By Elizabeth Kiem
Good news for lovers of 19th century lit, scholars of the Era of Discovery, dusty photostat fetishists, and old-school Knickerbocker wannabes: the newest addition to Alderman Library’s acclaimed treasury of rare manuscripts is an early draft of Washington Irving’s “The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus,” published in 1828.
The dainty notebook, complete with errant drops of wax and ink blotches, was donated to the University by UVA Professor Vera Granlund and her husband Dr. John Granlund, who is himself directly descended from the celebrated essayist, biographer, and creator of everyone’s favorite goofy schoolmaster, Ichabod Crane.
The gift joins an impressive collection of Irving materials. Hundreds of letters and original manuscripts, including other drafts of “Columbus” are housed in Alderman. But until now the elusive notes on the “wild men of Hispaniola” had been lacking, not to mention the botanically novel characterization of the Caribbean island as one that “enjoyeth perpetual springtime and is fortunate with continual summer harvest.”
Truth be told, Irving’s scribbles are hard reading, mostly because of the characteristic flat-line style of early 1800s’ penmanship, but also because much of them are in French. Another curious feature of the manuscript is the fact that it is written from both covers, so that you can choose the beginning by flipping it upside down and back to front.
Far easier to read is the charming epistle from Irving to his niece Julia, which a curator has thoughtfully transcribed. In it, the great writer confesses to being “fagged out by literary tasking,” adding, “it is as difficult for me to exercise my pen in the way of friendly and agreeable correspondence as it is for a postillion to mount his horse and gallop out for an airing after he has been pounding along through mud and mire…” Ahhh, visions of a whole cavalry of headless relatives demanding familial correspondence.
While you’re burrowed down in the quiet of special collections, take a peek at another gem– the manuscript of John Dos Passos’ unpublished novel, Seven Times Around the Walls of Jericho. Written in 1917 on a typewriter, it is more legible than Irving’s work; and for those who can’t get enough of the boy-child hero perplexed by the contradictory tales of grown-ups (is the moon made of green cheese or of almond paste?), it is an even more satisfying find.
The Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, on the second floor of Alderman Library, is open to the public Monday-Friday 9-5 and Saturday 1-5.