Thursday, February 18, 2010
Students in the School of Information at The University of Texas at Austin frequently work on projects at the Ransom Center to gain hands-on experience in the field. Graduate student Rebecca Smyrl recently wrote an article about her survey of an unusual collection of rare books as part of her work in the school’s conservation program. Here, she explores one of the more unusual items she encountered in her survey of the Bieber collection.
The Bieber collection’s copy of John Greenleaf Whittier’s Moll Pitcher, a poem, is an 1832 first edition. In the poem, Whittier presents an unflattering fictional account of the exploits of Moll Pitcher (1736–1813), who amassed both fame and income through her work as a fortune-teller in Lynn, Mass. (Moll Pitcher should not be confused with Molly Pitcher of Revolutionary War fame). Though her methods were not always scrupulous (for example, eavesdropping from a back room while her daughter chatted with clients before readings to obtain useful information), many followers put great stock in her clairvoyance and traveled from as far away as Europe for consultations.
As Bieber penciled on the title page of the poem, his copy is “illustrated curiously with pen + ink sketches of ‘Moll Pitcher’ and added verse.” Around the printed text, an unknown artist has filled the margins with depictions of the title character and other “curious” subjects. Commentary in verse at the beginning pokes fun at Whittier; in the margins the figure of Moll Pitcher adds her own cryptic remarks in conversation bubbles. Mysteriously, a Native American chief apparently unrelated to the text appears at the end of the first section.
Close examination of the drawings, executed in at least three different inks, make it possible to glean insight into the artist’s working process. In addition to the extensive annotations, this copy of the poem has seen trimming, mending and filling of the paper, binding and rebinding. It is currently housed in an acidic pamphlet binder likely dating from the days of Bieber, which itself has undergone repairs. All of these markings of the poem’s long life make it a promising object for future study, ripe with glimpses of its past and of the people with a hand in creating the object that exists today.