Ernest Hilbert: On Literary Relics

Ernest Hilbert: On Literary Relics
April 25, 2017 Hilbert Ernest

Rare book collectors devote whole lives to finding and preserving books by authors they love, though the books alone may not be enough to satisfy them entirely. Those who pursue first editions are an uncommon breed, arriving in any number of amiable or maddening types, sharing a desire to acquire, organize, and shape expensive collections that embody their highest desires and deepest concerns, or at the very least appeal to their distinctive fancies. Most are content to build a library of first editions, books as they first appeared to the public, before reprints, paperback editions, expanded editions, and all those banged-up school library copies later generations encounter. Some experience an urge to go further, seeking out magazines in which an author first appeared; perhaps signed letters to friends, lovers, and publishers; or even working manuscripts, the molten, earliest versions before a book has cooled into the revised and edited version we find in the bookstore.


On rare occasion, one may meet another kind of collector altogether, those whose attraction to an author or circle of writers lures them into another realm altogether, away from the bookshelf and closer to the life. Beneath the daylight world of cloth, leather, and paper lurks another that brings the devotee closer to the source. I refer to the collecting of literary artifacts: Jewelry, mementoes, typewriters, desks, clothes, medical appurtenances, even hair or body parts that once belonged to an author, what librarians designate “realia” (what some in the trade refer to as simply “not-a-book”), items that do not fit into the usual categories of printed material—a headache or a boon, depending on one’s standpoint.



Magics, Religions, and Relics

It’s hard to know what exactly sparks the desire to acquire these things. It could be an urge to get closer not only to an author to but to enter a bygone era. It is sensual certainly, an urge to touch something touched by another. It approaches a religious or magical impulse, what Sir James George Frazer refers to as the “Law of Contact or Contagion” in “Sympathetic Magic,” the third chapter of his encyclopedic The Golden Bough: A Study in Comparative Religion. This is the sort of magic we think of being used in Voodoo dolls, entailing a lock of hair, saliva, or an object belonging to the intended victim. Frazer explains that “contagious magic is founded on the association of ideas by contiguity,” the spurious notion that items that “have once been in contact with each other are always in contact.” Unsurprisingly, Sigmund Freud wrote of a related magnetism in sexual terms as fetishism, a powerful fixation attached in some cases to an inanimate object. This phenomenon brings to mind the brisk Medieval European trade in Christian relics in order to fill reliquaries when establishing churches and cathedrals. While skeptics have observed that if all the splinters of the True Cross scattered around Europe were recombined, the cross would wind up a mile long—all the vials containing Lacrima Christi fill an Olympic swimming pool—nonetheless they served their purpose. The Elizabethan Age in England balanced precariously upon the contradictory worlds of magic and science, the former yielding ground at a startling rate to the latter. One comes across objects thought to be quite literally magical, such as the obsidian Aztec “Scrying Mirror” owned by John Dee, occultist and confidante of Queen Elizabeth I. Referred to as “The Devil’s Looking Glass” in Samuel Butler’s 1663 Hudibras, “Dr. Dee’s Magical Mirror” now resides in the British Museum—displayed alongside his “magical disc,” amulet, and crystal ball—the glass having passed through many hands, including those of Horace Walpole and Henry Mordaunt (second earl of Peterborogh, also an occultist), before being acquired by the museum in 1966.


The ages of Romanticism and Victorianism saw renewed interest in relics, though of literary rather than scriptural or magical significance. Edward John Trelawney, friend of Percy Bysshe Shelley, was the first to identify the poet’s body after he drowned in a squall while sailing his schooner, The Don Juan (after his friend Byron’s poem), in July 1822. Trelawney arranged for Shelley’s cremation and oversaw the ceremony (the fabled occasion was captured by Louis Édouard Fournier in his 1889 painting, “The Funeral of Shelley,” which hangs in Liverpool, at the Walker Art Gallery). After the immolation, Trelawney removed from the ashes what he claimed to be Shelley’s still-intact heart, miraculously preserved from the fire (“What surprised us all was that the heart remained entire”).


