Thursday, January 16, 2014

$500,000 NEH Challenge Grant Award

The Library Company has been awarded a $500,000 Challenge Grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to endow the Program in African American History. Announced last month, the award is one of three Challenge Grants awarded to institutions in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania for the year and requires a 3:1 match. The resulting $2 million will create an endowment to support fellowships, programs, acquisitions, publications, and administrative expenses for the Program, and provide bridge funding to support these costs while the endowment is being raised. A permanently endowed program will increase scholarly attention to the experience of people from the African diaspora in early America and create a more complete understanding of the origins of our society.

The Library Company’s Program in African American History is the only one in the nation dedicated to promoting the study and understanding of African American history, culture, and thought in pre-20th century America and the Atlantic World. The Program was created in 2007 with the support of the Albert M. Greenfield Foundation to formalize the Library Company’s pioneering contributions to the promotion of the scholarly study of African American history before 1900 and to disseminate the scholarship produced to an engaged public. This endowment will make permanent PAAH’s ability to engender new ways of understanding the history of African Americans, to contribute to diversity within the academy, and to create an engaged community of professional specialists and an educated general public. Says Program Director and University of Delaware Associate Professor Erica Armstrong Dunbar, “This funding will enable the Library Company to realize the legacy of founder Benjamin Franklin and achieve our full potential as an independent humanities institution—contributing to the creation of new knowledge and helping to break down social barriers to participation in this process.”

Gay History in Early America

Late gay activist Harry Hay thought history knew more about gay people than it knew it knew. “That’s So Gay: Outing Early America” exhibition curator Cornelia King couldn’t agree more. As with so many areas of historical inquiry, the source material for the study of gay history has been waiting patiently on the Library Company’s shelves for the subject to become a focus of scholarly interest. Benjamin Franklin’s library, with its extensive collections of books, prints, ephemera, and photographs covering more than three centuries of American history, contains stories about all kinds of loves and all kinds of gender identifications.

The exhibition does not try to say definitively whether a person who lived in the past would be considered lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered in today’s terms. Rather it looks at individuals who took part in same-sex relationships, wrote poems and novels celebrating such relationships, deviated from gender norms, and suffered for transgressive behavior in well-documented ways. 

Walt Whitman and Harriet Hosmer are especially good examples of people whose lives and works reveal a gay sensibility. In the third edition of his Leaves of Grass (1860), Whitman added a section of forty-five poems—the Calamus poems—which celebrate relationships between men. In Greek mythology, Kalamos was a youth who chose to drown rather than outlive his friend Karpos, who had drowned while the two boys were competing in a swimming contest. Kalamos was then transformed into a marsh reed that blooms with a phallus-shaped spike. Regardless of what Whitman may have done behind closed doors (or along the “margins of pond-waters”), his Calamus poems relate to the “love of comrades” and became important texts for readers looking for gay content.

The sculptor Harriet Hosmer depicted strong women in myth or history who persevered despite adversity at the hands of men. In one particularly striking portrait of Hosmer—with her “short, thick, brown curls, which she tosses aside with her fingers, as lads do”—she appears next to her Daphne (1853).  In Greek mythology, Daphne is a beautiful nymph who prays for help when Apollo is chasing her. The earth goddess Gaia answers her prayer by swallowing her up and then turning her into a laurel tree. In her private life, as an American living in Rome, Hosmer was one of the “jolly bachelors” in Charlotte Cushman’s social circle.

Throughout the 19th century, men and women studied in sex-segregated schools and participated in a multitude of sex-segregated activities, so common they were rarely remarked upon. In recent years, however, biographers have scrutinized the evidence that Abraham Lincoln may have had intimate relationships with one or more of his male friends. Similarly, when we in the twenty-first century look at the life of temperance activist Frances Willard (1839-1898), the “smashes” she developed on other girls at school, and the other passionate relationships she formed with women, it is easy to see her as a gay person.

Gay cultural expressions—in fiction, poetry, and art—are also a significant part of the exhibition. Consider the characters Ishmael and Queequeg in Moby-Dick (1851), whom Melville describes as a “cosy, loving pair.” Placing characters in same-sex environments, whether on board ship in the South Seas or in elite boarding schools, allowed writers to explore the dynamics of intimate same-sex friendships. Similarly, staged scenes depicting two or more women in a private setting became popular in turn-of-the-20th-century genre stereographs. Thanks to modern technology, we can even show them in 3D in the gallery!

The Library Company is proud to have previously made groundbreaking contributions to historical research in African American History and Women’s History through diligent curation of our unrivaled collections of print and visual source material for early American History. With “That’s So Gay” we would like to think that we will have a similar influence on yet another area of study. We are grateful for the support of Lois & Julian Brodsky, John Alchin & Hal Marryatt, Mel Heifetz, Robby Browne, Bowman Properties, the Dolfinger-McMahon Foundation, Davida T. Deutsch, the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, and Visit Philadelphia for their generous support of this project.

That’s So Gay: Outing Early America will be accompanied by a series of special programs. On February 14, we will present a talk by David Halperin, author of the groundbreaking How to Be Gay, in collaboration with the William Way LGBT Community Center. Later in the spring, the Mauckingbird Theatre Company will reprise its production of “The Temperamentals,” Jon Marans’s play about the life of gay activist Harry Hay, as a table reading, and Philadelphia Voices of Pride will perform in concert, drawing inspiration from the Library Company’s sheet music collection. On October 1, 2014, we will co-host a talk by Marc Stein, author of City of Sisterly and Brother Loves, with the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. Check for event dates. 

More of Our Favorite Things

Catch up with the Beyond the Reading Room Blog series by Library Company staff about their favorite things in the collections. Since September, staff have contributed thirteen posts explaining their special attachments to little-known items and providing a wealth of information about provenance and historical importance. Despite lamentations that picking their favorite thing from among more than half a million books and objects in our collections is akin to being asked to single out one’s favorite child, posts have revealed emotional attachments to a first edition of Charles Knowlton’s Fruits of Philosophy from 1832, a 17th-century French Koran, and the Annual Report of Philadelphia’s Institute for Colored Youth from 1860. Catch John Van Horne’s contribution concluding the series later this month!

Inaugural John C. Van Horne Lecture

How does an institution honor a Director for almost 30 years of service?  It starts with an endowed lecture in his name.  Mark your calendars for May 28, 2014, when the Library Company will welcome acclaimed writer Nathaniel Philbrick as the inaugural speaker in the John C. Van Horne lecture series at the American Philosophical Society’s Benjamin Franklin Hall. Author of seven books—include his most recent Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution—Mr. Philbrick is a penetrating student of early American life and letters. The Board of Trustees has decided to create the Van Horne Lecture as an enduring tribute to the Director’s monumental legacy to the Library Company. It will present distinguished speakers in the worlds of early American history, libraries and bibliography, and education. With your help to endow this program, we can present the lecture annually and feature speakers in symposia, workshops, and conversations as well as more formal talks. Please contact Molly Roth at 215-546-3181 or for information about becoming a founding donor to the John C. Van Horne Lecture Endowment.

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