes his invocation of Ovid in his own poetry, The Savantasse of Montparnasse, and seeing the way this develops, from handwritten copies (strewn with marked out sections, and notes Mandelbaum wrote to himself), through a couple typed versions with annotations where things were to be changed, to the proof phase and finally to the book has been really interesting. The meticulousness is remarkable, and I think it's a rewarding precision -- for example, an excerpt from the final version, which you can find in a copy of the book:

"Finally, it was the author of the Matmorphoses whom I had invoked as benevolent, confederate spirit for my own Savantasse of Montparnasse, where my prelude saw him as:
The-Copious, the Ever-Swift,
and Sad-Seigneur-of-Scrutinists,
calling on his 'fraternal breath' in the hope that he would 'sustain, support, be staff and stead / for both The-Reader and The-Read.'"

There's something in these lines that sends my thoughts in all sorts of directions -- I love the emphasis he's putting on the distinction (or perhaps connection?) between "The-Reader" and "The-Read." It seems to imply a reciprocity in the relationship between reader and text that I think is really interesting. Or perhaps I want to see it more as a veiled illusion to the role of translator...and writer, of course, since this is Mandelbaum's own poetry.

Well, in lieu of the long thought process that used to go here (it was relatively incomprehensible and involved Benjamin and many thoughts about translation that I should really think through more before attempting to write down at 2 AM -- the blogspot gods were kind enough to delete them, however, so we're all saved my ramblings for the moment...but only for the moment) I will point you in the direction of Wake Forest's ZSR Library.

The Mandelbaum Collection is not ready to be put on the website yet -- eventually it will include an online finding aid, which I am preparing the preliminary notes for even now. However, the Special Collections website does include a variety of materials from collections that are already accessible in the Digital Collections. I've had the pleasure (and, frankly, honor) to be a part of the initial phases and sorting of many of these collections, so here are a few of the highlights of projects that I've played a small part in:

*The Dolmen Collection -- Liam Miller's Irish press, which was founded in 1951 and continued until his death in 1987. Wake Forest's Special Collections are home to the full archives of the Dolmen. Online, you can see a finding aid (which lists all the materials in the collection) as well as images of the printing blocks used in publishing, which are quite lovely.

*The Confederate Broadsides -- Fascinating poetry from the Civil War era.

*The Ronald Watkins Collection -- A wonderfully diverse collection from the former school teacher at Harrow-on-the-Hill, whose work on the performance of Shakespeare advocated the view that the language itself was enough to substitute for any "special effects" one might be compelled to add to the plays. This was the first collection I did the physical processing for in Rare, and it was certainly a treat!

These are just a few of the holdings, and I'd encourage those looking for even more "legitimate procrastination" to check it out. It's an incredibly valuable resource to have around. Of course, I'll be updating about the Mandelbaum Collection as the project moves along this summer. My work in Rare has taught me a lot about what scholarship involves, and how much work goes into making resources available. It's a fascinating process, and one I'm grateful to get to be a part of in my academic life.


meg said...

Can I just say how gratifying it is to hear that an august personage like Mandelbaum had impeccable handwriting? Most of the time penmanship correlates inversely with power and respect -- doctors vs. grade-school teachers. There's hope for us yet.

Sounds like a great summer job. Beats what I'm doing, or ought to be doing.

anhaga said...

I agree -- not only does it make it easier to figure out what he's writing (well, when it's not half-crossed out or written diagonally to fit it in!) but it's definitely uplifting. It's funny how that varies -- one of the older profs at Wake I worked with has gorgeous handwriting too, as does Maya Angelou (I had the opportunity to work with the collection we have of her stuff -- none of the poetry or writing stuff, only her television and movie work). I wonder if it varies with age? I.E. academics of a certain age are more likely to have readable handwriting? I'd love an opportunity to blame my handwriting (which is fairly readable -- until, suddenly, it isn't) on computers...

I'd have to agree on the summer job assessment. I can't quite get over how lucky I am to be doing this -- it's just such interesting work.