Author Archives: Karla Nielsen

Researcher Profile | Dana Williams on Toni Morrison’s Editorship

Morrison holding manuscript

Photo via The Pieces I Am (Magnolia Pictures)

Editor’s note: A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of seeing a new documentary about Nobel laureate and novelist, Toni Morrison. In the film, The Pieces I Am, her editor, literary scholars and friends discussed Morrison’s unwavering commitment to writing about African-American life as quintessentially American life. Central to her writing life was not only her own work, but the care with which she stewarded other writers as an editor at Random House. This re-published profile takes look at one researcher’s work on Morrison’s editorship through the Random House Archives, housed here in the RBML. It’s both a pleasure and an honor to be the caretaker for knowledge that, in some small way, fosters work that makes lives richer as Morrison’s life and writing does in perilous times. Rest in Power, Ms. Morrison. – Kimberly Springer, Curator for Oral History Continue reading

Literary Remains

Earlier this summer some of the items from our Tennessee Williams Papers made their way back to Morningside Heights after having been borrowed for the Morgan Library & Museum’s fantastic show No Refuge but Writing.

In the final weeks of the exhibition, its curator, Carolyn Vega, gave a tour to a group of local rare book librarians. She kindly pointed out the items loaned by Columbia, and it was striking how consistently Williams name-checked the poet Hart Crane, whose papers we also hold. Continue reading

Granary Books exhibit in the Columbia RBML: September 8, 2015-January 30, 2016


Next month the Columbia Rare Book & Manuscript Library will open an exhibition on the artist book and poetry publisher Granary Books: The Book Undone: Thirty Years of Granary Books. The exhibit runs in the RBML Kempner cases from September 8, 2015 through January 30, 2016, and will be open to the public during our open hours.

We are honored to hold the archive of this important publisher and to be mounting an exhibition of its thirty-year run (so far), including not only Granary publications but material from the archive that show some of the labor involved in creating these extraordinary objects. The RBML acquired the Granary Books archive in 2013 and the collection is open for research.

The opening event for the exhibit on September 16th will showcase some of the press’s most frequent collaborators, including bookbinder Daniel Kelm, book artist and graphic designer Emily McVarish, poet Charles Bernstein, critic and book artist Johanna Drucker, poet and anthologist Jerome Rothenberg, poet Vincent Katz, and book artist Buzz Spector. Their presentation goes from 6:30-7:30pm in Butler Library Room 203. A reception in the RBML follows.

Two of the artists who have work in the exhibition, Jen Bervin and Cecilia Vicuna, will give a performance in the exhibit space on Tuesday evening, November 17th. So mark your calendars and for more details, feel free to contact the RBML front desk or to check our Current Exhibition & Events page after September 8th.


Go Set a Watchman in the papers of Harper Lee’s literary agents


Nelle Harper Lee, photographed by friend Michael Brown in October 1957, the same month that she signed the contract with Lippincott.

HarperCollins publishes Harper Lee’s novel Go Set a Watchman today, July 14, 2015.  With an initial print run of 2 million copies, this is the most highly anticipated book release of the year, carefully promoted by HarperCollins since their February 3rd announcement .

Go Set a Watchman’s publication has also generated advance press in the form of controversy. HarperCollins has billed the novel as a sequel to the Pulitzer prize-winning and perennially best-selling To Kill a Mockingbird. But Lee’s biographer Charles Shields asserts that Go Set a Watchman was an early draft of To Kill a Mockingbird.

In The Washington Post, Neely Tucker questioned the timing of the decision to publish the novel sixty years after its composition and within months of the death of Nelle Lee’s protective older sister, Alice.  Alexandra Alter and Serge Kovaleski in The New York Times have pointed out discrepancies in the narrative about GSAW‘s composition and re-discovery given by HarperCollins and Lee’s current lawyer, Tonya Carter.  NPR books also reviews the debate about the novel’s genesis and the decision to publish.