As fantastical as this sounds, in 1955 Arthur Norman claimed in The Journal of the History of Medicine, that Shelley may have possessed “a progressively calcifying heart . . . which indeed would have resisted cremation as readily as a skull, a jaw or fragments of bone.” Whatever the reasons for its permanency, the heart was given to Shelley’s wife, Mary, author of Frankenstein (Daisy Hay explains that “an undignified quarrel broke out between Mary and [Leigh] Hunt about who should keep Shelley’s heart,” Hunt only giving it to Mary after “Jane Williams persuaded him that Shelley would have been horrified at the idea of his friends quarrelling over one of his organs”; Hay also suggests that “the cherished relic was probably Shelley’s liver”). A year after Mary’s death, in 1851, numerous artifacts were retrieved from her desk including a journal she had shared with Percy Bysshe Shelley, a copy of “Adonais,” his elegy for John Keats, and the heart, which would one day be buried with their only son, Sir Percy Florence Shelley, 67 years after his father drowned in the Ligurian Sea.  The famous heart would later inspire Pre-Raphaelite William Michael Rossetti, brother of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, to pen a poem on the subject, fittingly titled “Shelley’s Heart” and dedicated to Trelawney, beginning “Trelawny’s hand, which held’st the sacred heart, / The heart of Shelley, and hast felt the fire . . .” If this weren’t enough, Rossetti writes of Trelawney having given him “a fragment of Shelley’s charred skull” and even a sofa “Shelley had procured for himself in Pisa,” what he declared “a simple but tasteful construction” and one of his “most valued possessions.” The exhibition “Shelley’s Ghost: The Afterlife of a Poet,” curated by Stephen Hebron for the Bodleian Library at Oxford University in 2010 (reinstalled at the New York Public Library in 2012), included alongside manuscripts and letters the poet’s “gold and coral baby rattle” as well as a “necklace owned by the Shelley family with locks (lockets) of P.B. and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s hair.”


Shelley is not alone among nineteenth-century poets in being sought by such collectors. As recently as 2008, Sotheby’s sold a lock of Lord Byron’s hair, “dark brown with some white strands,” which was “cut from his head after his death at Missolonghi, coiled and tied with a pink ribbon, with an accompanying wrapper inscribed in the hand of Byron’s intimate friend John Cam Hobhouse.” It hammered at £3,000 over an estimate of £1,500 to 2,000. For comparison, a lock of Robert Browning’s hair, “contained in a silver, heart-shaped memorial locket, the cover incised ‘R.B. 12-12 89’ (the date of his death),” fetched £220 in 1978, not a bad price for the time. One American dealer offered for sale the vest Hemingway wore in Spain during “the dangerous summer” of 1959, alongside the moccasins Papa sported that summer, given by him to his friend and physician Dr. George Saviers. These articles of Hemingway interest are perhaps only a small consolation to the collector who thinks longingly about Hemingway’s legendary lost suitcase, which contained the young, unpublished author’s manuscripts. In 1922, Hemingway’s first wife Hadley left the suitcase unattended in a train compartment at the Gare de Lyon while she bought an Evian. Upon her return, she found the suitcase gone. Bereft, the young Hemingway wrote to Ezra Pound that after the theft “all that remains of my complete works are three pencil drafts of a bum poem which was later scrapped.”  (Some of the papers were later recovered, though such irksome facts deflate Papa’s story.)


