Book Find: “Beautiful, Absurd, and Trashy Stuff”

Post by UVA English Department research assistant Maggie Whalen.

Book Traces @ UVA recently found this 1853 copy of Alexander Smith’s Poems in the UVA Library Collection.


Flipping through the book’s pages, one immediately notices the abundance of notes scrawled in its margins. Indeed, more pages than not include some evidence of a previous reader’s interaction with the text.

Smith’s Poems contains four titled lyrics: “A Life-Drama,” “An Evening at Home,” “Lady Barbara,” and “To —,” as well as several untitled sonnets. First, longest, and most heavily annotated is the 150-page play “A Life-Drama.”

An initial example of marginalia pops up on the first page of this first poem. Above its title, the reader has written in pencil: “Beautiful, Absurd, and Trashy Stuff.” Below, the same hand has extended the play’s title: “A Life-Drama, or The Moon & Stars” (5).


In the pages that follow, the same reader develops in the margins his own system of notes. He scrutinizes and satirizes Smith’s poetry, making verbal and nonverbal annotations of the text, additions and amendments to the text, and citations of literary allusions made within the text.

All of this causes a present-day reader to wonder: Who wrote these ridiculing comments? And, what was his beef with Alexander Smith?

Conveniently, the book’s title page features the inscriptions of two former owners. First is “W. Meredith,” who seems to have inscribed his name on September 2, 1853 in Philadelphia. The precise year of signing is unclear, as the final digit has been blotted out and corrected. Beneath is “Fred. W. M. Holliday,” accompanied by the date “July ’76.”


A handwriting expert I am not, but the highly legible, looping quality of the penmanship in the book’s marginalia resembles much more closely the signature of W. Meredith than that of Fred. W. M. Holliday.

Unfortunately, the first inscription does not provide sufficient information to definitively identify W. Meredith. A number of men bearing some variation of the name “William Meredith” were alive during the 1850s. As far as I could tell, none could be linked directly to the book’s other owner, Governor Frederick William Mackey Holliday. However, there is considerable evidence suggesting that the book belonged at one point to either William Morris Meredith (1799-1873) or his son William Keppele Meredith (1838-1903), both of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

William Morris Meredith, the elder, was a prominent Philadelphia lawyer. He also served as United States Secretary of the Treasury between 1824 and 1828. The Meredith Family Papers are preserved at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Among them are some of his personal writings, including an assortment of original poetry and three of his diaries. The second of these diaries opens with an entry written on the eve of his twentieth birthday, at which point he had been practicing law for some time. He reflects:
Eighteen months have elapsed since I commenced the practice of my Profession. My profits have been small and the sincere disgust which I have always entertained for the Law has rather increased than diminished during that period. But after mature consideration, I can discover no other pursuit in which I could engage with any prospect of success. My inclinations urge me to a literary life, but that yields no expectations of an immediate support, and I feel it my duty to relieve my father as quickly as possible from so heavy and useless an encumbrance as myself.
William Morris’s love of literature is made evident also by the presence of his original verse, most of which was probably written before his legal career began. Notes on the Meredith Family Papers indicate that most of William Morris’s poems consist of “light and witty commentary on women and courting.”

William Keppele Meredith, son of the former, attended Princeton between 1851 and 1853. Plagued from childhood with cataracts and a speech impediment, William Keppele took a leave of absence from Princeton in 1852 and left school permanently in 1853. He returned to Philadelphia and spent most of his life as a “man of leisure,” save for a brief stint as a Union General’s secretary during the war. Meredith went on to become a published writer of both essays and poems. The Meredith Family Papers contains several of William’s original poems, in which he discusses “patriotism, love, adultery, religion, and philosophy.”

It seems entirely possible that either of the Merediths might have at one point owned, and annotated, this volume of Alexander Smith’s Poems. The two shared a love of literature and an affinity for writing verse. If the book was indeed signed in September 1853, 54-year-old William Morris would have been practicing law in Philadelphia and 17-year-old William Keppele would have just returned to Philadelphia from Princeton. Without access to the family’s records kept in Philadelphia or the ability to conduct a handwriting analysis, conclusions are quite difficult to draw.