The papers of Nelle Harper Lee’s literary agents, Annie Laurie Williams and Maurice Crain, held by the Columbia Rare Book & Manuscript Library, have factored in these debates.  The visitor cards kept by Williams track the submission of manuscripts by agency authors and provide a detailed timeline for the creation and eventual shelving of the manuscript for Go Set a WatchmanALW_VisitorCard_1 ALW_VisitorCard_2ALW_VisitorCard_3On the series of sequentially numbered cards above, one can see that starting on January 14, 1957, Harper Lee began delivering the pages of Go Set a Watchman at a steady pace of approximately fifty pages per week until it is noted as completed on February 27, 1957.  The manuscript then underwent editing, and by October 17, 1957, a fully edited manuscript was sold to J.B. Lippincott without a title, a fact corroborated by Maurice Crain’s facsimile of the contract in a contracts ledger, the first page of which is pictured below.Crain_Contract-1Lee then spent two years revising the novel. On the third of the sequential notecards pictured above (note the typed numbers in the upper-right corner of the notecards), a new title for the novel contracted by Lippincott emerges: To Kill a Mockingbird.  A separate card (below) from a file that Annie Laurie Williams kept for manuscripts also illustrates the change of title.  Filed under Lippincott, To Kill a Mockingbird appears above Go Set a Watchman, which has been crossed out. This emendation and the sequence of submissions noted in the visitor cards supports Nelle Lee’s comment that GSAW is the “parent” of TKAM, a novel set in Maycomb years after the plot of TKAM but drafted before.ALW_LippincotManuscriptCard_1Annie Laurie Williams (1894-1977) was already a successful literary agent known for Hollywood successes such as Gone with the Wind (1939) by the time she and Maurice Crain teamed up as life and business partners. Together Williams and Crain handled the work of literary greats such as John Steinbeck and Nelle Harper Lee.  Williams donated her and Crain’s papers to Columbia University in 1971.

Nelle Lee first contacted the agents in 1956. The earliest visitor cards in the collection note that Lee first submitted short stories to her agents and that they first received her as a friend of Truman Capote. The papers of Williams and Crain show that they developed a close friendship with Lee, whom they often invited to join them at their weekend home in Connecticut. But documentation concerning Lee’s writing and revision process is scant, perhaps because so much of the discussion was conducted in person.

A statement published in the WSJ yesterday by Tonja Carter, as well as Jonathan Mahler’s New York Times article focusing on Lee’s relationship to her editor at Lippincott, Tay Hohoff, suggests that there is more evidence to consider as this newly visible work changes the conversation about one of the country’s most beloved novelists. Initial reviews of Go Set a Watchman (by Michiku Kakutani in The New York Times and Mark Lawson in The Guardian) have raised questions about the diverging racial politics of the two novels, for example. Hopefully access to a second work by Harper Lee will bring more critical and scholarly attention to her writing as well.

This blog post and a small exhibit of these materials currently up in the Columbia Rare Book & Manuscript Library were put together by Tom McCutchon and Karla Nielsen.

Book Traces comes to the Butler Stacks on October 8th

On Wednesday, October 8, Butler Library’s open stacks will become both hunting grounds and laboratory. That day we are pleased to welcome Andrew Stauffer, Professor of English at the University of Virginia, and the Book Traces project to Columbia.

The Book Traces project is a crowd-sourced web project aimed at identifying unique copies of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century books on circulating library shelves. Professor Stauffer founded the project after years of sending students into the University of Virginia stacks to find personalized copies of books of Romantic and Victorian poetry.

Andrew Stauffer describes the importance of the project very eloquently on the Book Traces website but I want to underscore his description of these books as constituting a massive, distributed archive of the history of reading, hidden in plain sight in the circulating collection. Viewed that way, they are a treasure. Historians of reading constantly face an evidence problem because it is difficult to find or follow past readers’ traces. However, not all post-industrial nineteenth century books look like treasure from the outside. They can be crumbly and fragile, riddled with what librarians call inherent vice. Faced with these volumes, some readers, and some library circulation managers, are happy for a rationale that justifies moving them offsite or online. There are many discoveries to made if you think to look, but we need to start looking before the evidence is moved out of sight or obliterated.

What will we find on October 8th? When I went through the Butler stacks recently with librarian colleagues Jane Siegel and John Tofanelli, for the most part we found annotations and bookplates. Many flyleaves displayed the name of Nicholas Murray Butler, former Columbia University President (from 1902-1945) after whom the building is named. On many front endpapers we found the bookplate for the Paterno library, which is split between Columbia’s Casa Italiana and the Butler stacks.


In this book from the Paterno collection above (Antonio Mirabelli’s Istituzioni de Eloquenza) you can see the traces of four separate handlers of the book: Aldo B., John Reynolds, Prof. F. Ettari, and finally the bookplate for the Paterno Library. The first two inscriptions state Italian locations: Aldo B’s dedication in Italian notes “Napoli” and Reynolds adds after his name, “Florence.” Looking at these traces we can follow the book on its journey across the Atlantic and formal incorporation into the library at Casa Italiana. For me, they were a prompt to learn more about the Paterno collection, aided by Meredith Levin, Columbia’s Librarian for Western European History and Literature.