Raiments, Rings, and Remains

Less heroic garments than Hemingway’s macho leather vest also draw collectors. London-based American dealer and author Rick Gekoski tells in his book Tolkien’s Gown and Other Stories of Famous Authors and Rare Books of the occasion when as a young book dealer he offered J.R.R. Tolkien’s college gown, which had been left behind by the creator of Middle Earth at Merton College, Oxford, where he taught until 1959. The gown was priced at £550 in Gekoski’s second catalog in 1982, selling to “an eccentric from the American South, who claimed he was going to wear it at his university’s yearly commencement exercise.” Gekoski admits that he was “anxious to convince my new customers that I was the sort of dealer who found unusual things. Books were easy, and everybody had those.” He even teases with ever-more-plausible sci-fi proposition of cloning “a small army” of Tolkiens from the “DNA-rich stains” on the gown. The gown garnered some attention at the time. Julian Barnes interviewed Gekoski, peevishly demanding to know “where do you draw the line . . . . what about D.H. Lawrence’s underpants? Or Gertrude Stein’s bra?” Well, what of them? Surely someone would want them. Although Gekoski hasn’t pursued other artifacts of the sort, he admits to having once cataloged a “first cutting of Sylvia Plath’s hair, done when she was two years old,” a throwback to the Victorian penchant for poets’ hair.


The Morgan Library’s recent exhibit “Charlotte Brontë: An Independent Will” displayed alongside manuscript pages of the author’s Autobiography such extra-literary objects as a “two-piece printed delaine dress (of cotton and wool) . . . worn by Charlotte Brontë.” It’s not enough to read Jane Eyre. Some want to inhabit the world of the Brontë sisters, or come as close to it as possible. This can sometimes cause problems. For instance, when American Idol-winning singer Kelly Clarkson—a devotee of Jane Austen and collector of her work—bought the novelist’s gold and turquoise ring at a 2012 British auction for £152,450, a hue and cry went up. UK Culture minister Ed Vaizey declared he wanted the ring “saved for the nation” and went to work effecting a temporary export ban. Jane Austen’s House Museum, the under-bidder at the auction, was given time to raise money in order to purchase the ring back from Clarkson, who graciously announced she was “happy to know that so many Jane Austen fans will get to see it.” According to the BBC, the singer must settle for a replica of the ring, not quite as magical.


Some literary objects are less magical than medical. In The Scholar Adventurers, Richard Altick tells of surgical boots made for a young Lord Byron (both for the right foot, in case you wondered) found among the remains of his publisher John Murray, notorious for having burned the sole manuscript of Byron’s memoir after the poet’s death, allegedly to protect the reputation of Byron’s estranged wife. Altick further relates a story of legendary diarist Samuel Pepys displaying for his friends a particularly impressive gallstone that had been removed through surgery, “as large as a tennis ball.” Altick goes on to suggest that it is one “of the most curious relics in English literary history . . . now lost.” He later regales us with tales of Samuel Johnson’s gallstone, described as being “‘about the size of a pigeon’s egg.’ (Compare the size of Pepys’s!).” Their utility as paperweights is undeniable; their effectiveness as conversation pieces questionable. Other literary medical devices continue to surface from time to time. In early 2017, Forum Auctions in England put on the block Evelyn Waugh’s ear trumpet, accompanied by a letter of provenance from Waugh’s son, Auberon, who sniffs “I have sent you a disgusting object . . . you may be able to identify as a telescopic ear trumpet as used by my Father in his later years . . . it may be of some whimsical interest to an obsessive collector.”


Museums and libraries also claim an engagement with literary objects. One library director confided to me that articles of clothing and jewelry tend to the steal the show, if only because they offer a colorful relief from all the brown and beige rectangles lined up so dully around them. For instance, alongside a world-class permanent collection—which includes a first edition of Don Quixote and James Joyce’s manuscript for Ulysses—the Rosenbach Library and Museum in Philadelphia also boasts Robert Burns’ powder horn and no less than the complete contents of modernist poet Marianne Moore’s Greenwich Village living room, arranged precisely—almost eerily so—to match the original placement of every article of furniture along with no fewer than 2,500 personal objects. These attractions are overshadowed by another across the city at the Free Library, the home of Grip the Raven, a true tourist attraction. Grip was the pet bird of English novelist Charles Dickens, who had it stuffed when it died, after the fashion of the time. Dickens included the talkative raven in his 1841 historical novel Barnaby Rudge, a book which was in turn reviewed on the other side of the Atlantic by Poe, who wrote that the bird’s “croaking might have been prophetically heard in the course of the drama.” Not long after, Poe composed his most famous poem, “The Raven,” a work that made him famous overnight. The bird itself was auctioned off after Dickens’ death and finally found its way into the collection of Philadelphia rare book collector Richard Gimbel, who was more interested in Poe than Dickens and sought it for its relation to the American poet. Grip was donated to the library in 1971, where he perches in his glass case in the third floor rare book room, much to the delight of visitors and their children.