Information on the book’s second owner is decidedly more distinct. Governor Frederick W. M. Holliday (1828-1899), a Virginia native, graduated Yale University in 1847. Less than a year later, he acquired degrees in philosophy, political economy, and law from the University of Virginia in 1848. Holliday proceeded to open his own law practice in Frederick County, where he was elected the Commonwealth’s Attorney for three consecutive terms beginning in 1851. An avid secessionist, he served as a captain in the Confederate Army, and was later promoted to major and lieutenant colonel. He was forced to resign his commission after he was wounded in battle and his arm was amputated. Following the war, Holliday returned to law and was elected governor of Virginia in 1878. At the end of his governorship, he retired and devoted the remainder of his life to traveling. It was Governor Holliday who ultimately donated this edition of Poems to the UVA Library Collection.

The question of connection between the Merediths and Governor Holliday might be answered by their common involvement in the practice of law or participation in the Civil War. It is also possible that the men were unknown to each other and happened upon the book independently.

Regardless of the note-taker’s identity, this volume stands out for its profusion of readerly commentary, much of which is pointed, funny, and smart. History reveals that this reader was not alone in ridiculing Alexander Smith’s Poems.

When Poems debuted in 1853, Smith was initially praised as the next great British lyricist. Following the book’s publication, Putnam’s Monthly Magazine, an American literary journal, proclaimed that “A Life-Drama” had just “received a more universal and flattering welcome than was ever before awarded to an English poet” (LaPorte 421). Shortly thereafter, though, praise turned to criticism, which consisted of vicious attacks and accusations of plagiarism. Most damning was literary critic W.E. Aytoun’s 1854 review of Poems, in which labeled Smith a Spasmodic. The Spasmodics, a group of mid-19th century poets, closely imitated the Romantics and were criticized for their excessive use of natural imagery and obscure allusions. Smith resisted the title and spent the remainder of his life trying to shake his association with the group. Later in 1854, an anonymous author published a parody of Smith’s “A Life-Drama” entitled The Firmilian: A Tragedy, causing further damage to his reputation. Smith ultimately turned to writing essays, for which he received less attention but better critical reception.

Looking more closely at the notes made in this copy of Poems, and more specifically those made on “A Life-Drama,” it becomes clear that this volume is engaged in a larger historical conversation about Alexander Smith.

In “A Life-Drama,” a poet named Walter falls deeply in love with an unnamed lady. After meeting in an Italian forest, the two engage in extensive flirtation. To Walter’s dismay, though, his beloved is doomed to marry an old, wealthy man. Time passes and Walter overcomes his heartbreak, ultimately falling in love with another woman, Violet.

Some of the reader’s comments on the play come as brief quips: “Nonsense” (23), “Absurdity” (24), “What stuff and nonsense!” (35), “You sentimental old hypocrite!” (77), “Every idea in this Poem is repeated five times at least” (82), “Ain’t they a pair of wiseacres!” (86), “Unnatural” (131), and “Disgusting Affectation” (131).

The few positive comments that do appear resonate as sarcastic given the generally disgruntled tenor of the reader’s commentary. Beside several lines of bracketed verse in Scene II, for example, he writes: “Beautiful, by God!” (19) Another bracketed passage in the same scene is accompanied by the note: “Love is sometimes said to be incomprehensible” (13).


Other notes are more long-winded. In Scene I, for example, Walter declares: “Bare, bald and tawdry, as a fingered moth / Is my poor life; but with one smile thou canst / Clothe me with kingdoms” (6). In the margins above, the reader reacts:
‘As a finger’d moth!’ A man who would finger a moth, is fit for nothing but camphor [moth repellant]. Mr. Smith says that a moth is both ‘bare and tawdry:’…. Does fingering a moth make it more bald, or more tawdry? In short, I will be very much obliged to anybody who will explain to me the meaning of that line. If Mr. Smith is so very much like a moth, he had better keep clear of camphor, and his friends had better take the necessary precautions about their clothes. (6-7)
Unfortunately, the edges of many pages were trimmed during the volume’s re-binding, so some notes, including the one transcribed above, are abbreviated.


