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The American Enlightenment


This copy of John Milton’s Paradise Lost is the only known book to bear the signatures of both Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. John Milton, Paradise Lost, 2 vols. (Dublin: John Exshaw, 1751). The Jay Fliegelman Library of Association Copies, Stanford University Libraries

Stanford Libraries Share a Treasure Trove of American History

In a room filled with antiquarian books of all sizes, Stanford Library Exhibition Designer Elizabeth Fischbach selects an unassuming brown book and carefully opens it. She points out two signatures scrawled on the title page of the Dublin 1751 edition John Milton’s Paradise Lost. In faded ink, Thomas Jefferson's signature is clearly legible; nearby on the page, the traces of James Madison's signature are barely visible, as if it's been partially erased. Fischbach turns the page to reveal an additional four James Madison signatures.

This book, the only book known to have been signed by both Jefferson and Madison, does not reside in the National Archives in Washington, D.C., or in the Library of Congress. In fact, it’s clear across the country, one of many national treasures in Stanford University’s growing collection of rare books and historic manuscripts pertaining to early American history.

In recent years, Stanford’s early American holdings, particularly from the era of America’s founding fathers, have increased dramatically. As the collection grows, more scholars are finding themselves studying the nation's East Coast beginnings on the other side of the country.

“The American Enlightenment: Treasures from the Stanford University Libraries,” an exhibition that will display rare books from the great age of intellectual discovery and innovation that produced the American Revolution among other events, will open at Stanford’s Green Library on February 7, 2011. It is curated by Caroline Winterer, Professor of American History at Stanford University, in collaboration with John E. Mustain, Curator of Rare Books at the Stanford University Libraries.

The Story of a Growing Collection

Stanford’s collection of early American books and manuscripts has grown dramatically in the last twenty years. Two major recent acquisitions will be showcased in this exhibition. One is the personal collection of more than 150 rare books previously owned by Jay Fliegelman, Coe Professor of American Literature at Stanford until his death in 2007.

Fliegelman was especially fascinated by “association copies”: books owned by historically important people, who signed, annotated, or made notes on the pages. Fliegelman loved to show his private collection “at every opportunity to students and colleagues,” said Fischbach. This is the first time that books from it have been shown to the general public. In the last two years, the library also received a generous gift of over 1,600 volumes that now make up the Charles J. Tanenbaum Collection of the Eighteenth Century.

Tanenbaum was a passionate bibliophile especially interested in the Anglophone world of the eighteenth century. The collection is especially strong in history and politics but also includes voyages and travels, classical authors, Enlightenment thinkers, and law. Winterer and Mustain carefully selected examples from each collection and several others to include in the exhibit. “The books pretty much chose themselves,” said Winterer. “Many are of major intellectual importance, showing how exciting ideas about politics, religion, and nature crossed the Atlantic in the eighteenth century. A few are movie stars:  larger than life and full color. We were especially interested in books that revealed a personal connection to a famous owner.”

“The American Enlightenment” exhibition, in which illuminating contextual details will be displayed with each item, will be on display in the Peterson Gallery and Munger Rotunda on the second floor of the Bing Wing of Green Library through May 15, 2011. The exhibition is free and open to the public. An online version of the exhibition will be available for viewing after February 7th.

Bringing History Out of the Archives

The exhibition will coincide with a course on the American Enlightenment taught by Professor Winterer, whose research focuses on the intellectual and cultural history of America in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In this course and most of the others she teaches at the undergraduate and graduate levels, Winterer brings her students to the Special Collections reading room.

“A number of the students remark every year that this was their favorite thing to do as a history student,” she said. “Part of that of course is working with Special Collections curator John Mustain, whose enthusiasm for these old books is really infectious.” In fact graduate students became a major part of the exhibition; Winterer received research and writing assistance from two of her doctoral students, Julia Mansfield and Scott Spillman.

Her students’ enthusiasm for the chance to get up close and personal with American history gave Winterer the idea to showcase the collection for the public and campus community. “A lot of the past can be very abstract for students, like these people were sitting in fluffy clouds thinking great thoughts,” said Winterer about the importance of hands-on experience in the archives. “Actually touching a book that has been handled by Thomas Jefferson or a slave is thrilling for anyone. Students see that the past is about people, not just abstractions.”

Winterer knows from first-hand experience the surprises that await anyone who works with rare books. While leafing through a rare book, she saw something fall out: it was a letter written by nineteenth-century Transcendentalist Margaret Fuller. “Unfortunately it was a boring letter,” she said laughingly. “We were hoping it would say something salacious.”

A Republic of Letters

Spanning roughly 1680 to 1820, the American Enlightenment was a great age of intellectual discovery that connected the New World with intellectual centers in Paris, London and Rome. Bryan Wolf, the Jeanette and William Hayden Jones Professor in American Art and Culture at Stanford, hopes that the exhibition will reveal new insights into Enlightenment thinking in America.

“No one who views it can doubt the fundamental role played by American writers in what was truly a trans-Atlantic Enlightenment,” said Wolf. The exhibition strays beyond the boundaries of what is typically thought of as the high Enlightenment and includes books that touch on art, fashion and even home décor. The three organizers joke that they will fashion scarves based on a polka dot swatch in an early nineteenth-century magazine. In polite London, advertisements in fashionable publications would contain real fabric samples. An actual pattern from the magazine will be featured on the inside cover of the exhibition catalogue.

The Collection’s Gems

Other gems in the collection include a book that was given to Phillis Wheatley, the first African-American poet to be published. Yet another is a gripping Gothic novel in which a frustrated reader scribbled the word “botheration” upon realizing that a large chunk of pages had been ripped out. Clearly, this nineteenth-century reader was irked to have been denied a critical plot twist. 

Those with an interest in nature and art history will enjoy the display of two colorful books about New World animals and plants, Mark Catesby’s The Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands. The intricately detailed and breathtakingly beautiful drawings were dedicated to the queen of England and produced at great expense. Also on exhibit are two editions of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, both from 1776, the original year of publication. The London edition was censored, omitting defamatory remarks about King George III.

Invitation to Speculate

Visitors to the exhibition are invited to speculate about the motivations and feelings of the books’ famous owners. For example, why did the book of the only American revolutionary to be locked into the Tower of London, Henry Laurens, appear to have been gnawed on by rodents? How was Laurens able to sign the book in ink, which was nearly impossible for prisoners to attain? Why did both Jefferson and Madison both sign Paradise Lost? Even more intriguing is the question of why Madison signed it five times, while Jefferson’s name appears only once.

Caroline Winterer breaks into a wide smile as she discusses the historical conditions that may have produced this unique moment. “We have no idea why they both signed the book, or why Madison signed it five times, or why one of his signatures was almost entirely erased,” she muses. “We only know that Jefferson and Madison were great friends and that they exchanged hundreds of letters and quite a few books. But that’s partly why these books are so valuable to us. We’re not just looking for answers about the past, we’re trying to find new questions that lead us to new scholarship.” 

Unlike some university libraries, where historical documents are locked up or undergraduates are denied access, the Stanford University Libraries strive to give students and visitors hands-on access to rare books. The organizers hope that visitors will develop a passion for real historical sources, or as John Mustain puts it, at least get a break from “disembodied reading on the internet.”

“Books are living, breathing entities,” Professor Winterer adds. “There is certainly something special about getting your hands one of these very old books, especially if you know that someone long ago really treasured it.”

By Christina Farr