Special Collections delves into literary ephemera

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The idea came to Margaret Hrabe, a reference coordinator at UVA’s Special Collections Library, when she was looking through the papers of Sarah Patton-Boyle, a civil rights activist from Charlottesville. Among them, she found a doodle by novelist and playwright James Baldwin, a pencil-drawn portrait of Boyle next to a few circular scribbles, and what looks like a 6-year-old’s rendering of a kite. 


A drawing from the papers of Jorge Luis Borges, on display at UVA Special Collections. 

“It struck me as interesting,” said Hrabe. “Well-known authors had these other talents that weren’t as developed as their writing, but the creative mind goes just beyond one facet.” Hrabe filed the doodle away for future reference, and over the last nine years continued to document drawings by writers when she was following through on researcher inquiries.

Baldwin’s doodle, along with pieces of visual ephemera by Mark Twain, Robert Frost, e. e. cummings, and a host of other modern authors, are the focus of “The Writer’s Art,” the latest showcase of UVA’s extensive holdings on display at Special Collections. The exhibit runs through March 13 outside the entrance of the Special Collections reference desk, and contains 42 original pieces from members of the American literary canon.

William Faulkner, whose residence at UVA put the University’s English department on the map, once said that “the aim of every artist is to arrest motion, which is life, by artificial means and hold it fixed so that a hundred years later, when a stranger looks at it, it moves agin, since it is life.” And how does his undated pencil drawing of a World War I French infantry solider, fondly titled le poilu (literally “the hairy one”), arrest motion, which is life? Well, it’s no As I Lay Dying, but it is fun to look at. It’s titillating to see what Faulkner was doing with his pen when he needed a break from penning classics. 

A U-Guide once told me that UVA’s holdings are so extensive that, were the Library of Congress destroyed, the government would make protecting them a top priority of national security. In his apocryphal, semi-apocalyptic vision, G-men are on Grounds at all times, keeping stock of some of our country’s most important historical documents—accounts of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, correspondence between the Founding Fathers—as well as the scribbles from some of the country’s greatest minds. 

One such piece of ephemera on display at “The Writers Art” is a letter from Mark Twain to his friend Edward House, where instead of addressing the letter to “House,” he drew a picture of one. Is taking satisfaction in a joke between Twain and a friend that much different than the obsession with celebrity that drives an issue of People magazine? The two are closer than we’d like to admit, but maybe we don’t need to qualify our occasionally embarrassing obsessions with the minutia that greatness leaves behind.

The exhibit also features a number of more accomplished works of art from less recognizable writers, including watercolor paintings by Henry Miller, and a portrait by Amélie Rives Troubetzkoy, an Albemarle County native and author who wrote the 1888 novel The Quick or the Dead?. But the most compelling pieces featured in “The Writer’s Art” are somewhere between works of art and scribbles in margins. Robert Frost’s fanciful maps of land that his friends John and Margaret Bartlett had acquired in Vancouver, British Columbia, which include his plans to build a lean-to sanctuary and a potato patch on the adjacent property, reflect the geographical and documentary thrust of his poetry. At the bottom of a page of crossed-out prose, Jorge Louis Borges drew a couple dancing and two musicians in mid-serenade, and his ability to render minute scenes is as poignant here as it is in his verse.  

Guy Davenport, a writer featured in the exhibit, wrote that “writing and drawing, distinct as they are, must converge in their root-system in the brain. By the time they are being done they retain their origin. They are both making the creation of something out of nothing.” To test his theory, you’d need to talk to a cognitive scientist, but “The Writer’s Art” is a worthwhile window into what a few great minds were doing in their idle time.

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