In Scene III, Walter speaks of “gentle pagans…whose red blood ran / Healthy and cool as milk,” to which the reader responds: “Milk, in its natural state, is warm fortunately for the physical comfort of these ‘gentle pagans’” (39).


In Scene V, Walter declares: “My heart is weak as a great globe, all sea,” provoking the reader to write in large, angry letters: “I should like to pitch this fool into the Atlantic to convince him that his heart is a little weaker than the great globe, all sea” (74).


In Scene VI, Walter recites following lines: “I gaz’d till my heart grew wild, / To fold her in my warm caresses, / Clasp her showers of golden tresses” (77). In the margins, the reader reacts to this sensuous description: “Old Bishop Onderdonk would have taken her by storm, in a coach full of people” (77). The reader here makes reference to the contemporary controversy surrounding Bishop Benjamin Treadwell Onderdonk (1791-1861). In 1844, multiple female parishioners, including the wife of one of his fellow clergymen, accused the Episcopal Bishop of New York of sexual misconduct. The scandal remained in contention for over a decade.


In Scene VII, Walter gazes out over the sea and remarks: “The bridegroom sea / Is toying with the shore, his wedded bride, / And in the fulness of his marriage joy, / He decorates her tawny brow with shells” (90). The reader underscores “bridegroom sea,” “the shore,” and “bride,” and then responds in a marginal note:
John and Polly have been married 40 years. To call John a bridegroom, or Polly a bride, would be apt to provoke a smile from the most rigid practicer of decorum. I therefore feel myself the less criminal in having actually laughed at the idea of bridegrooming and briding the Sea and the Shore, that have been married (man and wife) for thousands of years. (90)

In other moments, the reader identifies Smith’s literary allusions, calling to mind contempoary accusations that he had plagiarized portions of Poems. William Shakespeare, Thomas Moore, and Fanny Kemble are each cited several times.


The majority of the reader’s notes, however, take the form of original verse, extending and satirizing Smith’s poetry. For example, upon waking from a nap in Scene II, Walter says: “Fair lady, in my dream / Methought I was a weak and lonely bird,” at which point the reader interjects: “Caught napping by a much superior bird, / That was a bird indeed!” (15)


Later in the same scene, as Walter speaks to his unnamed love interest he says: “His words set me on fire; I cried aloud” (25). The reader repeats this line in his note and then continues:
‘I’ll be that Poet—that immortal mind!’

He grasp’d my hand,—I look’d upon his face,—

A thought struck all the blood into his cheeks,

Like a strong buffet. His great flashing eyes

Burn’d on my own. He said, ‘Your name is Smith.’

Why am I cursed with that damning name?

Why am I not Jones, —Milligan, —McShinn,

Pips, —anything but Smith! (25)

Throughout the entire play, the reader continues to interject, adopting the Smith’s style even as he mocks the poet and his characters. In these moments, the reader’s actions echo, or perhaps foreshadow, the anonymous author’s 1854 parody of “A Life-Drama,” The Firmilian: A Tragedy. Included below are a few further examples, which I have abstained from transcribing for the sake of space.


A final instance worth mentioning explicitly appears on the poem’s final page. Smith’s Walter delivers the final words of the play to Violet, his second lover. The reader extends Walter’s speech, and also allows Violet a response:
Yes, Walter! I will sleep upon thy breast,

As yonder moon sleeps on the quiet river.

The stars, and he in the moon, are looking at us,

So come away, for I’m afraid of blushing. (160)
In a final jab, the reader grants Walter the last line. Ever the romantic, he replies to his love: “You look more pale than ever” (160).


Comments like these appear also in the margins of the volume’s subsequent, shorter poems.

So rich in user intervention, so shrouded in mystery, and so embedded in the literary critical context of its time is this copy of Alexander Smith’s Poems that extensive additional research could be conducted on its history.


“Benjamin Treadwell Onderdonk.” House Divided: The Civil War Research Engine at Dickinson College. Dickinson College, n.d. Web. 10 Dec. 2015.

“camphor, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, December 2015. Web. 9 December 2015.

Executive letter books of Governor Frederick M. W. Holliday, 1878-1881. Accession 33431, State government records collection, The Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia.