Authorial Implements and Instruments

In the twentieth century, the typewriter became the dominant method of literary composition for most writers. It stands to reason that a well-oiled machine, banged, and caressed, and slumped-over in the small hours by an author might be of some interest to a devotee. Ernest Hemingway’s Underwood Noiseless Portable Typewriter, likely acquired in 1938 and housed at Key West, would be of considerable curiosity because it is possible that it replaced his first typewriter, a Corona Model #3, given to him by his first wife. The date of its acquisition indicates that, among other typewriters in other Hemingway residences, it is a candidate for the machine on which he wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940) and The Old Man and the Sea (1952). Possibly because no formal census of Hemingway’s typewriters has yet been accomplished, it failed to sell at Christie’s New York in 2011 with an estimate of $30,000 to $50,000. “Possibly used to write” doesn’t inspire strong bids. More recently, John Updike’s Olympia “electric 65c typewriter (serial no. 183017)” proved attractive in part due to the presence on its ribbon of “ghost images” of his writing, including part of a foreword for a collection of Kafka stories. Used in the late 1960s, it would be his last typewriter. The ribbon contains a portion of a letter to his assistant “explaining to her that he will no longer need her services because he has purchased a word processor.” This device, with poignant traces of an era’s end, sold for $4,375 at Christie’s in 2010, a year after the author’s death. Another typewriter of interest is Jack Kerouac’s Hermes 3000 manual typewriter (model no. 3337316), purchased in 1966 and used until his death in 1969. He told his agent, Sterling Lord, he bought it “as the old one broke in two, and that’s what broke my budget.” The King of the Beats tells Lord he hoped to work on Vanity of Duluoz on the machine, which, according to a repairman’s receipt of January 1969, was broken because it had been “dropped.” Kerouac’s last, battered typewriter sold at Christie’s in 2010 for a healthy $22,500, a bit over estimate.


The apex of typewriters has to be James Bond-author Ian Fleming’s gold-plated Royal Quiet Deluxe Portable, which sold for £56,250 ($90,000 at the time) at Christie’s London in 1995. It is whispered that the buyer was a famous actor associated with the 007 films. Even celebrity millionaires feel that need to get back to source. If literary collectors find themselves fishing around for something to put into their typewriters, they could do worse than a pristine sheet of Wallace Stevens’ letterhead from the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company where Stevens, a major American modernist poet, spent much of his life as an executive, working alongside colleagues who had no idea he was the author of such bizarre and groundbreaking poems as “The Emperor of Ice-Cream” and “The Man with the Blue Guitar,” yours for $350 from a Brooklyn book dealer.


Whether composing with pens, pencils, typewriters, or computers, writers require desks. For £5,250 a collector could own a “mahogany sloped writing desk given by Sir Walter Scott” to his amanuensis William Laidlaw. Collectors in the rooms at Anderson Galleries in 1906 had a chance at what was described as “Edgar Allan Poe’s Writing Desk,” also mahogany with brass mounts. A clerical knee-hole desk where Virginia Woolf penned such essential works as Mrs. Dalloway and “A Room of One’s Own” was later decorated by her nephew and biographer Quentin Bell “with a reclining female figure, perhaps a muse, blowing on a long trumpet.” It sold for £2,800 at Sotheby’s in 1980. Unlike most writers, Woolf stood at her desk, which she used from 1907 until she gave it to Bell in 1930 (Hemingway and Dickens are also known to have used standing desks, which were not uncommon in business offices and may be making a comeback). Bell speculates in his biography of Woolf that

for this peculiar method of operation she advanced various reasons but it would seem that her principal motive was the fact that Vanessa, like many painters, stood to work in order to be able to move away from and look at her canvas. This led Virginia to feel that her own pursuit might appear less arduous than that of her sister unless she set matters on a footing of equality, and so for many years she stood at this strange desk and, in a quite unnecessary way, tired herself.