The books in the Paterno Library arrived at Columbia through many channels but always under the auspices of Italian-American Charles V. Paterno, who made his fortune building “modern” (that is, elevator) apartment buildings around Morningside and Washington Heights. Paterno was determined to build a library of Italian culture in Columbia University’s Casa Italiana. As early as 1925 representatives of the Casa traveled to Italy on book-buying trips funded by Paterno; professors in the Italian Department ordered or donated others. Maybe Professor Ettari was one of them. We know that Butler and Paterno traveled together to Italy in 1928, where they were feted by Mussolini and given entrance to the Villa d’Este: a fascinating view on a moment in history, and for me a vista that opened up only when I opened this book.

Inspired by Professor Stauffer’s example, instructors across the country are incorporating hunts in the stacks into their courses this fall, and asking students to upload their findings to the Book Traces website. Several Columbia professors have done the same and their students will be combing the Butler stacks on October 8th. The event is not just for students, but also open to the public and other members of the Columbia and Barnard communities. To participate RSVP to Karla Nielsen at with Book Traces in the subject line and the time of the orientation you want to attend.

On October 8th, Professor Stauffer will give introductory sessions to the day’s activities at 10:00am, noon, and 2:00pm in the Studio@Butler. There will be a wrap-up event in the Studio at 4:00pm on October 8th and a debriefing of the day at 6:00pm on October 28th as part of the Book History Colloquium at Columbia. If you are interested in annotated books, nineteenth and early twentieth-century literature or are curious about the project,  the history of library collections, or how library views on the printed book are changing in the digital age–come on down!

March 7th panel on Retranslating Literary Classics

The Columbia Rare Book and Manuscript Library is excited to be working with a number of centers on campus to invite some of the most distinguished literary translators to campus on March 7, 2014. This event is free and open to the public.

A Panel on Retranslating Literary Classics

Edith Grossman on CERVANTES
Wyatt Mason on MONTAIGNE and
Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky on DOSTOYEVSKY
moderated by Susan Bernofsky

Friday, March 7, 2014, 11am-1pm
Miller Theatre, 2960 Broadway at 116th Street
Columbia University Morningside Campus

This panel brings together four esteemed translators to discuss the process of retranslating an work of literature that has already been translated into multiple languages, often multiple times. Some opine that every generation needs a new translation of Homer, and this panel will discuss the literary and linguistic dynamics underlying that understanding as well as the endeavor of working with or against pre-existing translations.

Edith Grossman is one of the most well respected translators from Spanish to English. She spent most of her career translating Latin American authors such as Mario Vargas Llosa and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and has more recently has undertaken works from Spain's Golden Age such as Gongora's Soledades and Cervantes's Don Quixote. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky have translated many works together, beginning with Dostoevesky's The Brothers Karamazov. They have since re-translated the major works of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, as well as works by Gogol, Leskov, Chekhov, and Bulgakov. Wyatt Mason is a writer, translator, and award-winning critic. His translations of many of Montaigne's Essays appeared in The Threepenny Review and his translations of Rimbaud have been coming out with the Modern Library. Susan Bernofsky is a writer, translator from German, and Director of Literary Translation at Columbia (LTAC). Her new translation of Kafka's Metamorphosis came out with Norton in January 2014. She is working on a biography of the Swiss writer Robert Walser, many of whose works she has translated.

Co-sponsored by the Friends of the Columbia University Libraries, the Center for the Core Curriculum, the Rare Book and Manuscript Library, the Harriman Institute, the Maison Francaise, and the Hispanic Institute.


Pine Tree Scholars: The next generation of readers for paper and ink books

This summer I am putting together a new program that we are excited to offer for the coming academic year. The Pine Tree program will expose students to craft as well as (light) industrial book-making processes, often with hands-on exercises. It allows us to go beyond what we can offer on campus without a Center for the Book, and taps into the many resources of New York’s book-making communities. Paper is still being made by hand in Manhattan!

The students admitted to this program will be Pine Tree Scholars, named after the foundation that is funding the workshops. We did a test-run last year by bringing a group of ten Columbia and Barnard students to the New York Antiquarian Book Fair. The Antiquarian Booksellers' Association of America puts on this fair each April and for the last many years in the Park Avenue Armory, which you can see set up for the fair in this photograph from the ABAA site below. I was brought around my first antiquarian book fair in 1999 by a rare book librarian so it's fun to have become the inductor, especially with a group of students as curious, bright, and enthusiastic as these were.