“Introduction” Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism Ed. Denise Evans and Mary L. Onorato. Vol. 59. Gale Cengage, 1997. 5 Dec, 2015.

LaPorte, Charles, and Jason R. Rudy. “Editorial Introduction: Spasmodic Poetry and Poetics”. Victorian Poetry 42.4 (2004): 421–428. Web.

“Poems by Alexander Smith.” Bizarre: For Fireside and Wayside. Vol. 3. N.p.: Church, 1853. 121-23. Google Books. Web. 9 Dec. 2015.

Series 7, William Morris Meredith: William Meredith, Meredith Family Papers (Collection 1509), The Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

Smith, Alexander. Poems. Boston: Ticknor, Reed, and Fields, 1853. Print.

Book Find: French Lessons and April Fools’

Post by UVA English Department research assistant Maggie Whalen.

Book Traces @ U.Va. recently discovered this early-20th century French children’s book, Le Général Dourakine by Countess de Ségur, in the U.Va. Library Collection.


Opening it up, one finds an inscription and other verbal annotations in a young person’s script.

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The inscription reveals that the book’s owners were Eugenia (1896-1980) and Adeline (1894-?) Davis, pictured below.

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Dabney Family Photographs, Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library, University of Virginia.

At the time of the book’s signing, Eugenia was 12 and Adeline was 14. The girls were the daughters of Volumnia (1868-1949) and John Staige Davis II (1872-1946), a professor in the University of Virginia School of Medicine and one of the first American practitioners of plastic surgery. The Davises are a prominent family in the history of both Charlottesville and the University. Eugenia and Adeline’s grandfather, John Staige Davis I (1824-1885), also taught in the U.Va. medical department. Their great-grandfather, John A.G. Davis (1802-1840), was among the first students to graduate U.Va., where he went on to teach law. Of note to a University audience: John A.G. Davis is also the ill-fated protagonist of a frequently cited story that claims that the murder of a U.Va. professor by a student prompted the creation of the Honor Code. Although Davis was in fact fatally shot by a student, recent research has shown that the tale of the Honor Code’s origin is apocryphal.

Below their names, one of the girls has written the schedule of their weekly French lessons (transcribed here for easier reading):

French taught by Mille. Hubbard three times a week, Monday Morning at quarter past nine, on Wednesday evening at quarter pas[t] three, and on Friday evening at the same time.

Above the bookplate on the opposite page, one of the girls has written: “Nous finions ce livre le 10 de mai,” or: “We finished this book May 10.”

A bit of digging on the history of the text itself, apparently assigned to the girls by their French tutor, reveals that Countess de Ségur was an incredibly popular French children’s author at the turn of the 20th century. Indeed, the twenty books that she produced during her relatively short career, of which Le Général Dourakine was one, became the foundation of French children’s literature. The Davis sisters’ copy is a 1907 reprint by the original publisher. There are several other volumes of de Ségur’s famous collection of novels, La Bibliotheque Rose Illustrée, on the shelves of U.Va.’s Alderman library, though this seems to be the only copy owned by the Davises.

Annotations by the same hand are present on the book’s title page. Lightly penciled script reads: “Eugenia et Adeline Davis. La classe de Mille. Hubbard.” The inscription appears to have been corrected, however, by a later, heavier hand. This revision reflects the French spelling of Eugenia: “Eugénie.” The conjunction “et” is also retraced in darker pencil.

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Letters in U.Va.’s Special Collections Library reveal that the Davises corresponded at length with a certain Eugénie Hubbard, suggesting that this family friend (also a prominent figure in the contemporary Charlottesville social scene) might have been the Mademoiselle to whom the book refers.

Verbal and nonverbal marginalia can be found on many of the book’s 375 pages. Most markings take the form of paired slashes and light underscoring, perhaps demarcating reading assignments or noting important moments in the story. The occasional “E” (for Eugenia, perhaps) pops up as well. A cursive “Natasha,” the name of one of the story’s characters, also appears.

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On the final page of the tale, the date of the girls’ completion of the book, “May 10 1909,” is repeated.

