Poetry News

The New Yorker Goes Inside the NYPL's Berg Collection

By Harriet Staff
New York Public Library Berg Collection

For the New Yorker's Culture Desk, Gareth Smit explores the New York Public Library's Berg Reading Room–home of the Berg Collection. Here, the library stores physical artifacts that once belonged to significant authors, for example, a lock of Walt Whitman's hair and a card with the word "blood" scrawled in Jack Kerouac's own blood. The collection is on the third floor, "off of a quiet, marble-tiled hallway, is the Berg Reading Room. Mary Catherine Kinniburgh is one of the literary-manuscript specialists in charge of the cache of artifacts, which includes a lock of Walt Whitman’s hair, Jack Kerouac’s boots, and Virginia Woolf’s walking cane—all guarded by a buzzer and a strict protocol for appointment-only visits." From there: 

“You can’t help but be a person in space and time in history, particularly in this room. It’s an opportunity to encounter an object in a very physical way, to generate meaning that transcends the shape of time,” Kinniburgh said.

The Berg Collection’s roughly two thousand linear feet of manuscripts and archival materials were donated to the library, in 1940, by two brothers, Henry W. and Albert A. Berg. The brothers, both doctors who lived on the Upper East Side, were avid collectors of English and American literature—and of literary paraphernalia.

The library categorizes these items as “Realia”—objects from everyday life. The Berg Collection includes Charlotte Brontë’s writing desk, with a lock of her hair inside; trinkets belonging to Jack Kerouac, including his harmonicas, and a card upon which he wrote “blood” in his own blood; typewriters belonging to S. J. Perelman and Paul Metcalf; Mark Twain’s pen and wire-rimmed glasses; Vladimir Nabokov’s butterfly drawings; and the death masks of the poets James Merrill and E. E. Cummings.

Although the Berg Collection is intended to cater to researchers, curators are always keeping an eye out for items that complement the existing archive. Virginia Woolf’s cane may be of little interest to scholars, but it’s an important artifact that was likely the last thing she used before her death. The library has one of the world’s largest holdings of Woolf’s manuscripts. “Nowadays, because there is a lot more public interest in the objects that belonged to famous people, the general public is much more interested in objects that provide this different insight,” Declan Kiely, the library’s director of exhibitions, said.

Learn more at the New Yorker.

Originally Published: July 11th, 2018