The Fair provides opportunities for learning about book history, printing, cartography, collecting– not just for buying–which suited our group because several books for sale cost 10,000 times the student ticket price of $10. Some of the students walked around the vast exhibition hall together or with me. Others sought out dealers whose interests matched theirs. One student focused on Early Modern science and managed to find a book on chicken embryology from the sixteenth century that recalled research she is doing in a biology lab on campus.

Many reported being most impressed by a samizdat Russian translation of Frank Herbert’s Dune on offer from Simon Beattie, a young British book dealer. Simon made a great impression on the students because he sells not only “proper books” but books about which he can tell an interesting story, and he does indeed. Thank you to Simon for being so generous with your time and to Julianne Caldarera for the photograph of the book below.

After the fair, we walked down Park Avenue the Grolier Club for lunch with Szilvia Tanenbaum, Director of the Pine Tree foundation and our generous benefactress for this new program. The Grolier Club’s members are book collectors, librarians, and rare book dealers: people with a serious bookish inclination. Szilvia described how the club works and we received a quick tour from Grolier Club librarian, Meghan Constantinou, before taking in the exhibition on little magazines that was on display there (NB: the rotating exhibits at the Grolier Club are open to the public). I snapped a photograph of the group with Szilvia at the Club..

Next month we will be announcing a full program of Pine Tree events for the coming academic year. It will include visits to Dieu Donne to make paper, to Studio on the Square to set type and print, as well as visit to the Woodside Press, a printing studio, to see not only monotype letterpress printing demos, but also linotype and typecasting machines in operation. We’ll close with another visit to the New York Antiquarian Book Fair next April. Stay tuned or message me directly if you’re interested at

Update! (2/24/14) One of the Pine Tree scholars, Columbia Ph.D. candidate in English Arden Hegele, has written a blog post for the North American Society for the Study of Romanticism about her experience in the program and the pedagogical value of these hands-on activities, which she terms the "analog humanities."

Harvey Pekar on Felipe Alfau


We have started collecting rare comic books and comics-related archival materials concertedly in the Columbia Rare Book and Manuscript Library, propelled by the enthusiasm and efforts of our colleague Karen Green who has built up an impressive array of comics and graphic novels for the circulating collection. There are many points of contact between these newly arrived comics and many of our existing collecting strengths in literature, journalism, and publishing, as attested by this recently acquired 6-page manuscript by Harvey Pekar.


This draft contains preliminary writing for what resulted in a one-page panel about Felipe Alfau by Pekar drawn by Joe Sacco. Felipe Alfau was a Spanish-born Anglophone novelist now considered a precursor to James Joyce and other experimental and “proto-postmodern” authors. In the draft Pekar also compares him to Flann O'Brien, Raymond Queneau and Cervantes. Although we do not usually collect such small archival pieces, I could not resist this one because it connected not only to our recent comics and graphic novel acquisitions, but also our holdings in publishers' archives.


In the panel Pekar mentions that the Dalkey Archive Press re-issued Locos and then published a previously unpublished Alfau novel, Chromos. In fact, Alfau's typewritten manuscript of Chromos is one of the amazing documents that came to Columbia with the Dalkey Archive Press archive, which we are still in the process of unpacking and processing. 


The draft runs six handwritten pages and goes into greater detail. The differences between the manuscript and the panel show Pekar pulling out a story from the mass of details, and also the extent of his efforts to place Alfau into a literary tradition. The draft bears the scrub marks of erasers. Even when generating the text, Pekar chose his words carefully. It gives a glimpse into Pekar as a reader of experimental narrative and metafiction, an autodidact who takes on reading assignments, and book collector who sought out both autographed copies and re-issues with critical introductions.


Throughout Pekar identifies with Alfau as a genius who toils by day doing administrative work. Alfau was a translator for a bank and Pekar famously worked in a health insurance claims office. Pekar concludes “I wonder how many outstanding writers, musicians, artists there have been and are out there even less well-known than he is. Probably an appalling large number. Well maybe some day when the world is civilized things won't be so difficult.”


We now have both Pekar's draft for this panel and the published panel, which appeared in Dark Horse Presents #104 Pink Tornado. We will keep the two together as Columbia RBML MS collection #1650