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Perhaps most interesting, though, is the note on the book’s rear flyleaf:


It reads: “April Fool. We are going to pin something on Miss Mary’s back tomorrow and get the mischief.” In this instance, the textbook seems to work as a platform for correspondence between scheming parties. One can easily imagine a young Eugenia or Adeline scribbling down this idea during a French lesson and sharing it with the her sister or perhaps another classmate.

Without any clues beyond “Miss Mary,” it is a long-shot to attempt to identify the nominated victim of the April Fools’ prank. A pair of documents available in the U.Va. Special Collections Library do, however, suggest one candidate.

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John Staige Davis Papers, Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library,
University of Virginia.

These 1908 and 1911 report cards of Adeline and Eugenia, respectively, are signed by one Mary Harrison of the Braehead School.

The Davis sisters’ copy of Le Général Dourakine was donated to the U.Va. Library Collection by John Staige Davis in 1954.

For additional examples of user-modified volumes donated by John Staige Davis and currently in U.Va.’s circulating collection, check out these links:


“Charlottesville Women Enroll in Auto School.” Richmond Times-Dispatch [Richmond] 27 June 1918: 3. Library of Virginia. Web. 19 Nov. 2015.

Claire-Lise Malarte-Feldman. “La Comtesse de Ségur, a Witness of Her Time.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 20.3 (1995): 135-139. Project MUSE. Web. 20 Nov. 2015. <>.

Dabney family Photographs, Accession #9852-e, Special Collections, University of Virginia Library, Charlottesville, Va.

Davis, Nathaniel H. “Volumnia Hunley Davis.” Geni. N.p., 19 Nov. 2014. Web. 20 Nov. 2015.

The Family Forest Descendants of Lady Joan Beaufort. N.p.: n.p., n.d. 3257. Google Books. Millisecond Publishing Company, Inc. Web. 19 Nov. 2015.

“History of Our Maryland Society for Plastic Surgeons.” History of Our Maryland Society for Plastic Surgeons. The John Staige Davis Society, 2011. Web. 20 Nov. 2015.

“John S. Davis.” Physician Price Fixing in 19th Century Virginia. University of Virginia, 2011. Web. 20 Nov. 2015.

Papers of John Staige Davis, Accession #3247, Special Collections Dept., University of Virginia Library, Charlottesville, Va.

Segur, Comtesse De. Le Général Dourakine. Paris: Hachette, 1907. Print.

Tyler, Lyon Gardiner. Men of Mark in Virginia: Ideals of American Life; a Collection of Biographies of the Leading Men in the State. Vol. 3. N.p.: Men of Mark, 1907. 109-10. Google Books. 12 June 2007. Web. 19 Nov. 2015.

Book Find: A Brother’s Memorial

NOTE: this post, originally published on October 23, has been expanded on November 11 with a continuation by research assistant Maggie Whalen.

Book Traces @ U.Va. recently found this 19th-century mechanical engineering handbook in the U.Va. Library collection.


If you open the front cover, you find a flyleaf inscription hinting at the book’s history and its meaning to the donor. The two inscriptions show that the book originally belonged to one R. B. S. Nicolson of Savannah, Georgia, who studied at the University of Virginia during the 1878-79 school term. It was later donated to the University of Virginia Library by the original owner’s brother, John Nicolson, himself a U.Va. graduate.


But if you look deeper in the book, you find the full story. The book was published with a quire of lined paper in the back, apparently meant for engineers to take notes or do calculations. The original owner left the lined paper blank, but his brother filled a page of it with this memorial annotation (transcribed below for easier reading):


New York City April 13th 1912.

It seems a desecration almost for me to write in this book so exclusively associated with my brother–but I am led to look into it for the first time in many, many years this Saturday night, the anniversary of his birth. He was born that memorable day, fifty one years ago, on which the Civil War between the North and the South began–fifty one years ago!! How life is slipping by!

This book is a relic of my brothers first ambitions–viz, to be a civil engineer–and of his course at the University of Virginia to this end. Instead of continuing to this goal, he went into our father’s business in Savannah in 1880, coming however to an early end. He was drowned at Tybee Island Ga. July 10th 1881.

John Nicolson

Intrigued, the Book Traces @ U.Va. team started digging.

