Rare Books and Manuscripts Library

Highlighting our collections and the work that we do

Category: People

Who Was William Charvat?

Frequently we hear from members of our Ohio State community, that they never knew we had particularly strong holdings in such diverse areas as Cervantes, Children’s Science, Photography, even Scientology.  We are particularly surprised when we hear from our local scholarly constituency that they have never heard of the William Charvat Collection of American Fiction, which is University Libraries’ strongest research book collection and among the greatest collections of its kind in the nation.  Of course, we should modestly admit that not everyone’s life revolves about the Ohio State University Libraries (OSUL) and, try as we might to publicize and promote our collections, sometimes we fail to reach that very audience which might be most interested in both a popular and academic resource like the Charvat Collection.  If we are reaching that audience now, here is a link to the Charvat Collection web site:  http://library.osu.edu/find/collections/charvat/. Of course, the Charvat Collection, at least in name, would never have existed if there had not been a William Charvat and, though we discuss him briefly on the web site, he is deserving of more recognition.portrait of William Charvat

The early life of William Charvat is sketchy.  He was born in New York City on July 15, 1905 and attended New York University where he received hs B.S. and M.A. degrees.  The University of Pennsylvania awarded him his Ph.D. in 1934.  After a brief stint at New York University, Charvat came to the Ohio State University in 1944 where he began his career as a distinguished professor of American literature in the Department of English.  For much of his time at Ohio State, he was part of a triumvirate of American literature faculty that included Roy Harvey Pearce and Claude Simpson who were among the most respected literary scholars of their time.  This academic trio, for instance, was responsible for establishing the Centenary Hawthorne Edition at Ohio State, an editorial project that became the model, under the auspices of the Center for Editions of American Authors, at other universities throughout the country, e.g., William Dean Howells at Indiana University, Herman Melville at Northwestern University, Mark Twain at the University of California, Berkeley, etc.

William Charvat, in his individual scholarship, was a pioneer in his approach toward the analysis and interpretation of American literary culture. Today, most scholars take for granted that the study of the book trade is a necessary prerequisite to our understanding of the influence that the business of writing had not only on literary production, but on the shape of an artist’s aesthetic vision. Yet Charvat’s Literary Publishing in America, 1790-1850 (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1959) and The Profession of Authorship in America, 1800-1870 (published posthumously by Ohio State University Press, 1968) were groundbreaking works in the study of American book history. Their respective reissues by the University of Massachusetts Press in 1993 and Columbia University in 1992 attest to the enduring value of William Charvat’s contribution to American literary scholarship.

Charvat’s bibliographic prescience was equally impressive. It was under his guidance that the American fiction collection at OSUL became the great research collection that it is today. Established in the late 1950s, the collection was officially named the William Charvat Collection of American Fiction upon Charvat’s death in 1966. Charvat recognized early on the importance of a broad-based approach to the study of American literature, and that in addition to having the works of major canonical writers always at hand, scholars needed access to those lesser lights better known for their local-color fiction, popular genre writing, and treatment of disreputable, if not repugnant, subjects within the realm of fiction. Charvat believed that a comprehensive library collection of a particular area within a national literature, if not an entire national literature itself, was an indispensable resource for the scholarly community. At Charvat’s urging the Rare Books and Manuscripts Library concentrated its collection efforts on amassing American fiction following the criteria of Lyle Wright’s three-volume A Contribution to American Fiction, 1789-1900, criteria for selection that have remained constant for close to five decades: first American printings of adult fiction by United States authors.

Howard Mumford Jones, another giant in American literary scholarship from an earlier generation, summarized well William Charvat’s academic standing in his Scholarship, Novelty, and Teaching:  An Address in Memory of the Late William Charvat (The Ohio State University Press for the Department of English;, Ohio State University, [1968]):  “The best contribution of the scholar to education is to enrich scholarship, to continue it, to make it available to all those competent and ready to accept the philosophy that scholarship implies.  Such seems to me still the proper goal and appropriate contribution of the scholars to this or any other time.  If I understand him correctly, this also William Charvat believed.”

Geoffrey D. Smith

Private Libraries and more

One of the joys of being head of an institutional rare book collection is the opportunity to get away from the office and view private collections.  Such viewings always lead to musings upon the importance of the books themselves, why people collect, the physical place of a book in any given space and any given moment in time, and more.   Often the musings go somewhat astray as they did after I viewed a magnificent private library last week.

The library was comprised of primarily twentieth-century first editions of major authors although there was substantial representation of other major nineteenth-century American authors and notable nineteenth- and twentieth-century British and Irish authors.  As I viewed the array of many of my favorite authors I would look to see if the author’s first book was among the collection:  Robert Frost’s A Boy’s Will, first English edition, 1913 (it was there, though I did not look for or expect to find Frost’s 1894, extraordinarily rare, vanity edition called Twilight); Ernest Hemingway, In Our Time, first trade edition, 1925, Boni and Liveright (it was there).  I checked for landmark books:  James Joyce’s Ulysses, Paris, 1922 (it was there, in addition to the first British publication  by the Egoist Press, also 1922); T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land published by Boni and Liveright, 1922 (it was there and I had moment to pause to consider the astounding literary prescience of the publisher Boni and Liveright). 