Bell’s wife promptly cut the desk down by a full six inches upon receiving it from Woolf, so one might comfortably sit at it today. The desk, and much else besides, was donated by activist collector Lisa Unger Baskin to the Rubenstein Library at Duke University in 2015, part an important collection she amassed over forty-five years, dedicated to women at work. As she puts it, “the unifying thread is that women have always been productive and working people and this history essentially has been hidden.”


If those numbers seem surprising for such mundane objects as desks, in 2016, a writer’s chair beat them all, selling for $394,000. What chair could command such a price? The chair itself was of no particular value before given to its author in 1995 as part of a set of four. The writer chose one at random as a writing chair. It makes all the difference who sat there, of course, and what was written. It was where novelist J.K. Rowling sat while writing the first Harry Potter novel in her humble council flat in Edinburgh. The creator of Hogwarts added some much-needed color to the chair before donating it to an auction to support the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children in 2002, signing it with a flourish and writing “I wrote Harry Potter while sitting on this chair” alongside decorations and quotes from the book done in gold, rose, and green paints. It brought $21,000 the first time around. The chair has since changed hands twice, selling again for $29,000 to Gerald Gray in 2009, who put it up for auction again seven years later, with an opening bid of $45,000. According to the bizarre logic of the auction room, at least two, possibly more, bidders continued to pursue it with great vigor until it tipped well over into six figures and then some. In case one is tempted to inhale abruptly at this outrageous disposal of wealth, Gray donated 10% of the proceeds to Lumos, Rowling’s own children’s charity. The current owner of the chair remains unknown.


There seems no end to the enchantments offered by artifacts once used, worn, or discarded by favorite authors. Dealers, collectors, librarians, and auctioneers will have their own stories. What of Raymond Chandler’s noirish trench coat, which his publisher Jamie Hamilton was spotted wearing in Kathmandu after the novelist’s death? Or Isaac Asimov’s chunky computer, once glimpsed “in the window of the Science Fiction Bookshop in the west Village in the early 1990s” (both according to publisher and bookseller Henry Wessells)? It’s hard to know what future collectors might prize, perhaps a Motorola 68000 series laptop on which a massive Gen-X novel was written in the 1990s, maybe an outmoded tablet device or smart phone once cradled by a Twitter poet. As the Rowling sale shows, perhaps the chair itself will remain in fashion as an indispensable artifact. All glamor, wealth, and myth to one side, the most useful definition of a writer may be someone who is committed to sitting in a chair for thousands of hours, and writing. After all, as renowned publisher Bob Giroux told Jack Kerouac, “the laurel wreath is worn only in the moment of writing.”




Ernest Hilbert’s book Caligulan was selected as winner of the 2017 Poets’ Prize. His two previous books of poetry are Sixty Sonnets and All of You on the Good Earth.  He founded the Oxford Quarterly and E-Verse Radio. He has also served as editor of both the Contemporary Poetry Review and Random House’s magazine Bold Type. Hilbert’s work has been included in The Swallow Anthology of New American Poets (2009), and he has collaborated with composers such as Daniel Felsenfeld, Stella Sung, and Christopher LaRosa. His spoken word album, Elegies & Laments (2013), includes tracks of Hilbert’s poems backed by his band, Legendary Misbehavior.

Ernest Hilbert is an American poet, critic, opera librettist, and editor born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1970.