Robert Beauregard S. Nicolson (1861-1881), the book’s original owner, was born on April 13, 1861 at White Bluff, near Savannah, GA. He was the eldest son of John Nicolson Sr. (1828-1903), a successful plumber in the Savannah region, and Matilda Hall Nicolson (1832-1893). The day of Robert’s birth marked the first military engagement of the American Civil War, as Union forces surrendered Fort Sumter to the Rebel army just up the Georgia coast.

It is not entirely clear whether John Nicolson Sr., then 34 years of age, subsequently joined the Rebel cause. However, Confederate records reveal that a “John Nicholson” (perhaps a misspelling of the family’s surname) enlisted in the 47th Volunteer Infantry, which recruited from Chatham County, where the Nicolson family resided, in 1861.

On February 14, 1866, the war had come to a close and John Nicolson Jr., author of the book’s memorial annotation, was born in Brooklyn, NY.

Older brother Robert attended the University of Virginia between 1877 and 1879, where he studied civil engineering. The 1877-1878 and 1878-1879 Catalogues of Students reveal that Robert took classes in chemistry, mathematics, mineralogy, geology, natural philosophy, and applied mathematics during his time at U.Va.. This text, Trautwine’s Pocket Book, was among the “Books of Reference” required of students in the Civil Engineering program during the 1878-1879 academic year. Robert’s time in Charlottesville was, however, cut short. In 1880, he returned to Savannah to work at his father’s recently expanded plumbing company.

On July 10, 1881, just one year after returning home, Robert drowned at Tybee Island, a popular resort destination near Savannah. A July 13 article in The Macon Telegraph and Messenger details the incident:

The particulars of the sad calamity are as follows: There was a fine surf on, and a large number of persons were in bathing, young Nicolson being out a considerable distance from the others. The tide was running out at the time, and, having ventured beyond the life line, he was rapidly carried off. Realizing his danger, he struggled manfully to regain the life post, but was unsuccessful in consequence of the undertow, and was compelled to cry for help. A young man…heard his cry and gallantly responded.

The story continues, revealing that the young man’s heroic efforts were ultimately fruitless. Robert’s body was swept out to sea and discovered the following evening, a quarter-mile down the beach from where he was last seen. Robert was buried in the Nicolson family’s plot at Bonaventure Cemetery in Savannah.

Years later, John Jr. followed his deceased brother’s path to the University of Virginia, where he studied law between 1890 and 1892. The 1891 and 1892 editions of Corks and Curls, U.Va.’s yearbook, reveal that John was a member of the Temperance Union and the Georgia Association, a center on the Law School Football Team, a brother of the Beta Chapter of Phi Theta Psi fraternity, and the Vice President and President of the Young Men’s Christian Association. In 1892, John graduated with a Bachelors of Law, returned to Savannah, and was admitted to the Georgia bar. After practicing law in Savannah for several years, John relocated to his hometown, New York City, in 1897. It is from New York that John eventually inscribed the 1912 remembrance of his brother, Robert, on what would have been his 51st birthday.



Corks and Curls Yearbook. Charlottesville: U of Virginia, 1891. Print.

Corks and Curls Yearbook. Charlottesville: U of Virginia, 1892. Print.

“Drowned in the Surf.” The Macon Telegraph and Messenger [Macon] 13 July 1881: 3. America’s Historical Newspapers. Web. 9 Nov. 2015.

“Fort Sumter Surrenders.” A&E Television Networks, n.d. Web. 09 Nov. 2015.

Nicolson, John. Sanitary and Heating Age. New York: Sanitary and Heating, 1894. 56. Google Books. University of Michigan, 15 Apr. 2011. Web. 9 Nov. 2015.

Smith, Candace. “Robert B.S. “Beaury” Nicolson.” Find A Grave. N.p., 15 July 2009. Web. 09 Nov. 2015.

Trautwine, John C. The Civil Engineer’s Pocket-book. 10th ed. Philadelphia: Claxton, 1876. Print.

United States. National Park Service. “Soldier Details: Nicholson, John.” National Parks Service. U.S. Department of the Interior, 09 Nov. 2015. Web. 09 Nov. 2015.