I could not help but compare with our own holdings in the Rare Books and Manuscripts Library and the Charvat Collection of American Fiction.  Yes, we had the 1913 A Boy’s Will, but not nearly in as good of condition as the private collector.  We also had the 1925 In Our Time, but, again, not nearly in as good of condition.  (A significant difference between institutional libraries and elite private libraries, for several reasons, tends to be condition.)  Charvat does, however, have the private press editions of In Our Time, (Paris, Three Mountains Press, 1924, and, an abbreviated edition, titled Three Stories and Ten Poems, Dijon, 1923) both in very good condition.  Our Ulysses (two first editions) compare very well. One copy in original wrappers has recently received treatment from Harry Campbell, Book and Paper Conservator for Special Collections.  An interesting two volume edition of Ulysses in Rare Books is an item smuggled, due to censorship, into the country contained in the bindings for the putative volumes Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll and The Little Minister by James M. Barrie.  The private collector did not have such a copy.

We have three copies of the first edition of The Waste Land and they compare favorably with the copy I saw in the private library.  But editions other than the first can have significance as well.  For instance, Rare Books has a third printing of The Waste Land in good condition.  It is a copy from the library of Francis Utley, Professor of English and Folklore at The Ohio State University from 1935 to 1973. Professor Utley’s copy is from a class he took as a graduate student from the renowned Harvard scholar and teacher, George Lyman Kittredge.  The copy is replete with extensive notes from that class and offers the vicarious experience of sitting in on one of Professor Kittredge’s classes.  Although Kittredge was primarily a medievalist, early modernist and folklorist (a love he passed on to Utley), he was undoubtedly attracted to the classical allusions and flood imagery that pervade The Waste Land, a modernist text.

This Ohio State connection to Kittredge caused me to ruminate further.  Kittredge taught at Harvard from 1888 until his retirement in 1936.  (Kittredge had a B.A. only.  An apocryphal story still circulates that when asked why he didn’t have a Ph.D., Kittredge famously answered, “but who would examine me?” ) Francis Utley received his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1936, so he studied with Kittredge at the very end of his career.  A colleague and friend Tim Lloyd, Executive Director of the American Folklore Society, who centers his scholarly activities at Ohio State, studied under Utley toward the end of his career.  The scholarly careers of three individuals span from 1888 to 2012 (and continuing), 124 years.  It hardly seems possible, but it is true, an historical fact that generated from a visit to a private library.

John Bennett ¨Retiring¨

John Bennett, Curator of the Avant Writing Collection, is retiring, officially, as of Dec. 31, 2010.  I will, however, be coming back in on a regular basis to deal with new acquisitions, collection development and processing, and other issues.   I want to say that the Rare Books & MSS staff is a wonderful group of people, and it has been a real pleasure to work with all of them over the past many years!

I’m pleased to announce a major new book, a comprehensive edition of my work in Globbolalia (my invented language): TEXTIS GLOBBOLALICUS, 3 vols. [997 pp.], Roanoke, VA: mO)onocle-Lash Press, 2010

– John Bennett

Welcome Eric Johnson

I have been remiss in my blogging but vow to be more consistent with announcing important news about the Rare Books and Manuscripts Library.  In particular, our new Associate Curator, Eric Johnson, introduced himself when I should have made such an announcement.  Eric has been with us just over a month and we have had many productive and enlightening talks.  You can see from Eric’s earlier blog, that his education and experience are exceptional.  And, I can emphasize that his personal presence is every bit as impressive as his paper credentials.  Eric is ever thinking and planning.  For instance, he has brought forward the idea of a summer rare books “academy,” which would be offered to Columbus area youth.  We have met with a supporter of Rare Books who would also be interested in launching children’s programming, an activity that Eric has extensvie experience with.  Eric will be working closely with  John King, Distinguished Professor of English and Religious Studies, in his Reformation History class this Fall quarter and will assist Richard Firth Green, Humanities Distinguished Professor of English, in a medieval manuscripts class in the Spring of 2009.   I hope that many of you will meet or contact Eric in the days ahead.

New Associate Curator for RBMS

Hello everyone! I just wanted to take a quick moment to introduce myself. I’m Eric Johnson, the newly appointed Associate Curator for Rare Books and Manuscripts at The Ohio State University Libraries. I’m delighted to join the Buckeye family and I’m looking forward to promoting the appreciation and use of our collections to all our users, be they faculty, students, researchers, or the general public. I’m specifically responsible for overseeing our collections of medieval, Reformation, renaissance, and early modern collections, so contact me should you have any questions related to these fields.

Prior to arriving at OSU I worked as a Curatorial Assistant at Princeton University’s Department of Rare Books and Special Collections. I have a B.A. in English from the University of Pennsylvania; a M.L.I.S. from Rutgers University; and a M.A. and Ph.D. from the interdisciplinary Centre for Medieval Studies at the University of York (U.K.). My research and reading interests span a wide variety of topics, from medieval preaching to 20th-century military propaganda produced for children, and I’m always interested in learning more about other people’s work. So please don’t hesitate to get in touch if you think there’s any way that either OSU’s world-class Rare Books and Manuscripts Library or I can help you.

I hope to see you in the reading room!

Eric J. Johnson