Who’s Who in New York City and State. N.p.: L.R. Hamersly, 1911. 704. Google Books. Harvard University, 11 Jan. 2008. Web. 09 Nov. 2015.

Book Traces Day at the University of Miami

On September 24, the Otto G. Richter Library at the University of Miami hosted a Book Traces day. The two principal investigators for Book Traces @ U.Va., Kara McClurken and Andrew Stauffer, traveled to Miami to give guest presentations on Book Traces and how the project has influenced preservation work at the University of Virginia’s Alderman Library. The Richter Library stacks were open all day for student searchers to hunt for “hidden treasures” in the collection.

Here is one of the highlights from an article about the event by the Miami Hurricane:

“Book Traces is a project to get students to think about the book as an object and not just a source of textual information,” said Special Collections Librarian Jay Sylvestre, who helped organize the event. “All the parts of a book, from the cover, to the illustrations, to any notes added by readers, tells us a story. Book Traces helps students find and follow that story.”

The students found numerous examples of unique copies in the Richter collection, with marginalia and other reader interventions ranging from the cheerfully comic to the touchingly tragic. It has been great for us to see the number of unique copies uncovered in the stacks during one-day Book Traces exercises at Columbia University and now Miami. It goes to show that the U.Va. collection is not unique in having numerous donated books with artifactual value.

If you are interested in hosting a Book Traces day at your library, please contact Prof. Stauffer.

Andrew Stauffer discusses Book Traces on “With Good Reason”

Professor Andrew Stauffer of the University of Virginia, one of the two co-principal investigators for Book Traces @ U.Va., recently gave an interview about the larger Book Traces project on the radio show With Good Reason. When interviewer Allison Quantz asked about the origins of the project, Stauffer explained how a class exercise in the library led to a more methodical search:

I began looking systematically through the books of poetry in Alderman Library at the University of Virginia and finding all sorts of amazing things. It was as if no one had ever looked for this before but as soon as you started looking for it, it was everywhere. People wrote in their books all the time in the nineteenth century. It was a way to keep journals, to establish reactions to reading. I mean we still write in books now, but I think the practices were different in different historical periods and we learned a lot from that.

You can listen to the interview here (it will be the first segment when you press play).

Book Find: Remembering Union Soldiers with a Gift of Poetry

Guest post by Book Traces @ U.Va. volunteer Kaye Marie Ferguson

Camp-Fire and Memorial Poems by Kate Brownlee Sherwood is a collection of poetry published in 1885 and written in dedication to those soldiers—both living and dead—who served in the Union forces during the Civil War and became members of a veterans’ organization called the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR). This particular copy of the book features two inscriptions, one establishing the book as a Christmas gift from the author and another indicating the owner and recipient, J. Warren Keifer:

Gift inscription from Kate B. Sherwood

Gift inscription on the free endpaper: “Presented by the author – Christmas 1888.”

Title page with owner's inscription

Title page with owner’s inscription: “J. Warren Keifer – 12.25/88.”

Although the extent of the relationship between Keifer and Sherwood cannot be known definitively, the biography of each gives us a glimpse into a potential professional relationship, if not a friendship.

In her early career and throughout her life, Kate Brownlee Sherwood involved herself in journalism, working for several Ohio newspapers as a typesetter and leader-writer, as well as owning and serving as editor of the Canton Daily News-Democrat. Married to Congressman Isaac R. Sherwood, she was also highly active in politics and became known as the “Poetess of the Congressional Circle,” writing political and patriotic poems advocating the Union, many of which she read aloud at National Conventions for the GAR. After the Civil War, Kate Sherwood possessed one of the most outspoken voices calling for a national congress of women, and in 1883, she co-founded the Woman’s Relief Corps (WRC), an organization consisting of women who supported the Union during the war. The purpose of the WRC was to work in conjunction with the GAR and assist in the promotion and management of Memorial Day (originally a day used to educate youth about patriotic nationalism).

Warren Keifer, a Republican Representative from Ohio, fought for the Union Army as Major General and served as Speaker of the House of Representatives from 1881-83. When not in office or serving in the armed forces, he practiced law in his hometown in Clark County, Ohio.

Sherwood and Keifer, both Ohio-born, attended several GAR and WRC National Conventions (including the one hosted in San Francisco, California, among the participants of which both were named in the San Francisco Daily Morning Call). It is likely that the two of them met at one or several of these conventions. Tucked within the pages of this copy of her patriotic poetry is Sherwood’s WRC business card:

Business card inserted into book

Business card text: “Mrs. Kate B Sherwood. Past National President Woman’s Relief Corps”

Whether Sherwood and Keifer were friends, colleagues, or simply acquaintances, this seemingly insignificant piece of paper and the inscriptions found within a book in Alderman Library’s circulating collection remind us of literature’s power to bring individuals together. Just as Sherwood’s poetry served to unite Americans in the remembrance of soldiers, the physical book itself provides evidence of human connectedness.


“Sherwood, Mrs. Kate Brownlee.” American Women: Fifteen Hundred Biographies with Over 1,400 Portraits: A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of the Lives and Achievements of American Women During the Nineteenth Century, Volume 2. 1897. Print.

“Women of the Woman’s Relief Corps.” Women of America: Part of the American History & Genealogy Project. The American History & Genealogy Project, 3 Feb. 2015. Web. 11 Aug. 2015.

“Keifer, Joseph Warren.” History, Art & Archives of the United States House of Representatives. United States House of Representatives, n.d. Web. 11 Aug. 2015.

Journal of the National Convention of the Woman’s Relief Corps, Auxiliary to the Grand Army of the Republic 7.26 (1889). Print.

“San Francisco Call Newspaper Participants 1886.” The Federation of East European Family History Societies. FEEFHS, n.d. Web. 11 Aug. 2015.

Journal of the National Encampment of the Grand Army of the Republic 48 (1915). Print.


Book Find: Tennyson on Tennyson

This copy of Alfred Lord Tennyson: A Study of his Life and Work by Arthur Waugh was formerly owned by William Gordon McCabe, a Civil War captain turned historian and poet.

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McCabe has annotated the free endpaper not only with his own name and hometown of Petersburg, Virginia, but also with the following notation: “Aldworth, Sussex, England, August 18, 1894.” Later McCabe added a few lines in pencil explaining the significance of the latter place and date:

Hallam, Lord Tennyson, told me this day (Aug. 18th, 1894) that he considered this book, “a very poor book.” But allowances must be made for—”the point of view.”

The great English poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson had died in October of 1892, the same month that Waugh’s biography was first published. Hallam, Lord Tennyson was Alfred’s son and evidently did not think highly of Waugh’s portrayal of his father.

An Introduction to Book Traces @ U.Va.

“Grant Boosts Efforts to Catalog Secrets Hidden in Old Library Books,” an article published in U.Va. Today, provides a nice introduction to the project–formerly called Hidden in Plain Sight–that has turned into Book Traces @ U.Va.

Associate Professor of English Andrew Stauffer began a crowd-sourced project, “Book Traces,” earlier this year to preserve this hidden literary life of the 19th century before many older volumes get moved off of library shelves. He considers the project an “intervention” to retrieve these fragile copies that reveal aspects of social life, the history of reading and uses of the book.

Now Stauffer has teamed with Kara McClurken, head of the University Library’s preservation services, to expand the recovery effort. The Council on Library and Information Resources recently awarded them a two-year, $221,000 grant for their project, “Hidden in Plain Sight,” to discover, describe and preserve unique pre-1923 books in the circulating collection.

After the 1895 Rotunda fire destroyed U.Va.’s library, many people donated their own books to rebuild the collection, McClurken said.

Like many readers, “I used to think that things written in books were nothing but a defacement,” she said.

Then McClurken met Stauffer this summer in a Rare Book School class in the library. Through their conversations, she began to understand there were important things to be learned from the marginalia and artifacts found on the pages. The historical evidence “has a role to play” in scholarly research, she said.

With the grant, library staff members will seek to identify subject areas that are most likely to have marginalia. They’ll work on a process to record the information and enter it into the online catalogue; at U.Va., that’s Virgo. Because many of the volumes are fragile, they’ll figure out how best to preserve them. Another goal is to make sure other academic libraries can use the process.

Read the full article on the U.Va. Today website.